Dinosaurs are once again on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Opening just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, “The Last American Dinosaurs” provides a much-needed dose of paleontology while the main fossil hall is being renovated. I was fortunate enough to take part in a preview tour for social media users – you can check out the storified version, or read on for photos and my initial thoughts on the new exhibit.
As promised, there are plenty of dinosaurs on view. Specifically, these are the dinosaurs of Maastrichtian North America, the last of these animals to grace this continent before the extinction event 66 million years ago. In addition to the mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus discussed in the previous post, be on the lookout for a hatchling and juvenile Triceratops, an Edmontosaurus, and bits and pieces from dromaeosaurs and pachycephalosaurs.
However, the dinosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg. As lead curator Hans-Dieter Sues explained within the first few minutes of the tour, the central message of this exhibit is that dinosaurs were only one part of a complex ecosystem. To that end, the dinosaurs of The Last American Dinosaurs are outnumbered by a menagerie of of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and plants that shared their world, most of which are on display for the first time. These specimens come from a variety of sources. Some, including turtles and fossil leaves, were collected by NMNH paleontologists in North Dakota specifically for this exhibit. Others, like the lizard Polyglyphanodon, have been in the museum’s collection since the 1930s but have never before been put on display. I also spotted a few casts sourced from Triebold Paleontology, including the mammal Didelphodon and the alligator-like Stangerochampsa.
Much like the Human Origins exhibit, The Last American Dinosaurs incorporates the faces of Smithsonian researchers and staff throughout the displays. There are large photos showing the museum’s scientists at work in the field, and the popular windowed FossiLab has found a new home in this exhibit. In addition, a large area is deservedly devoted to scientific illustrator Mary Parrish, chronicling the methods she uses to turn fossil data into gorgeously detailed renderings of prehistoric animals and environments. Videos of Parrish and others at work can be seen here.
I’m definitely a fan of this personalized approach to science communication. In-house scientists are museums’ most important and unique resources, and placing them front-and-center reminds visitors that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relateable to visitors.
The phenomenon of extinction is another important theme in The Last American Dinosaurs. The exhibit details how an asteroid impact combined with several other factors to radically alter the environment worldwide, causing 70% of species to die out (fun fact: ambient temperatures in North America directly after the impact were comparable to the inside of a brick pizza oven). However, the exhibit goes on to make direct comparisons between the K/Pg extinction event and the anthropogenic extinctions of today. Habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and climate change caused by burning fossil fuels are instigators of environmental upheaval as powerful as any space rock.
In this way, The Last American Dinosaurs is a warm-up for the key messages of the new fossil hall. The overarching theme of the planned exhibit is that “Earth’s distant past is connected to the present and shapes our future.” It will showcase how living things and their environments are interdependent, and change over time. Crucially, it will also demonstrate how our understanding of how life has changed over time is important for understanding and mitigating our impact on present-day ecosystems. The Last American Dinosaurs is evidently a testing ground for how these ideas will resonate with audiences.
In designing modern paleontology exhibits, museum workers have tried many approaches to squelch the idea of the dinosaur pageant show and instead convey how the science of paleontology is relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Back in 1995, the American Museum of Natural History tried a cladistic arrangement with a focus on biodiversity. More recently, the Field Museum used the process of evolution to frame the history of life on Earth. While there are certainly overlaps with what has come before, the “modern implications of environmental change over deep time” approach under development at NMNH is fairly novel, and also quite timely. Some of the displays in The Last American Dinosaurs hit pretty close to home, and I’m eager to find out how visitors respond.