Ancient fossils soon will have a new home inside Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
Construction is continuing to create a much larger preparation lab, which will be used to excavate specimens and prepare them for research or public display. The larger space and updated technology will make it safer and easier for staff and volunteers to work with larger fossils, said Laura Wilson, the museum’s curator of paleontology.
The lab is located just inside the second-floor entrance, and 12-foot windows will make the lab visible and allow communication between museum staff and visitors.
“One of the important aspects I wanted to make sure was kept with this lab was that it still was accessible to the visitors,” Wilson said. “I wanted to more fully integrate it with the exhibit space so it became a more significant part of the visitor experience.”
A smaller space in the same area that formerly housed the prep lab will be converted into a research lab, which will be closed off because it must be kept clean, she said. Research in that lab consists largely of preparing and examining microscopic samples.
Construction is expected to be complete by year’s end, but the labs likely will not be operational until this spring. It will take time to install new equipment and technology, Wilson said.
The project was funded in part through a grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, as well as many private donors. Approximately $165,000 has been raised for the physical construction and necessary equipment.
The overall research complex likely will be named for Dane G. Hansen, while the preparation lab will be named the “Oceans of Kansas Paleontology Preparation Lab” in honor of donor and adjunct curator Mike Everhart, who has written a book by the same title.
Once the project is complete, the museum hopes to open the laboratory to community members who have an interest in volunteering to help with excavation and preparing specimen jackets.
“We can train volunteers, people in the community who are interested in working with the fossils and the museum, and we can run workshops to train them,” Wilson said. “So then we can have more people working, more interactions with the public and help with some of the backlog that we have with getting stuff cleaned.”
Many specimens are waiting for preparation, which has been moving slowly due in part to the small lab space and difficulty with staffing. So far, only museum employees and FHSU students have assisted with fossil preparation, which presents difficulty due to students’ schedules and the fact most only are in Hays for a few years, Wilson said.
The backlog also has inhibited collection efforts, as staff and volunteers are reluctant to collect specimens that likely could be waiting in storage for a long time, she said.
“This will definitely increase the opportunity for more research and more research specimens that can be collected, so we’re not kind of actively avoiding adding to the backlog,” Wilson said. “So we can get our research and field programs up to where we want them to be, where we’re able to train more people and be a bigger part of the research and education communities.”
The need for a larger preparation lab has been identified as a high priority for the museum for at least the last eight years, director Reese Barrick said. He noted former curators focused mainly on smaller specimens, which meant a small lab space was adequate. That is no longer the case, as staff and researchers are wanting to work with a wide array of fossils and specimens, he said.
“Now we’re back into looking at large vertebrates, this becomes a crucial piece to what we need to have,” he said. “There’s a jacket around the corner over this way and there’s one downstairs that you couldn’t even fit (in the old lab). Like they literally couldn’t.”
The new lab also will include built-in safety features for dust control to ensure staff and volunteers aren’t inhaling potentially dangerous amounts of sediment.
The research lab is equally important, as fossil preparation has seen a shift to place more emphasis on microscopic samples, Wilson said.
“We’ll be able to do stuff in this lab that we’ve never been able to do at this museum before,” Wilson said. “That’s really where fossil prep is going is doing everything under the microscope, because we’re discovering all sorts of things that we never expected because we never thought to look for them.
“And now we’re finding soft tissue preservation, we’re finding skin impressions, stuff like that. … How people are going about cleaning fossils has really taken a turn even in the last couple of years.”