May 18, 2007
By Silas Polkinghorne
Teresa Carlson, acting director of the Diefenbaker Canada Centre.
Photo by Silas Polkinghorne
Two-thirds of a Smithsonian-curated travelling exhibit on a vital geological discovery –the Burgess Shale – will find a permanent home on the U of S campus.
The exhibit, titled The Burgess Shale: Evolution’s Big Bang, has been traveling the world for more than five years, and by chance, its last stop was the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Feb. 10-May 13.
When Centre staff learned that many of the displays would be dismantled after the show, they asked the Smithsonian Institute to donate them to the Centre. After struggling through a bit of red tape, the arrangement was made, saving shipping costs for the Centre and saving the Smithsonian the trouble of taking apart the displays or finding a new use for them.
Simply attracting the exhibit to a small city like Saskatoon was a “coup” for the centre, said Acting Director Teresa Carlson, and there was plenty of excitement when staff learned much of the exhibit would be staying at the U of S.
“I think we’re really building a reputation as a centre and a University,” she said.
The Burgess Shale exhibit documents the most comprehensive fossil find from the Cambrian era – Smithsonian Secretary Charles Walcott’s 1909 discovery in the Rocky Mountains near Field, B.C. The fossils, more than 500 million years old, are from a period when evolution went into overdrive and experimented with body forms – creatures with exoskeletons, with spinal chords, with five eyes, or with no eyes. The Burgess Shale fossils include the ancestors of almost all organisms living today.
Carlson said the Diefenbaker Canada Centre is accepting the donation on behalf of the University, and the exhibit will be available for students and faculty to use.
Although the details haven’t been worked out, the exhibit could be put on display at the U of S Museum of Natural Sciences. As well, several museums around Saskatchewan have expressed interest in the displays, so it may “end up traveling the province.”
“The University is trying to work on outreach. This might be a way to extend that as well.”
Although none of the Smithsonian’s Burgess Shale fossils will stay behind, Brian Pratt, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, has a working collection of the fossils on loan from Parks Canada. He says they could be displayed along with the exhibit.
The Burgess is “without a doubt the most famous and most important paleontological find ever made,” he wrote in an exhibit brochure.
It is “a sophisticated exhibit,” but is also pitched at a level children can understand and enjoy, Pratt said. “I think that anything that promotes natural history is great,” especially here in Saskatchewan, where Pratt says geology – specifically the oil, natural gas, uranium, and potash industries – is our bread and butter.
Pratt is doing ongoing research to better understand the variable distribution of fossils along the 60-kilometre mountain outcrop of Burgess Shale.