The dinosaurs of London’s Natural History Museum

Founded in 1881 as an offshoot of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London is one of the world’s best-known and most-visited museums. For millions of visitors from the UK and abroad each year, NHM provides their first—sometimes only—opportunity to see a full-sized dinosaur skeleton in person. That makes the collection of dinosaurs on display uniquely important: each one is an ambassador to paleontological science and the deep history of the Earth.

For your reference and mine, what follows is a brief introduction to NHM’s dinosaurs. Please note that I have not been to NHM and this information is based on references available online.

Diplodocus carnegii (Dippy)

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For 36 years, Dippy greeted visitors in Hintze Hall. Source

Most readers are probably familiar with the story of Dippy the Diplodocus. In 1898, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded an expedition to find a sauropod dinosaur for the newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Diplodocus the team uncovered the following summer was—and still is—one of the most complete sauropod skeletons ever found. Nevertheless, Carnegie lost the race for the first mounted sauropod on permanent display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite Apatosaurus in March of 1905, while the Carnegie Museum building was still unfinished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus to King Edward VII. The replica known today as Dippy went on display in London that May. Carnegie went on to produce seven additional Diplodocus casts, and more have been created since his death in 1919.

Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy’s cultural impact is astounding. As Nieuwland writes, “Carnegie’s series of casts—and the political gesture of their donations—turned [Dippy] into a contested and open-ended object that existed at the crossroads of several interacting (social, political, cultural, scientific) domains.” The intersection of political intrigue and gossip with the sensational nature of the specimen itself resulted in a cascade of media attention, political cartoons, and eventually even films. At least in Europe, Dippy can be believably said to be the specimen that made “dinosaur” a household word.

In 1979, Dippy was moved to NHM’s cavernous entryway, called Hintze Hall. The cast served as the museum’s mascot and most iconic object until 2015, when it was replaced with a blue whale skeleton. Dippy’s time in the limelight was not over, however. The original cast was retrofitted for the traveling exhibition Dippy on Tour, and a bronze duplicate may one day be installed outside NHM.

Triceratops sp.

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Triceratops replica skeleton at the Natural History Museum. Source

This Triceratops is not an original skeleton or a cast—it’s a papier mâché model. Frederic Lucas of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) created this replica in 1900 for the Smithsonian display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. He likely used O.C. Marsh’s published illustration of a Triceratops skeleton as his primary reference. The model made a second appearance at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, but was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when Charles Gilmore finished the world’s first real Triceratops mount in 1905. While constructing the skeleton, Gilmore learned that Marsh and Lucas’s straight-legged interpretation was physically impossible—Triceratops actually had partially sprawling forelimbs.

Nevertheless, exhibit models like this rarely go waste. Two years later, NHM received Lucas’s model as a gift from USNM. It has been on nearly continuous display ever since.

Iguanodon bernissartensis

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The Belgian Iguanodon cast as it appears today.Source

In 1878, coal miners in western Belgium discovered a clay deposit dense with Iguanodon fossils. A crew from the Belgian Royal Museum of Natural History (now the Belgium Museum of Natural Sciences) excavated dozens of skeletons, and in 1882 Louis De Pauw and Louis Dollo took on the task of assembling the best examples into standing mounts. De Pauw distributed casts of the largest and most complete individual to several institutions around Europe, including NHM (sources differ on whether the NHM cast arrived in 1895 or 1905).

While Dippy is made up of individual plaster casts of each bone, the Iguanodon was molded and cast in a handful of large sections. This means that the skeleton cannot be easily reassembled into a horizontal pose, and must remain a relic of an earlier era in our understanding of dinosaur posture.

Hypsilophodon foxii

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Nearly all known Hypsilophodon fossils come from the”Hypsilophodon bed,” part of the Wessex Formation on the Isle of Wight. More than a hundred articulated skeletons have been found in this mudstone layer, including NHM’s mounted pair. These particular individuals were collected by Reginald Hooley, an avocational fossil collector who also described and published several new species. The bulk of Hooley’s collection was sold to NHM in 1924, shortly after his death.

The larger Hypsilophodon (R5829) was mounted in 1934 by preparators Louis Parsons and Frank Barlow, in an upright, tail-dragging pose that closely mirrored the Belgian Iguanodon. This mount remained on display until the early 1990s, when the specimen was remounted for the 1992 dinosaur hall. Nigel Larkin and colleagues adapted the original iron armature to give the skeleton its correct horizontal posture. A juvenile Hypsilophodon (R5830) from the Hooley collection was also mounted at this time, using a cast Orodromeus skull provided by the Museum of the Rockies. Both Hypsilophodon mounts remained on display until 2016, when they were removed due to conservation concerns.

Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis

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The centerpiece of the 1924 Hooley acquisition is the holotype skeleton (R5764) of Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, known at the time as Iguanodon atherfieldensis. Hooley found the 85% complete skeleton in 1914 on the Isle of Wight, in several blocks that had already eroded out of a cliff. It was—and still is—the most complete dinosaur skeleton found in the UK. Like the Hypsilophodon, the Mantellisaurus was originally mounted in the 1930s with a kangaroo-like posture. It was remounted for the 1992 exhibit in a horizontal walking pose.

More recently, the Mantellisaurus was moved to the redesigned Hintze Hall, part of a small selection of iconic specimens that represent the NHM’s collections and research areas. As an exceptionally complete, local dinosaur, it was a natural choice to represent vertebrate paleontology at the museum. In 2019, paleontologist Susannah Maidment and preparator Mark Graham spent four days temporarily dismantling the Mantellisaurus mount and digitizing every bone for future research.

Scolosaurus cutleri

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The complete Scolosaurus fossil. Image courtesy of the National History Museum, CC BY.

Another remarkable real specimen in the NHM collection is the Scolosaurus holotype (R5161). This fossil includes nearly the entire animal intact and in situ, including its osteoderms and some skin impressions. Only the head, the end of the tail, and two limbs are missing.

The Scolosaurus was found by fossil hunter William Cutler in 1914. After moving to Alberta from the UK, Cutler found work on Barnum Brown’s field expeditions before setting out as an independent collector. Cutler had a reputation for reckless behavior in the field, and often worked alone. Excavating the Scolosaurus was a case in point: it collapsed on him while he was undercutting the jacket.

NHM purchased the Scolosaurus in 1915, and Parsons set to work preparing the fossil straightaway. It has been on near-continuous display since 1929.

Cutler was hired by NHM again in 1925 to search for dinosaurs in Tanzania. Among his party was none other than Louis Leakey, on his first field season. Tragically, Cutler contracted malaria and died in the field at age 47.

Massospondylus carinatus

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Like most of the dinosaurs in the 1992 exhibit, Massospondylus stands on a platform over visitors’ heads. Source

In 1962, NHM acquired a nearly complete, unarticulated Massospondylus cast from the South African Museum in Cape Town. Some time later, William Lindsay and colleagues mounted it for a temporary exhibition at the City of Plymouth Museum. The mount has an unusual supporting armature, composed of short, glass-reinforced epoxy tubes. Since each section of tube fits tightly into the next, the mount can be assembled without the use of adhesives. The Massospondylus was repurposed for the 1992 dinosaur hall, where it remains today.

Gallimimus bullatus

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At 18 feet long, Gallimimus is bigger than you think. Source

Like Massospondylus, this Gallimimus arrived at NHM as an unarticulated cast in an exchange with a peer institution, in this case the Polish Academy of Sciences. The original skeleton was discovered on a Polish-Mongolian joint expedition led by trailblazing paleontologist and all-around incredible person Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska.

When NHM was beginning work on the 1992 dinosaur hall, the fossil prep team elected to hire Research Casting International to mount the Gallimimus. Rather than using the plaster casts, RCI made a plastic duplicate of each bone and assembled them on an aluminum armature. The skeleton’s running pose meant that the mount’s weight had to be carefully managed. All the weight rests on the left leg, which was molded around a 22-pound steel rod to compensate.

Lindsay reports that the decision to display most of the dinosaurs on elevated platforms was not made until after most of the mounts were finished. This wasn’t an issue for the smaller, more stable skeletons, but the Gallimimus was heavy and awkward enough that the tensioned steel cables holding up its platform had to be adjusted and readjusted as the skeleton was assembled.

Baryonyx walkerii

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A relief-mounted cast of Baryonyx, created in-house at NHM. Source

In January of 1983, William Walker discovered a large claw in a brick pit. NHM paleontologists Angela Milner and Alan Charig traveled to the site in southern England that summer to look for more. What they found was a carnivorous dinosaur unlike any other, with a crocodilian snout and smooth, straight teeth for snagging fish. Named Baryonyx walkeri, this specimen (R9951) is the only confirmed example of the species yet found.

The Baryonyx was found in particularly hard matrix loaded with iron ore, and as a result took nearly ten years to prepare, mold, and cast. A relief mount was completed just in time for the opening of the 1992 dinosaur hall.

Stegosaurus stenops (Sophie)

Sophie the Stegosaurus greets visitors in Earth Hall, at the museum’s east entrance.
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NHM’s most recent major dinosaur acquisition is a juvenile Stegosaurus called Sophie (R36730). Commericial fossil hunter Bob Simon collected the skeleton at a quarry in Wyoming, in 2003. The 90% complete, three-dimensionally preserved skeleton was prepared at Sauriermuseum in Switzerland. NHM purchased the specimen in 2013 with the help of multiple donors. Working in secret, staff paleontologists Susannah Maidment, Paul Barrett, and Charlotte Brassey thoroughly documented the skeleton with CT and laser scans of every bone. Sophie’s mounted skeleton was a surprise reveal in December 2014, alongside a trove of open access research covering the animal’s locomotion, bite force, and more.

References

Barrett, P., Parry, P., and Chapman, S. 2016. Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon. Natural History Museum, London.

Getty, T.A. and Crane, M.D. 1975. A Historical Account of the Palaeontological Collections found by R.W. Hooley (1865 to 1923). Newsletter of the Geological Curators Group. 4 (September 1975) :170-179.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N., and Smith, N. 1996. Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.

Maidenment, S.C.R., Brassey, C., and Barrett, P.M. 2015. The postcranial skeleton of an exceptionally complete individual of the plated dinosaur Stegosaurus stenops from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming, USA. PLoS One. 10:10: e0138352.

Nieuwland, I. 2019. American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Noe, L. and Flinney, S. 2008. Dismantling, painting, and re-erecting of a historical cast of dinosaur Iguanodon in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. NatSCA News 14:41-48.

Swinton, W.E. 1936. Notes on the Osteology of Hypsilophodon, and on the family Hypsilophodontidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 106:2:555-578.

Tanke, D.H. 2003. Lost in plain sight: Rediscovery of William Cutler’s missing Eoceratops. In New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NHM, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

Visitor well-being and NHM’s dinosaur exhibit

Dinosaurs at the London Natural History Museum, ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The photo to the left shows the dinosaur exhibition at the London Natural History Museum (NHM) around 1970. It was, by all appearances, a classic dinosaur exhibit, with several large skeletons (Diplodocus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and Iguanodon, just out of view) arranged in a fairly open gallery. It was replaced in the mid-1990s by a very different dinosaur exhibit, which remains on display today with some minor modifications. The 1990s exhibit (I hesitate to call it “new” since it is nearly 30 years old) differs from the midcentury version in nearly every way. It’s vibrant, colorful, and sometimes cheesy, with cartoons and animatronic dinosaurs intermixed with the traditional skeletons and fossil specimens.

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition between these two exhibits not only because they are quite different, but because they are different in a way that defies conventional wisdom about how museums have changed in the last half-century.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that I’ve never been to NHM (or to the UK, for that matter). My knowledge of these exhibits comes from photos and anecdotes, as well as this excellent walkthrough video (dinosaur hall starts at 52:25). These are no substitute for exploring an exhibit in person, so my critiques here may be completely unwarranted—please comment if so! In fact, my criticism is about a particular era of exhibit development, not any particular group of people. I’ll add that NHM’s newer paleontology efforts, including the traveling Dippy exhibit, are very impressive.

A representative view of the NHM dinosaur gallery today.

One often hears that natural history museums of the past were stodgy, but reliably educational and authentic. Traditional museum exhibits stuck close to their cabinet of curiosity roots, showcasing the breadth of their collections without excessive pomp. But sometime in the late 20th century, museums became overly focused on “edutainment.” Collections-based exhibits were sidelined in favor of theme park-inspired, attention-grabbing gimmicks. The NHM dinosaur exhibit would easily fit into this narrative: the grand hall of skeletons wasn’t flashy enough for modern audiences, so it was replaced by an exhibit full of cheeky pop culture references and roaring animatronics.

I don’t much like this narrative for several reasons, not least of all because attention-grabbing gimmicks have been a part of museums’ DNA since their inception. In the case of the NHM dinosaur exhibits, I suspect the conventional narrative is completely backward: the creators of the 1990s exhibit had educational goals front-of-mind, but the midcentury exhibit was probably more appealing to the museum’s audience.

The animatronic Tyrannosaurus, widely regarded the exhibit’s highlight. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad, CC SA.

Judging by online reviews and the comments I received when I previewed the photos in this post on Twitter, a plurality of actual, flesh-and-blood visitors find the current NHM dinosaur exhibit disappointing. It’s dark and cramped—so much so that the single path through the exhibit essentially becomes a queue on crowded days. The real and replicated specimens on display are underwhelming compared to peer institutions. And the dinosaur skeletons—all casts of medium-sized taxa—are mounted on overhead scaffolding and are hard to see (there used to be a walkway for viewing these at eye level, but it’s been closed for years).

What I find striking looking at photos and videos is how the exhibit’s design doesn’t emphasize the fossils or even the replications, but the graphic panels containing text and images. There are a LOT of panels in this exhibit, and they are the best-lit, most colorful, and most eye-catching part of the experience. I don’t know what the exhibit team was thinking 30 years ago, but I suspect that the way this exhibit turned out is the inevitable result of using learning goals as a primary measure of success.

Brightly-colored panels overshadow the fossils. Photo by Paul Hammond.

Museum leaders continuously struggle for funding and support, and have tried all sorts of metrics to quantify success and prove their institutions’ worth. Attendance, donations, and community reach all have their uses, but don’t capture the qualitative value of a place where people go to learn. Measuring learning is tricky (see standardized tests), but many museums have tried. Typically, this is done by developing an exhibit project around a set of defined learning goals—visitors should leave the exhibit understanding A, B, and C—and using exit surveys to test whether visitors learned what they were supposed to.

The problem with using learning goals to measure success is twofold. For one thing, you may well end up with a product like the NHM dinosaur exhibit. If visitors gaining and retaining specific concepts is your primary concern, it makes sense to focus on presenting ideas via words and graphics. Words are a more direct way to relay information than specimens, so the fossils end up in the dark or even out of visitors’ primary line of sight. And to make absolutely sure visitors are getting the intended message, they’re put on a narrow path that controls what they see and in what order. Unfortunately, reading text and viewing images is something accomplished far more easily (and comfortably) at home than in an exhibit.

The second problem is that learning goals don’t align well with the reasons visitors actually go to museums. James Burns directed me to longtime museum commentator John Falk’s newest book, The Value of Museums, which masterfully articulates this problem. “Virtually all efforts,” Falk argues, “have begun from an ‘insider’ definition of the importance and value of museums and the experiences they create.” From the inside, it makes sense that our institutions are repositories of information, and the purpose of exhibits and other outreach efforts is to share that information with the world. Learning goals follow as a sensible way to measure success. But visitors, by and large, are after something else, which Falk calls “well-being.” They seek out museums as places to activate wonder and excitement, to facilitate understanding about their world, and to provide opportunities to gather and share experiences with friends and family. Learning new information contributes to the well-being provided by museums, but it’s part of a larger set of experiences.

This half-mount Baryonyx cast was a new creation for the 1990s exhibit. Photo by Ripton Scott, CC SA.

With visitor well-being in mind, the choices made in creating the NHM dinosaur exhibit seem misguided. The emphasis is on reading panels, which is generally a solitary activity. Rather than encouraging groups to gather around displays that excite them, the layout necessitates a single-file trudge. With the exception of the animatronic T. rex, few of the objects call attention to themselves (and the coolest and most unique elements, like the Baryonyx and Scolosaurus, are in cramped, dark spaces).

Take a moment to scroll back up to the photo of the dinosaur hall in 1970. There is undoubtably less information in that exhibit, and learning outcomes may well be all over the place. But those four giant skeletons in that open, sun-lit room likely provided a much more memorable experience for the generation of visitors that saw them. And I might go as far as to say that the old exhibit was surely more successful, in the long run, at generating enthusiasm and lasting interest in life on Earth.

References

Falk, J. 2021. The Value of Museums: Enhancing Social Well-Being. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N., and Smith, N. 1996. Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39: 4: 262-279.

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing US Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press.

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Telling SUE’s story (part 2)

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The fleshed-out reconstruction of SUE is the show-stopping highlight of SUE: The T. rex Experience. Photo by Chris Schneider.

Start with Telling SUE’s story (part 1).

Just a few weeks after the new SUE gallery opened at the Field Museum, a smaller team was convened to create a new traveling exhibition about the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. The original traveling exhibit—A T. rex Named SUE—launched in 2000 and ran for more than fifteen years, touring all over North America, Europe, and Asia. But the components were getting worn out, some of the science was lukewarm, and the market for traveling dinosaur exhibits had gotten more competitive. Our task was to build a bigger, better SUE exhibit, using the assets we had just developed for the permanent gallery as a starting point.

Finding an angle

In the permanent SUE gallery, we could rely on the drawing power of the real skeleton of the most complete adult Tyrannosaurus ever found. The traveling exhibit, however, would have to use a cast. That meant we needed to put greater emphasis on storytelling, and as Exhibition Developer, storytelling was my responsibility. To figure out what kind of story we wanted to tell, we started by checking in on our peers. The American Museum of Natural History had just opened the temporary exhibit T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, so the design team and I traveled to New York to have a look.

The visual language of T. rex the Ultimate Predator is stark, angular, and black-and-white. Photo by the author.

T. rex: The Ultimate Predator considers the evolutionary history of Tyrannosaurus rex. The exhibition is about the entire tyrannosaur family and explores how the traits that define T. rex gradually accumulated over a hundred million years. Because this story exists in the realm of cladograms and morphometric analyses, the design language is sparse, almost clinical. The life-sized models, fossils, and illustrations seem to float in a black-and-white void. This visual style pairs well with the story being told, and the team behind T. rex: The Ultimate Predator did some phenomenal work. However, it was clear that we wanted to go in a different direction.

We decided that our exhibit—now titled SUE: The T. rex Experience—would be about the relationship between the titular dinosaur and their environment. The Hell Creek Formation (the rock layer in which SUE was found) preserves one of the most well-studied ecosystems from the Age of Dinosaurs. That meant that we could reconstruct SUE’s life and times in detail, showcasing the world this famous predator lived in and giving visitors a sense of what it was like to be a T. rex

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A narrated light show tells SUE’s story. Photo by Chris Schneider.

The Hell Creek environment was a place of danger and opportunity for SUE, and it was important that our star Tyrannosaurus was never divorced from that context. This environmental focus dovetailed with the story told by the SUE fossil itself. SUE is exquisitely preserved and is the subject of dozens of scientific papers—we know more about this individual than almost any other dinosaur. From how SUE grew up and grew old to how they got injured and sick, SUE’s skeleton tells the life story of the oldest—and therefore the most successful—T. rex known to science. Put another way, we wanted to make SUE a character (to the extent that was scientifically credible, of course). By spotlighting the evidence for SUE’s hard life as an apex predator, we hoped the exhibit would inspire visitors to empathize with this long-dead dinosaur, while discouraging them from conceptualizing T. rex as a fantastical monster.

SUE’s world

SUE: The T. rex Experience immerses visitors in the Hell Creek environment. Scientific advisors Tom Cullen and Az Klymiuk were instrumental in this regard, bringing a focus on the methods used to reconstruct paleoenvironments—including isotopic analysis of microfossils and sedimentology. Not only is this ecological perspective something that visitors specifically asked for during our audience studies, I think it sets our exhibit apart from other paleontology exhibits and media. For example, learning that summertime in Hell Creek brought temperatures of 75 to 85° F and around 80 inches of rain (and how we know) makes the prehistoric past tangible and tactile in a way that the usual dinosaur stats and trivia rarely do. 

A picture is worth a thousand words: this panoramic mural illustrates both the Hell Creek ecosystem and SUE’s place in it. Photo by Chris Schneider.

An exhibit is more than a collection of facts, of course. It’s a story told through physical space, assembled from words, specimens, images, interactives, and media. We leveraged all of these tools to place visitors in the world of Tyrannosaurus rex. Nearly every display is set against a verdant backdrop of Hell Creek swamps and forests (in fact, we made a point of ensuring every image of T. rex is situated in its habitat). Some of these images are pulled from the animated scenes produced for the permanent SUE gallery, but we also commissioned original artwork by Beth Zaiken. It’s easy to get lost in Zaiken’s extraordinary panoramic mural, which vividly captures the waterlogged, angiosperm-dominated forests of the Hell Creek ecosystem. I’m particularly fond of this take on SUE, shown presiding over their kingdom with the relaxed confidence of modern apex predators (lions and alligators have the same energy).

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Fossils from SUE’s world are divided into three microhabitats: upland forest, shore of the inland sea, and lowland river (shown here). Photo by Chris Schneider.

The habitat reconstructions are ground-truthed by a variety of Cretaceous fossils, including some never-before-exhibited Field Museum specimens. These include a huge paddlefish, a range of beautiful leaves and fronds, and an articulated Edmontosaurus tail. We rounded out the displays with casts of the most iconic Hell Creek fossils from other museums, such as the AMNH Ankylosaurus and Royal Ontario Museum Acheroraptor. The complete Triceratops skeleton is none other than Hatcher from NMNH. Standing in an imposing, defensive posture, Hatcher ably demonstrates the risks that a top predator like SUE had to face in order to stay fed.

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SUE’s caretaker Bill Simpson had wanted to pair the T. rex with a Triceratops for over 20 years. Photo by Chris Schneider. 

Visitors to SUE: The T. rex Experience won’t just see Hell Creek—they’ll hear, feel, and smell it too. There are ten touchable casts and replications in the exhibit, including a reconstruction of SUE’s skull as it looked when it was first excavated. Meredith Whitfield developed the physical interactives: you can simultaneously hear and feel the infrasonic rumble a T. rex could have produced at a bone conduction platform, and—if you really want to—you can smell SUE’s rancid breath. The scent is actually synthetic rotting flesh, used for training disaster response dogs. I smelled it once, and have no pressing need to do so again!

crushedskull

For us 90s kids, the image of SUE’s smushed, partially-prepared skull is at least as iconic as the mounted skeleton, so I was thrilled we could recreate it for this exhibit. Photo by the author.

As in the permanent SUE gallery, a media overlay ties everything together. Animated scenes of the Cretaceous world are projected on a 20-foot screen, and overhead lights change color in sync with the time of day in the animations. A primordial soundscape of birds, frogs, and insects can be heard throughout the hall. Finally, a light show produced by Latoya Flowers and rigged by Paul Horst takes visitors on a tour of SUE’s skeleton. This narrated presentation highlights SUE’s battle scars, signs of illness, and more. 

SUE in the flesh

Of course, another way to make an exhibit stand out is to build a really big toy. We partnered with the exhibit fabrication maestros at Blue Rhino Studio to realize SUE in the flesh. Blue Rhino had already collaborated with the Field Museum on Mammoths and Mastodons, Antarctic Dinosaurs, and the flock of pterosaurs in Stanley Field Hall, but SUE was a much bigger undertaking.

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The miniature maquette in front of the full-scale model. Photo by the author.

More than a dozen artists took part in building SUE, but I’m told this was primarily Jim Burt’s baby. Burt started the process by sculpting a miniature maquette in clay. The maquette was build directly over a 1/12th scale 3-D print of SUE’s skeleton, ensuring that the proportions were exactly right. At the Field Museum, Tom Cullen and Bill Simpson provided several rounds of anatomical revisions, paying particularly close attention to the arrangement of cornified bumps and knobs on SUE’s face. Of course, it wouldn’t be SUE without also including some of the scars and injuries SUE is famous for. The result is a restoration of not just any T. rex, but a specific old and punch-drunk individual that has lived a tough life but is still thriving.

Jim Burt feeds Deadmonto to SUE. Photo by the author.

Why is SUE eating a young Edmontosaurus? The primary reason is gravity. This model doesn’t have the same weight distribution as a real Tyrannosaurus, and it had to be light enough to break down and travel every few months. We needed a third point of contact with the ground to ensure maximum stability, and the Edmontosaurus prey was the coolest way to accomplish that. By design, it’s initially ambiguous whether SUE killed or scavenged this animal, but a close look at the muddy substrate reveals a set of tracks—Deadmonto’s last steps. What happens next? Imagine SUE horking down the Edmontosaurus whole, not unlike this seagull.

After the maquette was approved, the Blue Rhino team had it scanned, then milled out of giant blocks of foam at full size. It then took about six months to sculpt in the fine details (down to each individual scale) and paint SUE’s burgundy hide. In addition to being an extraordinary artistic creation, this model is a feat of engineering. While it looks seamless, it breaks down into chunks that fit through a standard six-foot door. It’s also light enough that a single person can push it across the floor.

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The finished model. Photo courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio.

This model must be seen in person to fully appreciate—not just the amount of detail but the sheer size. SUE is absolutely massive, but when you look at the skeleton with gastralia in place and consider the muscles needed to move this beast around, it’s hard to imagine T. rex any other way. 

As I’ve said previously, working with SUE is a humbling experience. It means standing on the shoulders of dozens of researchers, preparators, artists, educators, and more who have contributed to our understanding of this incredible fossil since it was unearthed. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to join their ranks and help bring SUE to the next generation, and am indebted to my colleagues who willed this latest iteration of SUE into reality. It wasn’t lost on us that SUE: The T. rex Experience debuted 30 years after Sue Hendrikson discovered the fossil—approximately the same amount of time that SUE was alive during their previous existence on Earth. SUE’s second life is now longer than their first, so here’s to the next 30 years.

SUE: The T. rex Experience has been touring since August 2020 and is currently at the Liberty Science Center. Upcoming destinations will be posted on the Field Museum’s traveling exhibitions page.  

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Great Whales at the Royal Ontario Museum

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The sperm whale Alulgwet is the first of three skeletons visitors encounter.

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, checking another North American natural history museum off my bucket list. There’s plenty to say about the ROM, but I’d like to focus on Great Whales: Up Close and Personal, a temporary exhibition that opened this summer. Great Whales is, in a word, magnificent. It is among the very best natural history exhibits I’ve seen in recent years—no small feat given that much of its development occurred in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

An exhibit is a story told through physical space, made up of words, objects, images, sounds, and experiences. Great Whales leverages all of these tools to not only immerse visitors in the multi-faceted world of giant whales, but also evoke feelings of awe, reverence, and humility. More than any exhibit or wildlife documentary in recent memory, Great Whales captures the humbling effect of real encounters with the natural world. 

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Displayed at eye level, the scale of this blue whale—80 tons in life—is particularly apparent.

The presence of three real whales is a major part of this. The colossal skeletons of a sperm whale, a blue whale, and a right whale dominate the space, but they are introduced as individuals, rather than specimens. They each have a name and a story: for example, the right whale Alasuwinu was found dead on Epekwitk/Prince Edward Island in 2017. Scientists had tracked this adult male for many years and he had survived a number of close calls with fishing nets, but he ultimately perished after being struck by a boat.  

The ethereal atmosphere of the exhibition is also powerful. The whale skeletons are bathed in a blue glow, casting mesmerizing shadows on the walls and ceilings. Sounds of the ocean—including whale songs—can be heard throughout. In one corner, the whale songs are played at their true volume, which is loud and deep enough to feel in your bones. It’s hard not to imagine sailors from centuries past lying awake at night and hearing those eerie rumbles through the hulls of their ships.

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Visitors can step inside the baleen-laden jaws of this replica skull.

However, I think the exhibition’s biggest strength is that it is told through multiple voices. One of those voices is the standard, omniscient museum voice, through which we learn about the biomechanics of hearts and lungs on a massive scale, as well as the evolution of whales (which could be an exhibit all its own). We also hear from scientists, including ROM mammalogy technician Jacqueline Miller. In one video, Miller recounts the experience of breaking down the blue whale (named Blue), which was found trapped by shifting ice in 2014. She describes the overpowering stench and the overwhelming amount of gore, but also the excitement of turning a tragedy into an opportunity to learn something new and maybe help other whales in the future.

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The evolution section includes skeletons of Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, Kutchicetus, and Dorudon.

Most unique to a science exhibition like this one is the recurring presence of Indigenous Elders, artists, and storytellers. Wolastoq artist and cultural educator Possesom Paul describes whales as ancient partners of humans—powerful, mysterious, but also vulnerable. In two areas of the exhibit, we hear Passamaquoddy Elder Maggie Paul singing the song All My People, which honors the whales. As a non-Native person, I felt privileged that these perspectives were being shared with me. These ways of knowing do not conflict with the scientific ones—instead, they complement one another and provide visitors with more pathways to connect with the exhibition content.

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The remaining North Atlantic right whale population, visualized.

Traditional and scientific perspectives converge in the exhibit’s conservation message. Choice statistics make the plight of whales in the industrialized world particularly stark. I’ve been unable to forget one infographic informing me that 10% of the right whale population has died since 2017—equivalent to losing every person in North and South America. Another graphic illustrates how precious each individual whale is: a wall of polaroid photos introduces us to most of the 300-some right whales alive today. 

Great Whales is poignant, thought-provoking, and often beautiful, representing the best of what a natural history exhibit can be. It will be on display at the ROM until March 2022. It’s unclear if it will travel after that, but I very much hope it does. 

 

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Cross-post: Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus

Daspletosaurus in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History.

I’ve written an article for the Field Museum website about Gorgeous George, the Daspletosaurus that’s been on display since 1956. Take a look if you’d like to learn more about this historic mounted skeleton!

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Meeting Peale’s Mastodon

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A mastodon in an art museum.

Last week, I met a very special fossil. Pictured above is Charles Wilson Peale’s mastodon, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Exhumed in 1799 near the banks of the Hudson River and unveiled to the public on Christmas Eve, 1801, this was the very first mounted skeleton of a prehistoric animal ever exhibited in the United States. Preceding Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six decades, the mastodon entered public discourse at a time when even the idea of extinction was still hotly debated. The mastodon proved to be a source of national pride for European Americans, demonstrating that North America’s natural wonders could rival Europe’s great architecture and rich history.

After Peale’s Philadelphia museum closed in 1848, the mastodon was sold and wound up at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. There it remained for over 170 years, largely forgotten in its home country, until SAAM senior curator Eleanor Harvey had the idea to include it in a new exhibition.

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A red curtain evokes Peale’s self portrait, The Artist in his Museum

Harvey’s exhibition isn’t about fossils, or even about Peale. Her subject is Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century naturalist who left a profound impact on the scholars, artists, and politicians of the young United States. Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture tracks the legacy of Humboldt’s brief but highly influential visit to America. During a six-week tour in 1804, Humboldt met with President Thomas Jefferson and other dignitaries, planting intellectual seeds that would shape America’s aspirational ideals for decades and centuries to come. From his vision of nature as an interconnected network to his advocacy for democracy, the abolition of slavery, and learning from Indigenous knowledge, Humboldt’s influence was wide-reaching*. 

*I personally found the exhibition’s presentation of Humboldt’s influence on US policy a bit doe-eyed. While triumphs like the founding of the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution can be traced to Humboldt’s legacy, it’s hard to argue that his social ideals had much practical effect in the 19th century

An important stop on Humboldt’s American tour was Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. Humboldt dined with Peale’s family beneath the ribcage of the mounted mastodon, later citing the beast as a key example of America’s incredible natural heritage. For Humboldt, Peale, and Jefferson, the mastodon embodied the young nation’s great potential—if this land was home to creatures as mighty at the mastodon, then its future would have to be equally monumental. 

To Harvey, the mastodon skeleton perfectly encapsulated the story she wanted to tell about Humboldt. She initially thought that shipping the mastodon from Germany for a temporary exhibition was a long shot, but her counterparts at the Landesmuseum were game. Curator Oliver Sandrock oversaw the process of preparing the mastodon for travel, which involved a deep cleaning, as well as breaking down the original 19th century armature into several pieces.

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The mastodon is presented primarily as a historical object—there is no discussion of the animal’s life appearance or behavior to be found.

I spoke to Advait Jukar, a Research Associate with the National Museum of Natural History, about his involvement with the mastodon. He inspected the skeleton in early 2020, shortly after it arrived in Washington, DC. As a fossil elephant specialist, Jukar was able to determine that the mastodon was an adult male, and that about 50% of the mount was composed of real, partially mineralized bone. Fascinatingly, most of the reconstructed bones were carved from wood. This was the handiwork of Rembrandt Peale (Charles’ son), William Rush, and Moses Williams. Most of the wooden bones were carved in multiple pieces, which were locked together with nails and pegs. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and the joins are difficult to make out unless you stand quite close. The mandible is entirely wood, but the teeth are real. These teeth probably came from a different individual—one tooth on the right side didn’t fit properly and was inserted sideways!

The mastodon at SAAM differs from the original presentation at Peale’s museum in a few ways. The missing top of the skull was once modeled in papier-mâché, but this reconstruction was destroyed when the Landesmuseum was bombed during the second world war. It has since been remodeled in plaster. While the mastodon was never mounted with real tusks, the mount has traditionally sported strongly curved replica tusks, more reminiscent of a mammoth. While Rembrandt Peale published a pamphlet in 1803 suggesting that the mastodon’s tusks should be positioned downward, like a pair of predatory fangs, it’s unclear if the tusks on the skeleton were ever mounted this way. At SAAM, the mastodon correctly sports a pair of nearly straight replicated tusks, which curve gently upward. 

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Rembrandt Peale’s carnivorous mammoth, with downward-facing tusks. Public domain.

Overall, the work of Peale, Rush, and Williams remains remarkably intact. Although it’s now lit by electric lights instead of oil lamps, this is the same beast that Humboldt encountered 220 years ago. Harvey even included a mouse in a small case at the mastodon’s feet, just as Peale did in Philadelphia. If anything, it’s remarkable how similar the mastodon mount looks to newer displays of fossil skeletons. Its creators pioneered an art form that has not changed enormously to this day.

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Artwork of the mastodon, its excavation, and its presentation by the Peale family.

While the mastodon is undeniably the star of the show, the exhibition also utilizes artworks from the SAAM collection, loans from other institutions, and three lengthy media presentations to tell Humboldt’s story. I was excited to see Peale’s The Artist in His Museum and Exhumation of the Mastodon reunited, and the collection of George Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans is impressive. However, I was most captivated by a media presentation exploring Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes. While the original painting had to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the video—which can be seen online here—explores the details and historical context of the painting with visually arresting style. I’ve been critical in the past of art museums’ proclivity for opaque and unwelcoming interpretive styles, but this video is great and I hope to see more efforts like it.

Overall, I was delighted by the exhibition. Seeing a fossil in an art museum, interpreted as a cultural artifact, is extraordinary. Like Humboldt himself, the mastodon is an interception of art, nature, and culture, and I relished the opportunity to meet such an icon.

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture runs through July 11, 2021. 

References

Jukar, A. 2021. Pers. comm.

O’Connor, A. 2020. Mysteries of the first mastodon.

Semonin, P. 2000. American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.

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Filed under art history, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reviews

Ten years

I started this blog in December 2010, and if any occasion called for a bit of reflection on why I started writing here and how it turned out, it would be this. Unfortunately, this year has been so overwhelming on so many fronts that I don’t have a long yarn in me, so I’ll be brief.

If you go back to my earliest posts—and I strongly discourage you from doing so—you’ll see that I didn’t start with much of a plan. I was inspired by the science communication work of folks like Riley Black, Lisa Buckley, Darren Naish, and Mike Taylor, and wanted to give it a try. However, it wasn’t long before I started poking at one subject in particular: the history of paleontology exhibits in museums. 

I had been reading reflexive discussions about how art and ethnographic objects were displayed in museums, and saw parallels with the sorts of exhibits I was more familiar with—dinosaurs, mostly. But with the notable exceptions of Paul Brinkman and Rachel Poliquin, few authors were exploring the subject (happily there are several new books on the cultural history of natural history exhibits, including works by Ilja Nieuwland, Lukas Rieppel, and Karen Rader and Victoria Cain). Meanwhile, I found photos like the one below intriguing on a personal level. I recognized the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur skeletons, but the arrangement and context were totally unfamiliar. We think of these specimens as unchanging data points in our understanding of past life, but in fact they have transformed repeatedly—they’ve been moved, reposed, and reinterpreted based on changing attitudes in scientific discourse, and sometimes, in response to political and cultural shifts in the world at large. These skeletons have been seen by tens of millions of people, but depending on which decade they visited in, the experience may have been entirely different. 

The National Museum of Natural History’s fossil gallery, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

I soon discovered that information about how these exhibits had changed over time was not easy to come by. The stories were hidden away in out-of-print books, old scholarly articles, physical archives, and people’s memories. As I began researching the changing states of American fossil exhibits, it seemed worthwhile to use the platform I had created—this blog—to document the basics. And here we are, ten years later. I am enormously grateful to the archivists, scientists, historians, artists, and others who have shared their expertise and helped me along the way. It is my hope that the 50,000 or so people who stumble upon this site each year find it useful, informative, and (dare I say) eye-opening. 

One of the biggest changes from where I was ten years ago is that I’m now on the inside, as it were. Now that I’m creating exhibits, I think my perspective has evolved a bit. In earlier posts, I was quick to criticize exhibits that glossed over certain details, or seemed to cater to the least-interested of visitors. These days, I’m more intrigued by the unique experiences that exhibits can create, and I’m convinced that it’s more important for exhibits to create enthusiasm than knowledge. I may even have to take another look at fossil sandboxes one day.

Some nerd with a really big toy—the life-sized model we created for SUE: The T. rex Experience. Photo by Katie Arnold.

Extinct Monsters isn’t going anywhere. I realize that personal blogs have been passé for ages, but I like the format and am sticking with it. There are plenty more stories to explore, so here’s to the next ten years.

To mark the occasion, here are ten articles that—typos aside—I’m still mostly pleased with.

Painting the Ancient Seas

Displaying the Tyrant King

The Epistemological Challenge of Model Whales

See the Elephant

The Great Mammoth of Lincoln

A 21st Century Hall of Mammals

The Carnegie Quarry Diaspora

The Diplodocus Seen ‘Round the World

Installation Art in the Service of Science

Bully for Camarasaurus

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Telling SUE’s story (part 1)

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

SUE—the Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex—has been busy lately. In 2018, the skeleton was moved from Stanley Field Hall to a dedicated gallery within the Evolving Planet exhibition. A new traveling exhibition about SUE began its North American tour earlier this year. I was involved with both these projects as an Exhibition Developer, and in this post (divided into two parts), I’ll share my experiences and some of the choices I made along the way. Basically, the sort of things I’d want to know about an exhibit at another museum.

Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that authorship of the new SUE exhibits is shared among dozens of talented professionals. In addition to my SUE co-developers Susan Golland and Meredith Whitfield, these exhibits were imagined and willed into existence by a small army of project managers, designers, scientists, mount-makers, programmers, and more. And all of us are standing on the shoulders of the researchers, preparators, artists, and educators who have contributed to our understanding of this incredible fossil since it was unearthed 30 years ago.

Why move SUE?

In January 2018, the Museum held an event for members to say a temporary goodbye to SUE. Photo by the author.

The role of a developer differs depending on the institution, but at the Field Museum we are essentially storytellers (or perhaps story organizers). Working closely with curators (staff scientists) and designers, we craft a narrative that can be expressed through physical space, and write most of the words visitors read or hear. One thing we do not do is decide which projects the Museum takes on and when. As I understand it, however, the decision to relocate SUE was a long time in coming.

After acquiring SUE as a partially prepared skeleton in 1998, Museum leadership decided that the mounted skeleton should be on display within two years. With a large team, that was enough time to prepare the fossil and publish a monograph, but renovating the existing paleontology halls to make room for a T. rex would have been impossible. So SUE debuted in Stanley Field Hall, with an understanding that this was a temporary solution (Edit: The choice to display SUE in Stanley Field Hall was actually a bit more complicated, with many factors besides schedule involved).

Thanks to Phil Fraley’s well-designed armature, SUE was taken down in just two weeks. Photo by the author.

While SUE’s position as a centerpiece in Stanley Field Hall was instantly iconic, the display could provide only minimal context for the fossil. And even though SUE is the size of a bus, visitors were right to point out that the skeleton looked small in the four-story, half-acre expanse. A dedicated gallery would be needed to properly represent SUE’s role as a rosetta stone for dinosaur science, to contextualize T. rex within the history of life on Earth, and to give SUE the presence they deserved.

As it turned out, the opportune moment to create such a gallery wouldn’t arrive until nearly two decades later. A multi-part plan was established in 2016: the SUE move would occur concurrently with a rebranding and redecorating of Stanley Field Hall, with hanging gardens and a Patagotitan cast filling the vertical space better than the Tyrannosaurus ever could. Meanwhile, the temporary (and now traveling) exhibition Antarctic Dinosaurs would keep fossil fans happy during the 9 months SUE was off display.

You can make a dinosaur do anything on paper, but assembling the real bones always comes with unexpected surprises. Photo by the author.

Naturally, any change to a beloved display was bound to be controversial. After all, SUE had been a mainstay in Stanley Field Hall for a generation of visitors (I’m old enough to remember the Brachiosaurus, so SUE always seemed like a newcomer to me). If anything, public relations staff leaned into the controversy, since it was a magnet for media attention. At times, the press generated by the SUE move felt comparable to adding an entire wing to the museum. The team working on the new gallery kept quiet, confident that visitors concerned about the change would come around once they saw what we were up to.

An encounter with SUE

The new SUE gallery occupies a space called Hall 25A, between the two arms of the U-shaped Evolving Planet exhibition. This hall didn’t exist when SUE first arrived at the Field Museum—it was one of four light wells that were original to the building, which weren’t filled in until the early 2000s. Finding space for a new exhibit is challenging in a century-old museum, but Hall 25A’s location was a lucky break. It could be connected directly to the existing dinosaur hall, so that the SUE gallery appeared precisely where it should during a visitor’s walk through time.

Our overall goal with the new gallery was to give visitors a dramatic encounter with SUE, contextualized within the Cretaceous world. Accordingly, designer Eric Manabat arranged the space with drama in mind. Visitors no longer get their first look at SUE from 300 feet away. Instead, SUE is hidden behind a scrim wall—visitors move around the wall and find themselves quite suddenly looking up into the face of the T. rex (SUE certainly doesn’t look small anymore).  Updates to the mounted skeleton—overseen by Pete Makovicky, Bill Simpson, and Tom Cullen—also give SUE a more imposing presence. The addition of SUE’s real gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles) and adjustments to the ribs and shoulders provide a better sense of how massive Tyrannosaurus was. SUE is also standing up straighter, and the jaws are now open.

SUE’s skeleton is visible through the translucent scrim wall, and we made sure the fleshed-out reconstruction was posed and scaled to line up perfectly. Photo by the author.

The look and feel of modern natural history exhibitions often leans toward one of two extremes. They either take design cues from art galleries, placing objects against a minimalist, neutral backdrop, or they are highly immersive recreations of a particular setting. The new SUE exhibition does a bit of both. The physical space is austere and elegant, although the use of wood paneling makes it warmer and more inviting than a typical art gallery. The immersion comes in the form of multimedia. Animated scenes of the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived are projected on a staggered row of screens, creating a living backdrop behind the skeleton. A primordial soundscape of birds, frogs, and insects can be heard throughout the hall.

I think this multimedia overlay makes the SUE gallery particularly unique, because it’s constantly changing. The animated scenes take you to three locations in SUE’s habitat on a 20-minute cycle: an upland forest at dawn, the shore of the inland sea during a midday rainstorm, and a lowland river in the late afternoon. When the visuals change, the soundscape and the color of the overhead lights change with them. Visitors are themselves part of the ebb and flow of the gallery. They move among and between the screens, placing themselves in the scenes and pointing out minute details. Every time there’s a bout of dinosaur action, visitors gather to watch, then disperse around the hall once more.

At one point during the light show, all the real fossils included in the mount are highlighted. Photo by the author.

The exhibit’s biggest surprise comes during the “nighttime” portion of the media loop, when a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton. Projection mapping is used to highlight pathologies and other key features, helping visitors see details that they might have overlooked. Media Producer Latoya Flowers’s work on the show is spectacular, and it’s no wonder that visitors sometimes break out into spontaneous applause upon seeing it.

Bringing SUE to life

How could we not pay homage to Charles Knight’s timeless standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops? Above: Artwork by Charles Knight. Below: render by Atlantic Productions, © Field Museum.

As one might imagine, creating the animated scenes was one of the most involved aspects of the project, as well as one of the most fun. These scenes were produced by the London-based studio ZooVFX, known for their work on Flying Monsters and Natural History Museum Alive, among other effects-heavy educational programs. However, this was was not simply a matter of sending the animators some parameters and accepting whatever they gave us. The process was deeply collaborative, and the Field Museum team of scientists, developers, and designers teleconferenced with ZooVFX at least once a week for well over a year.

Like any animation project, the process of creating these vignettes began with storyboards. We settled on the T. rex behaviors we wanted to depict: hunting, scavenging, drinking, defecating, and a standoff with Triceratops (basically, unsuccessful hunting). A scene with SUE sleeping was also considered, but curators decided that posing a sleeping T. rex would require too much speculation. We didn’t want constant, cacophonous dinosaur action in the gallery, so the moments with SUE are interspersed with longer periods of calm.

Next came designing and modeling (Vladimir Venkov was the primary artist at ZooVFX) the ten animal species to be featured. Naturally, the curators led this process. I think it’s fair to say that we strove for “safe” dinosaur reconstructions, insofar that they adhere to what is most definitively known from the fossil record. Your aesthetic preferences may vary, but they work well in the context of this exhibit.

The staggered, two-sided screens allow visitors to place themselves in the scenes, and also recall the ribs and vertebrae of the mounted skeleton. Photo by the author.

Animating SUE was relatively straightforward, but establishing the gaits of Triceratops and Edmontosaurus required a lot of iteration. The first walk cycle attempts were too mammalian, and lacked the bilaterally asymmetrical gait of four-legged reptiles. Edmontosaurus was particularly tricky because its back legs are much larger than its front legs, but its stiffened spine doesn’t allow the body to twist very much. Fossil trackways proved very helpful: when the animators matched the dinosaurs’ footfalls  to the footprints, biomechanically plausible movement usually followed. The folks at ZooVFX were fantastic, providing something like twenty variations on a hurried hadrosaur before we found one that worked.

Once we had basic walk and run animations, it was time to choreograph the action scenes. Once again, the Edmontosaurus scene caused trouble. How do you sell SUE ambushing the herd when T. rex can’t actually run? The finished version reminds me more of a crocodile than a lion—SUE gets really close, ultimately only taking four steps to reach their unfortunate quarry. The audio sells it. Pete Makovicky asked that SUE’s jaws slam shut with a crack you feel in your bones, like a really, really big crocodile. One bite, and “deadmonto” is toast.

Other challenges included designing SUE’s poop (we consulted a Bristol stool chart and decided on a 2 or 3), and staging the fight between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Naturally, we wanted a “Charles Knight moment” where the animals face off, but it had to be believable. I enjoyed the opportunity to script out the fight, move by move. In the final version, SUE’s attack is a moment too slow, so they find themselves temporarily cornered by their prey. SUE limps away with a stab wound in their left leg, matching the fossil skeleton’s infected tibia.

It’s nice in here. Photo by the author.

Susan Golland once called the new SUE gallery an oasis, which I think is a perfect descriptor. By the time visitors reach SUE, they’ve come two thirds of the way through Evolving Planet. It’s an extremely dense exhibition, covering the entire history of life with over 1,000 specimens. But then, they reach a big, open gallery that is all about a single specimen. There’s ample space to sit down and collect yourself. And the ever-changing media overlay means that you’ll actually see more if you take a break, rather than hurrying on ahead. I find the SUE gallery quite beautiful, and I hope that it does justice to such an extraordinary fossil.

Next time, we’ll look at updates to the SUE gallery since 2018, creating the traveling SUE exhibition, and realizing SUE in the flesh.

Awesome. Photo by the author.

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T. rex in Context: Deep Time’s Cretaceous Display

A little over a year ago, the National Museum of Natural History re-opened its paleontology halls after a five-year renovation. As I detailed in a previous post, the new exhibition—called Deep Time—is exceptional. Breathtaking to look at, intuitive to explore, and (of course) brimming with fascinating specimens, Deep Time sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at one display in Deep Time, the Cretaceous tableau, and elaborate on what makes it so effective. Many thanks to Designers Pauline Dolovich and Fang Pin Lee, Developer Siobhan Starrs, and Curator Matt Carrano for discussing their work with me.

The Cretaceous display tells a story through its carefully-composed design.

The Cretaceous display is home to Deep Time’s centerpiece, the Tyrannosaurus rex. As was well-covered by various media outlets in the months and years leading up to the exhibition’s opening, the “Nation’s T. rex” was discovered in 1988 on Army Corps of Engineers land, and is now on loan to the Smithsonian. Although it’s one of the most thoroughly-studied Tyrannosaurus specimens around, this is the first time the real skeleton has been assembled into a standing mount. Like many of the mounted skeletons in Deep Time, the T. rex strikes a dynamic pose that evokes the behavior of the living animal. In this case, the Tyrannosaurus is prying the head off a prone Triceratops.

Obviously, the T. rex draws a crowd. It’s hard to imagine any visitor passing through Deep Time without stopping to see it. But while the exhibit team acknowledged and emphasized the spectacular nature of the tyrant king, they also harnessed its star power to make a broader statement. Tyrannosaurus was part of a rich ecosystem of plants and animals, and while this apex predator had an impact on the entire community (eating some animals, providing leftovers for others), T. rex and other meat-eating dinosaurs were far outnumbered by the turtles, lizards, salamanders, and insects they lived alongside. By placing Tyrannosaurus within its ecological context, the display makes the seemingly fantastic dinosaur much more real. This reinforces one of the exhibition’s overarching themes: life in the past functioned much like life in the present, and studying past life can inform our understanding of the world today. It’s no accident that this cross-section of a prehistoric ecosystem is at the center of the hall, and includes its most popular specimen.

To avoid cluttering the historic architecture of the east wing, the designers integrated display lighting into the platforms.

While the Cretaceous display tells a complex story that is integral to the narrative of the exhibition as a whole, its footprint is remarkably compact. This efficient use of space is the result of a long and methodical design process. Designers Fang Pin Lee and Pauline Dolovich envisioned a broad avenue across the entire hall, which would accommodate large crowds (NMNH gets up to eight million visitors each year) and allow quick access to any part of the exhibition. This avenue needed to double as a central social space, where groups could congregate around built-in seating and look out onto the various displays. But more space for visitors means less space for specimens, and dinosaurs need a lot of room. Lee and Dolovich used digital renders and a miniature model to find the optimal position for the 40-foot Tyrannosaurus and its companions. This was a careful balancing act—they had to keep the T. rex visible from multiple approaches while working around the twin rows of structural columns down the center of the hall.

With ample space for visitor traffic, long sight lines, and some very large skeletons in the mix, there was precious little room in the Cretaceous display for text panels. This worked in the display’s favor, because it meant that much of the message had to be communicated through the design. For example, the Tyrannosaurus poised over its Triceratops meal evokes the predator’s role in the ecosystem, while conveniently reducing the footprint the two skeletons would require if displayed independently. Meanwhile, a cutaway in the platform next to the T. rex‘s foot contains an alligator, a turtle, clams, and aquatic plants. While only subtly implying the presence of a pond or river (the alligator skeleton is posed as though swimming along the surface, while lotus-like flowers “float” nearby), this area demonstrates these organisms’ ecological relationship to T. rex by placing them literally underfoot.

Stangerochampsa swims among floating Nelumbago leaves in an implied waterway.

To the right of Tyrannosaurus, a densely-layered series of specimens and display elements provides a nuanced look at the Hell Creek ecosystem within a limited amount of space. In the back, a pair of large murals by Julius Csotonyi set the stage: this was a lush, green world dense with weedy flowering plants (as opposed to the open conifer forests dinosaurs are often depicted in). To the left, a lone Torosaurus is dwarfed by the forest around it. To the right, an Edmontosaurus group tramples through the undergrowth, disturbing the smaller Thescelosaurus and Polyglyphanodon. Skeletons of Edmontosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and the aquatic reptile Champsosaurus stand in front of the murals, alongside three slabs of fossil leaves.

A vivid green panel among the skeletons spells out the key takeaway: these plants and animals were part of a single ecosystem that existed in North America at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Similar header panels can be found throughout the exhibition, and the writers iterated on the text for years. These short phrases had to convey the context and significance of a display at a glance, even if these were the only words a visitor read. The team settled on the headline “T. rex in Context” for the Cretaceous display, but when test audiences began visiting the hall, this proved to be a mistake. Because the words appeared so close to the Edmontosaurus, visitors were concluding that the hadrosaur was a T. rex. With weeks to go before opening, the team opted to replace the headline with the tried-and-true “Last American Dinosaurs.

Those vertical mounts for the fossil leaf slabs are incredible.

The final layer in the Cretaceous display is the rail at the very front. Smaller specimens—the lizard Polyglyphanodon, several fossil leaves, and an assortment of microfossils—are mounted in cases, while a dinosaur bone with insect damage is out in the open where it can be touched. The text on the rail is almost superfluous, but it is cleverly divided by trophic level. One panel addresses primary producers, another herbivores, and a third carnivores and decomposers. The plants and small animals are given the same amount of attention as the dinosaurs, reinforcing that all of these organisms have their part to play in the community.

Taken together, the elements of the Cretaceous display encourage deep looking without requiring a great deal of reading. Visitors drawn by the star power of the Tyrannosaurus find themselves surveying the “beautiful density” of specimens and display elements. They may notice minute details, like platform tiles slanted and dislodged as though by the movement of the dinosaurs, or the broken Triceratops horn that has rolled away from the skeleton. Intuitively, they understand that they’re looking at the complete ecological context of T. rex, and that this ecosystem is just as diverse and complex as those of today. If they choose to read the text panels, visitors will learn details like the names of the animals or the feeding strategies of different herbivores, but most of the information is conveyed through the layout alone. This is the mark of an uncommonly well-designed museum display.

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Filed under Deep Time, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, theropods

Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

Between late 2018 and early 2020, the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition—which covers the entire history of life on Earth—received a series of updates and improvements.  Although it’s been around since 2006, Evolving Planet is an excellent exhibition and does not need a complete overhaul any time soon. Still, the last 14 years have been some of the most active in the history of paleontology, so there is no shortage of new science to cover. Likewise, technological advancements have made it possible to introduce more large-scale multimedia experiences and digital interactives.

As one of four exhibition developers on the project, my role was to conceptualize many of the new additions, as well as write the text. The changes to Evolving Planet include new specimens, new interactives, well over a hundred label updates, and a giant media presentation on the end-Permian extinction. In this post, I’d like to highlight my personal favorite part of the project: the new Triassic tableau.

The original Evolving Planet Triassic display, from 2006. Photo by the author.

If you visited Evolving Planet between 2006 and 2019, you’ll recall a pair of Herrerasaurus reconstructions (one fleshed-out, one skeletal) on a platform in the center of the Triassic gallery. This display actually had its roots in the Field Museum’s previous paleontology exhibit, Life Over Time, which featured four Herrerasaurus. In scaling back to two Herrerasaurus, literally and figuratively pedestaled, the original Evolving Planet team intended the display to be a grand introduction to the dinosaur menagerie to follow.

Unfortunately, the 2006 version of the Triassic gallery never had much drawing power—the lure of the larger dinosaurs around the corner was too great. This was a shame, because the Triassic is a really important chapter in the story of life on Earth. Life bounced back after the biggest mass extinction ever, and the new groups that evolved on land would be major players up to the present day. The ancestors of everything from crocodiles and turtles to mammals and dinosaurs can be traced to this time. We thought the origin of mammals was particularly important to emphasize, both because these were our distant ancestors and because the fact that mammals have been around about as long as dinosaurs have isn’t widely known. The gallery already had a small case of Mesozoic mammal teeth, but it was almost completely ignored by visitors. The revamped display needed to put the mammal story front and center.

I used this back-of-the-napkin sketch to pitch our proposed arrangement for the new display.

How do you get visitors to stick around when Apatosaurus and Daspletosaurus are visible up ahead? You need something similarly big and impressive, like a life-sized diorama. We decided to set our diorama in the Ischigualasto Formation of Argentina because it meant we could reuse the Herrerasaurus model. Created by the late, great Stephen Czerkas, this model is nearly 30 years old but still holds up well. In fact, the beefy musculature around the thighs and tail and the “lips” obscuring the teeth are in line with modern thinking about theropod life appearance.

The complete Triassic tableau, finished earlier this year. Photo by the author.

The star of the diorama is Chiniquodon, a cynodont related to the ancestors of mammals. As this little creature pokes its whiskered snout out of its burrow, it takes in a wide world of potential dangers, including Herrerasaurus, Pseudochampsa, and a herd of lumbering Ischigualastia in the distance. A second, larger Chiniquodon is visible in a cutaway of the burrow, and a partial skeleton is in a case in front of the diorama. Since visitors look onto the scene from the bottom of a dry stream bed, they are getting a Chiniquodon‘s eye view of the Triassic, and its strange mix of familiar and alien plants and animals.

The Chiniquodon burrow is set in the bank of a dry stream bed, part of a larger river system visible in the background mural. Photo by the author.

On the left side of the display, the muddy landform gives way to smooth MDF. This is where we complicate the origin of dinosaurs beyond the presentation of Herrerasaurus as an “ur-dinosaur.” Evolution occurs as a continuum and the exact point we define as the start of any particular group is always somewhat arbitrary. This is particularly clear when we look at the first dinosaurs. Dinosaurs belong to a larger group called archosaurs, and they are difficult to distinguish from some of the archosaurs they existed alongside. They looked alike, they ate the same food, and they lived in the same sorts of habitats. Skeletons of Asilisaurus and Parringtonia, a Desmatosuchus skull, and a Teleocrater hindlimb help illustrate Triassic archosaur diversity.

Clockwise from top left: Desmatosuchus, Pseudochampsa, Asilisaurus, and Parringtonia. Photos by the author.

For me, the most challenging part of developing this display was explaining the evolutionary relationships of these animals clearly and concisely. As fundamental as it is to paleontological science, the basic shape of the tree of life is extremely specialized knowledge. Most visitors will get lost and disinterested by a bombardment of unfamiliar group names, but it’s also easy to be so vague as to communicate nothing at all. I hope that I successfully toed the line between establishing the concept of uneasy boundaries between named groups and getting overly bogged down in specifics.

A very incomplete list of acknowledgements follows:

The Field Museum Exhibitions Department, which designed and built this display in-house.

My fellow Evolving Planet developers: the sensational Tori Lee, Monisa Ahmed, and Meredith Whitfield.

Liam Elward, Janice Lim, Velizar Simeonovski, and Katherine Ulschmid produced the artwork in the Triassic display.

Ken Angielczyk, Az Klymiuk, Brandon Peecook, Olivier Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Pia Viglietti oversaw the scientific content. Any mistakes in this post are my own.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, reptiles, science communication