Vol. 12. No. 2
Fall 2002

Dinosaur fossils and drawers of stuffed squirrels.
Dried, pressed plants, and vats of pickled turtles.
Many dead birds that no longer use their wings.
These are a few of my favorite things.

That is, those are among some of the favorite treasures normally hidden within storage areas at the Utah Museum of Natural History and opened to public inspection once each year during the museum's "What's in the Basement?" day.

With more than one million items in its collections and less than 60,000 square feet of floor space for exhibits, offices, and storage, only about one-tenth of one percent of the museum's vast holdings normally are on display at any time, says Sarah George, the museum's director.

So on one Saturday each fall for the last several years, the four-level museum has opened its basement, attic, and other storage areas, nooks, and crannies for public inspection. "We want people to see the incredible variety, depth, and breadth of the collections we hold," George says.

George started "What's in the Basement?" day because it had been an annual event at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where she worked as curator of mammals from 1984 to 1992, before taking the helm of the Utah museum.

In addition to drawers filled with 30,000 dried, stuffed squirrels, the museum's collections include Native American artifacts (ranging from a 10,000-year-old spear point to a 650- year-old child's moccasin); a rare spotted bat collected in Salt Lake City in 1934; the cast of a brain case from Utah's state fossil, the nasty meat-eating Allosaurus dinosaur; and a fabulous crystal of iron pyrite, or fool's gold, from Park City.

The museum has extensive collections because it is the official state repository for fossils and archaeological objects found on state lands, and is also the largest Utah repository for such specimens found on federal lands.

The museum is in the process of raising $41 million for a new building at University of Utah Research Park and $19 million for exhibits there. The new museum, which George hopes will be built within five years, will have about 115,000 square feet of floor space for exhibits, offices, and storage- almost twice the capacity the museum has now.

While George expects the new museum will far more than double the number of specimens displayed-thanks largely to open storage areas and laboratories the public can view-plenty of specimens will remain in closed storage. So "What's in the Basement?" will continue at the new facility. "People want to see what goes on behind the scenes," she says.

The next opportunity to check out those behind-the-scenes treasures is on Oct. 19, this year's "What's in the Basement?" day. Try not to miss the drawers of squirrels.

—Lee J. Siegel is science news specialist in the U's public relations office.



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