I can think of few things that eclipse the Exhibit Museum in importance in my young life in Michigan. Starting in the mid-1970s, when I was still living in my home state, my mother and I would frequently travel into Ann Arbor on a drizzly Saturday. We’d start off with a toasted and buttered bagel and limeade at Drake’s Sandwich Shop just down the street (a young lad must have some energy to visit such a wondrous place). The excitement I’d have every time I’d walk into the rotunda was overwhelming. We’d wind our way through the many floors — past the mastodon, the Allosaurus and the toothy Tyrannosaurus skull; the mammals and birds of Michigan (including the wolverine), my adventure was always capped off with a visit to the museum shop, which at the time was on the top floor, where I would bring home a small fossil or mineral. I still have them all.
A couple key remembrances of the Exhibit Museum…
Once, in the late 1970s, my mother and I took a skull that I had found in the woods on our property to the Museum. We were given a tour of the areas not seen by the public. I distinctly remember a student or professor opening a drawer, revealing a gigantic skull that looked like something out of a horror film — it was a giraffe, and I was thrilled. On that same visit, I was given an intact mouse skeleton. I still have it, more than 40 years later.
Another 1970s memory… less than half a mile from where I lived, a few mastodon fossils were discovered. I have photos of me by them on the property of the Sakstrup family, where they were excavated. Later, the fossils would have a prominent display at the Exhibit Museum. That was exciting, as it brought paleontology so close to my own home.
I left southeast Michigan in 1983 at age 14, moving with my family to El Paso, Texas. I still live in El Paso today. Every trip that I’ve made home to Michigan (probably 8-9 over the past 35 years) has included a visit to the Exhibit Museum. I’ve taken my daughter twice, and always explained how important the Museum was to my childhood. I’ve thought about it and missed it so many times over the years. It seems impossible to me now to think that I made my last visit four years ago, my last trip to Michigan. I will miss it dearly. But as times change, so must the museum…and I am looking forward to my next visit to my beloved Great Lake State and the new Museum!
Year of Memory: 1940’s-Present Day
I grew up in Ann Arbor. My father, Frank O. Copley, was a faculty member in the Department of Classical Studies from 1935 until his retirement about 1976. There were five of us kids, and we lived across the Huron River in a rural area where the VA hospital now stands. As the oldest, I am only ten years younger than the Museum!
My father was always curious about the natural world. My siblings and I inherited his interest. He would often take us for walks in the woods and fields and to the pond near the house. He would have appreciated having his curiosity satisfied easily by the internet. However, just across the river in Ann Arbor there was the Ruthven Museum of Natural History!
I have many memories of the Museum, probably starting when I was about 5. My father’s office was in Angell Hall, just a short walk from the Museum. My first memory is of the small zoo of Michigan small animals located, along with a separate little pond for turtles, behind the Museum building near Washtenaw and Huron.
Identifying a Pond Creature
My second memory is of walking down a long hallway in the Museum with a jar in my hand that contained a ferocious looking creature from our local pond. My father had no idea what it was, but suggested I might find someone at the Museum who could tell me. I was looking for an open door along the corridor, not knowing who to ask. I went to the first open door, and made contact with the wonderful staff of the Museum for the first time. That kind person showed me where to go and who to ask about my small “monster”, which turned out to be a hellgrammite. After a satisfying identification and history, my father and I returned the creature to the pond to change into it’s adult form of a dobsonfly. I made many more visits with jars filled with mysterious things, fossils, plants. insects, rocks, and animals, which were always patiently explained and broadened my knowledge.
The Bone Belongs to …?
Many years later, our son, Fred, probably about 7 years old, discovered a bone in our yard and wondered about it. Even though I thought I knew what it was, we took it to the Museum and found an open door in the Mammal Division. That person took Fred in hand, told him the bone was a leg bone, and led him to a huge cabinet of drawers, each containing the bones of a similar mammal. He pulled out the drawers one by one, and had Fred compare his bone with the identical leg bone in each drawer. Naturally, he left the correct one until last, and Fred was delighted with being able to identify the bone himself. (It was the femur of a deer.) This was another wonderful teaching moment, one one that I really appreciated. And there were many more!
How the Bird Flies
Our family always loved the dioramas. Those beautiful works of art that took you into other worlds. My most favorite story is the day we were looking at the dioramas of indigenous people (that were recently removed to another facility.) This was always another teaching moment for us, and introduced us to the fact that not all tribes were the same. However, this day one of my sons wondered how a small bird was suspended in the sky in one of the dioramas. There was no visible support, but that bird was in the air. So, I said, “let’s go ask.” We went back into the hallways of the Museum, to the open doors, and eventually found the person who did the diorama. I believe it was Dr. Busch? We were both surprised and intrigued that the little bird was suspended by spider web, which introduced us to the amazing strength of spider silk.
Dinosaurs and Michigan Natural History
Over the years there have been many more contacts with the Museum: Dinosaurs especially when the kids were young. The diorama of ancient seas where the creature moved its arms realistically and scared the boys. Visiting for information from the Michigan exhibits when I was a field trip guide for the Ann Arbor Outdoor Education program. Learning about Michigan’s geologic history and its fossils. Learning more and more and loving it.
The Maston Trackway
Then, when I was 50 years old, I followed up on an old interest in Archaeology by taking Intro to Prehistoric Archaeology and jumping into avocational archaeology in the Michigan Archaeological Society. The Museum then meant even more as I worked in the Great Lakes Range to document archaeological sites found in Washtenaw County by our group with the help of several patient archaeologists, and was part of a group that helped Dan Fisher discover the mastodon trackway. Eventually, I was helping by doing ID Day for the museum.
Hopes for New Museum
I will miss the old museum, but I hope for the best. It would be wonderful if the opportunity will still exist for a young child to walk down a long corridor to an open door where someone will be willing to take time to kindle interest in the wonders of the natural world.
Year of Memory: 1953, 1969-71
I remember the menagerie that used to be located just outside the front door, which included a black bear and, I believe, for a time, a wolverine. This was in 1953, when my mother returned to school after my father died, and I was 3.
And on the landing, on the stairs to the hall of dinosaurs, there was a pair of live gila monsters. They were quite long-lived, and still there when I returned to Ann Arbor in 1969 as an undergraduate, and again later, at some point in my young adulthood. I visited them regularly during my undergraduate years, in their Stendahlic red and black solitude, marveling that they could pass their long lives so calmly in a 2×3 glass box, and wondering if they were quietly insane.
I wonder if they were retired, too.
Michael Erlewine, he of later Prime Mover fame (fleeting, but long enough to overlap with Iggy), had his own desk there as a child, and somehow wangled a position of responsibility, I think feeding creatures, in that strange post-war environment in which the university exploded with vets on the GI bill and all things were possible.
B.S. in Evolutionary Anthropology with a minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Year of Memory: 1998-2012
I’ve written a version of this comic several times, first starting freshman year of high school, and most recently last year at the age of 25. I have so many memories of the museum, it is impossible to narrow to just one and even harder to condense into a 3-page comic. The museum shaped me from a curious child into a professional scientific illustrator and I owe to it too many memories to ever put down on paper.
Year of Memory: 1999
Having been a graduate student in the Museum of Zoology from 1999 – 2005, the Ruthven Museum is at the heart of my whole Michigan experience.
In the winter of 1999, I came to visit campus as a prospective graduate student, and after my shuttle from the airport dropped me off in front of the Michigan League, I proceeded straight to the museum to meet with faculty. Within the first few minutes of browsing the exhibit museum, I decided that the University of Michigan was the place for me. I had a strong and immediate sense of belonging.
I have many wonderful memories from both the exhibit museum and the research wings, but perhaps my favorite is from one of the times I was leaving the museum at 2am after an evening of researching bat behavior for my dissertation. As I was walking in the basement hallway, about to return home for the night, a bat flew past my head. At first this didn’t register as odd, because I’d just left a room full of my own research subjects three floors up. But then it occurred to me that the basement hallway was not where I should be seeing a bat fly around. Too lazy to return to the 3rd floor to get my butterfly net, I successfully used my baseball cap to catch the bat mid-flight (on the first try!). It was not one of my research subjects, but instead a local big brown bat that had made its way inside, and who was trying to find his way out. I was glad to oblige him.
Year of Memory: 1990s-Today
The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (UMMNH) is a place with many fond memories for me. It started out when I was a small child, before I started school. When she was about to run errands (such as going to the grocery store), my mother would tell me that I was allowed to choose one errand for us to run. I always chose the museum, so we went there practically every day. I found myself absolutely dazzled by the prehistoric skeletons, the taxidermy specimens, and the T.A.M. (Transparent Anatomical Mannequin).
Fast-forward from early childhood to my high school years, and I was still a frequent visitor. In fact, in sophomore year (2011), I took a one-on-on class with scientific illustrator John Megahan. In our sessions, Mr. Megahan taught me about the value of drawing from observation, the use of watercolor paints, and how shadows and markings should match the contours of animals’ bodies. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to teach me. This class has increased my interest in pursuing scientific illustration further, and I still abide by these lessons while working on my own art today.
As such, I frequently used the specimens on display as reference for imaginary creatures such as werewolves and dragons. Even though they are figments of the imagination, I want to create believable anatomies and mannerisms. Therefore, I look at the monster’s real counterparts (i.e. wolves, reptiles) for visual reference.
However, creative work is not the only reason I’ve gone to the museum. Although I’m now old enough to go alone, and I’m not taking any classes here; I still bring a friend every now and then. I brought my old girlfriend here (I think it was on our second date?). I also took one of my more pessimistic friends to the museum, even though he never really showed interest in dinosaurs before. His interests seemed to be primarily drinking, heavy metal, and video games.
Although, to my pleasant surprise, he showed great enthusiasm about the Pleistocene bison horns, and he told me he was relieved there were no basilosaurus living in the Great Lakes.
Due to the impact the museum has had on my creative activities and personal life, I will certainly miss it when it’s closed for the year. However, I am also eager to see what the new museum will behold in 2019 (I am especially excited for the new majungasaurus skeleton).
I am very thankful for everyone who’s contributed to this wonderful place. Keep up the good work! 🙂
Year of Memory: 1998
I was in a PhD program in the museum (so many stories I could share!) and my daughter, pictured here, loved to spend school days off at the museum with me. I would give her $1 for the vending machine – as it was a great and slightly scary adventure to take the elevator into the basement there – and she would take her drawing supplies and go out into the exhibits to draw. My daughter is now a scientific illustrator working for the University of Chicago, so this was transformative!
Year of Memory: 1977
When I was in first grade, we had a field trip scheduled for my first visit. I probably loved dinosaurs more than anything, and got so excited I threw up all over my desk. I was so sad when I was sent home, my mom drove me herself to Ann Arbor to meet the class because she knew I wasn’t sick, just too excited. And I’ve been coming ever since, with classes, on my own, as a student, and now here, on the Last Day, with my 4 year old daughter. I hope her memories are as great as mine. You will be missed.
Alumni Husband: Brian Carlson, General Studies, 2001
Year of Memory: every visit
Every time we visit, every time, our kids (ages 8 and 4) run to the back corner of the main gallery and pose like the deinonychus. We have pics from every single visit, when they were little up to now which is at least 20+. No idea who started it but it’s a tradition. Can’t leave the museum without doing it.