Mobile Mastodon Skull: Creative Museum Solutions for Storage, Transport and Exhibition

In the fall of 1970 Ohio Historical Society staff were called to the farm of Rolland Farrington near Somersville (sometimes spelled Summersville), in Union County Ohio to recover more than 100 bones of a mastodon that were found while digging a pond on Mr. Farrington’s property. The bones from the Farrington Mastodon have been part of the OHS collections ever since, as catalog number N 7656.

Once or twice we have exhibited the skull for brief periods, and two ribs and two vertebrae have been used in numerous educational programs and touched by hundreds if not thousands of children and adults. But for most of those forty years, the skull has sat in storage. It sat vertically, resting on its occipital lobes (rear of the head), which is the heaviest and strongest part of the skull. It was tied to a support to keep it from tipping forward and covered with a shipping pad to protect. Since we have on display the complete skeleton of the Conway Mastodon (on long-term loan from the Orton Geological Museum at Ohio State University), it did not fit exhibit goals to also display the skull of the Farrington. When pulled from the muck and dripping wet and water-logged it weighed 300 pounds. Now, long since dried out, it still tips the scales at 175 pounds! Since it is so heavy and difficult to move, we have never before used it as part of a loan to another institution. It has sat in obscurity, only being moved with great difficulty when storage demands in our collection facility require relocation.

Recently we made a loan of a number of Pleistocene mammal bones to the Crawford County Park District for a 3-month exhibit at their Lowe-Volk Nature Center. They really wanted to be able to show their visitors this massive mastodon skull, and we really wanted to cooperate. But for a brief time we struggled with how to manage transportation and display of this weighty, yet fragile and ancient skull. Finally, the creative ability of OHS exhibit fabricator Karen Hassel came up with a design that would work to solve all three needs: safe storage, easy but safe transportation, and effective exhibition. Karen worked with a local artisan, Steve Harmon of Tubular Techniques to bring her design to fruition. The Crawford County Park District was so eager to get the skull as part of their loan that they facilitated the production by raising half the cost of making the new mastodon mount. Hopefully now the skull of the Farrington Mastodon can be easily used in a variety of in-house temporary exhibits and loans to other institutions. The following photos and their captions show the details of the structure and explain how this creative solution works.

Thanks to everyone involved! Especially to Karen for her creative vision, and the Crawford Park District for helping to make this all possible.

By Bob Glotzhober, Senior Curator, Natural History

Basic Structure and Storage
A one-inch square tubular frame supports four adjustable round tubes that rise up to hold the skull. Each of these vertical tubes has a custom-designed cradle on top of it, covered with silicone-rubber padding. A single cradle connects between the front two posts, curving to follow the shape of the skull and providing support between the tusk cavities and the first molars. The rear two posts have individual cradles that are fit to the shape of articulation area where in life the mandible hinges onto the skull.

On each the front and rear frames are two slots which hold removable tubular rods to assist in pushing the mount around on its heavy-duty, lockable wheels.

Transport
Here is the skull on the mount in place inside our lift-gate step van. The top of the skull has been thickly padded, then strapped firmly onto the base of the mount so that it cannot shift or bounce on the mount. The two removable rods have been set into the left-hand, outside slots, and a strap has been stretched around them and anchored onto slots on the side of the van. Two 2×6 boards keep the base far enough from the wall of the van so that vibration on the vehicle will not directly rub on the skull.

I worried about this transportation – but the mount worked exactly as designed and the skull arrived in Crawford County in perfect condition.

Exhibition at Crawford County Park’s Nature Center
Here is the skull in place, with a plexi barrier protecting it from fingers but allowing close inspection. The wheels are locked. Pads have been placed on the floor next to the mount to hold the two mandibles. Everything is covered with black velvet, so only the vertical support rods are visible.

Molar Mirror
A light weight mirror is propped up on an angle along the front of the support to make it easy to examine the upper molars and compare them with the lower molars on the mandibles next to them.

The entire mount provide a beautiful and impressive exhibit, provides for easy and safe transportation, and makes storage easy!

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