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Upon his death in 1829, British scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the United States government to found “at Washington…an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Congress used Smithson’s estate to establish the publicly funded Smithsonian Institution in 1846, which has since grown into an expansive research institute and museum complex for science and the humanities that is recognized the world over. Vertebrate paleontology has been an important part of the Smithsonian’s agenda since the beginning, and this article by Ray Rye provides a compelling history of the scientific staff and their research. This post will take a slightly different approach, summarizing the changing public face of Smithsonian paleontology in the form of its genre-defining exhibits.
In 1847, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first secretary, started construction on the original Smithsonian building, which today is colloquially known as “the castle.” The first vertebrate paleontology exhibit housed within its walls consisted of a trio of casted skeletons obtained from the Museum of Natural History in London: the ground sloth Megatherium, the glyptodont Scistopleurum, and the tortoise Collossochelys. The Smithsonian’s first skeletal mount made from original fossils was a Megaloceros, purchased from antiquities dealers Thomas and Sons in 1872.
1881 saw the completion of the original United States National Museum, next door to the castle (this structure is now called the Arts and Industries Building). The southwest court was dedicated to osteology and paleontology, and the existing skeletal mounts were placed here among rows of cases containing smaller specimens. At this point in time, the Smithsonian had very few permanent staff members, instead relying mostly on scholars serving in unpaid “honorary” positions to curate the growing national collection. Famed paleontologist O.C. Marsh (the beardier half of the “bone wars” rivals) was the honorary curator of vertebrate paleontology. Under contract with the United States Geological Survey, Marsh supervised numerous field expeditions to the American west and oversaw the collection of untold thousands of fossil specimens. When Marsh died in 1899 the fossils he collected for the government were relocated from Yale University (his home institution) to the Smithsonian.
Gilmore and the Hall of Extinct Monsters
Charles Whitney Gilmore was a student in mine engineering at the University of Wyoming when he became involved in the Carnegie Museum’s fossil hunting expeditions in 1889. Recognizing the young man’s enthusiasm and talent, John Bell Hatcher hired Gilmore immediately after his graduation in 1901. Gilmore worked with Hatcher for two field seasons, but in 1903 he moved to Washington, DC upon being offered a position as a full-time preparator at the USNM. He was promoted to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1924, and is fondly remembered as an exceptionally modest but extraordinarily productive scientist. As curator, Gilmore led sixteen fossil-hunting expeditions to the western interior. Gilmore’s most enduring contribution to paleontology, however, is his extensive body of descriptive publications on the Marsh fossils. His monographs on Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, and many others are still regularly cited today.
Along with preparators Norman Boss and James Gidley, Gilmore is responsible for creating most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that are on display at the Smithsonian. The first dinosaur mount Gilmore and his team completed was Edmontosaurus, which went on display in the original USNM building in 1904. Gilmore would go on to supervise the construction of Triceratops (the first mount of this taxon in the world), Camptosaurus, Stegosaurus, Dimetrodon, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, and numerous other displays that have been enjoyed by generations of museum visitors.
Congress authorized the construction of a new United States National Museum on the north side of the National Mall in 1911. In contrast to the Victorian style of the original building, the new museum sported neoclassical granite construction which matched the aesthetic of the other federal buildings. Exactly when the museum opened is the subject of some debate. Collections and offices began moving across the mall via horse and wagon in 1908, and part of the first floor opened to the public on March 17th, 1910. Nevertheless, it was not until 1911 that all the exhibit spaces were ready for visitors, including the evocatively titled “Hall of Extinct Monsters” in the museum’s east wing. This cavernous space devoted to fossil displays was primarily under Gilmore’s stewardship, and generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design. Gilmore and his team would gradually fill the Hall of Extinct Monsters will new specimens over the coming decades, culminating in the towering Diplodocus mount completed in 1932.
Modernization and Renaissance
Gilmore retired in 1945, and vertebrate paleontology research at the USNM, particularly in dinosaurs, quieted in his absence. Charles Gazin, Gilmore’s successor as curator of vertebrate paleontology, specialized in mammals, and the museum remained without a curator specializing in dinosaurs until Matt Carrano was hired in 2003. In 1957, the USNM split into two subdivisions, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. The Smithsonian’s history collections were moved to a new building next door, now called the National Museum of American History, and other collections gradually dispersed into 20-some other Smithsonian museums. The site of the disbanded USNM was officially renamed the National Museum of Natural History in 1967, and remains the home of natural sciences and anthropology.
The Hall of Extinct Monsters persisted largely unchanged until 1962, when it was finally renovated as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The fossil exhibits were among the last to be updated in part due to ambivalence from the paleontology curators. The department did not employ any staff members exclusively devoted to exhibit work, so the task of reinventing the displays was an added burden for the research staff. As such, the changes to the hall ended up being more cosmetic than structural. The largest mount, Gilmore’s Diplodocus, was too difficult to disassemble and move, so the new exhibit was designed around it. Solid earth tones and wall-to-wall carpet replaced the original neoclassical aesthetic. The John Elliot mural Diana of the Tides, positioned high on the east wall, was simply boarded over during construction (and has remained so ever since).
In 1974, the addition of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man expanded the paleontology display space beyond the east wing. Further renovations took place in three stages starting in 1979. The dinosaur hall reopened in 1981, followed a few years later by “Mammals in the Limelight” and “Life in the Ancient Seas.” Unlike previous iterations, these new displays formed a more cohesive narrative of the history of life on earth, and much of the signage carries the voice of educators, rather than curators. The new specimens and displays also required the once spacious hall to be carved up into a maze of small rooms and narrow corridors. Even with the additional floor space provided by a new balcony over the dinosaurs, the east wing had become quite crowded.
Of course, the science of paleontology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1980s, and NMNH staff have made piecemeal updates to the exhibits when possible. These changes include restorations of deteriorating mounts, the addition of a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus, and a few revised signs addressing the dinosaurian origin of birds and new dates for geologic time periods. Still, the east wing remained largely the same for over 30 years, and began to look a bit tired next to the brand-new exhibits that have opened at NMNH over the last decade.
The NMNH fossil halls closed on April 27th, 2014 for a five year renovation project. For the first time, the east wing will be completely gutted and its underlying infrastructure overhauled. Aging specimens like the 1932 Diplodocus and the 1911 Ceratosaurus will be painstakingly disassembled and conserved, and the space itself will be restored to its original art deco splendor. The re-imagined exhibit will be arranged in reverse chronological order: visitors will start among mammoths and ground sloths in the Pleistocene and move backward in time through increasingly alien-looking versions of North America. Unlike the present exhibit, however, an open floor plan will allow visitors to get a sense of what they’re in for from the moment they walk into the hall.
The overall theme is change over geologic time, highlighting the myriad of ways climate, geography, evolution, and other living and nonliving systems interact and shape the world’s environments. Not all the classic mounts will make it into the new space (Brachyceratops, for instance, is a likely casualty), but there will also be many new additions, including the Nation’s T. rex. The result will be a compelling mix of classic early 20th century museum aesthetics and modern visitor-focused educational strategies.
Gilmore, C.W. (1941). A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 90.
Rye, R. (2002.) History of the NMNH Paleobiology Department. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/rye.html
Sues, H. and Marsh, D. (2013). Charles Whitney Gilmore: The Forgotten Dinosaur Hunter. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/gilmore.html
Yochelson, E.L. (1985). The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.