Category Archives: AMNH

Displaying the Tyrant King (Redux)

This is an updated version of a series of posts from 2014. With Deep Time and the new SUE exhibition now open, I’m dusting it off and bringing it up to date.

Woodrow Wilson is in the white house. The first World War is raging in Europe, but the United States is not yet involved. The women’s suffrage movement is picking up speed. And you just heard that the skeleton of an actual dragon is on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. It is difficult to imagine a time before Tyrannosaurus rex was a household name, but such was the case barely a century ago. In 1915, AMNH unveiled the very first mounted skeleton of the tyrant lizard king, immediately and irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche.

Today, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity among dinosaurs, appearing in every form of media imaginable. More importantly, it is an icon for paleontology and an ambassador to science. Much has been written about T. rex — about its discovery, about the animal itself, and about its role in popular culture. This article will take a slightly different tack. This is an overview of the history of the tyrant king on display, and how it has defined (and been defined by) the museum experience.

The cult of T. rex began in the halls of museums, and museums remain the prehistoric carnivore’s symbolic home. Mounted skeletons provide the legendary T. rex its credibility: these are the authentic remains of the giant predator that once stalked North America. And yet, most of the dozens of  Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display around the world are casts, and none of them represent complete skeletons (rather, they are filled in with spare parts from other specimens and the occasional sculpted bone). These are sculptures as well as scientific specimens, works of installation art created by artists, engineers, and scientists. Herein lies the paradox presented by all fossil mounts: they are natural specimens and constructed objects, embodying a challenging duality between the realms of empiricism and imagination.

I. The Original Tyrant

Tyrannosaurus as it was displayed at AMNH in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Between 1890 and 1910, the United States’ natural history museums entered into a frenzied competition to find and display the largest and most spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Although discoveries by paleontologists like O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late 19th century fleshed out the scientific understanding of Mesozoic reptiles, it was these turn-of-the-century museum displays that brought dinosaurs into the public sphere. Bankrolled by New York’s wealthy aristocrats and led by the ambitious (and extremely problematic—read on) Henry Osborn, the American Museum of Natural History won the fossil race by most any measure. The New York museum completed the world’s first mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur in 1905, and also left its peer institutions in the dust with the highest visitation and the most fossil mounts on display.

Osborn’s goal was to establish AMNH as the global epicenter for paleontology research and education, and in 1905 he revealed his ace in the hole: two partial skeletons of giant meat-eating dinosaurs uncovered by fossil hunter Barnum Brown. In a deceptively brief paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn described the fossils from Wyoming and Montana, coining the names Dynamosaurus imperiosus and Tyrannosaurus rex (a follow-up paper in 1906 reclassified “Dynamosaurus” as a second Tyrannosaurus specimen). Fully aware of what a unique prize he had in his possession, Osborn wasted no time leveraging the fossils for academic glory. He placed the unarticulated bones on display shortly after his initial publication, and commissioned artist Charles Knight to prepare a painting of the animal’s life appearance.

E.S. Christman’s miniature models act out Osborn’s unrealized battling Tyrannosaurus display. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In 1908, Brown collected a much more complete Tyrannosaurus specimen (AMNH 5027), with over 50% of the skeleton intact, including the first complete skull and a significant portion of the torso. With this specimen in hand, AMNH technician Adam Hermann and his team began work on a mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton to join the Museum’s growing menagerie of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Inspired by the museum’s habitat dioramas and seeking to accentuate the spectacle of his reptilian monster, Osborn initially wanted to mount two Tyrannosaurus skeletons facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even published a brief description, complete with 1/10th scale wooden models illustrating the proposed exhibit (above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve.

Instead, Hermann prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with plaster casts of the hips and femur from the 1905 holotype. The original skull was impractically heavy, so a cast was used in its place. Missing portions of the skeleton, including the arms, feet, and most of the tail, were sculpted by hand using bones from Allosaurus as reference. During the early 20th century, constructing fossil mounts was a relatively new art form, and while Hermann was one of the most talented and prolific mount-makers around, his techniques were somewhat unkind to the fossil material. Bolts were drilled directly into the fragile bones to secure them to the armature, and in some cases steel rods were tunneled right through them. Any fractures were sealed with plaster, and reconstructed portions were painted to be nearly indistinguishable from the original fossils. Like most of the early AMNH fossil mounts, preserving the integrity of the Tyrannosaurus bones was secondary to aesthetic concerns like concealing the unsightly armature.

The Tyrannosaurus mount takes shape. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The completed Tyrannosaurus mount, a magnificent sculptural combination of bone, plaster, and steel, was unveiled in 1915 to stunned audiences. With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years. The December 3rd New York Times article was thick with hyperbole, declaring the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity”, “the king of all kings in the domain of animal life,” “the absolute warlord of the earth” and “the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatsoever.” Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.”

Brian Noble argues that Osborn’s descriptions of T. rex betray his own racial anxiety and fear of obsolescence. As a member of the New York aristocratic class, Osborn supported eugenics and lobbied for race-based quotas on immigration. Within months of penning museum labels that lament the extinction of “great and noble” carnivores like Tyrannosaurus, Osborn was writing that “the greatest danger to the American republic is the gradual dying out…of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political, and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of a less noble character” (quoted in Noble 2017, pg. 73). Whether knowingly or not, Osborn allowed his fear of the fall of the de facto ruling class to which he belonged influence his interpretation of a long-dead dinosaur.

Hermann’s Tyrannosaurus continued to delight AMNH visitors through the 1980s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Today, we know that the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was inaccurate in many ways. The upright, tail-dragging pose, which had been the most popular attitude for bipedal dinosaurs since Joseph Leidy’s 1868 Hadrosaurus mount, is now known to be incorrect. More complete Tyrannosaurus skeletons have revealed that the tail reconstructed by Osborn and Hermann was much too long. The Allosaurus-inspired feet were too robust, the legs (partially cast from the 1905 holotype) were too large, and the hands had too many fingers. It would be misleading to presume that the prehistoric carnivore’s skeleton sprang from the ground exactly as it was presented, but it is equally incorrect to reject it as a fake. The 1915 mount was a solid representation of the best scientific data available at the time, presented in an evocative and compelling manner.

The AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was no less than a monument: for paleontology, for its host museum, and for the city of New York. The mount has been a New York attraction for longer than the Empire State Building, and for almost 30 years, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could see a T. rex in person. In 1918, Tyrannosaurus would make its first Hollywood appearance in the short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This star turn was followed by roles in 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong, firmly establishing the tyrant king’s celebrity status. It is noteworthy that special effects artist Willis O’Brian and model maker Marcel Delgado copied the proportions and posture of the AMNH display exactly when creating the dinosaurs for each of these films. The filmmakers took virtually no artistic liberties, depicting Tyrannosaurus precisely how contemporary scientists had reconstructed it at the museum.

II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh

The Carnegie Museum’s first attempt at restoring the skull of T. rexSource

In 1941, AMNH ended its Tyrannosaurus monopoly and sold the incomplete type specimen (the partial skeleton described in Osborn’s 1905 publication) to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While it is sometimes reported that this transfer took place to keep the valuable fossils out of harm’s way during World War II (e.g. Larson 2008), the deal was actually underway well before the United States became involved in the war. Carnegie Museum Director Andrew Avinoff spent nearly a year bargaining with Barnum Brown over a price, eventually settling on $100,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars) for the fossils with appropriate bases and mounting fixtures. Carnegie staff wasted no time assembling a mount of their own, but since the Tyrannosaurus holotype only included about 18% of the skeleton, most of the Pittsburgh T. rex had to be made from casted and sculpted elements. Somewhat pointlessly, the skull fragments included with the specimen were buried inside a plaster skull replica (above), making them inaccessible to researchers for several decades. Completed in less than a year, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus was given a more hunched posture than its AMNH predecessor.

The Tyrannosaurus faced off with Diplodocus and Apatosaurus at the Carnegie Museum for more than 60 years. Source

The mid-20th century was a quiet phase for vertebrate paleontology. After enjoying public fame and generous federal support during the late 1800s, paleontology as a discipline was largely marginalized when experiment-driven “hard” sciences rose to prominence. By the 1950s and 60s, the comparably small number of researchers studying ancient life were chiefly concerned with theoretical models for quantifying trends in evolution. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals were perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists.

While New York and Pittsburgh remained the only places where the tyrant king could be seen in person, the ongoing fame of T. rex was secured in part by two additional museum displays, ironically at institutions that did not have any actual Tyrannosaurus fossils on hand. In 1928, the Field Museum of Natural History commissioned Charles Knight to paint a series of prehistoric landscapes, the most recognizable of which depicts a face-off between Triceratops and a surprisingly spry Tyrannosaurus. In 1947, Rudolph Zallinger painted a considerably more bloated and lethargic T. rex as part of his Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both paintings would be endlessly imitated for decades, and would go on to define the prehistoric predator in the public imagination.

III. Rex Renaissance

RTMP 81.6.1, aka Black Beauty, mounted in relief at the Royal Tyrell Museum. Source

The sparse scientific enthusiasm for dinosaurs that defined mid-century paleontology changed rather suddenly in the 1970s and 80s. The “dinosaur renaissance” brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. The next generation of paleontologists endeavored to look at fossils in new ways to understand dinosaur behavior, biomechanics, ontogeny, and ecology. Tyrannosaurus was central to the new wave of research, and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers since 1980. More interest brought more fossil hunters into the American west, leading to an unprecedented expansion in known Tyrannosaurus fossils.

The most celebrated Tyrannosaurus find from the dinosaur renaissance era came from Alberta, making it the northernmost and westernmost T. rex to date. The 30% complete “Black Beauty” specimen, so named for the black luster of the fossilized bones, was found in 1980 by a group of high schoolers and was excavated by paleontologist Phil Curie. The original Black Beauty fossils were taken on a tour of Asia before finding a permanent home at the newly established Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. In lieu of a standing mount, Black Beauty was embedded in a faux sandstone facade, mirroring the environment in which the fossils were found and the animal’s presumed death pose. This relief mount set Black Beauty apart from its AMNH and Carnegie predecessors, and even today it remains one of the most visually striking Tyrannosaurus displays.

The mid-sized reconstruction (right) in this 2011 growth series at LACM incorporates Garbani’s juvenile T. rex fossils. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus was once considered vanishingly rare, but by the early 1990s the number of known specimens had increased dramatically. Harley Garbani found three specimens, including the first T. rex juvenile, while prospecting in Montana for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM). “I was pretty excited,” Garbani recounted, “I didn’t figure another of those suckers would ever be found” (quoted in Horner and Lessem 1993). Meanwhile, the Royal Tyrell Museum tracked down a partial T. rex in Alberta that Charles Sternberg had marked in 1946 but never excavated.

One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens was discovered by avocational collector Kathy Wankel while prospecting on Montana land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Museum of Rockies (MOR) excavated the Wankel Rex in 1989, and until recently it was held it trust at the Bozeman museum. All of these specimens have allowed paleontologists to conduct extensive research on the growth rate, cellular structure, sexual dimorphism, speed, and energetics of T. rex, turning the species into a veritable model organism among dinosaurs.

IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

Cast of Peck’s Rex, accompanied by a Wankel Rex skull, at the Maryland Science Center. Photo by the author.

Despite the relative bonanza of new Tyrannosaurus specimens uncovered in the 1980s and 90s, very few of those skeletons were immediately assembled as display mounts. Instead, many museums have purchased complete casts to meet the increasing public demand for dinosaurs. In 1986, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened Discovering Dinosaurs, the world’s first major exhibit showcasing active, endothermic dinosaurs. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, posed for the first time in the horizontal posture that we now know was the animal’s habitual stance. The following year, another AMNH cast appeared in the lobby of Denver Museum of Nature and Science in a strikingly bizarre pose, with one leg kicking high in the air. Robert Bakker—the mount’s designer— intended to push boundaries and demonstrate what a dynamic and energetic Tyrannosaurus might be capable of, although the mount has subsequently been described as dancing, kicking a soccer ball, or peeing on a fire hydrant.

Denver’s high-kicking T. rex. Source

Since the late 1990s, however, casts of another specimen have overtaken AMNH 5027 for the title of most ubiquitous T. rex. BHI 3033, more commonly known as Stan, was excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute (BHI), a commercial outfit specializing in excavating, preparing, and mounting fossils. BHI has sold dozens of Stan casts to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. With over 50 casts sold as of 2017, Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world.

Stan cast at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

All these new Tyrannosaurus mounts are forcing museums to get creative, whether they are displaying casts or original fossils. Predator-prey pairings are a popular display choice: for example, the Wankel Rex cast at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science  is positioned alongside the sauropod Alamosaurus, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History matches the tyrant dinosaur with its eternal enemy, Triceratops. Meanwhile, the growing number juvenile Tyrannosaurus specimens has allowed for family group displays. LACM features an adult, subadult, and baby, while the Burpee Museum of Natural History pairs its original juvenile T. rex “Jane” with an AMNH 5027 cast. The most unique Tyrannosaurus mount so far is certainly the copulating pair at the Jurassic Museum of Asturias.

While not as widespread as Stan, casts of the Wankel Rex (distributed by Research Casting International) are increasingly common. This copy at the Google headquarters is periodically attacked by smaller, pinker theropods. Source

Each of these displays gives a substantially different impression of Tyrannosaurus. Depending on the mount, visitors might see T. rex as a powerful brute, a fast and agile hunter, or a nurturing parent (or a gentle lover). Most mounts are accurate insofar that a real Tyrannosaurus probably adopted a similar stance at some point, but the museum’s choice of pose nevertheless influences visitors’ understanding of and attitude toward the dinosaur.

V. Restoring the Classics

An update for the first T. rex ever displayed. Photo by the author.

With dozens of new Tyrannosaurus mounts springing up across the country and around the world, the original AMNH and Carnegie displays began to look increasingly obsolete. However, modernizing historic fossil mounts is an extremely complex and expensive process. The early 20th century technicians that built these displays generally intended for them to be permanent: bolts were drilled directly into the bones and gaps were sealed with plaster that can only be removed by manually chipping it away. What’s more, the cumulative effects of corroding armatures, fluctuating humidity, and vibration from passing crowds had damaged the historic mounts over the course of their decades on display.

Despite these challenges, AMNH and the Carnegie Museum have both been able to restore and update their classic Tyrannosaurus displays. Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the iconic T. rex. The fossils proved especially fragile, and some elements had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of paint and shellac applied by the original preparators.

Exhibit specialist Phil Fraley constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the old mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling with a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Each bone is secured to an individual metal bracket, allowing researchers to remove elements for study as necessary. A new cast of the skull was also prepared, this time with open fenestrae for a more natural appearance. Curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose—a closed mouth and subtly raised left foot convey a quiet dignity befitting this historic specimen.

One of many conceptual drawings created by Phil Fraley Productions during the process of planning the Carnegie Museum renovation. Source

Historically, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus had never quite lived up to its AMNH predecessor. Although it incorporated the Tyrannosaurus holotype, it was mostly composed of casts from the New York skeleton, and it sported an unfortunately crude replica skull. It is therefore ironic that the Carnegie Museum now exhibits the more spectacular T. rex display, one which  realizes Osborn’s plan to construct an epic confrontation between two giant predators.

While less complete than many subsequent finds, the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype is still important because it defines the species. It had not been studied properly since the early 20th century, however, and the skull elements were completely inaccessible—entombed in plaster since 1941. The conservation team overseen by Hans-Dieter Sues sought not only to rebuilt the exhibit mount, but to re-describe the specimen and provide casts of individual bones to other museums. The Carnegie website once hosted a fascinating day-by-day account this process. The page seems to have been removed but an archived version can be found here.

Old meets new: the restored Tyrannosaurus holotype faces off with a cast of Peck’s Rex. Photo by the author.

Phil Fraley, now heading an independent company based in New Jersey, oversaw the construction of the new mount. Michael Holland contributed a new restored skull, actually a composite of several Tyrannosaurus skulls. The mount was completed in 2007, and is displayed alongside a cast of “Peck’s Rex,” a specimen housed at MOR. Despite the difficulty of modernizing the historic specimen, the team reportedly developed a healthy respect for turn-of-the-century mount-makers like Adam Hermann and Arthur Coggeshall, who developed the techniques for making enduring displays of fragile fossils that are still being refined today.

VI. From South Dakota to Chicago

The skull of SUE the T. rex. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real—a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.

The other dinosaur of the decade was SUE, who scarcely requires an introduction. SUE is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 90% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 30 years old at the time of their death, SUE is also the eldest T. rex known, and within the margin of error for the title of largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about this individual dinosaur. In particular, SUE’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infections that together paint a dramatic picture of a violent life at the top of the food chain.

It was the events of SUE’s second life, however, that made this the fossil the world knows by name. SUE was discovered in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on ranch land within the Cheyenne River reservation of South Dakota. The Black Hills Institute excavated the skeleton and initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City. Even at this point, SUE was a flashpoint for controversy among paleontologists: while several researchers signed up to work with BHI on a monograph about SUE, others did not think a for-profit company was an appropriate place for such an important specimen. Things heated up in 1992, when BHI became embroiled in a four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne Council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little legal precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton (I recommend the relevant chapter in Grande 2017 as the most evenhanded account of how this went down).

Williams announced that he would put SUE on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) won SUE with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

Research Casting International prepared two SUE casts: one for a traveling exhibition and this one at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Photo by the author.

FMNH and its corporate backers did not pay seven figures for SUE solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  SUE’s remarkable completeness would be a boon for scientists, but the fossil’s star power was at least as important for the museum. SUE was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As former FMNH president John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). A Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn support less sensational but equally important collections maintenance.

Once SUE arrived at FMNH, the museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of SUE’s teeth went on display days after the auction. This expanded organically into the “SUE Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Although BHI had already put in 4,000 hours of prep work, much of SUE’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted.

SUE as displayed from 2000 to 2017. Photo by the author.

After reviewing a number of bids, FMNH selected Phil Fraley to prepare SUE’s armature. Fraley had already remounted the AMNH T. rex at that point, and left his post at the New York museum and founded his own company so that he could work on SUE. Just as had been done with the AMNH skeleton, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils were not damaged for the sake of the exhibit. SUE was placed right at the heart of the museum, in the half-acre, four-story expanse of Stanley Field Hall. Despite these cavernous surroundings, SUE was given a low, crouching posture—the intent was to give visitors a face-to-face encounter with T. rex.

SUE was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the dropping of a curtain. 10,000 visitors came to see SUE on opening day, and that year the museum’s attendance soared from 1.6 to 2.4 million. To this day, headlines about SUE are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SUEtheTrex twitter account has 60,000 followers and counting. SUE has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When FMNH brought SUE to Chicago, they weren’t just preserving an important specimen in perpetuity, they were creating an icon.

VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe

Tristan at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde. Photo by Heinrich Mallison.

Tyrannosaurus is an exclusively North American animal. It follows that real Tyrannosaurus skeletons have historically only been displayed in American and Canadian museums, while the rest of the world has had to content itself with casts of Stan and the Wankel Rex. This situation changed recently, and there are now two original T. rex skeletons on display in European museums.

The first was Tristan, a Tyrannosaurus collected in 2000 by private collectors. Niels Nielsen, a Danish real estate developer, bought the skeleton for an undisclosed sum (he named the dinosaur Tristan after his son). While it is common for art museums to display privately owned objects, scientific institutions usually avoid such arrangements.  There are many reasons for this: it may be a museum’s policy to avoid legitimizing the private market for one-of-a-kind specimens, or they may simply want to steer clear of demands by owners regarding exhibition and interpretation. Perhaps most importantly, scientific research on privately owned specimens is not necessarily reproducible, because there is no guarantee the specimen will remain in a publicly-accessible repository.

Despite these drawbacks, Director Johannes Vogel of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin decided to accept Tristan as a loan. Paleontologist Heinrich Mallison worked with Nielsen and others to design the mount and plan how it would fit into the exhibit hall. The team opted to pose Tristan as though making a rapid left turn around a “tree” (one of the cast iron columns bisecting the room). Unfortunately, the final armature did not effectively capture the intended twisting motion in the torso, hips, and right leg, and the resulting mount is stiffer looking then the initial renders. The public does not seem to have minded, however. Tristan was unveiled in September 2015 and drew half a million visitors in its first six months on display.

Trix the T. rex in a temporary exhibit space at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Source

Europe’s second Tyrannosaurus mount debuted in September 2016 at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Named Trix after the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix, this specimen was collected in Montana by a crew from the museum working in collaboration with the Black Hills Institute. The mount constructed by BHI uniquely includes the original skull, rather than a lightweight replica. This was accomplished by posing Trix in a low running pose, with its head skimming less than a foot above the ground.

VIII. Into the Future

A 1/10th scale 3-D printed model of the Nation’s T. rex recalls the wooden maquettes used at AMNH over a century ago. Source

New T. rex displays just keep coming. In 2019, the National Museum of Natural History reopened its paleontology halls after a five year renovation. The new “Deep Time” exhibition has a brand-new Tyrannosaurus mount as its centerpiece. The specimen in question is the Wankel Rex, which had been held in trust at the Museum of the Rockies since it was excavated in 1989. Found on Army Corps of Engineers land, the fossils are owned by the federal government and therefore an ideal candidate for display at the national museum (technically, they are on a 50 year loan from the Corps to the Smithsonian).

Look closely the fallen Triceratops and you’ll see crushed ribs, a broken horn, and that its head is no longer attached to its body

Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, this is the first time the original fossils have been assembled into a standing mount. For Curator Matt Carrano, it was important that the T. rex was presented like an animal, rather than a sculpture. To accomplish this, he devised a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off a prone Triceratops. Pulling off such a scene was easier said than done. Extreme poses are relatively straightforward when working with lightweight casts, but the degree of dynamism Carrano wanted is much more complicated when creating a frame that safely supports real fossils. Just like Hermann and Christian a century earlier, Matt Fair and his colleagues at Research Casting International started with a 10th scale miniature before moving on to the real skeleton.

Now on display at NMNH, the Wankel Rex has a new nickname: the Nation’s T. rex. This moniker is appropriate: NMNH follows only the Louvre in annual visitation, sometimes topping 8 million people. That means the Nation’s T. rex will soon be the most-viewed Tyrannosaurus skeleton in the world. In all likelihood, 60 million people will pass by the mounted skeleton in the next decade.

SUE the T. rex in their not-quite-finished throne room. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex has competition. In 2018, the Field Museum moved SUE to a 6,500 square foot gallery adjacent to the main dinosaur hall. The new exhibition (full disclosure: I was a co-developer on this project) gives SUE some much-needed context. In contrast to the neoclassical space it once occupied, the mounted T. rex is now part of a media-rich experience that Brown, Hermann, and Osborn could have scarcely imagined. An animated backdrop illustrates the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived, and a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton—highlighting pathologies and other key features.

With guidance from Pete Makovicky, Tom Cullen, and Bill Simpson, Garth Dallman and colleagues at Research Casting International modified the original SUE mount to correct a range of anatomical inaccuracies and reunite the skeleton with its gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles). This is the first time a Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been mounted with a real gastral basket, and it gives the dinosaur a girthier silhouette. Many lines of evidence have converged onto this new look for T. rex. The animal was not the lithe pursuit predator it was portrayed as in the 1990s, but an ambush hunter with the raw weight and muscle to overpower its bus-sized prey.

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

As we have seen, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. Fifty years ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide (most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens). These displays have evolved over time: new scientific discoveries changed the animal’s pose and shape, new technology has allowed for more enriching and immersive exhibits, and popular media presentations of T. rex have continuously increased the public’s expectations for their encounter with the real thing.

Meanwhile, each T. rex on display exists in a socio-political context: human actors “create the initial and enduring performative iterations of T. rex” (Noble 2016, 71). A century ago, the first-ever T. rex exhibit was encoded with one man’s prejudice and social hangups. In the present, another T. rex—SUE—has become a nonbinary icon.  The Field Museum now refers to SUE as “they” instead of “she,” both in the spirit of scientific accuracy (we don’t know SUE’s sex) and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. As explained in a press release, “this kind of representation can make a big difference in the lives of the LGBTQ community. It’s not about politics; it’s about respect. If our Twitter dinosaur gets more people used to using singular “they/them” pronouns and helps some folks out there feel less alone, that seems worth it to us.”

For museums, acquiring and displaying a T. rex is not exactly a risk. As Carrano explained with respect to the Nation’s T. rex, “the T. rex is not surprising, but that’s not its job. Its job is to be awesome.” Specimens like the Nation’s T. rex or SUE are ideal for museums because they are at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

References

Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.

Black, R. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Clemens, W.A. and Hartman, J.H. 2014. “From Tyrannosaurus rex to asteroid impact: Early studies (1901-1980 of the Hell Creek Formation in its type area.” Through the End of the Cretaceous in the Type Locality of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and Adjacent Areas. Eds. Wilson, G.P., Clemens, W.A., Horner, J.R., and Hartman, J.H. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.

Colbert, E.H., Gillette, D.D. and Molnar, R.N. “North American Dinosaur Hunters.” The Complete Dinosaur, Second Edition. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O., eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.

Dingus, L. 1996. Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Dingus, L. 2004. Hell Creek, Montana: America’s Key to the Prehistoric Past. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Dingus, L. 1996. Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

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.

Fox, A. and Carrano, M. 2018. Q&A: Smithsonian Dinosaur Expert Helps T. rex Strike a New Pose. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-of-natural-history/2018/07/17/q-smithsonian-dinosaur-expert-helps-t-rex-strike-new-pose

Freedom du Lac, J. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. Washington Post.

Glut, D. 2008. “Tyrannosaurus rex: A century of celebrity.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

Hermann, A. 1909. “Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 21:283-331.

Horner, J.R. and Lessem, D. 1993. The Complete T. rex: How Stunning New Discoveries are Changing Our Understanding of the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Johnson, K. and Stucky, R.K. 2013. “Paleontology: Discovering the Ancient History of the American West.” Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals, No. 4.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

McGinnis, H.J. 1982. Carnegie’s Dinosaurs: A Comprehensive Guide to Dinosaur Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh, PA: The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

“Mining for Mammoths in the Badlands: How Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Dug Out of His 8,000,000 Year old Tomb,” The New York Times, December 3, 1905, page SM1.

Nobel, B. 2016. Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Norell, M., Gaffney, E.S. and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.

Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of OrnitholestesStruthiomimus, and TyrannosaurusBulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.

Psihoyos, L. 1994. Hunting Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. University of Alabama Press.

Wesihampel, D.B. and White, Nadine M. 2003.The Dinosaur Papers: 1676-1906. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, HMNS, museums, reptiles, science communication, theropods

Do fossil exhibits have too many dinosaurs?

Reflexive discussion about the practice of communicating paleontological science to general audiences has become more common recently – there was even a two-day Popularizing Paleontology workshop in London last year.  It’s about time – paleontology encompasses some of the most important questions about the world around us, from how life evolves to how ecosystems respond to planetary changes. Paleontology is the study of how the world came to be, and our understanding of the natural world is hopelessly incomplete without it. For the larger public, however, paleontology is synonymous with dinosaurs, and this can be a problem. Dinosaurs are awesome, but they are but one branch of the tree of life. And while their 160 million year dominance is significant, the era of non-avian dinosaurs is only a fraction of the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth. Their story is not the only story worth telling.

Why the outsized fascination with dinosaurs? I suspect it’s the result of a self-perpetuating cycle. Human curiosity peaks somewhere between subjects an individual knows well and subjects that are completely new to them. In other words, people prefer to learn about things they are already familiar with. That means that museum visitors are drawn to dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus because they already know something about them. Meanwhile, other fascinating creatures are bypassed precisely because visitors lack an existing mental framework to contextualize them. Somewhat paradoxically, in the sphere of informal learning, familiarity is king.

Generally, educators have been happy to indulge the public craving for dinosaurs*. In a must-read blog post resulting from the aforementioned Popularizing Paleontology workshop, Mark Witton describes dinosaurs as “one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal” because they are “gateways” to discussions about evolution, extinction, deep time, and even the nature of the scientific method. Witton then unpacks this conventional wisdom, highlighting several ways that relying on the built-in appeal of dinosaurs may not be as effective as traditionally assumed. It’s a fascinating discussion that I highly recommend reading.

Witton’s post got me thinking that if we’re going to consider easing up on dinosaurs in outreach efforts, we need some sort of baseline to firmly establish if (or the degree to which) they are being overused. One argumentum ad nauseum in these conversations is that museum exhibits are overstocked with dinosaurs. Allegedly, exhibit designers have responded to the popularity of Mesozoic dinosaurs by devoting an excessive amount of exhibit space to them, while relegating Paleozoic and Cenozoic specimens to the collections. This supposition can be (very, very crudely) tested by comparing the percentage of available exhibit space to the percentage of time non-avian dinosaurs dominated the planet. Assuming that exhibits should not be expected to allocate proportional space to pre-Phanerozoic life, I figure that the “Age of Dinosaurs” should cover 30-35% of an exhibit about life since the Cambrian (~160 million out of 541 million years).

To satisfy my own curiosity, I’ve gone and checked this figure against the three big paleontology exhibits with which I am most familiar. The slapdash maps below are traced from museum guides available online, with percentages calculated with the help of the Photoshop ruler tool. Green denotes dinosaurs, brown represents Cenozoic mammals, and blue encompasses everything else, including Paleozoic fossils, overviews of life over time, and non-dinosaurian Mesozoic life.

Field Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 31%; Mammals: 31%; Other: 38%.

Let’s start with the Field Museum, since it’s the most straightforward. The Evolving Planet exhibit (on view since 2006) occupies three elongated halls totaling 27,000 square feet. Evolving Planet is a classic “walk through time”-style exhibit, and the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic are given remarkably equal amounts of floor space. Even though the central hall is larger than the other two, it is partially occupied by plants, marine animals, and early Triassic weirdos. At 31% of the total exhibit, dinosaurs are right about where they should be.

National Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in the old fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 15%; Mammals: 43%; Other 42%.

The old paleontology halls at the National Museum of Natural History (closed since 2014) demonstrate what happens when a museum goes without a dinosaur specialist for three quarters of a century. Cenozoic mammals and Paleozoic marine life were given room to spread out, while the dinosaurs were crowded into a paltry 15% of the available 31,000 square feet. It’s worth noting that unlike the Field Museum’s current fossil halls, which were designed from the ground up in the early 1990s, the NMNH paleontology wing was built up in a piecemeal fashion over the course of a century. The space was repeatedly carved into smaller sections to make room for new exhibits, and designers had to work around existing specimens that were too expensive or difficult to move. By the 1980s the halls had become something like a maze, and much of the available space wasn’t used very efficiently. Still, the consistently meager amount of space allotted to dinosaurs made it clear where the curators’ interests lay.

American Museum of Natural History

gallery usage at amnh

Space allotment by subject on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 40%; Mammals: 30%; Other: 30%.

At the American Museum of Natural History, fossil exhibits are spread across six halls on the fourth floor. The last substantial renovation was completed in 1995, although a titanosaur skeleton was added to the Orientation Hall in 2016. This exhibit differs from its counterparts at FMNH and NMNH in that it’s arranged phylogenetically, rather than chronologically. It is also limited to vertebrate evolution, so plants and invertebrates are not included. With those caveats in mind, dinosaurs occupy 40% of the 65,000 square feet of exhibit space.

So, do museums have too many dinosaurs? Based on this exercise, these three museums have just the right amount (or even too few). The proportion of space allocated to dinosaurs closely matches the time span of their ecological dominance during the Phanerozoic. The percentage of dinosaur space at AMNH is on the high side, but if we also incorporated the square footage of the human evolution exhibit and the assortment of marine invertebrate fossils on display elsewhere in the museum, that percentage would decrease significantly. In fact, if this exercise has revealed anything, it’s that Cenozoic mammals get an awful lot of space, given that the “Age of Mammals” takes up only 13% of the Phanerozoic.

Again, this is an extremely crude way to measure dinosaur-themed engagement efforts. One might also look at the number of specimens on exhibit, or the newness of the displays (are dinosaurs getting updated more frequently, while other exhibits are left to languish?). And that’s to say nothing of outreach beyond the permanent exhibits. Still, I hope this is a helpful starting point. At the very least, it suggests to me that “are museums over-emphasizing dinosaurs?” is not the only question worth asking. We also need to tease out if audiences are ignoring non-dinosaur paleontology outreach efforts, and if there’s a way to counter that.

*It’s a tired but worthwhile point that comparatively few people can articulate what a dinosaur actually is. For many, anything big and dead (and displayed in skeletal form) is a dinosaur. This complicates the matter, because when people ask for dinosaurs they may actually mean prehistoric animals.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, NMNH, systematics

The Epistemological Challenge of Model Whales

The very nature of whales precludes scientific study of these incredible animals. They are enormous – strong and powerful in life and unwieldy to manipulate in death. They live in the open ocean, where they can only be reached by boat or plane. Living whales fare poorly in captivity, and dead whales rapidly deteriorate into an oily, reeking mess. If there was ever a natural specimen that does not lend itself to display in a museum, it would be a whale.

This is not for lack of trying. Museums have long sought to collect whales, both to complete their records of biodiversity and to show the visiting public the spectacular extremes of animal life. Success in this endeavor has always been mixed. The Natural History Museum of London has one of the best collections of real whales, including dolphins, porpoises, and a humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) fetus pickled in bathtub-sized vats of alcohol. Larger whales*, however, can only be displayed as skeletons, which unfortunately misrepresent the shape of the living animal (and as many museums have learned the hard way, even whale bones stink and drip blubber for years after cleaning). Many taxidermists have attempted to preserve the skins of large whales over the years, but this has typically resulted in grotesque, short-lived failures**.

Casting in newfoundland

A Smithsonian team takes plaster molds from a blue whale caught by whalers in Newfoundland. Source

A museum is a place for real things, but what can museum workers do if a specimen is so irreconcilable with the practicalities of display? Throughout the 20th century, many museums have experimented with life-sized model whales. Vouched by scientists and based on photographs and measurements of actual whales, these models provided (and continue to provide) many visitors with the closest experience they will ever have to seeing a giant whale in person. However, to display a model is to raise key questions about authenticity. Constructed from papier-mâché, plaster, or fiberglass, a model whale lacks the flesh-and-blood reality of a true whale. Its legitimacy comes from a disassociated set of observations, and the perceived authority and expertise of the scientists who made them. This is in itself fair, but the situation is complicated by the fact that we know remarkably little about living whales, and historical scientists knew even less. Model whales have never been intended to deceive audiences, but many could hardly be called accurate reconstructions today.

In the 19th century, the only people who had seen living whales up close were whalers – a group probably more concerned with staying alive than making careful anatomical observations. Scientists had to rely on occasional, all-too-brief surface sightings and the misshapen corpses of beached animals. While the situation has improved, we still know precious little about whales’ lives below the waves. Is it scientifically acceptable, or even ethical, to present a reconstruction of an animal based on such limited information? Let the epistemological nightmare begin!

*By large whales, I am referring primarily to mysticetes and the sperm whale (Physter macrocephalus).

**One notable exception is the juvenile blue whale at the Göteborg Natural History Museum in Sweden. Not only is this the only mounted mysticete in the world, it is the only whale to have an upholstered seating area inside. Once a destination for lovers’ trysts, the whale’s interior now hosts Santa Claus at Christmastime. 

Round 1: 1880 – 1938

First whale

This bisected humpback at the United States National Museum was the first large whale replica displayed at a major museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Spencer Baird, the Smithsonian’s first curator, was a marine biologist with a strong interest in cetaceans. He quickly made the Smithsonian a place for whales, assembling an impressive collection and hiring staff with similar research priorities. It is therefore no surprise that the first full-sized replica of a large whale would be built at the United States National Museum. In 1882, exhibit specialist Joseph Palmer mounted the skeleton of a humpback whale with it’s left side enclosed in a plaster death cast of the same individual. This display lasted until the early 20th century, when it was scrapped during the move from the Arts and Industries Building to what is now the National Museum of Natural History. In 1901, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment provided a similar half-mount of a sperm whale to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

However, museum workers soon set their sights on bigger whales – specifically, the largest animal the Earth has ever known. In 1903, Smithsonian Curator of Mammals Frederick True teamed up with Head of Exhibits Frederick Lucas to create the first scientifically informed life-sized model of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). To accomplish this, the two Fredericks traveled to the Cabot Steam Whaling Company processing station in Newfoundland. At this point in time, whaling had progressed well beyond the rickety wooden ships described by Melville. It was a technologically sophisticated and ruthlessly efficient operation, largely conducted from floating meat factories armed with explosive harpoons. This period of industrialized whaling  drove many whale species to the brink of extinction. For their part, True and Lucas were convinced that they only had a few years left to observe a giant cetacean firsthand.

In the arts and industries building

After debuting at the St. Louis World’s fair, Lucas’s blue  (or “sulphur-bottom”) whale found at home at USNM. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

True and Lucas watched the whalers haul in several smaller blue whales before selecting a 78-foot, 70-ton behemoth as their target. Once the whalers brought the dead animal into shallow water, the museum workers rode out in a dinghy to measure the whale and take plaster molds of it’s flank, flukes, and head. They worked continuously over two days, racing to beat the onset of decomposition. The resulting molds only represented half the animal, and were significantly distorted by the sagging and bloating of the carcass, but Lucas made do.

Following Carl Akeley’s general method for creating life-like taxidermy mounts, Lucas started by blocking out the whale’s basic dimensions with a steel and basswood frame. His team then used wood and wire mesh to further shape the boat-like model, and finished it with an outer layer of papier-mâché. It is unclear if Lucas was able to use any actual casts of the Newfoundland whale, or if he sculpted it freehand using the molds as reference. Most likely, it was a combination of the two. The colossal model was shipped by rail for it’s debut at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (alongside a familiar Stegosaurus and Triceratops). Afterward, Lucas’s whale was displayed in the Arts and Industries Building, and later, in the west wing of the newly completed NMNH.

In 1906, the American Museum of Natural History started work on a blue whale of their own. Rather than measuring their own dead whale, the AMNH exhibits team led by F.C.A. Richardson (who also built the NMNH Stegosaurus) used measurements from True’s monograph, Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic. In fact, the New York model ended up with virtually identical proportions to its Smithsonian predecessor, and was probably styled after the same Newfoundland carcass. Richardson ran into trouble when he couldn’t get his whale’s papier-mâché skin to hold up – it sagged against the wooden frame, making the model look emaciated. Richardson was eventually dismissed from the project, replaced by Roy Chapman Andrews (who would later lead the Central Asiatic Expeditions). At the time, neither Andrews nor anyone else working on the model had ever seen a whale in person. Still, the completed model was, by all contemporary accounts, just as convincing as the Smithsonian version.

source

It seems there is nowhere in the Hall of Mammals where one can see, much less photograph, the entire blue whale. Source

On the other side of the Atlantic, London MNH scientists scoffed at the Americans and their replica whales. Zoological Department head William Calman was particularly contemptuous, opining that natural history museums should only display real specimens. Apparently something changed in the decades that followed, because in 1937 NHM unveiled a wood-and-plaster blue whale model built by Percy Stammwitz. For some reason it is often claimed that the London cetacean was the first life-sized blue whale replica, which is plainly untrue. Nevertheless, at 92 feet and seven tons, it was the largest such exhibit when it debuted. It is also the oldest blue whale replica that is still on display today.

Round 2: 1963 – 1969

underthesea

The Smithsonian’s second blue whale model dominated the Life in the Sea exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Back in America, the NMNH and AMNH blue whales endured for several decades. Eventually, however, new cetacean research and new standards for museum displays made these first generation models obsolete. In the late 1950s, Frank Taylor initiated the Smithsonian-wide modernization program, which was to replace the institution’s aging exhibits. Early on the agenda was an update to the marine life exhibit, home to the 1904 blue whale. Designing the new hall was like pulling teeth, as intransigent curators refused to cooperate or furnish specimens for what they saw as a misguided endeavor*. Still, Taylor was able to commission a new, larger blue whale model to serve as the exhibit’s centerpiece.

The first NMNH whale bore an unfortunate resemblance to a giant grey sausage**. True and Lucas based the proportions on a bloated and decomposing carcass, understandably missing some of the nuances of the animal’s form. Meanwhile, the model’s stiff posture and cylindrical shape were necessary given the structural limitations of the materials used in its construction. The 1963 model corrected both problems. Although photographs of living blue whales underwater were still a decade away, footage of grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) at sea helped the model-makers imbue their creation with life. The model was given a gentle diving pose, and lightweight plastic and fiberglass helped make this more dynamic sculpture possible. With a total length of 94 feet, the new whale was painted a cheery light blue, with pale yellow spots. Two steel beams secured the model’s left side to the north wall of the gallery.

After several false starts, AMNH began serious work on a replacement for their own outdated sausage-whale in 1967. The new blue whale model would be the centerpiece of the long-delayed Hall of Ocean Life, now slated to open for the museum’s centennial in 1969. This firm deadline made an already challenging project even more stressful – by the end Department of Mammology Chair Richard van Gelder had threatened to resign twice, and was nearly fired three times.

installing the amnh whale mk 2

The rig securing this 9-ton blue whale model to the ceiling is an engineering marvel. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

To start, van Gelder was frustrated by the museum administrators’ firm insistence that the new whale not be suspended by wires (which they thought looked tacky). As a tongue-in-cheek counter-proposal, van Gelder suggested the museum construct a dead, beached whale splayed out on the floor. To his chagrin, the administrators loved the idea because it would be much cheaper. Gordon Reekie of the exhibits department began planning an immersive experience with the sounds of gulls and crashing surf. As legend has it, van Gelder successfully sabotaged the dead whale concept when he told a group of donors that the smell of the rotting carcass would also be simulated.

Lyle Barton eventually devised the final plan, in which the steel structure securing the whale to the ceiling would be hidden within the model’s arching back. Once van Gelder deflected a last-minute request to give the whale an open mouth (not only was this inaccurate, but it would tempt people to throw things into it), workers from StructoFab carved the model from huge blocks of polyurethane. Like Andrews before him, van Gelder had never seen a blue whale in person, but did his best to ensure the accuracy of the model – down to the 28 hairs on its chin.

One more headache remained: at nine tons, the completed model was heavier than anticipated. 600 pounds of paint had to be sanded off and reapplied with a lighter touch before the model met the recommendations of two independent teams of engineers. Still, Barton insisted on measuring the distance between the whale’s chin and the floor every day for several months, just in case.

Restoring the squid and the whale Source

“The Squid and the Whale” with its original paint job. Source

In addition to the blue whale, the Hall of Ocean Life debuted with a second model cetacean. This famous diorama depicts the head of a sperm whale as the animal wrestles with a giant squid (Architeuthis dux). When the model was built, nobody had ever seen a live giant squid, much less one battling the world’s largest predator. We know that sperm whales eat squid because squid parts are found in their bellies. Suction-cup scars on whales’ faces tell us the squid do not always do down without a fight. Still, the 1960s modelmakers had to guess at the appearance of the cephalopod. Even the sperm whale proved difficult to recreate: these animals appear light grey underwater but almost black on the surface, and curators argued how to paint the model. This was rendered moot when the diorama was placed in a nearly pitch-black environment, simulating the gloomy depths 23,000 feet under the sea. Barely visible in the darkness, this display is fantastically eerie. The fact that the event it represents has never been (and may never be) witnessed by human eyes makes it all the more unsettling.

*Curators objected to the planned exhibit’s interdisciplinary presentation, which would use specimens to make broader points about ecology, climate, and maritime history. They preferred displays that were divided by sub-discipline and which strictly adhered to taxonomic tradition.

**Counterintuitively, the awkward, stiff shape of the original NMNH blue whale actually made it more believable: many visitors thought they were looking at a real taxidermied whale gone slightly awry. One of the aims when designing a replacement was to reduce confusion by creating an object that was clearly artificial. 

Round 3: 2003 – Present

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

The restored AMNH blue whale in 2015. Photo by the author.

Sadly, not all of the historic cetacean models are still with us. The original NMNH blue whale was discarded in the early 1960s to make way for its replacement. AMNH saved its first whale in storage until 1973, when they offered it free of charge to anyone who could arrange for its removal from the building. When no serious offers were made, this model was also demolished (although the eyeball was sold during a fundraising event). The second NMNH blue whale eventually proved to be somewhat inaccurate: the throat was over-inflated and the coloration was all wrong. It was hidden from view for most of the 1990s, although its back was still visible over the blockade. In 2000, the west wing was converted into the Mammals Hall, and the construction contractor gained ownership of the unwanted whale. He briefly listed the model on eBay, but unfortunately the whale fell apart once it was pulled off the wall.

The International Whaling Commission banned the hunting of blue whales in 1966. Since that time, interest in conservation and improved technology have enhanced our understanding of these marine giants. While few blue whale behaviors have been observed, much less photographed, marine biologists know far more than they did half a century ago. Armed with better knowledge of blue whale anatomy, AMNH exhibits staff made several modifications to the 1969 model. In addition to a resculpted jawline and a relocated blowhole, the whale gained a navel and an anus (both details were overlooked the first time around). Finally, its slate gray skin, based on photographs of beached carcasses, was repainted in the vivid blue of a living whale.

Teh squid

Like the blue whale, the AMNH giant squid was remodeled and repainted in 2003 based on new information about this elusive creature’s shape and color. Photo by the author.

The roster of model cetaceans has seen several additions in recent decades. Among them are a gray whale built for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984, and yet another blue whale displayed outside Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science. One of the newest life-sized whale sculptures to grace museum halls is Phoenix, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) on display at NMNH since 2008. This model is special because it represents a real, individual animal that is alive in the ocean today.

Scientists at the New England Aquarium have tracked the real Phoenix (a.k.a. #1705) since her birth in 1987. She was selected for the NMNH model because her life history is well known, and because the ongoing study of this individual presents an opportunity to show science in action. An interdisciplinary group of researchers including Marilyn Marx, Amy Knowlton, Michael Moore, Jim Mead, and Charles Potter spent two years working out every detail of the model, down to the chin scars Phoenix got in a run-in with a fishing net. Missouri-based Elemoose Studios was commissioned to build the full-sized model. Because the historic space the whale was to be exhibited in could not support the weight of a traditional fiberglass model, modelmaker Terry Chase had to get creative. He designed an ultra-light aluminum frame, with a foam build-up and paper skin. The completed model is 45 feet long but weighs only 2,300 pounds.

fee

Phoenix floats majestically in the NMNH Ocean Hall. Source

A model whale will always be an imperfect substitute for reality. Early attempts were limited as much by available technology and materials as they were by an incomplete understanding of their living counterparts. Lucas and Andrews could scarcely dream of the light but strong urethane foam used to create the Phoenix replica. Nevertheless, model whales have become steadily more accurate with each generation, keeping pace with marine biologists’ improving access to whales in their natural habitat. With considerable effort, it is now even possible to exhibit a convincing duplicate of a living individual.

The advantage of a model whale is that it is much easier to observe than a real whale. Paradoxically, this is also what makes these exhibits so espistemologically challenging. Even for somebody fortunate enough to have seen a whale at sea, a museum model is a much more visceral and relateable encounter. Almost nobody has seen a living blue whale underwater, but millions see the AMNH model every year. For those people, this chunk of polyurethane IS a blue whale. It represents their understanding of the animal, and is how they make sense of any fleeting glimpses of real whales they may have seen. Creating a whale stand-in is therefore not only technically challenging for a museum, it is an immense responsibility.

References

Burnett, D.G. 2012. The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hoare, P. 2010. The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Quinn, S.C. 2006. Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Abrams.

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

Rossi, M. 2008. Modeling the Unknown: How to Make a Perfect Whale. Endeavour 32: 2: 58-63.

Rossi, M. 2010. Fabricating Authenticity: Modeling a Whale at the American Museum of Natural History, 1906-1974. Isis 101: 2: 338-361.

Smithsonian Institution. 2008. Modeling Phoenix, Our North Atlantic Right Whale. http://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/ocean_hall/whale_model.html

Smithsonian Institution. 2010. A Century of Whales at the Smithsonian Institution. http://naturalhistory.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/Whales_SI.html

Wallace, J.E. 2000. A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

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Filed under AMNH, exhibits, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, NMNH

Meeting the Titanosaur

It be big

The titanosaur doesn’t photograph well. It must be experienced. Photo by the author.

On January 15, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first new fossil mount to be added to their paleontology halls in 20 years. It is the reconstructed skeleton of an as-yet-unnamed titanosaur, an immense sauropod dinosaur that lived in Argentina during the mid-Cretaceous. The titanosaur is probably the most hyped-up fossil mount since Sue, at least in the United States (Sophie the Stegosaurus in the U.K. and Tristan the Tyrannosaurus in Germany received similar attention). This merits some discussion. The AMNH public relations staff pulled no punches in selling the titanosaur as a must-see exhibit. Huge advertisements appeared on buses and buildings around New York, including in Times Square. The legendary David Attenborough hosted a television special on the discovery of the fossils. Countless local and national news outlets were invited to the titanosaur’s unveiling earlier this year. But is this dinosaur really the find of the century?

Titanosaur was even advertised in times square. Source

One of the many titanosaur ads that showed up around New York City this past winter. Source

It depends. The titanosaur represents a species new to science, but it has not yet been formally published. The fossils were recovered in 2014 by José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol, paleontologists with the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (the AMNH connection is that Pol was a doctoral student of Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell). Bones from at least six individuals of the same species were found, together representing 70% of the skeleton. However, AMNH staff have mostly avoided calling this animal the biggest dinosaur ever.

Indeed, declaring any dinosaur species to be the largest is a fool’s errand. We’ve known for some time that South American titanosaurs, as a group, are probably the biggest land animals that ever lived. Unfortunately, these giants are typically represented by only a few isolated bones. For an animal to become fossilized, it needs to be buried shortly after death. But it takes a lot more dirt to cover a large animal than a small one. A flood or landslide big enough to completely cover a sauropod over a hundred feet long would be an exceedingly rare event. More often, these animals were picked apart by scavengers for some time before a few of the more durable bones were buried and fossilized. For example, Argentinosaurus is known from about ten percent of the skeleton, and Puertasaurus is known from just four vertebrae. Paleontologists can use better-known relatives to produce reasonable reconstructions from even these limited remains, but any length estimate is a ballpark figure. Even among related animals, proportions can vary significantly. Consider, for example, the very long tail of a green iguana as compared to the stubby tail of a Galapagos land iguana. Carballido and Pol’s find stands out among other titanosaurs because two-thirds of the skeleton is known. hen the description is published, it will undoubtedly shed new light on the skeletal anatomy of this group. Still, the missing parts mostly come from the neck and tail, which will probably preclude a precise estimate of the animal’s total length.

*This level of completeness is not entirely unprecedented. Dreadnoughtus, described in 2014, is also about 70% complete.

he peekin

The titanosaur’s head and neck extend out of the room and into the corridor. Photo by the author.

We can’t say the AMNH titanosaur is absolutely the biggest known dinosaur, but what about the mount? At 122 feet, the reconstructed skeleton prepared by Research Casting International dwarfs AMNH’s resident sauropod, the 82-foot apatosaurine. It’s also a fair bit longer than the museum’s brain-breakingly huge blue whale model. AMNH is not the first museum to display a titanosaur, however. The Royal Ontario Museum has a 110-foot Futalognkosaurus, which the AMNH mount handily beats. But the new titanosaur is essentially the same size as the 123-foot Argentinosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (duplicates also exist in Europe and South America). The difference, as mentioned, is that not a lot about Argentinosaurus is actually known, and the mount is almost entirely a sculpted reconstruction. By comparison, the AMNH titanosaur is largely composed of 3-D printed components based on scans of original fossils. “The biggest reconstructed skeleton of a reasonably well-known dinosaur” isn’t the catchiest headline, though.

Suffice it so say that on paper, the AMNH titanosaur isn’t a revolution for dinosaur science. When I went to see it last weekend, I expected to see a typical example of a well-studied group of dinosaurs. I was not prepared.

the bastard

The closest I can find to a full-body photo of the titanosaur. Source

This bastard is BIG. I could go through a whole series of superlatives, but it’s impossible to describe the experience of sharing space with this magnificent skeleton. You cannot comprehend what a 122-foot dinosaur really is until you’ve experienced it. It helps that the titanosaur occupies a smallish, low-ceilinged room (a century ago, this was the infamous Hall of the Age of Man). It also helps that there are no long lines of sight into this space. You turn a corner and you are quite abruptly in the titanosaur’s presence. Regardless, the marketing line that was ubiquitous earlier this year – “everything else got a whole lot smaller” – rings unsettlingly true. Compared to the titanosaur, the mammoth and mastodon across the hall look like pipsqueaks. Even the AMNH blue whale, which usually requires a double-take, became a little easier to take in.

I’m no stranger to sauropods. I teach people about them at work all the time. But seeing the titanosaur in person was a revelation, and something I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the natural world. The titanosaur may not be the most important dinosaur discovery of our generation, but by giving it corporeal presence, AMNH created an incredible symbol. This is life at its limits, an embodiment of the incredible things the tetrapod body plan can do.

P.S.: If you’re concerned about the fate of the juvenile Barosaurus model that used to occupy this space, worry not. It now lives at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and will be on display at least through October of this year.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, sauropods

AMNH dinosaurs in vintage cartoons

Today I happened upon a pair of wonderful vintage cartoons that simply must be shared. I found them in Edwin Colbert’s The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, digitized here. The cartoons originally appeared in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, respectively.

original caption

Original caption: “And here is my first dinosaur – makes me feel like a kid again every time I look at it.”

The cartoons plainly depict the “Brontosaurus” and “Trachodon” (now labeled Apatosaurus and Anatotitan) skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History, and as representations of these mounts, they aren’t bad. At the time of the cartoons’ initial publications in 1939 and 1940, these and dozens of other fossil mounts had been on display at AMNH for over 30 years. They were iconic New York attractions, and the museum had rightly earned itself a reputation as the place to see dinosaurs.

original caption

Original caption: “I don’t mind you boosting your home state, Conroy, but stop telling the children that’s a California jack rabbit!”

Perhaps it’s unwise to interpret these images too literally, but I can’t help but wonder which version of the AMNH fossil halls the cartoonists intended to depict. Since 1922, the famous mounts had been housed in Henry Osborn’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, but during the 1930s the dinosaur exhibits underwent a significant expansion. The dinosaurs were reshuffled into two halls, one representing the Jurassic and one the Cretaceous.

osborn era

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs as it appeared in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

brown's jurassic hall

The new Jurassic Hall opened around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The inclusion of a Stegosaurus with “Brontosaurus” and the ceratopsian skulls behind the “Trachodon” lead me to believe these are illustrations of the renovated halls, which would have been brand new at the time. But again, it’s just as likely that the cartoonists only intended to capture the general feel of these famous exhibits.

References

Colbert, E.H. 1945. The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The American Museum of Natural History/McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, ornithopods, paleoart, sauropods

AMNH 5027 at 100

In December 1915, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the very first mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where one could see T. rex in person. Despite the tyrant king’s fame, old books emphasize the rarity of its fossils. The situation is very different today. In the last 30 years, the number of known Tyrannosaurus specimens has exploded. Once elusive, T. rex is now one of the best known meat-eating dinosaurs, and real and replica skeletons can be seen in museums around the world. The AMNH mount is no longer the only T. rex around, nor is it the biggest or most complete. It was, however, the first, and in a few weeks it will mark the 100th anniversary of its second life. Below is a partially recycled recap of this mount’s extraordinary journey.

Photo by the author.

AMNH 5027 in November 2015. Photo by the author.

The mount known as AMNH 5027 is actually a composite of material from two individuals. The first is the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype (originally AMNH 973, now CM 9380), which was discovered by Barnum Brown and Richard Lull during an AMNH expedition to Montana in 1902. The find consisted of little more than the pelvis, a single femur, one arm and shoulder, and fragmentary portions of the jaw and skull. Nevertheless, this was enough for AMNH director Henry Osborn to publish a brief description in 1905, as well as coin the species’ brilliantly evocative name. That same year, Adam Hermann prepared a plaster replica of the animal’s legs and pelvis, using Allosaurus fossils as reference when sculpting the missing lower legs and feet. This partial mount was initially displayed alongside the skeleton of a large ground bird, in order to accentuate the anatomical similarities.

Brown located a better Tyrannosaurus specimen in 1908. Apparently fearing poaching or scooping, Osborn wrote to Brown that he wished to “keep very quiet about this discovery, because I do not want to see a rush into the country where you are working.” After vanquishing many tons of horrific sandstone overburden, Brown returned to New York with what was at the time the most complete theropod specimen ever found. In addition to an “absolutely perfect” skull, the new find included most of the rib cage and spinal column, including the first half of the tail (Osborn 1916). Lowell Dingus would later describe this second specimen (the true AMNH 5027) as “a nasty old codger”, suffering from severe arthritis and possibly bone cancer. These pathologies were undoubtedly painful and probably debilitating.

Model of unrealized T. rex showdown mount from Osborn 1913.

Model of the unrealized T. rex showdown mount from Osborn 1913.

Osborn initially wanted to mount both Tyrannosaurus specimens facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even commissioned E.S. Christman to sculpt wooden models which which to plan the scene (shown above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve. Instead, the available fossils complemented one another remarkably well in the construction of a single mounted skeleton. Osborn noted this good fortune in 1916, but his statement that the two specimens were “exactly the same size” wasn’t quite accurate. The holotype is actually slightly larger and more robust than the 1908 specimen, and to this day the AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount has oversized legs.

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at AMNH. Note the original 1905 replica legs in the background. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Instead, Hermann’s team prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with the reconstructed pelvis and legs based on the 1905 holotype. When the completed mount was unveiled in 1915, the media briefly lost their minds. In contemporary newspapers, the skeleton was called “the head of animal creation”, “the prize fighter of antiquity”, and “the absolute warlord of the earth”, among similarly hyperbolic proclamations. Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.” With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years.

Image courtesy of the AMNH Archives.

T. rex in the Cretaceous Hall, 1960. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The AMNH’s claim to the world’s only mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton ended in 1941, when the holotype was sold to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Pittsburgh museum’s hunch-backed reconstruction of the tyrant king was on display within a year. Although no longer the only T. rex on display, the AMNH mount certainly remained the most viewed as the 20th century progressed. It became an immutable symbol for the institution, visited again and again by generations of museum goers. Its likeness was even used as the iconic cover art of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

By the 1980s, however, a new wave of dinosaur research had conclusively demonstrated that these animals had been active and socially sophisticated. The AMNH fossil galleries had not been updated since the 1960s, and the upright, tail-dragging T. rex in particular was painfully outdated. AMNH had once been the center of American paleontology, but now its displays were lagging far behind newer museums.

finished mount, room under construction

Restoration of AMNH 5027 was completed nearly three years before the hall reopened. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive, $44 million renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the most iconic specimens, Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Of the two mounts, the Tyrannosaurus presented the bigger challenge. The fossils were especially fragile, and some elements, specifically the cervical vertebrae, had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of shellac applied by the original preparators. All told, the team spent a year and a half dismantling, conserving, and rebuilding the T. rex.

Phil Fraley’s exhibit company constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the original mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling by a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Playing with Christman’s original wooden models, curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose, imbuing the mount with a level of dignity befitting this historic specimen. The restored AMNH 5027 was completed in 1992, but would not be unveiled to the public until the rest of the gallery was finished in 1995. Since that time, tens of millions of visitors have flocked to see this new interpretation of Tyrannosaurus. This is the skeleton that showed the world that dragons are real, and it is still holding court today.

References

Dingus, L. 1996. Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Glut, D.F. 2008. Tyrannosaurus rex: A Century of Celebrity. Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

McGinnis, H.J. 1982. Carnegie’s Dinosaurs: A Comprehensive Guide to Dinosaur Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh, PA: The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

Norell, M, Gaffney, E, and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.

Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of Ornitholestes, Struthiomimus, and TyrannosaurusBulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, theropods

A Trio of Tyrants

The frentic search for North American dinosaur fossils in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be divided into three phases. First came O.C. Marsh and E.D Cope, whose infamous rivalry resulted in literal trainloads of fossil material and laid the groundwork for our present understanding of dinosaur diversity. Next, teams sponsored by the newly-formed American, Carnegie, and Field museums returned to the same hunting grounds in the western interior to secure display-worthy specimens for their great halls of exhibition. The final phase was smaller in scale but yielded dinosaur specimens so spectacularly complete that most have gone unmatched to this day.

This third fossil rush occurred not in the United States but in Canada, along the cliff-like banks of Alberta’s Red Deer River. Fossil hunting in this region was pioneered in the late 1800s by George Dawson, Joseph Tyrell, and Lawrence Lambe, all working for the Canadian Geological Survey. This success did not go unnoticed by the the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1910, the museum mounted an expedition led by Barnum Brown to the Red Deer River. Rather ingeniously, Brown’s team acquired a pair of 30-foot floating barges, which were used as mobile platforms from which they could excavate the steep river banks. The barges also served as floating campsites and a handy means of transportation in a region without reliable roads.The adventurous Brown was already a media favorite, and the publicity surrounding his Alberta expeditions only increased when the team started bringing back fully articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons (including several with skin impressions).

Under pressure from constituents concerned that the Americans were hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian government formed its own team of fossil collectors in 1912. The new Canadian Geological Survey team was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg (a veteran collector who had once worked for Cope) and his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. The Canadian and American teams worked in the same region for the next five field seasons. Their rivalry was usually good-natured, but on more than one occasion Brown saw fit to grumble about the Sternbergs’ ethics (never mind that he was the one permanently removing fossils from their country of origin).

Gorgosaurus at AMNH

Three tyrannosaurs mounted in relief at AMNH. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

All of this is so much preamble for the actual topic of this post – three remarkable Gorgosaurus skeletons* collected near the Red Deer River during the Canadian fossil rush. All three were eventually mounted in relief by AMNH preparator Peter Kaisen, and for a time they were displayed together in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. These specimens are on the short list of most complete large theropod dinosaurs ever discovered, and in their day they provided researchers an unprecedented look at the physiology of these amazing animals. Nearly a century later, the three mounts are virtually unchanged. Locked behind glass for decades and largely inaccessible to researchers, the mounts themselves are now relics of a fascinating transitional period in the history of dinosaur studies.

*AMNH also recovered a fourth tyrannosaur during this period – Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus.

As usual, a brief explanation of nomenclature is required. William Matthew and Barnum Brown originally described these specimens as Gorgosaurus, a genus that Dale Russell sank into Albertosaurus in 1970. Most specialists no longer support this synonymization, but the specimens at AMNH are still labeled as Albertosaurus.

Gorgosaurus libratus – USNM 12814

gorgo

A recent photo of USNM 12812 from the ongoing renovation of the national fossil hall. Source

USNM 12814 (originally designated AMNH 5248) was excavated by Brown’s company in 1913 and prepared for display in 1918. Kaisen elected to recreate the death pose in which the Gorgosaurus was found, with its head swept backward over its body. All told, the finished mount included a skull, a complete set of cervical and dorsal vertebrae, complete forelimbs, and a single femur – the pelvis and the rest of the hindlimbs were filled in with casts from other specimens. Since the skeleton was mounted in relief, Kaisen simply painted the tail onto the backdrop.

After at least a dozen years on display at AMNH, the Gorgosaurus was traded to the National Museum of Natural History as part of a complicated deal between the two museums. While surveying fossil collections throughout the United States, Brown realized that a single Barosaurus skeleton from Dinosaur National Monument had been divided among three different institutions. NMNH had the neck and part of one forelimb, the Carnegie Museum had the tail, and the University of Utah had the rest. Between 1929 and 1933, Brown arranged a series of trades in order to unify the Barosaurus at AMNH. The Smithsonian in particular drove a hard bargain – the museum had already invested $3400 in preparing their Barosaurus section, and paleontology staff wanted a good return for their investment. Brown’s initial offer was the fully prepared and mounted Gorgosaurus. Although AMNH valued the field and prep time spent on the fossils at $4573, it was at that point a duplicate specimen taking up valuable space in their increasingly crowded exhibit hall.

NMNH dinosaur specialist Charles Gilmore confided in Brown that he was okay with this trade, but fellow Smithsonian paleontologist Alexander Wetmore wasn’t sold. For years, NMNH staff had been trying to acquire one of the many Moropus specimens AMNH had collected at the Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska. NMNH had offered a variety of specimens to trade, even sending AMNH a set of brontothere skulls at one point, but AMNH was adamant the Moropus fossils could only be exchanged for cash. Brown really wanted that Barosaurus neck, so in January of 1933, he finally relented and offered the Smithsonian a largely complete Moropus in addition to the Gorgosaurus. Not long after, the Gorgosaurus relief mount found its way into the Hall of Extinct Monsters at NMNH.

Gorgosaurus sp. – AMNH 5458

albertosaurus

A technician (probably Kaisen) adjusts the steel strap holding the femur in place. Source

Brown’s team found their second Gorgosaurus near Steveville, Alberta in 1914. Complete save for the left leg, right arm, and parts of the rib cage and tail, the mount was ready for display in May of 1921. At 24 feet long and 14 feet high, this was by far the largest relief mount at the museum. In fact, it was too big to fit through the workshop doorway in one piece, so Kaisen constructed it in eight sections that were sealed together in the exhibit hall. Each section had its own wooden frame for support, and the bones themselves were held in place with steel straps. The skull, jaw, and left forearm could be removed for individual study. This was unusual for the period (most contemporary fossil mounts were designed to be permanent) and speaks volumes about this specimen’s unique scientific value.

This mount is particularly notable for its awkward running pose. Directly contradicting many narratives of early 20th century paleontology, Matthew and Brown envisioned Gorgosaurus as an animal that “walked and ran much like a gigantic bird.” The AMNH team posed this mount after studying photos of bipedally running lizards, particularly the western tiger lizard*. However, Matthew and Brown noted that the dinosaur’s  limb proportions and range of motion more closely resemble a bird than a lizard, and adjusted the pose accordingly. They also advised a more conservative stride length to compensate for the animal’s considerable weight.

*Matthew and Brown do not provide a scientific name, and the common name “western tiger lizard” doesn’t seem to be used any more. Anyone know what it’s called today?

The final pose was a compromise between the elevated torso of a running lizard and the comparatively tight gait of a bird. It looks more than a little strange, but AMNH 5458 is certainly closer to our present understanding of theropod posture than most mounts of the era. Matthew and Brown’s interpretation of Gorgosaurus turned out to be ahead of its time. Some contemporary researchers, including Lawrence Lambe, declared the running pose to be highly improbable, and virtually all theropod mounts constructed over the next 60 years returned to the tail-dragging posture of the 1915 AMNH Tyrannosaurus.

Gorgosaurus sternbergi” – AMNH 5664

gorgo sternbergi

Gorgosaurus “sternbergi” as it was discovered and originally mounted. Source

The most complete tyrannosaur from the Red Deer River was not collected by the AMNH party, but by the Sternbergs. The elder Charles Sternberg discovered the specimen in 1917, entirely intact save for the left arm and the very end of the tail. In fact, this was the most complete large theropod ever found in North America until it was surpassed by yet another Gorgosaurus, TCM 2001.89.1. Sternberg first attempted to sell the specimen to the British Museum. They weren’t interested, but AMNH was. In 1918, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology bought the skeleton for $2000, thus completing the tyrannosaur trio.

Matthew and Brown described AMNH 5664 as a new species – Gorgosaurus sternbergi. In their 1921 publication, they describe the skull as longer and shallower than other Gorgosaurus specimens, with rounder orbits. However, Brown and Matthew recognized that these could be juvenile characteristics, noting as well that the unfused pelvic bones were an indication of immaturity. As early as 1970, this specimen was suspected to be a juvenile Gorgosaurus (or Albertosaurus) libratus.

Kaisen prepared the relief mount in 1921, this time assisted by Carl Sorenson. The photo above shows the original version of this mount, with the tail projecting straight back from the body. This was how Sternberg discovered the skeleton, and Kaisen wanted to keep the death pose intact. In the 1950s, the tail was “corrected” to make it drag on the ground. Although the display has not been altered since, the revised tail posture is now considered inaccurate. Indeed, the vertebrae apparently had to be angled unnaturally to make the dragging tail work at all.

AMNH 5027 was restored and remounted in 1995.

The Gorgosaurus plaque mounts hide behind Tyrannosaurus rex at AMNH. Photo by the author.

All three Gorgosaurus specimens were first displayed in the cramped quarters of the Hall of Fossil Reptiles (now the Hall of Primitive Mammals) with the rest of the growing AMNH dinosaur collection (USNM 12814 and the tail of AMNH 5664 are barely visible in this photo). 5458 and 5664 moved to the newly opened Great Hall of Dinosaurs in 1922. They flanked the gallery’s rear doorway for 70 years before being moved to the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs in 1994. Meanwhile, the Gorgosaurus transferred to the Smithsonian first appeared in the Hall of Extinct Monsters in the 1940s, displayed behind glass on the north wall. It switched to the south side in 1962, and moved about 30 feet up the wall in 1981, where it could only be properly seen from the mezzanine ramp.

Aside from the aforementioned alternation to AMNH 5664’s tail, the Red Deer River Gorgosaurus trio has not been modified since they were first built. This may well change in the not-to-distant future. The NMNH crew is hard at work on a thorough renovation of the national fossil hall, dismantling and restoring all of the classic dinosaur mounts. Meanwhile, the current AMNH paleontology exhibits are now 20 years old, and will soon be due for a similar overhaul. Both institutions will need to decide whether or not to free the Gorgosaurus specimens from their plaster substrate. This would be an extremely difficult process, but not impossible – Phil Fraley Productions recently rebuilt the Carnegie Museum’s Corythosaurus, Dryosaurus, and Camptosaurus as free-standing mounts. Dismantling the relief mounts would give a new generation of scientists access to these important specimens, and it would allow for the skeletons to be given more accurate poses. In addition, a standing Gorgosaurus mount alongside either museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex would be both informative and awesome.

Nevertheless, remaking these mounts would also destroy significant historical context. The carefully restored death pose of USNM 12812 seems like something worth preserving, and the AMNH specimens represent an important transitional period in the history of dinosaur science. In the past, museums have often taken a “science marches on” approach when updating aging displays, but in these mounts might be unique enough in their current form to be left as-is. What do you think?

References

Carr, T.D. (1999). Craniofacial Ontogeny in Tyrannosauridae (Dinosauria, Coelurosauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19: 497-520.

Colbert, E.H. (1968). Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

Gilmore, C.W. (1946). Notes on Recently Mounted Reptile Fossil Skeletons in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 96 No. 3196.

The Long Road to a Fossil Swap. Digging the Fossil Record, March 19, 2015. http://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2015/03/gorgosaurus-and-moropus.html

Matthew, W.D. and Brown, B. (1923). Preliminary Notices of Skeletons and Skulls of Deinodontidae from the Cretaceous of Alberta. American Museum Noviates 89: 1-10.

Russell, D. (1970). Tyrannosaurs from the Late Cretaceous of western Canada. National Museum of Natural Science Publications in Palaeontology 1: 1–34.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, reptiles, theropods

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 2

Start with History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1.

During his leadership of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and later, the museum at large, Henry Osborn oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the institution’s paleontology exhibits. As fossils poured in from the Department’s international collecting expeditions, these displays expanded into five separate galleries on the museum’s fourth floor. During the first two decades of the 20th century, AMNH staff was installing newly prepared and mounted specimens every single year, and AMNH was the undisputed center of American vertebrate paleontology. The increasingly marginal role of descriptive natural history in the greater field of biology at this time made the scale of Osborn’s program all the more impressive.

Nevertheless, this golden age of fossil exhibits would not last forever. Osborn supported the expensive expeditions and monumental displays through his personal connections with wealthy benefactors. The combination of the Great Depression and Osborn’s death in 1933 all but eliminated this source of income, and the museum had to scale back its activities considerably. In 1942, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work continued under the Department of Geology, but with only a fraction of its former staff and budget.

Phase IV: 1940 – 1955

amnhmap_1939

In the post-Osborn era, responsibility for the fourth floor exhibits deservedly transferred to Barnum Brown. Indeed, Brown’s adventures as a swashbuckling fossil hunter not only brought him personal fame, but made the museum’s world-class paleontology exhibits what they were. Of the 36 dinosaurs on display by 1939, no less than 27 had been discovered by Brown. Most of these iconic finds were made in his 20s and 30s, but Brown nevertheless remained at AMNH for most of his life. Even after officially retiring in 1943, Brown still frequented the museum, often giving spontaneous personal tours of the exhibits.

brown's jurassic hall

Brown’s Jurassic Hall, around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

In 1932, the architectural firm Trowbridge and Livingston completed the 13th building in the AMNH complex. This meant that for the first time, the paleontology exhibits formed a complete circuit, an arrangement that persists to this day. Brown opted to spread the dinosaurs into two halls, making the new space the Jurassic Hall and converting the Osborn-era Great Hall of Dinosaurs into the Cretaceous Hall. Several existing fossil mounts had to be moved as a result, including the massive “Brontosaurus.”  Eyeballing the widths of the doorways and corridors separating the present day Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs (formerly the Jurassic Hall) and Hall of Ornithiscian Dinosaurs (formerly the Cretaceous Hall and Great Hall of Dinosaurs), it’s difficult to imagine how museum staff could have moved the 66-foot sauropod in one piece. This photograph suggests that the skeleton was divided into several sections, which then had to be brought down the freight elevator on one side of museum and carted around to an elevator on the other side. This would be the third and final position for the “Brontosaurus” – even when the mount was updated  in 1995, preparators left the torso and legs in place.

brown's cretaceous hall

Brown’s Cretaceous Hall, around 1939. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1930s and 40s saw a number of new dinosaur mounts added to the displays, nearly all of which were discovered by Brown. The new Jurassic Hall gained a Stegosaurus and Tenontosaurus (oddly, not a Jurassic dinosaur), and the Cretaceous Hall gained Brown’s astonishingly intact Centrosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Styracosaurus from Alberta.

Phase V: 1956 – 1990

amnhmap_1956

Edwin Colbert joined AMNH in 1930 as Osborn’s assistant (he called this “a time of experiences and incidents,” whatever that means). Eventually rising to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Colbert was one of only a handful of mid-century researchers studying dinosaurs. He is also notable for his public outreach — in collaboration with his partner, Margaret Colbert, he wrote more than 20 popular books about paleontology.

In 1953, Colbert worked with exhibit specialist Katharine Beneker to redesign the Jurassic and Cretaceous Halls. The Jurassic Hall received the most dramatic aesthetic makeover — windows were covered up to create a “black box” effect, while the dinosaur mounts were illuminated dramatically from above and below. The most significant addition to this space wasn’t a standing mount, but a trace fossil. Exhibit developers incorporated several slabs of sauropod tracks (collected at the Paluxy River in Texas by Roland T. Bird) into the central pedestal, as though left behind by the “Brontosaurus.” Cemented together, the slabs weighed 22 tons — apparently nobody expected that they would ever need to be moved. The fossil fish alcove, formerly part of the 1905 Hall of Fossil Reptiles, also found a home in this space.

In stark contrast to the Charles Knight oil and watercolor murals commissioned by Osborn, Colbert elected to decorate the Jurassic Hall with a series of understated chalk drawings. Joseph Guerry created the illustrations, which was then projected onto the walls and traced in chalk. The initial plan was to paint over the chalk outlines, but Colbert enjoyed the blackboard-like look and left them as they were. The exhibit team didn’t even add fixative, since it would have turned the lines an unpleasant yellow.

Jurassic hall colbert. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The Jurassic —or Brontosaur— Hall opened in 1953. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Architectural modifications to the Cretaceous Hall were minimal, although the standing dinosaur mounts were all clustered onto a single platform. Interestingly, both the National Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Natural History would arrange their dinosaurs in precisely the same way within the decade. While it’s possible that these museums were copying AMNH, this similarity is probably a reflection of the transition to more holistic natural history displays that was occurring in museums nationwide. Rather than displaying specimens individually, exhibit designers in the 1950s and 60s began to arrange them in meaningful ways — for example, grouping animals with a shared habitat. The Cretaceous Hall also gained some new specimens, including an array of Protoceratops skulls recovered during the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Signs and labels were updated with more approachable language, once again reflecting contemporary museum theory.

The Cretaceous —or Tyrannosaur— Hall opened in 1954. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, some of the oldest AMNH fossil exhibits were retired and replaced during this period. In 1961, the classic geology hall — the oldest exhibit on the fourth floor — became the research library and was closed to regular museum visitors. Its spiritual successor was the new Earth History exhibit, which replaced Osborn’s Hall of the Age of Man. Around the same time, George Gaylord Simpson curated what was colloquially known as the “Sloth Hall.” Occupying the space that was once the Hall of Fossil Reptiles, this exhibit featured ground sloths and glyptodonts, plus a sizable display demonstrating how fossils are collected and prepared. Only the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained ostensibly untouched during this wave of modernization.

The Hall of Advanced Mammals in 1982. Some sections were boarded up but remaining exhibits were virtually unchanged from the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1950s and 60s iterations of the AMNH fossil halls endured for 30 years, making them the longest-lasting versions to date. Displays like the “Brontosaurus” and Tyrannosaurus became immutable symbols for the institution, visited again and again by generations of museum-goers. However, time gradually took its toll. A large section of the Hall of Fossil Mammals was boarded up, since museum staff had removed so many specimens for study or conservation. Railings were eventually added to the Jurassic Hall, because it was too tempting for visitors to join the dinosaurs on the platform, Ke$ha-style.

The Brontosaur Hall in 1988. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Most importantly, the exhibit content became increasingly out-of-date with each passing year. This obsolescence permeated nearly every aspect of the exhibits, from the discussion of the dinosaurs’ extinction to the drab, earth-tone aesthetics. However, the most visibly antiquated elements were the fossil mounts themselves. A new wave of dinosaur research demonstrated that these animals had been active and socially sophisticated, a far cry from the the coldblooded tail-draggers that populated the galleries. AMNH had once been the center of American paleontology, but by the late 1980s its dated displays were lagging far behind newer museums.

Phase VI: 1995 – Present

amnhmap_1995

Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive, $44 million renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits (previously discussed here and here). The original plan was to renovate only the Hall of Fossil Mammals, since it had remained largely unaltered since 1895. Within a year, however, the project had expanded to encompass all six halls on the fourth floor, telling the entire story of vertebrate evolution. Two primary goals originated very early in the planning process. First, the “walk through time” layout would be replaced with one rooted in phylogenetic classification. The cladistic methodology for tracing organisms’ evolutionary history became the central theme that unified the new exhibits. This required a fairly substantial reorganization of existing specimens. The mammals could remain in the same two halls, but the denizens of the Jurassic and Cretaceous halls had to be rearranged to feature Saurischian and Ornithiscian dinosaurs, respectively. Meanwhile, the research library moved to a new location to make way for the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

Advanced Mammals

The Hall of Advanced Mammals was the first renovated exhibit opened to the public. Photo by the author.

The second major goal was to restore the original architecture in each hall, ensuring that both the historic specimens and the spaces they occupied would come “as close to their original grandeur as possible” (Dingus 2006). In many cases original architecture elements — such as the molded ceilings — were still intact behind panels that had been installed over them. These features were painstakingly restored, or when necessary, recreated. Classic decorative elements, from the colonnades to the elegant chandeliers, were reintroduced.

Apatosaurus remount

The updated Apatosaurus in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

The vast majority of the fossil mounts in the renovated exhibits had already been on display for years. Among the classic mounts, only the two most iconic displays were completely overhauled. The restoration of Apatosaurus (formerly “Brontosaurus“) took more than a year. A conservation team led by Jeanne Kelly worked from a temporary wooden scaffold, filling cracks in the aging fossils with epoxy and securing loose joints on the armature. The mount’s torso and legs remained in place throughout the process, but the neck and tail were dismantled and remounted by Phil Fraley’s exhibit company. In addition to a new head, the revised Apatosaurus gained several caudal and cervical vertebrae, extending its total length to 88 feet. Remounting the Tyrannosaurus rex was even more difficult, because the fossils were so fragile. Once again, Phil Fraley was responsible for disassembling and reposing the skeleton. The T. rex now sports a more accurate horizontal posture, and its weight is supported by steel cables extending from the ceiling.

The new fossil mounts are easily recognized by their dynamic poses. In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, the amphibian “Buettneria” (now Koskinonodon) assumes a diving pose, while a Prestosuchus charges with its tail aloft. Among the dinosaurs, a new Deinonychus mount (assembled in part from previously-unidentified historic material) is posed in mid-leap. Finally, the dog-like Amphicyon chases the tiny antelope Ramoceros in the Hall of Advanced Mammals.

hall of ver

In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, a new Koskinodon mount represents the vertebrates’ critical transition to terrestrial life. Photo by the author.

The AMNH fossil halls represent one of the most exhaustively complete fossil collections in the world, but these exhibits ultimately tell two stories. On one hand, we have the story represented by the fossils themselves. The exhibit is an extended genealogy, tracing our origins across 500 million years of deep time. On the other hand, we have the museum’s history, which highlights both the praiseworthy and the ugly sides of 20th century science. It reminds us where our society has been and where it needs to go. Both stories are relevant to each and every person passing through these halls, and laudably, the latest renovation highlights both.

References

Colbert, E.H. (1958). Chalk Murals. Curator 4:10-16.

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Norell, M, Gaffney, E, and Dingus, L. (1995). Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1

Much of what I write for this site starts with an attempt to find one reference or another, only to discover that it does not exist online. This time, I was curious how many times the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls had been renovated, but I quickly found that there was no simple answer.  Unlike the fossil exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, which have occupied the same large hall since the building opened, the AMNH counterparts have been moving and growing for more than 120 years. The museum expanded organically, eventually encompassing 27 interconnected buildings. And as its footprint grew, the paleontology exhibits grew with it.

The following is my attempt to make sense of the fourth floor exhibit halls’ convoluted history. I’ve divided it into six phases, although this should only be considered a rudimentary outline. Many specimens were added and removed during each phase, particularly during the period of frantic expansion in the early 20th century. At the very least, however, this should be enough to contextualize most of the historic photos made available by the AMNH Research Library. As with my NMNH posts, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or scientific discoveries by museum staff, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere. My focus here is solely on the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.

Phase I: 1874 – 1904

amnhmap_1891

AMNH was founded in 1869, although the first buildings in Manhattan Square did not begin construction until 1874. The original structure was designed by architect Calvert Vaux. Since electric lights were not yet available, Vaux created exhibit spaces that maximized the impact of natural lighting. Large windows were divided into slits that paralleled rows of glass display cabinets. The sun would shine through the windows and directly into the cabinets, illuminating the specimens within. When the museum first opened, the single exhibit hall on the fourth floor was dedicated to geology specimens. While this space mostly housed rocks, minerals, and small fossils, a handful of mounted skeletons stood among the cabinets. Early acquisitions included a moa and the Pleistocene deer Megaloceros, shown below.

geology hall with moa

Geology Hall, before 1887. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Things changed radically shortly after Henry Osborn was hired in 1891. As a paleontologist, Osborn emerged from Princeton riding the crest of a wave of goodwill his discipline had enjoyed for most of the 19th century. Paleontology was the darling of American science, and one man in particular, O.C. Marsh of Yale, received generous federal funding to find and describe new fossils from the western interior. In the 1880s, however, an economy-minded Congress pulled that funding. Meanwhile, the rise of experimental biology led to the marginalization of descriptive natural history, including paleontology. The next generation of paleontologists needed a new home for their work, and they found it in museums. AMNH was one of several new museums backed by wealthy benefactors with an interest in public education. These benefactors gravitated toward paleontology because, as Ronald Rainger put it, fossils are “rare, valuable, and visible.” The skeletons of extinct monsters were huge and sensational, and naturally complimented the grandiose neoclassical halls of the nascent museums. But while the paleontology programs at institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum were quite respectable, they all were overshadowed by Osborn’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH.  Osborn’s goal was to make AMNH the center of American vertebrate paleontology in the post-Marsh world, and by most any measure he succeeded.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The next Phase I exhibit was the Hall of Fossil Mammals, which opened to the public in 1895. Osborn’s research was focused on Cenozoic mammals, especially brontotheres, and he tasked his department with assembling a suitably impressive collection. Some of the fossils on display were acquired in an 1897 purchase of Edward Cope’s personal collection. Many others were collected by AMNH staff in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. Among these in-house finds was the famous (and famously misleading) series of fossil horses, most of which were found and prepared by William Matthew. The largest and most captivating mounted skeleton on view was the Warren mastodon. Discovered in 1845 in a bog near Newburgh, New York, this specimen was the first complete mastodon ever found. It was initially described and displayed by Boston-based anatomist John Warren, but Osborn convinced J.P. Morgan to buy it for AMNH in 1906.

Aside from a few shuffled mounts (including the aforementioned mastodon, which seems to have been in nearly every room on the fourth floor), the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained mostly intact for the duration of the 20th century. Shortly after it was completed, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology shifted its focus to dinosaurs. The mammals were only the star attractions for a few short years, but this display would nevertheless endure in its original form for generations.

“Ancestry of Man” case in the Hall of the Age of Man, 1929. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

At this point, it is crucial to mention that Osborn was an objectively lousy scientist, and that much of his work was motivated by a bigoted personal agenda.  He subscribed to an inaccurate orthogenetic (or as he called it, “aristogenetic”) interpretation of evolution, professing that all life forms had their place in a natural hierarchy. According to Osborn, people of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestry were the pinnacle of existence, and he endeavored to turn his flagrantly racist beliefs into public knowledge by way of his exhibits. Nowhere is this clearer than the Hall of the Age of Man, which opened around 1900. This hall included a range of extinct animals that coexisted with early humans, but the central cases were dedicated to Osborn’s unorthodox narrative of human evolution. Hominid fossils were co-opted to illustrate Osborn’s unfounded view that modern human races were evolutionarily distinct, and to communicate his support for eugenics and racial purity. Osborn’s agenda was supported by many of the aristocratic elite that funded the museum, but apparently few of the AMNH research staff endorsed it. Margaret Mead in particular was highly critical of Osborn’s views, and especially his influence over public-facing interpretation.

Phase II: 1905 – 1920

map

Edit: The map above should read “Invertebrate Fossils and Minerals.” 

For all of Osborn’s bigotry and bad science, it’s difficult to imagine the modern museum field without his influence. He was very good at marketing himself and his paleontology program, and he knew how to put on a show that would attract visitors in droves. Osborn heightened the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular fossil mounts in order to make science exciting for a wide audience. Osborn’s devotion to storytelling and drama in the exhibits he curated brought millions of visitors to AMNH and defined public expectations for what museums should offer.

In 1906, Osborn became the fourth president of AMNH, and he oversaw its most rapid period of expansion. As president, he tripled municipal funding for the museum from New York City, and gained plenty more through his connections with wealthy potential donors. Much of this income was funneled into the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology’s famous dinosaur collecting expeditions, in which fossil hunters like Barnum Brown and Walter Granger earned fame and notoriety. However, the pioneering work on fossil preparation and mounting at AMNH was also significant. While many peer institutions were assembling and exhibiting new dinosaur mounts during this period, none matched the output or ambition of AMNH. With the sheer quantity of fossils coming in and institutional pressure to mount them for display as quickly as possible, chief preparator Adam Hermann had no choice but to modernize and professionalize his craft. Hermann developed a sophisticated prep lab with overhead tracks for hoisting heavy fossils, as well as electric and pnuematic hook-ups for power tools. Techniques like sand-blasting, acid preparation, and on-site metalworking developed by Hermann are still standard practice today.

trachodon crowded reptile hall

“Trachodon” pair in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Dinosaurs take up a lot of space, and to accommodate them, a new gallery was opened on the far end of the Hall of Fossil Mammals. This Hall of Fossil Reptiles debuted in 1905 with “Brontosaurus” – the first mounted sauropod ever built – as its centerpiece. Actually a composite of four individuals and many sculpted elements (including the way-off-the-mark head), the “Brontosaurus” took Hermann’s team the better part of six years to construct. After that, the Hall of Fossil Reptiles filled with new dinosaur mounts very quickly, cementing the repuation of AMNH as the place to see dinosaurs. In 1906, Hermann added the “Trachodon” pair. The standing individual came from the Cope collection, but the crouching specimen was excavated that very year by Barnum Brown. The Allosaurus was also a Cope specimen, but apparently the 19th century paleontologist had never unpacked or inspected it. Several years passed before Hermann’s team discovered that the skeleton was remarkably complete, although it was missing a skull. The Allosaurus fossils were mounted in 1908, posed as though feeding on a set of Apatosaurus vertebrae.

crowded reptile hall

Tyrannosaurus stands with Allosaurus and “Brontosaurus” in the increasingly crowded Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Arguably the most important mount added during the early 20th century mounting spree was the Tyrannosaurus rex. This specimen is no less than an icon, and has been a destination attraction in New York for longer than the Empire State Building. When the Tyrannosaurus was unveiled in 1915, it was a sensation, akin to mythical dragon made real. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could stand in the presence of a T. rex, and to this day the image of the classic mount is quintessential to both paleontology and museums in general. For example, you may recognize it from the cover of a certain Michael Crichton novel.

Phase III: 1921 – 1939

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In 1922, the 9th building in the AMNH complex was completed, and the paleontology exhibits expanded into what Osborn called the “Great Hall of Dinosaurs.” The largest dinosaur mounts – including Tyrannosaurus, “Brontosaurus”, “Trachodon”, and Allosaurus – were moved from the comparatively cramped Hall of Fossil Reptiles into this new space. The extra breathing room allowed for the mounts to be clustered into Jurassic and Cretaceous areas on opposite sides of the room. There were also a few new skeletons, including Leptoceratops, Thescelosaurus, and most significantly, Triceratops.

brontosaurus in great dinosaur hall

“Brontosaurus” in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, AMNH fossil collecting efforts had moved from the American West to Mongolia. The primary goal of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions was to find evidence for Osborn’s pseudoscientific ideas about human ancestry, but no such remains were found. Instead, the expedition returned a wealth of new dinosaur fossils, including the first dinosaur nests ever found. Dispatches from the field also drummed up considerable publicity for the New York museum.

great dinosaur hall

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Osborn’s iron-fisted reign over American paleontology lasted until his death in 1933. Unfortunately for the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, Osborn’s activities depended heavily on personal relationships with private donors. With Osborn out of the picture (and the Great Depression at its bottom), those donations dried up. Meanwhile, Osborn’s good standing in the scientific community had begun to wane, and his unorthodox anthropological ideas became something of a joke. The results of internal investigations into Osborn’s less-than-legitimate use of funds and favors during his time as president did not help matters. In 1942 the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work was folded into the Department of Geology with a much smaller budget and fewer staff. The Osborn-era fossil displays at AMNH remained largely unaltered in the years that followed, but only because of the lack of staff time, money, and interest.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this timeline, passing through the era of Edwin Colbert and into the present day. Stay tuned!

References

Brinkman, P.D. (2009). Dinosaurs, Museums, and the Modernization of American Fossil Preparation at the Turn of the 20th Century. Fossil Preparation: Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium 21-34.

Brinkman, P.D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Haraway, D. (1984). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Hermann, A. (1909). Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 56:283-331.

Osborn, H.F. (1921). The Hall of the Age of Man in the American Museum. Nature 107:236-240.

Rainger, R. (1991). An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.

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Filed under AMNH, anthropology, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, reptiles

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

After I posted my slightly critical evaluation of the AMNH fossil halls last month, a reader suggested I take a look at Next of Kin by Lowell Dingus. Dr. Dingus was the project director for the 1995 renovation, and his book chronicles the decade-long process of overhauling these genre-defining exhibits. It also includes plenty of gorgeous photos of the AMNH fossil exhibits past and present. Although out of print, Next of Kin can be found online for next to nothing. If you find anything on this blog interesting, I would call this book required reading. I cannot recommend it enough.

Edwin Colbert designed this version of the Jurassic exhibit in 1956. This space is now the Hall of Saurichian Dinosaurs. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Next of Kin is full of fascinating information about the renovation, and the history of the halls in general. For instance, it was news to me that the original plan in 1987 was to modernize only the two fossil mammal halls. When William Moynihan took over as Director of AMNH the following year, however, he asked in a planning meeting why the dinosaur exhibits weren’t being renovated, and soon the project expanded to include all six halls on the 4th floor. Apparently the approaches to interpretation, aesthetics, and layout that characterize the exhibits today were already fully formed. The concept of a main pathway with branching alcoves representing individual clades was in place, so the exhibit team only needed to set the starting point back a ways to include the dinosaurs and the rest of the vertebrate family tree. Restoring the historic interior architecture, obscured since the 1950s, was also an early priority. Dingus relates how he wanted to eliminate the “black box” look of the midcentury exhibits and let natural light back into the halls. In my opinion, the well-lit, airy aesthetic is one of the standout features of the AMNH fossil halls, and one other museums might do well to emulate.

Dingus also points out a number of clever design choices that I missed during my last visit to the museum. For instance, the primate section was deliberately placed in the center of the mammal hall, to avoid the implications of directed evolution and human superiority that once marked the AMNH exhibits. Another cool feature is the use of minimalist metal armatures to suggest the size and shape of animals for which only limited material is available. This is an artful way to convey the dimensions of these species without resorting to fabricating most of the skeleton. Again, this is something I’d love to see more of at other museums.

Photo by the author.

Minimalist armatures suggest the size and shape of incomplete specimens. Photo by the author.

Still, I was most interested in reading Dingus’s rationale for the design and layout of the AMNH fossil halls. In my previous post, I argued that the phylogenetic arrangement was a worthwhile experiment, but in practice it may not be the most practical way to make the history of life meaningful to the museum’s primary audience. More than any other organizational scheme, phylogeny is the way biologists think about the natural world, and I applaud the effort to encourage visitors to look at fossils the way scientists do. However, even the most basic elements of evolutionary classification are specialized knowledge, and require a daunting amount of up-front explanation (especially when targeting multiple age groups). I don’t think this integrates well with the multi-entrance, non-linear exhibit space at AMNH.

During the initial planning stages of the AMNH renovation, Dingus and other staff toured several large-scale paleontology exhibits in North America and Europe. Dingus clearly did not like what he saw, lamenting that “some institutions rely heavily on easy-to-understand, anecdotal labels and robotic recreations of dinosaurs that appeal to the lowest common denominator of visitor intellect.” He rejected the “prominent contemporary school of exhibit design that advocates only giving the visitor what he or she asks for,” feeling strongly that his institution could do better. Referring to the renovation as a “scientific crusade,” Dingus was inspired to challenge his audience in a way that peer institutions did not. Dingus and his colleagues wanted to show visitors the real science behind paleontological reconstructions. The phylogeny-based arrangement was central to that goal, emphasizing rigorous anatomical analysis and empiricism in a field historically characterized by idle speculation.

Age of Man

The orientation hall is in the oldest of the 4th floor exhibit spaces. Until the 1960s, this space was occupied by the Hall of the Age of Man. Photo from Dingus 1996.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of this. There was a period in the 80s and 90s (I think the worst is behind us) when the trend toward visitor-focused, educational exhibits got mixed up with a push to make museums more competitive with other leisure activities. Customer enjoyment was valued above all else, even if it meant sacrificing the informative content and access to real specimens that made museums worthwhile institutions in the first place. The resulting displays were filled with paltry nonsense like simulators, pointless computer terminals, and the aforementioned robot dinosaurs*. These exhibits imitated amusement parks, but with only a fraction of the budget they quickly fell into disrepair and technological obsolescence. Despite being museums’ most important and unique resources, curators and research staff found themselves increasingly divorced from their institutions’ public faces.

*Fine, I admit robot dinosaurs are cool. But I’d prefer that they weren’t in museums.

Under these circumstances, a backlash is quite understandable. Nevertheless, it is a common mistake (which I am by no means accusing Dingus of making!) that a visitor-centered exhibit is the same as a frivolous one. When educators push for audience-focused exhibits, they have the same goal as curators: to communicate as much content as possible. Audience-focused exhibits aren’t about dumbing down or eliminating content. They’re about presenting content in a way that effectively reaches the museum’s diverse audience. The AMNH fossil halls would work well for an informed adult visitor with ample time to inspect every specimen and read every label. But this is not the typical audience for natural history museums, and unless AMNH is a major outlier, it’s not the core audience for these exhibits. Most visitors come in mixed-aged groups. The trip to the museum is a social experience, and interactions occur among visitors as much as they occur between visitors and the exhibits. The best museums anticipate and meet the needs of these visitors in order to provide a quality learning experience.

ponies

An updated version of the classic (and classically misleading) horse evolution exhibit. Photo by the author.

It’s admittedly fun to share horror stories about dumb comments overheard in museums. Who in this field hasn’t rolled their eyes at the parent who makes up an answer to their child’s question, when the correct information is on the sign right in front of them? And yet, some of the blame for this failed educational encounter should fall on the museum. Why was that parent unable to spot the relevant information with a quick glace? Can we design signage so that the most important information is legible on the move, or from across the room? Can we correct commonly misunderstood concepts in intuitive ways?

As Dingus argues, it’s important to aim high in the amount of information we want to convey. There’s nothing worse than a condescending teacher. But a carefully-honed message in common language will always be more successful than a textbook on the wall. Happily, this is the way the wind is blowing these days. In a strong reversal of the situation a decade ago, curators now work closely with educators on the front lines to produce exhibits that are both accessible and intellectually challenging. It’s been 20 years since AMNH opened the latest version of its fossil exhibits…perhaps a new and even better iteration is already on its way!

Reference

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

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