ROCKFORD - Step behind the scenes at Burpee Museum of Natural History and you will find a nearly endless universe of natural treasures, some dating back millions of years.
It's up to a select group of museum staff to help plan, design, curate and construct all new exhibits at Burpee, with countless hours being spent planning each new exhibition.
The museum offers two keynote exhibits, "Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur" and "Homer's Odyssey: From Badlands to Burpee," and wide range of other supporting exhibits that boast interactive and immersive experiences. Jane, the museum's foremost international discovery, is the world's most complete and best preserved juvenile T. Rex. Homer is the museum's "teenaged" triceratops. The two serve as the biggest draws for Burpee, but museum staff said all of the exhibits make the museum, which is often overlooked by visitors heading to larger museums in Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago, unique.
"We may be smaller, but we have a dedicated staff and group of volunteers that go the distance to highlight the importance of natural history and science to our community and every person that visits the museum," said Director of Paleontology Josh Mathews.
Burpee's newest exhibit, "Windows to Wilderness" is getting a full makeover, and will host a grand opening ahead of the museum's largest annual fundraiser at the end of August. Originally focusing on the wildlife of the Rock River Valley, the newly expanded exhibit will feature habitats from sub-Saharan Africa, the Arctic and a mangrove swamp.
In the fall, the museum will focus a new exhibition on insects, including butterflies, moths, leaf bugs, giant beetles and more. An additional exhibit is still being planned that is still under wraps at the museum, but Burpee plans to work with a local taxidermist and Nachusa Grasslands, museum staff confirmed.
Director of Education Alexandra Benson and Mathews are the driving force behind all new exhibits and preparation at Burpee. The pair work seamlessly together to craft interactive and unique exhibitions. All new displays start with finding funding, whether it be from grants or private museum donors. A goal amount is set, and once reached, Benson and Mathews begin planning the exhibit, brainstorming the target age group and determining what specimens or artifacts to put on display.
"We really work very well together," Benson said. "We both want to do whatever we can to develop and create as many new experiences as possible at the museum."
"Alexandra and I still rely on one another to bounce ideas off of or create content that is easily understandable to our target audience," Mathews added.
Finding what specimens, fossils and artifacts to display is one of the hardest parts of designing an exhibit. The museum stores hundreds of thousands of items in its depths of the vaults in the basement. The area is off limits to the public, but it houses all manner of fossils, minerals, taxidermied animals and Native American artifacts. There are actually more items in storage than on display at the museum.
"There is nothing like watching people enter Burpee for the first time and seeing their eyes grow wide and then holding their interest as you explain the exhibits in greater detail, through a project, tour, or class," Benson said.
Before items can be put in the collection vault, Mathews works with graduate students and researchers from various institutions across the country to head to southern Utah at the start of each summer and to eastern Montana as the summer ends on excavation digs. The museum works under federal permit to undertake all fossil recovery. The Utah site is a "massive dinosaur bone-bed," Mathews said, adding that the Montana sites are smaller and spread across a larger area.
Aside from the prominent discoveries that pushed Burpee into the international spotlight, both Benson and Mathews said they thought the museum was a unique space because of Burpee's accessibility to scientists and students looking to further their research. Both the Native American and Biology collections are open for researchers to use as part of any project.
The museum works with researchers and students from Highland Community College, UW-Madison, the Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum, Carter County Museum, Montana State University, UC-Berkeley, Carthage College, Western Illinois University, Adelphi University, Northern Illinois University, University of Maryland, New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, University of Toronto and University of Florida. Of all the working relationships, Mathews said Burpee works most closely with University of California-Berkeley, Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Montana and Highland Community College.
Burpee also offers a range of summer camps and day programs for students and families.
"Natural sciences are so important to student development, to our community and to the world as a whole," Benson said. "We have a global responsibility to educate and be educated on the natural world we live in and the natural sciences that explain our world."
For more information on the museum, visit Burpee.org.
Want to go?
Burpee Museum of Natural History
737 N. Main St., Rockford
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Admission is $8 for adults, $7 children (ages 4-12)
Call 815-965-3433 for more information