Gray Fossil Site exhibits set to open on Friday
Visitors will finally get a look inside the Gray Fossil Site museum beginning Friday Ron Campbell photo. GRAY — Fossils have been coming out of the ground in Gray for seven years now, and starting this Friday, the public will finally get first-hand looks at all the fuss when the Gray Fossil Site’s visitors center opens.“It really increases our visibility,” said Dr. Steven Wallace, EastTennesseeStateUniversity’s lead paleontologist at the site. “The university has of course supported the Center of Excellence in Paleontology, but the big question has always been, ‘What are you doing?’”Since the fossil site was unearthed in 2000, people generally have had to rely on news accounts, speaking engagements and the university’s Web site to learn about the discoveries of ancient rhinoceroses, red pandas, ground sloths and other fossilized creatures.“Now, it’s so much more obvious what we’re doing, because you can see it every day,” Wallace said. “Look at the murals and look at the diorama — those displays in general. All that content had to come from the work we were doing. It would be a blank slate if we hadn’t been working all this time.”“At least we’re visible now. People can see what we’re doing. The can see us in here working. They can see us in the lab. It really gives us a chance to highlight what’s going on here.”Officially dubbed the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitors Center, the facility will debut in grand opening festivities with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday at 8:30 a.m. The site is 1.8 miles southwest of Interstate 26 on Tennessee Highway 75.Following the event, visitors can stroll through the museum’s exhibits to see and learn about many of the discoveries in display cases, interactive video stations and dioramas, including full-scale casts of tapirs, a saber-tooth cat and a short-legged rhino.“One of the things we’re really excited about is the rhino itself,” Wallace said. “We spent nine weeks digging that thing out, and then we spent two years prepping it, and at any given time, I got to see one or two bones. I never got to see it really laid out.“Even when I finally did an inventory and got most of it laid out, it just didn’t do it justice. To see it standing there now with all the background, it really is an example of a million little milestones. It’s really satisfying to see that.”Visitors can view that rhino and other portions of the museum’s permanent exhibits on free, self-guided tours or take guided tours of the whole site, including views of the scientists’ labs and the actual digs for small fees — $4 for adults and $3 for children 12 and younger — to offset operating costs. The center will remain open through 5 p.m.“Look and feel I’m very happy with, and I think people will be very impressed,” said Dr. Jeanne Zavada, the museum’s director. “If anything I’d like to have more interactives — more activities for people to participate in, but right now, we’ve made a great start.For Friday’s opening, the staff has solicited items from various businesses throughout the area as giveaways for kids and door prizes. Visitors also will have the opportunity to purchase keepsakes, apparel and other memorabilia in the center’s gift shop.“You can tell that we’ve gotten our act together and provided seating for our visitors here in the atrium,” Zavada said. “Of course, a lot of things have been done to upgrade the exhibits — lots of interactive displays, lots of computer games, wonderful colors, wonderful lighting.”While the grand opening officially lasts through Monday, the center will be open seven days per week, closing only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.Zavada foresees the center’s offerings growing over time.“I want to add more activities for the younger kids,” she said. “I want to put in place a picnic-play area outside that I’m going to name ‘The Habitat,’ and it will be to the immediate right as you enter the museum. It will be a grassy area with lots of trees and plants and pathways and picnic tables and a gazebo. That’s very high on my list.”The center’s completion has been a boon for Wallace and other scientists, as well as volunteers, who unearth, clean and reassemble the site’s specimens. Since everything is right on site, they no longer have to make regular treks to and from labs on ETSU’s main campus in Johnson City.“It really is nice to be able to collect a specimen and walk in the back door and just go right in the lab,” Wallace said. “There’s no more driving down the interstate with a rhino skull in the back of my pickup. That was a very unnerving thing to do, and I don’t have to do it anymore.“It’s really nice to have everything right here in one place.”The 33,000-square-foot facility was funded in part by an $8 million federal transportation grant. Tennessee Department of Transportation road crews discovered the site in 2000 as they widened and rerouted portions of the highway near DanielBooneHigh School. Estimated at 4.5 million to 7 million years old, the Gray Fossil Site is the sole Miocene Epoch site in this part of the country.