WRITER: Billy Huntsman
A renovated and expanded Zuhl Museum at New Mexico State University officially reopened to the public on Thursday, Oct. 26. The museum houses the Zuhl collection of more than 1,800 fossils, minerals and petrified wood.
“The collection was donated to the university by Herb and Joan Zuhl in 2000,” said Tiffany Santos, the collection’s director. “Originally the collection was housed in Zuhl Library; hence the name.”
NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers thanked Herb Zuhl who attended the ribbon cutting ceremony.
“I’m pleased to see my friend Herb Zuhl. I saw him a week ago before he was in the hospital getting a heart operation,” Carruthers said. “I hope I respond as well to surgery as Herb Zuhl. Next to him his brother Bob is a fabulous minister. Between good surgeons and God, he’s been taken care of and he’s here to see his beautiful museum.”
Zuhl also spoke to the crowd, which included about a dozen members of his family who had flown in from around the country. He described the collecting and polishing of the petrified wood as an art.
“I want to thank everyone that helped with the museum,” Zuhl said.” I know the museum will continue in perpetuity and will be a permanent collection to be used for education and research for generations to come.”
The ribbon cutting was followed by a reception for the public, a performance by Sol y Arena flamenco ensemble and tours to view the expanded museum, which features more exhibits.
When the Zuhls revealed their plans in 2000 to provide an estimated $3 million to NMSU from their estate to create the Library Endowment Fund, it was the largest single gift NMSU had ever received, and the library was named for them. Some of the most striking examples of the collection are still on display at the Zuhl Library.
The museum, whose construction then, as now, was funded entirely by the Zuhls, was established 13 years ago in a building that had formerly housed the NMSU Police Department. The Zuhls provided $600,000 to fund the expansion of the Zuhl Museum to create a space to house and display more of the collection. A $200,000 gift establishing the Zuhl Museum Curators Fund supports a curator to build on the museum’s outreach and education efforts and maintain the collection.
“The majority of the pieces are in the museum but you can also find pieces still in the library, as well as in Gardiner Hall,” Santos said.
In 2016 alone, more than 4,000 visitors signed in at the Zuhl Museum. On average about 40 tour groups per year come through to view the collection, and the museum is a frequent host to school field trips from around the region.
Every second Saturday of the month, the Zuhl Museum hosts a special event for children, and the “Excavation Pit” is open for kids to “discover” their own dinosaur.
The biggest component of the collection is petrified wood.
“We have the largest and finest collection of petrified wood on display in the country,” Santos said. “In the world as well.”
Wood becomes petrified when it is buried quickly near a water source with no access to oxygen. With the lack of oxygen, minerals form in the empty spaces between the grain and harden to rock, preserving the wood and its minute details. Depending on the mineral content, petrified wood can be polished to give the pieces a glossy appearance.
The second component of the collection is fossils and the third is minerals.
“Mr. Zuhl does not have a background in geology,” Santos said. “What he sees is the beauty in the pieces and the uniqueness.”
Zuhl continues to purchase and donate new pieces to the museum and the collection. The expansion started in the spring 2017 semester and finished in August. Since then Santos and her team of students from her Zuhl internship class have been cleaning the collection, moving more pieces into the museum, and arranging new exhibits for the public. The expansion also features a special Kids’ Corner sponsored by Wells Fargo.
“The new History of Life gallery will take you through geologic time,” Santos said. This gallery features an array of the fossils from the Zuhl Collection.
“Then we’ve got our Petrified Forest exhibit with about 30 logs, so you really get the feel of being in a petrified forest,” Santos said.
There’s also a Wow! gallery, which will house pieces of exemplary attractiveness and uniqueness, Santos said.
The Zuhl Museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and every second Saturday of the month from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit zuhlmuseum.nmsu.edu.