"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.
For children of a certain nerdy persuasion, "archaeopteryx" is liable to be the first five-syllable word they ever pronounce. That's because archaeopteryx was a dinosaur with feathers, and wings. The first specimen was uncovered in 1861, and most of us probably grew up being told that archaeopteryx was the first bird. That isn't exactly true. Today, most paleontologists say it wasn't the ancestor of the birds we know, but rather a relative of that ancestor—a lower branch of the bird family tree that died away. That said, archaeopertyx is still incredibly important to our understanding of what the earliest birds might have been like, and archaeopteryx specimens are still incredibly rare, coveted things.
There are only 11 archaeopteryx specimens in the entire world, all hailing from one region of Germany. Most of them are in museums in Europe. But one archaeopteryx—in fact, one of the best-preserved of the bunch—resides in a tiny museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming. For the artistically inclined: Imagine running across a second, legit version of the Mona Lisa in a small museum in Wyoming with no crowds and no lines. In 2007, reader Mark Ryan and his brother got to see the Thermopolis archaeopteryx and took the photo of it posted here.
My brother and I had scheduled one of our regular "geo trips" out west and learned that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a cool museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming, had somehow acquired an Archaeopteryx specimen (one of only 10 in the world) and would be placing it on display starting the week we were going to be in Wyoming. Thermopolis is located about 2 hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park, but that didn't stop us from driving the 5 hours from Laramie just to see it. It was fantastic! They had the actual fossil on display (I've heard that most of the big museums only display casts of the Archaeopteryx specimens they own). There were no crowds, no lines, no special exhibit fees, just the "Thermopolis specimen" in a small window display in a hallway leading to the main exhibit hall.
According to Wikipedia, Thermopolis got its archaeopteryx as a donation from a Swiss collector who'd previously owned the specimen. It's also worth noting that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center seems to loan out its archaeopteryx to other museums quite frequently. So, if you're in the area, and you want to see an archaeopteryx, you should probably check with the museum before you get your hopes up.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.