Information and History
Museum of Geosciences Information and History
Compiled May 2019
Derring Hall was completed for the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Tech in 1968. The Geology Department moved into expanded space in Derring Hall from its previous home in Holden Hall. Shortly thereafter, the Geology Museum, as it was then called, opened in its present location on the second floor of Derring Hall in 1969. At that time, various collections around the department were assembled together and combined with private collections donated to make a museum.
In the fall of 2003, when the department became the Department of Geosciences, the museum became the Museum of Geosciences, or MoGs for short.
The Museum’s collections for research, teaching, and display now include around 14,000 minerals, cut gemstones, fossils, rocks, cave formations, lapidary items and geophysical instruments (both working and historical). It has the largest public display of minerals from Virginia in the state. Most of the items in the collections have been donated by alumni, students, friends, or faculty of the University, who acquired specimens through field work or purchase. Some items have been deliberately purchased with funds from generous donors. Over the years, funds from sales, private donations provided by alumni and friends, department funding, grants, and other awards have supported the museum’s operations.
The Allosaurus fragilis dinosaur model is a life-size cast from the well-known Cleveland Lloyd Quarry in Utah, acquired in the mid-1970’s. It was put together by paleontology faculty member Dr. Richard Bambach and Evan Deemer, a former student, with assistance from Conrad Krist (M.S. Geology 1975).
In 1994, a mineral sale was held to generate funds for the operation of the museum. Now known as the GeoFair and Mineral Sale, it was started by Donald V. Dalton (Geology 1960) and Dr. Susan Eriksson, then Director of the Museum. Don has returned almost every year to work with the Geosciences Department and Geology Club in conducting this annual fundraising event for the Museum. Over the years, other dealers have participated, including Keith Williams, Russell Guy, Andy Dietz, and Frank Smith. In 2010, the annual Mineral Show and Sale at the museum added hands-on family-friendly activities throughout the museum, led by geoscience students and faculty. This aspect of the GeoFair and Sale has grown every year, with more than 900 visitors in 2018!
Don Dalton has donated hundreds of beautiful minerals to the Museum, as well as purchasing minerals to enhance the collection and display of Virginia minerals. In 2017, minerals from Don’s donations were used to build a new “Mineral Resources of Virginia” exhibit at the Museum, updating the previous Minerals of Virginia exhibit. Undergraduate Thomas Hale (B.S. Pol. Science 2019, Geology Club) developed and curated this exhibit. Along with staff and faculty, Alex Bradley (B.S. Geosciences 2018) and Emma Tulsky (M.S. Geosciences 2017) also worked on this exhibit.
A 32” OmniGlobe spherical display for global earth science visualizations was purchased and installed in 2011 to enhance academic teaching as well as outreach. It is a wonderful tool and a highlight for visitors. Support has been from the department and Museum and annual donations from Northrup Grumman’s Community Support fund.
Recent museum updates (2015-2019) have included new labeling of the Virginia paleontology exhibits by Dr. Sterling Nesbitt’s paleontology classes, addition of a display highlighting Don Dalton’s mineral donations, an NSF-sponsored exhibit on Dr. Ben Gill’s research on anoxic ocean events, development of an exhibit on the crystallography of pyrite crystals by Dr. Neil Johnson, an updated exhibit on Mineral Habits and Color, a display highlighting a 2018 donation from the Prideaux family, and installation of improved LED lighting for the exhibits.
The pieces in the MoGs collection are considered irreplaceable and priceless. Having museum-quality specimens for teaching and professional training helps students and teachers develop and refine their discrimination skills. These beautiful and unique examples inspire appreciation for the wonders of the natural sciences.
The first curator of the museum was a community member, Dr. Carlton A. Michael, who set up cases for the display area and served as volunteer curator when he retired from the New Jersey Zinc Company in Austinville, Virginia. Dr. Michael had built a significant personal mineral collection of over 3000 pieces in his years of travels with the company. That collection formed the core (about 75%) of the museum’s first collections. The C.A. Michael Collection currently in the museum honors his legacy and collections.
After Dr. Michael’s departure, the Department created a position to maintain the museum, staffed by Russell E. Guy as curator in the late 1970s, with Dr. Richard Bambach as director. Susan Bruce was also involved in cataloging the collection. (If anyone can help add to this early history, please contact us.)
In 1981, Dr. Susan Eriksson, a mineralogist who had recently joined the Department of Geology faculty, was appointed as curator and director. In her role as curator of the minerals collection, Dr. Eriksson was responsible for creating the university’s traveling mineral exhibits which were shown annually at two of the largest Gem and Mineral Shows in the country: Tucson and Denver. Dr. Eriksson was an active member of national mineral museums professional groups. Her exhibits were always appreciated for their educational elements, as well as their beauty.
In 1990, Virginia Tech partnered with the newly formed Virginia Museum of Natural History to establish the Virginia Tech Museum of Natural History (VTMNH), embracing many of the university’s natural science collections. From 1990-2004, during the tenure of VTMNH as a campus organization, the VT Museum of Geological Sciences participated as a partner, with Dr. Eriksson appointed director of both museums from 1990-2001. At VTMNH she led many initiatives including a prestigious grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop inquiry-based field guides to help K-12 teachers use their school grounds as low-cost laboratories to encourage interest and teach science skills.
Llyn Sharp, who had served as Collections Manager and Assistant Director of the Virginia Tech Museum of Natural History, joined Geosciences in 2004, upon the departure of Dr. Eriksson. As Museum Coordinator, Llyn worked on integrating the the Museum collections and outreach into departmental programs, helping increase the impact of the Department’s research agenda through innovative products and activities. She served as co-director of the VT Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math K-12 Outreach Initiative (VT-STEM) for 3 years. Llyn received the 2006 College of Science Outreach Award and the 2007 University Award for Outreach Excellence.
Sarah Windes was hired in the spring of 1995 as interpreter for groups of public school students visiting the museum. In addition to now serving as head interpreter, she trains several undergraduate and graduate students each year to help lead the programs for visiting groups, schedules visits on the Museum calendar, and coordinates volunteer leadership for the visits. She received the 2009 Digman Award from the Eastern Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers for excellence in informal geoscience education.
Dr. Bob Tracy, Professor of Petrology and formerly Chair of the Department of Geosciences, served as Director of the Museum from 2009 until his death in January 2019. Dr. Tracy helped establish ways to integrate the Museum into the department’s core functions and administration. Oversight of the Museum has been provided by the Department’s Museum, Outreach, and Collections Committee since 2009. In 2015 the Department named a board of faculty Curators specializing in petrology, paleontology, mineralogy and regional geology to help guide collections policies. Dr. Sterling Nesbitt, Assistant Professor of Geobiology, was appointed Director of the Museum in May 2019.
Visitors to the Museum each year include individuals and families (both campus visitors and community members), preK-12 classrooms, 4-H youth, youth and scout groups, homeschool groups, VT courses, teacher workshops, departmental seminars, meetings and receptions. As one of the only public venues for informal science in this rural area, the Museum regularly hosts over 7,000 visitors during the academic year.
During the years that the Museum of Geosciences was affiliated with the VT Museum of Natural History (1990-2004), the Museum of Geosciences worked in cooperation with the Virginia Natural History Museum in Martinsville to assemble hands-on materials into kits which then became available to be checked out for instructional use in public school classrooms. Many of these early kits were on geology subjects such as Virginia rocks, local rocks, Virginia fossils, and dinosaur education. Several dozen kits are still available for loan to professional and volunteer teachers through the Museum Education Resource Center (ERC), which is being merged with the department’s Modeling and Educational Demonstrations Lab. Topics of these kits include: rock composition, the rock cycle, mineral hardness, geologic time, mineral properties, household minerals, Virginia fossils, trilobites, coal, dinosaurs, earthquakes, volcanoes, groundwater, and many more.
In museum outreach, each year the museum specifically trains and prepares undergraduate and graduate students in leading programs for visiting school groups, developing their interpretive techniques, and their understanding of Virginia Standards of Learning and the learning abilities of different ages and grade levels.
The Museum Public Lecture Series was established in 2009, initiated by Dr. Bob Tracy, featuring regular lectures each semester by faculty members on topics of interest to a public audience. These highlight the state-of-the-art research of the department and offer the community an opportunity to understand more about current work and discoveries in the Earth Sciences.
In 2016, Dr. Michelle Stocker and Dr. Sterling Nesbitt offered a Paleo Unpacking Party for the first time. This event, now held each fall with the museum, offers an opportunity for members of the public, people of all ages, to unwrap specimens collected during recent field work. The Fossil/Paleo Unpacking Parties have welcomed over 300 people, including kids, K-12 teachers, VT students, Master Naturalists and community members. Each “party” includes a brief lecture with field photographs and videos, followed by unpacking the specimens with supervision from students in the VT Paleobiology and Geobiology Research Group. These events provide a rare opportunity for people to interact with scientists in a “discovery” setting. The fossil material comes from field locations in Arizona, Wyoming, and Tanzania, Africa.
In 2017, the outreach activities of the museum were influential in the department’s being named as a University Exemplary Department “for effectively engaging students in hands-on, minds-on instructional environments.” The GeoFair and the Paleo Unpacking Party were named specifically as events where the public is brought in to take a hands-on approach with departmental students as their partners.