Show: Sharing Science at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union


Only a few decades ago, it would have seemed rather improbable that scientists and students would travel the length and breadth of the world to convene and discuss their work, and especially improbable that they would convene to do so in a meeting 28,000 strong.

We live in exciting times.

Our group working on the Wesleyan museum had the great fortune of being invited to present a poster on our most recent museum activities in the 100th American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, which took place in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in a city to which many scientists pay homage  – Washington DC. We presented our poster in a session titled ‘Scientific Collections as an Essential Gateway to Informal Science Learning‘, convened by four curators at  the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Such an overwhelmingly well-attended conference allows people to convene, network, generate new ideas, meet old friends, collaborators and colleagues, learn about the most recent research going on around the world, and start collaborating on new, fascinating projects. In the home city of some of the world’s greatest museums and collections, we found ourselves in the midst of many colleagues who work with collections in one capacity or another.


The overwhelmingly large poster hall (more than 2000 posters in each day-long session) where most presenters  shared research as well as ideas about education and science outreach. Oral presentations, exhibits and workshops took place in other parts of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and in various hotels near by.

The poster session was an exciting success. We engaged great interest from many people who  were heartened to see the revival of old natural history collections and the involvement of young people in this revival. There were many moments of constructive conversation on the direction in which we are taking the collections, in order to engage a wider audience than just people interested in the sciences, within the setting of a liberal arts college. 


Celebratory photo at the end of our presentation on the use of natural history collections in liberal arts education.

Natural history collections dating back to the 19th century were commonly present in US colleges and universities, but many were discarded or stored in the mid 20th century. Even when collections remain today, faculty and students are generally unaware of their existence, and Wesleyan is no exception. However, what remains of our collections can be used for exciting and innovative object-based teaching and research, and we are engaged in letting our community know about this great and under-used resource. In a liberal arts college in particular, these endeavors bear the potential to reach across and unify distinct fields of study, including – but not limited to – biology, Earth sciences, environmental sciences, archaeology, science in society, history of science, archival research, visual arts,  museum science, and the history of science research and instruction at Wesleyan.


Specimens such as  these dinosaur tracks (Eubrontes sp.) may serve many roles in the setting of a liberal arts college. They are educational tools to determine behavior of the track makers, basis for research, but also ultimately, an object of beauty.

Naturally, we had to pay homage to the collections in the city. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which is almost synonymous with ‘The Smithsonian‘ in public consciousness, holds 145 million objects in exhibits and storage. We owe our ‘behind-the-scenes’ visit to Wesleyan Professor Dana Royer, who invited us to shadow him while he joined colleagues to scout out prospective research material.


Drawers of Paleozoic fossils plants in the Paleobotany Division of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, formerly the US National Museum (USNM).

Washington DC holds more treasures meet the eye. We could not resist finding treasures in plain sight. On the ledge of the US Capitol Reflecting Pool, the floor of the National Art Gallery West Building, and wall of the National Museum of the American Indian, we unexpectedly found fossils, all assimilated into the architecture, in an often ignored public ‘accidental’ exhibit of natural history.

Gallery 1 in the National Gallery of Art West Building, there are things more ancient than the 12th-century icons. This coiled nautiloid, some 6 cm across, was a relative of octopus and squid that lived in the Ordovician ~460 million years ago. The Tennessee Marble was quarried from the Holston Formation, which is rich in large nautiloid fossils and was used to line the galleries throughout the entire building.


We must have appeared deranged, photographing the walls of the National Art Gallery bathrooms. Black stone from the Lake Champlain region in Vermont contains  Maclurites magnus snail fossils, 470 million years in age (Middle Ordovician), of which the Wesleyan Natural History collections contain several tens of specimens.


Cover photo: Exterior wall of the National Museum of the American Indian, bearing traces of burrowing organisms (trace fossils), possibly arthropods. Kasota Limestone of the Oneota Formation, Minnesota. Ordovician, ~ 450 million years ago.