On Exhibit
Taking Time for Timely Exhibits in Denver
Alma Hale Paty

Upon entering the massive building that is home to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), I could immediately sense the enormous variety of scientific information contained within its walls. After getting my admission ticket, I received a handy map that revealed the museum's expanse of detailed exhibits and activities. With several temporary exhibits (The Greatest Scientific Voyages, Natural Disaster) competing with the 17 permanent exhibits (American Birds, Egyptian Mummies, Botswana), tackling the DMNS seemed a bit daunting at first. After all, the DMNS sports a trade-marked catch-phrase, So Many Adventures in One Place. Yet the soaring interior architecture created a sense of calm openness. I decided to focus in on a couple of exhibits, and to save the rest for another day of adventure.

Adventure one: myriad minerals

The adventure began with a startling transition: walking from the museum's airy atrium through a timbered mine tunnel into a representation of a mineral-filled pocket or "vug" within Earth. The DMNS's newest exhibit, the "Sweet Home Rhodochrosite Pocket" showcases the breathtaking Alma King rhodochrosite crystal, which at 6 inches across is considered by some mineral curators to be the best non-gem mineral specimen in the world. After recovering from the awesome perfection of these deep red translucent crystals, I watched a video showing the 1992 discovery of the Alma King crystal at the Sweet Home Mine in Alma, Colorado. The exhibit's "granite" walls enticed me to follow mineralized veins to other re-created mineral pockets containing stunning crystals of quartz, sphalerite, calcite, chalcopyrite and fluorite.

The Sweet Home Mine exhibit was a fitting portal into the Coors Mineral Hall, which truly lives up to its slogan as "a rock-solid adventure." The Hall contains a world-renowned collection of minerals and gold, particularly examples from Colorado. Throughout the Hall, interpretive signs and hands-on activity centers show that "minerals have stories to tell" - stories of their origins in hydrothermal fluids, their properties and their uses. For instance, a "mineral hands-on wall" uses various properties for mineral identification in a fun and engaging way. The exhibit compares the crystal structure of a diamond to the interlocking girders of the Eiffel Tower, as a diamond is nature's hardest mineral, while the structure of soft graphite is similar to a deck of slick-coated playing cards, hence its use in pencils. Another area shows differences in "luster," with samples of "metallic" pyrite, "earthy" kaolinite, "pearly" dolomite, and "glassy" topaz.

The Coors Mineral Hall also offers:

· rare specimens of the 20 elements that occur in their pure "native" state, including a rare sample of pure lead from Sweden;
· Colorado-specific gemstones, including gem varieties of barite, rhodochrosite, lazurite, sphalerite, aquamarine, amethyst, topaz, fluorite and smoky quartz;
· a 10,588-carat topaz crystal from Brazil, one of the largest faceted stones in the world with 45 crown and 84 pavilion facets; and
· Colorado's largest gold boulder, "Tom's Baby," weighing in at 316 troy ounces.

Adventure two: time travel

On the museum's third floor, I was thrilled to take on my next adventure - Prehistoric Journey, winner of the 1996 Curator's Award from the American Association of Museums, the highest award given for museum exhibits. Entering Prehistoric Journey, I walked through a life-size grand-scale Geologic Timeline, covering the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth in 17,000 square feet. My adventure began in a small theater (sponsored by the Gates Foundation) where I viewed an introductory video that discusses science's understanding of the origins of life. The museum even houses the flask in which Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted their famous 1953 experiment that produced amino acids from water, organic molecules and electricity. "It's like having Galileo's telescope," says Chief Curator Richard Stucky.

The video and introduction to the origins of life was just an appetizer for the displays that followed: displays that showcase the major milestones in the evolution of life, a specific period of geologic time, a geographic location representative of that time, and fossils from that location. For example, the famous fossilized quartzite from the Ediacara Hills in Australia represents early life on Earth 600 million years ago. An artist's mural brings to life the shallow seafloor as it might have looked at that time. A diorama of a diverse sea bottom from Racine, Wis., represents the early Paleozoic, along with fossils of Silurian cephalopods and chain corals from the Racine Formation. And so it goes: Devonian Wyoming and the first life on land, Pennsylvanian Kansas and the first forests of lycopods, and the Triassic Petrified Forest of Arizona. Transitioning upward through each time period, I could view a display of what was happening to Colorado at that time.

And of course no timeline adventure would be complete without seeing one-of-a-kind fossils of dinosaurs. Prehistoric Journey is home to a Colorado native: a complete Stegosaurus skeleton discovered in 1992 by DMNS staff in the Morrison Formation. Because it is preserved in life position; these materials had not been moved or disassembles by the fossilization processes. This specimen exhibits two remarkable features: fossilized bony ossicles called "scutes" that protected the neck area, and evidence that the lethal tail spikes were attached horizontally.

Other highlights are:

·a well-preserved Allosaurus, first discovered in western Colorado by a teenage girl, who kept the bones in her room until her mother issues a decree that she "do something with those bones" and contacted the DMNS;
·a Hadrosaurus skeleton that shows bone damage inflicted during life by the bite of a predator; and
·a fossil laboratory, where scientists and volunteers - the museum's "Fossil Posse" - work on preserving and preparing various fossils for exhibition and research.

Paty is founder and president of A Capital Resource, a Washington-based consulting firm specializing in mineral resource issues and education.

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