The Finger Lakes is a region well known for showcasing the natural beauty of Earth, and if you want to learn more about the history of the planet, there’s no better spot to check out than the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.
The Museum of the Earth is the museum for the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), a 90-year-old organization that researches the history of the planet. It is said that the institution is home to one of the largest collections of fossils in the world.
In 2003, the PRI opened the Museum of the Earth in a beautiful 18,000-square-foot building on the southwestern shores of Cayuga Lake about three miles outside of downtown Ithaca.
I checked out the museum on a beautiful summer day, just after exploring the nearby Cayuga Nature Center, which is also managed by the PRI.
As soon as you walk into the building, it’s impossible to not immediately notice the giant skeleton of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale that is hanging from the ceiling and suspended above the museum floor below. This whale perished off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey in 1999 after being entangled in fishing line, but fortunately, the museum was able to preserve its skeleton for educational purposes.
It’s truly impressive seeing the skeleton of a 44-foot whale in the space, and you’ll definitely want to take a minute to check out this exhibit before heading into the rest of the museum.
Other than the admission desk, gift shop, and whale skeleton, the vast majority of the exhibits in the museum are located in the basement of the building, so you’ll want to head down the large ramp to reach them.
Along this ramp, is an artist’s rendering of actual fossils that have been found around the world that detail the history of the Earth. As you walk down the ramp, you’ll pass by over 500 million years of history. Definitely make sure to take a bit of time to explore this mural as you proceed toward the exhibits on the lower level.
Most of the display area at the Museum of the Earth is taken up by an exhibit called “A Journey Through Time”. This exhibit leads you through 4.5 billion years of the Earth’s history from the very beginnings of life on earth through to the present day.
While this section does cover the entire history of the earth, most of the focus is on the period of time starting about 600 million years ago when animals first appeared.
Each period of time is given its own space, with artifacts from each on display to really help visitors learn more about these eras. Items on display range from large dinosaur fossils to smaller pieces of rock, some of which contain imprints. There are also graphic representations of life on earth, videos, and even some interactive elements to check out.
I was also impressed with the signage in this exhibition (and throughout the entire museum), which struck me as being detailed enough for adults but easy for kids to read and understand.
While there was a lot to see here, the highlight for me was the Hyde Park Mastodon. This mastodon was found at the bottom of a pond in Hyde Park, NY in 1999 and, with 97% of its bones present, is one of the most complete mastodon skeletons in the world.
Honestly, for me, seeing this mastodon was worth the price of admission by itself.
Another highlight of the area was the ice age glacier that you could walk through. This area was very nicely themed, and I really enjoyed all of the information specifically related to how the many gorges of the Finger Lakes were created.
While the “A Journey Through Time” exhibit takes up most of the space on the lower level, it’s not the only area to see here.
The rest of the exhibition space is taken up with a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibitions. During my family’s visit in the summer of 2022, this area included exhibitions on climate change, selections from the Cornell University Insect Collection, and a very cool rock taken from Honeoye Falls near Rochester that showed a significant number of fossil imprints.
There is also the Preparation Laboratory where you can sometimes see archeologists painstakingly removing fossils from rock and preparing them for preservation or display. Unfortunately, however, while we could see into the space, no one was working the day we were there.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fun scavenger hunt that the museum has for kids. You can pick it up at the admissions desk when you pay, and it helps guides kids through the space, pointing out different displays and areas of interest. Those that complete this fun activity will get a small prize at the end of their visit.
This was definitely something that my children really enjoyed during our visit, and it helped to hold their attention a bit more so that my wife and I could read more of the signage and experience the museum a bit more peacefully.
There are also a lot of other great interactive play areas for kids spread throughout the space, ensuring that kids won’t be bored while visiting this excellent museum.
Overall, my family and I had a fantastic time visiting the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY. I’ve visited many great natural history museums both in New York and further afield, but the displays at this museum were among the best and offered a unique look into the history of the world and helped us to understand how the Earth changed over time.
Whether you are looking for something to do on a rainy day in Ithaca or simply want to learn more about the history of both this region and the world, this is definitely a must-visit spot to check out.
Museum of the Earth
Cost: Adults: $12.50, Kids: $7.50
Address: 1259 Trumansburg Rd