The San Diego Natural History Museum last November reversed its
plans to sell the fossils, which could have fetched hundreds of
thousands of dollars at auction, after critics argued such valuable
prehistoric material should stay in the public domain.
The donation was announced on Sunday by the San Diego museum and the
Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park outside Kansas City, Kansas,
a $28 million institution set to open on Monday.
The decision coincides with a lively debate in the museum community
over institutions selling off parts of their collections to raise
"We were just over the moon to be offered these items," Uli Sailer
Das, executive director of the new museum, said in a telephone
interview. "We think it's a vote of confidence in us as a new
institution that the San Diego Natural History Museum entrusted us
with these objects."
The five items being donated were unearthed in Kansas in the early
20th century by famed fossil hunter Charles Sternberg.
They include a 16-foot-long skeleton of a bony fish called
Xiphactinus, one of the terrors of an inland sea that covered the
region in the Cretaceous Period towards the end of the age of
dinosaurs. Xiphactinus, known for its bulldog-like jaws, probably
preyed on other fish, squid and even big flightless diving birds.
Another of the fossils is a 17-foot-long skeleton of a Platecarpus,
a medium-sized genus of marine reptile called a mosasaur that fed on
fish and squid.
These two fossils are due to go on display in early June.
Catherine Forster of George Washington University, president of the
Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, expressed relief that the
fossils had not been auctioned.
"When you have good specimens, there's a stewardship issue here. If
museums aren't going to take care of them, then this is a major
issue. If you don't take care of the specimens and they get sold out
of the public realm, they're essentially lost," Forster told
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Michael Hager, president and CEO of the San Diego museum, said in an
email his institution was very pleased to see the fossils
"repatriated to Kansas where they were collected nearly 100 years
ago by Charles Sternberg".
Hager's museum had said previously the auction plan was not intended
for financial gain or to minimize the importance of the fossils. It
said museum officials had decided to find a way to "allow the
fossils to remain in the public trust."
Mark Norell, chairman of the division of paleontology at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York, helped arrange the
donation and called it "a good outcome."
"I really sort of decry these kinds of plans when museums start
liquidating their stuff just for the purpose of operating. I'm glad
they didn't go to auction and I'm glad the professional community
responded the way it did," said Norell, whose institution will
provide exhibitions for the Kansas museum.
Fossils can command top dollar at auction. For example, the
Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton dubbed "Sue" fetched $8.3 million in
1997. It is now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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