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A Museum's Treasured Tradition of Identifying Fossils for the Public

 

A Museum's Treasured Tradition of Identifying Fossils for the Public

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Carl Mehling warned me that if I wanted to see the good stuff, I needed to arrive early.

Sure enough, shortly after the American Museum of Natural History in New York threw open its doors on a blazing blue recent Saturday, an eager queue had taken shape in front of Mehling’s table in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Milling around a slew of life-sized dioramas, visitors carried their own treasures. Some cradled fossils in plastic food containers or plastic baggies. Others swaddled pottery sherds in paper towels, the cushioned fragments tucked inside an orange plastic pill container, as though a pharmacy had dispensed an ancient prescription.

They all wanted a pair of expert eyes on their finds, and Mehling, a senior museum specialist in the division of paleontology, was ready to oblige. The museum began hosting annual identification days in 1979, inviting the general public to unwrap their most intriguing or befuddling fossils, rocks, feathers, and more for an assessment. A self-described “professional nerd” with a quick and easy laugh, Mehling first lent his expertise to the effort roughly 20 years ago. He’s rarely missed an identification day since.

ID day separates the fools’ gold from the true treasure, and this kind of triage is a public service that curators, conservators, and other custodians of museum collections perform on top of their other institutional duties, explains the author Douglas J. Preston in Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History. It’s not an appraisal blitz; no one exits ID day with specific dollar signs twinkling in their eyes. But they might leave with a better sense of whether the find that has loomed large in family lore is real, or a tall tale that has swelled into myth. Over the course of an early summer afternoon, I tagged along as dozens of curious attendees lined up in front of Mehling’s table and waited their turn in front of his light and magnifying glass.