In October 2010, a bulldozer operator working on an expansion of Ziegler Reservoir near the Town of Snowmass Village, Colorado unearthed the bones of a mammoth. Researchers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science were invited to excavate the site and over the next two years, 4517 bones from twenty species were unearthed, including bison, deer, horse, ground sloth, camel, otter, muskrat, and beaver. The specimens came from two unique time periods, separated by up to 60,000 years. This difference in time periods resulted in the discovery of two related but distinct members of the taxonomic order Proboscidea, the Columbian mammoth and the American mastodon.
This year, the museum decided to showcase its finds from “The Snowmastodon Project” in a new exhibit, “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.” However, not only is this a temporary exhibit, but it’s a traveling exhibit from another museum – in this case, the Field Museum in Chicago. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has taken the Mammoths exhibit, midway on its seven-year international tour, and localized it to include the Snowmass discoveries in a such a seamless manner that one couldn’t tell unless one knew what to look for.
That’s why when I visited the exhibit on its opening day, February 15, I was joined by Jodi Schoemer, the museum’s Director of Exhibits, and Joe Sertich, the museum’s Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, who was also part of the research team on The Snowmastodon Project.
The exhibit is grouped into various themed halls and actually starts and ends with the modern day elephant. There are video presentations, specimens in display cases, infographics, reproductions of skeletal remains, physical interactives, and life-size reproductions of both modern and prehistoric animals fabricated by Blue Rhino Studio of Eagan, MN. Both the skeletal and animal reproductions are highly detailed and touching is encouraged.
The first video guests encounter is one of a street corner in Chicago. “We’re fortunate,” Sertich says, “that downtown Chicago looks a lot like downtown Denver.” Computer animation then takes the viewer back in time as the city fades away and prehistoric mammals take over the screen.
Guests then enter the portion of the exhibit titled “Tusks and Trunks,” which features a life size recreation of the Moeritherium, a very early proboscidian related to elephants, mammoths, and mastodons and “Growing Up in the Herd: The Life of a Mammoth.” The highlight of this portion is a realistic model of Lyuba, the recently-found preserved wooly mammoth calf from Siberia.
From here, guests enter the “Stomping Grounds,” for a look at the environments within which mammoths and mastodons lived and the other creatures that roamed with them during those periods. Life size reproductions by Blue Rhino of a Columbian mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and short-faced bear provide photo opportunities. “This is one of the most popular areas,” says Schoemer, “We’re finding lots of photos taken here showing up on social media.”
Since a highlight of the Snowmastodon Project was the discovery of other prehistoric animals along with mammoth and mastodon remains, this provides the perfect segue into an original section on the dig created by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Two large paintings by artist Jan Vriesen provide the backdrop to the section “Colorado Ice Age: Snowmass Village Discoveries.” According to Sertich, “Each of the two paintings shows the same location during different time periods and the different animals that lived there. One has mastodon, giant ground sloth, and bison, while the other has animals that existed later – mammoth, camels, and deer.”
A real Ice Age bison skull is the highlight of this portion of the exhibit, along with other animal fossils uncovered at the dig site. On the integration with the rest of the exhibit, Schoemer says, “Our museum created graphics and signage that complement the ones found throughout the rest of the exhibit. There’s a video in this portion that talks about the Snowmastodon discoveries. We made sure that the visual style complemented the animation in the other videos created by Angle Park for the Field Museum.”
After reviewing the Snowmass discoveries, guests then return seamlessly to the main portion of the exhibit, where they examine “A Prehistoric Stage,” how humans and American mastodons interacted. Here, one of the exhibit’s most high-tech interactives explores this relationship deeper as a quarter-spherical screen creates a cave-like experience, where guests must discover the meaning of prehistoric cave paintings using Wii emulated controllers.
Nearby, sits one of the simplest. “This is one of my favorites,” says Schoemer. On a low sitting stand is a model of a small hut made of mastodon bones with little human figures. “It’s so simple, but young kids love to play with it. It’s really only playing house, but it’s also a way for them to learn about how people used what they took from the mastodons.”
A humorous video looks at possible extinction theories of the mastodons, and leads into the next sections, “Pushed to their Limits,” which looks at the last mammoths to exist and why they shrank in size, and “Conserving a Legacy,” which examines the plights of modern elephants.
The final section of the exhibit is again original to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science – an actual portion of the dig preserved in plaster, where volunteers daily excavate for fossils and interact with guests. According to Sertich, “It’s an extension of our fossil lab, where everything is visible to our visitors and there’s even a window where visitors can talk to our researchers.”
The fossil lab, or as its formally known, the Schlessman Family Laboratory of Earth Sciences, sits within Prehistoric Journey, the museum’s permanent exhibit chronicling 3.5 billion years of earth history, particularly in the Colorado region. Within this hall sits a small permanent display on the Snowmass discoveries. According to Sertich, “We will probably integrate some of the other specimens into this one when the Mastodon exhibit is over.” Along the exit hall from the Prehistoric Journey exhibit lie the full series of paintings by Jan Vriesen, depicting the dig site from the formation of the lake basin by a glacier 130,000 years ago to the completion of the dam in 2012. The two paintings featured in the Mastodon exhibit are included here.
The museum has also worked hard to extend the educational value of the Mastodons and Mammoths exhibit beyond the exhibition hall’s walls. On the second floor is a photo spot where young museum visitors can dress as if they are on the dig at Snowmass, holding a fossil cast. Online, the museum has the game “Whose Poo?” This interactive challenges players to guess what pile of fossilized feces belonged to which prehistoric animal. An IMAX movie and a calendar full of lectures and events round out the offerings.
Two and a half years after the first discovery at Snow Mass, a traveling exhibition has given the Denver Museum of Nature & Science the perfect opportunity to showcase their finds to the public. And through the successful thematic integration into the main traveling exhibit, this localization of the content matter has placed their discoveries within a greater global context, allowing guests to experience the importance of Colorado discoveries in relation to those from throughout the world.
For more information, visit www.dmns.org