Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

Between late 2018 and early 2020, the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition—which covers the entire history of life on Earth—received a series of updates and improvements.  Although it’s been around since 2006, Evolving Planet is an excellent exhibition and does not need a complete overhaul any time soon. Still, the last 14 years have been some of the most active in the history of paleontology, so there is no shortage of new science to cover. Likewise, technological advancements have made it possible to introduce more large-scale multimedia experiences and digital interactives.

As one of four exhibition developers on the project, my role was to conceptualize many of the new additions, as well as write the text. The changes to Evolving Planet include new specimens, new interactives, well over a hundred label updates, and a giant media presentation on the end-Permian extinction. In this post, I’d like to highlight my personal favorite part of the project: the new Triassic tableau.

The original Evolving Planet Triassic display, from 2006. Photo by the author.

If you visited Evolving Planet between 2006 and 2019, you’ll recall a pair of Herrerasaurus reconstructions (one fleshed-out, one skeletal) on a platform in the center of the Triassic gallery. This display actually had its roots in the Field Museum’s previous paleontology exhibit, Life Over Time, which featured four Herrerasaurus. In scaling back to two Herrerasaurus, literally and figuratively pedestaled, the original Evolving Planet team intended the display to be a grand introduction to the dinosaur menagerie to follow.

Unfortunately, the 2006 version of the Triassic gallery never had much drawing power—the lure of the larger dinosaurs around the corner was too great. This was a shame, because the Triassic is a really important chapter in the story of life on Earth. Life bounced back after the biggest mass extinction ever, and the new groups that evolved on land would be major players up to the present day. The ancestors of everything from crocodiles and turtles to mammals and dinosaurs can be traced to this time. We thought the origin of mammals was particularly important to emphasize, both because these were our distant ancestors and because the fact that mammals have been around about as long as dinosaurs have isn’t widely known. The gallery already had a small case of Mesozoic mammal teeth, but it was almost completely ignored by visitors. The revamped display needed to put the mammal story front and center.

I used this back-of-the-napkin sketch to pitch our proposed arrangement for the new display.

How do you get visitors to stick around when Apatosaurus and Daspletosaurus are visible up ahead? You need something similarly big and impressive, like a life-sized diorama. We decided to set our diorama in the Ischigualasto Formation of Argentina because it meant we could reuse the Herrerasaurus model. Created by the late, great Stephen Czerkas, this model is nearly 30 years old but still holds up well. In fact, the beefy musculature around the thighs and tail and the “lips” obscuring the teeth are in line with modern thinking about theropod life appearance.

The complete Triassic tableau, finished earlier this year. Photo by the author.

The star of the diorama is Chiniquodon, a cynodont related to the ancestors of mammals. As this little creature pokes its whiskered snout out of its burrow, it takes in a wide world of potential dangers, including Herrerasaurus, Pseudochampsa, and a herd of lumbering Ischigualastia in the distance. A second, larger Chiniquodon is visible in a cutaway of the burrow, and a partial skeleton is in a case in front of the diorama. Since visitors look onto the scene from the bottom of a dry stream bed, they are getting a Chiniquodon‘s eye view of the Triassic, and its strange mix of familiar and alien plants and animals.

The Chiniquodon burrow is set in the bank of a dry stream bed, part of a larger river system visible in the background mural. Photo by the author.

On the left side of the display, the muddy landform gives way to smooth MDF. This is where we complicate the origin of dinosaurs beyond the presentation of Herrerasaurus as an “ur-dinosaur.” Evolution occurs as a continuum and the exact point we define as the start of any particular group is always somewhat arbitrary. This is particularly clear when we look at the first dinosaurs. Dinosaurs belong to a larger group called archosaurs, and they are difficult to distinguish from some of the archosaurs they existed alongside. They looked alike, they ate the same food, and they lived in the same sorts of habitats. Skeletons of Asilisaurus and Parringtonia, a Desmatosuchus skull, and a Teleocrater hindlimb help illustrate Triassic archosaur diversity.

Clockwise from top left: Desmatosuchus, Pseudochampsa, Asilisaurus, and Parringtonia. Photos by the author.

For me, the most challenging part of developing this display was explaining the evolutionary relationships of these animals clearly and concisely. As fundamental as it is to paleontological science, the basic shape of the tree of life is extremely specialized knowledge. Most visitors will get lost and disinterested by a bombardment of unfamiliar group names, but it’s also easy to be so vague as to communicate nothing at all. I hope that I successfully toed the line between establishing the concept of uneasy boundaries between named groups and getting overly bogged down in specifics.

A very incomplete list of acknowledgements follows:

The Field Museum Exhibitions Department, which designed and built this display in-house.

My fellow Evolving Planet developers: the sensational Tori Lee, Monisa Ahmed, and Meredith Whitfield.

Liam Elward, Janice Lim, Velizar Simeonovski, and Katherine Ulschmid produced the artwork in the Triassic display.

Ken Angielczyk, Az Klymiuk, Brandon Peecook, Olivier Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Pia Viglietti oversaw the scientific content. Any mistakes in this post are my own.

1 Comment

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, reptiles, science communication

One response to “Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

  1. Michael Sisley

    I’ve said it before and I’d say it again I envy you Ben but at the same time thank you for allowing me too get a better glimpse at these displays then I usually would otherwise!

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