Dinosaur skeletons and footprints, dazzling minerals and more await you at the Beneski Museum of Natural History.
Due to the evolving situation with COVID-19 and our efforts to keep our community as safe as possible, all Amherst College buildings are closed to visitors until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience and look forward to welcoming you back as soon as we are able.
The Beneski Museum of Natural History is one of New England’s largest natural history museums, boasting three floors of exhibits with more than 1,700 specimens on display, and tens of thousands of specimens available for use by scholars and researchers from across campus and around the world.
Step inside the museum and you’ll find:
Dramatic displays of fossil skeletons, from fish to dinosaurs to Ice Age megafauna
An extraordinary collection of dinosaur footprints
Geological specimens and immersive exhibits that tell the history of the local landscape through geologic time, including when dinosaurs inhabited the area
Dazzling mineral specimens from around the world and meteorites from beyond Earth
The museum is located on the Amherst College campus in the Beneski Earth Sciences building, often referred to as simply “Beneski,” where students and faculty move seamlessly between state-of-the-art geology teaching labs and the museum.
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The museum is dedicated to:
Preserving and interpreting the physical evidence of the geological history of the Earth, the evolutionary history of its inhabitants, and the processes that have shaped both through time
Providing direct experience with the materials and former inhabitants of the Earth
Challenging visitors to consider problems of scientific interpretation
Stimulating the scientific curiosity and observational acuity of students and scholars, fostering in them a spirit of inquiry, stewardship and wonder toward the Earth
History of the Collections
The extensive and diverse collections at the Beneski Museum are the result of the work of faculty, students and alumni over the course of the College’s history, derived from expeditions, donations and exchanges.
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The physical and biological sciences have been a vital part of the Amherst College curriculum from the time of its founding 1821. Providing natural history specimens for direct hands-on study has been an integral component of teaching, learning and research in the sciences ever since.
Five Amherst professors in particular helped shape the museum’s collection into what it is today:
Edward Hitchcock joined the College faculty in 1825. He had wide-ranging interests and the dynamic energy to execute numerous scientific investigations and ensuing publications. Hitchcock encouraged alumni to send back scientific specimens from all over the world, no doubt spurred by his own excursions collecting geologic and fossil specimens from local sites in the Connecticut River Valley. One of his collections, the Hitchcock Ichnology Collection (ichnology is the study of tracks and traces), continues to be among the world's largest and most studied collections of fossil dinosaur tracks.
Hitchcock was a preeminent early geologist. He collaborated with, wrote to and met with the most important earth scientists of the day in North America and Europe including Benjamin Silliman, Richard Owen, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin. Hitchcock was a founder of the Association of American Geologists, which gave rise to today’s American Association for the Advancement of Science. (More about Hitchcock)
Charles Upham Shepard and Benjamin K. Emerson
Charles Upham Shepard, Class of 1824, and Benjamin K. Emerson, Class of 1865, joined the faculty during the 19th century and strengthened the role of science at Amherst College. Shepard was responsible for the original mineral collection, considered one of the finest in the country at the time. Emerson expanded the mineral and invertebrate paleontology collections as well as Hitchcock’s collection of the rocks of Massachusetts.
Frederic Brewster Loomis and Albert E. Wood
In the early 20th century, Biology Professors Frederic Brewster Loomis, Class of 1896, and Albert E. Wood added many important vertebrate fossils to the museum collections. Loomis ventured on 18 summer expeditions with Amherst students to excavate Mesozoic and Cenozoic vertebrate fossils in the United States and South America. His many connections throughout the vertebrate paleontology community allowed him to bring significant specimens to the College through trade or gift. His contributions account for the majority of the vertebrate megafauna (dinosaurs to Ice Age mammals) on display in the museum today. (More about Loomis)
Wood was a charter member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the preeminent professional society in that field, which now gives an annual award in his name for student research in museum natural history collections. Wood’s field of study was rodent evolution; as a consequence, the museum’s holdings in these diminutive fossils are extensive.
The Nature of Science, explicit work
Explore how the Nature of Science informs the presentation of the Beneski Museum of Natural History onsite, online, and during programming.
In 2018 the Museum in partnered with the Amherst College Science Center to employ the Seven Tenets of the Nature of Science (as outlined by Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002; Osborne, Collins, Ratcliffe, Millar, & Duschl, 2003; Bell 2009). Below, each tenet is detailed and explained showing how it is intrinsic to the educational philosophy of the Beneski Museum. In all programming and educational materials, the museum hopes to convey to visitors not only the vast collection of scientific knowledge (facts), but also the process and understanding of the Nature of Science itself (systems). Additionally the museum wishes to help improve scientific literacy, inspiring in visitors a desire to learn and explore, and empowering them to push the frontier of what is possible.
Creativity - Being creative is necessary to understand scientific research in novel and interesting ways.
The sciences and humanities interact more than most people think. Science is not possible without imagination. In every stage of the process, from idea to experiment, creativity drives inspiration and innovation. Science is also often abstract, and thinking outside the box helps us wrap our heads around complex concepts. When science and arts intersect, we achieve the most progress.
Curiosity - Beginners and long-time scientists must remain curious to understand science.
Derived from the concept “tentativeness,” curiosity describes both the drive for and inherent skepticism of scientific discovery. Scientists are constantly building upon each other’s work, using solutions derived by peers to ask new questions. Some generally accepted ideas have lasted for hundreds of years, so it is reasonable to have confidence in their validity, but new innovations are always approached with some apprehension. We are always learning, and there is always more out there. Curiosity keeps us going.
Observation and Inference - Taking in the world around you, you can learn so much.
Observations involve the five senses. Using physical information, we draw conclusions we can all agree on. Inferences often rely on information not directly available to the senses; we find explanations for what we observe. Science is much more than just a collection of observations, it also requires inferred interpretations.
Scientific Laws and Theories - Research is based on laws and theories to discover new horizons.
In science, laws are descriptions of observable phenomena. They are often expressed in empirical terms. Theories, conversely, refer to inferred explanations that have been widely accepted by the scientific community. Laws and theories are importantly distinct from one another, and are not interchangeable. They both require substantial supporting evidence, but can be adapted in light of new information or discoveries.
Objectivity and Subjectivity - Science may be based on objective laws, but interpretations are subjective.
There are infinite factors that can affect a scientist's biases. From institutional affiliation to religious belief, from race to gender, from societal values to personal ones, scientists must always be aware of external influences affecting their practices and conclusions. Though scientists are tentative of new developments and employ measures to hold themselves accountable and improve objectivity (like peer-review), subjectivity can never be fully disregarded.
Empirical Evidence - Discoveries must be based in evidence, and new evidence revises existing scientific knowledge.
Empirical Evidence is evidence that can be directly observed and obtained using our senses or through experimental procedure. Some scientific concepts lean toward the theoretical, but they must be rooted in observational or experimental data to be accepted. Challenging existing conceptions is only possible when supported by qualitative or quantitative empirical evidence.
Scientific Methods - All scientific research is based on the process of asking a question, designing an experiment, and coming to a conclusion.
Though there are many different ways scientists practice their work and develop bodies of information, observations and experiments must be replicable. Scientists have to outline their methods so that another scientist could try the same thing and draw the same conclusions. This way, we check each other's work and have more faith in new developments. The scientific method is often viewed as an independent practice, but it is intrinsically collaborative.
The Nature of Science invites everyone into the conversation. Science is not an absolute, empirical, unchanging body of knowledge, it is a process of understanding and a collection of conclusions developed collaboratively over time. By teaching the Nature of Science itself, explicitly, in addition to scientific methods and facts, the field can better be appreciated with an enhanced respect for the utility of science in large-scale decision making; everyone can think like a scientist.
Developed using Teaching the Nature of Science: Three Critical Questions by Randy L. Bell, Ph.D.