@B_Byline Name:By JOE KERNAN
@T_Basic:The Museum of Natural History at Roger Williams Park is holding its annual National Fossil Day Celebration on Saturday. According to their press release, the Museum’s massive collection of fossil specimens brings Rhode Island's prehistoric past to life.
Mike Kieron, the Museum's resident geologist, will display 300 million-year-old plants and animals that once lived in Rhode Island.
“We have some fossils from the Coal Age in Rhode Island, but most of our fossils come from other places,” said Kieron.
But the focus Saturday will be on beasts that “roamed right here in our backyard during the Ice Age.”
Children can participate in hands-on activities and crafts, make a fossil to bring home with you, and even bring your fossil mysteries to be identified.
“Like all of us, kids are fascinated by these large terrifying beasts that lived a long time ago,” said Kieron. He said they appeal to their imaginations and spark a curiosity about the natural world and that curiosity should be nurtured, which is one of the goals of National Fossil Day.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), “National Fossil Day is a celebration organized to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value.”
The NPS says fossils discovered on public lands preserve ancient life from all major eras of Earth history, and from every major group of animal or plant.
“In the national parks, for example, fossils range from primitive algae found high in the mountains of Glacier National Park, Montana, to the remains of ice-age animals found in caves at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.”
Fortunately for Rhode Islanders, there were some very avid natural scientists among Rhode Island’s more financially secure ancestors and many of them collected specimens from all around the world and then donated them to the Museum after it was opened in 1896. The Museum’s first director, James Southwick, was a taxidermist and collector himself. According to the “Jewel of Providence,” a history of the park published in 1987, “only 13 days after assuming his position, he taxidermied two fawn skins from the Menagerie’s collection.”
Southwick also published books on natural history and his connections led to some significant contributions from other well-heeled naturalists. The Museum’s website says its founding was actually precipitated by a donation of privately amassed mammal and bird specimens by former Providence resident John Steere.
“The offer coincided with the museum-building era that characterized many American cities in the late 19th century. The Museum was embraced by its local community as a source of civic pride and as a visionary monument to science on the brink of a new century.”
That spirit lived on into the new century and the contributions kept coming in.
“Southwick’s diary of the building’s first year almost daily records the receipt of gifts from Providence citizens. However, the backbone of the Museum’s holdings lies in three major collections, all received in 1913.”
The first was from Horace Carpenter, who donated 60,000 minerals and shells; Manly Hardy’s 2,000 stuffed birds that were passed on to the Museum from the Audubon Society (which probably thought the 2,000 birds added up to one big white elephant); and a collection of Pacific Islands artifacts from the Franklin Society.
This embarrassment of riches prompted the building of a new wing to the Museum in 1915. Even with the new wing, the exhibits display only a fraction of the over 250,000 objects the Museum holds. The rest are kept in up-to-date facilities behind the scene, with special, atmospherically controlled storage rooms that look more like bank vaults than the curio cabinets that must have held the collections originally.
A room upstairs in the “new” wing of the Museum has a Victorian Era room stuffed with the sort of natural curiosities that the genteel displayed in their homes. They were perhaps much better appreciated by the guests than by the help that had to painstakingly dust the scientific clutter.
In any event, the Fossil Frenzy program at the Museum offers you and your kids or grandkids a chance to reacquaint yourself with one of the jewels in the crown of Roger Williams Park. The program is free with the $2 Museum Admission. Get there before 2 p.m. and $3 will get you into the Cosmic Collisions Planetarium Show. Just remember that children under 4 are not permitted in the planetarium. If you have any time left, you can take in the collection of Southern Pacific and Native American artifacts that are also on display.
The Museum of Natural History is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round. Last admission is at 3:30 p.m. The Museum of Natural History is wheelchair accessible. More information is available on the Museum’s website, providenceri.com/museum.