The University of Nebraska State Museum, founded in 1871, promotes discovery in natural science and natural history through research, scientific collections, learner-centered education and public exhibitions. Its vast collections of organisms, fossils and artifacts serve to foster scientific understanding and help us interpret the Earth’s past, present and future. It also is part of the museum’s mission to enhance stewardship of the natural and cultural heritage of Nebraska, promote scientific literacy and stimulate curiosity about and discovery of the natural world and heritage of diverse cultures.
The Nebraska State Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and was named a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2013, joining an elite group of organizations as part of the internationally renowned Smithsonian Institution network. The museum has long-standing collaborations with the Smithsonian in entomology and vertebrate paleontology, and three of the museum’s curators are Smithsonian research associates.
The Museum offers exhibits in public facilities at three locations.
Morrill Hall: The museum’s Morrill Hall on the university’s Lincoln campus boasts the world’s premier collection of fossil elephants, including the world’s largest mounted mammoth (called “Archie”), on display in Elephant Hall Gallery. Visitors can interact with hands-on exhibits and explore natural wonders in the Marx Science Discovery Center or experience an immersive full-dome show in Mueller Planetarium. New exhibits include “Bizarre Beasts” and “Minerals & Meteorites.” Other highlights include the Jurassic Dinosaur Gallery; “Age of the Dinosaurs” in the Mesozoic Gallery; “Explore Evolution,” which looks at current evolutionary science and contains an interactive “Tree of Life” touchscreen table; the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife, a gallery of 16 dioramas in interactive exhibits; the Toren Gallery of Ancient Life, depicting Paleozoic life; and the newly renovated First Peoples of the Plains Gallery, which celebrates Native American cultures of the past and present. Other galleries display ancient weapons, African artifacts, and rocks and minerals.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park: Hundreds of skeletons of prehistoric animals have been found in a volcanic ash bed buried beneath the rolling farmlands of northeastern Nebraska. Museum crews continue to excavate some of the best-preserved fossil rhinos, horses, camels and birds known anywhere in the Ashfall Fossil Beds in northern Antelope County. Fossil evidence at the site reveals complete, articulated skeletons of large mammals, birds and turtles, as well as seeds of grasses and trees. Visitors can experience interpretive displays, visit the fossil preparation laboratory and ask the paleontologists about their work. In the 18,000-square-foot Hubbard Rhino Barn, which protects part of the deposit, skeletons are uncovered and displayed exactly where they are found.
Trailside Museum of Natural History: Located in Fort Robinson State Park in northwest Nebraska, the Trailside Museum displays fossil remains from The Tertiary deposits near Fort Robinson. Exhibits focus on natural history subjects and objects of the area. The museum also presents representative samples of present-day animal and plant life of western Nebraska, and the geologic history and physiography of the hills and valleys immediately surrounding Fort Robinson. The most famous Trailside exhibit is called “The Clash of the Titans,” featuring the interlocked fossils of two large bull mammoths whose tusks clinched together during an Ice Age battle for dominance.
Divisions and Collections
Unless otherwise noted, the collections are housed in Nebraska Hall on the Lincoln campus.
The museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology collection of vertebrate fossils is an important national resource. More than one million numbered specimens have been added to the collection since its inception. More than 85,000 specimens have been cataloged systematically. Later Cenozoic (late Eocene through Pleistocene) mammals from Nebraska and adjacent states make up the bulk of the collection, but holdings of Paleozoic fishes, Mesozoic marine reptiles, and Cenozoic lower vertebrates are also significant.
The Anthropology Division curates worldwide ethnological and archaeological collections. The ethnological collection includes over 40,000 artifacts, with particular regional strength in Africa, Native North America, Oceania, and the upper Amazon, and notable holdings worldwide in textiles, basketry, and pottery. The archaeological collection focuses on Nebraska archaeology, beginning with W.D. Strong’s excavations in the 1930s. The collection is particularly strong in Paleoindian materials, including the collections from the Scottsbluff, Lipscomb and Clary bison kills. The Egyptian collection of over 300 artifacts includes three mummies. There is also a representative collection from the Central Andes including three mummies from the South Coast of Peru.
The Botany collections are housed in the Bessey Herbarium, which was founded in 1874, making it among the oldest in the Great Plains states of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The collection has more than 310,000 specimens, placing it among the largest in the Great Plains, as well. The largest parts of the collection are from Nebraska, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, other parts of North America and Europe.
The Division of Entomology houses approximately 2 million pinned, fluid-preserved, papered, and slide-mounted insects and arachnids. The research collection in entomology ranks in the top 10 university collections in North America and represents one of only three existing collections with large holdings of Great Plains material. UNL’s scarab beetle collection is the fourth largest in the world. The U.S. National Collection of Scarab Beetles is on long-term loan to our museum.
The Division of Invertebrate Paleontology houses one of the largest collections in the museum and includes the invertebrate fossil collection of the Nebraska Geological Survey.
The Division of Zoology’s collections consist of more than 11,000 specimens of birds, more than 14,000 specimens of mammals (primarily from Nebraska), more than 10,400 specimens of amphibians and reptiles, and nearly 8,500 lots of fish (since the collection started in 1984).
The Parasitology collection in the Manter Laboratory is the world’s sixth largest collection of parasitic organisms, and one of three U.S. National Resource Centers for Parasitology, vital to studies of biodiversity and conservation worldwide.
Through the Division of Informal Science Education, the museum fulfills its outreach mission in a variety of ways.
- The museum has embarked on an NIH-funded educational program called Biology of Human/World of Viruses, in collaboration with the Nebraska Center for Virology and the Department of Sociology.
- The museum took the lead role in the National Science Foundation Explore Evolution project that funded new permanent galleries at UNL and 5 other museums, educational research, and production of innovative educational outreach materials. The Explore Evolution exhibit and education program is part of a major nationwide partnership between science museums and 4-H organizations.
- Nebraska Educational Television and the museum partnered in a 2006 International Polar Year grant to produce a television documentary and museum exhibits for ANDRILL, the National Science Foundation Antarctic drilling program for climate change research.
Highway Salvage Paleontology Program.
Nebraska introduced the country’s first paleontological salvage program, based on close cooperation between contractors, the Nebraska Department of Roads and the University of Nebraska State Museum. In areas where new construction threatens paleontologically sensitive areas, such as the Wildcat Hills south of Gering, Neb., museum paleontologists are able to recover the maximum amount of scientific information without causing construction delays.
Sunday with a Scientist is a monthly presentation series highlighting the work of scientists at UNL, who educate children and families about science and natural history through demonstrations and science activities.
Hubbard Lecture Series.
This annual lecture series helps advance the understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage of the First Peoples of the Plains.
Friends of the Museum is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 to support the museum. Since its inception, Friends has donated dollars, time and talents to refurbish, revitalize, educate, expand and fund numerous projects to help enrich the lives of all who are exposed to the museum.
The Campaign for Nebraska was a fundraising initiative for the University of Nebraska that started in 2005 and concluded Dec. 31, 2014. With an initial goal to raise $1.2 billion, donors gave more than $1.8 billion for student support, faculty support, academic programs, research, campus improvements and more. More than 37,000 alumni gave to UNL during the Campaign.