R. Aileen Yingst, a NASA senior scientist in the Mars Exploration Program, shows the largest piece of intact Mars meteorite on Earth at the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel on Aug. 31, 2021. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

BETHEL, Maine — A novel museum that opened in this small western Maine town just before the pandemic forced it to temporarily close last year is rebuilding momentum as it adds the largest Mars meteorite on Earth to its collection on Wednesday.

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum expects the new acquisition, a 32-pound meteorite that is the largest piece of Mars on Earth, to boost the flow of visitors and financial support. Like many museums in Maine, the Bethel museum lost traction during the pandemic. It had to close for three months starting in March 2020 and then reopen to capacity limits of only 15 visitors at a time and reduced revenue.

“How is that sustainable?” said Barbra Barrett, the museum’s director. “It’s a punch in the gut.”

Taoudenni 002, the largest Mars meteorite on Earth at 32 pounds, was recovered in a desert in Mali, about 300 miles north of Timbuktu. It went on display at the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel on Sept. 1, 2021. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

The state lifted indoor capacity limits in May, and visitors and revenues both rose quickly. The museum was able to retain its staff of 12 by taking out a federal pandemic loan. But it had to change how guests interacted with high-tech touch panels on exhibits, offering stylus pens and hand sanitizer, Barrett said. In another setback, a burst pipe that flooded part of the museum also forced it to close for several months earlier this year.

Public support is key to the museum’s success, and it has had to postpone a multi-million-dollar capital raise from mid-2020 until early next year, Lawrence Stifler, a philanthropist who founded the museum with his wife, Mary McFadden, said. He said the museum decided to raise money after it opened because it first has to prove itself.

“Everybody thought that this museum in western Maine would be a bunch of wood shelves with some minerals on them,” he said. “Unless somebody comes here, they have no idea.”

With help from Stifler, McFadden and internationally renowned scientists, the museum attracted widespread press attention and opened in December 2020 with more than 3,000 certified minerals and interactive exhibits.

Stifler said that despite setbacks, the museum already has undertaken 90 research studies, and has a laboratory in its basement. And it is contributing to economic development and education in the community, he said. The museum houses one of the world’s foremost collections of meteorites, including the five largest pieces of the Moon.

The new meteorite, discovered by a meteorite and truffle hunter in a desert in Mali, about 400 miles north of Timbuktu, piques human curiosity, R. Aileen Yingst, senior scientist in NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said.

“Mars and Earth were more similar at one point,” she said. “Mars looks familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.”

The meteorite, known as Taoudenni 002, traveled 100,000 miles before it landed in the desert. Yingst called it a tangible connection to space. The meteorite also could tell scientists about how Mars evolved.

“Someone may go to Mars one day because they saw this meteorite,” she said.

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