July 1, 2009
At 5 PM on June 30th the lights went out in the halls of the University of Wyoming Geological Museum for the last time. Earlier in the month, state budget cuts forced the university to cut funding to the institution, which houses the spectacular Allosaurus “Big Al” and an Apatosaurus skeleton. Pleas to keep the museum open went unheeded. Paleontologist Brent Breithaupt, who has worked at the museum for over 30 years (and who recently commented on some interesting dinosaur tracks), was shocked by the closure. He told the Laramie Boomerang:
I can’t fathom the concept that I’m not going to be coming in every day to see the dinosaurs. … I can’t fathom the concept that the dinosaurs won’t be there for other people to see; to see the little kids come in and be excited for the dinosaurs. I can’t fathom the concept that this museum will not be there for them.
Indeed, the museum was a major tool for educational outreach. Dinosaurs are not just for kids, but interest people of all ages, and now it will be closed off to everyone. The community will lose Breithaupt’s expertise, too. Not only did he run the museum, but he also worked in conjunction with the university to educate students in a variety of classes, from paleontology to literature. State and local agencies would call the museum for information about fossils and geology, too, but now they have lost that connection.
This is an all-too-common trend in academia. Paleontology programs are being shut down as older professors retire and budget cuts often place paleontology on the university chopping block. It has always been difficult for paleontologists to find work, but these days there is an ever-dwindling number of positions. As interesting and popular as paleontology is, it just does not command the same kind of respect as other scientific disciplines relatively untouched by present economic woes.
What will become of Breithaupt and “Big Al”? No one knows yet. It does not look like state funding is going to be restored anytime soon, but there is an effort underway to secure private funding for the museum. Information about donations and the progress of the initiative can be found at Keep Laramie Dinos. There is a lot of work to do, but the museum may yet re-open its doors.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.