New curator sees greater role for museum in education

Julia McHugh, the new curator of paleontology for the Museum of Western Colorado, couldn’t stop smiling on a recent afternoon.

After being on the job for about two weeks, McHugh had spent a thrilling morning with a group of workers methodically removing the largest sauropod femur ever found at Mygatt-Moore Quarry in Rabbit Valley.

Later that day, with the fossil in the lab at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, a group of children and their parents who were along on the dinosaur dig returned to the lab to take a look around.

The children, who looked to be mostly first- and second-graders, marveled at the shelves of dinosaur vertebrate fossils, magnifying glasses and tiny brushes.

“If you like puzzles and 3-D puzzles, this is the field for you,” McHugh told the small crowd.

A bit later, as an aside, McHugh explained what she digs about her work.

“I love getting kids excited,” she said. “You see that sense of wonder that the world is exciting and new and there are still things to be found.”

McHugh, with a doctorate in geology from the University of Iowa and most recently a senior research assistant at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, replaces the museum’s former paleontologist, John Foster. Foster took a position earlier this year directing the Museum of Moab.

McHugh has a passion for teaching and plans to spread her enthusiasm for the fossilized world to all interested. For starters, McHugh will partner with the geology department at Colorado Mesa University, teaching one course a semester. A longer term goal is to create a certificate through the university for a museum curator program, a way to teach students all the intricacies of curating museums.

“Not just for dinosaur museums, but for art museums, design museums, any kind,” she said.

McHugh will lead the museum’s popular, three-day-a-week Dino Digs, which attract budding paleontologists from all over. She also expects to oversee the museum’s goal of expanding the building’s size and offering new and more exhibits. She has plans to expand the museum’s online access to its collections and to create online educational content.

“I am very happy to be here,” she said, looking out over the museum’s exhibits and the lab. “This is kind of my dream job.”

McHugh is a proponent of education and wants to encourage students to consider scientific fields. She’s adopted the philosophy, “If I can do it, then anybody can,” she said.

McHugh said she she’ll never make the mistake again of being talked out of dreaming big. When she was going for her undergraduate degree, she initially planned to pursue a double major in biology and geology. People told her it would be too difficult, so she majored in biology and earned a minor in geology.

In retrospect, McHugh realized, of course, she could have done it.

“I believed them,” she said. “To this day, I wish I would have gone ahead and double-majored.”


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