By Thomas Wolber Associate Professor of German
Many people do not realize that Delaware has a small museum for natural history and that it is located right here on campus (SCSC Room #166). Although it is free and open to the public, it seems to be a well-kept secret even among many OWU students and staff.
The other day I spent a lovely hour in the Zoology Museum, as it is called, and walked away with interesting new information, such as the history of science at OWU.
The original Science Hall was Merrick, whose large third-floor room contained a natural history museum.. Unfortunately, half a century ago the college gave away most of its holdings to OSU because of space restrictions. The current museum was finalized after six display cases from the Smithsonian arrived in 2009. The evolution of homosapiens is also displayed alongside human and primate skulls.
Despite the small dimensions of the gallery, it is chockfull with specimens. Every corner, wall and even the ceiling is mounted with various animal species. Birds dominate, no doubt due to museum director Dr. Jed Burtt, an internationally-renowned ornithologist and published author.
There must be close to a hundred birds in the various display cases and on the shelves, from the smallest humming bird to the largest turkey, owl, eagle, and albatross. Both domestic animals and species from around the world are present. Then, there are exhibits of numerous bird skulls and eggs. I have never seen so closely the formidable beak of a kingfisher, which makes digging the long underground tunnels that lead to their nesting chambers possible.
Also noteworthy is an exhibit entitled “The Top 10 Phyla”: a display case with coral reefs and marine shells; a collection of teeth (check out the large teeth of sperm whales!); a group of reptiles; etc. Hanging from the ceiling is a hornet’s nest, a great horned owl and the skeleton of a large beluga whale.
Above the doors are antlers of a moose and caribou as well as a bison’s head. Guarding one of the entrance doors is a two-headed calf that young visitors love to touch.
Given the small size of the museum, it is not surprising that some animal groups are missing. Only about 10 percent of the Zoology Department’s collections are actually on display because there is no room for the rest. For example, some 20,000 insects are stored out of public sight.
The little museum, primarily used as a teaching collection, is fairly traditional and conventional. At present, there are no interactive activities such as computers and/or loudspeakers. For school children, there is one laminated activity sheet (accompanied by a teachers guide.)
Perhaps a few more educational hand-outs could be made available, not only for children but also for visiting adults. For example, it is almost too much to absorb the rich information about the top ten phyla in one visit, so a leaflet containing that information would be helpful. You probably heard of mollusks and arthropods, two of the phyla, but perhaps you did not realize that we mammals belong to the phylum of so-called chordata (vertebrates), along with bony fishes, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
One other comment, if I may. The little museum, as cute as it is, seems a bit out of step with modern times not only in terms of technology. Its science is somewhat dated and stale, too. For example, you see a passenger pigeon, but there is no mention that the bird became completely extinct in the 19th century. You see an eagle and an osprey, but the exhibit does not mention Rachel Carson’s courageous fight against DDT, the pesticide that almost wiped out all North American raptors. The modern concepts of conservation, environmentalism and sustainability are sorely missing.
Some day, if the right donor(s) can be found, the museum should be modernized. It could be a major attraction for prospective students, a travel destination and a shining beacon on campus.
However, it is worth seeing even at it is, especially the bird collection. So, if some day you have a free hour, or if the weather is bad outside, go visit the Zoology Museum. And if you are very lucky, you will find a student curator working in the back room who would be happy to answer your questions.