Curator Albert Ogden, who is in charge of the MTSU Mineral, Gem and Fossil Museum, stresses the importance of geology curriculum in elementary schools during a Nov. 27, 2012, tour of the facility.
Middle Tennessee State University’s Mineral, Gem and Fossil Museum is stashed away like a family heirloom in a jewelry box.
“We truly have things that rival the Smithsonian,” geology professor Dr. Albert Ogden said of the hidden gem, pointing out museum-quality fossils, minerals and gems.
This is diamond of a resource is located in the rough of Ezell Hall.
It is only noticeable from the outside by the sparkling rocks lining the sidewalk in the courtyard of a mostly condemned dormitory on the backside of campus. The first floor of the building was repaired and re-enforced enough to house the museum and various offices.
The museum, which is the brainchild of Ogden, houses many impressive pieces, like minerals from former Vice President Al Gore’s Carthage farm, a mastodon vertebrae from Rutherford County and a pliocene horse fossil from Cannon County, which dates to between 5.332 million to 2.588 million years ago.
“Almost everything here is real,” Ogden said proudly of the collection he has cobbled together from donations, loans and savvy buying at “rock bottom” prices. The few things that aren’t real are the allosaurus, which is a model of a bipedal, carnivorous dinosaur that lived 155 million to 145 million years ago; a mastodon and several dinosaur skulls; and a few other things, like the diamonds, which are really cubic zirconia.
Of the real specimens, perhaps the most impressive in the collection comes from right here in Rutherford County.
In 2008 Ogden acquired molars from a mastodon and woolly mammoth from MTSU graduate Marbry Hardin, who found the teeth while cave diving in a water-filled sinkhole on a farm in Rutherford County.
“The animals must have fallen into the deep hole and not been able to get out,” Ogden explained, adding he won’t divulge what rock these fossils were found under for safety reasons.
The teeth are an incredibly rare find with only four places with these fossils in the entire state, Ogden said.
These pieces have quickly become Museum Director Alan Brown’s favorite pieces in the museum.
“Since we got the mastodon skull, I like to point out the tooth and woolly mammoth molar to tour groups,” said Brown, who specializes in vertebrate paleontology and spends his summers digging up dinosaur bones.
Donations and items on loan, like the teeth from Hardin, make up the bedrock of this gold mine of fossils, minerals and gems from all 50 states and 60 different counties.
Ogden himself made the first mineral deposit by donating part of his own collection in the beginning.
“I donated part of my personal mineral collection so we could have enough,” he said about opening the museum in 2005.
The coolest specimens from Ogden’s personal collection can be found in the black light room, which contains two cabinets displaying a variety of relatively ordinary looking rocks that show beautiful colors under an ultraviolet light.
“They’re not particularly good-looking rocks, but you put a black light on them and it brings the colors out,” Ogden said.
The largest donation, aside from Ogden, came from Ernest and Onsby Hammons, who gifted a large collection of invertebrate fossils with the stipulation that they be put on public display. The Hammons collection includes the crinoids, trilobites and rare fossilized starfish.
“They donated so much, we’re still finding boxes in other buildings. I pulled a box out a cabinet the other day that said ‘Hammon’ on it,” Brown said with a smile. He added the best examples are on display in the museum.
Between Ogden and the Hammon donation, he had enough specimens to open to museum. The collection was fortified further by Vanderbilt University’s geology department, which donated it’s collection of European minerals, and former MTSU chemistry professor Dr. Aaron Todd, who donated his collection of mineral miniatures. Mineral miniatures are small specimens that show a perfect crystal form.
And then Lewis Elrod, the former president of the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies, loaned hundreds of specimens from his collection.
“We have so much, we could fill another room and not have to buy anything new,” Ogden said.
A more conspicuous location could very well be in the works now that MTSU is busy working on a new science building.
In the meantime, Ogden and Brown will continue giving tours of this hidden gem to school groups and other visitors.
More info ...
The MTSU Mineral, Gem and Fossil Museum is open from 1-5 p.m. Saturdays and by appointment during the week. Reservations for school groups and scout outings can be made by contacting Director Alan Brown at 615-898-5075 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The musuem is located in Ezell Hall, room 122, on MTSU campus. Admission is free.
Some of the museums more interesting pieces are:
• Good examples of dinosaur coprolites, or fossilized excrement, eggs and bones,
• Fossils from Tennessee,
• An eight-foot-long replica of a mastodon skull,
• A skull cast of a Pachycephalosaurus, a bipedal omnivore with an extremely thick and horned skull,
• A meteorites from Thailand and Vietnam,
• Plates and jewelry made from rocks and fossils,
• A hand-carved jade ship from China, and
• Orthoceras, which are slender, long prehistoric mollusks that lived around 450 million years ago and may have evolved into the nautilus.