I conducted my internship at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2018. I divided my time working as a “gallery guide” in the newest addition to the museum, “The Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago,” and I also participated in a paleontological project in the Paleontology Lab there. Throughout my time interning at TMM, I increased my own knowledge of the geologic history of the Earth, I engaged with and educated museum visitors of all ages, and I gained hands on experience handling fossils and other research materials. This report will discuss my daily routine and responsibilities at the museum, as well as illustrate the invaluable skills and knowledge I have gained.
Interestingly, I had not previously considered museum work before meeting with my internship advisor, Dr. Neill Hadder. I only knew I was interested in educating children about geography, culture and natural science. I had originally reached out to San Marcos ISD, looking into teaching opportunities. After hitting a dead end due to not being a student of the College of Education, Dr. Hadder mentioned natural history museums to me. Since school groups frequent museums on field trips, we agreed this could be a good fit. I reached out to Texas Memorial Museum after reviewing their website. Pamela Owen, the Associate Director, got back to me and a deal was struck. I made my first visit to TMM this past December to meet my new supervisor and tour the museum. I was amazed. Since I was a young girl, I’ve always been fascinated by pre history, so to get to be surrounded by it for the duration of my appointment at the museum was both a happy accident and an invaluable experience for me.
Texas Memorial Museum: A Brief History
Texas in the early 1900s lacked adequate accommodations to facilitate scientific research (the initial function of museums, but more on that later). In fact, Texas did not have it’s own state museum until the 1930’s, when James Pearce, an Anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and A. Garland Adair, a historian for the Texas American Legion, made it their mission to expose and educate the public about Texas’s rich natural history (1).
Texas Memorial Museum opened its doors on January 15, 1939. At the time, the museum displayed visual representations of the natural history of Texas. The museum also exhibited Texas wildlife, including native plants and animals. Anthropological and archaeological objects from all over the world were housed at TMM, for research and educational purposes (1).
Welcome to Texas Memorial Museum: A Brief Tour
Today the museum contains four exhibits, three permanent and one temporary exhibit on loan from the Idaho Museum of Natural History. The first floor exhibit, “The Hall of Geology and Paleontology,” includes a detailed walk through the deep time of the whole Earth, but focuses on significance in Texas, and displays mostly Texas findings. Comprised of several mini galleries, visitors can learn about Texas’s meteoric beginnings and the Paleozoic Era, which includes the first marine communities of life on Earth dating to 545 million years ago (mya). Continuing chronologically, visitors can learn about the first land communities of Texas during the Permian, some 290-250 mya, when the seas retreated from Texas and the climate became hot and dry, perfect for the evolution of land vertebrates (animals with a backbone), specifically early reptiles.
The next mini gallery follows the Permian Mass Extinction (often called “The Great Dying”), when 95% of all known species became extinct. The Triassic Period, 252-201 mya, illustrates the age of reptiles and beginnings of the dinosaurs. Fossils found in Texas of Triassic bivalves (clams, oysters and scallops), land dwelling reptiles, such as the Phytosaurs and ancient crocodiles, as well as small dinosaurs (dinosaurs being much smaller during the Triassic than later in time) are on display here.
Next is the Jurassic (201-145 mya) display, which is limited to a large “touch specimen” of a Diplodocus femur. The Diplodocus did not roam Texas, but is found in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Unfortunately, there is very little fossil evidence in Texas from the Jurassic, mostly because it is buried deep under layers of Cretaceous limestone concentrated in Texas. Visitors are able to touch and feel the massive femur to get a sense of the evolution of dinosaurs during the Jurassic and so as not to neglect this important period of time in Earth’s history, despite its absence in the Texas fossil record.
The Cretaceous Era is particularly significant for Texas, especially Central Texas. The fossil evidence from this period in deep history surrounds us, inside hardened mudflats, which is now the limestone we see near the rivers, stacked high on roadsides and even incorporated into the architecture here. This gallery illustrates a dramatic flourishing of life on Earth and in Texas about 145-65 mya. The famous Onion Creek Mosasaur, found in Onion Creek, Austin in 1935 by a UT geology student, is a prominent feature in this mini gallery. The Shoal Creek Plesiosaur is also a popular Austin find from the Cretaceous, however located in it’s own mini gallery.
The end of the Cretaceous is marked by the most famous mass extinction in history, which wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs. This left an ecological niche to be filled, and it was. This period of evolutionary radiation and great bio diversity is known as the Tertiary (includes the Paleocene-Pliocene epochs), some 65-2 mya. This was a period of time where ecosystems in Texas were changing rapidly. Small animals such as early primates and various species of rodents were common both in trees and on the grassy lands. The environment began to shift from woodlands to more sparse forests and grasslands, suitable for the beginnings of the Human lineage.
The last mini gallery, which fills the entire center of this floor, is dedicated to the Pleistocene or more commonly referred to as the “Ice Age” (2.6 mya-12,000 years ago). Mammoth, Mastodon and the lesser-known Gomphothere specimens are on display, as well as the gigantic armadillo and sloth (Xenarthrans, including glyptodonts). The Ice Ages were a time of dramatic climate change, and therefore, a change in the local flora and fauna. Although the glaciers never reached as far as Texas, the landscape was still affected. Animals such as Mammoths migrated from Eurasia, while Xenarthrans (mentioned above) migrated form South America.
The Paleontology Lab is also located on this floor in the far back left corner, equipped with a sand pit, microscope, touch fossils and other research specimens. The “Discovery Drawers,” meant for individual investigation are also located in this back area. Each drawer holds smaller, but still remarkable, finds that directly correlate with various rock layers in the Austin area (extends from Round Rock to Wimberley). I will discuss more about the lab further into the report.
The second floor, know as “The Great Hall,” is the entrance level. Admissions and the gift shop are found here. This floor also houses an extensive collection of minerals and geodes, and other “natural treasures of TMM.” And, of course, the great Pterosaur (a flying retile, not a dinosaur), found by a graduate student working with TMM’s Dr. Wann Langston in 1971, near what is now Big Bend National Park in West Texas, suspends from the ceiling above. The third floor is dedicated to current wild life found in Texas. Taxidermy animals, such as Bison, are on display. There is also a mini gallery for exploring nocturnal wildlife in Texas. I did not spend much time on this floor, however, it is usually the last stop for school groups before they make their way to the Buzz Saw Shark exhibit on the 4th floor, where I spent about 60% of my time.
The Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago
The Buzz Saw exhibit is the newest addition to Texas Memorial Museum. It was loaned to them by the Idaho Museum of Natural History to begin a year lease from September 2017 to September 2018. This exhibit blends art pieces by Ray Troll (including a to-scale model of the shark ripping through the drywall) and science (fossils and diagrams of taxa) to portray this fascinating creature, attracting many new visitors, so I conducted my internship at seemingly the perfect time.
To really describe my roll in this exhibit and explain the outcomes, I must first introduce the Helicoprion (A.K.A. Buzz Saw shark or Whorl Tooth shark), with whom I became quite familiar. Roughly 270 million years ago, during the Permian Era, much of North America was under the Permian sea. While life on Earth was minimal if anything, marine life was flourishing. Cartilaginous fish were evolving and branching into various genera and species. Of these, came the Helicoprion. This was a unique specimen because of its bizarre tooth structure. The “Buzz Saw shark” had a vertical whorl of teeth sitting in the center of its mouth. Throughout the shark’s life, they would produce new adult teeth from the back of the mouth, pushing the baby teeth to slowly whorl down and inward to become incased in cartilage inside the lower jaw, and no longer used. This shark also never shed any teeth, so the whorl would grow as long as the shark was alive. Some whorls found are quite small, while others near the size of a bicycle wheel. As far as has been discovered, there is no other animal with teeth quite like this and never has been, making this an incredibly special find.
The exhibit tells the story of a Russian geologist by the name Karpinski discovering the tooth whorl fossil in Russia in the late 1800s. It breaks down the science, as is known so far, and continues telling the story of solving mystery of the whorl. For more than a century, scientist of various disciplines discovered other whorl fossils and argued over what the function was and where it was located on the animal. There were many misconceptions, until 2013 when a team from Idaho State University used CT scans to determine that the whorl was in fact the teeth of the lower jaw.
I became very fluent in my knowledge of this prehistoric predator, which in turn made me more comfortable sharing information with visitors. My roll was to help guide visitors, educate school groups and answer any questions that may arise while they explore the exhibit, as well as maintain museum policy. However, my roll somewhat varied depending on many factors, such as the age and developmental levels of the visitors.
At the start of my internship, I was more comfortable conversing with high school and college age students and adults. Attempting to engage with young minds, especially on such an abstract concept, coupled with my lack of experience with younger children, seemed very daunting to me. Luckily for about the first month of my appointment, I was not alone in Buzz Saw. I shadowed another, more seasoned intern, as she engaged with people. It wasn’t very long before I began to take the reins.
Among the more notable outcomes for me, I learned how to engage with different age levels. For elementary level students, I began using a story telling style of introducing the shark. For example I would say, “A long, long time ago, even before the dinosaurs…” I found this to be an effective way to share information with them. Now I feel very comfortable interacting with children.
I encountered many limitations and challenges, as well, during my time at TMM. Sometimes it was a matter of interest. I learned how to tell when someone wants information and when to simply offer my help if needed. Throughout my time were several different groups of adults with special needs enjoying a trip to the museum. Since I’ve had extensive experience with groups like these, it was easier for me to know how to handle these types of situations. While they were not interested in the specifics of the shark, they enjoyed the “touch fossil” and looking at the colorful artwork. In these cases, my job was just to be inviting and make sure exhibit rules were followed. I did have trouble when faced with language barriers. A few times a visitor would come into the exhibit and I would attempt engagement, but as soon as it was clear we spoke different languages, admittedly I was stumped. Of course, there were a few skeptical visitors. In these cases my job was to facilitate the information and offer my supervisor’s contact information for further questions.
One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was dealing with disorganized and uninterested school groups. Generally, the students would fill in the entrance of the exhibit, and I’d give my brief introduction (in whatever way seemed fitting) before encouraging them to explore further. All to often, students had their own agendas. I became much more flexible and adaptable to these situations. I developed other ways to attempt engagement. Sometimes I would walk with them. Other times I strategically pointed out things they might find interesting, but wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Other times I just waited for the students to ask me questions.
Despite some challenges, I became exceedingly more confident interacting with all kinds of people and I had the opportunity to share my passion of natural history with others.
The Original Function of Museums
Museums were one known as “cabinet des curiosites,” where wealthy explorers, and amateur scientists displayed their findings. Prior to the late 1800s, museum programs were interested in acquiring interesting objects, cataloguing, preserving and displaying specimens (2). Museums were simply a home for curiosities and nothing more. It wasn’t until the turn of the century, when anthropological programs were being established at universities all over the country, and the hobby was quickly becoming a recognized discipline.
As a result both students and Professionals in the field began to utilize museums in a different way. They needed a place to expand their knowledge, congregate with other scientists, and actually study their remarkable findings in order gain a truly anthropological view of the world around them. This lead to museums, like the Smithsonian, beginning to emphasize the research aspect of museums.
I was fortunate enough to get a taste of this first hand through my work in the Paleontology Lab, located in the Hall of Geology and Paleontology. With the exception of days with a high volume of field trip students and I am needed for back up in the Buzz Saw exhibit, every Wednesday and Friday, I would transition from Buzz Saw to the Lab at about 10:30 a.m. I had two basic jobs during this time. Although the lab is clearly its own area on this floor, it is somewhat open to the public and serves as different kind of exhibit. My first task everyday was choosing two or three “touch fossils” from a fairly sizeable collection stored in the lab to set out for visitor exploration. These are real fossilized specimens, however they have become disassociated with their original location, most likely due to a cataloguing error at some point. These specimens still provide value, though, because visitors can actually hold, feel and see the fossils up close. It was my job to share some information about the fossils and the organisms they once belonged to. Since this was my favorite floor, I enjoyed acting as an unofficial gallery guide to the more curious visitors. Simply getting to walk amongst the fossils on display and get a glimpse into what is hypothesized about our prehistoric Earth, and sharing that experience with other interested people was truly a rewarding experience.
My other main job in the Lab addressed another aspect of fossil study, but proved equal in value to me. During my internship I was able to participate in an ongoing paleontological project. In 2003 my supervisor and the associate director at TMM, Pamela Owen, and some of her colleagues began to excavate a site at Cathedral Cave, Nevada. The purpose was to find and study micro-vertebrate fossils, particularly of small mammals (i.e. mice, rats and voles) dating as far back as 150,000 years. Since micro fauna are more sensitive than mega fauna (i.e. mammoths) to environmental changes, such as vegetation patterns and changes in rainfall, these animals are specific to certain segments of time, as opposed to appearing throughout the entire Pleistocene, in this case. This means we can learn a lot about the environment from the time period the animal’s fossilized bones are dated to, via Uranium-Thorium dating method. I learned that this is called an “ecological signal.” These findings are important because they can divide the Pleistocene in various subsections and further clarify and characterize the natural timeline of Earth; more specifically though, these findings help increase the understanding and accuracy of environmental change in the Great Basin region during this time.
I did not have the opportunity to actually go to Nevada and excavate, I did, however, sort though just a few of the sediment samples. Since the fossilized bones were so small, it was almost indistinguishable from the dirt vie the naked eye, so I was trained to use the microscope. Although not a difficult thing to master, it was paramount to my small contribution to the project. Everything I did under the microscope was projected onto a TV above me so that visitors could get an idea of what paleontologists do. It was also my job to explain the project and demonstrate for inquirers.
I learned how to manipulate and maneuver the samples and fossils in the tray using a small paintbrush and forceps. This proved challenging for me because I am not used to handling such small tools, especially when I am not looking directly at them. At first I was simply separating what I thought might have significance into a separately labeled tray. After I completed sorting through my first sample bag, Pamela went through my findings and explained what was in fact fossil and what only looked significant, but was actually just rock sediment. I would not say I have a fully trained eye when it comes this, but through this experience I have a better understanding of fossil characteristics.
I also learned a little about the importance of cataloguing, both for research value and for curatorial purposes. We labeled every new sample bag by the year it was found, the exact coordinates at Cathedral Cave from which it was found, and the depth in the ground. We also labeled the findings according to a specific TMM catalogue number. Being able handle real fossils and other research materials and play a small role in this Paleontological research prompted a new ambition of mine; to go to graduate school for Paleontology. Without this opportunity, I might have never come into intimate contact with the field.
In the professional world, I will come into contact with many different people, all doing different things, equally as important as what I am doing. This internship exposed me to colleagues in other fields that may contribute to my work in some way. For example, I worked with a man named Ben who was in charge of the museum finances. Finance and Anthropology seem entirely unrelated, however in this professional setting, both of our work contributed to the functionality and productivity of the museum.
I was also able to work with people in my field or similar fields. Although I didn’t get to spend a large amount of time shadowing Pamela’s day-to-day activities, I did learn a lot just by observing her with museum visitors. I admire her passion for her work and her ability to share that with others.
Being on time and somewhere and having someone rely on me to be somewhere or do something was absolutely vital. Texas Memorial Museum only has four full-time staffers, all of which have specific jobs to do, so they rely on volunteers and interns to mostly handle the educational outreach that goes on daily. Especially since the spring season is the museum’s busiest time, school groups begin arriving as soon as the museum opens. As one of the interns to arrive earliest, it was my job open up the Buzz Saw exhibit. It was important for me to be punctual and dependable for daily routine to run smoothly, at least concerning Wednesdays and Fridays.
This internship gave me my first real taste of the professional world. I learned just how different working under a supervisor is than reporting to a professor or course instructor. While it is a closer interaction, it also felt more equal. I wasn’t relying on Pamela for a grade, necessarily, nor was I just a face in a crowd to her. I learned from her and through my experiences at TMM, but I also filled a niche, so to speak, throughout this semester.
I have gained hands on experience engaging with and educating curious visitors of all ages. Being a gallery guide, particularly in the Buzz Saw exhibit, has not only expanded my own knowledge, but has given me the confidence to put myself in a teaching position and share something I am truly fascinated by with others. Considering this exhibit is only temporary and will be moving on this September, it seems quite the happy accident I found myself interning for TMM at this time.
I have also gained hands on experience, literally, handling fossils and other research materials in the name of paleontology. Aside from the technical aspects I have learned, such as cataloguing and using a microscope, being able to lend a small contribution to a project that will further enhance our understanding of Earth’s natural history was a truly wonderful experience for me.
I grew professionally throughout my appointment, but nothing quite rivals the interpersonal outcomes I have gained. As I mentioned before, I didn’t seek this museum out initially, in fact I hadn’t really considered interning at a museum at all, but the moment I took my first tour of Texas Memorial Museum, I knew this was the perfect fit for me. I have always been fascinated by prehistory, and the expansive knowledge I have acquired just in these past few months has been more fulfilling than I could’ve ever imagined. Most notably, I have begun to look at things in nature differently. I notice the way certain plants bloom, for example, I ask deeper questions now, and I respect my natural surroundings in a way I hadn’t before. Coincidentally, I moved just off the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels this past December, just before beginning my internship. Now that I am at the river nearly every day, I notice the limestone surrounding me. I now know that the limestone I stand on formed from hardening mudflats during the Cretaceous, about 145-65 million years ago. During the cretaceous, Texas was mostly covered by a shallow sea, and surrounded by marshy-swampy land with diverse life, including the Onion Creek Mosasaur I mentioned earlier. I used to feel so isolated from the prehistoric Earth I am so infatuated with, but now I almost feel unified with it.
1. “About Us.” About Us | Texas Memorial Museum | The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed April 10, 2018. https://tmm.utexas.edu/about-us.