Miller Museum houses ancient finds

Campus museum uses donations and grants to maintain a collection that includes 8,000 rocks and minerals

The Miller Museum of Geology opened in 1931 to attract geologists working north of Kingston.
The Miller Museum of Geology opened in 1931 to attract geologists working north of Kingston.
Curator Mark Badham shows an elementary school student a mineral sample during her Girl Guide troop’s visit to the Miller Hall museum.
Curator Mark Badham shows an elementary school student a mineral sample during her Girl Guide troop’s visit to the Miller Hall museum.

Mark Badham spends his weekdays with million-year-old fossils, minerals and rocks at the Miller Museum of Geology.

“I am the exhibit designer, curator, tour guide [and] sometimes janitor,” Badham, MSc ’97, said. “I do pretty much everything here.”

A 575-million-year-old fossil sits in the latest addition to the Ediacaran fossil exhibit in Miller Hall, one of only two in the world.

The fossils, discovered in Mistaken Point, N.L., were added to the museum in January 2011. According to Badham, the fossils are the oldest advanced life forms ever discovered.

Miller Hall, near the corner of Union and Division Streets, was named for professor emeritus Dr. W.G. Miller, who taught in the School of Mining and Agriculture between 1893 and 1902.

During his time at Queen’s, Miller often expressed hopes for a geology museum at the foot of Division Street that would be accessible to geologists working north of Kingston.

When Miller Hall opened in 1931, the museum took up most of the main floor, showcasing a collection of findings from around the world.

A mummified head was once on exhibit in the 1930s. “There’s one researcher trying to find out exactly where it went,” Badham said. “We haven’t had much luck unfortunately.” The museum runs organized tours for elementary and high school students, an initiative Badham started when he took over in 1986.

“It’s one of the most valuable things we do,” he said, adding that the museum sees over 2,000 visitors each year.

Renovations throughout the mid-20th century reduced the size of the museum to accommodate more classrooms, eventually whittling the space down to two rooms in the 1970s.

In 1988, Badham reclaimed the back room of the museum and turned it into a dinosaur fossil exhibit. Alumni donations have helped fund new lighting for the room, which houses fossils from over 630 million years ago.

The museum doesn’t receive an operating budget from the University — donations and grants have kept it afloat so far.

A $100,000 donation from Dr. Richard Milne, ArtSci ’54 and MD ’58, helped open the museum’s Dr. Richard Milne Geoscience Education Room last November.

“We have fossils of the oldest-known land tracks … they’re about 500 million years old, and they’re the oldest undisputed footsteps made on land by an animal,” Badham said.

Endeavour Silver Corporation donated $500,000 last month to support scholarships and bursaries for Queen’s geology students. None of the money will go towards the museum, but Badham hopes the donation will raise the geology department’s profile.

“[Geology’s] a career path that people just don’t think about because they’re not exposed to it in high school,” Badham said. “I always use the analogy that so many people come to university to do biology, but how many working biologists do you know?

“Geology is an equally good science degree that should get more consideration from high school students.” Recent graduates can be found at prominent Canadian geological consulting firms like O’Connor Associates Environmental Inc. — a company founded by a Queen’s alumnus.

Ronald Peterson is a professor in the department of geological sciences and geological engineering. Last summer, two undergraduate students accompanied Peterson to Victoria, B.C. for field research.

“You have to learn to shoot a gun because there are bears,” he said. “It’s a real adventure.”

Peterson has discovered two new minerals in the past five years.

“It’s a lot of fun. No one’s described [the mineral] before, and you get to name it,” he said, adding that it takes up to eight months of work to name the mineral yourself.

He chose to name his finds cranswickite and meridianiite.

Peterson said he commends the museum’s work in providing a hands-on education experience.

“A ton of school kids come through there and they have the opportunity to handle a real meteorite and play with microscopes,” he said. “They can hold a real dinosaur bone in their hands.”

Ted Matheson is the president of the Miller Club, the geological science and geological engineering department's student council. The club acts as a liaison between students and the Miller Museum, regularly promoting museum events among students.

Matheson, the owner of a personal rock collection, said he’s been interested in geology since he was a kid.

“[The museum is] a very integral part of the department,” he said.

The Queen’s museum is one of 9 natural history museums located on campuses across Canada.

McGill University’s Redpath Museum works to educate Montrealers through lectures and public tours.

“Every week there are one or two events,” museum director David Green said. “The more we do, the more they like it.”

Opened in 1882, the McGill museum houses a collection of fossils, minerals and artifacts from around the world. Its mineral collection has over 20,000 specimens.

The collection wasn’t always open for public viewing, though.

“You have to realize that the public program dates from the mid-80s,” Green said.

Facing financial hardships, RedPath Museum was closed to the public in 1970. In 1985, the University, which covers the museum’s maintenance and custodial costs, came through with funds and the doors re-opened.

“Our visitation from the public has grown year by year,” Green said, adding that the museum sees approximately 55,000 visitors each year.

The star piece of the fossil collection is the Hylonomus, a lizard-like reptile that lived during the Permian age, 299 to 251 million years ago.

Like the Miller Museum of Geology, the Redpath Museum regularly receives donations. Its collection of display and research samples has grown consistently.

“We’re always getting new material,” Green said. “The research work of the professors here generates more specimens.”

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