From public lands to museums: The foundation of U.S. paleontology, the early history of federal public lands and museums, and the developing role of the U.S. Department of the Interior
Published:November 27, 2018
Gregory A. Liggett, S. Terry Childs, Nicholas A. Famoso, H. Gregory McDonald, Alan L. Titus, Elizabeth Varner, Cameron L. Liggett, 2018. "From public lands to museums: The foundation of U.S. paleontology, the early history of federal public lands and museums, and the developing role of the U.S. Department of the Interior", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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Today, the United States Department of the Interior manages 500 million acres of surface land, about one-fifth of the land in the United States. Since enactment of the Antiquities Act in 1906, historic and scientific resources collected on public land have remained government property, held in trust for the people of the United States. As a result, the Department of the Interior manages nearly 204 million museum objects. Some of these objects are in federally managed repositories; others are in the repositories of partner institutions.
The establishment of the United States as a nation corresponded with the development of paleontology as a science. For example, mastodon fossils discovered at or near present-day Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, Kentucky, found their way to notable scientists both in the United States and in Europe by the mid-eighteenth century and were instrumental in establishing the reality of extinction.
Public land policies were often contentious, but generally they encouraged settlement and use, which resulted in the modern pattern of federal public lands. Continued investigation for fossils from public land filled the nation’s early museums, and those fossils became the centerpieces of many museum exhibitions.
Case studies of the management of fossils found in Fossil Cycad National Monument, the John Day fossil beds, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas of public land, the American Falls Reservoir, and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are outlined. These examples provide a sense of the scope of fossils on federal public land, highlight how their management can be a challenge, and show that public land is vital for continued scientific collection and research.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.