JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — The East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitors Center at the Gray Fossil Site in East Tennessee has marked its fifth anniversary.
Officials told The Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/PiS7zE) that the museum has recorded around 250,000 visitors in that time span.
The fossil site was first discovered in 2000 by a construction crew cutting a road near Tennessee Highway 75. It soon came under the purview of ETSU. Paleontologists are still excavating the 4.5-million- to 7-million-year-old site where several species have been found including saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear, elephant, alligator, ground sloth, rhino, the most complete specimen of a red panda in the world and the largest collection of fossil tapirs.
Some of the fossils are exhibited at the museum, which opened on Aug. 31, 2007. Visitors can also watch paleontologists dig fossils and prepare them in the lab.
Blaine Schubert, who directs ETSU's Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and is a faculty member in the department of geosciences, called the site and its museum treasures not only for the academia but for the entire region because people come from all over the world to learn from them.
"And one of the things that really happened this year that hadn't been established before is the museum and the fossil site are both part of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology now," Schubert said. "And what that really allows us to do that's different is combine together the research component and the education component under one unit, so I think we become a much better educational unit for the community."
School groups already visit and a summer camp is held every year as a way to teach about science and natural history, he said.
Schubert said he would like to see the yearly attendance climb to about 70,000 from its current attendance of around 40,000. He said the museum would continue offering traveling exhibits and a monthly lecture series that have broad appeals.
Schubert said the site and the museum help scientists and ordinary people have a greater understanding of science.
"And as we move forward I see our museum becoming a major area for science education in this region," he said.
The ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily and is located 1.8 miles off Interstate 26's Gray Exit 13.
Information from: Johnson City Press, http://www.johnsoncitypress.com