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It seems that Michigan Tech's underpinnings in the Upper Peninsula's mining industry are quite literal as well as philosophical. While the university was building its new mineral museum, contractors discovered old mining tunnels where new foundations were scheduled to be laid. But, in true Keweenaw fashion, they worked around the problem, and even managed to use the discovery in a museum exhibit.

Michigan Technological University began in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School of Houghton. Tech continues to honor its foundation as a mining university as the home of Michigan's official mineral museum--a home that is getting an upgrade with a new building that is being constructed on campus for the A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum.

For the past 35 years the museum has been on the fifth floor of the Electrical Engineering Resource Center. The future facility is in the works at 1404 Sharon Avenue next to the Advanced Technology Development Complex. The $1.5 million project is funded by alumni donations with funds also supporting the renovation of its former location in EERC into research and teaching facilities.

Though no construction work is without obstacles, Moyle Construction dealt with a major one on this project; uncovering two old mine shafts from the Isle Royale Mining Company. Construction was well underway when the shafts were exposed with two-thirds of the new building's walls already in place. Built in the 1860s, the current condition of the mine and stage of the new project made preservation unfeasible. A reinforced concrete and steel cap was put over the mine to allow construction to continue.

The old mine was constructed to access the Mabb's vein, famous in its day for removing a 2,300-pound single mass of copper from its location. An exhibit displaying pieces of copper recovered at the construction site by Moyle workers will incorporate the unique history beneath visitors' feet.

The new museum will actually be 20 percent smaller than its EERC location, but one of the bigger and better features will be its 50-percent-larger gift shop. The shop will feature a mixture of minerals for sale such as local datolite, calcite and plenty of copper. Other items include local artist-made greenstone jewelry, Lake Superior agates and a helpful guide on how to identify them and other beach stones.

"Our Michigan minerals are our stronghold," says George Robinson, the museum's curator. The museum is known for featuring the world's best collection of Lake Superior iron district minerals and crystallized native copper.

"It's what sets us apart from other mineral museums," adds Robinson.

With about six thousand specimens on display, this prime location for viewing Michigan minerals has over 25,000 specimens behind the scenes.

"If you went to the Smithsonian or Harvard you would see some very nice Copper Country and Michigan things but nothing compared to what we have," says Robinson.

Visitors who have been to the museum in the past can expect new and exciting things at the Sharon Avenue location.

"We're going to redo and recast half the exhibit space, so half the exhibits will be brand new," explains Ted Bornhorst, museum director.

A new display will present the properties of minerals and sustainable mining in addition to an expanded fluorescent exhibit. "It's going to be much larger and more spectacular than what we had," says Robinson.

New programs are planned for children as well to encourage them to get engaged with the exhibits.

"It's always been a community resource for students," Robinson says. Local students along with professors and students from other universities in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin have traveled to see the minerals. Greater accessibility and visibility will make it more convenient for these groups to tour the museum.

"It'll be easier to get to because of the 'P' word: parking," says Robinson. Visitors will be able to park within 20 feet of the door with signs posted along US 41.

"We're really hoping to see a change with a lot more local people coming," Bornhorst adds. "I'm excited about that."

The visitor-friendly facility was designed by OHM Architects and Engineers of Hancock. The 9,000-square-foot building meets the needs of the museum today and is flexibly designed for future use. The long term goal for the museum is to eventually relocate to the site of the Quincy Mine in Hancock. When funding is available, the Quincy Mine museum will be an estimated $20 million project. The new facility on Sharon Ave can then be inexpensively renovated for other use by the university.

The museum intends to re-open in July beginning with the gift shop and followed by the opening of the Copper Country and mineral art galleries. Other exhibits will continue to open through the following year until the museum is completed in May 2012.

"Visitors will have to be patient and know that there's better stuff to come," says Robinson. The local and tourist community will have plenty to look forward to.

"It'll all be reinvigorated. We'll have a nicer gift shop, nicer exhibit space and will be easier to get to, what else can we want?" says Bornhorst.

Raised in historic Calumet, Victoria Peters always dreamed of pursuing a career in journalism, or becoming an "ABC girl," as she referred to the profession in her kindergarten days. A recent graduate of Michigan Technological University, she now resides in Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Peters currently works as a receptionist, freelance writer and copy editor.

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