Field of Science

Sorry Kids, the Dinosaur Museum is Closed...

Today for the first time in decades the University of Wyoming Geological Museum will not open to the public. To save a measly $80,000 a year the university decided to shutter the only place in the area where local children can experience the wonders of the dinosaur paleontology for which the state of Wyoming is famous. Ignoring public outcry, the bureaucrats who should be holding education, research, and outreach, the core values of any learning institution, in esteem have decided to follow through with these cuts, yet the university's sports programs stay pretty much intact? You can read about it more here at ReBecca Hunt-Foster's site.

I also could not help but notice the comment that while the Geological Museum is being closed, the anthropology museum will reopen soon. I have noted repeatedly that geology and paleontology often get the short end of the stick to archaeology and anthropology, and I feel that this may simply be due to the fact that geology and paleontology are fairly foreign topics to the majority of the public. Indeed, as all paleontologists and archaeologists know there is often much confusion between the roles of the two disciplines. Tell someone you are a paleontologist and they will mention all of the arrowheads they have found; mention you are an archaeologist and people will start asking you about dinosaurs. When I entered college expressing a desire to study fossils I was promptly referred to archaeology classes by the councilors and registrars.

Most people (presumably because they are human) seem to have a have a rudimentary knowledge, understanding, and interest in anthropology and archaeology; however, many of these same people do not even know what the study of geology even entails. Much of this I think is a result of the sad state of science education in the United States. I'm not saying that archaeology is lesser to geology and paleontology (I've done all three), I am just trying to understand why this dichotomy exists. Did you know that despite being responsible for some of the greatest geological wonders in the world (Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, Yellowstone, etc...) there are more archaeologists employed at the Grand Canyon alone than there are geologists and paleontologists (total) in the entire National Park Service? This is mainly because of the need to satisfy law and policy; however, sometimes I wonder if often there is simply a misunderstanding of the fundamental differences between the two disciplines.

I've experienced leadership in institutions that were established for their paleontological resources who not only have little knowledge or interest in paleontology, but cannot even pronounce the word! I often "joke" with my students that because of the plethora of students and lack of positions in paleontology, many of them should train to become administrators and thus provide universities and museums with leadership who understand and appreciate the science. Of course, it is not really a joke, we desperately need this for the good of the profession; however, how many students will want to be a martyr to protect a job that they badly desire but will never get to have?

There are probably more jobs in paleontology now than ever before, mostly because of the wave of interest stemming from a book and movie now rapidly approaching their two decade anniversary. Paleontologists are challenged with keeping our science fresh and engaging and judging by the media we still get regarding new finds, the interest is for the most part still there. Let's hope that events such as what happened in Wyoming aren't indicators of a future trend.

2 comments:

  1. Good points Bill. Archaeology is important but you are correct that it sometimes favored a bit unfairly. Here in Alabama the discover of Native American artifacts can officially stop a building project but my fossils are left to the mercy of the builders.

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  2. Incredibly shortsighted. Given what I know of universities, I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the reasons given publicly are quite different from the real (and private) reasons for the closure. Of course, I suppose it could just be the leadership involved in this decision, really are more clueless than disingenuous.

    Whatever the reasons, I'm very disappointed to hear this!

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