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Scientific Study, Conservation, and Interpretation of the Mammut Americanum (American Mastodon)

Posted 03/15/2019


As you may have heard, UNI Museum’s “Preserving the Past: Unveiling the Tusk” exhibit is set to premiere in early April. Conservation, scientific study, and interpretation of the mastodon tusk have been underway for the past three years, thanks to a $306,258 heritage grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. This grant has enabled the UNI Museum to purchase state-of-the-art equipment necessary to complete a successful study and conservation of the tusk, including a climate-controlled, custom display case from Germany, a custom exhibit mount, an X-ray fluorescence scanner, and a digital touch-screen display, which can be used by the public to interact with the tusk. The grant has also enabled development of Culture Lab, making research and conservation space available to the public and has allowed UNI Museum to partner with South Dakota School of Mines to manage the conservation, hire a temporary position to do the conservation, and carbon date part of the tusk. The tusk came to be part of UNI Museum’s collection in 1934.

Originally studied by Dr. Cable, a UNI Science Professor, the tusk was dated from either the Aftonian or Yarmouth age, making it approximately 120,000 to 200,000 years old. Since coming to be part of UNI Museum’s collection, it has been waiting patiently to be properly conserved. Assistant Director and Chief Curator of UNI Museum, Nathan Arndt, has been overseeing the project since its conception in 2016.

In an interview, Nathan told us conservation of the tusk has been one of the most pressing concerns throughout the project because it was found to be more damaged than originally expected: “We wanted to take it all back to bare tusk, but we realized that might not be the best option. We also had to be especially cautious when taking off flaky surface layers of the tusk damaged by humidity. UNI Museum’s Culture Lab and its tools have had a significant impact throughout study and conservation.” Other processes have included having X-Rays done by BioTech X-ray, Inc., which helped identify damage under the surface, stripping paint off the metal bands stabilizing the tusk, removing old layers of lacquer and other materials, researching past conservation methods and identifying possible hazards, and removing mold that resulted from a water leak. Nearing the exhibit date, preparations are being finalized and reflection of the three-year project demonstrates how the tusk is a symbol of Iowa’s natural history and UNI Museum’s future.

The tusk project has been an excellent opportunity for interdepartmental collaboration, as well as a source of hands-on learning for student research. Nathan said, “One major focus of ours is training the next generation of museum professionals, and the tusk gives students that ability in a number of different ways. This is an opportunity in which most students don’t get to be a part.  We want to show the community we care about our objects and will continue to develop our techniques and methods into the future.” Join us on April 3rd, 2019, from 4-6 p.m. for “Unveiling the Tusk” on the first floor of Rod Library. This event is free and open to the public.


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