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From East Africa to Athens: A fossil’s journey
New Dairy Barn exhibition showcases OU-COM researchers’ experience digging for early mammals and dinosaurs in Tanzania.

By Colleen Kiphart
January 22, 09

The Dairy Barn Arts Center, given its renown for textiles, beadwork and other visual arts, is the last place you might expect to find dinosaur bones. But the arts center has expanded to the realm of science for
“Tanzania in DEEP TIME: Paleontology in the Rift Valley.

The exhibit, on display until February 12, details a paleontological dig led by OU-COM biomedical sciences faculty members, Nancy Stevens, Ph.D., and Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D. iin the Rukwa Rift Basin in Tanzania, along with researchers from Southern Utah University, Michigan State University and Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam.

A version of the exhibit debuted at the National Museum of Tanzania in June of 2008.

“Generating a bilingual exhibit (in English and Kiswahili, the official languages of Tanzania) allowed us to integrate educational efforts internationally, adding a vital dimension to dissemination of research results,” Stevens said.

Similarly, the Dairy Barn exhibit is labeled in both English and Kiswahili. The exhibit is housed in a wide upper-level hall, strung with lights and welcoming viewers with an illustration of the slow separation of Gondwana, the southern supercontinent formerly consisting of Africa, India, Australia, Antarctica and South America.

Visitors are drawn into a “paleontological dig,” from the process of uncovering, preparing and examining the fossils to discussing their potential scientific implications. Through glass cases viewers can closely examine bones of prehistoric mammals and dinosaurs, including fossils still partially encased in rock. The excavation tools are clearly labeled—beyond mere set dressing, they illustrate the practical mechanics of paleontological research.

“It just sounded like a great opportunity to do something different,” says Jill Smalley, Dairy Barn exhibitions director. “Because we attempted to target students from preschool to college, we created a great opportunity for all ages to learn.”

Stevens agrees, “Clearly, … [gallery] environments are pivotal for showcasing the tremendous artistic appeal of scientific objects.” And, as O’Connor points out, with the nearest science museum over an hour away, this exhibition is an excellent opportunity to enhance science education by bringing a simulated paleontological experience to Athens.

The presentation of their discoveries is an exercise in extremes. It includes a massive arm bone, long as a desktop, belonging to a super-size sauropod, the suborder of the brachiosaurus and of the largest animals to ever walk the earth. In a nearby display rests a delicate mammal tooth, not more than a quarter-inch long, which, despite its small size, speaks volumes about early mammal migration patterns and environmental change.

Stevens and O’Connor will lead a workshop on paleontological research and fossil identification at the Dairy Barn Jan. 24. Recent activities at the Dairy Barn have taught children about Tanzania’s language and culture, from an art class featuring Tanzanian painting styles to a Kiswahili language lesson.

“A big part of our mission is to offer the community opportunities to see and do things people in the area do not usually have a chance to see and do,” Smiley says.

This exhibit unites multiple layers of the community, from the collaboration of international paleontologists to the merging of the local arts and the university research community.

“OU's exceptional African Studies Program has provided key insight and support throughout the duration of the research project,” Stevens says. In a related event, the Ohio University Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will host an upcoming Darwin’s Birthday reception at the Dairy Barn, featuring the work of Ohio University students and faculty involved in a wide range of evolutionary biology research.

Part Discovery Channel, part guidebook for the Mesozoic-Cenozic Rift Valley, and completely fascinating, this is one family exhibit that you can enjoy as much as your children. So bring the kids—or dig up your own child-like wonder—for a glimpse into “deep time.”

Event Details:

Tanzania in DEEP TIME -- Paleontology in the Rift Valley
Open to the general public until February 12, 2009
Open to school groups until February 22, 2009
At the Dairy Barn Arts Center
8000 Dairy Lane
(740) 592-4981
Charles Darwin Birthday / DEEP TIME closing party
February 12, 2009
Call the Dairy Barn for additional details

Fossil Identification Workshop
January 24, 2009
Noon-1 p.m.
Please call the Dairy Barn for additional details

Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: noon-5 p.m.
Thursday: noon-8 p.m.
Saturday: 1-5 p.m.

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