The Lloyd Schmaltz Museum of Earth History is a true hidden gem. Located in the lobby of Rood Hall at Western Michigan University, it was established in the late 1970s and has become a repository for several unique paleontological and mineralogical collections. The WMU Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences is currently conducting a fundraising campaign to renovate the museum into a modern, active-learning environment for WMU students and the Kalamazoo community. The goal is to encourage students to become environmental stewards and raise awareness of recent advances in Earth science and technology.
These are some of our favorite artifacts at the museum:
Fish of the Green River Formation
A remarkable set of fossils in the museum comes from the Green River Formation, an internationally renowned limestone deposit with extremely well-preserved aquatic organisms that once thrived in a large freshwater lake occupying much of what is now southwest Wyoming. Approximately 50 million years ago, this deposit of freshwater limestone delicately enveloped many different organisms, so they retained much of their original biologic material, including skin, feathers and internal organs. Well-preserved fossils from this deposit include turtles, birds, snakes, mammals, crocodiles, insects, rays and other fish, and a wide variety of plants. Exquisitely preserved fossils from the Green River Formation are a featured favorite not only in the Schmaltz Museum, but also in many prominent museums across North America, including the Field Museum in Chicago.
Currently under construction adjacent to Rood Hall, Dinosaur Park will be a three-dimensional exhibit demonstrating an important time in Earth history. It will have a variety of dinosaur replicas, allowing visitors to experience firsthand the incredible scale of these prehistoric creatures. It will also be a central hub for laboratory and classroom exercises for a variety of geology courses. The exhibits will incorporate real-world data from many sub-disciplines of geoscience and provide hands-on learning opportunities to explore several aspects of the Mesozoic world.
Another fascinating set of fossils housed in the Schmaltz Museum is a collection of ammonites donated by local mineral collector Skip Martin. Also known as ammonoids, ammonites are an extinct subclass of cephalopod that lived for more than 300 million years in Earth’s oceans. Related to today’s nautiloids and coleoids, the latter of which include the modern-day squid and octopus, ammonites resemble what one might expect to find if you shoved an octopus into a coiled shell. These extinct sea creatures are a favorite of fossil collectors worldwide, due to the incredible diversity and beauty of their shell morphology and size. It is the highly diversified shell morphology among ammonoids that has been instrumental in helping geoscientists distinguish much of the relative geologic time scale, which ultimately helps to determine the age of the Earth.
You can learn more about the Schmaltz Museum and the renovation plans at wmich.edu/geology/museum/museum-development.
Jim Duncan Collection
An exquisite collection of rare-Earth minerals and rocks generously donated by Jim Duncan serves as the backbone of the displays in the Schmaltz Museum. Duncan’s father, James H. Duncan Sr., the former CEO of First National Financial Corp., often went on Lloyd Schmaltz’s Grand Canyon raft trips and instilled a love of minerals in his son, who became a collector. The high-quality preservation of these specimens, in concert with their pristine mineral faces and eye-popping colors, makes this one of the most valuable collections of minerals in the state. In addition, the collection’s diversity of mineral specimens provides excellent visual learning aids when teaching about the many uses of Earth minerals in our everyday lives.
In 1970, a farmer in Van Buren County found teeth and a few bones of a mastodon poking up through the ground of his pasture. He contacted the WMU geology department’s then-chair (and museum namesake) Dr. Lloyd Schmaltz, who gathered a team to investigate this fossil, determine the extent of its preservation and organize the retrieval of its remains. This fossil provides a direct link to a not-so-distant past when the landscape of Michigan (and much of the Great Lakes region) was located on the front lines of shifting paleoclimate, advancing and retreating continental-sized sheets of ice, and roaming bands of humans and other large mammals. This period, approximately 10,000 years ago, represents the end of the last ice age, the results of which we see in our modern topography.