Our History

In our ongoing effort to document Earth history, it is important to examine our own history.  Paleontologists typically deal with temporal spans that subsume years, decades, centuries, even millennia.  The entire expanse of human existence is lost in the vastness of deep geologic time.  Thus, it can be easy for paleontologists to gloss over the events that brought us, and our institutions, to where we are today.  This blog is an attempt to chronicle events in real time, something that paleontologists find exceedingly difficult in their ongoing research, but is imperative for the longevity of the science and its associated materials.

The story of the Museum of Geology is not old from a geologic standpoint, but old by South Dakota standards; older than the state itself.  While South Dakota was granted statehood in 1889, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the Museum of Geology, was founded in 1885.  The museum began with a donation of over 5000 mineral and fossil specimens by Professor G. E. Bailey of Hill City, SD, forming the core of the museum’s collections.  Collections management comprises the very foundation of our institution.

The first officially collected fossil is SDSM 001, a partial skeleton of Alligator (=Crocodilus) prenasalis, still on display with historical items and photos from the museum’s history.  SDSM 001 was collected by the first museum expedition to the White River Badlands in 1899 by Professor C. C. O’Hara.

SDSM 001, figured by Loomis (1904).
SDSM 001, figured by Loomis (1904).
SDSM 001, on display in the museum.
SDSM 001, on display in the museum.

The museum opened its first public exhibits in 1923.  Early attendance was high and word spread quickly, reaching 4000 visitors the first year, 8000 in 1924, and 12,000 in 1925.  The museum moved to its current location, on the third floor of the O’Hara building, in 1942.  Annual visitation today is around 25000.

Since ’42, the size and scope of our collections has expanded dramatically.  Continuous work in the White River Badlands has resulted in one of the largest collections of late Eocene and Oligocene mammals in the world.  In addition to our iconic plesiosaur (Styxosaurus snowii) and mosasaur (Mosasaurus condon) on display, the museum houses an immense collection of sharks, fish, marine reptiles, birds, pterosaurs, and invertebrates from the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway.

Our collections and research facilities are now housed in the Martin Paleontology Research Laboratory (PRL), opened in 2010.  This 33000 square foot facility houses offices, library, preparation lab, fabrication lab, analytical lab, archives, classroom, and storage facilities.  The PRL is a significant improvement from our old collection and laboratory facilities, which were housed in the Old Gym building, one of the oldest on campus.  All of the museum’s collections, including fossil vertebrates, fossil invertebrates, fossil plants, Recent vertebrates, minerals, and all associated archival materials are now under one roof.  Ongoing collections management efforts continue to focus on unpacking and reorganization of at least half a million specimens.

The Martin Paleontology Research Laboratory.
The Martin Paleontology Research Laboratory.

Several new collections were added when the PRL was opened, including a significant collection of Cretaceous crabs and other decapods, Dr. Laurie Anderson’s collection of Neogene bivalves and associated material from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and Dr. Christina Belanger’s collection of invertebrates and microfossils from the Miocene Astoria Formation of the Oregon coast.

Collections management comprises a continuous effort and would not be possible without the help and support of museum faculty, staff, and especially students and volunteers.  Enthusiastic students are at the core of our efforts, and we strive to provide them with valuable, practical experience in collections management that enhances their potential as scientific professionals, all while fulfilling our mission, “…to explore the natural history of Earth through scientific inquiry, preserve specimens and data as a dedicated repository for scientific research, and promote understanding of geoscience through outreach.”

Loomis, F.B.  1904.  Two New River Reptiles from the Titanothere Beds.  American Journal of Science.  18:427-432.


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