Idaho Museum of Natural History Restructures With New Divisions
Fall 2009 Issue | By Emily Frandsen
During the academic year, biologist Charles “Rick” Williams spends much of his day at the Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) amid more than 80,000 plant specimens, collected by researchers and graduate students over dozens of years.
The specimens at the Ray J. Davis Herbarium are collected mostly in Idaho but are used by researchers from around the world. Unique collections include flora and fauna from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation and more than 3,000 lichens collected by researcher Lorenz Pearson.
“It’s a huge community of biologists that benefit from the regional collections,” Williams said.
Acting museum director Skip Lohse
Idaho State University’s herbarium is just one of the areas that will have renewed focus as the IMNH heads forward in a new direction, said acting museum director Skip Lohse.
Williams’s new position as life sciences division head for the IMNH represents a new direction for the museum, one with a greater focus on research.
The restructuring involved creating four new divisions – anthropology, earth sciences, education and life sciences – each managed by a new division head. Anthropology will be directed by anthropologist Herb Maschner, earth sciences by geoscientist Leif Tapanila, and life sciences by biologist Charles “Rick” Williams. The anthropology, earth sciences and life sciences division heads will focus on research and securing research funding.
Education resource manager Rebecca Thorne-Ferrell will lead the education division.
The emphasis on research will result in an active, vibrant museum with changing displays for the public, Lohse said, as well as opportunities for researchers through the museum’s extensive collection of more than half a million specimens.
The division heads will continue to conduct research in their areas of interest. Maschner does research in fishing communities on the Alaska Peninsula. Tapanila studies invertebrate paleontology. Williams spends his summers in the Colorado Rockies studying plant reproductive behaviors.
As they continue their research and bring new projects and funding to the IMNH, other researchers and the public will benefit from a more vibrant museum, Lohse said. The Idaho State Historic Preservation office is introducing legislation this year designed to move permitting and preservation of vertebrate paleontological sites and specimens under the museum's responsibility.
Along with changing exhibits, the emphasis on research will help bring better educational opportunities for the public. Recently, Thorne-Ferrel and Tapanila partnered to bring geology programs to fifth and eighth graders in rural schools.
The museum recently received a $144,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, titled "The Idaho Geology Outreach Project: Bridging the Natural History Gap.”
Through the grant, Thorne-Ferrel, Tapanila and geosciences assistant professor Chuck Zimmerly provide local geology teachers with tailored educational materials. Thorne-Ferrel said she enjoys taking the research Tapanila and Zimmerly have done in the field and bringing it back to students.
“We’ll be identifying unique geologic features in the students’ home areas and developing discussions, science kits, a website and other materials to integrate that information into their geosciences curriculum so they can understand the natural history of their region,” Thorne-Ferrel said.
The best museums go beyond public exhibits; they provide collections for researchers to use in their studies and offer great opportunities for interdisciplinary research, Lohse said. Each division head is hiring a collections manager to study and catalog the vast number of specimens in the museum’s care. Some specimens will be catalogued for use at the IMNH, while others might be prepared for use by other institutions.
At the herbarium, Williams plans to have students and volunteers from the Native Plant Society help a full-time collections manager catalogue the more than 10,000 specimens that need to be processed. The work is a great opportunity for those who are interested in the collections of regional flora and fauna.
Williams and researchers from Brigham Young University and four other regional institutions are also working on a grant proposal to create an Intermountain Regional Herbarium, which would include digital photographs of 1.5 million specimens. The project would create a huge database that could be used as a resource for land managers and scientists.
Williams’s goal is to make the herbarium more open and accessible for research. With the museum's new focus, Lohse sees more research opportunities throughout not only the herbarium, but the museum as a whole.
“I think there will be a lot more activity,” Williams said. "It will be really exciting."