Research Trip to the Smithsonian

Sarah here-

Recently, I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a few days for some research (image 1)! This was an especially exciting trip because I got to see the BRAND-NEW Fossil Hall exhibits that the curators and staff have been working on for years (image 2)!!

My main goal for going to the collections was to make a personal database of the specimens present at the Smithsonian that belong to the groups I’m currently working on, echinoderms called Diploporita and Rhombifera and make notes of my own for future projects I’d like to start. For example, many of the specimens at the Smithsonian had unusual preservation, so I was thinking about possible projects for myself and for future research students to look into why these fossils were preserved the way that they were. I took photos of many of the specimens so that I’d have a good reference for later, too (image 3).

Image 1. Here I am with my visitor’s badge! This badge lets me get into the collections areas.
Image 2: This is an advertisement for the brand-new Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian on the side of a bus stop on Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C.
Image 3: This is a typical setup for fossil photography. I was taking photos of a fossil called Holocystites, a common echinoderm fossil from Silurian rocks of Indiana.

My main goal for writing this post, however, is to show you what it’s like to work at a museum! Museums are amazing places to go and learn and have fun, but it’s a totally different experience to go to a museum to look at its exhibits, as opposed to going to look at the collections. The exhibits at the Smithsonian, the halls filled to the brim with amazing rocks, fossils, and artifacts, only make up a teeny tiny percentage of what’s actually stored in the museum. So, without further ago, here’s the behind the scenes tour!

So, while the exhibits are absolutely beautiful and show off magnificent tales of Earth’s history, the collections areas show off something completely different but equally beautiful: the rows and rows of cabinets that are chock full of fossils just waiting to be studied (Image 4)! Every time a scientist publishes a paper on a fossil, that fossil has to be put in a public museum so that it can be studied by other people in the future (this isn’t always true, but almost all journals require that you put your fossils in a public museum). Some of the fossils in those collection rooms are absolutely beautiful and totally worthy of being put in an exhibit (image 5), but so many more, while they aren’t as “perfect”, give us insight into scientifically interesting questions.

Image 4: Look at these cabinets! Each drawer is FILLED with fossils! This is just one of the many rows of echinoderm fossils.
Image 5: Just look at this gorgeous crinoid fossil!!! This crinoid (called a sea lily) belongs to Echinodermata, the group that includes modern day sea stars. One of these fossils was likely made during a storm event, where a living creature was buried alive quite suddenly- it’s how we see such beautiful preservation of its many body parts.
Image 6: This exhibit shows how echinoderms have modified their ability to attach to surfaces and feed throughout time, from over 500 million years ago to modern day!












Now, I want to show you a little bit about the Smithsonian’s exhibits! I want to show you my favorite new exhibit. You guessed it-it’s about echinoderms! This new exhibit shows the changing body types we see in these fossils throughout geologic time (image 6). They also did some really great work on an Ice Age exhibit and the megafauna that lived there (like mammoths, the Irish Elk, large sloths). It was tied in really well with learning about how climate change has affected life on Earth in the past and life on Earth now!

Finally, I want to show you around the exhibits you might not have noticed at the Smithsonian- the floors and bathroom counters! Since this is the nation’s most famous natural history museum, you know they have to have some good geology in their building materials! The main staircases that run through the museum are marble (metamorphosed (meaning, it was put under a lot of heat and pressure) limestone). Marble often leaves us clues about how it was metamorphosed by leaving behind stylolites. Stylolites are deformation features-meaning, the marks that rocks leave behind when they’re being squished by geologic processes. They often look like little squiggly lines! Check out the epic stylolites in the marble staircases of the Smithsonian (image 8)! Finally, here is a column that is made out of a rock called a metaconglomerate, which is a metamorphosed conglomerate (image 9). To put that into normal words, a conglomerate is a sedimentary rock that’s made up of large pieces of material (like pebbles or larger) all jumbled together. A metaconglomerate is simply one that has been deformed from heat and pressure! You can tell that this column been metamorphosed by how the large pieces of rock look like they’ve been stretched out and bent in weird directions.

Image 7: Here is the ground sloth they have on display! Ground sloths are some of my favorite non-echinoderm fossils. It’s hard to comprehend just how big they were, especially when you compare them to sloths today!
Image 8: Here are stylolites from the staircases of the museum! My foot for scale in the bottom corner.
Image 9: A column made up of metaconglomerate, which is a conglomerate that’s been subjected to heat and pressure. Bonus: look at the floors this column is sitting on top of! Gorgeous!

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