UM Museum of Natural History shines in new home

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Quetzalcoatlus, a flying reptile with a 35-foot wingspan, dominates one of the atriums at the University of Michigan's newly reopened Museum of Natural History.

After 90 years in Albert Kahn's Ruthven Building, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History has relocated to the elegant, new $261 million Biological Sciences Building right next door.

All the fossils and mastodons will be there, waiting to greet you Sunday on Opening Day.

"People who loved the old museum won't be disappointed," promised director Amy Harris.

Casts of prehistoric whales and a flying reptile hang in airy atriums. Hallways glow with illuminated displays. A groovy new Planetarium & Dome Theatre invites you to sit back and marvel, while here and there witty artwork -- including two curious mastodons peering through a "hole" in the ceiling -- keep spirits from flagging. 

Lording over it all is the museum's most-impressive new acquisition, the 20-foot-long Majungasaurus from Madagascar, who terrorized lesser beasts some 66 million years ago -- a purchase partly financed through the museum's "Buy a Bone" campaign.

Sad to say, he wasn't a particularly good guy. "There’s evidence that it ate its own kind," said Harris. "Majungasaurus was both a carnivore and cannibal." 

Student docents Kellyn McKight (left) and Lucy Rapp check out the Majungasaurus display at the Evolution: Life through Time exhibit at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History.

Rather than concentrating exhibits all in one area, the new museum snakes through multiple floors of the light-filled, 312,000-square-foot building. Students couldn't avoid its updated displays -- all told, about 45,000 square feet -- if they tried.

Nor can visitors avoid the building's real purpose, thanks to two large laboratories that have been opened up with big picture windows to afford a clear view of the research within. At the fossil-preparation lab, you can even push a button to talk with a professor or student-researcher inside. 

The new museum, said Chris Poulsen, associate dean of natural sciences, "brings science to the public in a very personal way, and is a constant reminder to scientists of why they are doing their work." 

Dr. William J. Sanders works to uncover a Xiphactinus fossil at the Fossil Prep Lab in the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History. Visitors can watch scientists as they work.

The intent is clearly to inspire. "We're hoping that young people will see, and then think, 'Oh, I could do this,'" said director Harris. 

Curious what graduate students are up to? Handsome placards with pictures of smiling PhD candidates quickly summarize each student's research with a couple carefully chosen illustrations -- an exhibit that will rotate over time. 

There's an intimate quality to a number of the exhibits. The display on the human family tree features a dozen or so life-sized reproductions of skulls found at various archaeological digs, protruding from the wall on little posts in a cheerful crowd.

Want a selfie with Homo habilis? Just park your head right next to his and snap away. 

All told, the museum owns some 20 million individual objects, whether biological, anthropological or archaeological, though obviously not all are on display. 

The Museum of Natural History claims the title of Michigan's oldest museum. It started life way back in 1841, and by the early 1850s, Harris said, it attracted 10,000 visitors a year. 

The University of Michigan's just-reopened Museum of Natural History is in the new $261 million Biological Sciences Building, designed by Detroit's SmithGroup and Ennead Architects in New York.

In 2017, its last year before the Ruthven Building closed for renovations, some 165,000 people passed through the museum.

"We had a great run there for 90 years," Harris said. "It was a great building, but in many ways it was an early 20th-century museum -- indeed, almost 19th century. Here we've got a 21st-century museum."

And there's a a cafe and a museum store. 

There's more to come. In November, a number of new exhibits will open, including Exploring Michigan and Investigate Lab: Micro Worlds, where you can peer into hidden worlds through a real microscope.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy


University of Michigan Museum of Natural History 

Grand Opening - 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. Sunday

Biological Sciences Building, 1105 N. University, Ann Arbor 

Regular hours:

9 a.m. - 5 p.m. every day -- till 8 p.m. Thursdays

Free, but $8 for Planetarium & Dome Theatre events (purchase tickets at Museum Store)

(734) 764-0478