Genesis Exhibit finds home in Cedar Park museum

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Torvald Hessel, executive director of the Texas Museum of Science and Technology, talks about a fossilized juvenile T-rex that is in the back room and will be displayed on the floor. The piece is just one of more than 200 items that make up the Genesis Exhibit, which has found a permanent home in the Cedar Park-based museum.  (Christine Bolaños Photo)

Torvald Hessel, executive director of the Texas Museum of Science and Technology, talks about a fossilized juvenile T-rex that is in the back room and will be displayed on the floor. The piece is just one of more than 200 items that make up the Genesis Exhibit, which has found a permanent home in the Cedar Park-based museum. (Christine Bolaños Photo)

By CHRISTINE BOLANOS

CEDAR PARK — The Texas Museum of Science & Technology in Cedar Park plans to display more than 200 pieces over the next several months of a renowned dinosaur and fossil collection known as the Genesis Exhibit.

The exhibit was a gift and labor of love from a man who has dedicated his life to telling the story of life on Earth. Marty Martin, the exhibit’s curator and museum benefactor, carefully selected the TXMoST as its permanent home.

Part of what drew Martin and others to the Williamson County-based museum is that it is a grassroots effort.

“What we are doing is building a science museum from scratch,” said TXMoST Executive Director Torvald Hessel. “We’re bootstrapping it so it’s really us (who) are raising the funds, having personal loans and everything.”

Hessel said museum staff received a call from Martin out of the blue last year. The director was somewhat skeptical at first about Martin’s proposition.

“He runs a company with traveling exhibits,” Hessel said. “His true love is paleontology so his big exhibits where he put most of his energy in, as far as what I can tell, is what he calls the Genesis Exhibit or the Genesis Collection.”

The exhibit includes full-sized dinosaurs and a rare cast of the renowned fossil known as “Lucy,” which was gifted to Martin for his contributions to the fossil collections at the National Museum of Ethiopia and the Institute of Human Origins.

As passionate as Martin is about his work it was time for him to hand the reigns to someone else and retire.

At that point, he found a home for the Genesis Exhibit at the Origins Museum Institute in El Paso. The agreement was for the museum staff to display part of the collection but all they wanted to put on exhibit were the dinosaur fossils.

“The whole exhibit tells the story of life from the earliest known fossils all the way through dinosaurs to modern man,” Hessel said. “For example, it also includes a rare cast of Lucy, the famous missing link out of Ethiopia.”

The museum shifted its focus to children leaving the Genesis Exhibit displaced.

“So Marty had a garage and several bedrooms full of boxes with exhibits and the museum had all the dinosaurs in storage and wanted to get rid of them,” Hessel said. “So Marty had a big problem. He did not want to put it back in a traveling exhibit because that was too much work and he just didn’t know what to do until he talked to us.”

Martin decided to donate the exhibit to TXMoST.

“At that time we didn’t believe it,” Hessel said. “Things like this don’t normally happen. The exhibit, 15 or 20 years ago, was valued at $3 million. We think these days it might be significantly more.”

Museum staff flew to El Paso to meet with Martin who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“To see the boxes,” Hessel said. “We thought, ‘Wow, it’s real. It does exist.’”

Staff transported the pieces from El Paso to Cedar Park via an 18-wheeler.

“What you see here is two days of absolutely frantic work to get initial items out of the boxes,” Hessel said.

On display is the head of a T-rex and the full skeleton of a saber-toothed cat.

“We want to display some things as much as possible,” Hessel said. “Because this is a museum we have to officially categorize everything.”

The museum staff has to sort through boxes upon boxes of items and put everything together like pieces to complete a puzzle. The employees have not located the rare cast of Lucy yet.

There are more than 200 items, but each one could have several pieces associated with it making the process more complex.

The Independent had an opportunity recently to visit the employee-only space of the museum and see the items not yet on display. Most were not yet out of boxes and others were a work in progress.

There is a full skeleton of a juvenile T-rex preserved as a fossil.

“It got caught in a landslide and broke its neck,” Hassel said. “You see a beautiful tail, the pelvis, upper leg, lower leg, foot with its claws and the rib cage, its front leg that’s always so much smaller, a broken neck and upside down (on) its head.”

The downside to the collection is that it did not arrive with a manifest.

“Normally if you work with museums, especially accredited museums, there would be a manifest,” Hassel said. “It’s there. Numbers, everything is beautifully categorized and you know what you’re going to get.

“Because this is individual — a brilliant, wealthy individual — it’s all in his brain,” he said. “So boxes are marked ‘pots and pans,’ ‘clothing,’ because we’ve re-used boxes.”

Some of the boxes are marked by the other museum that gives TXMoST a clearer picture of what to expect.

Among some of the items un-boxed are fossilized dinosaur excrement preserved in the form of coprolites. It helps tell the story of the dinosaur’s life including size and food habits.

Hassel said staff also found fossilized bone in the same box.

“This is something totally different and we have no clue other than it’s bone,” he said. “We’ll have to research what bone.”

He said the staff will likely have to pick Martin’s brain to figure out what some of the items are.

There is a fossilized skeleton of a small bird-like dinosaur in the back as well as Lucy’s glass display.

In its totality, the exhibit spans 12,000 square feet, making it one of the most comprehensive traveling timelines assembled. It includes casts and original rare fossils from the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Items range from skeletons, skulls, claws and skin to eggs, insects and plants. They have been gathered from leading museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, The American Museum of Natural History, The Royal Ontario Museum and Carnegie Museum among others.

Before finding its temporary home in El Paso, the Genesis Exhibit was a traveling exhibit at the World Trade Centers in Boston, San Juan and Taichung, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta and the Dinosaur Discovery Center at Colorado National Monument. The exhibit covers the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. It includes former animal life in the ocean, land and sky.

Hessel hopes Austin Community College students will work with staff to sort through the items to expedite the process.

He said the exhibit is significant because it is essentially the story of life.

“You can follow over the millions of years how that face slowly changes and becomes more and more like us,” Hessel said. “To look at the exhibit like that I find very interesting. Where did we come from and how did we evolve.”

He said the museum’s exhibits tie in directly with school curriculum making them children-friendly.

“Whether it’s in the planetarium, hands-on exhibits or with these exhibits (like the Genesis Exhibit),” Hassel said.

Staff will be rearranging the museum to make way for the Genesis Exhibit.

“Hopefully every week that people come in there’s more on the floor,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

The museum is funded through fundraisers and donations so Hessel encourages people to get involved through memberships or monetary donations. Professional casing, lighting and other material are tools essential to the museum.

“Right now we have no sponsorships,” Hassel said. “It’s a community museum and we need the community’s help to help us build all this.”

Even spreading the word about the museum is helpful in reaching the part of the public still unaware of the relatively new museum’s existence. TXMoST is located at 1220 Toro Grande Drive in Cedar Park, just off Whitestone Boulevard (FM 1431) and Parmer Lane. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, students and military, $3 for children ranging in ages 3-13 and free for children younger than 3. For more information, visit www.TXMOST.org.

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