A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 2

Old and new taxidermy pieces introduce visitors to their extended family tree. Source

Start with A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 1.

The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals opened at the National Museum of Natural History in November 2003. The hall’s airy, minimalist aesthetic represented a radical departure from traditional wildlife exhibits, shaking off taxidermy’s dusty reputation and utilizing the museum’s mammal collection to tell the story of evolution for modern audiences. As we saw last time, developing such an exhibit was not without controversy – everything from the source of funding to the ethics of demolishing historic dioramas came under intense scrutiny. In this post, we’ll explore the work that went into building the exhibit, and how the team’s bold vision eventually paid off.

Building the Animals

The Hall of Mammals cost $31 million and involved over 300 people. However, the job of constructing or updating the 274 taxidermy mounts was largely done by three individuals. John Matthews and Paul Rhymer were the Smithsonian’s last full-time taxidermy specialists. Rhymer in particular was a 3rd generation legacy – his grandfather had worked on the now-dismantled dioramas in the old mammal halls. The newcomer was Ken Walker, an award-winning taxidermist who moved to Washington from Alberta to work on the exhibit.

Beasts take shape in a massive workshop just outside the beltway.

Matthews, Rhymer, and Walker set up shop in a 50,000 square foot studio in northern Virginia. As museum taxidermists, they took no shortcuts in making the animals they built look right. The process for a creating a given mount would start with hours of research, using photos and videos to get a sense of the animal being recreated. The goal is to get inside the creature’s head, to understand how it thinks, moves, and behaves. Next, the artist builds a clay sculpture, either from scratch or using a commercial mannequin as a starting point. It is at this stage that the pose and attitude are set, and the bulge of every bone and muscle must be perfect. Only then can the tanned skins be stitched onto the sculpture and final adjustments be made. A single animal can take 100 hours or more to create.

Making the animals for the Hall of Mammals was particularly challenging because the designers called for so many dramatic and unusual behaviors. These animals aren’t just standing around – the gerenuk is stretching to full height in order to browse from a tree, the bobcat is leaping to catch a bird in mid flight, and the giraffe is spreading its forelimbs and bending down to drink. Cutaways reveal an anteater’s tongue snaking into an insect nest and a blackfooted ferret interloping in a prairie dog burrow. Achieving this level of dynamism with clay, wax, and dead fur is only possible with a top-notch understanding of biomechanics.

This paca scratching itself behind the ear is an example of the expressive and dynamic mounts produced for the Hall of Mammals. Photo by the author.

90% of the featured animals are on display for the first time, and the pelts came from a variety of sources. NMNH sent out a wishlist to museums, zoos, research facilities, and private collectors. A tree kangaroo came from the National Zoo’s offsite research facility in Virginia. The okapi had recently died of old age at Chicago’s Brookville Zoo. The playpus and koala were imported from Australia, and the leopard, jackal, and Chinese water deer were from Kenneth Behring’s personal collection.

All of the animals came from existing collections – nothing was killed specifically for the new exhibit. Given modern sensibilities and the museum’s conservation-oriented mission, this was a laudable decision. Nevertheless, using old specimens created many new challenges. The tiger and panda that had been at NMNH for over a century had faded fur, which had to be dyed. The orangutan was a lab animal preserved in a vat of alcohol. The fur was usable, but the face and hands were ruined, and had to be reconstructed. Only a male lemur was available, but some clever alterations turned it into a female carrying a baby. The Brookfield zoo okapi had hooves which were overgrown from lack of use. The taxidermists filed them down to make the animal look like its wild counterparts. In many cases, the taxidermists were not merely making dead animals look  alive, they were creating imaginary lives that these individuals never actually had.

Creating the Space

While the taxidermists were working 10 to 12 hour days building the animals, yet another team was working on creating the spaces they would inhabit. The animals would be set in minimalist, conceptual environments – a terraced floor suggests a watering hole, and metal poles and plastic tubes stand in for branches and trees. The specimens are presented like sculptures in an art gallery, or perhaps trendy gadgets at a tech showcase.

Visitors explore the Apple Store of taxidermy. Photo by the author.

A key aspect of the new hall is the restoration of the west wing’s original Beaux Arts architecture. Designed by the historic Washington architectural firm Hornblower and Marshall, the space was originally a three-story neoclassical chamber with a large skylight and ornate plaster and chrome embellishments. Over the years, false walls had been added to carve the hall into ever smaller spaces to accommodate new exhibits. The original architects may have been on to something, however. NMNH gets upwards of seven million visitors every year, and crowding is a common complaint. To help mitigate this, the Hall of Mammals design team wanted to return to the wide open floor plan, with lots of space for visitor traffic and multiple viewing angles on most specimens. Starting in 1999, Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern spent two years restoring the west wing to its former glory.

Since the new exhibit furnishings couldn’t touch the historic structure of the building, creating the hall was like assembling a building within a building. The designers settled on a steel framework that would visually separate the new exhibits in the center of the hall from the classic architecture. The metal structures double as mounts for the exhibit’s complex lighting systems, and also recall the ribcage of a whale. The choice to display some of the taxidermy pieces in open settings has been a point of contention from a conservation standpoint. The mounts placed in open air, rather than climate controlled cases, can be expected to deteriorate over time. According to Project Manager Sally Love, this was a deliberate trade-off. “We felt it was important to break barriers between the animals and our visitors” said Love, “and the animals not behind glass are ones that we can more readily obtain replacements for.”

The Hall of Mammals uses contrast as a key visual motif – in this case the huge walrus juxtaposed with tiny bats. Photo by the author.

Throughout the hall, the architecture is meant to compliment and support the hall’s  interpretive themes. The exhibit drives home the point that mammals are tremendously diverse, but also similar in key ways due to their common ancestry. The entry space, flanked by two-story cases of taxidermy specimens, illustrates that diversity. Contrast is a key visual motif: large animals beside small ones, specimens exhibited high and low, and so on. Height in particular is used to keep visitors looking in all directions. A leopard snoozes on a branch over visitors’ heads, while a platypus in its burrow can only be seen by crouching down. Meanwhile, the perimeter of the hall is devoted to animals that share particular habitats, referencing the impact environmental change has had on mammalian evolution.

Animals of the North American forest. Photo by the author.

Among the most exciting parts of the exhibit is the east African watering hole in the center of the hall. Since the taxidermy mounts are static, the designers filled the space with video screens and dynamic lighting to keep the scene in motion. Footage of animals in motion cycles on rear-projected frosted-glass panels behind the mounts, while screens set in the floor show footprints and evidence of changing seasons. Suzanne Powaduik designed the immersive light effects, which repeat every ten minutes. The highlight is a thunderstorm heralding the arrival of the rainy season, accomplished with sound effects and a xenon flasher. Director of Exhibits Stephen Petri explains how the special effects tie in with the exhibit’s narrative: “evolution occurs over long periods of time but is a response to changes that happen moment to moment.”

Legacy

The completed Hall of Mammals occupies 25,000 square feet, minus about 3,000 annexed by a gift shop and special exhibit space. It contains 274 taxidermy specimens, 12 fossil replicas, and numerous sculptures and interactives. The hall is the culmination of five years of work – a long time to be sure, but a breakneck pace compared to the 25 years it took to complete the classic Akeley Hall of African Mammals at AMNH. It was also one of the biggest taxidermy projects attempted in the past 80 years, and for at least a little while, it made Matthews, Rhymer, Walker, and their peculiar trade into stars.

Although the animals themselves are motionless, light, sound, and video fill the space around them with life. Source

The Hall of Mammals received at least nine industry awards, and has become a benchmark for exhibits in development today. Teachers have also praised the exhibit – writer Sharon Berry’s text is pitched for families, and written with National Science Foundation Life Science Standards in mind. While the exhibit has showy special effects and some playground-like elements, the meaning and message is omnipresent.

While historic wildlife dioramas are incredible works of art and science, they are absolutely of another time. Indeed, a major part of their appeal is that they are a look into the past, to an era when naturalists believed ecosystems could be summed up in a window box. For all their meticulous detail, dioramas have never been able to truly recreate nature. They are uncanny reflections of nature, filtered through the worldview of their creators. Dioramas have great cultural and intellectual value, and it is a tragedy whenever one of these irreplaceable time capsules is lost. At the same time, though, NMNH should be commended for stepping outside the box (so to speak). The Hall of Mammals does not attempt to replicate the experience of viewing living wildlife – it showcases the diversity of nature in a way that only a museum can. It’s gorgeous, engaging, informative…and it’s a beast all its own.

References

Liao, A. 2003. Natural history exhibits venture beyond black-box dioramas. Architectural Record 11:04:275279.

Milgrom, M. 2010. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

National Park Service. 2004. Mammal Hall Study Report: Evaluation by National Park Service Media Specialists of New Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/si-mammal-hall-report.pdf

Parrish, M. and Griswold, B. 2004. March 2004 Meeting Report: Mammals on Parade. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. http://www.gnsi.science-art.com/GNSIDC/reports/2004Mar/mar2004.html

Polliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press.

Trescott, J. 2003. Look Alive! The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/07/14/look-alive/d1944407-ffbb-4e1f-8e06-06cd9ddec57d

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A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 1

The Hall of Mammals upon its 2003 opening. Photo by John Steiner, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In her 2010 book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom compares the making of a 21st century taxidermy exhibit in a major museum to “building an indoor skiing facility in Dubai” (Migrom 2010, 90). It’s a lot of work for something nobody asked for, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. A century ago, before zoos were widespread and before wildlife videos were a click away, mounting animal pelts on mannequins was the best way to bring nature to an increasingly industrialized populace. Today, taxidermy exhibits seem inherently antiquated, even creepy. Taxidermy is by no means a dead art (competitions are still going strong), but the practice has certainly lost some of its grandeur.

For most, the aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the discomfort of being confronted with a dead animal. There is of course far more complexity to unpack, from the uneasy suspension of disbelief stemming from seeing an animal skin made to look alive to the taxidermy piece’s multifaceted identities (including natural specimen, work of art, historic relic, and so forth). Who was this creature, and how did it die? How did it end up on display? How long has this animal endured its second life? These are the questions that fill visitors’ minds when confronted with a taxidermy exhibits. This presents a challenge for museums seeking to continue to use these specimens to educate visitors about ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. That is the problem staff at the National Museum of Natural History took on when they set out to create a taxidermy hall for a contemporary audience.

Out with the Old

Like any century-old natural history museum, NMNH has a long history of taxidermy displays. Animal mounts filled the original United States National Museum and the Smithsonian’s various world’s fair exhibits. These specimens came from a variety of sources, including private donations and collecting expeditions by Smithsonian researchers. Several animals, such as the hippo mounted by William Brown, lived and eventually died at the National Zoo. Some of the museum’s most famous taxidermy mounts are the animals collected for the Smithsonian by Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan in 1909. Putting the Roosevelt specimens on display was a priority when building that is now NMNH opened in 1910. The prepared animals – including a family of lions, a giraffe, three northern white rhinos, and many others – filled an entire room in the new building’s west wing.

Northern white rhinos collected during the Roosevelt expedition, as displayed in 1915. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In the late 1950s, the NMNH west wing was completely remodeled as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The wing’s center hall became the Marine Ecosystems exhibit (starring a life-like blue whale model), while the U-shaped corridors surrounding it were rebranded as the World of Mammals Hall and the North American Mammals Hall. In the new exhibits, many specimens were grouped into realistic dioramas, complete with lush foreground landscapes and background murals. Other animals filled more sterile cases dedicated to particular subjects, such as “Mammals versus Climate” and “Dogs of the World.”

African ungulates in the 1959 World of Mammals exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By the mid-1990s, the modernized exhibits were looking a little rough around the edges. Many of the taxidermy pieces were over 80 years old, and the fur had become faded or frayed. The exhibit text was wordy and overly technical for the average museumgoer. In 1998, the Smithsonian Institutional Studies Office underwent a detailed evaluation of the mammal exhibits, which involved interviewing hundreds of visitors about their reactions to the halls. Overall, visitors seemed satisfied with the exhibits, but the evaluation nevertheless provided a lot of useful information.

The 1959 exhibits mixed complete dioramas with simpler cases covering specific topics. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Although more than half of museum visitors passed through the mammal exhibits, it was seldom seen as the main attraction. For most visitors, the mammal halls were neither the first exhibit they saw, nor their favorite part of the museum. Older visitors tended to respond better to the mammal exhibits than children or teenagers, who saw the halls as old, boring, or creepy. Indeed, the yuck factor of the taxidermy and the specter of death in general was on many visitors’ minds. While they were often not comfortable talking about it, many visitors expressed concern about the fact that the animals on display were dead, and wondered about how they ended up that way. Out of 750 visitors, 11% were sad or uneasy about the taxidermy and 5% were outright disturbed.

In with the New

In 1997, California real estate developer Kenneth Behring donated $20 million to fund a new mammal hall at NMNH. At the time, this was the largest single donation the museum had ever received, and it presented an exciting opportunity. However, there was a conflict of interest: Behring was a big game hunter with a history of going after threatened species. For example, earlier that year Behring drew criticism from the Humane Society after killing a Kara-Tau argali (an endangered mountain sheep) in Kazakhstan. In a news release, Behring stated that he followed all applicable laws and always obtained proper permits, but many individuals – both within and outside the Smithsonian – were concerned that his hunting activities conflicted with the museum’s conservation-oriented mission. What’s more, Behring’s donation included 22 animals from his own collection, and the Smithsonian was accused of allowing him to buy his way into the institution’s prestigious exhibits.

While the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals bears the donor’s name, and several of his personal trophies are on display, NMNH staff have made it very clear that Behring had no say in the exhibit’s message or content. That was just as well, because developing the exhibit internally proved plenty difficult. Pencils were said to have been thrown during meetings, and one conservator chose to retire rather than work on the new hall.

Several individuals can rightly claim authorship of the Hall of Mammals, including Project Manager Sally Love and Writer Sharon Barry. However, the primary advocate for the hall’s striking and controversial design was Associate Director of Exhibits Robert “Sully” Sullivan. Sullivan envisioned a wide open hall, forgoing enclosed dioramas and instead displaying animals in simple settings with lots of negative space. The idea was to keep the focus on the animals, their anatomy, and their behavior. This steel-and-glass contemporary aesthetic has more in common with trendy tech showrooms than traditional taxidermy displays, and not everyone was initially on board.

This Alaskan moose group was one of several dioramas dismantled to make way for the new Hall of Mammals. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Unfortunately, the bold new vision could not be accomplished without destroying the old exhibits, including the historic dioramas. In the early 20th century, the proliferation of habitat dioramas radically transformed museums. Dioramas were accessible to broad audiences and brought with them the idea that museum exhibits should tell stories. These exhibits even had a tangible effect on the increasingly urban public’s interest in conservation. Today, historic museum dioramas are often considered quaint, but in their day they represented a bold fusion of art, technology, and science.

According to Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History, the NMNH dioramas “were not particularly good.” They certainly didn’t hold up to the standard set by Karl Akeley, Robert Rockwell, and others at the American Museum of Natural History. Still, they were undoubtedly important historical artifacts and represented a huge amount of work on the part of the craftsmen who created them. After inspecting the exhibits, NMNH conservators reported that it would be possible to preserve the dioramas intact for some future use. However, top officials decided that this would be too expensive, and all of the dioramas were ultimately demolished. Some of the taxidermy mounts were cleaned up for the new exhibit, while others were passed on to other museums. Still others would up homeless, and were ultimately dismantled and harvested for parts.

The minimalist watering hole in the Hall of Mammals. Photo by the author.

While some traditionalists fretted about Sullivan’s push to eliminate the dioramas, he also made waves with his restructuring of the exhibit team. In the past, curators had primary authorship over exhibit content, but Sullivan wanted to democratize the process. He gave designers and educators a greater voice, and insisted that their specialized knowledge be heard. While many applauded the recognition Sullivan brought to professionals whose work was usually undervalued, others weren’t so sure. Research staff avoided exhibit work during Sullivan’s tenure because they felt they were being railroaded into plans that had already been made. It was a tense period, and for a time, there were no curators on the Hall of Mammals team. Fortunately, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Anna K. Behrensmeyer and senior mammal specialist (and former NMNH director) Robert Hoffman eventually stepped up as advisers for the Hall of Mammals. They brought to the table a phylogenetic approach that enhanced the strictly regional layout that had been planned for the exhibit.

Phylogeny became a key theme once Behrensmeyer and Hoffman joined the exhibit team. Photo by the author.

Yet another challenge emerged when the architectural firm NMNH hired to collaborate on the design restructured their staff midway through the project. No longer getting the results they wanted, NMNH hired a new firm – Reich+Petch Design International – to finish the job, at the cost of a multi-month delay. The new exhibit architects determined that the first draft simply had too much content. If all the planned displays were included, the Hall of Mammals would be very crowded and visitor traffic flow would be encumbered. The team confirmed this by laying out a mock-up of the floor plan on the National Mall. After walking through the space, the exhibit team decided to cut about 40% of the content and tighten up the interpretive themes. The hall’s final design is all about evolution, and our own place in the mammal family tree.

With a plan in place, construction and fabrication were set to begin. We’ll cover that in the next post. Stay tuned!

References

Institutional Studies Office. 1999. Examining Mammals: Three Studies of Visitor Responses to the Mammals Hall in the National Museum of Natural history. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

Milgrom, M. 2010. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

National Park Service. 2004. Mammal Hall Study Report: Evaluation by National Park Service Media Specialists of New Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/si-mammal-hall-report.pdf

Parrish, M. and Griswold, B. 2004. March 2004 Meeting Report: Mammals on Parade. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. http://www.gnsi.science-art.com/GNSIDC/reports/2004Mar/mar2004.html

Trescott, J. 2003. Look Alive! The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/07/14/look-alive/d1944407-ffbb-4e1f-8e06-06cd9ddec57d

Ulaby, N. 2010. Smithsonian Taxidermist: A Dying Job Title. All Things Considered, National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125914878

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH

A Tour of Dinosaur Park

I generally use this blog to write about other people’s work, but today I’m going to turn the tables and share a project I’ve been involved with for the past couple years. As of this month, the new interpretive area at Laurel, Maryland’s Dinosaur Park is (just about) complete. I’m proud of my own contributions, and ecstatic with all the work my immeasurably talented and dedicated colleagues have done to bring this project to fruition.

Introductory sign at Dinosaur Park.

Dinosaur Park is a 41-acre site operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission that preserves the most productive dinosaur fossil quarry in the eastern United States. Historically known as the Muirkirk quarry, this location has been a known source of dinosaur material since 1858. Fossils were first discovered by ironworkers collecting siderite for processing at the nearby Muirkirk ironworks. Later, O.C. Marsh, John Bell Hatcher, Charles Gilmore, Richard Lull and other prominent paleontologists would collect or study fossils from this deposit. The site was largely forgotten for most of the 20th century, but in the 1980s Peter Kranz, Tom Lipka, and others relocated it and began unearthing new material. Highlights included a massive sauropod femur, basal ceratopsian teeth, and the only Mesozoic mammal fossils ever found east of the Mississippi River.

The Muirkirk quarry produced some of the first dinosaur fossils to be scientifically studied in North America, and as such conceptions of its position in geologic time have understandably changed over the years. Marsh assumed the site was Jurassic in age because of the presence of sauropods, but Gilmore later revised it to Cretaceous. Based on pollen data, we can now place the site (and the Patuxant Formation as a whole) at the Aptian-Albian boundary in the Lower Cretaceous. Contrary to older proposals, the Muirkirk dinosaur fauna has more in common with the middle strata of the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah than the Wealden Group in England.

Excavating a sauropod femur at the future site of Dinosaur Park in 1991. Photo courtesy of Pete Kroehler.

Dinosaur Park fossils aren’t much to look at, but they are remarkable for their diversity. This is a record of a complete ecosystem.

Thanks to some determined lobbying, the M-NCPPC (a bi-county organization that administers parks and urban planning) acquired the Muirkirk site and formally dedicated Dinosaur Park in October 2008. From its inception, Dinosaur Park was conceived as a citizen science project. During school programs and regularly scheduled open houses, visitors are invited to take part in ongoing prospecting for fossils. These programs emphasize stewardship of natural heritage, rather than treasure hunting, and to date visitors have discovered thousands of specimens. All of these fossils are accessioned into the county’s collection for research and education, and important specimens are turned over to the National Museum of Natural  History for final curation (search the NMNH Paleobiology collections database for “Arundel” to view this material).

Citizen scientists prospecting for fossils at Dinosaur Park.

Back in 2008, there wasn’t much to Dinosaur Park beyond the fossil site, a protective fence, and a small gravel parking lot. There were always plans to further develop the site, however, and thanks to the Park’s ongoing popularity we were able to kick off the phase II construction in 2016. The project involved developing the entrance area with exhibits and visitor amenities. There wasn’t a lot of space to work with, and the new facilities would have to do double duty: they needed to be useful both during guided programs and for drop-in visitors during the week (when the fossil site is closed). We ended up with an integrated, multipurpose space incorporating a series of exhibit signs, a garden of “living fossil” plants, a presentation area, a climbable dinosaur skeleton, two picnic benches, and a restroom and drinking fountain.

A number of additions were – to the probable annoyance of my colleagues –  the result of me piping up with a last-minute “wouldn’t it be cool if…” suggestion. That’s how we ended up with a life-sized image of the Astrodon femur discovered by the Norden  family in 1991, a trail of sauropod footprints, and a series of displays about baby sauropods (perhaps there’s a theme there?).

The garden, play area, and other new facilities at Dinosaur Park.

One of several new interpretive signs.

The content of the exhibit signs was directly informed by formal and informal visitor surveys. We took note of visitors’ most frequent questions, as well as which parts of our old displays were being ignored or misunderstood. For example, lots of visitors wanted to know about the biggest or most important fossils found at the Park. These weren’t illustrated on our old signs, but they’re integral parts of the new ones. Meanwhile, very few visitors were engaging with content about local geology, so those sections ended up being cut.

A section of Shoe’s masterful Cretaceous Maryland mural. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

For me, and hopefully many visitors, the highlight of the new displays is the spectacular mural created by Clarence “Shoe” Schumaker. Shoe has produced artwork for numerous parks and museums, including several National Park Service facilities, but to my knowledge he had never painted dinosaurs before. Nevertheless, he approached the project with unquenchable enthusiasm, determined to get every detail correct. Working with Shoe was a fantastic experience – I would send him my hasty sketches and random ideas and he would somehow turn them into spectacular imagery. Our goal was to produce an image that would be at home in any nature center. This is an overview of an ecosystem, and the presence of dinosaurs is only by happenstance. The final piece is mesmerizing, and I think its hyper-detailed placidity gives it a certain Zallinger-like quality.

The finished mural was so cool that I couldn’t help but ask for more. One under-reported virtue of the Dinosaur Park collection is that we have sauropod remains from a variety of ages and sizes – from 70-foot adults to tiny hatchlings. I suggested a single image of a baby sauropod to help illustrate these animals’ remarkable growth potential. Shoe turned around and produced two full paintings and a life-sized model. The man is seriously unstoppable.

Shoe’s 2D and 3D baby Astrodon art. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

It’s been a wonderful experience seeing the Dinosaur Park interpretive area come together, and the few places where compromises were made are vastly overshadowed by the many prominent successes. Dinosaur Park is an important resource, both for growing our knowledge of prehistory and for introducing the local community to the process of scientific discovery. I can’t wait to see it continue to grow!

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Do fossil exhibits have too many dinosaurs?

Reflexive discussion about the practice of communicating paleontological science to general audiences has become more common recently – there was even a two-day Popularizing Paleontology workshop in London last year.  It’s about time – paleontology encompasses some of the most important questions about the world around us, from how life evolves to how ecosystems respond to planetary changes. Paleontology is the study of how the world came to be, and our understanding of the natural world is hopelessly incomplete without it. For the larger public, however, paleontology is synonymous with dinosaurs, and this can be a problem. Dinosaurs are awesome, but they are but one branch of the tree of life. And while their 160 million year dominance is significant, the era of non-avian dinosaurs is only a fraction of the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth. Their story is not the only story worth telling.

Why the outsized fascination with dinosaurs? I suspect it’s the result of a self-perpetuating cycle. Human curiosity peaks somewhere between subjects an individual knows well and subjects that are completely new to them. In other words, people prefer to learn about things they are already familiar with. That means that museum visitors are drawn to dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus because they already know something about them. Meanwhile, other fascinating creatures are bypassed precisely because visitors lack an existing mental framework to contextualize them. Somewhat paradoxically, in the sphere of informal learning, familiarity is king.

Generally, educators have been happy to indulge the public craving for dinosaurs*. In a must-read blog post resulting from the aforementioned Popularizing Paleontology workshop, Mark Witton describes dinosaurs as “one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal” because they are “gateways” to discussions about evolution, extinction, deep time, and even the nature of the scientific method. Witton then unpacks this conventional wisdom, highlighting several ways that relying on the built-in appeal of dinosaurs may not be as effective as traditionally assumed. It’s a fascinating discussion that I highly recommend reading.

Witton’s post got me thinking that if we’re going to consider easing up on dinosaurs in outreach efforts, we need some sort of baseline to firmly establish if (or the degree to which) they are being overused. One argumentum ad nauseum in these conversations is that museum exhibits are overstocked with dinosaurs. Allegedly, exhibit designers have responded to the popularity of Mesozoic dinosaurs by devoting an excessive amount of exhibit space to them, while relegating Paleozoic and Cenozoic specimens to the collections. This supposition can be (very, very crudely) tested by comparing the percentage of available exhibit space to the percentage of time non-avian dinosaurs dominated the planet. Assuming that exhibits should not be expected to allocate proportional space to pre-Phanerozoic life, I figure that the “Age of Dinosaurs” should cover 30-35% of an exhibit about life since the Cambrian (~160 million out of 541 million years).

To satisfy my own curiosity, I’ve gone and checked this figure against the three big paleontology exhibits with which I am most familiar. The slapdash maps below are traced from museum guides available online, with percentages calculated with the help of the Photoshop ruler tool. Green denotes dinosaurs, brown represents Cenozoic mammals, and blue encompasses everything else, including Paleozoic fossils, overviews of life over time, and non-dinosaurian Mesozoic life.

Field Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 31%; Mammals: 31%; Other: 38%.

Let’s start with the Field Museum, since it’s the most straightforward. The Evolving Planet exhibit (on view since 2006) occupies three elongated halls totaling 27,000 square feet. Evolving Planet is a classic “walk through time”-style exhibit, and the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic are given remarkably equal amounts of floor space. Even though the central hall is larger than the other two, it is partially occupied by plants, marine animals, and early Triassic weirdos. At 31% of the total exhibit, dinosaurs are right about where they should be.

National Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in the old fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 15%; Mammals: 43%; Other 42%.

The old paleontology halls at the National Museum of Natural History (closed since 2014) demonstrate what happens when a museum goes without a dinosaur specialist for three quarters of a century. Cenozoic mammals and Paleozoic marine life were given room to spread out, while the dinosaurs were crowded into a paltry 15% of the available 31,000 square feet. It’s worth noting that unlike the Field Museum’s current fossil halls, which were designed from the ground up in the early 1990s, the NMNH paleontology wing was built up in a piecemeal fashion over the course of a century. The space was repeatedly carved into smaller sections to make room for new exhibits, and designers had to work around existing specimens that were too expensive or difficult to move. By the 1980s the halls had become something like a maze, and much of the available space wasn’t used very efficiently. Still, the consistently meager amount of space allotted to dinosaurs made it clear where the curators’ interests lay.

American Museum of Natural History

gallery usage at amnh

Space allotment by subject on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 40%; Mammals: 30%; Other: 30%.

At the American Museum of Natural History, fossil exhibits are spread across six halls on the fourth floor. The last substantial renovation was completed in 1995, although a titanosaur skeleton was added to the Orientation Hall in 2016. This exhibit differs from its counterparts at FMNH and NMNH in that it’s arranged phylogenetically, rather than chronologically. It is also limited to vertebrate evolution, so plants and invertebrates are not included. With those caveats in mind, dinosaurs occupy 40% of the 65,000 square feet of exhibit space.

So, do museums have too many dinosaurs? Based on this exercise, these three museums have just the right amount (or even too few). The proportion of space allocated to dinosaurs closely matches the time span of their ecological dominance during the Phanerozoic. The percentage of dinosaur space at AMNH is on the high side, but if we also incorporated the square footage of the human evolution exhibit and the assortment of marine invertebrate fossils on display elsewhere in the museum, that percentage would decrease significantly. In fact, if this exercise has revealed anything, it’s that Cenozoic mammals get an awful lot of space, given that the “Age of Mammals” takes up only 13% of the Phanerozoic.

Again, this is an extremely crude way to measure dinosaur-themed engagement efforts. One might also look at the number of specimens on exhibit, or the newness of the displays (are dinosaurs getting updated more frequently, while other exhibits are left to languish?). And that’s to say nothing of outreach beyond the permanent exhibits. Still, I hope this is a helpful starting point. At the very least, it suggests to me that “are museums over-emphasizing dinosaurs?” is not the only question worth asking. We also need to tease out if audiences are ignoring non-dinosaur paleontology outreach efforts, and if there’s a way to counter that.

*It’s a tired but worthwhile point that comparatively few people can articulate what a dinosaur actually is. For many, anything big and dead (and displayed in skeletal form) is a dinosaur. This complicates the matter, because when people ask for dinosaurs they may actually mean prehistoric animals.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, NMNH, systematics

Acrocanthosaurus, the Terror of the South

Acrocanthosaurus at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

Following yesterday’s travelogue about the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science (NCSM), I thought I’d go into a little more depth about the museum’s star fossil. One of only five Acrocanthosaurus specimens ever found, NCSM 14345 is the most complete and the only one on public display. The mounted skeleton has been at the Raleigh museum since 2000. Among other things, its story highlights the challenging relationship between academic paleontologists and the private fossil trade.

Despite its current home in North Carolina, this Acrocanthosaurus hails from the town of Idabel in southeast Oklahoma, more than a thousand miles away. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love (both now deceased) discovered the skeleton in 1983. After making an arrangement with the landowner, the pair spent the next three years carefully excavating the find.

The Acrocanthosaurus was recovered from the early to mid Cretaceous rocks of the Antlers Formation. Found in a deposit of fine sandstone and dark mudstone alongside lots of lignitized wood, the animal’s final resting place was probably a stagnant swamp or pond. Additional evidence for the depositional environment comes from the way the bones are preserved. They contain a great deal of pyrite, and were encrusted with dense concretions of calcium carbonate. Both of these minerals are formed by bacteria blooms in low-oxygen locales, such as the mud at the bottom of a swamp. Gouges in the skull, ribs, and foot indicate scavengers – crocodiles and possibly other Acrocanthosaurus – were feeding on the carcass before it was buried.

All told, the find included a complete skull (the only one of its kind), the pelvis and sacral vertebrae, both arms and shoulder girdles, the right leg, and parts of the rib cage and tail. Paleontologist Richard Cifelli of the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma became aware of the discovery in 1987. Cifelli initially hoped that the museum could acquire the specimen for study and safekeeping, but Hall and Love’s asking price was beyond their means. Instead, Hall and Love loaned the fossils to the University of Texas. They were unsatisfied with this arrangement, however, and drove down to Austin to retrieve their dinosaur (the details of this event are apparently contentious). Hall and Love then sold the fossils to Geological Enterprises, a for-profit outfit based in Ardmore, Oklahoma, for $225,000 plus the promise of a cast once the prep work was completed. Geological Enterprises founder A. Allen Graffham gave the specimen the nickname “Fran,” after his wife.

The meticulously reconstructed Acrocanthosaurus skull. Photo by the author.

The calcium carbonate concretions and heavy pyrite content made the Acrocanthosaurus a particularly challenging fossil to prepare. The concretions are like natural cement and are very difficult to remove without damaging the bones. Meanwhile, pyrite breaks down into sulfur when exposed to oxygen and humidity, which can cause bones to crumble. In 1991, Graffham outsourced the preparation job to the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. Terry Wentz led the preparation project at BHI, which was reportedly one of the most challenging assignments of his career. The concretions encrusting the bones were so dense that they often had to be ground off, rather than chipped. This process could take several hours just to remove a few millimeters of calcium carbonate. To make matters worse, removing pyrite releases acidic particulates into the air. Preparators had to wear respirators and the bones had to be prepared in vacuum boxes.

The most daunting part of the project was reconstructing the specimen’s beautiful and intact skull. Although virtually complete, the skull was found crushed flat. Everyone involved agreed that the skull would be more informative and more impressive if it could be reinflated, but that was easier said then done. Over a year of work went into carefully separating the individual skull bones and reassembling them into their life position.

After five years of what was probably one of the most difficult fossil prep jobs ever attempted, the Acrocanthosaurus was ready to be sold. However, Graffham initially had trouble finding a buyer. There were interested parties in Japan, but he reportedly did not want the fossils to leave the United States.

On October 4, 1997, another well-preserved theropod skeleton went up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Sue – the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found – was already legendary thanks to the protracted legal battle over the fossils. Now that the one-of-a-kind skeleton was being sold at a high profile auction, paleontologists feared that it would disappear into the hands of a private collector. On the night of the auction, most of the museums and other public repositories in the running were outbid within minutes. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Science appeared to be the only museum left after the price topped $5 million, and so the hopes of the paleontological community rested on their shoulders. NCSM dropped out at $7.2 million, and moments later Richard Gray, a veteran of art auctions, won Sue on behalf of a mysterious client. Happily, that client turned out to be the Field Museum (with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney), and so Sue ended up in a public repository after all.

The Acrocanthosaurus and its sauropod companion can be seen from the ground and from a balcony. Photo by the author.

Still, NCSM had been willing to stake an enormous amount of money on a name brand dinosaur, and they weren’t about to give up. Two months after the Sue auction, the Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought the Acrocanthosaurus from Graffham’s company for $3 million. BHI prepared the mount, which debuted along with the rest of the museum’s new building on April 7, 2000. It may not be coincidental that this was just one month before the mounted skeleton of Sue was unveiled in Chicago.

The Acrocanthosaurus occupies a well-lit, circular atrium on the museum’s third floor. Visible both from the ground and from a balcony, the mount is accompanied by a rather goofy-looking sauropod statue. Model pterosaurs circle overhead on a rotating arm, and recreations of theropod and sauropod tracks from Dinosaur State Park in Paluxy, Texas can be seen throughout the room. The original skull is on display in a case outside the atrium.

Sadly, pyrite deterioration has continued to ravage the delicate fossils. Several of the original bones once included in the NCSM mount have been retired to the collections for safekeeping. As of this year, only the arms, right foot, and vertebrae appear to be original material. The rest have been replaced with casts.

Exhibit signs have also changed since the 2000 debut. NCSM exhibits staff learned from surveys that 80% of visitors thought the dinosaur on display was a T. rex, and plenty more assumed the whole skeleton was a replica. In response, most of the signage was redesigned. The displays now highlight the differences between “Acro” and T. rex, and highlight the exceptional rarity of the museum’s Acrocanthosaurus specimen.

A number of NCSM 14345 casts are on display at museums throughout North America, including the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Houston Museum of Nature and Science, and the Kenosha Public Museum. As promised, Hall and Love were awarded a complete cast of the skeleton,  but without the means to assemble or display it, the replica sat in storage for several years. Eventually, local third and fourth graders successfully raised the $150,000 needed to display the cast at the Museum of the Red River in Idabel.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

Fossils are precious remains of real organisms, clues about ecosystems from long ago and the making of the world as we know it today. In an ideal world, all significant fossils would, from the moment of their discovery, be accessioned and held in a public collection at a museum or university. A fossil sitting on somebody’s mantelpiece or waiting to be sold at auction is doing nothing to grow our collective knowledge. However, public institutions don’t have the resources to find and excavate every fossil, and in the United States fossils found on private land belong to the landowners. That means that, for better or worse, there is a thriving commercial market for rare fossils.

A plurality of paleontologists do not engage with fossil dealers for ethical reasons. Indeed, even if they wanted to buy rare specimens, academic institutions can seldom match the prices individual collectors are willing to pay. Museums don’t usually have $3 million sitting around. That kind of money could fund a whole research team for years. As such, we’re left with a Catch-22. Paleontologists want important fossils to be in museums where they can be seen and studied by everyone. But if those fossils are in private hands, buying them would support and legitimize the industry that is also keeping fossils out of public collections. If there was an easy solution, it would have been worked out by now.

Nevertheless, serendipity occasionally strikes. This seems to have been the case with the Acrocanthosaurus. News about Sue generated interest in buying a name-brand dinosaur, and donors were willing to put up the money to get the specimen for NCSM. The skeleton is now in a public collection, at a free museum, no less. Meanwhile, the collectors were well compensated for their considerable investment. It’s hard to chalk that up as anything but a win, all around.

References

Carpenter, K. 2016. Acrocanthosaurus Inside and Out. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

du Lac, J.F. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. The Washington Post

Eddy, D.R. and Clarke, J.A. 2011. New Information on the Cranial Anatomy of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis and Its Implications for the Phylogeny of Allosauroidea (Dinosauria: Theropoda). PLoS ONE 6:3:e17932.

Lovelady, W. 2012. Every Step You Take. Exhibits and Emerging Media, North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. 

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Filed under dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, reptiles, theropods

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

This pregnant right whale was killed when it was hit by a boat. Displayed with the fetus skeleton in situ, it now serves as a species ambassador.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been on my list of must-see museums for some time, and I finally had a chance to visit over Memorial Day weekend. Founded in 1879 as the North Carolina State Museum, the institution was initially a showcase for local agricultural and mineral products. Over the years, the interests of both the curators and the visiting public gradually nudged the museum in the direction of more generalized natural history. Now the largest natural history museum in the southeast, NCSM hosts a world-class research staff overseeing a collection of 1.7 million specimens. Since 2000, the museum has occupied a four-story facility in downtown Raleigh. A second wing, called the Nature Research Center, opened in 2012. There are also two satellite nature centers outside the city (which I did not visit) that are under the NCSM banner.

An introduction to geologic time.

First things first: the paleontology exhibit is quite good, although somewhat compact. Perhaps too compact, given its popularity and the amount of exhibit space the museum has to work with overall. Coming up the escalator to the 3rd floor, visitors are strongly encouraged to enter Habitats of North Carolina, a colorful and attractive walk through time. The initial spaces cover the basics. First, a series of pillars introduce the primary stages of life on Earth. This is followed by exhibits about where fossils come from, how we know how old fossils are, and so on. I particularly liked the “What to Fossils Tell Us?” display. Here, a grid of spinning cubes each hold small, conventional fossils. Visitors can rotate the cubes around to see that even these modest-looking remains can be very informative. For example, leaves and pollen provide detailed climate information, and a large croc scute suggests that a substantial body of water was present.

Prestosuchus in the Triassic scene. This appears to be a cast of the Brazilian AMNH 3856.

Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus casts dominate the Cretaceous tableau.

The rest of the exhibit is built around a series of tableaus in which mounts and models of charismatic animals are placed in landscapes of replica foliage. Small, illustrative fossils are in cases throughout. First up is a cast of Prestosuchus, lurking among some Triassic horsetails. Next, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Pachcephlosaurus casts populate the Cretaceous alongside lovely ginkgos and magnolias. A baby hadrosaur model at the feet of the Edmontosaurus was apparently stolen (and recovered) in 2012. The famous Willo – a Thescelosaurus skeleton that maybe/probably doesn’t have mineralized heart tissue in its chest – is on display under glass.

Did you know that most modern fish groups evolved only 20 million years ago? I didn’t!

A ground sloth in the standard pole-dancing pose.

Moving into the Cenozoic, a set of attractive and informative cases describe the origin and evolution of modern fishes and whales. This is followed by glass tunnel through a life-sized diorama of a late Eocene sea. The models here are spectacular, but the space is altogether too dark. I found it difficult to see the diorama, much less read the signs. The final section is home to a real ground sloth skeleton. This is a composite of several specimens recovered in 1999 near Wilmington, North Carolina. Happily, the reconstructed portions of the mount are distinct and easy to see. Habitats of North Carolina ends on an eccentric note with a set of mannequins in pioneer garb discovering fossils in a creek bed. I’m not really sure what this adds to the exhibit narrative.

Acrocanthosaurus holds court in a sunny atrium all to itself.

The star fossil at NCNM is the only real Acrocanthosaurus on display anywhere in the world. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love found this rare skeleton in Oklahoma in 1983. Unfortunately, a bad case of pyrite disease made the fossils an absolute nightmare to prepare, and it exchanged hands several times before ending up with the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. In 1997, an anonymous donor purchased the skeleton on behalf of NCNM for $3 million, shortly after the museum came in second place in the bidding war for Sue the T. rex.

Acrocanthosaurus is a favorite of mine, and the mount is beautiful. The sunny atrium it’s situated in makes for an attractive display, but I wish it wasn’t so disassociated from the main paleontology exhibit. I’m told the mount included more original material when it debuted in 2000, but the creeping specter of pyrite disease has necessitated the removal of several bones for restoration and safekeeping. Be sure to see it soon, before the rest of the mount gets replaced with casts!

Whales: behold their majesty.

The paleontology exhibits are nice and all, but the real showstoppers at NCSM are the whales. No less than six giant whale skeletons are on display. Suspended over a corridor of sorts, the whales can be viewed from below or from a 2nd story mezzanine. Many museums have a whale skeleton or two, but I’ve never encountered this many cetecean skeletons in one place. From the utterly insane-looking right whale to the colossal blue whale, they are stunning to behold. Be sure to factor in plenty of time to simply stare. Immersive dioramas of local habitats, live animal exhibits, and a look at collecting and exhibition practices past and present round out the museum’s “old wing.”

As mentioned, however, a whole new wing of exhibits opened in 2012. Called the Nature Research Center, this is basically the interactive, citizen science-driven Museum of the Future that educators (including myself) have been demanding for years. This three story space is all about getting visitors involved in science. There are multiple drop-in “labs” where knowledgeable staff lead visitors through mini-experiments, designed to get people thinking scientifically. There’s a molecular lab where visitors can isolate and analyze DNA samples. There’s a digital imagery space where visitors can practice using GIS tools, or explore the possibilities of 3-D printing. And there’s a Q?rius-like collections library, where visitors can check out and study real bones, furs, minerals, and fossils. The Nature Research Center also includes several fishbowl-style labs where visitors can watch museum staff and volunteers at work. Even the highly interdisciplinary static displays are less about the “what” and more about the “how”: the tools, techniques, and people that make science possible.

One of the lab spaces in the Nature Research Center.

Distressingly, on the day I visited, the traditional museum exhibits were crowded with visitors, but the Nature Research Center was nearly deserted. Since I was there on a holiday weekend, I was probably seeing a skeleton-crew version of the staff that is usually facilitating the interactive spaces. Still, the Nature Research Center is the embodiment of the modular, interactive exhibits that educators dream about. To see it empty while the story and object-driven exhibits were packed is somewhat disconcerting.

As the scientists say, though, a single anecdotal experience is not data. I’d be very interested to learn how this pioneering exhibit space holds up in the long run.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion

Extinct Monsters at PSW

The historic Basilosaurus at NMNH. Photo by the author.

I realize the blog has been quiet lately. The usual excuses apply – work responsibilities, preparing to relocate, and of course the crushing despair of our present political reality. I do have a fun announcement for people in the Washington, DC area, however. I’ll be speaking at the April 19th meeting of the Paleontological Society of Washington, which is held after hours at the National Museum of Natural History. Meetings are open to all. The full announcement flyer is here. Many thanks to the PSW for having me! The talk abstract is below.

Extinct Monsters: The Hybrid Identities of Fossil Mounts

Mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are an enduring symbol of natural history museums. However, fossils do not come out of the ground bolted to armatures. These iconic displays occupy a paradoxical middle ground between scientific specimens and cultural objects. Many have endured for generations, taking on second lives independent of their original purpose. This presentation will unpack the densely-layered identities of fossil mounts, tracking their scientific, artistic, and cultural significance from the 18th century to today. 

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Filed under Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, museums