Building Gorgeous George

The Field Museum has shared this fascinating raw footage of the assembly and installation of Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus (formerly Gorgosaurus and Albertosaurus). It is made available under a  Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 license.

The fossils in question were discovered by Barnum Brown in 1914 during an American Museum of Natural History expedition to Alberta. It was the largest but least complete of several (presumed) Gorgosaurus skeletons collected by Brown, and only the skull was ever displayed in New York. In 1955, Field Museum trustee Louis Ware bought the fossils, an event heralded in the members’ newsletter as “the most important acquisition to the museum in recent years.” Preparator Orville Gilpin assembled the skeleton with the help of Stanley Kukzek, Cameron Gifford, and William Turnbull. Gorgeous George debuted in the Field Museum’s central Stanley Field Hall in March 1956, alongside a scale model created by staff artist Maide Weibe.

The similarities to modern mounting techniques on display in the video are more striking than the differences. From ratchets to chain hoists, the tools used by Gilpin and his colleagues appear quite similar to those used for this sort of work today. I suppose the lab coat-over-slacks look has gone out of style, though.

Gorgeous Gorge in its updated poses, as it is exhibited today. Photo by the author.

Gorgeous George remained in place until 1990, when it was relocated and remounted as part of the Life Over Time exhibition. While the updated Daspletosaurus trades the old Godzilla pose for a more accurate horizontal posture, it does not include the original skull (as Gilpin’s version did). The real skull is now on display at the Museum’s east entrance, however.

On the subject of Gorgeous George, check out Emily Graslie’s Brain Scoop video on paleoart at the Field Museum, which includes a not-to-be-missed dramatic reading of a poem by Curator Eugene Richardson!

References

Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. (March 1956). 27:3.

Gilpin, O.L. (1959). A Freestanding Mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator 2:2:162-168.

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

One Year to Deep Time

When the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History closed for renovation in 2014, five years seemed like an interminable amount of time to wait for the reopening. But the NMNH crew has been hard at work, and suddenly the June 2019 debut of the new National Fossil Hall is almost in sight. I’ve mostly avoided reporting on each and every bit of information pertaining to the new exhibit, but as we approach the one-year-to-opening milestone the drip is likely to become a deluge. That means that this is probably a good time to do a round-up of everything that has been officially revealed about the new exhibit up to this point.

The East Wing Restored

The original architectural grandeur is back. Images from of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Washington Post.

The building that is now NMNH opened in 1910. Its granite-heavy, Beaux Arts construction was a departure from the Victorian style of the first United States National Museum, but it looked right at home with the other federal buildings around the National Mall. As originally designed, the building resembled a squat “T” from above, with three large wings (facing east, north, and west) extending from a central rotunda. The east wing — a vast space with bay windows, intricate plaster detailing, and a skylight three stories up — has always housed fossil displays. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the once spacious hall was repeatedly carved into smaller sections. Windows and architectural flourishes were covered up, and by the time the last round of renovations was completed in 1985 the east wing had become cramped and gloomy.

A major part of the current renovation has been returning the space to its original glory. Grunley Construction spent two years restoring and recreating the east wing’s 1910 architecture, as well as updating infrastructure and improving the space’s energy efficiency. Most of this process was visible via webcam. Last November, the Washington Post provided some stunning floor-level photos of the restored hall. Wide open and filled with natural light, the renovated hall is glorious to behold, even without the fossils.

A Story of Environmental Change

Many exhibits and books about paleontology portray the evolution of life as though it occurred in a vacuum. In fact, the evolution of animals and plants is primarily driven by environmental upheaval — changing climate, shifting geography, and so forth. Sometimes this relationship goes the other way, and keystone organisms (such as grass in the Neogene or humans in the present day) drastically change the world around them. Environmental change over time is at the heart of the National Fossil Hall’s story. It’s worth quoting the official theme statement in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

These themes are reflected by the physical layout of the exhibit, which is chronological but not strictly proportional. Specimens are clustered onto islands situated throughout the open floorplan, each representing North America at a particular point in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the islands also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, each island shows a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among these displays, visitors should get a sense of how phenomena like climate change and faunal interchange can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years.

During the development process, curators and exhibit specialists agreed that the hall should not be an encyclopedia of past life. Instead, everything ties back to main story. Big, showy specimens like dinosaurs are contextualized as products of environmental change. Meanwhile, fossils that visitors might otherwise overlook but are critical to our understanding of ecological change over time, like pollen grains or leaves, are literally and figuratively pedestaled to emphasize their importance.

The Nation’s T. rex

The Nation’s T. rex, temporarily assembled in the Research Casting International workshop. Image by Great Big Story.

The centerpiece of the National Fossil Hall is a real Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton — the first real T. rex (as opposed to a cast) the Smithsonian has ever displayed. The specimen in question has been known as the “Wankel Rex” since it was discovered by avocational fossil hunter Kathy Wankel in 1988. It has been held in trust at Bozeman, Montana’s Museum of the Rockies, but since it came from Army Corps of Engineers land it is technically owned by the U.S. federal government. Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, the original fossils have never before been assembled into a standing mount. That’s changing now that the fossils have been transferred to the Smithsonian.

Curator Matt Carrano designed a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off of a prone Triceratops. NMNH is visited by eight million people every year, so the Wankel Rex (now the Nation’s T. rex) will soon be the most viewed T. rex skeleton in the world. The Nation’s T. rex story has been covered by the Washington Post, NPR, National Geographic, and Smithsonian Magazine, among many others.

Poses that Show Behavior

The remounted mammoth demonstrates plausible behavior. Left image by the author, right image from Smithsonian Magazine.

Historically, mounted fossil skeletons were most often given anatomically neutral poses. This was a structural engineering necessity as much as it was a curatorial preference. However, modern technology has made it possible to safely display casts and even real skeletons in surprisingly dynamic poses. At many museums, this has usually manifested as mounted skeletons fighting or simply roaring at each other. In contrast, the NMNH team has endeavored to create dynamic mounts that show a greater variety of interesting behavior evidenced by the fossil record. For example, the remounted mammoth (shared during a talk by NMNH Director Kirk Johnson) is pushing its tusks along the ground, as if clearing snow off the grass. The Allosaurus (headless in the right image) is crouching next to a nest mound. Even the aforementioned T. rex and Triceratops scene is inspired by real research into T. rex feeding mechanics.

The Anthropocene

Most exhibits about the history of life close at some point in the past, but the National Fossil Hall continues the story into the present day. We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making, and anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid. During our very limited time on Earth, humans have altered the climate, the rate of erosion, and the acidity of oceans. Whether or not you think adopting “Anthropocene” as a formal geologic unit is reasonable, we have inarguably changed the planet in geologically measurable ways.

Curator Scott Wing discussed his approach to interpreting the age of humans in a Geological Society of America talk and in an Earth Matters blog post. The key is to make it clear that in spite of our destructive potential, humans have the power to mitigate and manage the consequences of altering the world around us. The exhibit will show visitors how they can take responsibility for humanity’s collective legacy.

Marsh Dinosaurs Re-imagined

An updated Stegosaurus replaces the 2004 cast, which replaced the original 1913 mount. Images from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Kirk Johnson on twitter.

The new Edmontosaurus cast replaces the original mount, which had gone unmodified since 1904. Images by NMNH Paleobiology and Will S.

Most of the dinosaur skeletons exhibited at NMNH were assembled before 1920. Originally excavated by O.C. Marsh’s crews in the 19th century, these specimens have gone on to lead second lives on display, and have been seen by generations of visitors. Nevertheless, time has taken its toll. Some mounts have been rendered out-of-date by new discoveries, while others have gradually deteriorated due to fluctuating temperature and humidity, not to mention constant vibration from passing crowds. Before the fossil halls closed in 2014, NMNH preparators had already dismantled three historic dinosaurs (Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Camptosaurus) and replaced them with updated casts. Returning these fossils to the collections ensures their continued safety, while also giving paleontologists a chance to study them for the first time in decades.

The renovation has been an opportunity to give other at-risk specimens the same treatment. It was especially important to get the real Ceratosaurus, Edmontosaurus, and Thescelosaurus skeletons off the exhibit floor because these are all holotypes — the original specimens that were used to define the species. Set in plaster on the exhibit walls, these important skeletons were virtually inaccessible. And as the preparators discovered when they removed them, they had not even been fully extracted from the rock they were found in. The real fossils are now available for research, while casts with lively poses and up-to-date anatomy will take their place on display (before anyone panics, the new exhibit will still feature several real dinosaur skeletons).

The Pocahontas Mine

As reported by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, a Smithsonian crew of paleobotanists, geologists, and exhibits specialists visited the historic Pocahontas Exhibition Mine last November. This coal mine near Pocahontas, Virginia operated from 1882 to 1938, when ceased production and became a tourist attraction. The Smithsonian crew took photographs, video, and silicon molds of the mine’s walls, which are covered with Carboniferous-era plant impressions. A reconstruction of the fossiliferous mine will anchor the Carboniferous section of the exhibit.

Treasures from the Collection

A near-perfect Ophiacodon from Texas. Photo via the NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

A typical natural history museum has less than one percent of its collection on display at any time, and NMNH is no exception. In addition to introducing brand-new specimens and updating old ones, the renovation is an opportunity to bring a variety of never-before-displayed objects from the collections to the display floor. Of the hundreds of specimens earmarked for display, I can only highlight a few.  There’s the historic cast of the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus, which has been in the collection since 1895 but never displayed. There’s the skull of the tusked whale Odobenocetops, which preparator Michelle Pinsdorf profiled in a webcast last year. Carrano showed NPR’s Adam Cole a sauropod osteoderm, collected decades ago but only identified recently. And then there’s the near-perfect Ophiacodon pictured above, collected in 1988 by Arnie Lewis and Nicholas Hotton. I remember this guy from my intern days, when it was referred to as “sleeping beauty.”

Research Casting International will start installing the large skeletons this summer, and then the countdown to opening day begins in earnest. Here’s wishing the NMNH team all the best as their years of work finally comes to fruition!

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, theropods, thyreophorans

Tyler Keillor’s new tyrannosaurs

Paleoartist Tyler Keillor has not one but two new tyrannosaur sculptures on display in museums north of Chicago, and this past weekend I paid both of them a visit. Keillor has been reconstructing extinct animals since 2001, most frequently in collaboration with Paul Sereno. You may well have seen Keillor’s fleshed models of Rugops, Kaprosuchus, Eodromaeus, and others, all commissioned by Sereno to accompany press releases announcing new discoveries. Keillor also specializes in restoring incomplete fossil material, assembling physical or digital models of the complete, undamaged bones. The composite Spinosaurus skeleton from the 2014 National Geographic traveling exhibit was his work, as is the skull on the mounted skeleton of Jane the juvenile Tyrannosaurus at the Burpee Museum of Natural History.

Tyler Keillor’s Dryptosaurus at the Bess Bower Dunn Museum.

One of Keillor’s latest and most ambitious pieces debuted on March  24th at the brand-new Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville, Illinois. Standing at the entrance to the museum’s galleries, the life-sized Dryptosaurus is a show-stopping centerpiece. Never mind that no dinosaur fossils have been found in Illinois –  Dryptosaurus lived on the other side of the Cretaceous continent of Appalachia, which is as good an excuse as any to include a giant model dinosaur.

During the very well-attended opening event, Keillor gave a standing-room-only talk about creating the model. Dryptosaurus is only known from a handful of fossils, the most complete parts being the arm and leg. Working with Richard Kissel, who served as the project’s scientific advisor, Keillor had to make a number of educated choices to turn the available fossil material into a 20-foot fleshed model. The shape of the head, for example, is based on that of Jane, while the tiny, millimeter-sized scales are informed by recently published skin impressions of various tyrannosaurs. Less certain is the choice to give Dryptosaurus a two-fingered hand. For the time being, the three-fingered skeletons Research Casting International built for the New Jersey State Museum are no less reasonable.

Opening day at the Dunn Museum was mobbed – it’s great to see so many people excited about a new museum!

Keillor’s 2009 Dryptosaurus head is meant to be a male, while the new sculpture represents a female.

During the planning stages, Keillor prepared three possible poses for the museum to pick from. The Dryptosaurus could be standing tall, leaning forward with its mouth open, or crouching down next to a nest mound. Keillor favored the nesting pose, both because it was unusual and because the Dryptosaurus holotype fossils may have come from an animal that had recently laid eggs*. Unsurprisingly, museum staff opted for the more spectacular open-mouthed version.

The bulk of the model is foam, created on a milling machine using data from a digital model produced by Keillor. The foam body form is covered with nearly 200 pounds of epoxy putty, applied and textured by hand. Keillor casted the head as a separate piece, using the molds from a standalone Dryptosaurus head he produced for the Dunn Museum’s predecessor in 2009. The patches of fluff are made from a commercially-available synthetic fiber that resembles kiwi feathers.

*Edward Cope noted in the 1880s that the Dryptosaurus limb bones had large, hollow medullary cavities. Gravid female birds grow extra layers of bone in their medullary cavities to stockpile calcium, which they use to produce eggshells. We now know that several non-avian dinosaur species did the same. 

Little Clint at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum.

Keillor’s other new model is “Little Clint” the infant Tyrannosaurus rex, which debuted at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin with absolutely no fanfare. The model is part of a new exhibit all about the discovery and interpretation of the pocket-sized T. rex fossils it’s based on. Frustratingly, there’s no mention of the exhibit on the museum’s website, and I would have never known about it if Keillor hadn’t mentioned it (I’m sure it’s not the museum’s fault, I too have known the joys of working within the constraints of a large municipal website). The model is roughly two and a half feet long, and is almost grotesque in its spindly proportions. Judging by photos accompanying the model, Keillor used a traditional build-up process, rather than the physical-digital hybrid techniques employed in the making of the Dryptosaurus.

Dryptosaurus and Tyrannosaurus both belong to the same group of theropod dinosaurs (tyrannosaurs), but in creating the two models Keillor went in two very different directions when reconstructing their soft tissues. Working with Richard Kissel of the Yale Peabody Museum, Keillor gave Dryptosaurus a patchy coat of shaggy integument, as well as fleshy lips that would easily cover the animal’s teeth if it were to ever close its mouth. However, Carthage College’s Thomas Carr, scientific advisor for Little Clint, requested a scaly hide with a crocodilian tooth-exposing grin.

Little Clint’s toothy grin.

It turns out feathers and lips on large theropods (and tyrannosaurs in particular) are fairly contentious subjects, at least among the sort of people who like to argue about these things on the internet. It is well-established that feathery integument was widespread among theropods, and even certain other dinosaurs. Several members of the tyrannosaur family have been found with fossilized fuzz impressions, including the Dryptosaurus-sized Yutyrannus. This means it’s reasonable to expect that all tyrannosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex, were feathered to some degree. However, a recent publication by Phil Bell and colleagues suggests the opposite: an assortment of small skin impressions from Tyrannosaurus and its closest relatives reveal only scaly skin. Meanwhile, ongoing research by Robert Reisz demonstrates that theropods had fleshy lips, but this is contradicted by Carr’s own findings that some tyrannosaurs had armored scales on their maxillary margins.

So which interpretation of tyrannosaur soft tissue is right? For now, there is compelling evidence for both interpretations. Perhaps more fossils or new analytical techniques will eventually steer the consensus in one direction or the other. Or maybe we will never know for sure what the faces of Dryptosaurus and Tyrannosaurus looked like. For now, Keillor’s models make fascinating companion pieces. They are windows into two possible versions of the deep past, reminding us to accept a little ambiguity now and then.

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Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 3

We ended our southern California museum tour with the Western Science Center and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Regrettably, my memory of the Western Science Center is not as detailed as it could be – probably because we stopped by the morning after an 8-hour romp through the San Diego Safari Park and I was still a little braindead. Open since 2006, the Western Science Center was established to house and interpret the fossils and archaeological artifacts recovered during the construction of Diamond Valley Lake, an artificial reservoir near Hemet, California. The fossils in question are from the Pleistocene (roughly contemporaneous with the La Brea Tar Pits) and the museum has nearly a million of them.

“Snapshots in Time” is the main exhibit at the Western Science Center.

The heart of the museum is the permanent “Snapshots in Time” exhibit, which features both paleontology and archaeology displays. Dominating the room are the mounted skeletons of Max the mastodon and Xena the columbian mammoth. Unlike conventional fossil mounts, in which real or cast bones are cradled by a custom armature, Max and Xena are represented by two-dimensional frames, which establish the animals’ shape in life. Casted bones are attached to the frames in their proper locations, and the real fossils are in glass-covered sandboxes at the feet of the mounts. These visually distinctive displays have some noteworthy interpretive advantages. For one thing, they show the true shape of a proboscidian (in contrast, a conventional mammoth or mastodon mount omits the boneless trunk). These displays also clearly illustrate how much of the specimen was actually found – no reconstructed bones are needed. The Max and Xena mounts are a clever way to help visitors understand the subtleties of paleontological reconstruction: vertebrate fossils are rarely found as complete skeletons, but the inferred portions are far more than idle speculation.

The Western Science Center’s interactives are inspired, as well. Most impressive is a station where visitors can make clay casts from metal molds set into a counter. The amount of upkeep an activity like this requires would be prohibitive for a higher-traffic museum, but here it seemed to work just fine. I also liked a station that invites visitors to interpret archaeological objects through the rules of superposition. However, a mostly-digital interactive that demonstrates taphonomic processes in different microenvironments felt clunky and difficult to use.

As long as clay and plastic wrap can be continuously provided, this cast-making station is worth attempting to emulate.

The Valley of the Mastodons special exhibit, featuring a killer mural by Brian Engh.

We also got to see “Valley of the Mastodons,” a special exhibit that will be on display until next month. The exhibit is the result of an experimental public conference arranged by Western Science Center Director Alton Dooley and Dr. Katy Smith of Georgia State University. During the event last August, a group of paleontologists spent several days studying as-yet undescribed fossils from the museum’s collection on the exhibit floor and in view of the public. Visitors could chat with scientists and learn about their discoveries and methods in real time. I can’t report on the event itself (do check out Jeanne Timmons’s top-notch reporting at PLOS Paleo), but I liked the slap-dash, science-in-progress look of the exhibits. There were pieces of over a dozen mastodon individuals on display in various states of preparation, accompanied by notes from the visiting scientists feverishly scrawled on whiteboards. Between Valley of the Mastodons and the Western Science Center’s event calendar, it seems that the museum’s secret strength its its ceaseless slate of public programming. Workshops, activities, and lectures on topics ranging well beyond the boundaries of paleontology and archaeology suggest that the museum has successfully situated itself as an indispensable community resource.

Despite its size, the SDNHM building doesn’t have a ton of usable exhibit space, and many displays are crowded onto mezzanines.

If I had to pick a favorite southern California museum, it would be the San Diego Natural History Museum (or “the Nat,” as it is rather insistently branded). Like the Field Museum, SDNHM got its start as a permanent home for a collection of objects assembled for a world’s fair, in this case the 1914 Panama-California Exposition. The museum occupied a series of temporary structures built for the Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park until 1933, when the purpose-built museum building was completed. A 2001 renovation more than doubled the museum’s size. Near as I can tell, no pre-renovation exhibits remain on display. Nevertheless, there’s a ton of great stuff to see, from an urban ecosystems-focused wildlife exhibit to a temporary “random cool specimens from the collections” gallery (this sort of exhibit has been popular lately, and I’m all for it). In keeping with the theme of this blog I’ll focus my comments on the paleontology exhibit.

“Fossil Mysteries” showcases prehistoric life from the San Diego area from the Mesozoic through the ice ages. The regional focus means that the exhibit is full of incredible creatures I had never heard of. Examples include Semirostrum, a porpoise with an absurdly elongated chin, and Dusignathus, a walrus with seal-like teeth for hunting fish (unlike modern walruses, which are adapted to suck up mollusks). Beautiful mounted skeletons of the walrus Valenictus, the fearsome-looking pinniped Allodesmus, and an unnamed grey whale relative introduced me to a brand-new prehistoric ecosystem. While southern California is not known for its dinosaur fossils, the handful of specimens on display were interesting because of their unique taphonomy. Found in marine deposits, the hadrosaur femur and armored shoulders of Alectopelta are studded with bivalves.

I am the Valenictus.

This Alectopelta was swept out to sea before being buried in marine sediments, and is now studded with oysters.

Fossil Mysteries also boasts an impressive array of fabricated displays. Life-sized models of Carcharocles megalodon and Hydrodamalis gigas hang over the central hall, while half-model, half-cast reconstructions of Lambeosaurus and Albertosaurus make up for the paucity of real dinosaur material. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is the walk-through diorama of an Eocene rainforest. I’ve seen Carboniferous coal swamps represented like this at several other museums, but this is the first time I’ve seen this approach applied to the early Cenozoic. I can’t imagine why, since Lagerstätten from this time period found across North America and Europe make it a natural choice for a highly detailed, immersive display. In a rare but very welcome move, SDNHM provides information about the artists that contributed to the exhibit on its website.

Half-model, half-cast skeletons of Lambeosaurus and Albertosaurus were designed by Mark Rehkopf of Research Casting International.

A panoramic view of the immersive Eocene diorama.

Aside from the specimens and objects, what I really love about Fossil Mysteries is the interpretation. For me, the best signage grabs visitors’ attention by starting with what they know, then poses new questions and provides the tools needed to answer them. Good signs relate directly to the objects on display whenever possible, because that is what visitors come to see in the first place. And all this should be done with brutal succinctness. People can read textbooks at home, so its a mark of a truly talented exhibit writer when complex ideas can be consistently communicated in 40 words or less. With the right phrasing and arrangement, an exhibit can move beyond merely sharing information and become a space for conversation, reflection, and meaningful engagement. Basically, visitors should be able to learn something new in a way that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. I want to give the exhibit developers and writers at SDNHM the highest of fives, because they absolutely nailed it.

In an informative and weirdly potent interactive, visitors learn about the special adaptations in primate wrists by helping a gibbon skeleton turn a doorknob.

So there you have it – five museums in as many days, and another corner of the world map of natural history museums checked off. Have you been to any of the southern California museums I’ve been discussing? What did you think? Please share in the comments!

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

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.

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Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 1

I’ve spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of southern California, visiting natural history museums, zoos, and botanic gardens, as well as seeing a fair assortment of marine mammals. Suffice it to say, my (endlessly patient) travel partner Stephanie and I ended the trip with a bit of sensory overload. I had planned to start off with a brief travelogue post and save more thorough analysis for later, but as usual I’ve gone and written much more than I intended.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum

Howard Ball’s famous mammoth statues in La Brea’s lake pit.

The La Brea Tar Pits (a.k.a. the the tar tar pits) is an iconic fossil locality in downtown Los Angeles. I visited  in my single-digit years, but I remember the site better from documentaries like Denver the Last Dinosaur. The region’s asphalt seeps have been known to local people for thousands of years, and they were first commercially mined in the 1700s, when Rancho La Brea was a Mexican land grant. The animal bones commonly found in the asphalt were seen as a nuisance until 1875, when William Denton of Wellesley College identified a large tooth from Rancho La Brea as belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat. Several years of largely unrestricted fossil collecting followed, until the Hancock family that had come to own the land gave exclusive collecting rights to the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) in 1913.

Within two years, museum paleontologists had collected about a million bones, mostly from large Pleistocene animals like mammoths, ground sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. This enormous abundance meant that the La Brea fossils were useful not only as research specimens but as trade goods. The LACM amassed much of its present-day fossil collection by trading La Brea fossils to other museums.

The Hancock family donated the 23 acres around the La Brea asphalt seeps to Los Angeles County in 1924. From that point on, the area functioned as a public park, where visitors could learn about ice age California and even watch ongoing excavations. Park facilities and exhibits expanded gradually over the ensuing decades. Sculptures of bears and ground sloths by Herman Beck were added to the grounds in the late 1920s. In 1952, a concrete bunker over one of the excavation sites became the first La Brea museum. The LACM board commissioned the site’s most iconic display – the trio of mammoth statues – in 1965, and sculptor Howard Ball installed them in 1968.

The George C. Page Museum, plus a man who wouldn’t move.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened in 1977. The remarkable Brutalist building is adorned by a fiberglass frieze depicting ice age animals in a savanna environment. The aluminum frame holding up the frieze also contains an atrium of tropical plants, which the indoor exhibit halls encircle. Architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton designed the museum to fit organically into the established park setting, and to subliminally reflect the fossil excavations it celebrates. The building appears to be erupting from the ground, much like the asphalt and the fossils therein. The entrance is below ground level, so visitors must descend a ramp to meet the fossils at their point of origin.

The giant camel Camelops hesternus (front) with adult and juvenile mastodons (back). Those logs were also hauled out of the asphalt seeps.

Panthera atrox was apparently more like a giant jaguar than a lion. Small-by-comparison Smilodon fatalis in the back.

In many ways, the Page Museum is now a museum of a museum. Most of the interior exhibits, including the fossil mounts designed by Eugene Fisher*, are the same as they were in 1977. Photos show that the exhibit halls, prep labs, and collections areas have changed little in the last 40 years. And that’s okay! The museum building and the outdoor displays around it have been part of the Los Angeles landscape for decades, and cherished by generations of visitors. To the museum’s credit, the 1970s exhibits were well ahead of their time. Windows onto the prep lab and collections would be right at home in modern “inside out” museums, and an oft-repeated message that microfossils (such as insects, birds, rodents, and pollen) are more informative than megafauna fossils vis-à-vis paleoclimate and ancient environments is still very relevant to the field of paleontology today.

That isn’t to say there is nothing new to see. Newer signage around the park grounds does an excellent job re-interpreting older displays, especially those that are now considered inaccurate. For example, Howard Ball’s mammoth statues are probably among the most photographed paleoart installations in the world, but they completely misrepresent the way most of the animals found at La Brea actually died. Ball’s female mammoth is hip-deep in a man-made lake filling in an old asphalt quarry. As the signage (and tireless tour guides) explains, the animals trapped here thousands of years ago actually became stuck in asphalt seeps that were six inches deep or less. Meanwhile, while the classic friezes and murals throughout the Page Museum depict savanna-like landscapes, more recent analysis of microfossils demonstrates that the area was actually a fairly dense woodland.

Turkeys, condors, eagles, and storks are among the more unusual fossil mounts at the Page Museum.

There are two main reasons that the Page Museum is a must-see. First, it provides an in-depth view of a single prehistoric ecosystem. As mentioned, LACM traded La Brea fossils to all sorts of other museums, so chances are you’ve already seen a La Brea Smilodon, Paramylodon, or dire wolf. The Page Museum has these animals, but it also has rarely-seen creatures like ice age turkeys, condors, and coyotes. I counted 25 mounted skeletons in total, to say nothing of the hundreds of smaller specimens. My favorite display was a Smilodon skull growth series, where you can see how the adult saber teeth erupt and push out the baby sabers. In addition, the Page Museum stands right next to the La Brea fossil quarries, past and present. The museum and the park that preceded it were conceived as places where the public could see science in action. Researchers have been uncovering fossils at La Brea for over a hundred years, and visitors have been watching over their shoulders the entire time. That alone makes La Brea a very special place.

*All the La Brea mounts (at the Page Museum or elsewhere) are composites. To my knowledge no articulated remains have ever been recovered from the asphalt seeps. As Stephanie pointed out, the skull of the Equus occidentalis mount actually belonged to a significantly younger animal than the mandible. 

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

This Tyrannosaurus growth series is the centerpiece of the LACM Dinosaur Hall.

Our next stop was the Page Museum’s parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which I will continue to abbreviate as LACM for consistency). LACM actually features two fossil exhibits: the 2010 Age of Mammals Hall and the 2011 Dinosaur Hall. Both were part of a $135 million project to restore and update much of the LACM building, which first opened in 1913. While the two halls were developed concurrently by different teams, they are architecturally very similar. Parallel mezzanines flank spacious central aisles, which maximizes usable space in the two-story rooms and allows visitors to view most of the mounted skeletons from ground level or from above.

The primary strength of both the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall is that they look really good. New skylights and newly uncovered bay windows yield plenty of natural light. Primary-colored panels provide interesting backdrops for the specimens, and fossil mounts on the ground and in the air keep visitors looking in all directions. These exhibits were clearly designed to look incredible from the moment you enter the room, and the abundant natural light means they photograph quite well.

Suspended skeletons make use of the vertical space and keep visitors looking all around the exhibit.

Triceratops and Mamenchisaurus at the front end of the Dinosaur Hall.

LACM’s mammal collection has been built up over the last century, while the dinosaur specimens were mostly collected by Luis Chiappe’s Dinosaur Institute in the decade preceding the exhibit’s opening. Nevertheless, both exhibits feature an uncommon diversity of beautifully-prepared fossils. I was particularly taken by the metal fixtures constructed to display incomplete skulls of Augustynolophus and Tyrannosaurus. The mounted skeletons were handled by two different companies: Research Casting International did the mammals and Phil Fraley Productions did the dinosaurs. I actually like the mammal mounts slightly better. There’s a greater range of interesting poses, and they don’t suffer from Fraley’s signature exploding chests.

The Poebrotherium, Hoplophoneus, and Hyracodon mounts are full of life and character.

A metalwork frame artfully shows the missing parts of this Augustynolophus skull.

All that said, there is a surprising divergence in the quality of interpretation between the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall. On this front, the Age of Mammals Hall is better by far. There is an open floor plan that visitors can circulate freely, but everything comes back to three main ideas posted near the entrance: continents move, climates change, mammals evolve. In no particular order, the exhibit demonstrates how Cenozoic mammals diversified in response to the environmental upheaval around them.

On the ground floor, one tableau shows how dogs, horses, rhinos, and camels evolved to move swiftly across the emergent grasslands of the Miocene. Another area covers how mammals grew larger to adapt to an ice age climate. Overhead, a whale, sea cow, sea lion, and desmostylian illustrate four independent lineages that evolved to make use of marine resources. Exhibits on the mezzanine level focus on how paleontologists learn about prehistoric mammals. One area compares different sorts of teeth and feet. Another explains how pollen assemblages can be used to determine the average temperature and moisture of a particular time and place, while drill cores illustrate how a region’s environment changed over time. Although the exhibit as a whole has no time axis, it does an excellent job conveying how evolution works at an environmental scale.

The addition of dogs, camels, and rhinos makes for an informative twist on the classic horse evolution exhibit.

Struthiomimus is accompanied by a modern ostrich and tundra swan.

By comparison, the Dinosaur Hall doesn’t have any obvious guiding themes. The exhibit is a grab-bag of topics, and to my eyes, specimens and labels appear to be placed wherever they fit. Jurassic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are surrounded by displays about the end-Cretaceous extinction. Carnotaurus of Cretaceous Argentina is paired with Camptosaurus of Jurassic Colorado. Mamenchisaurus shares a platform with distantly-related Thescelosaurus, which lived 80 million years later on the other side of the world. An explanation of what defines a dinosaur is confusingly juxtaposed with non-dinosaurian marine reptiles. If there’s any logic here, I didn’t see it. This is accentuated by the fact that the label copy is no more specific than a run-of-the-mill dinosaur book for kids. It all feels very generalized and unambitious, especially compared to the Age of Mammals Hall. I would have liked to see more information on what makes these particular specimens special, as well as how they were found, prepared, and interpreted. I suppose it’s up to the visitor whether an exhibit like this can get by on looks alone.

And so concludes day one of our trip. Next time, the Raymond M. Alf Museum and places south!

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Return to the DinoSphere

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops skeletons look particularly cool against a purple backdrop.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is one of the best museums in the United States, particularly for paleontology. That may sound surprising for those unfamiliar with the museum. A typical children’s museum serves an important function by providing young people an opportunity to create and explore, but their exhibits usually amount to glorified playgrounds. Despite its name, TCM is something else entirely.

Founded in 1925 and growing by leaps and bounds ever since, TCM is a bona fide research institution. Numerous staff curators oversee a growing collection of historical, anthropological, and natural science objects that are regularly studied by visiting researchers. TCM’s dinosaur holdings are particularly impressive, including the Dracorex hogwartsi holotype and the first Tyrannosaurus found with its furcula (wishbone) intact. The museum’s paleontologists collect new specimens from the field every year. Other highlights include a collection of 50,000 historic toys from 120 countries, 2,500 traditional garments and textiles from around the world, and hundreds of original paintings and sculptures of prehistoric creatures donated by John Lazendorf.

In 1976, TCM joined forces with Purdue University to excavate this mastodon in Greenfield, Indiana.

The exhibits at TCM include objects that are as fascinating and unique as those on display at any top tier history or science museum. And unlike typical children’s museums, TCM’s exhibits aren’t pitched exclusively at children but at families learning together. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but the effects are profound. Interactivity in one form or another is generally seen as critical to children’s learning in a museum context. However, all opportunities for interaction are not made equal, and “free choice” interactivity (such as pressing buttons and turning cranks) is increasingly seen as an ineffectual teaching tool. Educators and exhibit designers have found far more success with “scaffolding,” which is the practice of creating exhibits that are simultaneously pitched to multiple audiences. Scaffolded exhibits might include content for different age levels, or for visitors with passing familiarity with a topic as well as those with deep knowledge.

At TCM, scaffolding is used to coach parents and guardians to effectively guide children’s investigations. Wherever there is a display that is sure to attract kids’ attention, there is signage nearby to help parents ask open-ended questions, direct attention to a particular aspect of the exhibit, prompt hypotheses, or suggest connections to personal experiences. In this way, the scaffolded exhibits channel a positive educational experience for children through a trusted and familiar source of information (their parents). This also means that there’s no letting kids loose in an exhibit as though it were a playpen. Parents and guardians are given the tools they need to participate in their children’s learning process, and probably learn something interesting for themselves along the way.

Even for adults with more independent children in tow (or traveling alone!) there’s plenty to see and do. Indeed, the effort to provide quiet, contemplative experiences alongside more participatory ones is one of the most commendable aspects of the TCM exhibits. Visitors can view Dale Chiuly’s five-story blown glass sculpture, Fireworks of Glass. In the archaeology lab, they can watch conservation specialists restore artifacts collected from shipwrecks off the coast of the Dominican Republic. If they so choose, visitors can even grapple with the challenging themes presented in “The Power of Children,” an exhibit that highlights the accomplishments of children that stood up against disease, institutionalized racism, and genocide.

Gorgosaurus, Maiasaura, and Bambiraptor populate one of the main tableaus in DinoSphere.

All the best that TCM has to offer is on display in the epic paleontology exhibit, DinoSphere. The peculiar name references the fact that the exhibit occupies a globe-shaped addition to the main building that once held an Imax theater. Rather than removing the giant screen and fancy audio system, they’ve been put to use in creating a uniquely immersive experience. A series of vivid skyscapes is projected over a 22-minute cycle: a red sunrise fades into cobalt tones at midday and a deep purple at night. This is supplemented by a chorus of bird and insect sounds, and certain corners of the exhibit smell of cedar and magnolia (this isn’t the only place where scents are used – at one particularly inspired station, visitors can sniff a duckbilled dinosaur, which smells like cross between a cow and bottom of a birdcage).

Impressive as these elements are, DinoSphere is more than a special effects show. More than twenty complete skeletons of Cretaceous animals are on display, including ten real dinosaur mounts. For those keeping track, that’s as many as are in the Smithsonian and the Field Museum exhibits combined. Sourced primarily from the commercial market (including the Black Hills Institute, which also constructed the mounts)*, many of these specimens are truly unique. There’s Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus preserved with large areas of skin and muscle impressions, and the most complete Gorgosaurus yet found, which has a visible brain tumor among many other fascinating lesions and maladies.

*Yes, this isn’t 100% ideal. But at least the specimens are in a publicly accessible collection now.

Original fossils and artwork by Michael Skrepnick and Cliff Green are offered as inspiration at this drawing station.

True to form, there are many opportunities for participation in the DinoSphere. For one thing, the exhibit strongly encourages exploration. A cursory walk through the gallery is not enough to get the total experience. You have to look high and low and occasionally behind doors to find all the specimens on display. For example, there’s a Didelphodon jaw in a burrow close to the base of the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops tableau. For visitors that respond better to a more personal connection, some rather gifted interpreters are on continuous patrol. When we visited TCM in December, I was fortunate enough to watch Mookie Harris in action. He has a great repertoire with toddlers, but was just as happy to dive into more complex concepts with older children and adults.

Then there’s the dinosaur art gallery. Away from the noise and bustle of the DinoSphere proper, visitors can view samples from the Lazendorf collection in a quiet, contemplative setting (David at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs got a behind-the-scenes look at the rest of the collection – check out his photos and the rest of his TCM posts). Scaffolded signage encourages families to view the artwork with a critical eye, comparing the illustrated and sculpted dinosaurs to original fossils and separating rigorous reconstruction from artistic interpretation. There are also plenty of drawing stations, complete with prompts and sample artwork for inspiration. The whole gallery is a wonderful way to introduce visitors to the blurred lines between art and science, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Fun fact: I prepped a couple of the tail vertebrae in this Hypacrosaurus mount during a brief but inspiring “internship” when I was 13.

To sum up, if you’re looking for world-class fossil exhibits, don’t limit yourself to the big acronyms (AMNH, FMNH, and so forth). You might want to wait a couple years, though. During our visit, we were graciously invited into the fossil prep lab, where Curator William Ripley filled us in on the museum’s future plans. It rhymes with “Triassic expansion” and the TCM paleontology team is currently collecting new skeletons from a quarry in Wyoming. Can’t wait!

References

Andre, L., Durksen, T., and Volman, M.L. 2016. Museums as avenues of learning for children: a decade of research. Learning Environments Research 20: 1: 47-76. 

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