“The three-minute museum” – Paleontology lesson at the subway

“The three-minute museum” – Paleontology lesson at the subway

14 February, 2018 in Research

Unique in the whole world, the ambitious project of transforming the Politehnica subway station in a paleontology museum is the result of over 20 years of research coordinated by Professor Mihai Emilian Popa, Ph.D. The Professor and his students have worked together in order to elucidate the mystery of the fossils in the Politehnica subway station in Bucharest. The results of the study, which was concluded through a valuable blueprint within the Faculty of Geology and Geophysics of the University of Bucharest, stand as the grounds of the configuration of a project for a museum, which is currently called “The three-minute museum”. Alongside the University of Bucharest, other parties contributed to the completion of the project, such as Metrorex, Grey G2 Romania and Metroul SA, along with engineers and architects.

Professor within the Department of Geology at the Faculty of Geology and Geophysics of the University of Bucharest, Mihai Popa is so dedicated to his vocation that each semester he organizes workshops on the subway platform for the students of the faculties of Geology and Geophysics, Geography and Biology within the University of Bucharest. As a matter of fact, today, all “is up to the way in which you tell the story, it is our duty to talk in such way as to be understood by all, and this is why students are so receptive. The Politehnica subway station is an original place to teach, and the students truly appreciate the workshops held there. We, as scientists, have a duty not only towards our students, but also towards the public. Researchers are the backbone of the universities”, stated Professor Mihai Popa.

Time travel, one subway station away
The Politehnica subway station in Bucharest is an original place that preserves a whole Mesozoic ecosystem: in the chalkstone slabs used by the workers to plate the subway station, Cretaceous organisms are fossilized, which are called rudists. “It is interesting to see rudists in all sections and levels of the Politehnica subway stations. There we can also find gastropods, corals, stromatolites and red algae.” It is important to note that the paleontological climate in the Politehnica subway station is unique throughout the whole world, particularly since the fossils are ideally displayed to the public, on the very pavement of the station.
Their conservation is exceptional, and the moral of their story is just as interesting, if not more. Therefore, alongside the scientific and educational importance of the paleontological discoveries, offered by the multitude of courses held right in the station, as well as alongside their aesthetic importance, they also hold a particular moral, regarding the evolution and the destiny of our species. “We, as a species, have a history of only around 300 thousand years, accounting for around 10.000 generations. When compared to rudists, we become a group with an extremely short history. However, the rudists have disappeared almost instantaneously on the geological axis of time, because of the extinction which brought the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, when Chicxulub hit our planet. Therefore, as is the case with rudists, one may have an extraordinary evolution and a fantastic biological success, but still disappear suddenly. This is the moral of the Politehnica subway station, the fact that Homo sapiens might disappear just as fast as the rudists did, though we, as a species, are much younger and have an incomparably shorter history than they did. The subway station is a memento mori for us”, concludes Professor Mihai Popa.

Students, fascinated by the paleontological message
Amongst fossils and rocks, surrounded by people and by the stories of the geological past – this is how Professor Mihai Popa would describe geologists. However, the uniqueness of the Politehnica subway station is defined by the moment when we discover that “students are also fascinated by the subject. It brings in not only students, but also the general audience, provided we know how to tell the story of this chapter in paleontology. In fact, the paleontological scientific research and practice are fascinating. Practice involves spending hours on the subway station, as well as in the laboratory, analyzing rudists. One first learns about these fossils in the laboratory of the faculty and then goes on to study them at the subway.” Thus, there is no such thing as practical research without a broad range of theoretical knowledge in Paleobotany and in Paleozoology: “we have succeeded with the creation of Central and Eastern Europe’s greatest Paleobotany library, a project on which I have been working since 1990, when I began collecting literature on fossil plants. This is part of my lifetime work.” The library therefore becomes an important research instrument for geologists: “studying fossil plants without a library means that there is no advancement with the research.”
Considering all the above, states Professor Mihai Popa, the general audience and particularly the high school students have limited access to Geology and Paleontology-related issues. “We are currently facing the following problem: Geology is not taught in high school and students are not that knowledgeable about this topic. Therefore, we aim to expose such students to Geology and Paleontology-related subjects, and the Politehnica subway station is a great example. Besides, the Politehnica museum may even become a point of reference for Bucharest: “All of the foreigners that I manager to bring to the subway were absolutely fascinated by the conservation and the diversity of the fossils, as well as by the message bore by the station itself.”

A series of events with unforeseen consequences
The queen of the Bucharest subway stations, as Professor Popa calls it, has had its paleontological environment created by accident: “it was a truly fortunate happening, one of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s desires since 1983, to decorate all subway stations with native Romanian ornamental rocks.” It is therefore not surprising that all subway stations in Bucharest are brimming with Jurassic fossils. However, the Politehnica station is by far the greatest, as it is the most beautiful subway station in Bucharest: the chalkstone used to pave the subways station was extracted from the Gilău mountains, from the Săvădisla commune in Cluj County.
It is also by accident that geologist Mihai Popa began his research in the Bucharest subway: “I discovered the subway station in 1994, when I began working there. I was a student in my fifth year when I noticed the fossils, and I was obviously fascinated with them, I started studying them. I used to go there every evening and work – there is a remarkable evolutionary story to be discovered there, full of morals and not lastly, a story that is important from an educational point of view. At the Politehnica subway station, we find ourselves in the epicenter of very important scientific issues: systematics, paleoecology and evolution. I published my first work regarding the subway station in 2000. For me, Paleontology is also a hobby, as this is the only way one can advance in this field: one cannot study Paleontology if they do not like it.”
Passion was at the base of “The Three-Minute Museum” project: “the project for the Politehnica subway station museum is ready for quite a while, everything is done, and the suggested redecoration is spectacular. Paleoart can be displayed on the walls of the station, as well as paleoenvironment reconstructions, and on the ceiling marine reptiles that used to swim on the reef can be painted. The issue of paleoart and of artistic reconstruction of paleoenvironments is a complex problem, because paleoart is difficult to produce and is therefore expensive. However, it remains an important means of conveying the paleontological message, for the paleontological education of the greater audience.”

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