Looking Back at Fossils: History of Life

The renovated hall 2 upon its initial completion. Photo from Kopper 1982.

It is with some trepidation that I attempt to tell the story of the third incarnation of the National Museum of Natural History’s paleontology exhibits.  For one thing, this was “my” space, insofar that any of us feel ownership over familiar public spaces. I explored these halls regularly as a toddler. I volunteered there as a teenager and interned there after college. More recently, I’ve found myself working among these same displays on a number of occasions as a museum professional*. As such, it is difficult to establish an appropriate amount of cognitive distance, even now that the galleries have been cleared from wall to wall, and new exhibits are being installed in their place.

“Fossils: History of Life” closed for renovation in April 2014. Because this exhibit existed largely unchanged for most of my life, a part of me likes to think of it as something that has always been there. Nevertheless, these displays were designed and built by specific people at a specific point in time. And while the specimens, artwork, and craftsmanship in Fossils: History of Life were nothing short of iconic, the process of putting those pieces together was surprisingly contentious. The creation of this exhibit was beset by internal strife and controversy, as conflicts that had been simmering for decades about the very nature of museums finally came to bear.

The Story So Far

The east wing of the National Museum of Natural History (prior to 1964, the United States National Museum) has been home to fossil displays since the current building opened in 1910. From opening day to 1945, the exhibits were primarily under the stewardship of Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Charles Gilmore. Intermittently called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” this iteration was somewhat haphazard in its layout. Like many early 20th century exhibits, the galleries were filled with a sampling of static objects from the collections, occasionally accompanied by an explanatory painting, map, or model. Gilmore’s version of the east wing remained in place until 1962, when the space was redesigned as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. Between 1953 and 1963, the modernization committee chaired by Frank Taylor oversaw improvements of nearly all of the National Museum’s exhibits. Taylor pushed for exhibits that catered to laypeople, rather than specialists. Paths visitors might travel through the space, common visitor questions, and consistent aesthetics were all considered when overhauling the east wing fossil halls.

Modernization-era version of hall 2, completed in 1962. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As Rader and Cain convincingly argue, the transition from exhibits dominated by cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to story-driven learning experiences began in most American museums at the beginning of the 20th century. However, this was not the case at the Smithsonian. By the 1950s, the National Museum had developed a reputation as an old-fashioned place. Its neo-classical exhibition halls mostly contained rows of cases jam-packed with specimens, and that was the way the curatorial staff liked it. Entomologist Waldo Schmitt summed up the prevailing institutional attitude when he said that exhibits should be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments.” Curators like Schmitt worried that shoehorning objects into generalized narratives about nature and anthropology would distort or occlude their meaning and provenance. NMNH Director Remington Kellogg agreed, and Taylor’s modernization committee faced an uphill battle with every exhibit they sought to make more broadly accessible.

It was a stalemate between two competing visions for what a museum should be. The 1962 fossil hall renovation at NMNH experimented with dioramas, color-coded signage, and text divided into area titles, headings, and subheadings, but compared to peer institutions it was hardly revolutionary. This could be partially attributed to the design process, in which the development of each of the four east wing galleries (halls 2, 3, 4, and 5) was led by a different curator. As a result, the galleries landed in different places on the spectrum between traditionally-arranged specimens and cohesive narratives.

The 1974 Ice Age Hall was a turning point for NMNH exhibits. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, a turning point was on the horizon. The east wing modernization plan also called for the annexing of hall 6 (formerly the home of geology exhibits) as a dedicated Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. In part due to the larger number of new specimens being prepared for display, this Quaternary Hall was repeatedly delayed. By the time hall 6 was ready to reopen in 1970, its old-fashioned organization was no longer what administrators wanted. In 1973, Director Porter Kier decided to shut down the nascent Quaternary Hall and assemble a new team to redesign it. A group of geologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and education specialists reworked the exhibit into an interdisciplinary exploration of the ice ages. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans were all presented as a single, holistic story. For NMNH staff, it was clear that the 1974 Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man represented the future of exhibition at the museum. From that point onward, exhibit design would be a collaborative process between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists. Moreover, the galleries themselves would be seen more like fully-formed architectural spaces, rather than modular associations of artifacts. Above all, the primary purpose of exhibits would be the education and engagement of visitors.

Planning “History of Life”

After the positive reception of the Ice Age Hall, Kier were eager to retool the rest of the ever-popular paleontology galleries in the same manner. In early 1977, he appointed fossil cnidarian specialist Ian Macintyre to chair a committee of curators tasked with devising an overarching plan for the exhibit renovation. Joining Macintyre was Daniel Appelman (geology), Robery Emry (fossil mammals), Leo Hickey (fossil plants), Nicholas Hotton (fossil reptiles), Kenneth Towe (early atmosphere), and Thomas Waller (fossil mollusks). In June, the group submitted their theme statement:

The fundamental theme which has been developed in the context of a single all-encompassing hall is the history of the progress of life as revealed by the geological record in terms of:

  1. The great periods of time involved in the evolution of life forms preserved
  2. The changing environmental conditions associated with the evolutionary process
  3. The increase in diversity and complexity of life forms

The phrase “all-encompassing hall” is key. The curators agreed that, unlike the 1962 iteration, the new exhibit should have a single voice and follow a single narrative. This decision was influenced not only by changing expectations for exhibits, but also by recent developments in their own department. The NMNH Division of Paleontology had been disbanded in 1963, and paleontologists were reorganized into the Department of Paleobiology. The new title represented a push among research staff to focus less on descriptive systematics and more on how the fossil record can inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. Macintyre’s team wanted to bring the same change of focus to the new exhibit.

Visitor map of NMNH ground floor, circa 1982. Adapted from Yochelson 1985.

The curators spent the next year hashing out the hall in further detail. Early on, the group agreed that an illustrated column of geologic time should be the exhibit’s centerpiece. This would eventually manifest as the “Tower of Time,” with key artwork provided by John Gurche. The group also decided to break the main “progress of life” concept into several smaller storylines, which they counterintuitively called “highlights.” The highlights would include “The Earliest Traces of Life,” “Conquest of the Land,” “Reptiles: Masters of the Land,” “Living Fossils,” “Fossils and Industry,” and “Mammals in the Limelight,” among others.

Each highlight would correspond to a part of the east wing exhibit space. The central, high-ceilinged hall 2 would be occupied by Reptiles: Masters of the Land, which included the dinosaurs, as well as a substantial display of of Paleozoic marine invertebrates at the rotunda-side entrance. A new mezzanine and ramp over hall 2 would include Living Fossils, Fossils and Industry, the evolution of flight, and fossil fishes. Hall 4 would feature Earliest Traces of Life and Conquest of the Land. Mammals in the Limelight would occupy hall 3, and hall 5 would remain empty for the time being. For practical reasons, the highlights would each be overseen by a different subcommittee of specialists, and they would be built and unveiled on a staggered schedule. Still, the main committee would oversee the entire process and make sure the writing and visual design of each section came across as parts of a cohesive whole.

John Gurche’s Tower of Time was the centerpiece of the exhibit. Photo by Mary Parrish. Source

Between the lines, the need to include dinosaurs was apparently seen as a nuisance by at least some of the curators. There were no dinosaur specialists on the exhibit team, and indeed, NMNH had not employed one since Gilmore retired in 1945. Although the dinosaur renaissance was picking up speed by the late 70s, for NMNH paleontologists dinosaurs were overexposed and less interesting than their own research subjects. The museum’s eleven dinosaur mounts were decades-old relics, but their popularity among visitors obligated the curators to include them. Disarticulating and remounting the skeletons was not in the budget, and many of the dinosaurs were too big to cart out of the hall in one piece. That left the exhibit team with the unenviable task of finding places for the existing mounts in addition to all the new specimens and models they wanted to add, while still leaving enough room for visitors to get around. As internal legend has it, the giant slab of Climactichnites tracks was placed at the front of hall 2 specifically to block the view of the dinosaurs from the rotunda.

You’ll look at invertebrate fossils first, and you’ll like it! Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Although Macintyre and his curator colleagues were the only formal members of the exhibit committee, the Department of Exhibits was also involved from the start. Exhibits staff at NMNH had increased from six people in the 1960s to over 30 by 1985. This expanded force included all manner of artists, architects, industrial designers, and communications specialists, and they had an impressive on-site workshop to make use of their talents. In the 1980s, everything from silk-screened signage to cabinetry to dioramas could be created in-house. However, the increased professionalization of exhibits specialists required curators to relinquish some of the control they historically had over displays.

This, unfortunately, led to the two departments regularly butting heads. Curators complained that exhibits staff did not know enough of the science, and that the ideas they were generating simplified content to the point of being inaccurate. Meanwhile, exhibits staff had to deal with the fact that the curators had final approval authority over all content, but typically saw the exhibit work as secondary to their research obligations. Deadlines were routinely missed, leading to frenzied, last-minute crunch periods. The result was signage with avoidable errors making it the exhibit floor, and a culture of finger pointing in all directions.

This clay and paper model of the reconfigured hall 2 was produced during the planning period. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (but the terrible photo is my fault).

John Elliot’s Diana of the Tides fresco was briefly visible during the renovation of hall 2. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Two postdoctoral research associates – Jessica Harrison and George Stanley – were brought on board to help with the exhibit design and construction. Harrison and Stanley had offices in both the Exhibits and Paleobiology departments, and were well-liked by both groups of staff. The most difficult part of their job was drafting label copy. Text had to be rewritten again and again to please educators who found it too technical and content specialists who demanded more precision and detail. Harrison in particular was widely praised for effectively explaining scientific concepts to the exhibits staff and for guiding the key themes of the exhibit from concept to completion.

Specimens and Artwork

The east wing exhibits formally closed for renovation on May 29, 1979. In spite of the administrative-level disagreements, the museum’s technical staff was producing great creative work in short order. The recent expansion of the Department of Exhibits meant that nearly everything that went into the exhibit was created in-house (today, large exhibits are created largely in collaboration with contractors). Only the biggest construction projects, such as the addition of a mezzanine over hall 2, had to be contracted out.

Arnie Lewis puts the finishing touches on Eryops. Photo from Smith 1994.

Scores of never-before-exhibited specimens were prepared for Fossils: History of Life. Examples include a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite from Australia, the reconstructed jaws of Carcharocles megalodon, and curator Nicholas Hotton’s beloved Thrinaxodon fossil, which he called “baby doll.” Preparator Arnold Lewis led the creation of the new mounted skeletons, which included Eryops and Strobodon. Some existing mounts were updated, including Dimetrodon, which was given a longer tail. The most ambitious new mount was Allosaurus, or as Hotton insisted on calling it, “Antrodemus.” The Allosaurus (USNM 4734) came to NMNH in the 1890s with the rest of the Marsh collection, but only the skull and a few other pieces had ever been displayed. Lewis spent two years creating the mount. He started by preparing the bones that had never been completely freed from the matrix they were found in. After laying the skeleton out in a giant sandbox, Lewis secured the bones one at a time to a custom steel armature. This form-fitting structure proved to be almost invisible against the dark grey bones. Unlike most theropod mounts of the time, Lewis’s Allosaurus included belly ribs, modeled in rubber after those of a crocodile.

Antro – er, Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

Fossils: History of Life also called for a number of new paintings and dioramas. Peter Sawyer painted a cyclorama of a primordial Archean landscape for the Earliest Traces of Life section. Robert Hynes contributed several murals, as well, including a beach scene and a Cooksonia marsh for Conquest of the Land. In addition to the key art on the Tower of Time, John Gurche provided illustrations for the horse evolution cul-de-sac and the backdrop for a new lungfish diorama. Jay Matternes’ Cenozoic murals were carried over from the old exhibit.

Sawyer’s recreation of Archean Greenland. Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Diorama depicting the earliest land vertebrates, with a background by John Gurche. Photo by the author.

George Merchand’s marine dioramas and Norman Deaton’s dinosaur dioramas were reused, while the NMNH exhibits shop produced several brand new displays. In addition to the aforementioned lungfish scene, these included a recreation of the Burgess Shale environment and a group of eurypterids patrolling the Silurian shallows. There was also a walk-through diorama of a Cretaceous Maryland forest, featuring reconstructions of some of the earliest flowering plants.

The Smithsonian’s central exhibit shop handled the most challenging projects. Their biggest contribution was the life-sized Quetzalcoatlus model. The artists started with a clay miniature, then moved on to a 1/6th scale fiberglass model. With final approval from Nicholas Hotton and Jessica Harrison, the team moved on to the 40-foot final version. The wings were constructed like those of airplanes, with a hollow steel rod supporting wood and aluminum trusses. The wing membranes were plastic, and translucent in the right light. The head and legs were sculpted in clay then cast in plastic, and the body was covered in deer fur. Exhibits Central also built a set of cycads to accompany the historic Stegosaurus model. Several of these were real conifers, freeze dried and covered in glycerin.

How to built a Quetzalcoatlus in the late 70s. Photos from Kopper 1982.

Finally, Fossils: History of Life included some of NMNH’s first forays into video displays. The “Enter Life” film explored possible scenarios for biogenesis. An animated film starring “Frank Anchorfish” and “Arthur Pod” (voiced by DC-area newscasters) was a whimsical take on the challenges of moving from the aquatic to the terrestrial realm. A popular, albeit short lived, part of the exhibit was “A Star is Hatched,” which featured clips from Hollywood dinosaur movies accompanied by discussion of dinosaurs’ pop culture significance.

Legacy

On April 17, 1980, Hall 4 – with exhibits covering the origins of life, the transition to life on land, and Paleozoic and Mesozoic plants – was the first part of the east wing to reopen. The dinosaur-filled hall 2 followed on December 4, 1981. These initial phases of Fossils: History of Life were generally well-received by the public, although some media critics scoffed at the silly puns and cultural references in the label copy (“A duckbill in every pot,” “the better to eat you with, my dear,” and so forth). Robert Emry took over for Ian Macinyre as lead curator for the final phase of development and construction. After a few delays, Mammals in the Limelight in hall 3 was ready for visitors on May 30, 1985.

Behind the scenes, the occasionally tense working relationships and difficulty meeting deadlines contributed to major changes to how exhibits are put together at NMNH. When Richard Fiske took over as Director in 1983, he promoted Beth Miles, Sheila Mutchler, and Sue Voss from the Department of Exhibits to formal members of the paleontology exhibit team. A dedicated project manager position was added, and formal guidelines were prepared for exhibit-related duties. A key part of this formalized exhibit protocol was explicit acknowledgement that exhibits (not research and collections) are the public face of the museum and therefore the primary impetus for public support. Maintaining that support meant creating visitor-focused exhibits that are as relatable, educational, and entertaining as possible. This effectively killed the old idea of exhibits as mere showrooms for collections. Research and collections staff were no less important to the identity and purpose of the museum, but as far as exhibits were concerned their content knowledge would have to go hand in hand with other kinds of expertise. Exhibits and education specialists took leadership roles on future exhibit projects, a system which remains in place to this day.

A Callixylon trunk was a focal point in hall 4. Photo by Chip Clark.

Fossils: History of Life saw many changes over its 33 year life span. A Star is Hatched was one of the first displays to go. While popular among visitors, scientific staff hated the film because it trivialized exhibit content and featured long-outdated images of dinosaurs (interacting with modern humans, no less). The theater built for A Star is Hatched was eventually demolished and replaced with a windowed fossil prep lab, which became one of the most popular parts of the exhibit complex. An enclosure housing a live caiman in the Living Fossils area of the mezzanine only lasted as long as the animal. When the caiman died, the exhibit was boarded up and never replaced. Later, the Flowering Plant Revolution area – including the walk-through diorama – was dismantled to make way for a concessions stand. The largest addition to the east wing was Life in the Ancient Seas, an exhibit of marine fossils that filled the unused portion of hall 5. Completed in 1990, Life in the Ancient Seas nearly doubled the number of specimens in the fossil halls and added a splash of color with Ely Kish’s 150-foot mural of extinct marine life.

Hall 2 in 2013, with Stan the T. rex and the revised Hatcher the Triceratops in place. Photo by the author.

More recently, three of the historic dinosaur mounts were taken off exhibit and replaced with updated casts. Triceratops, Camptosaurus, and Stegosaurus had been on display since 1905, 1912, and 1913, respectively, and a century of vibration from passing crowds and fluctuating temperature and humidity had taken their toll on the fragile fossils. Ralph Chapman took the opportunity to turn the Triceratops into the world’s first digitized dinosaur, pioneering a process that is standard practice today. The Triceratops that returned to the hall in 1999 was made from foam and plastic molded directly from digital scans of the original fossils. It was accompanied by a mini-exhibit that explained how the new mount was made, and featured artwork by Bob Walters in addition to several new original and cast skulls. Shortly thereafter, NMNH acquired a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus as a conciliation prize for missing out on SueCamptosaurus and Stegosaurus were removed and replaced more quietly, but these mounts are of note because much of the casting and restoration work was done by a crew of veteran volunteers.

The mezzanine over hall 2 was closed for safety reasons after a 2011 earthquake. These exhibits never reopened, which meant that visitors could no longer see the pterosaurs, phytosaurs, and Xiphactinus. In the exhibit’s final years, an assortment of new signs were added, including updates to geologic time scale and an explanation of the dinosaur-bird connection. Unfortunately, these updates amounted to little more than bandaids for an increasingly tired exhibit.

Hall 3’s Mammals in the Limelight was delayed for over a year but finally opened in 1985. Photo by the author.

In retrospect, Fossils: History of Life was conceived at an inopportune time. Some aspects, like the focus on biology and evolution rather than classical systematics, were cutting-edge. However, much of the exhibit content was quickly outmoded by sweeping changes to the field of paleontology that occurred during the 80s and 90s. Conservative ideas about dinosaur endothermy and bird evolution were obsolete within a decade, as was much of the pre-cladistics taxonomy and the central theme of evolution as progress. The exhibit team could not have known how different our understanding of paleontology would be just a few years after the renovated halls debuted.

Moreover, the fact that Fossils: History of Life was built over the skeleton of the 1963 renovation (which was, in turn, built on top of the original east wing exhibits) proved to be a significant handicap. Since the space was never completely gutted, the designers had to work around existing specimens and structures, such as the 80-foot Diplodocus and the three separate doorways off of the rotunda. As a result, creating a logical path for visitors to follow through the halls proved impossible. Updates and additions to the exhibit only exacerbated the issue. As it stood in its final years, there was no way to view Fossils: History of Life in historical order without repeatedly doubling back. Bottlenecks that impeded traffic flow were also a problem, especially during mid-afternoon rush hour at the T. rex.

Despite these issues, Fossils: History of Life was seen – and loved – by tens of millions of visitors during its 34 years on display. After many false starts, in 2012 NMNH was finally able to secure the funding needed to overhaul the east wing properly. For the first time, the five galleries are getting a top-to-bottom revamp: every specimen has been removed and every corner of the exhibit has been redesigned, word by word and inch by inch. The bad news was that this process would take five years. Word about the lengthy closing resulted in minor outrage, particularly from parents of young children. After four decades of designing, building, maintaining, and updating the hall, Museum staff understood completely. As Director Kirk Johnson told the Washington Post, “it’s an iconic, favorite space. People have made lots of memories here.”

Additional photos are below.

*Please note that this is my personal blog and I am solely responsible for its content. For official information from NMNH and the Smithsonian Institution please see  Digging the Fossil Record and the Department of Paleobiology.

References

Bohaska, S. 2013. Personal communication.

Kopper, P. 1982. The National Museum of Natural History: A Smithsonian Museum. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

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

Park, E. 1981. A Remarkable Tower of Time Tells the Story of Evolution. Smithsonian Magazine. December 1981, pp. 99 –114.

Parrish, M. 2014. Memories of John Gurche at the National Museum of Natural History. Journal of Natural Science Illustration. 2014:1. https://gnsi.org/journal/memories-john-gurche-national-museum-natural-history

Parrish, M. 2017. Personal communication.

Post, R.C. 2013. Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Smith, N. 1994. Official Guide to the National Museum of Natural History/National Museum of Man. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

1986. Statement by the Secretary. Smithsonian Year 1985: Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ended September 30, 1985. Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution.

Thomson, P. 1985. Auks, Rocks, and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. New York,  NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Wolf, R.L. and Tymitz, B.L. 1978. Whatever Happened to the Giant Wombat: An Investigation of the Impact of the Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man Exhibit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Yochelson, E.L. 1985. The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart

Bath Time for Sue

I moved to the Chicago area a couple months ago, and yesterday I witnessed a very important event that only happens twice a year. I am referring, of course, to Field Museum Collections Manager Bill Simpson dusting the mounted skeleton of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex.

It’s unusual for a collections manager to personally perform this sort of basic maintenance at an institution the size of the Field Museum, but Simpson makes an exception for Sue. He has been in charge of the dinosaur’s well-being since the half-prepared fossils arrived in Chicago in October 1997, and has been cleaning the mounted skeleton twice a year since it was unveiled in 2000. The cleaning schedule is a compromise between the exhibits and geology departments. Exhibits would have Sue polished up more often, but the collections staff advise that the delicate fossils be touched as infrequently as possible.

Simpson blows dust off of Sue with a portable vacuum.

The cleaning process took about 90 minutes. Simpson accessed the mount by way of a scissor lift, about six feet off the floor. With the help of two assistants (one to man the lift and one to keep track of an extension cord), he used a portable vacuum to blow air on the fossils, unsettling any dust that had accumulated. Notably, Simpson took care not to bring the vacuum within twelve inches of the specimen, and never touched the fossils directly. After repeating this process eight or nine times from different vantage points around the mount, Simpson exited the lift and climbed onto the platform, going after some of the harder-to-reach crevices with a feather duster.

Truth be told, the process isn’t that interesting. I was a little embarrassed to stand around watching for as long as I did. Like most things with Sue, T. rex cleaning day is an example of really good marketing on the part of the Field Museum. Dusting is pretty standard upkeep, and I’m aware of no other museum that puts it on their public calendar. But for the fossil the world knows by name, even this basic maintenance is newsworthy. Indeed, Sue’s semiannual dusting seems to generate a major news story almost every year.

Sue’s ribs get a gentle dusting.

As the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found and the onetime subject of an ugly four-way legal battle, Sue has been been famous since its discovery in 1990. The Field Museum won the specimen at auction in October 1997 and has been leveraging its star power ever since. A frenzy of reporters greeted the truck delivering Sue to Chicago a few days after the auction. Millions of visitors watched the fossils being prepared in a windowed lab at the Field Museum and a satellite facility at Disney World in Orlando. A naming contest (for a time, it appeared that the name “Sue” might not be legally available) generated an overwhelming 6,000 entries. And when the mounted skeleton was finally unveiled on May 17, 2000, 10,000 visitors came to see Sue in a single day. The week-long press junket saw visits from Bill Clinton and Steven Spielberg, and the Field Museum’s annual attendance soared that year from 1.6 to 2.4 million.

Sue remains a media magnet to this day. Headlines about the dinosaur are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SuetheTrex twitter account has 30,000 followers and counting. Sue has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When the Field Museum’s corporate partners paid seven figures for Sue, they weren’t just buying the museum a display specimen, they were creating an icon. Sue is a blockbuster attraction that brings visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness is continuously marketed for additional earned income. For example, there are now two different Sue-themed beers available!

Why isn’t Akeley elephant cleaning day a thing?

As I’ve discussed before, fossil mounts occupy a tenuous middle ground between conflicting identities. These composites of rock and plaster and steel are at once scientific specimens, works of art, and cultural touchstones. Sue takes this contradiction to previously unseen levels. On one hand, Sue the specimen is the subject of more scientific papers than any other Tyrannosaurus, and has contributed enormously to our understanding of dinosaur life history, histology, and pathology. On the other hand, Sue is a towering icon seen by 25 million Field Museum visitors of all ages. Its likeness appears on shirts, snow globes, and the aforementioned beer. And on the third hand, the Sue twitter account is, at this very moment, posting pictures of Jeff Goldblum for some reason. And that’s not even getting into Sue’s pre-Field Museum identities. Depending on who you ask, Sue could be the one that got away, a close call, a symbol of government overreach, or a harbinger of the fossil poaching crisis.

As former Field Museum president John McCarter put it, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish.” Natural history museums hold immense collections in the public trust that record the world’s biodiversity. This task is neither simple nor cheap. Leveraging star attractions like Sue generates income and perhaps equally important, public interest and goodwill, which makes the less overtly captivating functions of the museum possible. The Field Museum has a great thing going with Sue, and I’m all for pushing it even further. Vials of Sue dust bunnies in the gift shop, anyone?

References

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.

Grande, L. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.

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

National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under collections, education, field work, museums, opinion, science communication

The Field Museum Shuffles its Dinosaurs

Rendering of Patagotitan and the Sue remount. Source

This morning, The Field Museum of Natural History announced two big changes to its dinosaur exhibits. First, the indispensable Sue the Tyrannosaurus will move from its prime location in the central Stanley Field Hall and into Evolving Planet, the museum’s permanent paleontology exhibit. Next, a cast of the South American sauropod Patagotitan will take Sue’s place in the main hall. Sue will be disassembled just a few months from now in February 2018. Patagotitan will be installed later next year, and Sue’s new home on the second floor opens in Spring 2019 (perhaps deliberately, this is within weeks of the National Fossil Hall’s reopening at the Smithsonian).

Sue has been the Field Museum’s defining attraction since the skeleton was acquired in 1997. It is the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found, but it is also more than a natural history specimen. Sue is part of the pantheon of Chicago landmarks, and the public’s association of the mount with the city it resides in has all but eclipsed the legal battle that preceeded it’s acquisition.

The current Sue mount has a touch of “grenade-swallowing syndrome.” Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Sue mount that has been on display for 17 years is not perfect. Assembled by Phil Fraley Productions, the mount has been the subject of grumbling among tyrannosaur specialists for years: the coracoids are too far apart, the furcula is incorrectly placed, the posterior ribs are unnaturally bowed out, and so forth. Happily, Sue will be getting thoroughly updated during the move. In addition to correcting the various anatomical problems, the new mount will reintroduce Sue to its gastralia (belly ribs), which have been displayed separately since 2000, and change her crouching pose to a standing one. As Collections Manager Bill Simpson explains in the announcement video, “we now know more about how a T. rex skeleton should look and Sue is going to reflect those changes.”

Sue 2.0 will take over the second floor space occupied by the recently shuttered 3-D theater. Accessible as an annex to the dinosaur section of Evolving Planet, the Sue exhibit will contextualize the Tyrannosaurus with other fossils from the Hell Creek Formation.

Rendering of Patagotitan in the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Patagotitan is the same animal that the American Museum of Natural History billed as “the titanosaur” two years ago. Argentina’s newest megasauropod was first announced in 2014 but was formally named and published by José Carballido and colleagues just three weeks ago. While not technically the biggest known sauropod, Patagotitan is the only dinosaur in its class known  from reasonably complete remains. The skeleton itself will be more or less identical to the cast Research Casting International produced for AMNH. However, instead of being crammed into a small room, this Patagotitan will have space to stretch out, its neck craning to look over the second story mezzanine. The Field Museum exhibits team also wants visitors to be able to walk under and even touch the cast skeleton.

What do I think about all this (asked nobody)? I’m thrilled with the plans for Sue – it’s great that even though Sue is such an important symbol for the Field Museum, they don’t consider it a static piece. Much credit is due for the museum’s willingness to invest in their star attraction by keeping it up to the latest scientific standard. In addition, I never entirely liked how disassociated Sue was from the rest of the paleontology displays, and it’s nice to know that somebody at the museum must have felt the same way. There’s something to be said for giving the skeleton pride of place, but ultimately I think museumgoers will be better served by seeing Sue contextualized within the story of life on Earth.

While I love me some megasauropods, I can’t help but be less excited by the Patagotitan. I realize that most people don’t go to every natural history museum, but two identical casts already exist. To be fair, the Field Museum Patagotitan will be in a very different setting from its AMNH predecessor (although it may turn out rather like the Royal Ontario Museum Futalognkosaurus). Still, I would rather have seen something more unique to the Field Museum. One idea would be to bring back the Brachiosaurus reconstruction, and display it side-by-side with a remount of the historic Apatosaurus currently in Evolving Planet. Both specimens are tied to the museum’s own expeditionary history, and together would tell the remarkable story of Elmer Riggs. The Apatosaurus in particular could anchor a Field Museum retrospective, while images of the three different locations it has been displayed in since 1908.

The last time a sauropod graced the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Somebody more cynical than me might point out that switching up iconic displays is becoming a predictable way for museums to generate press and manufacture controversy. For example, the Natural History Museum in London got no less than three media splashes when they announced Dippy the Diplodocus was to be replaced, actually removed Dippy, and finally unveiled the remounted blue whale in Hintze Hall earlier this summer. Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made that stirring up public reactions in this way is an effective way to keep the people interested in their museums. As Field Museum president Richard Lariviere told the Chicago Tribune, “the public doesn’t understand that the science…we convey is changing on an almost hourly basis here. I talk to people all the time who think that since they’ve been to the Field Museum 10 years ago they’ve seen it. By transforming the central space, we hope to convey that exact message.”

At any rate, we’re in for some great new dinosaur displays at the Field Museum over the next couple years. What do you think of the upcoming changes?

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, sauropods, theropods

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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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH

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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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work