Natural History museum closes ahead of move to Biological Sciences Building
Monday night the University's Museum of Natural History officially closed its space in the A.G. Ruthven Museums Building, after one last night at the museum.
The museum, which will reopen in the Biological Sciences Building in several phases throughout 2019, has been housed in Ruthven since the building’s opening in 1928. The museum was originally known as the University Museum, and encompassed the Museums of Paleontology, Zoology and Anthropological Archaeology, as well as the University Herbarium. The Museum of Natural History was officially created in 1956.
The University decided to move the museum once the plans for the new Biological Sciences Building were announced in 2011. Though this has been planned for several years, Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, said the execution of the move will not necessarily be easy.
“The logistics of the next year, year and a half will be pretty challenging,” Harris said. “Within the public museum ... we’ve been hiring a lot of short-term staff to help with the project, and that’s been really terrific to have new ideas and new, fresh energy.”
The move has also been difficult for community members. Generations of people have enjoyed the current museum over the years and are sad to say goodbye. To aid with the transition, the museum created Museum Memories in December 2016 as a part of the University’s Bicentennial initiative and an online time capsule of sorts for people to share their favorite memories of the museum.
Harris and her co-workers knew they close out the museum in a memorable way. They held a “Last Day at the Museum” celebration on Saturday— a free, all-day event open for the public to commemorate the end of an era. According to Harris, over 3,000 people attended to see the museum one last time at Ruthven and share their memories once more.
“I describe it as a community hug,” Harris said. “I just felt the love.”
An additional ticketed New Year’s Eve event was held on Sunday evening. Over 300 people were in attendance for a night of dinner, dancing, specialty lighting and New Year’s festivities.
“It seemed like a natural watershed moment in the calendar to close the museum on New Year’s Eve, so we’ve been planning this weekend for many, many months,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Now that the space is officially closed, the museum staff will focus on moving to the Biological Science Building. Harris said the new museum will open in three stages. The first opening will occur in the fall of 2018 when the main atrium will open with the museum’s mastodons in the front hall and the ancient whales hanging overhead. The bulk of the museum will open in two additional stages — one in the spring of 2019 and one the following fall.
Staff will be doing many different things in the interim. Planetarium manager Matthew Linke said he will be spending the next year or so learning about the new planetarium software. The museum’s planetarium will be getting a major upgrade in the move, going from its current 18-foot diameter dome to a 30-foot one.
Sixty-four seats will be included, in addition to at least eight handicap-accessible spots, making it easier for visitors in wheelchairs to experience the planetarium. A lecture-hall style arrangement of seats and a stage-quality lighting system will allow the space to be used for a variety of events, and new state-of-the-art software will allow for an expansion of the kind of images projected on the dome.
“It’s the highest-end planetarium software you can get,” Linke said. “We will have the ability of doing a lot more than the current system does.”
Other museum staff will focuse on making sure the museum stays active in the community via outreach to local schools. LSA senior Sara Lebow has worked at the museum since her sophomore year, and while in the past her job has frequently involved taking school groups around the museum for field trips, she thinks her role going forward will be mostly to bring the museum to these schools.
“I have a shift on Friday at the museum where I’m just answering questions there,” Lebow said. “But I’m pretty sure in the coming months it’ll be a lot of outreach, which is a huge part of what the museum does too. We go to schools, and then we go to different festivals for events.”
Lebow, like many others, is sad to see the Ruthven space go but looks at the move as a positive change for the museum.
“The museum as it is — which I love, I really love it — it’s really a time capsule of how museums used to be,” she said. “It’s not set up for field trips very well. It’s just not the best space for kids and school groups to be in … I think it’s really great that the new museum is going to be more kid and school group-focused.”
LSA senior Alexandra Contis, a museum staff member since her freshman year, echoed Lebow’s sentiments. She thinks the updates the museum will get as a result of the move, like air conditioning and a cafeteria for school groups, will be major improvements.
Contis also works in the gift shop, and during one of her recent shifts, a little kid walked up to her with a handful of dinosaur figurines. He told her he was going to use these dinosaurs to start his own museum, now that the Natural History Museum was closing.
“The fact that this has that sort of impact (is amazing),” she said. “And now this little kid is like, ‘I’m going to start my own museum with these stuffed animals!’ He was so confident.”
Correction appended: Over 300 people attended the New Year's Eve celebration, not over 3,000 as the article previously stated.