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Mammoths Migrate to Museum of Science

Museum Debuts “Prehistoric Worlds, Backyard Discoveries”

By Erik Blankinship

staff Writer

Museum of Science

Science Park Stop on MBTA Green Line

Exhibit Open until June 2001

Museum Admission Free with MIT Student ID

The 1999 discovery of a wooly mammoth by the Jarkov family in their backyard -- they found giant tusks sticking out of the ground -- generated the impetus for a new exhibit, entitled “Prehistoric Worlds, Backyard Discoveries,” at the Museum of Science.

The exhibit offers a number of hands-on activities, allowing visitors to touch real mammoth tusks and hair, for example. Accompanying the real mammoth samples are other pelts, allowing for comparison of feel and texture. Visitors also get a chance to “hear” a mammoth (an audio mix of African and Asian elephant roars and snorts) and “smell” a mammoth too (an olfactory creation reminiscent of Elmer’s glue and damp leaves).

The exhibit also contains a number of videos, showing animated scenes of wooly mammoth activities, including walking around, taking baths, and engaging in other elephant-esque behaviors. Other videos suggest how we could clone a mammoth, before suggesting that impossible hurdles stand in the way. Just when I was beginning to become psyched ... which is, of course, the idea.

The exhibit does jazz up the kid in you, eager to learn about and explore the world. Visitors sense that ancient history is all around them, and that they just might find it if they look hard enough. It reminded me of fossils I prepared as a kid by burying bones between two rocks in the nearby forest for future people to uncover. The exhibit does rouse that childhood excitement and feelings of possibility in you for a moment.

Along with the multisensory mammoth room, presented in an “ice cave,” the rest of the exhibit highlights kids who have uncovered ancient skeletal remains in their own backyards. I expected a lot of kids in Montana to be the winners, but there was even a dinosaur dug up in New York! Each of the discoveries includes life-size photo cut outs of the children who uncovered the remains, along with recreations of their houses and bedrooms, adorned with books, dolls, and authentic dinosaur remains. It does provide an interesting touch to the exhibit.

For all of the inspiration it provides to young paleontologists, the exhibit doesn’t offer any “learning by doing” opportunities as I would have expected from a contemporary science exhibit. Hopefully, the excitement of hands-on learning is reserved for kids when they get home and start digging -- but even then, the chances are not too high that they’re going to make any finds of their own. The “interactives” are limited to web pages on touch screen monitors, which are pushed to the side of the exhibit, dull, and just awful to navigate.

The exhibit does not have the grandeur of a permanent exhibit. For example, the aforementioned “ice cave” is constructed of plastic walls with the museum ceiling exposed. But it is by no means a shoddy collection of experiences. There are many skeletal remains on display, including a Bambiraptor discovered by a 14 year-old, alongside an artistic recreation of what the beast probably looked like.

The Museum of Science’s mammoth exhibit presents a colorful, comprehensive depiction of the prehistoric animal that will without a doubt arouse the child in you.