Mace Brown Museum celebrates 10th anniversary with new research fellowship

Ten-year anniversaries traditionally call for gifts of tin or aluminum. For Mace Brownthe 10th anniversary of the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston is being marked by a multi-year gift to support a new research fellowship to take the museum’s research and community outreach to the next level.  

Brown’s gift may not have been intended as an anniversary present, but his investment is intentional nonetheless. After informally funding research activities for the past six years, Brown established the Mace Brown Museum Research Fellowship to provide a steadier stream of resources to support a summer faculty stipend, research activities and travel to professional conferences.  

The recipient of the Mace Brown Museum Research Fellowship is Robert Boessenecker, Ph.D. research associate and adjunct instructor in the College’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. Boessenecker is no stranger to Mace Brown or the museum; he has known of Brown and his collection since before first visiting the College as a doctoral student in 2012Boessenecker has been involved in myriad museum-based research projects since joining the College in Fall 2015.  

Boessenecker’s primary responsibilities as the Mace Brown Museum Research Fellow include the study of the evolution of whales and dolphins by researching the fossils within the museum, preparing multiple manuscripts on fossil cetaceans for peer review, improving the collections, and promoting the museum through social media outreach and public lectures. He also serves as a mentor to aspiring undergraduate paleontology students in the School of Sciences and Mathematics and works with them to publish their own research. 

Most of Boessenecker’s research is conducted during the summer, when he doesn’t carry a full teaching load. “Summer is when I can focus on squeezing as much information as possible from old bones and teeth,” he says. “The collection we have here is one of the most important resources available for learning about whale and dolphin evolution. Mace’s collection was a primary factor in my coming to the College after getting my Ph.D.” 

“Mace is responsible for bringing a number of amazing fossils into the public trust, and the scientific value of this collection is unparalleled,” Boessenecker shares. “He is an altruistic collector, in that he didn’t amass a unique and significant collection just to sell them. He always wanted to give them to a place where scientists and non-scientists can learn from them and grow their interest in our ancient marine life forms.” 

Boessenecker’s primary goal is identifying more of the dolphin and whale species that are in the collection. Paleontological research in the Lowcountry started in the 1840s near Middleton Place, but it wasn’t until the growth of subdivisions in the 1960s and 1970s that skeletons were found. Boessenecker says that the number of fossils discovered skyrocketed from 1965-85, and the number of whale fossils found in Charleston likely doubled in the first few weeks of construction during that time than in the entire century before. The story of Boessenecker’s work with a giant dolphin found in the 1990s (Ankylorhiza tiedemani) was recently posted in The College Today 

In addition to naming fossil species, Boessenecker continues advancing the museum’s profile and interests through marketing and a number of research projects. And he isn’t toiling in the museum’s storage spaces and labs alone. The museum is a family affair, as Boessenecker’s wife Sarah also contributes her expertiseSo far, she has catalogued the entire collection and is instrumental in outreach to the community. Their partnership appears to be working – last year the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History attracted between 14,000 and 15,000 visitors. 

Brown, once heavily engaged in the day-to-day operations of the Museum, stepped back in 2016 to let others take responsibility for the collection he gave to the CofC Foundation. In addition to the Boesseneckers, Scott Persons, Ph.D. joined the College in 2019 as curator of the Mace Brown Museum and assistant professor in the geology department.  

“It is gratifying to see what they are doing with the museum and collection,” Brown says. I have great respect for the professional staff running it now. We are definitely moving in the right direction on every front at the museum, and much of that is due to the work done by Bobby and SarahI see our reputation continuing to grow in the scientific community and with the general public, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”