The Helen N. Jewett Basalt Gallery greets you when you enter the museum
The Miocene Forest, a new permanent installation at the Yakima Valley Museum, opened November 16, 2008 in the Helen N. Jewett Basalt Gallery. This new exhibit features 15-million-year-old trees, unearthed from a ridge in the Yakima Valley and reconstructed inside the museum. A mural depicting Yakima during the Miocene era surrounds the trees, and visitors can examine polished cross-sections of different types of petrified hardwoods. This unique exhibit provides the visitor with a glimpse of prehistoric Yakima.
When Clyde Friend struck something harder than basalt with his excavator while grading his Yakima Ridge property for a new driveway in 2003, he had no idea that this was only the tip of the iceberg—or, more accurately, the top of the tree trunk-the first of many tree trunks that would transform his backyard into "a forest of stone." It wasn't until two years later that Clyde shared his discovery with the Yakima Valley Museum. ...and so began the planning for The Miocene Forest in the Helen N. Jewett Basalt Gallery of the museum.
This "permanent" exhibit, which opened to the public at the museum's Annual Membership Meeting on November 16, represents something truly unique in the exhibition and interpretation of petrified wood. While most museums display fossil wood as geology specimens, alongside other rocks and minerals, this new exhibit uses these fossilized trees as evidence of a past world that existed in what is now the Yakima Valley—a mixed hardwood forest that existed in a warm, wet temperate environment over 15 million years ago (similar to forests that exist today in the American Southeast). The exhibit is especially distinctive because it displays the trees standing upright. In addition to fossil wood specimens, our museum also has fossil bones of various animals that existed in this same ancient world-a prehistoric horse (plessipus) and camel (megatylopus), an ancestor of the sabre-tooth cat (pseudaelurus), a giant ground sloth (megalonyx), and a strange pig-like beast with no living descendants (oreodont), and, while the fossil bones are on exhibit in the museum's Time Tunnel, these animals are also featured in the new Miocene Forest.
The exhibit itself is visually stunning, with a single petrified tree trunk stretching over twenty feet to the high ceiling of the Jewett Gallery. Beyond this tree, a cave-like niche opens—like a passage to a secret garden—into the Miocene Forest, an illusion created by more standing trees and a large mural depicting a deep dark forest extending into the distance, with beasts hidden in the shadows. In front of this niche, cast replicas of living tree trunks paired with polished slices of fossil wood describe a forest filled with ancient relatives of hickory, locust, maple, oak, elm, fir, and sweet gum trees. Across from the niche, in the center of the museum's expansive lobby windows, is a massive one-ton fossil stump of a honey locust tree, complete with petrified bark, splinters, and sap.
This exhibit took more than two years to produce and required the cooperative efforts of many people with varied knowledge and skills. For scientific accuracy, we consulted with paleobotanist Tad Dilhoff and geologist Nick Zentner. For advice on installing the massive specimens, we turned to structural engineer John Tate. To reassemble and install the large trees, we turned to construction wizards Kip Fletcher and Jerry Orthmann of G.H. Moen Construction. Although the entire exhibit was conceived and designed in-house, the plans required some exhibit fabrication skills from Pacific Studio (Seattle) who created the cast replicas of living tree trunks that form the interpretive kiosk in front of the "forest niche," and Karen Carr Studio (Silver City, New Mexico) created the background mural of the forest; and these two specialized subcontractors needed to coordinate their efforts so that the "living trees" flowed seamlessly into the gallery from the forest scene.
And none of this would have been possible without a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust that supplied funding for the exhibit itself, and the generous support of many donors, who provided the funds to purchase the fossil wood specimens.