In terms of scientific holdings, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History ranks among
the best natural history museums. No other state university the size of Fort Hays State
University has a natural history museum comparable in size and scientific importance to
the Sternberg. Our collections include one of the finest scientific
collections of Pteranodon material, the largest collection of fossil grass seeds, and a truly
outstanding collection of Cretaceous marine and Neogene terrestrial vertebrate fossils.
These are complemented by excellent collections of modern biological material, most notably mammals, reptiles and plants.
Museum collections have been used extensively in research by faculty and students at
FHSU and by scholars from institutions worldwide.
First in a series of historical events that led to the presence of an outstanding museum at
FHSU was the fascination of early Kansas settlers for the abundant fossils and wildlife of
the region. Not long after the establishment of the Kansas State Normal College in 1902,
some private collections of these early settlers were given to the young institution that
would later be known as Fort Hays State University. Knickknacks and taxidermy mounts
dotted different offices on campus. The first formal museum shared one half of a large
room with the library in Picken Hall. In 1914, C.F. Miller was appointed as the first
curator. By 1915 the library was in need of more space, and the museum specimens were
pushed aside. Museum and university administrators sought way to preserve and use
these specimens for public display and educational purposes. This led to the appointment
of George F. Sternberg to develop the museum as it moved to quarters in the new
McCartney Hall. Sternberg, a famous fossil collector and preparatory, collected his first
notable fossil, a complete plesiosaur, in 1892 at the age of 9. He, along with others at the
university (including the famous mycologist Elam Bartholomew), amassed materials for
exhibits, research, and education. This resulted in phenomenal growth of the museum.
George spent the remainder of his life developing the public and education portion of the
museum as well as the paleontology and geology research collections.
Intended primarily as an academic support facility, the museum soon became a notable
attraction. Local and regional citizens brought guests, and school teachers throughout
western Kansas scheduled field trips to visit the growing museum. One of the most noted
specimens of the museum is an exceptionally well-preserved Gillicus within a
Xiphactinus, collected by Sternberg in 1952, know worldwide as the fish-within-a-fish.
After George’s death in 1969, the Sternberg Geology Club petitioned the university for
the public portion of the museum to be named in honor of the Sternberg family.
In the 1970s, the administration of Sternberg memorial Museum began to emphasize
tourism and education as a part of the mission of the museum. An expanded mission
stressed the use of collections, as educational resources for persons of all ages, including
school children, university students and faculty, local citizens, and tourists.
Continued growth of the museum led to a lack of collection space, overcrowded displays,
reduced research space, and limited public access. Furthermore, as a result of the FHSU
campus being situated on the flood plain, museum specimens were water damaged on
several occasions. With collections stored in multiple buildings, proper conservation and
environmental control was difficult. By the mid 1980s university administration
recognized the potential benefits of Sternberg Museum moving to a location offering
more public exhibits, research and collection space, easier access, and great visibility. An
unusual building in northeast Hays offered the museum just that.
With the acquisition of a new building for the museum in 1991, the academic collections
known as the Museum of the High Plains were merged with the Sternberg Memorial
Museum to become the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. Ambitious plans to
develop a world-class museum and tourist attraction continue to demonstrate our
commitment to science, education, and tourism.
The Sternberg Museum of Natural History, now housed in the former metroplex dome,
features a realistic Cretaceous diorama, redesigned exhibits from the original museum,
along with displays of specimens not previously on exhibit. Also new at the “dome” is the
discovery room, an interactive area of the museum where visitors can explore the
wonders of nature.