On the Trail of Wonder at the U-M Museum of Natural History

I was in Ann Arbor visiting relatives last week and took the kids for a quick spin around the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History.

What a nice building. I hope it never gets torn down and replaced by a bank or a fro-yo place. Or worse, mixed-use luxury condos *shudder.*

It’s your typical natural history museum. There are displays that look just slightly outdated but well maintained…

All photos, both poorly and not-so-poorly lit, are by the author.

… as well as dioramas-a-plenty on life and landscapes from long ago.

My shoebox dioramas never looked this good.

Aside from the massive skeletons streaming through the air, it looked like any other old-fashioned, objects-in-glass-cases-lined-up-in-a-room-type of museum with lighting not intended for iPhone photography.

But what’s that thing on the mastodon…


Up on top, above the right scapula.


Ummm? Huh.

To the didactic label!!



Baby Mammoth raised by Mastodons
(mammothus columbi)
Fort Wayne, Indiana; 2003

Funded by Rolf Sapoli, a team of U-M researchers returned to the Buesching farm, where this adult mastodon had been unearthed. Near the original dig site, they discovered an exquisitely preserved baby mammoth, which they nicknamed “Pebbles.”

Geeky frat prank or nah?

Behind the glass cases, fossils, and seemingly stuffiness of this museum lie the humor, sarcasm, and jollity of scientists and curators who wanted to have a little fun for April Fools Day.

Scattered throughout the three exhibition floors of the Museum of Natural History were objects from a now-closed special exhibit: “On the Trail of Wonder: Selections from the Collection of Rolf Sapoli.” I thought my kids would get a kick out of spotting these selections, but they were more interested in running from fossil to fossil gushing about dinosaurs.



To an unfocused eye, the displays featuring Sapoli selections looked normal. There were proper labels and exhibit mounts. And everything was thematically correct, but the objects gave the impression that something wasn’t quite right.



Aside from the “umm, what??” feeling one got when seeing a Sapoli piece on display, the lengthy labels were dead giveaways that something was amiss. The explanations were too long, too elaborate, and too… weird. Like this one in the Space Food exhibit:


Bacon chapstick!!!


And not just any bacon chapstick, but bacon chapstick brought into space by astronaut Scott Kelly! If a visitor didn’t read that and get the joke…


My favorite object — the one that made me run and get my husband and endure eye-rolls from my kids, who just didn’t understand — was this:


AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!! I LOVE YOU, U-M CURATORS IN YOUR 30s AND 40s!!!!!! Rock on with your nerdy selves!!!


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