“Better Know Museum Month” Part 1: Behind the Scenes at the San Bernardino County Museum

Hey there every peoples!

Really? It’s been over a month since my last post? I have been so damn busy with school, trips, housework, and now spring break (last week). So in a desperate bid to make this up to my few loyal readers, I am having a “Better Know a Museum” Month! Each week I’ll give you another installment of my long running series, delving into the new, the old, and the spectacular as we look the places that provide us with paleontological wonderment. And what better was to begin than an exclusive (at least for me) tour of the stuff unseen at the San Bernardino County Museum.

(This probably my longest post ever, no doubt. Please let’s not have any “TL:DR” in the comments. If you think it’s too long to read in one sitting, do what I do: bookmark it and finish it later. Like a digital book. You like books, don’t you?)

A  month ago I went on a trip to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County with San Bernardino County Museum Curator of Paleontology Eric Scott *catches breath*. We were there to see the dinosaurs. But at one point we got to talking about the Hall of Geological Wonders, a new geology and paleontology exhibit hall the SBCM is working on. He told me I should come by sometime and he’d show me how things were coming along. I remember way back when the museum said it was coming soon. They must be using the Blizzard definition of soon. Here it is in 2007:

Kinda looks more spacious when it's still being built.

But when the building was complete, it sat empty for a couple of years. Just this last trip I noticed that there was finally what looked like an exhibit in there. What was going on? Eric informed me that it was a malady common to all museums, an affliction that can bring even the mightiest institution to its knees: budget troubles. Money was there to get the new hall built, but apparently when the economy tanked, the funds to then stock it with the much anticipated (at least by me and Eric) exhibits dried up like Lake Manix. That sucks big time for two reasons. The first is the kickass displays they have planned are hanging around in limbo. Second, that 9,000+ sq ft hall has to sit around empty while they have to scrabble around for new money.

But a little bit is better than nothing right? The majority of the hall may be a blueprint for now, but they did manage to get some exhibits up. And that’s what we’re here to talk about. The major exhibit they managed to install is called “Life to Death to Discovery”, which chronicles the journey of an extinct from when it was alive, to when it was buried by water and sediment, to when it is found and excavated by paleontologists. We start in “Life”:

Life, a day in the Pleistocene

Behold Jurupa, tens of thousands of years ago. Pine trees, manzanita, and bunch grasses cloth the landscape. Running water, practically unheard of in the Mojave Desert, gurgles down a rock. Small critters abound in this lost world: a blue jay, a screech owl, lizards, even gophers and turtles. Dire wolves lurk on the ledge above, looking down with ravenous, hungry eyes. The scene is set for a journey that will stretch… Hey, wait a minute! Who exactly are we watching? Who’s supposed die, get fossilized, and dug up? Could it be this ancient beast:

Quack! Wood duck. Eric actually came up with the wonderful idea of using modern critter mounts instead of models in the exhibit. This not only helps things look realistic, but helps bridge the ancient world with the modern one. When we were walking around, Eric would point to them and say their name.

Maybe. Let’s check the death section:

Those don't look like duck bones to me...

Something is missing here. And that something is a big mama Mastodon and her calf. They have yet to arrive to the party. What happened? According to Eric, they’re still unfinished up in Canada.

Regardless, we do find mastodon remains in the “Death” section, which shows the bones of the mastodon and her calf being buried in a stream bed:

Death and burial in the Pleistocene

I once read in an article somewhere that this section would feature the carcass of the mastodon being picked apart by vultures in a stream bed. That would have been cool, but obviously with the current space and budget limitations, that was out of the question. They still did a good job, even if the water wasn’t running. Now just follow the stream to “Discovery”:

After death, burial, and thousands of years, the bones on an ancient beast and her progeny are found at last

Because I’m a dolt, I forgot to take a picture of the baby mastodon jaw in this display. All the fossils in the ground are real. Instead of getting a cast skeleton or fretting over trying to mount these few bones, they decided to put them in the ground. They look so much better when surrounded by dirt and rocks right? Hell yeah they do! After we learned how a fossil formed, we come to the back of the display to find fossils! Most of these fossils come from Temecula and Murrieta, and run the full gauntlet of ice age beasties:

Holy crap! California sabertooth bones not from the tar pits! Super special killer awesome!

Gotta have my ground sloths! This jaw comes from Megalonyx jeffersoni and hails from Murrieta.

Eric Scott, the fossil horse whisperer. He was proud of this skull of Equus scotti.

Finally the exhibit is accompanied by a spectacular Mark Hallett mural, depicting life along the Santa Ana River during the Pleistocene:

I love it. Mark Hallett did a fantastic job. First off is how realistic it is. Most murals in museums try to cram as many animals in as possible. But this mural actually shows you what you may have seen back then: some bison, a few horses, and a pair of camels gathering at a local water source. If you were to go back to this time and place, do you really expect there to be half a dozen or so species, herbivores and carnivores, all converging on this spot at the same time? No, because that’s not what modern animals do! Plus this mural really conveys a sense of a cooler and wetter climate. I think, at least for me, this is due to the green vegetation, the clouds, and the running water. It was these same features that made this mural from the American Museum of Natural History really feel like the ice age (without the stereotypical blankets of snow and ice that people seem to think were everywhere during this time):

Upstairs we went to a small alcove. It was simply a panorama type window looking out across Redlands. It was bare of course, but Eric explained that the view was actually the exhibit. He said that the museum owns the property right front, so once they move the palm trees visitors with have a clear view of the San Andreas Fault. What other museum can offer that? I told him they should maybe have a couple pairs of binoculars, but apparently that’s small potatoes for Eric. He said that he “petitioned” for a periscope but that idea was shot down. Once more money can be secured interpretive panels will be added.

Hey down in front! Yeah, you bunch of palm trees! Some of us can't see the fault!

The window is where people will be able to view the fault from. Just look at that tower. That thing is just begging to have a periscope installed in it.

Then it was time to journey to the lower level. We traveled down a stairwell and passed through to a “vault”. This space would display regional minerals, many of which were vital to the economy of a developing Redlands. And that’s why one display case will feature a pile of gravel.

Finally, we have a challenge: how do you lure people in to explain how rocks and minerals are formed? You have to come up with a visually stunning display, one that not only hooks people in to the subject but also integrate it with something they are familiar with. And since this is California, you do that with a retro 50s diner:

Earth's Test Kitchen, for when you're hankering for some home-style geology while traveling!

Once completed, visitors will be able to “order” various minerals and watch them get “cooked” within the earth. The menu is alright. The Pelona Schist is top notch and you can’t go wrong with the Cajon Valley Sandstone’s old-country-cooking charm. However, the Amboy Basalt tastes like dacite, just awful. And the Mendenhall Gneiss needs more fried zircons and barbeque sauce! As an exhibit, I give it 5 out of 5. But as a restaurant… sorry guys, I have to give the kitchen 3 out of 5.

As awesome as this all was, it was only half the experience. As we were wrapping things up in the hall he asks me “So when was the last time you were in our collections?” I gave a simple and flat “Never”. Eric then set about to rectify that and led me further down into the bowels of the museum to plumb the riches of their fossil collections. Before that day I had only been in 4 museum collections in my meager life: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Ralph B. Clark Regional Park Interpretive Center, John D. Cooper Center, and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. But only the Cooper Center had given me an experience close to what I got at the San Bernardino County Museum. After signing into their logbook, Eric eagerly took me over to the cases where they kept their material from Cajon Pass. Among the teeth, bone bits, and large turtle shell, he lifts up a mostly complete camel skull:

skull of a camel from the Cajon Pass.

A cast of this skull is on display in this museum and the Victor Valley Museum, but here was the original in the fle- bone. He spoke of the specimen with great pride and admiration, especially considering it wasn’t horse related. That said it didn’t take long to get to the fossil horses. The first of many horsies to come was this skull from Cajon Pass:

Archaeohippus, i think.

Then it was on to something new. After cranking and cranking to move the cabinets, he led me to one case full of specimen vials. According to him, they were full of teeth and bones of Pleistocene rodents. But beneath all that was a shelf housing what looked like horse bones:

Horse remains from the County Kern!

These all came from the Tulare formation, which I think is in Kern County. Anyway, Eric loves all things horse, but he’s particularly excited about this guy. Let’s see if you can guess why (because god knows I couldn’t):

Horse teeth, the party just never stops!

But even if it’s not a horse, Eric was equally excited when showing me anything. And why not? You’ll see when I show you what he showed me next. He closes the case and comments on what a workout he is getting as he cranks the cabinets aside. He took me to a case marked “Plio-Pleistocene”, pulled out a drawer, and lifted a funny looking bone (it looks like the first ever attempt at a wooden spoon). But this was a very special bone. It was discovered by Quintin Lake in Murrieta in 1993. Not knowing what it was, it was initially labeled as mammal. But I knew what it was because I had seen it on their website. It was a partial humerus from a bird, and a big ass bird at that. Eric says it was taken over to the La Brea Tar Pits to compare with their bird material. It most closely resembled Merriam’s Teratorn, Teratornis incredibilis. But the diameter was wrong, the shape of the head was wrong, and most importantly, the size was wrong. The humerus was less than half complete and yet it was length of a whole teratorn humerus. So at the close of the 20th century, the bone became the holotype of Aiolornis incredibilis, the “Incredible Wind God Bird”.

The partial humerus of Aiolornis incredibilis. Can you believe it? Damn it, i should have taken my pelican bone for a comparative shot!

So after meeting the legend (I mean other, other legend! Kathleen Springer was off getting an award in Tennessee), we headed over to the Barstow stuff for, you ready for it, more horses! Of course horses were the most common animals in the Barstow area 16-13 million years ago. And with all these horse fossils, could Eric have asked for a better place to work? So he showed me some little horse teeth:

Teeth of a horse, probably a species of Scapphohippus

And then a cast of a three-toed horse leg, from the same horse (I think) that will be in their Barstow display in the new hall:

I can't wait to see that attached to the rest of the skeleton!

I love fossils from Barstow, but this wasn’t terribly exciting. Eric informed me that all their best Barstow material was out getting fitted for display in the new hall. I was starting to get bummed out when Eric, with a greater fire in his eyes than perhaps any time that day, said “You want Barstow? I’ll show you Barstow!” He leads me to the other side of the room, cranks the cabinets aside, and opens up the case where they keep their type specimens. Then he carefully draws out what could possibly be the Barstow fossil to end all Barstow fossils:

The skull and lower jaw of Pseudailurus, an ancient cat from North America

Underside of the skull, showing off those pertty teeth!

This is the stuff you dream of. The stuff you only hear stories about. The envy of most museum collections, the thing they all hope to find. And then you get to stare it right in the eye sockets. It was certainly fitting that this was the last specimen he showed me because this is by all definitions a show stopper. I mean this skull is so intact and well preserved that I can’t help but feel like there is no other like it in California, maybe even the west! Truly it was a fitting end to an incredible behind-the-scenes tour.

I mentioned that I had been in museum collections before. Well none of them were as intimate as what I got that day. Los Angeles County and Ralph Clark Park I was simply in them, not really looking around and getting commentary from the scientist. Santa Barbara wasn’t much better, but that was because the Executive Director was showing us around and I was merely filming some stuff for a high school project. Probably the closest I got to this was the wonderful tour Meredith Rivin gave me at the Cooper Center. But this was such an overwhelming experience because not only did I get to see some of the specimens in the collections but because I also got to see the few installed exhibits.

I’ll detail more about why these exhibits are and will be fucking awesome in my final post. But suffice to say, the museum needs to raise more scratch to install the rest of it. Last figured I heard was $5 million. That’s what it’ll take to bring the Hall of Geological Wonders to its full glory. The idea for this exhibit hall has been around since before 2005 I think. It has taken 7 years just to get this far. Why should we or they wait any longer? The Inland Empire is like the Central Coast: there is a great story of geology and paleontology to be told. The Central Coast may never get a place of its own, but the Inland Empire does. I implore you to help them tell their story. The spectacular rocks, minerals, and fossils desperately need a new theater to the tune of $5 million. The people of Redlands, the Inland Empire, and even the realms beyond won’t have access to this unique and important resource without donations from folks like you and us. And just make a donation yourself. Take a couple minutes to email a prominent person or organization in your community (especially if you live in San Bernardino and Riverside counties) to support the project as well.  Without sufficient funds, the museum can’t continue to inspire passion and awe in the natural world like Eric did with me and fossils. They serve the most fundamental of human interests: curiosity, discovery, and most important of all, knowledge. They can’t do it without our help. So head on over to their page or contact the museum to learn how you can help bring the Hall of Geological Wonders out of suspended animation.

Thank you so much for staying with me through this great wall of text and pictures. It was no easy feat to write so I’ll assume it was no easy feat to read. With that in mind, I would like to show my appreciation by awarding you with 20 theoretical dollars:

I hope you enjoyed this super-sized first installment of “Better Know a Museum Month”. Join me next week for a long, long, long overdue at the Alf Museum’s new Hall of Life.

Til next time!

One thought on ““Better Know Museum Month” Part 1: Behind the Scenes at the San Bernardino County Museum

  1. You really make it appear really easy along with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be really one thing that I feel I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely wide for me. I am looking forward for your subsequent publish, I will attempt to get the dangle of it!

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