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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 point. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This is an updated version of a series of posts from 2014. With Deep Time and the new SUE exhibition now open, I’m dusting it off and bringing it up to date.
Woodrow Wilson is in the white house. The first World War is raging in Europe, but the United States is not yet involved. The women’s suffrage movement is picking up speed. And you just heard that the skeleton of an actual dragon is on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. It is difficult to imagine a time before Tyrannosaurus rex was a household name, but such was the case barely a century ago. In 1915, AMNH unveiled the very first mounted skeleton of the tyrant lizard king, immediately and irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche.
Today, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity among dinosaurs, appearing in every form of media imaginable. More importantly, it is an icon for paleontology and an ambassador to science. Much has been written about T. rex — about its discovery, about the animal itself, and about its role in popular culture. This article will take a slightly different tack. This is an overview of the history of the tyrant king on display, and how it has defined (and been defined by) the museum experience.
The cult of T. rex began in the halls of museums, and museums remain the prehistoric carnivore’s symbolic home. Mounted skeletons provide the legendary T. rex its credibility: these are the authentic remains of the giant predator that once stalked North America. And yet, most of the dozens of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display around the world are casts, and none of them represent complete skeletons (rather, they are filled in with spare parts from other specimens and the occasional sculpted bone). These are sculptures as well as scientific specimens, works of installation art created by artists, engineers, and scientists. Herein lies the paradox presented by all fossil mounts: they are natural specimens and constructed objects, embodying a challenging duality between the realms of empiricism and imagination.
I. The Original Tyrant
Between 1890 and 1910, the United States’ natural history museums entered into a frenzied competition to find and display the largest and most spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Although discoveries by paleontologists like O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late 19th century fleshed out the scientific understanding of Mesozoic reptiles, it was these turn-of-the-century museum displays that brought dinosaurs into the public sphere. Bankrolled by New York’s wealthy aristocrats and led by the ambitious (and extremely problematic—read on) Henry Osborn, the American Museum of Natural History won the fossil race by most any measure. The New York museum completed the world’s first mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur in 1905, and also left its peer institutions in the dust with the highest visitation and the most fossil mounts on display.
Osborn’s goal was to establish AMNH as the global epicenter for paleontology research and education, and in 1905 he revealed his ace in the hole: two partial skeletons of giant meat-eating dinosaurs uncovered by fossil hunter Barnum Brown. In a deceptively brief paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn described the fossils from Wyoming and Montana, coining the names Dynamosaurus imperiosus and Tyrannosaurus rex (a follow-up paper in 1906 reclassified “Dynamosaurus” as a second Tyrannosaurus specimen). Fully aware of what a unique prize he had in his possession, Osborn wasted no time leveraging the fossils for academic glory. He placed the unarticulated bones on display shortly after his initial publication, and commissioned artist Charles Knight to prepare a painting of the animal’s life appearance.
In 1908, Brown collected a much more complete Tyrannosaurus specimen (AMNH 5027), with over 50% of the skeleton intact, including the first complete skull and a significant portion of the torso. With this specimen in hand, AMNH technician Adam Hermann and his team began work on a mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton to join the Museum’s growing menagerie of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Inspired by the museum’s habitat dioramas and seeking to accentuate the spectacle of his reptilian monster, Osborn initially wanted to mount two Tyrannosaurus skeletons facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even published a brief description, complete with 1/10th scale wooden models illustrating the proposed exhibit (above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve.
Instead, Hermann prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with plaster casts of the hips and femur from the 1905 holotype. The original skull was impractically heavy, so a cast was used in its place. Missing portions of the skeleton, including the arms, feet, and most of the tail, were sculpted by hand using bones from Allosaurus as reference. During the early 20th century, constructing fossil mounts was a relatively new art form, and while Hermann was one of the most talented and prolific mount-makers around, his techniques were somewhat unkind to the fossil material. Bolts were drilled directly into the fragile bones to secure them to the armature, and in some cases steel rods were tunneled right through them. Any fractures were sealed with plaster, and reconstructed portions were painted to be nearly indistinguishable from the original fossils. Like most of the early AMNH fossil mounts, preserving the integrity of the Tyrannosaurus bones was secondary to aesthetic concerns like concealing the unsightly armature.
The completed Tyrannosaurus mount, a magnificent sculptural combination of bone, plaster, and steel, was unveiled in 1915 to stunned audiences. With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years. The December 3rd New York Times article was thick with hyperbole, declaring the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity”, “the king of all kings in the domain of animal life,” “the absolute warlord of the earth” and “the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatsoever.” Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.”
Brian Noble argues that Osborn’s descriptions of T. rex betray his own racial anxiety and fear of obsolescence. As a member of the New York aristocratic class, Osborn supported eugenics and lobbied for race-based quotas on immigration. Within months of penning museum labels that lament the extinction of “great and noble” carnivores like Tyrannosaurus, Osborn was writing that “the greatest danger to the American republic is the gradual dying out…of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political, and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of a less noble character” (quoted in Noble 2017, pg. 73). Whether knowingly or not, Osborn allowed his fear of the fall of the de facto ruling class to which he belonged influence his interpretation of a long-dead dinosaur.
Today, we know that the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was inaccurate in many ways. The upright, tail-dragging pose, which had been the most popular attitude for bipedal dinosaurs since Joseph Leidy’s 1868 Hadrosaurus mount, is now known to be incorrect. More complete Tyrannosaurus skeletons have revealed that the tail reconstructed by Osborn and Hermann was much too long. The Allosaurus-inspired feet were too robust, the legs (partially cast from the 1905 holotype) were too large, and the hands had too many fingers. It would be misleading to presume that the prehistoric carnivore’s skeleton sprang from the ground exactly as it was presented, but it is equally incorrect to reject it as a fake. The 1915 mount was a solid representation of the best scientific data available at the time, presented in an evocative and compelling manner.
The AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was no less than a monument: for paleontology, for its host museum, and for the city of New York. The mount has been a New York attraction for longer than the Empire State Building, and for almost 30 years, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could see a T. rex in person. In 1918, Tyrannosaurus would make its first Hollywood appearance in the short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This star turn was followed by roles in 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong, firmly establishing the tyrant king’s celebrity status. It is noteworthy that special effects artist Willis O’Brian and model maker Marcel Delgado copied the proportions and posture of the AMNH display exactly when creating the dinosaurs for each of these films. The filmmakers took virtually no artistic liberties, depicting Tyrannosaurus precisely how contemporary scientists had reconstructed it at the museum.
II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh
In 1941, AMNH ended its Tyrannosaurus monopoly and sold the incomplete type specimen (the partial skeleton described in Osborn’s 1905 publication) to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While it is sometimes reported that this transfer took place to keep the valuable fossils out of harm’s way during World War II (e.g. Larson 2008), the deal was actually underway well before the United States became involved in the war. Carnegie Museum Director Andrew Avinoff spent nearly a year bargaining with Barnum Brown over a price, eventually settling on $100,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars) for the fossils with appropriate bases and mounting fixtures. Carnegie staff wasted no time assembling a mount of their own, but since the Tyrannosaurus holotype only included about 18% of the skeleton, most of the Pittsburgh T. rex had to be made from casted and sculpted elements. Somewhat pointlessly, the skull fragments included with the specimen were buried inside a plaster skull replica (above), making them inaccessible to researchers for several decades. Completed in less than a year, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus was given a more hunched posture than its AMNH predecessor.
The mid-20th century was a quiet phase for vertebrate paleontology. After enjoying public fame and generous federal support during the late 1800s, paleontology as a discipline was largely marginalized when experiment-driven “hard” sciences rose to prominence. By the 1950s and 60s, the comparably small number of researchers studying ancient life were chiefly concerned with theoretical models for quantifying trends in evolution. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals were perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists.
While New York and Pittsburgh remained the only places where the tyrant king could be seen in person, the ongoing fame of T. rex was secured in part by two additional museum displays, ironically at institutions that did not have any actual Tyrannosaurus fossils on hand. In 1928, the Field Museum of Natural History commissioned Charles Knight to paint a series of prehistoric landscapes, the most recognizable of which depicts a face-off between Triceratops and a surprisingly spry Tyrannosaurus. In 1947, Rudolph Zallinger painted a considerably more bloated and lethargic T. rex as part of his Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both paintings would be endlessly imitated for decades, and would go on to define the prehistoric predator in the public imagination.
III. Rex Renaissance
The sparse scientific enthusiasm for dinosaurs that defined mid-century paleontology changed rather suddenly in the 1970s and 80s. The “dinosaur renaissance” brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. The next generation of paleontologists endeavored to look at fossils in new ways to understand dinosaur behavior, biomechanics, ontogeny, and ecology. Tyrannosaurus was central to the new wave of research, and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers since 1980. More interest brought more fossil hunters into the American west, leading to an unprecedented expansion in known Tyrannosaurus fossils.
The most celebrated Tyrannosaurus find from the dinosaur renaissance era came from Alberta, making it the northernmost and westernmost T. rex to date. The 30% complete “Black Beauty” specimen, so named for the black luster of the fossilized bones, was found in 1980 by a group of high schoolers and was excavated by paleontologist Phil Curie. The original Black Beauty fossils were taken on a tour of Asia before finding a permanent home at the newly established Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. In lieu of a standing mount, Black Beauty was embedded in a faux sandstone facade, mirroring the environment in which the fossils were found and the animal’s presumed death pose. This relief mount set Black Beauty apart from its AMNH and Carnegie predecessors, and even today it remains one of the most visually striking Tyrannosaurus displays.
Tyrannosaurus was once considered vanishingly rare, but by the early 1990s the number of known specimens had increased dramatically. Harley Garbani found three specimens, including the first T. rex juvenile, while prospecting in Montana for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM). “I was pretty excited,” Garbani recounted, “I didn’t figure another of those suckers would ever be found” (quoted in Horner and Lessem 1993). Meanwhile, the Royal Tyrell Museum tracked down a partial T. rex in Alberta that Charles Sternberg had marked in 1946 but never excavated.
One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens was discovered by avocational collector Kathy Wankel while prospecting on Montana land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Museum of Rockies (MOR) excavated the Wankel Rex in 1989, and until recently it was held it trust at the Bozeman museum. All of these specimens have allowed paleontologists to conduct extensive research on the growth rate, cellular structure, sexual dimorphism, speed, and energetics of T. rex, turning the species into a veritable model organism among dinosaurs.
IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur
Despite the relative bonanza of new Tyrannosaurus specimens uncovered in the 1980s and 90s, very few of those skeletons were immediately assembled as display mounts. Instead, many museums have purchased complete casts to meet the increasing public demand for dinosaurs. In 1986, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened Discovering Dinosaurs, the world’s first major exhibit showcasing active, endothermic dinosaurs. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, posed for the first time in the horizontal posture that we now know was the animal’s habitual stance. The following year, another AMNH cast appeared in the lobby of Denver Museum of Nature and Science in a strikingly bizarre pose, with one leg kicking high in the air. Robert Bakker—the mount’s designer— intended to push boundaries and demonstrate what a dynamic and energetic Tyrannosaurus might be capable of, although the mount has subsequently been described as dancing, kicking a soccer ball, or peeing on a fire hydrant.
Since the late 1990s, however, casts of another specimen have overtaken AMNH 5027 for the title of most ubiquitous T. rex. BHI 3033, more commonly known as Stan, was excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute (BHI), a commercial outfit specializing in excavating, preparing, and mounting fossils. BHI has sold dozens of Stan casts to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. With over 50 casts sold as of 2017, Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world.
All these new Tyrannosaurus mounts are forcing museums to get creative, whether they are displaying casts or original fossils. Predator-prey pairings are a popular display choice: for example, the Wankel Rex cast at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is positioned alongside the sauropod Alamosaurus, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History matches the tyrant dinosaur with its eternal enemy, Triceratops. Meanwhile, the growing number juvenile Tyrannosaurus specimens has allowed for family group displays. LACM features an adult, subadult, and baby, while the Burpee Museum of Natural History pairs its original juvenile T. rex “Jane” with an AMNH 5027 cast. The most unique Tyrannosaurus mount so far is certainly the copulating pair at the Jurassic Museum of Asturias.
Each of these displays gives a substantially different impression of Tyrannosaurus. Depending on the mount, visitors might see T. rex as a powerful brute, a fast and agile hunter, or a nurturing parent (or a gentle lover). Most mounts are accurate insofar that a real Tyrannosaurus probably adopted a similar stance at some point, but the museum’s choice of pose nevertheless influences visitors’ understanding of and attitude toward the dinosaur.
V. Restoring the Classics
With dozens of new Tyrannosaurus mounts springing up across the country and around the world, the original AMNH and Carnegie displays began to look increasingly obsolete. However, modernizing historic fossil mounts is an extremely complex and expensive process. The early 20th century technicians that built these displays generally intended for them to be permanent: bolts were drilled directly into the bones and gaps were sealed with plaster that can only be removed by manually chipping it away. What’s more, the cumulative effects of corroding armatures, fluctuating humidity, and vibration from passing crowds had damaged the historic mounts over the course of their decades on display.
Despite these challenges, AMNH and the Carnegie Museum have both been able to restore and update their classic Tyrannosaurus displays. Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the iconic T. rex. The fossils proved especially fragile, and some elements had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of paint and shellac applied by the original preparators.
Exhibit specialist Phil Fraley constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the old mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling with a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Each bone is secured to an individual metal bracket, allowing researchers to remove elements for study as necessary. A new cast of the skull was also prepared, this time with open fenestrae for a more natural appearance. Curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose—a closed mouth and subtly raised left foot convey a quiet dignity befitting this historic specimen.
Historically, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus had never quite lived up to its AMNH predecessor. Although it incorporated the Tyrannosaurus holotype, it was mostly composed of casts from the New York skeleton, and it sported an unfortunately crude replica skull. It is therefore ironic that the Carnegie Museum now exhibits the more spectacular T. rex display, one which realizes Osborn’s plan to construct an epic confrontation between two giant predators.
While less complete than many subsequent finds, the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype is still important because it defines the species. It had not been studied properly since the early 20th century, however, and the skull elements were completely inaccessible—entombed in plaster since 1941. The conservation team overseen by Hans-Dieter Sues sought not only to rebuilt the exhibit mount, but to re-describe the specimen and provide casts of individual bones to other museums. The Carnegie website once hosted a fascinating day-by-day account this process. The page seems to have been removed but an archived version can be found here.
Phil Fraley, now heading an independent company based in New Jersey, oversaw the construction of the new mount. Michael Holland contributed a new restored skull, actually a composite of several Tyrannosaurus skulls. The mount was completed in 2007, and is displayed alongside a cast of “Peck’s Rex,” a specimen housed at MOR. Despite the difficulty of modernizing the historic specimen, the team reportedly developed a healthy respect for turn-of-the-century mount-makers like Adam Hermann and Arthur Coggeshall, who developed the techniques for making enduring displays of fragile fossils that are still being refined today.
VI. From South Dakota to Chicago
Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real—a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.
The other dinosaur of the decade was SUE, who scarcely requires an introduction. SUE is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 90% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 30 years old at the time of their death, SUE is also the eldest T. rex known, and within the margin of error for the title of largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about this individual dinosaur. In particular, SUE’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infections that together paint a dramatic picture of a violent life at the top of the food chain.
It was the events of SUE’s second life, however, that made this the fossil the world knows by name. SUE was discovered in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on ranch land within the Cheyenne River reservation of South Dakota. The Black Hills Institute excavated the skeleton and initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City. Even at this point, SUE was a flashpoint for controversy among paleontologists: while several researchers signed up to work with BHI on a monograph about SUE, others did not think a for-profit company was an appropriate place for such an important specimen. Things heated up in 1992, when BHI became embroiled in a four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne Council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little legal precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton (I recommend the relevant chapter in Grande 2017 as the most evenhanded account of how this went down).
Williams announced that he would put SUE on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) won SUE with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.
FMNH and its corporate backers did not pay seven figures for SUE solely to learn about dinosaur pathology. SUE’s remarkable completeness would be a boon for scientists, but the fossil’s star power was at least as important for the museum. SUE was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As former FMNH president John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). A Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn support less sensational but equally important collections maintenance.
Once SUE arrived at FMNH, the museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of SUE’s teeth went on display days after the auction. This expanded organically into the “SUE Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Although BHI had already put in 4,000 hours of prep work, much of SUE’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted.
After reviewing a number of bids, FMNH selected Phil Fraley to prepare SUE’s armature. Fraley had already remounted the AMNH T. rex at that point, and left his post at the New York museum and founded his own company so that he could work on SUE. Just as had been done with the AMNH skeleton, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils were not damaged for the sake of the exhibit. SUE was placed right at the heart of the museum, in the half-acre, four-story expanse of Stanley Field Hall. Despite these cavernous surroundings, SUE was given a low, crouching posture—the intent was to give visitors a face-to-face encounter with T. rex.
SUE was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the dropping of a curtain. 10,000 visitors came to see SUE on opening day, and that year the museum’s attendance soared from 1.6 to 2.4 million. To this day, headlines about SUE are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SUEtheTrex twitter account has 60,000 followers and counting. SUE has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When FMNH brought SUE to Chicago, they weren’t just preserving an important specimen in perpetuity, they were creating an icon.
VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe
Tyrannosaurus is an exclusively North American animal. It follows that real Tyrannosaurus skeletons have historically only been displayed in American and Canadian museums, while the rest of the world has had to content itself with casts of Stan and the Wankel Rex. This situation changed recently, and there are now two original T. rex skeletons on display in European museums.
The first was Tristan, a Tyrannosaurus collected in 2000 by private collectors. Niels Nielsen, a Danish real estate developer, bought the skeleton for an undisclosed sum (he named the dinosaur Tristan after his son). While it is common for art museums to display privately owned objects, scientific institutions usually avoid such arrangements. There are many reasons for this: it may be a museum’s policy to avoid legitimizing the private market for one-of-a-kind specimens, or they may simply want to steer clear of demands by owners regarding exhibition and interpretation. Perhaps most importantly, scientific research on privately owned specimens is not necessarily reproducible, because there is no guarantee the specimen will remain in a publicly-accessible repository.
Despite these drawbacks, Director Johannes Vogel of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin decided to accept Tristan as a loan. Paleontologist Heinrich Mallison worked with Nielsen and others to design the mount and plan how it would fit into the exhibit hall. The team opted to pose Tristan as though making a rapid left turn around a “tree” (one of the cast iron columns bisecting the room). Unfortunately, the final armature did not effectively capture the intended twisting motion in the torso, hips, and right leg, and the resulting mount is stiffer looking then the initial renders. The public does not seem to have minded, however. Tristan was unveiled in September 2015 and drew half a million visitors in its first six months on display.
Europe’s second Tyrannosaurus mount debuted in September 2016 at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Named Trix after the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix, this specimen was collected in Montana by a crew from the museum working in collaboration with the Black Hills Institute. The mount constructed by BHI uniquely includes the original skull, rather than a lightweight replica. This was accomplished by posing Trix in a low running pose, with its head skimming less than a foot above the ground.
VIII. Into the Future
New T. rex displays just keep coming. In 2019, the National Museum of Natural History reopened its paleontology halls after a five year renovation. The new “Deep Time” exhibition has a brand-new Tyrannosaurus mount as its centerpiece. The specimen in question is the Wankel Rex, which had been held in trust at the Museum of the Rockies since it was excavated in 1989. Found on Army Corps of Engineers land, the fossils are owned by the federal government and therefore an ideal candidate for display at the national museum (technically, they are on a 50 year loan from the Corps to the Smithsonian).
Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, this is the first time the original fossils have been assembled into a standing mount. For Curator Matt Carrano, it was important that the T. rex was presented like an animal, rather than a sculpture. To accomplish this, he devised a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off a prone Triceratops. Pulling off such a scene was easier said than done. Extreme poses are relatively straightforward when working with lightweight casts, but the degree of dynamism Carrano wanted is much more complicated when creating a frame that safely supports real fossils. Just like Hermann and Christian a century earlier, Matt Fair and his colleagues at Research Casting International started with a 10th scale miniature before moving on to the real skeleton.
Now on display at NMNH, the Wankel Rex has a new nickname: the Nation’s T. rex. This moniker is appropriate: NMNH follows only the Louvre in annual visitation, sometimes topping 8 million people. That means the Nation’s T. rex will soon be the most-viewed Tyrannosaurus skeleton in the world. In all likelihood, 60 million people will pass by the mounted skeleton in the next decade.
Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex has competition. In 2018, the Field Museum moved SUE to a 6,500 square foot gallery adjacent to the main dinosaur hall. The new exhibition (full disclosure: I was a co-developer on this project) gives SUE some much-needed context. In contrast to the neoclassical space it once occupied, the mounted T. rex is now part of a media-rich experience that Brown, Hermann, and Osborn could have scarcely imagined. An animated backdrop illustrates the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived, and a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton—highlighting pathologies and other key features.
With guidance from Pete Makovicky, Tom Cullen, and Bill Simpson, Garth Dallman and colleagues at Research Casting International modified the original SUE mount to correct a range of anatomical inaccuracies and reunite the skeleton with its gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles). This is the first time a Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been mounted with a real gastral basket, and it gives the dinosaur a girthier silhouette. Many lines of evidence have converged onto this new look for T. rex. The animal was not the lithe pursuit predator it was portrayed as in the 1990s, but an ambush hunter with the raw weight and muscle to overpower its bus-sized prey.
As we have seen, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. Fifty years ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide (most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens). These displays have evolved over time: new scientific discoveries changed the animal’s pose and shape, new technology has allowed for more enriching and immersive exhibits, and popular media presentations of T. rex have continuously increased the public’s expectations for their encounter with the real thing.
Meanwhile, each T. rex on display exists in a socio-political context: human actors “create the initial and enduring performative iterations of T. rex” (Noble 2016, 71). A century ago, the first-ever T. rex exhibit was encoded with one man’s prejudice and social hangups. In the present, another T. rex—SUE—has become a nonbinary icon. The Field Museum now refers to SUE as “they” instead of “she,” both in the spirit of scientific accuracy (we don’t know SUE’s sex) and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. As explained in a press release, “this kind of representation can make a big difference in the lives of the LGBTQ community. It’s not about politics; it’s about respect. If our Twitter dinosaur gets more people used to using singular “they/them” pronouns and helps some folks out there feel less alone, that seems worth it to us.”
For museums, acquiring and displaying a T. rex is not exactly a risk. As Carrano explained with respect to the Nation’s T. rex, “the T. rex is not surprising, but that’s not its job. Its job is to be awesome.” Specimens like the Nation’s T. rex or SUE are ideal for museums because they are at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.
Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.
Black, R. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Clemens, W.A. and Hartman, J.H. 2014. “From Tyrannosaurus rex to asteroid impact: Early studies (1901-1980 of the Hell Creek Formation in its type area.” Through the End of the Cretaceous in the Type Locality of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and Adjacent Areas. Eds. Wilson, G.P., Clemens, W.A., Horner, J.R., and Hartman, J.H. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.
Colbert, E.H., Gillette, D.D. and Molnar, R.N. “North American Dinosaur Hunters.” The Complete Dinosaur, Second Edition. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O., eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.
Dingus, L. 1996. Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Dingus, L. 2004. Hell Creek, Montana: America’s Key to the Prehistoric Past. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Dingus, L. 1996. Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Fox, A. and Carrano, M. 2018. Q&A: Smithsonian Dinosaur Expert Helps T. rex Strike a New Pose. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-of-natural-history/2018/07/17/q-smithsonian-dinosaur-expert-helps-t-rex-strike-new-pose
Freedom du Lac, J. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. Washington Post.
Glut, D. 2008. “Tyrannosaurus rex: A century of celebrity.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Grande, L. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hermann, A. 1909. “Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 21:283-331.
Horner, J.R. and Lessem, D. 1993. The Complete T. rex: How Stunning New Discoveries are Changing Our Understanding of the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Johnson, K. and Stucky, R.K. 2013. “Paleontology: Discovering the Ancient History of the American West.” Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals, No. 4.
Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.
McGinnis, H.J. 1982. Carnegie’s Dinosaurs: A Comprehensive Guide to Dinosaur Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh, PA: The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.
“Mining for Mammoths in the Badlands: How Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Dug Out of His 8,000,000 Year old Tomb,” The New York Times, December 3, 1905, page SM1.
Nobel, B. 2016. Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Norell, M., Gaffney, E.S. and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.
Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.
Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of Ornitholestes, Struthiomimus, and Tyrannosaurus. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.
Psihoyos, L. 1994. Hunting Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. University of Alabama Press.
Wesihampel, D.B. and White, Nadine M. 2003.The Dinosaur Papers: 1676-1906. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
Over the last several years, we’ve been bombarded with one example after another of Black Americans killed by out-of-control police propped up by seemingly boundless corruption. I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes been tempted to think that the problem is not about me, and that I can’t do anything about it. But ignoring the problem is a privilege that many people do not have. Black Americans and other BIPOC have to live with the reality of state-sponsored racism and violence every day. As a white American, it is wrong to say that I have no role in this moment. Many of the privileges I enjoy come at the expense of others, and the least (and I do mean least) I can do is use the platform I have to acknowledge it.
It’s impossible to be apolitical. Institutional racism runs too wide and too deep (take a look at the lack of diversity in geosciences, for example). Even the subjects of this blog—museums and dinosaurs—are never more than a few degrees of separation away from hideous examples of racism and colonialism.
Please do what you can. Donate to organizations that are working to bring about change. If people around you are wrong or misinformed, have the courage to tell them so.
Black lives matter.
The dinosaur and fossil mammal halls at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) closed on January 1st of this year. In the last post, I covered some of the exhibition’s history, with a focus on the mounted dinosaur skeletons that won’t be returning when the halls reopen in 2023. This time, I want to explore what the new paleontology exhibits might be like. To be clear, I don’t have any privileged information about the YPM renovation. I only have my own insight from working on exhibits at other museums, and my immoderate interest in historic fossil displays (see the rest of this website). Fortunately, YPM staff have been very generous with news about the project, and there is even a dedicated website with details about the renovation. Let’s see how much we can piece together.
As I touched on in the previous post, this renovation has been a long time in coming. Few significant changes had been made to the paleontology halls since the 1950s, and these spaces are in many ways time capsules from another era—both in terms of paleontological science and exhibit design. Serious conversations about redeveloping the dinosaur and mammal halls were underway by 2010. During this process, the team noted the disjointed nature of the existing exhibits, which had been installed on an ad hoc basis. For instance, a visitor moving along the west side of the dinosaur hall would encounter modern crocodilians, Triassic trees, and a Cretaceous mosasaur, before passing into the fossil mammal hall and encountering a Quaternary mastodon. These random jumps back and forth through time undoubtably made it difficult for visitors to make much sense of what they were seeing, beyond a menagerie of old dead things.
Seeking to unify the fossils on display within a single, cohesive story, the team proposed a variation on the traditional “walk through time.” Rather than dividing the space into segmented galleries based on the formal divisions of geologic time, the emphasis would be on broad-scale environmental changes. This presentation would synergize with the existing Rudolph Zallinger murals. The 110-foot The Age of Reptiles (completed in 1947) and the 60-foot The Age of Mammals (completed in 1967) are epically-scaled frescos that show the evolution of life over time without hard boundaries. Instead, flora and landscapes from different time periods blend seamlessly into one another. In the same way, the proposed exhibition would present its narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary changes. As I discussed some time ago, this is not dissimilar from the approach taken for Deep Time.
These discussions must have been the basis for the set of concept images released alongside the launch of a new fundraising effort in 2013 (why they needed to fundraise when Yale has a $30 billion endowment is beyond me—I promise this will be my only snarky aside about that). Architectural firm Studio Joseph envisioned wide-open and well-lit spaces, in which the grey carpet and grid-patterned walls were replaced by bright earth tones accentuated by ash wood panels. A mezzanine on the west side of the dinosaur hall would have allowed visitors to view The Age of Reptiles directly, rather than from the floor. A long, continuous case directly beneath the mural would contain fossil specimens that corresponded with the scene above.
In the center of the hall, remounted Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus skeletons were to be joined by a brand-new Allosaurus, shown attacking the Stegosaurus. In the concept images, the dinosaur skeletons are directly on the floor, rather than on platforms. Barely-visible glass barriers prevent visitors from getting too close to the specimens. In the background, the Beecher Edmontosaurus is in the same position it’s held on the north wall since 1925. A mosasaur attacking an Archelon appears to be suspended from the ceiling in the northwest corner.
The 2013 mammal hall concept follows the same aesthetic principles as the dinosaur hall. The space-hogging floor-to-ceiling cases are gone, replaced by the same circular glass barriers shown around the dinosaur mounts. Whereas the old hall was loosely organized around a mid-century understanding of evolutionary relationships, this new version would be strictly chronological. The old fundraising page lists a Megacerops display, a Moropus display, and a mastodon display, and indeed, those skeletons appear to anchor the three major areas portrayed in the concept image. One can imagine these early, middle, and late Cenozoic tableaus illustrating the climactic shift from warm and wet to cool and dry. Oddly, the arrangement shown here runs in the opposite direction of The Age of Mammals mural, in which the ice age is on the west side of the hall.
But all that was seven years ago. Near as I can tell, everything changed when Yale alumnus Peter Bass made a $160 million donation, apparently the largest single gift ever made to an American natural history museum. YPM also changed directors—in 2014, freshwater ecologist David Skelly took over the position from geologist Derek Briggs. The renovation is no longer limited to the two paleontology halls, but will encompass the entire museum—and more. Over the next four years, the YPM and surrounding area will gain a north courtyard and new museum entrance, a dedicated entrance and gathering area for school groups, a multi-story lobby connecting YPM to the academic building next door, new collections and research facilities, new classrooms, 50% more exhibit space, and a 500-seat lecture hall named for O.C. Marsh.
Centerbrook Architects and Planners—a company already responsible for twelve other projects on the Yale campus—was hired to continue the design process. Centerbrook’s renders (and a video flythrough) are available on the Peabody Evolved website. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell which parts of these renders represent real plans and which parts are placeholder. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be taking the renders at face value, but will note when something might be merely suggestive of a to-be-determined element.
It’s clear that after the renovation, fossil displays will range far beyond the dinosaur and mammal halls. Some of these are already complete: in August 2019, a crew from Research Casting International moved a Triceratops skull and a relief-mounted Pteranodon from their traditional home in the dinosaur hall to the lobby of the new Marsh lecture hall (part of the recently-completed Yale Science Building to the north of the museum). Meanwhile, the Centerbrook plans shows a mosasaur to the left of the new north entrance to YPM. It’s the approximate size and shape of the Platecarpus skeleton in the old dinosaur hall, so perhaps that fossil will be relocated, as well.
At the heart of the renovated museum will be the central gallery, a brand-new structure filling in an empty space between the YPM and the Environmental Science Center to the east. It will run parallel to the dinosaur hall, sharing a wall on the existing gallery’s west side. Although the overall design is quite modern, the scale and color palette of this new 4-story space is meant to complement the French Gothic revival architecture of the original museum building. Lit by a skylight and filled with comfortable seating, the designers hope that the central gallery will be a space for students and museum visitors to relax and co-mingle, better integrating the museum into the campus community.
Flying high over people’s heads will be battling Archelon and Tylosaurus skeletons. You’ll remember that this scene was originally envisioned for the dinosaur hall. Relocating these skeletons to the central gallery gives them far more room to spread out. The Archelon in question is the holotype (YPM 3000), which was collected in 1885 in South Dakota. Measuring 15 feet across, this Cretaceous sea turtle has been on display since the turn of the 20th century. Given that it will be suspended an inaccessible 30 feet in the air, this new version of Archelon will almost certainly be a cast (Update: In fact, the real Archelon will be remounted). The Tylosaurus is reportedly a specimen from the YPM collection that has never been displayed before.
That brings us to Centerbrook’s revised take on the dinosaur hall. Several elements of the Studio Joseph design are still in evidence: the remounted Brontosaurus is at the center of the gallery, the Edmontosaurus remains on the north wall, and the specimen cases below the Zallinger mural are arranged in sync with the artwork above. Nevertheless, many changes have clearly been made. The ash wood panels are gone, and the walls are now austere white. The mezzanine is out, along with the battling Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. The Archelon and Tylosaurus are missing, of course, but we know that they’re in the central gallery. I imagine that these cuts have less to do with money than with real estate: once designers started laying out the proposed elements in 3-D space, it became clear that there was no way everything would fit.
I see five major sections in this version of the dinosaur hall. First is the curved wall, which faces visitors when they enter the exhibit from the south, or from the central gallery. The render shows ammonites on the south side of this wall, but these might be placeholder images. I expect this area to be an introduction to the exhibition and its organization.
On the opposite side of the curved wall and hidden from immediate view is Stegosaurus (YPM 1853), a companion to YPM’s famous Brontosaurus (YPM 1980). We can call this the Jurassic dinosaurs section, which occupies most of the floor space. Both dinosaurs were recovered around 1879 by William Reed’s field crew at Como Bluff, Wyoming, and were subsequently described by Marsh. Richard Lull (who called it “the most grotesque reptile the world ever saw”) oversaw the construction of the Stegosaurus mount in 1910. The great hall was specifically designed to fit the Brontosaurus, which was completed in 1931. Both of these historically-significant specimens will be restored and remounted for the new exhibition. Brontosaurus is afforded a large platform with built-in seating. The designers have included lots of space for visitors around this star attraction, allowing for plenty of photo opportunities. It’s disappointing that Stegosaurus is no longer fighting Allosaurus (this hall could use a large theropod or two), but it’s not like we can’t see similar scenes at other museums.
A row of cases under The Age of Reptiles appears to be arranged chronologically, with fossil specimens corresponding with the mural overhead. On the south end of the east wall, I see YPM’s complete Limnoscelis and the fin-backed Edaphosaurus. In the old hall, Edaphosaurus was mounted in relief, but this render shows a three-dimensional mount. I’m assuming the wire-frame theropod shown under the Cretaceous portion of the mural represents a Deinonychus mount. Including Deinonychus is a must, of course, since John Ostrom did his groundbreaking work demonstrating the theropod origin of birds at YPM. There is a smaller row of a cases on the west wall, and the only specimen I can make out appears to be YPM’s swimming Hesperornis mount. Perhaps this section is about the evolution of marine life, while the displays under the mural are about terrestrial life.
Finally, the relief-mounted Edmontosaurus anchors the Cretaceous dinosaurs section at the north end of the hall. Built in 1901, this is the oldest surviving dinosaur mount in North America. Contrary to the common narrative that all early 20th century paleontologists saw dinosaurs as cumbersome tail-draggers, this mount is downright sprightly, and could be mistaken for a reconstruction from the last 20 years. As such, it’s fitting that Edmontosaurus should remain in its original form. Since the Edmontosaurus was installed in the great hall in 1925, the space in front of it was gradually filled with a myriad of dinosaur skeletons, skulls, and models. In the new exhibition, this will be simplified to feature the skulls of three Edmontosaurus contemporaries: Triceratops, Torosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.
Although no new images of the mammal hall have been shared yet, there is a telling change visible in the dinosaur hall renders. Currently, the doorway between the two fossil halls is on the west side of the north wall, but the new plans show it moved to the east side (there used to be a door there, but it’s been buried behind exhibit cases for decades). Relocating that door means visitors will enter the mammal hall in the center, and have the choice to move to the left or to the right. Presently the only other entrance to this space is from the human evolution gallery to the east, but perhaps once the central gallery is built the emergency exit to the left can become a regular passageway. What all this means for the content is anyone’s guess. On option would be to place the mounts on a central island—then visitors could circle counterclockwise and generally follow the Zallinger mural (which runs east to west) through time.
One thing these images tell us nothing about is media and interactivity—important parts of many contemporary exhibitions. Speculating wildly for a moment, I think it would be incredible if YPM used projection mapping or similar technology to create a media presentation directly on The Age of Reptiles. I’m imagining something vaguely like a planetarium show, with either pre-recorded or live narration. The show could illustrate how the mural was created, projecting an animated Zallinger on his ladder, looking tiny against the massive canvas. It could also portray the animals in motion, or provide us glimpses of modern reconstructions of the more outdated creatures. A show like this might draw more visitors to pay attention to the mural and appreciate its historical significance.
Research Casting International—the leading company specializing in preparing and mounting fossil skeletons—started work at YPM on January 20th. The crew has already dismantled several of the dinosaur skeletons, which will travel to their workshop outside Toronto for restoration, and in some cases, remounting. After that, we have a three year wait until the new YPM opens. I guess we’ll see then how many of my predictions here hold true.
Another year, and another major renovation of a historic paleontology exhibition is underway. The dinosaur and fossil mammal halls at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) closed to the public on January 1st. The rest of the museum will follow in July, with a planned reopening in 2023. This will be the first comprehensive renovation of the museum since the current building opened in 1931, and the upgrades are long overdue. For decades, most of the YPM exhibits have been a museum of a museum—a time capsule preserving the state of natural science and museum design in the mid-20th century. The dinosaur hall in particular looks almost exactly as it did when Rudolph Zallinger completed the spectacular Age of Reptiles mural on the east wall in 1947 (a handful of newer specimens, revised labels, and video terminals notwithstanding).
It’s exciting to see ground breaking on the new museum and exhibits, because this renovation has been a long time in coming. Serious discussions were underway in 2010, if not earlier, and a set of conceptual images was released as part of a fundraising effort launched in 2013. It appears that a lot has changed since then. The scope of the renovation has expanded to encompass the whole museum, not just the paleontology exhibits. And certain details from the 2013 concept—such as a mezzanine in the dinosaur hall opposite the Age of Reptiles mural—have been dropped. Last year, YPM launched a dedicated website showcasing the latest renovation plans. It’s wonderful that the institution is committed to keeping their community involved in and informed about the transformation of a public space that is near and dear to so many.
Naturally, this renovation is an opportunity to take a deep dive into the YPM fossil displays, and look at the specimens, artwork, and people that defined this institution in the past and which will carry it into the future. Expect upcoming posts exploring the future of these exhibits, but for now let’s start with a look back at the exhibit that once was.
YPM was founded in 1866 with a gift from George Peabody. Peabody was the uncle of O.C. Marsh, who had been appointed Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale that same year. Having been awarded tenure and his own museum, Marsh began to lead and send crews into the American west to collect fossils. Many of Marsh’s expeditions were under auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, and those fossils eventually made their way to the Smithsonian. The remainder, however, entered the YPM collections, where they remain to this day.
After Marsh’s death in 1899, his student Charles Beecher took over vertebrate paleontology at YPM. Beecher was, in turn, succeeded by Richard Lull. Lull never met Marsh (and the two were quite different in many ways), but he nevertheless spent much of his career carrying on his predecessor’s legacy. Like his Smithsonian counterpart Charles Gilmore, Lull expanded Marsh’s often laughably brief descriptions into proper monographs, which are still used by paleontologists today. And like Gilmore, Lull put the Marsh fossils on public display, guiding the assembly of the mounted skeletons that have held court at YPM ever since.
Lull became director of YPM in 1922, and it was in this role that he oversaw the museum’s move from it’s modest original building to the larger, French Gothic-inspired structure where it currently resides. Construction of the new museum was completed in 1925, and Lull spent the next several years developing the dinosaur hall we know today. Marsh, for his part, disliked the idea of display mounts, considering it a waste of time and effort. And limited space at the old facility meant that only two large dinosaur mounts—Edmontosaurus and Stegosaurus—were assembled between 1900 and 1925. The new building, however, had a great hall specifically built to house the Marsh dinosaurs, so Lull and his team got to work filling it.
Camarasaurus and Camptosaurus
Most of the new mounts were assembled from fossils collected around 1880 at Como Bluff, Wyoming. Working for Marsh, William Reed and his crew amassed a treasure trove of Jurassic dinosaurs there, most famously the Brontosaurus holotype. Naturally, Lull devised Brontosaurus (YPM 1980) as the centerpiece of the dinosaur hall. Because of its size and complexity, it was the first of the new mounts to begin construction and took the longest to complete. The Brontosaurus was literally built into the floor: photos from the 1920s show a latticework of steel beams designed to spread its weight. Once the floor was installed, the Brontosaurus could not be moved.
In the meantime, preparator Hugh Gibb assembled two other mounts from Como Bluff material: Camarasaurus and Camptosaurus. The Camarasaurus (YPM 1910) is 21-foot juvenile, consisting of a complete vertebral column from the 2nd or 3rd cervical to middle of the tail, and most of the larger limb bones. The feet and most of the ribs are reconstructed, as is the skull, which is a fairly crude sculpture. In his 1930 publication discussing the mount, Lull commends Gibb for how closely his reconstruction matched the nearly complete and articulated juvenile Camarasaurus collected by the Carnegie Museum at what is now Dinosaur National Monument, despite the fact that Gibb had never studied that specimen. Lull only notes that the YPM mount has one fewer cervical and one fewer caudal than the Carnegie specimen, and that the reconstructed cervical ribs are much too short.
Gibb also assembled the Camptosaurus mount (YPM 1880), which he completed in 1937. Yet another specimen from Reed’s excavations at Como Bluff, the Camptosaurus is notable for how closely it mirrors Marsh’s illustrated reconstruction from 40 years earlier. It seems reasonable to assume this was a deliberate homage, although Gibb did follow Gilmore’s example and removed Marsh’s erroneous lumbar vertebrae. The sculpted skull, modeled after Iguanodon, was typical of Camptosaurus reconstructions at the time but is now known to be inaccurate.
Neither Camarasaurus nor Camptosaurus are slated to return in the renovated exhibit. Marsh originally designated both of these specimens as holotypes for “Morosaurus” (=Camarasaurus) lentus and Camptosaurus medius. Opinions on the validity of those particular species have changed over time, but it’s important that a new generation of paleontologists has an opportunity to study the original fossils up close, which has been virtually impossible in their mounted form.
High on the west wall is one of YPM’s most overlooked dinosaurs. This relief mount represents the only confirmed remains of Claosaurus agilis (YPM 1190), a hadrosaur found in the marine deposits of western Kansas. Claosaurus is a bit of a taxonomic mess: Marsh initially announced this fossil as a new species of Hadrosaurus, before upgrading it to its own genus. Then, he decided to sink all of the much younger Lance Formation hadrosaur material (what is now called Edmontosaurus annectens) into the Claosaurus genus. It’s a difficult web to untangle, but Claosaurus is a real taxon that lived alongside animals like Pteranodon and Tylosaurus.
Lull and Wright describe the mount as “recent” in their 1942 monograph on hadrosaurs, so it must have been assembled after the move the current building. Most of the vertebrae and limb bones are real, but the skull is (obviously) a model built around a few fragments of jaw. Although it’s hard to see from the ground, the preservation is apparently poor, and most of the bones are crushed to some degree. Lull and Wright attest to the significance of Claosaurus as the earliest known true hadrosaur, but were clearly frustrated by the quality of the specimen. Perhaps modern paleontologists will have better luck, once it’s taken off display and returned to the collections.
Variably known as Monoclonius flexus, Centrosaurus flexus, and Centrosaurus apertus, this ceratopsian skeleton (YPM 2015) was collected by Barnum Brown on the American Museum of Natural History’s extremely productive expeditions to the Belly River region in Alberta. I’m not sure when YPM acquired the fossil (presumably in a trade), but it was mounted and on display by 1929. At some point during the development of the fossil mammal hall, Lull became enamored of half-mounts like this one, in which the animal appears bisected along its sagittal line. Half the skeleton is assembled on one side, while a fleshed-out model is visible on the other. Several mammal specimens at YPM are displayed this way, but the Centrosaurus is the only dinosaur.
Lull discusses the choices made in reconstructing Centrosaurus at length in his 1933 monograph on ceratopsians. He describes the relief-mounted Centrosaurus at AMNH as an imperfect representation of the animal’s life appearance because it preserves the death pose it was found in. In contrast, the YPM version is reconstructed in a three-dimensional standing posture. Lull specifically points to his Centrosaurus‘s nearly straight neck and sprawling forelimbs (with the humerus nearly horizontal) as superior to the AMNH presentation. The issue of ceratopsian forelimb posture is still not completely resolved, but there is probably some truth to Lull’s sprawling reconstruction.
For the fleshed-out portion of the mount, Lull directed the artist to match the musculature and skin texture of iguanas and alligators. A loggerhead turtle was referenced for the mouth and beak. Lull chose to give the small processes on the lower edges of the frill a horny sheath, rather than the fleshy look popularized by Charles Knight. Overall, the life restoration is on the lean side compared to our modern understanding of ceratopsians, but many details—including the digitigrade fingers and forelimb posture—have held up well.
Next time, we’ll look at how historic specimens like Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Deinonychus might be modernized for the new version of the hall.
Lull, R.S. 1930. Skeleton of Camarasaurus lentus recently mounted at Yale. American Journal of Science 19:105:1-5.
Lull, R.S. 1910. Stegosaurus ungulatus Marsh, recently mounted at the Peabody Museum of Yale University. American Journal of Science 30:180:361-377.
Lull, R.S. 1933. A Revision of the Ceratopsia or Horned Dinosaurs. New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse, and Taylor Co.
Lull, R.S. and Wright, N.E. 1942. Hadrosaurian Dinosaurs of North America. New York, NY: Geological Society of America.
Marsh, O.C. 1872. Notice on a new species of Hadrosaurus. American Journal of Science 3:16:301.
Marsh, O.C. 1890. Additional characters of the Ceratopsidae, with notice of new Cretaceous dinosaurs. American Journal of Science 39:233:418-426.