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Archive for Sunday, September 3, 2000

Museum ready for expansion

Dyche Hall is too small to house its exhibits and specimens

September 3, 2000

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The Kansas University Natural History Museum is busting at the seams and is looking for more space for its huge collection of specimens.

That the facility has become too small can best be seen in all the problems the staff has had trying to set up its newest dinosaur exhibit.

"The goal is to unite under one roof so we can develop a better product. We need an intellectual union, and we're geographically separated, which makes collaborations difficult."

Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Kansas University Natural History Museum

A few years ago a family of dinosaurs including a male, a female and a juvenile were unearthed together. KU acquired the fossils, and has painstakingly been putting the female, nicknamed "Annabelle," back together.

Now she's ready for display. The only problem is she's too big, and the exhibit space is too small.

"We have her in a crouching position. She's 14 feet tall and the ceilings are 10 to 12 feet," Leonard Krishtalka, the museum's director, said.

So does that mean that her kinfolk will be joining her anytime soon?

"Heavens, no! We don't have space for the one to be mounted as she should be," he said.

Running out of room for their collection is actually a sign that the museum is continuing its rapid growth, as researchers add to the burgeoning specimen count.

Seven million specimens are handled by the museum, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, along with the fossilized remains of the aforementioned groups.

And the collections continue to be renowned among university museums. KU's Museum of Natural History has some of the most extensive collections, including those of South American fossilized reptiles and amphibians and fossilized plants from Antarctic.

Future expansion

The museum is actually one part of the program. Educational and research programs also make up part of its mission, along with public service. Right now that work goes on in six separate campus buildings, including one on the West Campus.

The staff has been looking at ways to expand so educators, researchers and museum personnel can come together to work in the same environment.

A feasibility plan was drawn up earlier this year to see if substantial additions could be made to Dyche Hall, while other planners are studying spaces in the vicinity and on the West Campus.

Any future construction would be paid for, in part, by the KU Endowment Association.

"The goal is to unite " under one roof so we can develop a better product," Krishtalka said. "We need an intellectual union, and we're geographically separated, which makes collaborations difficult."

Research and more research

While one part of the program focuses on the Natural History Museum, the other is keen on research into the science of biodiversity. Twenty faculty-curators are engrossed in a variety of long-term projects.

Most prominently, they do what Krishtalka calls "blue-chip research." Their task is to study the planet's life forces -- living animals and plants, along with extinct species. The scientists want to learn more about animals' and plants' evolution and history and how these interacting relationships affect the Earth.

A second project is to merge data on biodiversity so it can be accessed from all museums.

"We would integrate on the Internet all the information associated with museums from all over the world and apply that to environmental applications," Krishtalka said.

The data can be used to formulate many useful predictions. By using it, KU faculty could predict how the hanta virus may spread geographically in the United States, or they could study how global climate changes may affect species as well as the planet.

The goal is to make it user-friendly so casual museum visitors also could have access to it.

"For the future we want to make the information locked up in a museum's collection available for anyone to use. There is no reason that we probably can't have it on a user-friendly Internet site," Krishtalka said.

And at technology's current rate of advancement, how long would it take to create such a system?

"About two years," he said.

The museum is also dedicated to sending its scientists and educators into sites around the world for their research. They can bring back the results and share them with museum visitors.

"Our museum specimens constitute a library of life," Krishtalka said.

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