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"Behind the Scenes" look at Natural History Museum yields earth's secrets

Published: Saturday, Nov. 23 2013 9:30 p.m. MST

Karli Graybeal looks at birds of prey while getting a behind the scenes look at the Utah Museum of Natural History, including exhibits that are typically off limits, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At any given moment in the foothills of Salt Lake City, DNA sequencing of a tiny kernel of corn could unlock new information about ancient agriculture in Utah.

Or in the same building, across the way, the seasonal flowering of the Utah buttercup, preserved from decades ago, provides a tiny tidbit of knowledge that could lead to a better understanding of climate change.

Amid the shin bones of great, lumbering dinosaurs and tiny samples of red beryl crystal — found only in Utah — thousands of research projects are unfolding at the Museum of Natural History.

Even as the public meanders through five floors of interactive learning, gazing at some 36,000 objects on display in stunning exhibits, the research proceeds quietly, behind locked doors.

With the exception of one gallery, the entire north section of the museum is dedicated for this purpose of cataloging and preserving the extensive collection and facilitating research that spans the globe.

This past weekend, the museum offered its “Behind the Scenes” event to give the public a close-up glimpse of the important work that goes on at the museum.

An array of eclectic offerings draws research interest from around the world.

Sarah George, museum director, said Chinese teams are drawing on the expertise of a university botanist to tap into the global charcoal database to study ancient fires. The museum also boasts the world’s second largest collection of turtles.

During the weekend event, Eric Rickart has an assemblage of multiple meadow voles he’s working to prepare as museum specimens. As children and adults wander pass, he said he gets asked why there are so many little rodents of the same kind being carefully chronicled for the museum’s collection.

He explains that such painstaking efforts have been undertaken by museums for the past 150 years, and each individual specimen is its own barometer of the world around it, giving insight into genetic and biological diversity.

“Individual specimens are material evidence in how places change over time,” said Rickart, who is the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. “There’s an infinite amount of variety in species. Museums have the resources to track diversity over time and space — they’re the only institutions that can do that.”

A dozen labs enable researchers – in varying stages of expertise — to carry out their study.

The museum has dozens upon dozens of collections divided into three major groups: geology, anthropology and biology.

George said collections, especially those with an inventory that is regional or endemic to Utah, provide guideposts to the changes that are happening to the living things around us.

Yoshi Maezumi, for example, has a collection of dried Anderson’s lyceum, or water jacket plants, laid out before her. The earliest sample from the 1930s was flowering when it was picked in July. The samples progress on into the 1990s, which shows a specimen that flowered in March.

Maezumi, who is a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Utah, said the plants tell a story of snow melting earlier as decades unfold, with a more temperate climate impacting the plant’s life cycle. That shift has all sorts of ramifications in the ecosystem, such as the amount of available forage for migratory waterfowl.

George said the “Behind the Scenes” event gives the public a chance to understand a bit better the breadth of the museum’s collection, the research that happens and the somewhat daunting work of cataloging each specimen to add to the enlightenment of future generations.

While she admits it is a bit of a challenge to the nerves to throw open the doors and make publicly available so much precious stuff, ultimately it's boils down to sharing the knowledge, with a bit of thanks thrown in.

“These collections belong to the people of Utah," she said. "We are the stewards of these collections and are charged with caring for them and using them for research and education."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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