When the Georgia Southern University Museum reopens in 2020, its iconic mosasaur will be viewed in new ways in the completely revamped Hall of Natural History and rivaled by treasures on the other side of the lobby rotunda, in the new Hall of Cultural History.
There, a rare, nearly complete pre-Civil War cotton gin and a dugout canoe, made in Georgia from a huge pine log sometime between 1790 and 1830, will help to illustrate the story of life on Georgia’s coastal plain through more recent centuries.
“From 1982 when the museum opened originally, the idea was always that we would have a gallery for the cultural history of coastal plains Georgia, that this was all one story that we wanted to tell, that these ancient oceans left soils and environments that supported very specific cultural groups … and that those cultures and this environment combined to form a unique culture of South Georgia that deserves its own museum and exhibits,” said Museum Director Brent Tharp, Ph.D.
Closed to the public for more than a year and a half, the museum in the Rosenwald Building facing Sweetheart Circle has been undergoing a more-than $750,000 transformation that began with sagging ceilings. Painters helping prepare for a new annual exhibit noticed this and brought the problem to Tharp’s attention.
“Over the next couple of months we had the architects and engineers and everybody else through, and what they finally determined was that the entire ceiling on that side and on this side were the original plaster ceilings from 1939,” Tharp said. “They had a little drop ceiling from the ’70s or ’80s underneath them.”
The building experts determined that the ceilings of the museum galleries had to be replaced. To do that, everything had to be removed, including the mosasaur.
Working around the exhibits to replace the ceilings was impossible, Tharp explained. Overhead, above the plaster and laths, sat about two inches of builders’ sand, which provided sound dampening and other insulating properties when the two 1,200-square-foot rooms that are now the main galleries were built, as part of the original Rosenwald Building, in 1939.
That was the year that South Georgia Teachers College was renamed Georgia Teachers College, and the Rosenwald galleries started out as the college library.
The mosasaur – fossil skeleton of an aquatic reptile that lived about 78 million years ago when this area was in the ocean – was installed in 1986, four years after the museum opened in Rosenwald and four years before the institution around it became a university.
The mosasaur didn’t move again until 2018.
Opportunity in crisis
“We finally said to the university … if everything has to move, this is an opportunity for us,” Tharp said. “It’s an opportunity to really take a moment to completely redo our permanent galleries, update technology, update all kinds of things, and in fact sort of expand the technology.”
Multiple flat-screens placed strategically among the real and replica artifacts, and especially a panel of four screens on the back wall of the Hall of Cultural History, signal an increased use of video.
Facing the front entrance in the lobby, another screen will announce the latest of the changing exhibits, which will now be displayed in the rear gallery. Previously, the annual, changing exhibits were installed in the gallery to the left of the front entrance, now the Hall of Cultural History.
Taller than a human and also facing the front entrance, the toothy jaws of a megalodon – a giant shark species extinct for 3.6 million years – are a replica. But Tharp expects them to be a favorite set for family photos and selfies.
The displayed mosasaur is a real fossil skeleton. Its companion in the central exhibit of the Hall of Natural History, Georgiacetus vogtlensis, the ancient Vogtle whale, is and always has been a cast reproduction, while the whale’s actual fossilized bones are held in storage for continued use in research.
Whale and mosasaur remained on temporary stands this week, awaiting placement. But the new exhibition platform has been built. The faux-stone framed, island-like platform expands on the previous, more basic structure’s tunnel and observation-dome feature, which was always popular with children.
Now there is a three-bubble observation chamber reached via two larger, transparent-topped tunnels, leading from arched openings on different sides of the platform. Many adults, as well as children, will be able to duck in for a look, Tharp noted.
For those who aren’t able or don’t wish to use the tunnels, the display will also have digital cameras that can be manipulated with a joystick from a viewing station.
From when the natural history exhibits leave off, with Paleo-Indian artifacts, the Hall of Cultural History picks up from more recent Native American cultures and the arrival of European settlers and enslaved Africans.
The massive dugout canoe, found buried along the Ocmulgee River south of Hazlehurst, was carbon-dated to 1790-1830, and so could have been made by someone from any of those three groups, Tharp said.
The plantation cotton gin, a green-painted, wood-framed machine with metal moving parts, stands about waist high. It would have been powered by horses or mules, the motion being transferred by a belt and pulley system.
But before emancipation, enslaved African Americans would have fed cotton into the gin and operated it, Tharp acknowledged.
Jeff Johnson of Brooklet donated the gin, which came from the Brantley Plantation in Hancock County. Dating from the generation after Eli Whitney’s invention, it is one of only four this complete known to exist in the United States, Tharp said.
Other items, graphics and video in the cultural history permanent exhibit will note various aspects of agriculture, including turpentine production, and the continued importance of rivers in the region. A mid-20th century wooden Ogeechee River fishing boat made by renowned Clito boat builder Racer Evans has emerged from the museum’s storage.
As of this week, much of these exhibits remained to be assembled. Tharp hopes to reopen the museum quietly in February, with ceremonial opening events later in the spring. With the grand opening, the university will name the Hall of Natural History in honor of a couple vital to the museum’s own development.
$500K for displays
With emergency funding provided by the state, Georgia Southern spent $157,700 on the building repair phase, including the ceiling removal and replacement, said Matthew Shingler, Georgia Southern’s director of facilities design and construction. Then $69,900 from the university and its foundation went for new lighting in the entrance rotunda, replacement of tile flooring, including on the entry steps and corridor, and other small upgrades.
Both of those phases were handled by Lynn Construction of Claxton.
The museum drew from its own funds, provided by grants, income from admissions and the gift shop, and called on the museum’s foundation account to budget $500,000 for the display fabrication and installation, Tharp said. That contract went to Malone Design/Fabrication of Atlanta, which is expected back for more installation work next week.
Students have also been involved throughout, doing research, helping to plan content for the exhibits, selecting items from the collection and helping with removal of the previous displays, as well as putting finished touches on the new ones, Tharp said.