Collection of Cretaceous fossils comes to VMNH


The long-term care of a collection of fossils can be a difficult challenge for a museum, and sometimes things don’t work out. Museums may close due to budgetary problems, or their budget may shrink to the point that they can no longer care for a collection. Sometimes the museum’s mission might change to the point that housing a collection no longer falls under the scope of operations. In these cases, you end up with an orphaned collection – a collection without a home.

In worst-case scenarios orphaned collections may be lost or destroyed; there are some real horror stories out there about lost collections. More often, another museum will take in the collection. Taking in orphaned collections has been a major function of VMNH since we were founded. We recently took in another orphaned collection that will make a substantial addition to our paleontology department.

The Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, Virginia built up a significant collection of fossils over the years. Much of this material was acquired when SVDM took in an orphaned collection from Shenandoah University, that had been excavated by John Happ. The material was supplemented with field work by SVDM staff, especially Geb Bennett. The majority of these fossils are from the latest Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of Montana, and include Triceratops remains, as well as hadrosaur elements, some theropod teeth, plants, and invertebrates, and lots of microvertebrates.

SVDM eventually decided that maintaining this large collection was too far outside the scope of their mission to justify the resources required, and they began looking for a new home for the material. Nearly all the fossils were collected from federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, so they’re actually the property of the federal government but are stored and cared for in approved repositories. In consultation with the BLM, SVDM asked VMNH to take in the collection (we are already a BLM repository for our Jurassic dinosaur fossils from Shell, Wyoming.) We eagerly accepted the collection, especially since we had very little Cretaceous material.

In December, Ray and I visited SVDM to determine what would be needed for the move. For most of the material the process would be straightforward, but one element proved to be difficult. The largest item was a field jacket containing a skull of Triceratops, 8 feet long, 6 feet wide, and weighing on the order of 5,000 pounds (above). There was also a somewhat smaller jacket containing a Triceratops frill, and only weighing around 1,000 pounds.

On January 3rd we returned to Winchester with a 26-foot truck and a van full of help, including our entire Buildings and Grounds staff. The smaller jacket was loaded easily (below):


Then it was on to the big jacket. The jacket was sitting on a pallet, but it was crushed and needed to be replaced. We used lifting straps to suspend the jacket from a forklift while we swapped pallets:


Once the new pallet was in place, we adjusted the straps so we could suspend the whole structure, and drive it out to the truck:




With the largest jackets safely on the truck, we were able to load the remaining material and head back to Martinsville. The next day we unloaded everything, and took the Triceratops skull straight to the lab:


We’ve spent this week cutting into the plaster on this jacket. Our intention is to open it this Saturday during the museum’s Dino Day festival. If you’re in the area Saturday please stop by and watch through the lab windows as we open the jacket for the first time.

I’d like to thank everyone who made this possible, including Mary Braun and Geb Bennett at SVDM, Greg Liggett at BLM, and Rian Culligan and the rest of the VMNH Buildings and Grounds staff.

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3 Responses to Collection of Cretaceous fossils comes to VMNH

  1. George says:


    This really nauseates me to the nth degree. Here we have institutions that try to educate folks and show them the earths evolutionary scale by education for all ages and yet in this s hole of a democracy we rather fund dictators and dispotic countries. I hope one day the normalisy of what is civil comes back enticing minds of all ages.. I wish you folks the best in your aqusitions. I still say the smaller the museum the more efficient.

  2. Doug says:

    Well as i just said on the Burpeee Museum Blog, i think museums are suffering a bit of an image problem. Because most of the collections and science is unseen, people don’t know this stuff even goes on, or worse, that museums are greedily hoarding the treasures of the earth! Hell, I’m sympathetic to the museum cause and even i feel that way in certain regards! Museums need to find ways to be more transparent, because people need to really see what’s at stake. As for smaller museum being efficient: i have always enjoyed smaller museums a bit more than the gargantuan institutions of old. I have sometimes asked if museums get too big for their own good. I’m always met with the same response: “or it could be argued that big museums just don’t have the people and resources to properly run”. I have a feeling the later sentiment will always win out.

    Shenandoah University? So does this mean you guys got the Triceratops skull with healed bite marks? If so, congrats on getting such an important specimen!

    A carry over from the last post: you mentioned in the reconstructing Buttercup posts (and indeed in the article with the Cameraceras model) that you use sheet styrofoam. How exactly is using sheet styrofoam useful in creating a 3d image? Why use sheets at all instead of a block?

  3. altondooley says:

    We did indeed get the Triceratops skull with the bite marks! I’ll have more on that in a future post.

    The only reason we use sheet styrofoam is because of cost. Because it’s used for building insulation, we can get it cheap at hardware stores. Actually, the foam Ray used on Buttercup was leftover pieces from Cameroceras.

    I certainly think the use of the term “museum” to describe a variety of institutions, including science centers, has caused some difficulties for traditional museums. When the public has been conditioned to believe that museums are just exhibits and interactives, it makes it harder to get across our real mission.

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