Really old stuff that’s really new

. January 11, 2013.

Ann Arbor is home to a vast treasure— The University of Michigan’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History. (Most of us simply refer to it as the “Dinosaur Museum.”) It has always been one of our family’s favorites. Unfortunately, as my daughters have gotten older, we’ve filled our lives with so many other activities that we hadn’t trekked to the museum in over a year. This past winter break, though, our family (including Grandma) decided that we’d been away from our bony friends for too long. It was time to get our paleontology back on.

 I had been reading about various changes underway at the museum, and I was excited to see what’s been happening. Once we got inside, the first thing I noticed was the renovated and expanded gift shop. Although the museum has free admission, we like to indulge here, knowing that the proceeds help the museum. You know the kids are going to ask if they can get something anyway—I might as well play the good guy. 

The real kicker 

Saving the plushy toys for later, we ascended the steps to the second floor where the dinosaurs and other fossils reside in their ancient awesomeness. Everything here is very, very old. To give you an idea, your average Joe Allosaurus (like the one on display here) is about 150 million years old. You think that’s old? The museum also features fossils of brachiopods and trilobites (critters you can find around Ann Arbor) that are about 400 million years old. Now for the real kicker: a new exhibit at the entrance displays a rock that is 4 billion years old—not million, but billion! This sample of Acasta gneiss (pronounced ah-CAH-stah nice) is the oldest rock on earth ever found. It comes from a remote part of Canada, where evidently being old is cool. Heck, the earth itself is only 0.6 billion years older. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the museum’s famous hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Mastodon are only about 10,000 years old. The mastodon is Michigan’s state fossil, and is a relative youngster in this arena. Think about it this way: if the rock is Larry King, the mastodon is Justin Bieber. Given the mastodon’s relatively recent existence, it’s not hard to imagine a herd of them walking through our backyard. (And to think that I complain about having to pick up after our dog.) 

The crown jewel 

Looking up from the Mastodon diorama, it’s easy to notice a new specimen— the Basilosaurus. This is a 40-50 million year old ancestor of the whale. The U of M museum is perhaps the world’s biggest authority on the evolutionary history of whales, and this 50-foot creature is the crown jewel. Hanging from the ceiling, it appears as though it’s swimming through the air. 

Done with fossils for the time being, we worked our way up the two levels to see what else was new. Along the walls, we saw posters for a coming attraction called “Earth Changes.” This appears to be an exhibit detailing how the…well, earth changes. Specifically, I think they mean to tell us how forces such as volcanoes and plate tectonics transform our planet. I can’t wait to see it when it opens. Currently there is no set date for the opening of “Earth Changes”, however, the Museum anticipates an opening in early autumn.

 Keeping things fresh 

Walking further along, we noticed that the rocks and minerals section had expanded. The museum had also added an extensive display on an ancient Philippine burial cave. This is part of a larger exhibit on archaeology. In one room, we stood fascinated by storyboards and a case full of artifacts from Ann Arbor. Archaeologists discovered them on a dig site at the old Burnham House, built in 1837 in the section of the city known as Lower Town. This part of the museum was one of Molly’s favorites: “I’ve always liked digging around places. And knowing  that the artifacts are from around here is really cool. They’re not from China— where everything else is made.”

 Finally, almost out of energy, we strolled into another new  Evolution.” It looked intriguing, but we could only stay a few minutes. It was an hour after our designated lunch time, our stomachs were growling, museum and work our way down.

 Upon leaving, I really got the sense that it had been too long since our last visit. For such an old museum full of old stuff, it certainly does an excellent job of keeping things fresh. As we walked back to the car, I asked our older daughter, Gabbi, what her favorite part was. “Probably just going back there after all this time, seeing what had changed,” she replied. Even though my daughters are older, I’m happy to hear that they still dig the museum. 

Jim Keen is a freelance writer and lifelong Ann Arborite. He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (14) and Molly (11). He is the author of Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He can be reached at