GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A permanent exhibit, “Collections are the Library of Life,” highlights the museum’s research and scientific collections, which, at more than 30 million specimens, ranks as one of the top five in the nation. A new temporary exhibit, “Dugout Canoes: Paddling through the Americas,” takes visitors through North, Central and South America to explore how dugout canoes were used and how scientists study and preserve these ancient watercraft.
“We have one of the largest natural history collections in the country, which most people don’t realize because they see only what we have on display,” said Darcie MacMahon, Florida Museum assistant director for exhibits.
The permanent exhibit will display actual artifacts and specimens from each of the museum’s 21 active collections and research projects, including the skull of Albert, one of the live alligators the University of Florida used as a mascot until the 1970s when costumed mascots were introduced.
The exhibit will also showcase the history of the Florida Museum, formerly the Florida State Museum, which began in the 1890s, as well as current research efforts. Press releases on recent museum discoveries, studies or grants also will be displayed.
Located in the Lastinger Family Gallery, the free exhibit was made possible with support from the Lastinger Family Foundation.
The canoe exhibit was inspired by the discovery of 101 dugouts at Newnans Lake in 2000, and features ancient artifacts, tools, videos and displays as well as model and life-size canoes. All exhibit text and videos are presented in English and Spanish.
“Dugout canoes were important for travel, trade, communication, politics and everyday life,” MacMahon said. “I think people have an inherent fascination with all boats and their history, precisely because they have been so important to our lives for so many thousands of years. We hope visitors will enjoy this look at dugouts – both their ancient history and their importance in peoples’ lives today.”
“Dugout Canoes” was produced by the Florida Museum of Natural History with support from the Alachua County Tourist Development Council and the AEC Trust. The Florida Museum will display the exhibit for three years before it begins traveling to museums across the country.
A severe drought in 2000 caused water levels in Newnans Lake to fall, exposing the prehistoric canoes hidden for centuries. The discovery is the world’s largest known find of ancient watercraft.
“We wanted to give the story of the Newnans Lake discovery broader context,” MacMahon said. “So we expanded it to tell the story of dugouts in Central and South America as well as North America, both ancient and modern.”
Local residents and high school students were the first to notice the long pieces of wood in the exposed lake bed. They called archaeologists from the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research that led excavation efforts at Newnans Lake, along with researchers from the Florida Museum. No canoes were removed from the site because centuries of changing water levels, from wet to dry, made the canoes too fragile to move.
Samples were taken from about 50 canoes before the drought ended and the lake’s water levels rose, covering the canoes in mud and water again. Analysis of these samples revealed the canoes were between 500 and 5,000 years old, with a majority made from pine or cypress trees.
Newnans Lake was added to the National Register of Historic Places in March 2001 because of the significance of the archaeological find. The site was added as Lake Pithlachoco, the lake’s original name.
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