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Front Page » September 4, 2014 » Carbon County News » Makeover brings new life to Prehistoric Museum
Published 398 days ago

Makeover brings new life to Prehistoric Museum

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Sun Advocate editor emeritus

Updates to exhibits give museum visitors a first-hand look into a world of prehistory

People who have not toured the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum for several years are going to find some surprises next time they visit.

The official greeter between the north and south entries these days is now a Utahraptor, jaws and claws spread and poised for the kill.

The old bones in what was once the sand pit of the paleontology wing are getting back on their feet again after a long spell of lying flat and dead.

In the archaeology wing, visitors can now look in on an ancient Native American husband a wife chatting in their pit house - and listen in on their conversation. It's a recording of modern Native Americans, and while most people won't know what is being said, the sound of voices adds a new sense of presence.

The pit house isn't empty or static. It is full of tools, pots, baskets and furnishings. New signage identifies each object without interfering with the display.

The changes represent a new order of things, a shift in presentation that aimed at putting prehistory in a more understandable context.

The museum began because of the generosity of members of the community who wanted to share the haphazardly discovered artifacts they found as they explored the land in the early days. That's the way it grew, and it was organized according who found what and where.

"We want to reorder the exhibits for a temporal flow, a time line," explains Tim Riley, curator of archaeology. His side of the museum depicts the line from the last ice age to a few hundred years ago. The objective is to make the ancient people and their lifestyles more understandable to visitors and students.

The paleontology side brings the view of life and land stretching back hundreds of millions of years.

The revamping of the display context is the vision museum director Kenneth Carpenter conveyed to the committee that interviewed him for the job four years ago, and Riley shares it.

Speaking of archaeology he says, "We should think about what daily life was like for those people, whose social values, families and fears were not an alien sort of distant past."

The exhibits are also weaving more science into the interpretation. "Rather than just say, 'These people lived a thousand years ago,' we want to explain how we know this," he explains. Riley is a paleoethnobotanist, a word which, when you break it down into fragments, means someone who studies what people of old cultures ate.

There's plenty of science in that: in addition to botany - often at the microscopic scale - there's chemical analysis, knowledge of different solvents and clays, even some nuclear physics such as carbon dating.

Both wings of the museum rely on the scientific method.

By communicating the methods and sciences in the displays, the museum is trying to mesh its organizational scheme with the educational common core and the science, technology, engineering and math emphasis, Riley says.

It is also reaching out to newer members of the community and an increasing number of visitors who are more comfortable with Spanish. Many of the signs are bilingual.

Some touchable displays are even tri-lingual, offering Braille for the blind.

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