A few months ago I squeezed some new color on my palette of duties. In addition to teaching, research, and directing the university’s herbarium, I accepted a position as interim director of the Conner Museum of Natural History. The Conner, like the Ownbey Herbarium, which I direct, is a university museum, and its mission encompasses support for research and teaching as well as public outreach. The Conner Museum is devoted primarily to vertebrates, and it consists of a research collection of about 70,000 specimens, a teaching collection used by university classes, and also three rooms of public exhibits.
The public exhibits are popular and visited by several thousand people each year. They are fairly traditional mounts of mammals and birds in display cases. In the past few years, my predecessor worked to make these displays more interesting and more educational. That’s an effort we need to continue. I was also intrigued by the idea of mounting special exhibits in which we could bring material from the research collection, which is not normally on public display, into view.
As part of my introduction to the collection several weeks ago, the collection manager showed me examples of the specimens. In deep storage in a basement of another building, she showed me elephant teeth that a former faculty member had collected. Each elephant tooth was larger than my large hands. An idea born was there: we would have a special exhibit on teeth.
For the past two weeks, we have intensively prepared for the exhibit “The Conner Museum Has Teeth.” Last weekend, coinciding with the university’s homecoming celebrations, we put our teeth on display. There were pharyngeal teeth from carp, a shark’s jaw with many rows of sharp-pointed teeth, and skulls ranging from beluga whale to tiger to shrew. We had a monkey that need orthodontic assistance and bear with shiny incisors and molars (or at least we had their skulls). And there were the lovely, intriguing elephant teeth. I spent Friday and Saturday at the exhibit chatting with visitors.There was one young boy that especially caught my attention. Let’s call him Thomas. He was five years old and came in with his mother. I could see from the start the brilliant intensity of his gaze. Thomas went slowly from specimen to specimen as his mother read our signs to him and talked to him about the materials. Thomas was especially interested in the shark jaw. He would stand by the jaw with his hand lightly touching the teeth. Thomas would venture from the shark along other tables of the exhibit but after a few minutes he returned repeatedly to the shark jaw. He told me about sharks and his interest in them. Thomas and I also talked about the pharyngeal teeth of the carp and about the Great Horned Owl he had seen in a local park over the weekend. I had seen an owl in the same park the weekend before. I could sense a sort of burning inquisitiveness in Thomas that impressed me. One wanted to put the world on a platter for him to explore and see what thoughts he developed. One wanted to take him into a laboratory. Thomas was at the exhibit for an hour and a half, steadily studying and holding the skulls and jaws for several minutes each, unhurried, intensely curious. He made the planning and preparation of the exhibit worthwhile. He made me think of my own childhood, when my interest in science coalesced at eight years old. I then began to read, to synthesize ideas, and to write books on scientific topics. It was delightful to think about being eight and consumed by the beauty of science. It was delightful at eight to learn about discovery. It was delightful last weekend to discover the workings of elephant teeth and to talk about them with Thomas and our other visitors.
A slide show with audio that advertised our exhibit is available here.
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Photos: Coyote skull, tiger teeth, dolphin jaws, and exhibit poster.