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Posted on Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Major project in the works for the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History building?

By Kellie Woodhouse


The Ruthven Exhibit Building, which houses the Museum of Natural History, opened in 1928, according to University of Michigan records.

Daniel Brenner |

The University of Michigan is considering a major alteration of the Museum of Natural History building.

"We are studying it," said Timothy Slottow, U-M's chief financial officer. "It's very old and we are looking at meeting the needs of [the College of Literature, Science and Arts] biology faculty."

Slottow said the university is considering a "major renovation" of the 1920s-era building, officially called the Ruthven Exhibit Building.

"There's lots of options," Slottow said.

"We don't know what we're going to do. We haven't come to the Board [of Regents] with a project or plan yet," he continued. "No decisions have been made and we're still looking at it."

The building was constructed in 1928, according to the U-M Bentley Historical Library records, and houses the university's natural history exhibit museum and offices and museums pertaining to insects, fish, birds, mammals, anthropology, zoology, paleontology and mollusks. There are also three classrooms in the building. The Museum of Natural History itself has existed since the mid-1800s.

Paul Berry, associate chair for LSA's museums collections and director of the the school's herbarium, has heard that the school is also considering expanding the building.

"A major renovation is sort of the context of this plan," said Berry, who added that fellow faculty are wondering whether the school is "going to tear down part of the building" to make way for an expansion.

"There's sort of a historical element there, and nobody knows what is going to happen," said Berry, who explained he has a limited knowledge of U-M's plans for the building.


The Ruthven Exhibit Building houses the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History,

Daniel Brenner |

There are two LSA biology departments: the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and the department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. They're currently housed in the Edward Henry Kraus natural science building on the Diag. That building —constructed in 1915, according to university records— isn't ideally appointed for laboratories and collaborative spaces.

The department of ecology and evolutionary biology does have some offices and research space in the existing Museum of Natural History building, although the core of the department is located in the natural science building.

"We've known about this for a while, we've been looking at ways to meet the needs of the biology folks for close to 10 years," Slottow said.

If a renovation or expansion were to take place, it's unclear which museum capacities would stay in the building and whether both biology departments would move into the altered building.

Berry said administrators have said the Museum of Natural History exhibits likely will continue to be displayed inside the building after the project is completed. Collections that aren't on display likely will be moved to a facility on Varsity Drive in Ann Arbor, he said. The school recently transported much of the museum's alcohol-preserved collections to the Varsity Drive location.

"We've been assured the museum itself, the public museum, will remain." said Berry.

Added university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald: "While there are no specific plans, all of our discussions have included a future museum." Fitzgerald said the university has made no decisions as to where museum exhibits will be displayed.

Meanwhile, the school plans to move more specimens from the museum to the Varsity Drive location in the near future.

"Moving these collections is separate from moving people, moving these collections doesn't mean we're moving people," Fitzgerald said.

Planning for a major construction project is a lengthy process at the university, which plans physical plant expansions several years in the future. Once a college's needs are established, officials need to come up with a conceivable plan for renovation or expansion on a campus that already is crunched for space and has hundreds of millions in construction projects taking place at any one time.

The 10-year average for annual construction costs at the school is $523 million, according to university figures.

For example, it took several years for the school to identify solutions for space needs of the nursing school and bring plans forward to U-M's governing body, the Board of Regents. With the nursing school, the university gradually acquired property near Kingsley Street, nearby the existing nursing school facility, and earlier this year announced construction of a $50 million new building. Funding also can be an issue. Despite apparent need, renovations to the School of Music, Theater and Dance were delayed until appropriate funding could be found. That school will soon undergo a $23 million renovation, funded in large part by an $8 million donation.

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.


Todd W. Grant

Thu, Dec 27, 2012 : 10:50 p.m.

I have also heard that the rumor on campus is to tear the building down. This makes ZERO sense, since the building across the street, the C.C. Little Science Building, is the mirror image of this building, is of the same age, and has been renovated for Geology and Pharmacy. When my sons were little, they enjoyed going to see the dinosaurs and buying dinosaur toys at the museum shop, so much so, that one of my sons, when 4 years old, told a surprised adult friend that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up. More seriously, tearing the building down could negatively effect the international reputation of one of the finest Paleontology programs in this country. Anyone who has seen the National Geographic baby mammoth specials has seen U. of M. Professor Dan Fisher. Apparently the Biology Department -- which is nowhere near as highly ranked as Paleontology -- is greedy for space.


Mon, Dec 24, 2012 : 8:22 p.m.

"Sort of an historical element?" Good Grief Charlie Brown! That bulding is nearly 100 years old and was designed by one of Michigan's premier architects!!! It should be on the National Register of HIstoric Places!


Mon, Dec 24, 2012 : 2:39 a.m.

That's majorly disappointing to hear!

Seasoned Cit

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 9:09 p.m.

I heard a rumor that Blimpy Burgers was going to be added to the museum gift shop as part of the renovation. Who says the UM doesn't care about what folks say about the U's local impact.

Dog Guy

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 8:11 p.m.

Thank goodness that the Native American dioramas were moved to a safe location before the bulldozing starts!


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 9:22 p.m.

The Native American dioramas were my favorite things at the museum! All they have to do is get rid of dinosaurs and big bones, and it won't be worth going.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 6:29 p.m.

Thanks for this, Kellie. I've been wondering whether something was in the works.

Paula Gardner

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 7:10 p.m.

Yes, these rumors have been flying for some time. Good to learn at least these details about what the U is considering.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 6:08 p.m.

The University of Michigan flies all over the world preserving ancient objects and ruins, but it can't even save itself from its own.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

It was mentioned on these boards in a Blimpy Burger article that this building was coming down, guess that was a hot tip... another sad day, see it while you can. Our family did the back stage tour last year and the docent told me all the collection was in the process of being moved, then I saw some display cases for sale at Property Disposition. It is not looking good for the museum as it now stands.

Kellie Woodhouse

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 4:06 p.m.

Thanks to those commenters who pointed out my grammatical error of using the term majorly— especially to those who pointed it out in a constructive manner. I'm glad has a readership that is so engaged in the subject matters I write about. Such errors do happen and, though they don't change the content of the article, I'm never happy when they slip in.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

"Majorly altering"? Come on, guys.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:41 p.m.

{sigh} Here we go again... more construction at the U! I was a student at Michigan 93-96 and they were 'modernizing' the campus then! It's none stop!


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:37 p.m.

Majorly is a typo. Probably refers to Major Ly. "Slottow said the university is considering a "major renovation" of the 1920s-era building," Major Ly works in the basement of the administration building. His job is to renovate and renew the U. He has no sense of humor what so ever. He is the same guy who intends to build a parking lot to replace Blimpy Burger, just so he doesn't have to look at it every morning on his way to work.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:27 p.m.

Our 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and extended family have always found it a treat to spend a few hours at the museum. Unlike Hands-On where you pay a fortune and feel obligated to spend hours in order to get your 'money's worth' watching kids just running around pushing buttons, the NHM is a terrific place to spend as much time as the children (at varied ages) remained engaged. I'm happy to have sent my annual contribution. If you want to retain this facility (and have it updated/expanded), we need to value our time spent there. Send a check!


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

Did you truly use the word "majorly" in the lead of this story?


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I don't want to see the building altered. I took my 10 year old there for the first time last year and she loved it. I was a little disappointed to see the exact same displays and everything from when I was a kid 30 years ago. It would be nice to have new models and exhibits to look at.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 9:24 p.m.

@Mark- The diorama exhibit of Native American life WAS one of the best things there, and I still miss it.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:44 p.m.

Yes a lot has changed. But a lot is exactly as I remember it. The wildlife scenes behind glass on the first and second floors are the same. I was mostly shocked by how little had changed.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:24 p.m.

Perhaps you only remember those that were your favorites. A lot of new material has been added in the last 20 years. The top floor features traveling exhibits. Unfortunately, a favorite display of American Indian dioramas was removed, and replaced by a rather generic mineral exhibit. There are very few universities that have museums like ours. Ann Arborites would have to travel to Chicago to see displays as good as what we currently have. It was once hailed as the only University Natural History Museum in the Midwest.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:45 p.m.

If they put the collection away in storage then I'll have to drive all the way to Sea Shell City to see a giant man eating clam!


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:31 p.m.

If nothing else the U of M sure keeps those Skilled Trade Union Construction crews working. And that's a Good thing

Linda Peck

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:26 p.m.

"There is sort of a historical element there." Paul Berry. Understatement. What can we say, folks? No one will listen anyway. They have a point, but I can sense history falling to "progress" here.

Elaine F. Owsley

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:25 p.m.

Every time the University makes a move there is that "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" response. Stay calm - as the king said during WWII.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:25 p.m.

A power-wash would do a lot, too.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

I grew up visiting the NHM, and still love viewing the mounted bones in the great room, the giant clam and armored fish, and all the collections showing the wide-variety of native Michigan fish, plants, and animals (even if it makes me sort of sad as well). Perhaps instead of just typing on a card that a certain flower or animal is endangered, empower the visitor to be active - post local invasive-species cleanup days with computers to sign-up, scheduled walks in natural-areas to perhaps observe plants and animals in the environment, talks at the Botanical Gardens, computers loaded with more information about exhibits, and rotate smaller exhibits. I hope the rotunda entrance is refurbished, it's such a beautiful space but time has taken its toll. I'd also like to see the mineral showcase redone with a wider-variety of specimens (and perhaps feature traveling gemological exhibits a few times a year). And finally, perhaps strip the paint from the lions and refurbish them -- new pedestals are in order for the excellent guarding they've done all these years :O)


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:29 p.m.

Those lions, pumas, are actually very new. The Museum had a foundry replicate the old pumas and cast them in bronze. They don't have the soft feel or details of the old pumas, yet, but they'll last forever.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

alcohol PERSERVED collections?

Kellie Woodhouse

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:51 p.m.

Sometimes these things slip in. Thank you for pointing this typo out. It has been fixed.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

I think could remove the eastern half of the north wing, all of the eastern part, to rebuild on those footprints.If they absolutely have to. But please keep intact the structure as seen from central campus. It's a wonderful building with great details and character. It would be nice if the old pumas, which are in storage somewhere, could be on display inside the museum.


Mon, Dec 24, 2012 : 1:44 a.m.

how are the old pumas different from the ones there now. i didn't know they had been replaced.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:11 p.m.

leave the museum a cinder block building somewhere for egg head offices and labs.everything can't be on central campus.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

"considering majorly altering"???? Really! "Majorly"? Is Eloise now writing for "considering major alterations", I think, don't you? C'mon man!!

Ren Farley

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

The Ruthvan Museum was designed by Albert Kahn and has some architectural merit. Does the University have a statement or policy regarding the renovation or removal of architecturally and historically significant structures?


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 3:42 p.m.

all buildings are the same & we do ugly well

Chip Reed

Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

Their policy is to do what they believe is in their best interests.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 1:28 p.m.

Oh ugh. I loooove this museum. It is one of the most interesting buildings in town. I'd hate to see it altered.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 1:06 p.m.

Good thing the Kelsey Museum artifacts are not being moved. AAPD doesn't need is its own "Night at the Museum" escape rampage being orchastrated by some ego mummy. Its bad enough chasing down the bar-hopping zombies. "Funding also can be an issue." Yuuuup! Can't wait to see the expression on Jarrod's face when he pries open that really, really big box he won on "Storage Wars.".


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 12:49 p.m.

let the athletic dept. pay for it now and when the funds are raised they can get paid back. !!!!


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 12:46 p.m.

I heard they want to buy the property where Jerusalem Garden, and Seva are located and turn it into extra storage. I hope this doesn't happen.


Sun, Dec 23, 2012 : 12:34 p.m.

Please did deeper. It has been circulating for some time they plan to tear down the museum and build a new one there. Just because a plan has not been submitted to the regents, does not mean they don't have an idea of whether the building is coming down.