Discover Dinosaurs and More; Museum of the Earth

Ithaca is a city with treasures to discover at every turn. The newest is the Museum of the Earth on Ithaca’s West Hill.

Driving up Highway 96, the museum is just three miles from the city center. When I arrived, I was fascinated by the architectural wonder of the building. Built within the earth itself, the museum facility was designed by Weiss/Manfredi, an award-winning architectural firm in New York City. The building has already received critical acclaim and was featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute.

Upon entering, you are greeted by the massive skeleton of a 44-foot-long North Atlantic right whale. If you think you feel small looking at this amazing mammal, just wait. There is much more inside. The uniqueness of the museum is their “visitor friendly” approach. I saw many signs throughout the building saying “PLEASE TOUCH.” There are a variety of things within the museum to capture the imagination of both young and old. With discovery stations such as the Fossil Lab, Dino Lab and the Ice Lab, there is much to be explored using more than just your sense of sight. Be sure to take a look at their preparation laboratory where you can watch fossil specimens being cleaned and prepared for study and display.

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) is the parent organization of the Museum of the Earth and was founded in 1932 by a Cornell geology professor. With an extensive collection of over 3 million artifacts, they wanted to share this with the public at large. In 1994, the PRI set out to build the museum of their dreams. They began with a $3 million budget, but by journey’s end, the budget grew to $10.6 million. The museum relies primarily on grants, donations, memberships and volunteers.

The day I visited the museum, they were working on a seismograph. I stopped to watch the progress and enjoyed learning about the inner workings of the machine. One of the museum employees asked me if I had ever seen or even heard of a seismograph before. When I explained that I had been born and raised in northern California and lived not too far from the San Andreas Fault, I felt like a celebrity. They couldn’t wait to ask what big earthquakes I had experienced. It was enjoyable to talk to people who appreciated and understood the amazing force of a quake.

One of the most impressive displays is the Hyde Park mastodon. In 1999, Larry and Sheryl Lozier of Hyde Park, New York, were digging to deepen their backyard pond when they dug up a mastodon leg bone. They contacted the PRI, and staff and volunteers from the institute worked for six weeks to excavate and document the site. The skeleton was brought back to Ithaca to be assembled into the stunning exhibit you see today. The display tells us that this is one of the best-preserved and most complete mastodon skeletons ever found. More than 97 percent complete, it is only missing a few tail and foot bones. They believe it was an older male who likely suffered from bone disease. Since he sank to the bottom of the pond, his bones were well-preserved.

The Museum of the Earth offers residential discounts on various days. Be sure to check out their website at www.museumoftheearth.org for discount days, hours and special programs.

People who live in the Finger Lakes and who come to visit don’t often realize how much it is the geology that makes this area so incredibly beautiful and unlike anywhere else in the world. A museum devoted to understanding how these geologic features were formed and the early plants and animals that inhabited this area is the perfect addition to the Finger Lakes. Don’t miss this opportunity to explore the newest upstate treasure.


story and photographs by Judy Hirtler
Judy Hirtler is a designer, writer and photographer. She can be reached through e-mail at yosemitejudy@hotmail.com.