Digging into natural history, museum gets new display
A 90-year-old trumpeter swan sits looking intently forward with its wings pushed back as if it's ready to take flight. Next to it are perched two owls and a hawk, while an albino beaver and a red-eyed porcupine stand only feet away by a bed of fossils, which happen to date back 18,000 years.
Every one of the animals has been dead for over 50 years, but a new natural history display at the Becker County Museum is bringing them back to life for the world to see.
The display is the brainchild of Museum Director Amy Degerstrom, who took over the facility a little over a year ago.
There were a few taxidermied animals that made up the display when she came.
"But it was relatively uninteresting and hideous to look at," she laughed, "and there just wasn't very much information to go along with it."
What was even sadder than the display was the nearly 200 other mounts sitting in storage unable to be displayed.
"One of the hard things with taxidermy is that taxidermied animals from 50 years ago were preserved with arsenic, and a lot of their mounts are high in toxicity, so until they're cleaned, we can't handle them or put them out," said Degerstrom, who adds the cleaning process is too expensive for the museum's budget.
But after the mention of the less-than-stellar display in a Becker County Historical Society newsletter last winter, a donor came forward with $500.
"A lady named Judy Sevada donated the money in memory of her father, Jerry, who worked for the DNR in Becker County for many years," said Degerstrom, who went to work on stretching those $500 as far as she possibly could.
Volunteers helped literally shape the project by building parts of the display out of cardboard tubing and other inexpensive materials.
They purchased some paint through a beautification grant and bought a wall mural that resembled a deciduous forest similar to the ones found locally.
They pulled some more animals out of storage and had them cleaned, while coordinating information with Tamarac Wildlife Refuge Park Ranger Kelly Blackledge.
"She helped us to make sure what we were including was accurate to our part of the world and also helped us to make sure animals were identified properly and assisted in the section where we talk about why natural history
in Becker county is unique," said Degerstrom.
Some of the museum's ancient tools and 20,000-year-old fossils sprinkle the display, as slowly museum employees and museum lovers brought it to life, and according to Degerstrom, it's a life that deserves appreciation.
"We are the only county in the state of Minnesota that encompasses three different biomes, which are environments or ecosystems," said Degerstrom, "we've got coniferous forests, deciduous forests and prairie."
Degerstrom says that means the area also has a wide variety of unique plants and animals.
It is for this reason the Becker County Museum has all these taxidermied animals to begin with, as settlers who came to the area at the turn of the 20th century had never seen many of them, so they preserved them.
"It was a popular practice to use them for conversation pieces in hotel lobbies and other businesses," said Degerstrom, who says they eventually filtered into the museum as donations.
Now, they not only sit as reminders of days gone by in Becker County, but those yet to come.
"I hope that it gets people thinking about their natural surroundings, and how the settlement of our county has effected those biomes," said Degerstrom, pointing to a logging display across the aisle, "so they sort of interplay a little bit in terms of how we, as consumers of natural resources, have changed the way our biomes look and how we interact with them."
Degerstrom says the importance of that interaction is far from ancient history, as the museum is also collecting information and evidence of today's biggest local issues affecting Becker County's natural world, such as aquatic invasive species.
"I think it's a really important part of our history here and one that we don't always think about," said Degerstrom, "it certainly is important to remember and think about the impact and how we continue to live in our 1,400-square-mile county."
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