Category Archives: collections

National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under collections, education, field work, museums, opinion, science communication

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

In April 2014, the paleontology exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History closed for a wall-to-wall renovation. The re-imagined National Fossil Hall will reopen in 2019. We are now approaching the halfway point of this journey, which seems like a fine time to say farewell to some of the more charismatic specimens that are being rotated off display.

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster. Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers. Retired specimens are of course not going far – they have been relocated to the collections where students and scientists can study them as needed.

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon is the largest single specimen that is being retired from the NMNH fossil halls. James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona, during the same 1921 collecting trip that produced the museum’s Glyptotherium (which will be returning). While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

There are at least two reasons the Stegomastodon will not be returning in 2019. First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires. More importantly, the Stegomastodon is a holotype specimen, and the exhibit team elected to remove most of these important specimens from the public halls. This is both to keep them safe from the damaging effects of vibration, humidity, and fluctuating temperature, as well as to make them more accessible to researchers.

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

During the 1960s, Assistant Curator Clayton Ray oversaw the construction of the short-lived Quaternary Hall, which was reworked into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals. This meant creating a number of brand-new mounts, including several animals from the Rancho La Brea Formation in Los Angeles County. La Brea fossils are not found articulated, but as a jumble of individual elements preserved in asphalt. The Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided NMNH with an assortment of these bones, which preparator Leroy Glenn assembled into two dire wolves, a saber-toothed cat, and the sheep cow-sized sloth Paramylodon.

Paramylodon is another cut for the sake of eliminating redundancy: the two colossal Eremotherium completely overshadow this more-modestly sized sloth. This mount also needed some TLC. For aesthetic reasons, the Paramylodon was given an internal armature, which involves drilling holes through each of the bones. Last year, preparator Alan Zdinak took on the task of disassembling and conserving these damaged fossils with assistance from Michelle Pinsdorf.

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)

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Zygorhiza cast in the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery. Source

When the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery opened in 1990, it featured a historic Basilosaurus skeleton that had been on display since the 1890s. This ancestral whale was relocated to the Ocean Hall in 2008, and a cast of the smaller whale Zygorhiza took its place in Life in the Ancient Seas. Since there is now an extensive whale evolution exhibit in Ocean Hall, this subject will not be a major part of the new paleontology exhibit. Both Zygorhiza and the dolphin Eurhinodelphis will have to go.

After the old fossil halls closed, Smithsonian affiliate Mark Uhen managed to acquire the retired Zygorhiza mount for George Mason University, where he is a professor. The whale is now on display in the Exploratory Hall atrium, suspended 30 feet in the air.

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

The tapir Hyrachyus and the mini-horse Orohippus. Photo by the author.

The last two major renovations of the NMNH fossil exhibits occurred when mammal specialists were in charge of the Paleobiology Department, and as a result the halls ended up with a lot of Cenozoic mammal mounts (at least 50, by my count). Virtually every major group was covered, often several times over. This menagerie has been culled for the new hall, which will focus on specimens that best tell the story of Earth’s changing climate during the past 66 million years. Casualties include the trio of Hagerman’s horses, the smaller horse Orohippus, the tapirs Hyrachyus and Helaletes, the ruminant Hypertragulus, and the oreodont Merycoidodon. Interestingly, the classic hall’s three large rhinos are sticking around, and will in fact be joined by at least one more.

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The pocket-sized ceratopsian historically called Brachyceratops has been on display at NMNH since 1922. Discovered in 1913 by Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, this animal is one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described, and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. Assembled by Norman Boss, the mount is actually a composite of five individuals Gilmore found together in northeast Montana.

Gilmore described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, but in 1997 Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed that all five specimens were juveniles. Unfortunately, the fossils lack many diagnostic features that could link them to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus. Nevertheless, without the ability to recognize other growth stages of the same species, the name Brachyceratops is unusable and is generally regarded as a nomen dubium.

It is not difficult to surmise why the Brachyceratops would end up near the bottom of the list of specimens for the new exhibit. It is not especially large or impressive, it doesn’t have a recognizable name (or any proper name at all, really) and it doesn’t tell a critical story about evolution or deep time. With limited space available and new specimens being prepped for display, little Brachyceratops will have to go.

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

Corythosaurus as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History launched the first of several expeditions to the Red Deer River region of Alberta. Seeing Brown’s success and under pressure to prevent the Americans from hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian Geological Survey assembled their own team of fossil collectors in 1912. This group was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who was accompanied by his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. Having secured several articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons, Brown’s team moved on five years later. The Sternbergs, however, remained at the Red Deer River, and continued to collect specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In 1933, Levi discovered a well-preserved back end of a Corythosaurus, complete with impressions of its pebbly skin. The Smithsonian purchased this specimen in 1937 for use at the Texas Centennial Exposition. It eventually found its way into the permanent paleontology exhibit at NMNH. Unfortunately, the half-Corythosaurus ended up crowded behind more eye-catching displays and was often overlooked by visitors. In the new exhibit, it will have to move aside to make room for new Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

Original skull of Hatcher the Triceratops, one of many dinosaur skulls coming off exhibit. Photo by the author.

In addition to complete dinosaur mounts, the old NMNH fossil halls included several dinosaur skulls, ranging from the giant cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus to the miniscule Bagaceratops. Most of these standalone skulls have been cut, although a few (Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Centrosaurus) are sticking around, to say nothing of new specimens being added. Other retirees in this category include the original skulls of Nedoceratops (labeled Diceratops), TriceratopsEdmontosaurus, and Corythosaurus, as well as casts of Protoceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegoceras, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae.

As usual, the reasons these specimens are coming off exhibit are varied. The Nedoceratops skull is a one-of-a-kind holotype that has been the subject of a great deal of conflicting research over its identity and relevance to Maastrichtian ceratopsian diversity. Putting this specimen back in the hands of scientists should help clarify what this bizarre creature actually is. Meanwhile, many of the other skulls (e.g. Protoceratops, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae) come from Asian taxa. In the new fossil hall, the Mesozoic displays will primarily focus on a few well-known ecosystems in North America.

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The NMNH Dolichorhynchops is a relatively new mount. It was collected in Montana in 1977 and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared it for display in 1987. 24 years later, “Dolly” is being retired to the collections. This is not due to anything wrong with the specimen, but to make way for a bigger, cooler short-necked plesiosaur. NMNH purchased a cast of Rhomaleosaurus from the Henry Ward Natural Science Establishment in the 1890s, but it has not been on exhibit since at least 1910. This cast, which is based on an original at the National Museum of Ireland (and which is identical to the cast at the London Natural History Museum) will make its first public appearance in over a century in the new National Fossil Hall. Sorry, Dolichorhynchops.

This has hardly been a comprehensive list – just a few examples that illustrate the decisions that are made when planning a large-scale exhibit. If you are curious about other favorites from the old halls, you can check on their fate by searching the Department of Paleobiology’s online database. Just go to Search by Field and enter “Deep Time” under Collection Name to see most of the specimens earmarked for the new exhibit.

References

Gidley, J.W. 1925. Fossil Proboscidea and Edentata of the San Pedro Valley, Arizona. Shorter Contributions to General Geology (USGS). Professional Paper 140-B, pp. 83-95.

Gilmore, C.W. 1922. The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, BrachyceratopsProceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

Gilmore, C.W.  1941. A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 90.

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.

McDonald, A.T. 2011. A Subadult Specimen of Rubeosaurus ovatus(Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae), with Observations on other Ceratopsids from the Two Medicine Formation. PLoS ONE 6:8.

Sampson, S.D., Ryan, M.J. and Tanke, D.H. 1997. Craniofacial Ontogeny in Centrosaurine Dinosaurs: Taxonomic and Behavioral Implications. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 12:1:293-337.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods

A Game Changer?

Today, Google and 60 partner museums unveiled the new natural history arm of the Google Cultural Institute. Launched in 2011, the Cultural Institute is an effort to make culturally significant material accessible online. Up until this point, the primary focus has been on art and history. In conjunction with museums and other institutions around the world, Google has been uploading millions of images, archival documents, and virtual walkthroughs of significant places. The natural history project offers more of the same, but with 100% more dinosaurs.

I had no idea this was in the works, nor do I know much beyond what is said in the press release. After spending much of this morning exploring the site, however, you can color me impressed. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming: 300,000 annotated specimen photos, virtual walkthroughs of 50 museums, and 184 multimedia presentations on topics both general (cabinets of curiosities) and esoteric (native plants and fish of Korea). Unfortunately, accessing this content can be a bit of a chore. I was often confused by the user interface, and found many of the most interesting or useful items by accident.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Google Cultural Institute

For me, the museum walkthroughs are the clear highlight. Using Google’s Street View technology, users can explore the included museums and get surprisingly close to individual displays. Some of these “virtual tours” are frustratingly limited to a few corridors between exhibits, but others provide darn near the full experience of actually being there. Of the museum walkthroughs I’ve looked at so far, the National Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde are particular standouts in this regard. A handful of museums have had virtual tours available online since at least the early 2000s, but this is the first time I’ve seen the concept escape the gimmick stage and become something potentially useful.

The quality of the multimedia presentations (“virtual exhibits”, if you must) is a bit mixed. The best ones make specific use of the partner museums’ collections, highlighting the scientific, cultural, or historical significance of particular objects. These presentations provide curatorial expertise and novel insights that are not easily found elsewhere. Other presentations, however, are frustratingly generalized, and don’t include much content that one couldn’t get from skimming a Wikipedia article.

yawn, another cgi sauropod. I'd rather see the mount.

Yet another middling CGI dinosaur. Yay, I guess? Google Cultural Institute

I would include the site’s flagship attractions – narrated 360-degree tours of selected exhibit halls – in the second camp. These three short videos each feature an exhibit that “comes to life” with the help of some acceptable-but-not-spectacular CGI. Take the video about the Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde. It’s awesome to be able to look all around the hall, but most of the video is taken up by an animated version of the dinosaur that doesn’t accomplish anything it’s Jurassic Park counterpart didn’t 23 years ago. The video starts to tell some interesting stories – convergent evolution between sauropods and giraffes, the rate of extinction caused by human activities far outpaces normal background extinction – but the goofy CGI Giraffatitan is very much in the way. Museums have so many strengths, so I’ll never understand the impulse to rely on things like animated dinosaurs that a) their audience can see elsewhere and b) Hollywood will always be able to do better.

A great deal of content to be found by the bold.

A great deal of content can be found by the bold. Google Cultural Institute

All in all, the new natural history project at the Google Cultural Institute is a very impressive starting point. Nevertheless, my optimism is tempered by the fact that the web is littered with apps and mini-websites developed by museums, then almost immediately abandoned. Too often, digital projects are taken on without a clear idea of who will continue to update it, what need is being addressed, or even who the website or app is for. The real test will be whether Google and the partner museums will continue to support the Cultural Institute with new content. This has been a recurring problem with museums’ digital endeavors, but perhaps the collaboration with Google (and its extensive infrastructure) will help.

Moreover, accessibility is an admirable goal, but there is a very wide gap between putting stuff online and creating something that lots of people (teachers, students, people who don’t live near museums) actually want to use. I’m encouraged by the range of material on the Cultural Institute site. Some content is fairly general, perhaps suitable for a 3rd grade science report, while other content is far more in-depth. I will be very curious to see what the public ends up using, and for what purpose. It would also be neat to see if this ended up being the start of a truly global digital collection, useful for educators and researchers alike. We’ll see if the Cultural Institute ends up being the catalyst that finally makes digital museums happen!

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, museums, sauropods, science communication

The Carnegie Quarry Diaspora

About 150 million years ago, a severe drought ravaged the western interior of North America. In eastern Utah, malnourished dinosaurs gathered near a dwindling river. Unwilling or unable to leave the water source, they eventually died of thirst or disease. When rain finally returned to the region, three or four successive flash floods washed dozens of animal carcasses into a relatively small depositional area to the southeast. Today, this site is known as the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, and it is one of the most incredible fossil sites in the world.

Dinosaur National Monument interns collect data on the quarry wall.

Dinosaur National Monument interns collect data on the quarry wall. Source

Today, a structure encompassing a 180-foot section of the deposit (less than half its total length) allows visitors to view nearly 1400 dinosaur bones in situ. However, the fossils on display at Dinosaur National Monument represent only a portion of the material found at the Carnegie Quarry. Between the site’s discovery in 1908 and the establishment of the quarry wall exhibit, more than 20 reasonably complete dinosaur skeletons and dozens more incomplete specimens were excavated and distributed to museums in the US and Canada. No less than eleven mounted skeletons have been created from this material, and they are all still on display today. Although they are thousands of miles from their place of discovery and exhibited in four different cities, these mounts all represent individuals that lived and died in the same environment. They may have even encountered each other in life!

The Discovery

Earl Douglass was already an established fossil hunter when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History hired him in 1902. Late in the 1909 field season, Douglass was prospecting near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers when he spotted a series of sauropod vertebrae eroding out of the rocks. Once Douglass and his crew began excavating the fossils, it became apparent that they had not just one remarkably complete dinosaur, but several. Douglass called it a “beautiful sight,” and CMNH director William Holland could barely contain his glee in his reports back to the Pittsburgh museum. Under Douglass’s management, CMNH crews worked at what became known as the Carnegie Quarry for 13 years. The dinosaur fossils were jumbled and often overlaid one another, so the excavators had to work on multiple skeletons simultaneously. The especially hard sandstone also slowed their work, and the team regularly resorted to huge horse-drawn plows and even dynamite to reach the fossils. Eventually railway tracks were installed to help transport blocks of sandstone out of the quarry.

In 1915, Holland successfully petitioned Woodrow Wilson to preserve the site as a national monument. CMNH crews continued to excavate until early 1923. At that point, their primary benefactor Andrew Carnegie had died, and funding for field work was dwindling. Other museums collected from the quarry periodically in the years that followed, but Douglass’s idea to contain the remaining fossils in an on-site museum was not realized until 1958.

The Mounts

CMNH

CMNH Apatosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo source.

Apatosaurus louisae – CM 3018

The CMNH Apatosaurus was the first dinosaur discovered at the Carnegie Quarry. After Douglass first spotted the articulated caudal vertebrae in August of 1909, his crew spent several months extracting the rest of the skeleton from the rocks. The excavation continued into early 1910, and by the time they were finished they had the most complete Apatosaurus ever found – a title the specimen holds to this day. Holland mounted the 77-foot skeleton alongside the museum’s Diplodocus in just three years, at the time a record for a sauropod mount.

Holland famously left his Apatosaurus headless for decades due to a disagreement with Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History. Douglass recovered a skull that almost certainly belonged to the Apatosaurus, but Holland opted not to use it because it contradicted the sculpted head already in place on the AMNH Apatosaurus mount. After Holland’s death in 1932, museum staff quietly added a casted Camarasaurus skull as a placeholder. This was finally replaced with a proper Apatosaurus skull in 1979. More recently, the team at Phil Fraley Productions disassembled and restored the Apatosaurus, along with the rest of the classic CMNH dinosaurs. Since 2007, this specimen has been back on display in a more graceful modern pose.

Fancy fisheye photo.

AMNH Barosaurus. Source

Barosaurus lentus – AMNH 6341

When the CMNH team discovered this skeleton in 1912, they assumed it was yet another specimen of the well-known Diplodocus. It was harvested for parts, with portions sent to CMNH, the United States National Museum, and the University of Utah to supplement their displays. When the specimen turned out to be the more obscure sauropod Barosaurus, it languished in pieces for many years. Barnum Brown of AMNH was making a circuit of the fossil collections at various natural history museums when he rediscovered this specimen. Through a series of purchases and trades, the Barosaurus was reunited at AMNH in 1929.

Nevertheless, AMNH quickly abandoned plans to mount the Barosaurus – the museum already had a sauropod on display, and there wasn’t enough floor space for another one. It wouldn’t go on display until 1991, when Lowell Dingus conceived of the idea to mount the Barosaurus in a spectacular rearing pose as part of the renovation of the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. Peter May took on the project – one of the first mounts produced by his company Research Casting International. The resulting display, actually a cast, is the tallest free-standing dinosaur mount in the world.

ROM Barosaurus.

ROM Barosaurus. Source

Barosaurus lentus – ROM 3670

Douglass recovered a second partial Barosaurus skeleton in 1912, which consisted of a mostly complete torso and parts of each leg. It stayed in the CMNH collections for many years, until they traded it to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1962. ROM staff intended to mount the skeleton, but once again this was cancelled due to a lack of space. David Evans was developing a new ROM paleontology exhibit in 2007 when he learned that the museum had most of a Barosaurus sitting in its collections. With only weeks remaining before the exhibit’s opening, Evans tapped Research Casting International to mount the sauropod, supplemented with a replica neck and tail from the AMNH version.

Allosaurus fragilis – CM 11844

Several Allosaurus specimens are known from the Carnegie Quarry, but the one on display at CMNH is one of the largest. Douglass and his team excavated this 35-foot skeleton between 1913 and 1915. The mount was built in 1938. Although the specimen included a partial skull, the exhibit team swapped it with a cast of a more complete skull (also found in the Carnegie Quarry) from the collections of the University of Utah. This mount also includes casts of the arms of USNM 4734, an Allosaurus collected for O.C. Marsh.

Stegosaurus ungulatus – CM 11341

The CMNH Stegosaurus is a composite of several individuals excavated from the Carnegie Quarry between 1920 and 1922. Museum staff completed the 21 foot-long mount in 1940, using a skull cast from USNM 8612. Casts of this skeleton were distributed to several other museums at some point, one of which is on display at the University of Nebraska State Museum. Phil Fraley’s company remounted the CMNH original in 2007.

Carnegie Camarasaurus.

Carnegie Camarasaurus. Source

Camarasaurus lentus – CM 11338

This juvenile Camarasaurus is the most complete sauropod ever found. It is displayed as a relief mount almost exactly as it was discovered, with two exceptions. The left leg was swapped with a more complete one from another individual, and the tail was re-positioned to create a more aesthetically pleasing mount. Casts of this skeleton are displayed at museums throughout the United States, including Dinosaur National Monument, but the original is at CMNH. This specimen is also notable because its left scapula is preserved in its life position, making it a helpful model for skeletal reconstructions and exhibit mounts.

NMNH Camarasaurus. Photo by the author.

NMNH Camarasaurus. Photo by the author.

Camarasaurus lentus – USNM 13786

The second best Camarasaurus also comes from Carnegie Quarry, but it is a considerably larger individual. Only the tail and a few odds and ends were missing. CMNH kept the specimen for several years before trading it to USNM in 1933 for a set of Pliocene horse skeletons. Norman Boss prepared the specimen in full view of the public during the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition – one of the first known examples of such an exhibit. The completed mount appeared at USNM in the 1950s, sporting the tail of another Camarasaurus. At over 30 feet long, this skeleton is one of the largest dinosaurs on display at the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the death pose somewhat limits the effect. The Camarasaurus was taken off exhibit in late 2014 for conservation and remounting. When it returns, it will be standing on its feet for the first time in 150 million years, taking its rightful place as one of the museum’s most impressive dinosaurs.

DMNH Diplodocus. Source

DMNH Diplodocus. Source

Diplodocus longus – DMNH 1494

Since this Dipldodocus was found somewhat disarticulated, Douglass suggested that the carcass may have been twisted apart while rolling downstream. AMNH held on to this skeleton for some time before trading it to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 1936 for two mammoth skeletons. Preparator Phillip Reinheimer mounted the skeleton with the help of 40 workers assigned to the museum through the Works Progress Administration. Additional Diplodocus fossils collected by William DeWeese (actually the first dinosaur specimens acquired by the museum) were also used to complete the mount. The Diplodocus remained on view until 1989, when Ken Carpenter and others restored and remounted the sauropod, elevating its tail and making its neck sweep gracefully to the left. The improved mount has been on display since 1995.

CMNH Camptosaurus.

CMNH Camptosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo source.

Camptosaurus aphanoecetes – CM 11337

Douglass found this controversial small ornithopod in 1922, and correctly matched it with an isolated leg several feet away. It was first identified as Camptosaurus medius, but in 2008 Ken Carpenter reassigned it to the new species C. aphanoecetes. A 2011 phylogenic study by Andrew McDonald moved this specimen to a new genus, Uteodon. Carpenter, however, asserts that McDonald’s analysis was based on an incorrectly associated Dryosaurus braincase.

CMNH staff assembled the fossils into a relief mount in 1940. The skull, hindfeet, and tail were all sculpted. During the 2007 renovation, the Phil Fraley Productions team extracted the fossils from the plaster slab, even managing to preserve the delicate ossified dorsal tendons. They then created a new, three-dimensional mount, which features a revised replica skull.

Modern photo by the author.

CMNH Dryosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo by the author.

Dryosaurus altus – CM 3392

This Dryosaurus skeleton is the most complete of several collected at Dinosaur National Monument. The tail is missing, and given the completeness of the rest of the skeleton it may well have been destroyed when Douglass’s crew was blasting through rock to get to the bone layer. The Dryosaurus entered the CMNH collections in 1922, and was assembled as a 9 foot-long relief mount in 1940. In 2007, Fraley’s team removed the fossils from the plaster matrix, and just as they did with the Camptosaurus, constructed a standing mount. To date, this is the only mounted Dryosaurus specimen in the world. It is displayed alongside a juvenile Ceratosaurus cast acquired from Western Paleontological Laboratories.

National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

NMNH Diplodocus. Photo by the author.

Diplodocus sp. – USNM 10865

The National Museum of Natural History’s Diplodocus was one of the last articulated skeletons removed from the Carnegie Quarry. When the CMNH crew closed up shop, Charles Gilmore of the Smithsonian moved in to recover one of the sauropod skeletons Douglass left behind. In 1923, Gilmore’s team excavated a partial Diplodocus, and also cherry-picked a few extra bones from an adjacent specimen. The process of mounting the skeleton at USNM took six years of continuous work, and Gilmore would later describe it as the most ambitious undertaking his department hadever attempted. The 70-foot Diplodocus mount was completed in 1931, and remained unchanged for more than 80 years. It was finally taken down in December 2014, and will return in a new pose in 2019.

Addendum: Mike Taylor recently called attention to a gorgeous map of the entire deposit prepared by Ken Carpenter, which was what prompted this post. Check it out here.

References

Carpenter, K. (2013). History, Sedimentology, and Taphonomy of the Carnegie Quarry, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 81:3:153-232.

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

Gilmore, C.W. (1941). “A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 90.

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.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, collections, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

In Defense of New Museums

As a museum* educator, I work with two kinds of experts: researchers who create knowledge and education specialists who disseminate knowledge. Both groups have ostensibly the same mission, which is to effectively communicate credible information about the world around us. Generally, both sides collaborate effectively, due in no small part to a shared enthusiasm for their work. But there is one issue (that has been raging for decades) in which researchers and educators frequently seem to be shouting past each other, complaining about what one another are doing wrong but not making much progress in reconciling their priorities. This issue is, of course, “new museum” exhibit aesthetics, the trend toward replacing traditional academically-oriented displays of specimens with dynamic, interactive leaning experiences that use specimens alongside interactive activities and multimedia to communicate specific educational messages to a broad audience.

*When I say museum, I mean natural history or science museum. Art museums are a completely different beast, and one I won’t pretend to understand.

From the perspective of many researchers and certain sets of museum-goers, these newer exhibits are frivolous lowest-common-denominator attractions better suited to amusement parks than serious institutions. For example, in a recent Tetrapod Zoology review of the London Natural History Museum’s Extinction exhibit, Darren Naish criticizes computer-based interactive exhibits because they “take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile” and “give visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience.” Likewise, an all-encompassing rant about new museums can be found in this (admittedly 6 year old) post by Matt Wedel, which is well worth a read (seriously, read it now and then come back to this).

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1600s: all  of the specimens, not much else.

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1800s: ALL OF THE SPECIMENS.

But in direct contrast to Wedel’s insistence that the intrinsic value of real specimens is all museum-goers want or need, there are editorials like this one by James Durston, which I will charitably describe as provocative. Durston tells us that museums that only display artifacts for their own sake are “classrooms made of cold granite, the only sense of life emerging from the tourists.” He argues that most objects on display in museums don’t matter as much to visitors as museum workers think they do, and pleads for more context and more reason to care.

So what’s the deal? Are modern museums too focused on providing context for their collections, or not focused enough? Let me begin by explaining why modern museum exhibits look the way they do. A century ago, or even 50 years ago, exhibits were arranged and labels were written almost exclusively by expert curators. These exhibits were, by and large, created with an audience of “interested people” in mind, meaning either other experts or clientele with enough leisure time to learn the jargon presented to them. The majority of visitors who came through the door were not directly catered to, because exhibits were considered an afterthought to the real work of the museum: research and collections management.

In the past 30 years, however, the museum field has decided that it can do better. Museums shifted from inwardly focused, primarily academic institutions into focal points for lifelong learning that operate in service to a wide community of visitors. Go to the website of your favorite museum and check out their mission statement (it should be pretty easy to find). I just did, and the mission of the National Museum of Natural History is to “increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture, through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.” Note that the museum doesn’t seek to increase knowledge and inspire learning just for a core audience of studious, well-read people, but for everyone. That means the museum needs to offer content that is interesting to all sorts of people, whether they learn best by reading and absorbing information, by physically doing something, by making choices for themselves or by discussing an issue with others. Preserving  and studying collections is no less important than in museums of yore, but these activities are understood to be in service of providing knowledge to the widest possible audience.

This shift in focus has inspired museum exhibits with more explicit educational goals, as well as attempts to create learning experiences that reach visitors other than those already keyed in to the customary language of academia. Drawing heavily on Gardner’s multiple intelligences, modern exhibits are intended to cater to diverse audiences that learn in a variety of different ways. In particular, hands-on mini experiments and computer-based games have become staples in science exhibits in order to reach visitors who learn better by doing than by observing. These interactive elements (we just call them interactives in the biz) are not appealing to everyone, but museums serve a broad community and have no business being exclusionary in the services they provide.

Beyond any moral or educational imperative, however, modern museums must be accessible because they are nonprofit institutions that rely heavily on public funds. They are funded based on the promise that they will provide educational resources for their communities, and that means serving more than a small subset of the population. Furthermore, ever-tightening budgets mean that museums need to be strictly managed. Educators have no choice but to establish clear standards of success for their exhibits, and to develop means to track attendance and audience engagement. Just to keep our jobs and keep museum doors open, we need to be able to clearly articulate who we are serving, how we are benefiting them and how we know.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $90 million new museum extravaganza.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $50 million new museum extravaganza.

If it was not clear, I absolutely agree with the goals behind new museum design. As  was argued in the American Alliance of Museums’ 1984 “Museums for a New Century” commission report, “if collections are the heart of museums, what we have come to call education – the commitment to presenting objects and ideas an an informative and stimulating way – is the spirit.” General audiences can certainly experience awe and wonder when presented with neat stuff, but museums can and should provide more than that. A hundred birds from around the world look impressive on a shelf, but they are much more interesting when the viewer understands the evolutionary processes and biogeography that produced such diversity. A little bit of context goes a long way to making such an exhibit is accessible and valuable to the widest possible audience.

In practice, however, I will concede that many attempts at broadening the appeal of natural history exhibits are pretty bad. Some modern museum exhibits use technology in terrible ways, and many attempts to increase interactivity are bafflingly pointless or even counterproductive. For instance, a dinosaur exhibit I visited earlier this year includes a green-screen stage where visitors can place themselves in a scene with dinosaurs running around. The result is not only painfully dated, but it has no educational purpose and may well encourage people to think that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed. Likewise, an exhibit on human evolution features a glorified photo booth that makes visitors’ faces look like other hominids. This non-educational attraction is consistently the most popular element of the gallery, distracting visitors from the fantastic displays and specimens all around it. More generally, an increasing number of exhibits are incorporating profoundly pointless touch-screen computers that let visitors browse photos of the specimens on display right in front of them. Just because an exhibit element is hands-on doesn’t mean it is actually helping visitors interact with exhibit content.

One reason lousy interactives keep being designed is that our evaluation procedures* are not always great at separating good exhibits from appealing ones. A good interactive provides informative content in an engaging way, while an appealing one is engaging but lacking in content. Many visitors may speak highly of just-appealing interactives, but that doesn’t mean these belong in museums. The aforementioned budget woes are also a factor here: interactives that draw crowds for any reason are a big help when scrounging for ways to fund research and preservation. There are tough calls to make when deciding between what visitors most want to see and what is actually worthy of an educational institution. There are no easy answers, especially when museums are consistently hurting for funding.

*Do note, however, that actually testing whether exhibits are meeting their educational goals has finally become commonplace…for far too long museum workers just assumed anything they made was good enough.

Nevertheless, when an interactive display works, when visitors’ eyes light up with understanding by working out a scientific problem for themselves, the process is absolutely worthwhile. Earlier this year, I raved about the low-tech brilliance of an activity in the Academy of Natural Sciences that let visitors physically act out the difference in upright and sprawling gaits. And the NMNH Human Origins exhibit features a fantastic computer game where visitors play the part of a future world leader and experience firsthand the challenges and consequences of overpopulation, food shortage and invasive species. Exhibit interactives, both technology-based and otherwise, are difficult to pull off, and many museums have failed at the task. But we owe it to our visitors to try.

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Filed under collections, education, exhibits, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

The Gilmore Models: Where are they now?

Regular readers of this site (if there are any) undoubtedly know Charles Whitney Gilmore as the Smithsonian paleontologist who, between 1903 and 1964, led in the creation of most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that remain on display at the National Museum of Natural History today. You don’t necessarily have to be in Washington, DC to see Gilmore’s reconstructions, however. In addition to being an expert anatomist and fossil preparator, Gilmore was a formidable sculptor, and during his tenure at the Smithsonian he produced a number of gorgeous life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. Plaster copies of these models were gifted or sold to large and small museums in North America and Europe, including the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. These models were typically displayed alongside isolated fossil elements to give a sense of the entire animal at institutions where complete mounts were unfeasible.

Gilmore with Diplodocus vertebrae.

Charles Gilmore, or Chucky G, as he was known to his friends.

Unfortunately, many of the museums that acquired copies of Gilmore’s models in the 1920s and 30s seem to have lost the detailed provenance of these acquisitions (not a rare occurrence, as museums must track literally millions of objects and historic records on paper do not always survive). The Hunterian Museum has the best records regarding these models that I am aware of, and incidentally their online catalog is the source of most of the photographs in this post.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

While Gilmore’s models are obviously far from accurate by modern standards, a closer inspection reveals that Gilmore was familiar with every inch of the fossils in his care, and put that knowledge to use in his sculptures. The Stegosaurus above, for instance, is a perfect match for Gilmore’s full-sized mount in terms of pose and proportion. Undoubtedly, physically assembling an actual skeleton is among the best ways to become familiar with how an animal would work in three dimensions. In particular, note that unlike many contemporary reconstructions, Gilmore did not fudge the number or position of the plates; they’re all accounted for.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Triceratops model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

The Triceratops model exhibits a number of interesting choices. The classic bowed ceratopsian forelimbs (which Gilmore first proposed after finding no other way to articulate them in his 1905 Triceratops mount) are clearly in evidence, but my eye is drawn to the scrawny, lizard-like hindlimbs. Comparing this model to Gilmore’s mount, there would appear to be virtually no muscle back there. The size of the head is yet another remnant of the mounting process. Since his Triceratops mount was a composite of numerous specimens, Gilmore used the skull of an inappropriately small animal, and apparently carried the chimeric proportions to this sculpture. The lack of cheeks and extremely thick neck are also characteristic of older ceratopsian reconstructions, although I can’t comment on precisely when or why that look went out of style.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Diplodocus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

This Diplodocus has a much more defined shape than most mid-century sauropod reconstructions. Note in particular the sloping back, which peaks at the sacrum. This differs from the 1907 Diplodocus mount at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which had a completely horizontal spinal column. When Gilmore led the creation of the Smithsonian Diplodocus mount, he had the opportunity to use a vertebral column that was found articulated in situ, and was thus able to more accurately portray the shape of the animal’s midsection.

Ceratosaurus
Ceratosaurus. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Gilmore’s Ceratosaurus is the liveliest of the set, and is the only one that doesn’t strictly adhere to the pose of a corresponding fossil mount. Delivering a killing blow to a hapless ornithopod, one can easily imagine the energetic pounce that preceded this scene. I will point out, though, that this guy’s hindquarters are enormous. 

Gilmore's stub-tailed Dimetrodon. Image from Gilmore 1939.

Gilmore’s stub-tailed Dimetrodon model. 

Gilmore also sculpted some non-dinosaurs, including at least one prehistoric horse and the Dimetrodon pictured above. Note the teensy stub of a tail, which this model actually shared with Gilmore’s mount of the pelycosaur. The lips obscuring most of the teeth except for a couple incisors is an unusual choice, and I’m not sure what inspired it. This image is from Gilmore’s 1939 paper on Dimetrodon, and the Basiliscus basiliscus in the corner provides a helpful comparison to a contemporary animal with a similar dorsal sail.

In addition to the models shown here, Gilmore created sculptures of “Anatosaurus”, “Brachyceratops” and a Cenozoic horse, as well as busts of Styracosaurus and Corythosaurus (and there may well have been others I haven’t seen). As mentioned, copies of these mounts were distributed to museums and possibly private collections throughout the 20s and 30s, and I have no idea how many were actually made. A few museums, such as the Sternberg Museum, actually have these models on display, but at other institutions they have been relegated to storage. Objects like these present an unusual challenge for collections managers. They were accessioned as scientific representations, but their value has shifted over the last century to the realm of art and history. While these models are undoubtedly important, they are probably no longer useful at many of the institutions that hold them. As such, the Gilmore models exemplify that museum collections are not necessarily static, but change in meaning as the years go by.

If you work at an institution that has one or more Gilmore models in its collection, feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to start a working database of where copies of these models have ended up!

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1939). “A Mounted Skeleton of Dimetrodon gigas in the United States National Museum, with Notes on the Skeletal Anatomy.” Proceedings of the US National Museum 56:2300:525-539.

Gilmore, C.W. (1932) “On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81:1-21.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, history of science, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles

Allan McCollum’s fossil art

Click here if the embedded video doesn’t work.

My first love is natural science, but I also fancy myself an amateur art enthusiast, particularly for performance and installation pieces from the last 50 years or so. I am fascinated by art that directly engages the viewer, art that is not complete without the involvement of the spectator. As it happens, mounted fossil skeletons are a great example of  installation art, although they are not deliberately constructed as such. The size and presence of a dinosaur skeleton, such as the Stegosaurus below, necessarily incorporates the viewers’ human scale into the experience. Viewers are not merely spectators but participants in a shared performance. Nevertheless, fossils are nearly always displayed and interpreted as scientific specimens, rather than art objects.

Stegosaurus fossil mount and life-size model circa 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Stegosaurus fossil mount and life-size model at USNM circa 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

One important exception occurs in the work of prolific New York-based artist Allan McCollum. McCollum’s installations frequently address repetitive labor and industrial manufacturing, often incorporating hundreds or thousands of similar but subtly unique objects. Each piece is the product of many small actions, gradually assembled over time. In the early 1990s, the artist turned his attention to fossils, particularly their historic meaning and aesthetic appeal.

"Lost Objects" by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

“Lost Objects” by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

In 1991, McCollum collaborated with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to produce “Lost Objects”, displayed next door at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Using molds taken from dinosaur fossils (apparently all limb bones) in the CMNH collection, the artist produced several hundred fossil casts for the installation shown above. To me, this piece is a reflection on the global sharing of fossil material permitted by casting technology. In the Art21 video at the top of this post, McCollum briefly discusses the prominence of casts among the dinosaur mounts that are a staple at natural history museums. Dinosaur skeletons are virtually never found complete, and mounts are often filled in with casts of specimens held by other museums. For example, the National Museum of Natural History Diplodocus mount incorporates casts of the left hindlimb and much of the neck of the Carnegie Diplodocus. What’s more, casted duplicates of the entire Carnegie Diplodocus can be seen in London, Berlin and several other cities in Europe and Latin America, and casts of the American Museum of Natural History Tyrannosaurus are on display in Denver and  Philadelphia. It would be an impressive sight if all the casts of certain fossil specimens scattered around the world were reunited in one room, a monument to the knowledge gained from a century of scholarly collaboration. It would also commemorate the intangible excitement generated by dinosaur mounts, made possible only through the duplication and sharing of casts.

MCollum also comments that “there aren’t as many dinosaur bones in the world as we think.” Perhaps, then, “Lost Objects” is a reflection on the scarcity of intact fossils, by showing an impossibly large collection that no museum could hope to amass. Let’s just hope he wasn’t trying to comment on the alleged mass-production of casts cheapening the original fossils and the museums that hold them, because he’d be dead wrong (EDIT: He wasn’t, see comments).

mccollumnaturalcopies

“Natural Copies” by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

In 1995, McCollum followed up on “Lost Objects” with “Natural Copies, a series of casted dinosaur footprints produced in collaboration with the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. For the artist, this piece was a reflection on the idea that 150 million-year-old fossils can be valued as cultural history. The footprints in question were found by the hundreds in a Utah coal mine. While many ended up at the museum, others were collected by miners to display at home. The fossils took on a second life as symbols the community’s workforce and natural heritage, irrelevant to the dinosaurs that produced the tracks but important all the same. McCollum’s work separates the fossils from their typical scientific context so that viewers may reflect on their cultural meaning and even the aesthetic beauty of their form.

So what’s the point of these installations? These appropriations of fossils as aesthetic pieces has no bearing on the science of paleontology, and in fact may obscure information about how the animals that left these traces lived and behaved. And yet, from the moment a fossil is first seen by human eyes, whether it is an ammonite preserved in a split open rock or the glint of a vertebrate bone weathering out of a hillside, it becomes meaningful on a human scale. For the discoverer, the researcher who describes the fossil, the institution that holds it in its collection and the visitor who sees the fossil on display, that specimen has cultural value. This does not diminish the value of fossils as natural specimens, but rather enhances their importance.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, paleoart