Call me weird, but I like to hang out with stuffed animals. I’m not alone, though. Fifty thousand people a year visit the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History & Biodiversity Research Center (that’s a mouthful) at the University of Kansas. The museum is in Dyche Hall, just west of the Student Union.
I studied at KU (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!) and later worked across the street from the museum for five years. I still love to visit the museum whenever I return to the campus and have taken many friends there, too — whether they wanted to go…or not! (You know who you are! It was fun, after all, wasn’t it?)
I like the quiet other-worldly atmosphere of the museum, even though it’s very much about the world we live in. The museum’s motto is “We study the life of the planet.” Biodiversity Research Center has been added to the name since I first started going there, since it’s not just cases and cases of stuffed animals in life-like settings. There’s a lot of research going on behind the scenes.
The museum is the leading university natural history museum in the country in biodiversity research — discovering, documenting and spreading the knowledge of life on earth, past and present, according to its website. They have huge inventories of plants and animals (I’ve worked in their storage areas), including the best bee and scorpionfly collection. Sometimes my work took me to the museum when I wrote stories about research. I took a class in museum preparation in a classroom there, but quickly found out that I wasn’t cut out to cut up animals. Actually, I didn’t cut much, but slipped off the skin of a mouse like a glove from a hand. I did it just once. It’s not for me! Another task was to examine animal pelts in drawers to make sure they weren’t infested with carpet beetles. I went through all of the mink, ferret and martin pelts. They aren’t nearly so appealing flattened in drawers as they are in a coat, although I don’t think they should be made into coats.
The museum building is named for Lewis Lindsay Dyche, who wowed visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the Panorama of North American Animals and Plants, which was billed as “Nothing Like it in the World.” It was moved to the then newly built Dyche Hall at KU about a century ago and is still the largest diorama in the world. There are 121 large and small mammals from the arctic to the tropical regions, arranged in natural settings at the time of early Autumn. You can hear running water from a small waterfall, and a prairie dog pops up from a burrow. Kids love that. (Me, too.)
There are four floors of exhibits in the museum, including fossils in the lower level, live snakes and fish and a hive of live bees. I like the display of fluorescent rocks in a little room, enclosed by curtains. Some of the rocks spin on turntables. I feel as if I’m in a time-machine, transported to a simpler time.
Perhaps out of place because it is more history than science (but one of my favorites) is the stuffed Comanche, a horse from General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, which survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. Comanche moved to Ft. Riley, Kan., where it retired after being nursed back to health because of its injuries at Little Bighorn. Comanche was named “Second Commanding Officer of the Seventh,” became something like a pet, led parades and developed a fondness for beer. (I wondered how that happened?) When he died in 1890, he was only one of two horses in U.S. history to be buried with full military honors. Despite this, his exterior was sent to KU to be preserved by L. L. Dyche. There was a story that KU ended up with Comanche, because Ft. Riley didn’t pay KU’s taxidermy bill, but another tale says that Dyche waived his fee of $400, if he could keep Comanche. The horse was recently restored and moved to a special exhibit case on the same floor as the Panorama. For more on Comanche go to Citing \”Custer\’s Last Standard Bearer\”
www.nhm.ku.edu KU Natural History Museum website.
www.nps.gov/libi Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.