When University alum Joseph Beal Steere began an expedition in 1870, he probably didn’t realize that many of the 62,000 specimens he found — most of them unknown to science at the time — would become the basis for the largest fossil museum in the state of Michigan.
The Alexander Ruthven Museums Building, located across the street from C.C. Little, houses four museums: the Exhibit Museum of Natural History, and the Museums of Anthropology, Zoology, and Paleontology.
The spiraling staircases and vintage décor of the Exhibit Museum of Natural History create an archaic feel. The cases of animals and shelves of fossils lining the museum’s walls date back more than a century.
Exhibits at the museum come from around the world. One display includes two full mastodons, one of which was found in Owosso, Mich., while another exhibit includes a Sauropod dinosaur fossil.
Rotating exhibits include an archeology display as part of an upcoming theme, “Explore Evolution.”
Of the four museums, three of them are closed to the general public and are used for research. The fourth unit, the Museum of Natural History, has four floors and holds exhibits on paleontology, zoology, Michigan wildlife, anthropology, archaeology, geology, and a planetarium.
The museum was in the original 1837 charter of the University and the building is the namesake of former University President and Museum Curator Alexander Ruthven, according to a plaque on the museum’s wall.
Though there are many museums on campus, the Exhibit Museum of Natural History hires the most students. According to Museum Docent Coordinator Sarah Thompson, the museum has approximately 50 student docents who are trained guides that give tours to children in Kindergarten through 12th grade, greet the general public and answer questions about the museum.
“They’re the face of the museum,” Thompson said.
The museum draws in about 85,000 people every year, including 21,000 school-aged children, Thompson said. But despite its on-campus location, it doesn’t attract many University students.
“I don’t think most students know about this,” Thompson said. “I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who say they walk by the building every day and have never went in — they know the two pumas that stand outside but never what’s inside.”