Boonshoft Museum staff bring 'room of wonder' to life
Ray Vodden walked down a hallway and through the main museum to a small blue door.
“Welcome to Beiser, we’re going in the back door,” he said, opening the door. “It’s super cool. It’s like walking back in time - into the 19th century.” The room didn't feel like a museum exhibit at all - it felt like we'd landed in somebody's super cool living room or study.
Vodden is a paleontologist at the museum and he’s part of the exhibits team that has worked to prepare the things in this room from the museum's vast collection of items.
A whole new world
The large, open room had been transformed with artifacts and specimens from around the world. A dolphin skeleton hung from the ceiling, and colorful taxidermied birds filled old fashioned wooden display cases.
There were antique brass telescopes, cases of fossils and indigenous art from around the world. And placed throughout the room were Victorian-style chairs and velveteen couches arranged into sitting areas, where visitors could linger and immerse themselves in this collection of artifacts.
There were no nameplates or descriptions on any of the items on display, only a number. Scattered around the room were bound books, or catalogs, that visitors could use to look up the numbers to find more information about each artifact.
“Everything is supposed to help transport yourself back to when a lot of the early sciences were really taking off - give you the feel of a 19th century naturalist's study,” Vodden said as he looked around the room. “It’s broken up into four segments - biology, astronomy, anthropology & archeology, and geology & paleontology.”
In the geology section a glass floor encased diorama allowed visitors to walk across a representation of Caesar Creek 450 million years ago when it was an ocean floor. The diorama showcases 13 different fossils from the area - which is still a prime location in the Miami Valley for fossil hunters today.
“You’re looking at our Orthonybyoceras which is a large cephalopod - a kind of ammonite. Ammonites today have a curled shell, like a nautilus shell,” Vodden said, pointing to a large red reddish squid-like creature. “This guy has a long, straight, tapered shell, and this was the apex predator of the time - about 450 million years - during the ordovician [period] of the Caesars Creek area.”
Dedicated staff members
On the day I visited, the museum staff were scattered around the room putting the final touches on the exhibit for the opening in a few days. Vodden said that when this display is fully installed a parabolic speaker that will play underwater wave sounds, like gurgling and sloshing when visitors step onto the glass. “And so when you step over it, you should only be able to hear it when you're under the parabolic speaker.”
Long-time museum fans might remember the space that now holds the diorama as the former snake pit - which was part of an exhibit featuring a huge, living python.
Jill Krieg, the curator of anthropology and exhibitions, has been working on bringing this room to life for 3 years. “We curate 1.8 million objects here and this gallery has about 500 objects in here,” Krieg says. “So, our hope is to rotate these about quarterly, so when people come in a couple times a year they're going to see different things as well.”
The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery has grown out of what was formerly called the Dayton Society of Natural History, located in the Dayton Public Library.
“We really wanted to pay homage to the founding of the museum in 1893, so we looked back at the original photos of the museum on the second floor of the library,” Krieg explained. “And we’re really looking back to those cabinets of curiosities and the rooms of wonders, and having those kinds of displays that kind of are awe inspiring.”
Hence the name, Room of Wonders.
Every staff member has a favorite item - Krieg’s is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker mounted in one of the glass cases. She said that visitors can admire the beauty of the now extinct bird while hopefully learning how to try and prevent other species from suffering the same fate.
One of the staff’s favorite “wonders” in the exhibit is a reconstructed skeleton of an oreodon they have nicknamed "Big Hoss." This ice age mammal, which modern goats and sheep have evolved from, was in bad shape when Vodden found it in the collections vault.
It was mostly just a bunch of fragments that made up about 40% of the original skeleton. But through research and artistic rendering Vodden was able to reconstruct the entire skeleton over the course of 2 years.
He said that through the reconstruction of the skeleton, "Big Hoss" was given a second life. “I brought an animal back to life in a very tangible way. People can now see him, see the size of him.” Vodden said, looking at the prehistoric skeleton. “And that’s the same with a lot of these animals. When they come to our collection we do give them a second life, we give them a scientific life. People can come in and look at these things, make measurements, maybe even draw conclusions of life itself from these specimens, and I’m hoping that’s what I have done for Big Hoss.”
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