PaleoFest Unearths Education

Since opening in 1942, the Burpee Museum of Natural History, 737 N. Main St. in Rockford, has been an important hub for research and public education. First-time visitors to the museum might be surprised to learn that, in addition to being a popular tourist destination, Burpee is internationally known and respected for its paleontology program.

“Burpee has carved out its little niche in paleontology,” says Joshua Mathews, director of paleontology and vice president of research and operations at Burpee Museum. “It’s a homegrown program, and for a city the size of Rockford, that’s pretty special.”

To celebrate its paleontological prowess, Burpee holds an annual PaleoFest, now marking its 26th year. Set for March 1 to March 3 this year, PaleoFest brings together paleontology experts and families alike for a weekend of lectures, activities and fossilized fun.

“We bring in paleontologists from around the world to talk about their research and what they’re working on, from the smallest to largest fossils,” says Mathews. “There are multiple things going on at one time.”

The lecture series, held on Saturday and Sunday, brings together 16 experts who share their experiences.

“We welcome eight speakers on each day to talk about their research,” says Matthews.
For the general public, there are paleontology-related activities throughout the museum.

“There will be workshops for kids, and we have what we call ‘paleo passport’ stations set up with activities at each one,” says Mathews. “They get a little passport book, and they can get a stamp at each one for them to collect so they can get a prize.”

There are also classes where museum staff lead art activities for the kids.

“We’ve got lots of stuff for little kids, older kids and adults,” says Mathews. “It’s our biggest event of the year.”

Not long after holding its first PaleoFest, in 1998, Burpee’s paleontology department made big waves in its field when Burpee was invited to join the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a dig in Montana.

“They started the first dinosaur expedition in 2001,” says Mathews. “We went out and, on the first time, we found Jane.”

As the best-preserved and most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex in the world, Jane was quite a scoop that put Burpee on the map in the paleontological world, where it has been ever since. Burpee’s paleontology team continues its work in Montana and recently expanded to Utah, as well. Mathews led the team responsible for another popular Burpee exhibit, Homer the Triceratops.

With Jane and Homer as a backdrop, PaleoFest has captured the attention of paleontology enthusiasts far and wide. People come from across northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and even far-off places like Texas, Florida, California and Michigan.

“When I go to my professional paleontology meeting every year, I have paleontologists who are completely familiar with PaleoFest,” says Mathews. “They’re wondering when they’re going to get invited to speak.”

This year, the keynote lecture, titled “Early Dinosaur Evolution: from the Paleo-Equator to the Pole,” is delivered by Dr. Nathan Smith from the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

He’s joined by additional speakers during the weekend. These experts hail from respected institutions from around the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Yale University.

For Mathews, the event is a great way to showcase Burpee Museum and its contributions to the world of paleontology and natural history.

“It’s a feather in the cap for Burpee,” he says. “It’s exciting that this smaller institution in Rockford has a global reach in the field.”

For anyone who is inspired by PaleoFest, Mathews recommends picking up a shovel and going on a dig.

“We run a summer program where anyone can dig with us,” he says. “They pay a fee that funds the expedition.”

There are other great ways to get involved, too.

“I always tell kids who want to be paleontologists to volunteer,” says Mathews. “That’s what I did 20 years ago. I volunteered here at the lab for 3 hours a week and it snowballed from there.”

Whether you see paleontology as a career, or just enjoy learning about the past, there is something for everyone in the family at PaleoFest.

“All of paleontology is cool,” says Mathews. “It helps you paint a picture of life on Earth through time.”

To purchase tickets for this year’s PaleoFest, head to or pay a visit to the museum’s front desk. ❚