WWU exhibit traces geologic history of Western Washington

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 30, 2013 

A natural history exhibit in an unlikely location offers a glimpse at Western Washington's geologic past.

It's another of those "hidden Bellingham" places that never cease to enthrall us: In the hallways of the Environmental Studies building at Western Washington University are fossils, gems and minerals, examples of scientific tools and displays that trace this area's prehistory.

It's in the center of campus, a short walk from Red Square, near university parking and accessible by bus from routes that start downtown. It's free to the public when the building is open during the academic year and weekdays only when school is not in session, generally 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

"We try to focus on telling the natural history story of the Northwest," said George Mustoe, a research tech in the geology department who's slowly been building the collection since 1980, when he discovered a mammoth tooth near the Skagit County town of Marblemount.

"We really like people to come and visit," he said. "We also get a lot of school groups."

Over the past 25 years, Mustoe has used his own woodworking skills and sought favors from artistic friends and colleagues to mount an impressive collection that adorns the hallways of three floors in the building, which is home to WWU's Huxley College of the Environment and the geology department.

Though it's not a museum in the strict sense of the word, the exhibits are displayed and labeled to spark the viewer's interest. They're at just the right height for children, too - and they attract classes of youngsters in schools as far away as Seattle.

On the first floor, you'll see such items as gems and minerals from around Washington, including amethyst crystals collected along the Snoqualmie River in King County, copper ore unearthed near Mount St. Helens, and agates and calcite crystals from Red Top Mountain near Sauk Pass. There's a display of mining tools from the Yukon Gold Rush of 1896-98 and information about women in the mining camps.

You'll also find several fossils taken from the Racehorse Creek area in the Mount Baker foothills, including four-foot palm fronds and the footprints of a crocodile - examples of how this area's climate has changed over the millennia.

"Rock hounds have been really generous in giving me specimens," Mustoe said, although he admits they are "somewhat random in nature."

Also on the first floor is a fossil footprint of a kind of prehistoric ostrich called a diatryma, complete with artistic renderings of what it looked like and photographs showing how the fossil footprint was recovered and transported to WWU.

Just below, on what's called the ground floor, are cases full of antique microscopes, geologists' hammers and picks, and a motorized drill for taking rock samples. On the second floor - home to the geology department - are exhibits that "run heavily into fossils," Mustoe said.

Among the more fascinating exhibits on the first floor is a bathometric map of Lake Whatcom, showing its depths in stark relief. Mustoe said the surrounding hillsides were made of cardboard and have been lost, but the 20-foot fiberglass exhibit is stunning to see.

Another curiosity on the first floor - a topographic model of the Fairhaven and South Hill neighborhoods circa 1960 - appeared in the hallway one day and no one seems to know where it came from, Mustoe said.

"It's really kind of a mystery," he said. "It's basically a found object," but he suspects it may have been part of a city planning project from when Interstate 5 was constructed through town. The freeway is shown in yellow tape across the gray map.

To see photographs of some of Mustoe's exhibits, go online to wwu.edu/map/bldgs/es.shtml and click on the "building photo tour" hot link. Find floors plans of environmental studies online at wwu.edu/wwuarchitect/pages/campusfloorplans.shtml. A campus map is online at wwu.edu/map.

Environmental studies is just south of Arntzen hall, which offers a small cafe and a market in the first floor.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com.

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