The Geology Museum at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is open to the public free of charge. The museum is home to approximately 120,000 geological and paleontological specimens, and is also a depository for specimens collected from federal lands by the National Parks.

The 3,000 square feet of exhibit space includes educational geological displays about the Earth, tectonic plates, and the Earth’s rocks and minerals. The Blacklight Display showcases specimens that glow in the dark, or phosphoresce. The Cave Exhibit shows the interior of a typical Wisconsin cave and teaches about stalactites and stalagmites. The Groundwater exhibit and Glacial Wisconsin exhibit teach about the cycle of water through the Earth and atmosphere, as well as Wisconsin’s geological history. Fossils of plants, invertebrates, and animals make up the most popular exhibits. Fossilized and petrified plants up to 300 million years old are on display. The museum is home to a collection of fossilized soft-bodied organisms from Waukesha Lagerstätte, a remarkably preserved Wisconsin site that offers insight into the life forms that existed in the early Silurian period, approximately 430 million years ago. Also on display are approximately 85-million-year-old fish, reptiles, and birds from the Cretaceous Niobrara Formation. Visitors can see reptiles and dinosaurs from the Jurassic Morrison Formation, one of the most prolific sources of dinosaur fossils in North America, and the Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation, named for Hell Creek near Jordan, Montana. Paleogene mammals, the Earth’s first mammals, from the White River Badlands of South Dakota are also on display. Fossil exhibits combine real and replica fossils to recreate full skeletons. The largest specimens include the Boaz mastodon, a 12,000-year-old relative of the elephant, and the replica of the glyptodon, a prehistoric giant relative of the armadillo. The Fossil Preparation Lab offers visitors a behind-the-scenes look at students and museum staff as they prepare fossils for exhibition. Visitors learn about the preparation of the fossils, the removal of loose sediment and rock, digital cataloging, and 3D scanning. An extraterrestrial geology collection includes samples from meteorites that have fallen to Earth as well as plaster replicas of moon rocks.

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History: The idea of an exhibit of the natural resources of Wisconsin was a topic of discussion at the very first Board of Regents meeting at the university in 1848. In 1877, when the university’s Science Hall was completed, the Geology Museum found its beginnings in a small space on the third floor, where it displayed geological and mineral samples from the area. In 1884, a devastating fire destroyed the original Science Hall and a good portion of the Geology Museum’s collection. However, with funds raised from the Wisconsin legislature, the Science Hall was rebuilt in 1888. A student assistant to the architect, Allen D Conover, was the young Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1929, the museum’s first curator, Gilbert Rassch, was appointed. Rassch saved the museum through the Great Depression by creating miniature models of dinosaurs, mammoths, and mastodons, painted and mounted on plaster plaques, to attract the public’s attention. Many of these small models are preserved and can be seen at the museum today. Rassch’s improvements included the glass display cases and the preservation of the largest specimens, especially the Boaz mastodon, casually referred to as Old Nic. The skeleton is 15 feet long and stands almost 10 feet tall. Today, the Geology Museum is located in Weeks Hall, its home since 1981, and has the second highest attendance of museums on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus.

Ongoing Programs and Education: The Geology Museum offers both self-guided and guided tours. Self-guided tours are enhanced with a tour guide book, and scavenger hunt programs are available for both younger and older children. Guided tours deliver age-appropriate content depending on the group attending. The 1-hour tours feature hundreds of samples of rocks and minerals, a black light exhibit showcasing glow-in-the-dark rocks, and skeletons of dinosaurs, and Ice Age animals. Guided group tours must be scheduled a minimum 2 weeks in advance. Museum Storytime is a program for pre-school-aged children and is offered on the first and third Thursday each month. Children are read a story, engage in a hands-on craft, and go home with a mineral sample.

What’s Nearby: Other museums on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus include the Chazen Museum of Art. The Wisconsin Science Museum and Madison Children’s Museum are also nearby.

1215 W Dayton Street Madison, WI 53706, website, Phone: 608-262-1412

Back to: Madison, WI

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