Museum photos: Mummified Ice-Age bison

Kirk Johnson is a paleobotanist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He took this photo at the University of Alaska Museum during a recent trip to Fairbanks.

What you're looking at is a mummified bison from the Ice Age. It was frozen in solid soil and uncovered by gold miners who were artificially thawing out the surrounding Earth in 1979. There are claw and tooth marks in the mummy that have allowed scientists to finger the bison's killer: An American lion.

This is really cool, and it gives me an idea: There are lots of relatively small, locally oriented museums all over the country, harboring neat finds like this. Unlike places like the Smithsonian or New York's American Museum of Natural History, these museums don't draw in huge crowds of tourists from faraway cities, so most of us don't even know about the treasures stored there—let alone ever get to see them.

So here's my challenge to you: Visit your local science and natural history museums, photograph your favorite exhibit, and send me the pictures—along with any nifty information you picked up from reading the labels and signs. I'm at What beloved specimen do you want the world to know about?


  1. It’s not exactly in our backyard – Olympic National Park is our backyard – but the Neukom Vivarium in Seattle comes to mind. It’s a special exhibit of the Seattle Art Museum located at the corner of Broad Street and Alaskan Way. It’s a nurse log on life support in a specially built greenhouse. If you’ve wandered the forests of the northwest, you’ve seen nurse logs, fallen trees, decomposing and serving as relatively sterile starting ground for new trees and plants. Sometimes you’ll just see a fallen tree with little trees growing out of it, and sometimes you’ll see a line of trees, and if you look closely, you can see the remains of the nearly vanished nurse log.

    Here, they have a nurse log in an urban laboratory, with a carefully maintained humidity and temperature. It’s an artificial rain forest floor. The log itself is decomposing and hosting new life. When you step in from the city, you feel the contrast, the different light, the different air, and there is a piece of the living forest in front of you, preserved, maintained, and explained. You can see lots of nurse logs in our neck of the woods, Olympic National Park, but seeing one in a sort of rain forest space ship brings a whole different perspective.

    It’s part of SAM’s sculpture garden, which is interesting enough to visit, and you can combine it with a walk along the Seattle waterfront which is pretty interesting in and of itself.

    For more:¤trecord=8&page=collection&profile=objects&searchdesc=WEB.Olympic%20Sculpture%20Park

    P.S. Yes, I know that SAM is not some obscure little museum in the middle of nowhere, but this exhibit is standalone, free, unusual and characteristic of the area.

    1. No, this is a perfect example of the type of thing I’m looking for. It doesn’t have to be dinky museums. Just places that don’t really have a big, national profile and are showing off stuff that you think most non-locals wouldn’t know about. This is PERFECT.

  2. Once, while I was out grocery shopping, I came across a semi-truck parked on the street. It was hauling a tractor trailer on the side of which were the words:

    “SEE A REAL WHALE! $5. If the whale isn’t real, we’ll give you your money back.”

    So I paid my five dollars, walked up the back steps into the trailer, and saw a dead sperm whale encased in glass, filling the entire length of the trailer, and most of the width; there was just enough room to walk by.

    I don’t have any pictures, and it was kind of depressing anyway, but this post reminded me of that.

  3. Yay Blue Babe! I grew up in Fairbanks, and thus went up to UAF’s museum for many a fieldtrip. There’s also some cool polar bears, some neat seals, a humongous moose head, and some awesome stuff about the Aurora Borealis.

  4. But that IS my hometown museum! Cool to see an exhibit I first saw as a young child on here.

    The University of Alaska museum is actually pretty large now, though, having undergone a remodel and upgrade in 2006. And they see lots of tourist (lots of tourists in AK, after all). Not like museums in New York or D.C., but still pretty well attended and not just by locals.

    They’ve had “Babe the Blue Ox” on display since the place was as big as a closet and I was shorter than the info placard.

  5. As a kid I was fascinated with a display in the Boston Museum of Science about a guy who had blown off his thumb in the 70’s.  He was messing around with home made fireworks and blew his thumb clean off.  They removed his big toe and grafted it onto his hand, giving him a replacement big-toe-thumb.  The display had replicas of his hand and a video about his accident and life after surgery.

    I loved it.  It was all the warnings my mother every gave me brought to life.  You blow off your fingers!  Yeah, but mom…they can just replace them with my toes!  Look at this guy leading a perfectly normal life now with his toethumb. 

    I always wondered of his thumb smelled different than the rest of his hand. Would he be cheating at thumb wrestling?

  6. Two great treasures in Boston:
    Harvard Museum of Natural History – not exactly unknown, but an amazing amount of zoological exhibits crammed into a small-ish building. Lots of extinct specimens or samples that you can truly get a sense of scale in comparison to your own body (whales, tigers, probably some bears)

    MIT Museum – some beautiful, truly amazing kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson reside here, as well as a gallery of school ‘hack’ pranks, and a rotating science-based exhibit. One memorable one was Harold Edgerton’s pioneering research in strobe-light photos and how he tailored it to capture everything from milkdrops and bullets-through-cards to capturing a nuclear detonation.

      1. Hah – yeah, my great aunt suggested it in the first place for the glass flowers. And while they were pretty interesting, the stuffed animals left a bigger impression.

        There’s one wall that has a huge collection of preserved hummingbirds and it’s laid out in a this huge shimmering iridescent wave. Kinda morbid and wonderful all at once…

        Also – the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus!

  7. The absolute coolest museum I went to recently (that I had no idea existed) was the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland.  It is open to the public and was far more interesting the the majority of the Smithsonian museums in D.C.  

    1. My favorite museum in Paris was the Museum of the Middle Ages, which we only stumbled into in order to get out of the cold rain. Fabulous stuff, including an exhibit of heirlooms hidden in walls by Jewish families during pogroms at the time of the Black Death. Wedding belts and baby rings, things like that. The fact that nobody ever went back for those things told you all you needed to know. I cried. 

  8. Well, this isn’t recent and I don’t have any of the details anymore,  but last March I got the chance to visit the the Cushing Brain Collection at the Yale School of Medicine as part of Atlas Obscura Day. Entire walls full of jarred brains and such. Neat little place, very Mutter Museum-esque, and they have rare books by Aristotle (!!!!) and Copernicus.  The collection’s hard to find and has limited hours, but worth the trek.  A few pictures here – not great quality, and little to no background info, but still kind of neat (let’s face it, brains are cool :D).

  9. The Museum of Science and History in Fort Worth is pretty cool.  For years they had a  permanent exhibit on medicine through the ages.  The entranceway had a life sized scene of a caveman trepanning another caveman, to let the evil spirits out.  (  ) Then there were some skulls with trepanned holes in them on exhibit, too.  The neatest one had multiple holes in his head, and I recall the text saying that at least some of the people survived the process, as that one skull had several old healed holes in it.  And that  the “evil spirits” was mostly likely epilepsy or some sort of mental disorder.  Very cool exhibit.  They also had a cool set of samurai armor and a sword near the dinosaur skeletons.  Always made time for that.  :) They rebuilt/rorganized a couple of years ago and I haven’t been back since the re-opening.  Reminds me that I need to go. 

    The Cowgirl Hall of Fame is across the parking lot, and the Amon G. Carter Museum (mainly Western art), Kimble Museum (fine art, mummies), and Modern Art Museum are just across the street.   Across the intersection on the NE side of the Modern Art Museum, behind the post office, is a set of bent poles.  They aren’t modern art, per se, but are the remains of the old billboard that was there and got tore up and bent by the tornado that hit downtown in 2000.  Kinda cool, and I like to point it out to out of town guests.  It’s a neat reminder of how powerful the wind can be.  

    Also, not natural history or science, but the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas is frikin’ awesome!  They trace the events that led up to the war in the Pacific back to the 1800s, and go up to the end of the war and into the Occupation.  It’s very detailed and information rich.  Plus, there are tanks, and aircraft, and submarines, and original newsreels, and interviews with survivors, and all kinds of stuff! 

    Make sure you go when they are doing the live-action living history re-enactments, the flamethrower is intense!  

    Oh, and most of the airports around here have flight museums.  The ones at Meechum and Addison (?) have old WWII planes you can book a flight in and the one at Love Field has an Apollo capsule.   

  10. If you’re around Kansas, there is the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS with I believe the second largest depository of space artifacts next to the Smithsonian.

    Along I-70 in the western part of the state you can find brochures for a plethora of small fossil museums.

    And the Natural History Museum in Lawrence, KS, is a classic. Come see Custer’s horse!

    1. No, no, no. Commanche wasn’t Custer’s horse. She was simply the only survivor from the U.S. side of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. 

      Frankly, she’s not even the best part of the Dyche Museum. 360-degree, multi-biome diorama, anyone? 

      1. Ah – my bad. She was never branded as Custers? Granted I am remembering some… twenty-eiiiii – uh- from a long time ago.

  11. I’m quite fond of Dragon Man’s millitary museum here in Colorado Springs. It’s all the right kinds of insane:

  12. What about history museums? There’s a house on my street (which was turned into a museum) where civil war soldiers drew graffiti on the walls, including pornographic pictures.

  13. When I was a child, we went on school trips to the Natural History Museum at Tring – closer than London, and an awesome name!
    It’s now a branch of the big London one, but it was always cool. The exhibit that sticks in my head was the 12-foot-long stuffed Siberian Tiger – huge! Plus some great centipedes and the like.

  14. it’s too bad that that photo doesn’t show that Babe has a covering of blue “dust” and a little blue squirrel friend on display next to him.  There’s also a 2-headed caribou calf in that museum – don’t know if it’s on display yet, since I moved back to the lower 48 before the expansion was built.  There is also a permafrost tunnel a little north of Fairbanks that you can see hooves and other fossils embedded in.  I don’t think it’s open to the public anymore though, due to too many visitors melting the permafrost.

    In other news, the Oakland Museum has an amazing California History display.  Waaaay cooler than I remember it being when I was a kid.  

  15. When I lived in Fairbanks I visited Blue Babe many times. The UAF museum has an amazing collection but, alas, budget cuts over the years have severely limited care and research of the collection.

    The thing that stuck with me about Blue Babe was that the team that took over from the miners who discovered the carcass and dug it out, celebrated the end of their dig with bowls of prehistoric bison stew. According to Cecil Adams of Straight Dope: “One of the best-documented accounts of a prehistoric meal comes at the end of Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe (1990), by Alaska zoology professor Dale Guthrie. After successfully
    unearthing and preserving “Blue Babe,” a 36,000-year-old steppe bison found near Fairbanks in 1979, Guthrie’s team celebrates by simmering some leftover flesh from Babe’s neck “in a pot of stock and vegetables.” The author reports that “the meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma.”” IIRC, the UAF museum used to include a paragraph along the lines of “If you find a bison in the tundra, please call us and refrain from eating it. Prehistoric bison meat will contain poisonous metals.” in a brochure about Blue Babe.

  16.  I like museums. Once you’ve been to most of the big, famous ones, though, small ones can be difficult to get excited about – if not for this type of thing, of course.

    I went to the Buffalo Museum of Science lots of times as a kid, and I went again a few years ago. I know there are a few unique things on display, but nothing particularly interesting sticks out in my mind. I looked at their website recently, and found out that they were taking out some of my favorite things, like the dinosaur fossil section – which was pretty pathetic compared to the big museums, but still exciting for a kid.

    I fear that as smaller museums try to modernize – which they unfortunately need to in order to secure continuous funding – many of these unique things will disappear, and they’ll all start to seem the same (which many already do).

  17. No love for that wonderful bison? 

    I didn’t even know that example existed.  This is a great find.  And I knew that we had American lions, but somehow this just brings it home.  They roamed our plains… and we took them out.

    The whole thing is mysterious and sad.

  18. The Fairbanks Natural History Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont is an all-around awesome natural history (and curiosities of all sorts) museum. (It’s named after the founder of the Fairbanks scales company that made a fortune selling scales to beaver trappers and was based in St. Johnsbury. It has nothing to do with Fairbanks, AK.) The most famous part of the Fairbanks collection is the John Hampson Bug Art collection. Hampson was a 19th century amateur botanist who created fantastic collages of, yup, bugs, lots of bugs. He’s not nearly as well known as he should be. There’s a bio and an write up of the collection here: There are a few more photos here:

  19. I guess Bletchley Park isn’t exactly unknown, but a lot of people probably live too far away from Milton Keynes in England to visit the place where Alan Turing and his colleagues worked on the first computers during WW2. The National Museum of Computing is also housed there. I have loads of photos on Flickr. Bletchley Park itself here: (original Enigma machines etc) and Museum of Computing here: Feel free to use them if you wish (just credit them to Allybeag and I’ll be happy).

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