The Sternberg Museum of Natural History has a unique history that began with the combination of two separate university museums and the herbarium in the 1990s. Creating an appreciation for our natural history is our mission.
In terms of scientific holdings, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History ranks among the best of natural history museums. No other state university the size of Fort Hays State has a natural history museum comparable in size and scientific importance as the Sternberg. Our collections include one of the finest assemblies 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, remarkable mammals, reptiles, and plants.
The history of Sternberg Museum began with 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. Small fossils and taxidermy mounts dotted different offices on campus until a permanent room was built in the Picken Hall. In 1914, C.W. Miller was appointed as the first curator.
By 1915 the library in Picken Hall was in need of more space, and the museum specimens were pushed aside. Museum and university administrators sought a 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 headquarters to the newly built McCartney Hall. Sternberg, a famous fossil collector, and preparator collected his first well-known fossil, a complete plesiosaur, in 1892 at the age of 9. He, along with others at the university (including the famous mycologist Elam Bartholomew), assembled materials for exhibits, research, and education, this resulted in the rapid growth of the museum.
Sternberg 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 significant 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, known worldwide as the fish-within-a-fish.
After Sternberg’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 operation of the museum. A mission that stresses the use of collections, as educational resources for persons of all ages, including school children, university students and faculty, local citizens, and tourists.
The 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 were difficult. By the Mid 1980s the university administration
recognized the potential benefits of Sternberg Museum moving to a location offering more public exhibits, safe research and collection space, easier access, and great visibility.
In 1991, the museum got the building it needed to continue its mission with ambitious plans to develop a world-class museum and tourist attraction continue to demonstrate our commitment to science, education, and tourism. By merging with the academic collections known as the Museum of the High Plains and Sternberg Memorial Museum it became the place we all know today, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
Now housed in the former Metroplex dome, The Sternberg Museum of Natural History 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.