Category Archives: collections

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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A Visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences

I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, my first visit in at least 10 years, and of course made a point of visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in North America, established “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” Initially formed as a hub for research on the American frontier, the Academy has sponsored scientific expeditions across the world and has amassed a collection of 17 million specimens that is still actively used 200 years after its founding.

In 1868, the Academy museum made a landmark contribution to paleontology by hosting the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever constructed. The mount, the work of paleontologist Joseph Leidy and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, depicted Hadrosaurus foulki, the first dinosaur discovered in North America and at the time the most complete dinosaur ever found. With only two limbs, a section of the spinal column and some other odds and ends to work with, Hawkins invented many of the mounting techniques that are still in use today. For instance, Hawkins created mirrored duplicates of the left limb bones for use on the animal’s right side, and reconstructed best-guess stand-ins for the skull, scapulae and most of the vertebrae using extant animals as reference. By modern standards, the Leidy-Hawkins Hadrosaurus mount wasn’t especially accurate (the sculpted scapulae and vertebrae resemble those of a mammal, not a reptile; the skull, based on that of an iguana, turned out to be completely off the mark; the fully upright, kangaroo-like posture is now known to be anatomically implausible), but it nevertheless presented the first-ever opportunity to stand in the presence of a dinosaur. Extinct animals were already known to the public, and some had even been mounted, but the Hadrosaurus was so bizarre,  so utterly unlike anything alive today, that it really opened people’s eyes to the unexplored depths of the Earth’s primordial history.

Original 1868 Hadrosaurus mount.

Original 1868 Hadrosaurus mount.

The Hadrosaurus display caused public visitation to skyrocket, prompting the Academy to relocate in 1876 to a larger building in central Philadelphia, where it remains today. I haven’t been able to find any photographs or detailed information about it, but for much of the 20th century the Academy had a fossil exhibit with a Corythosaurus mount as its centerpiece. This was replaced in 1986 with an expanded “Discovering Dinosaurs” exhibit, which apparently was among the first to showcase the discoveries of the dinosaur renaissance. This exhibit has just about zero web presence, as well (seriously, any help tracking down details about it would be greatly appreciated). The current version of the Dinosaur Hall opened in 1998, and is what I will discuss below.

This cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus is the centerpiece of the Dinosaur gallery. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

What’s Cool

Although crammed into a fairly small space, the Academy’s two-level Dinosaur Hall is packed with mounts of North American fossil reptiles, including Tyrannosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Deinonychus, Tylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus and many more. Compared to the sterile and coldly scientific displays at larger museums like the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy’s exhibit designers clearly put an emphasis on accessibility, particularly for younger visitors. Signs are attractive, colorful and use simple language, but do not sacrifice scientific accuracy. Although “Do Not Touch” notices abound, guardrails are low and allow visitors to view the mounts up close. Even the fossil prep lab, a staple in paleontology exhibits, is not behind glass but is separated from visitors by a low wall, allowing guests to converse freely with the preparators if they so choose (This might not be so fun for the preparators; I’ve worked in a couple of these labs and I’ll be the first to admit that our conversations are not always for public ears).

The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is also filled with interactive activities. I question the educational value of a green-screen that places visitors into a scene with dinosaurs running around (the last thing we need is to encourage more people to think humans and dinosaurs coexisted), but many of the other interactives are quite inspired. In one corner, children are encouraged to climb inside a Tyrannosaurus skull cast to find evidence for its diet and lifestyle. Crouching between its jaws, kids find partially-erupted teeth, evidence that the predator broke and regrew teeth throughout its life. My favorite interactive, however, featured parallel rows of theropod and crocodile footprints on the floor. Visitors were directed to walk down each trackway, comparing how it felt different to move with an upright or sprawling gait. At the end, a sign explained that it’s harder, and less energy efficient, to move like a crocodile. I loved this activity because it was simple (just images on the floor, no technology required) and yet conveyed a clear explanation of biomechanics. Visitors use their own bodies to reach the conclusion, finding the answer in a tactile and experiential way that is more memorable than just being told that a sprawling posture is inefficient.

Overall, the Dinosaur Hall is a great overview of dinosaur science. It focuses on the biology of dinosaurs, emphasizing their similarity to animals we know today, and how scientists can draw conclusions about past life by studying the modern world. This content is communicated in a way that is clear and engaging for visitors of all ages, making this exhibit a good example of the old adage that all good science can be explained in simple terms. When I visited, there were a couple children using the open exhibits like a playground, but for the most part I think this highly accessible dinosaur exhibit is quite successful.

What’s Not So Cool

The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is 15 years old, and is in some places showing its age. Some of the exhibit content is not entirely up-to-date; for instance, a display on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs leaves the question completely open ended. I also saw at least two invalid names, “Majungatholus” and “Ultrasauros”, used on labels. Probably more obvious to most visitors is the general wear and tear visible in certain parts of the exhibit. Some labels, particularly those facing large windows, are badly faded. The Elasmosaurus mount was moved from the Dinosaur Hall proper to the entrance lobby at some point, but Elasmosaurus signage, now labeling an empty space, is still in place in the exhibit. I got the impression that the Academy, like much of Philadelphia, is hurting for funding.

Corythosaurus and Chasmosaurus mounts. Source: TravelMuse.

The story of Leidy’s Hadrosaurus appears in several places throughout the museum. Casts of the original fossil material are displayed over a silhouette of the dinosaur toward the back of the Dinosaur Hall. Elsewhere , there is a new full casted mount of Hadrosaurus (signs explain that it is filled in with Maiasaura material), and the original tibia is displayed as part of a rather cool 200th Anniversary special exhibit. At the time, I wished that these displays were consolidated in one place, since the Hadrosaurus story is an important chapter in the history of science and of museums that can be seen exclusively at the Academy. I later found out that in 2008, the Academy had a major temporary exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the original Hadrosaurus mount, which featured, among other things, a recreation of the victorian-era exhibit and the workshop of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (great videos and interviews about the exhibit here). I wish I had been able to see that, because it blends the scientific, cultural and historic value of fossil mounts in a way that only this museum can.

The sadly closed Hadrosaurus Anniversary exhibit. Note Hawkins’ original sculpted head on the red pillow. Source: The Art Blog.

The current centerpiece of the Dinosaur Hall is a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. It’s neat, but I imagine most visitors would be more enthused to see the real one just a couple hours down the road. Indeed, most of the dinosaurs on display at the Academy are casts from other institutions. I have no problem with displaying casts, but I can’t help but feel that this generalized dinosaur exhibit is underselling the Academy’s own fossil collections, not to mention its contributions to paleontology. Should the Academy renovate this space again, I’d love to see the institutions’ unique history play a more prominent role, as well as the work that Academy-affiliated researchers are doing today.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, ornithopods, reptiles, reviews, science communication

Fossil mounts: specimens, showpieces, art and more

A few days ago, Andy Farke posed the following question on twitter:

If fossils are part of our planet’s heritage, and belong to all of us, are museum restrictions on photos ethical?

Farke clarified that he was referring specifically to fossils held in collections, especially those collected on federal land and/or with public funding. Following the same sound logic that makes open access scientific publication a necessity, any scientific work using public resources should be accessible to everyone, including objects in collections.* The question had arisen because some museums bar researchers utilizing collections from using photographs in their published articles (or charge a fee for the privilege). This is a valid concern, but I don’t have enough experience with scientific publishing to explore it properly. Instead, I’d like to hijack the question in order to discuss the murky identity of fossil mounts.

*I’m going to disregard for-profit museums for the time being, suffice it to say such collections exist and can be useful for research as well.

A sampling of fossil collections and curators at the National Museum of Natural History. Source: http://paleobiology.si.edu.

As was already pointed out in response to Farke’s initial question, the public’s right to access photographs of some fossil collections should not necessarily extend to museum exhibits. Any modern museum exhibit worth its salt is far more than specimens on shelves. Exhibits are immersive experiences that use specimens to illustrate a story. A great deal of creative work goes into designing and fabricating an exhibit, and it is not unreasonable for museums to claim ownership of any reproductions, including photographs, if they so choose.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mounts in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Fossil mounts, however, are a different beast. These structures are difficult to categorize because they are intended both to educate and to entertain. They may incorporate real fossils, or casts taken directly from them, but I would argue that fossil mounts are primarily constructed pieces. With the exception of some more recently extinct mammal taxa, most mounts are composites of casts, sculpted elements and original fossils collected in different places at different times. Steel armatures are custom-made not only to support the specimens but to appropriately fill the exhibit space. Mounts like the striking Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter in the Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH (above) are designed to make an aesthetic impression as well as to inform. Overall, mounts require a substantial investment of time, labor, money and artistic skill to create and maintain. Experienced researchers typically guide the construction process and the contributions of knowledgeable scientists cannot be overstated, but fossil specimens certainly do not come out of the ground mount-ready. There is a great deal more to making a good mount than stringing vertebrae together in the right order.

A direct comparison can be made between fossil mounts and the taxidermied animals that are also a staple at natural history museums. A taxidermy mount also incorporates a scientific specimen, the animal’s skin, which if collected using public resources should be accessible to all. Like fossil mounts, however, taxidermy pieces require extensive artistic and technical skill to create, from the steel or wood armature to the clay model that build’s out the animal’s musculature to the eyes and mouth, which are typically sculpted from scratch. It is worth quoting Rachel Poliquin’s excellent The Breathless Zoo at length:

As dead and mounted animals, [taxidermy mounts] are thoroughly cultural objects; yet as pieces of nature, [they] are thoroughly beyond culture. Animal or object? Animal and object? This is the irresolvable tension that defines all taxidermy. (Poliquin 2012, 5-6)

I firmly believe that the results of scientific inquiry belong in the public domain, and it follows that restrictions on the photographic reproduction of collections specimens are inappropriate. Nevertheless, fossil mounts and taxidermied animals are the products of artisans as much as of researchers, and the right to credit and control over this work ought to be respected. This middle ground is awkward to negotiate, and as Poliquin puts it, a means to please all parties might be “irresolvable.”

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH's taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH’s taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

To make a non-committal final point, I’d like to mention that it is tempting to be too uptight about copyright, particularly in a museum setting. This past October, I had the pleasure to give a presentation with Alexis Fekete at the Kansas Museum Association’s annual conference. The most interesting part of our session (which was about how web 2.0 tools can help museums) was when audience members, mostly representing small history museums, voiced concerns over making their photography collections available online. There was apprehension about making it too easy for people to copy and sell pictures without permission, which I assume is the primary reasoning behind other museums’ policies prohibiting the publication of fossil images. I’m skeptical, however, that this is the most pressing concern. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have no problem with getting information disseminated to genuinely interested people. Creating awareness and enthusiasm for content is part of the general mission of museums, and I’d hate to see overzealous copyright barriers get in the way of that.

References

Poliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, science communication

Extinct Monsters: The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part II

Read the Marsh Dinosaurs, Part I or start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the United States National Museum paleontology department was located in an offsite building in northwest Washington, DC. It was here that preparators Charles Gilmore, Norman Boss, and James Gidley slowly but surely worked through the literal trainloads of fossil specimens O.C. Marsh had acquired for the United States Geological Survey. The Marsh Collection included unknown thousands of specimens, many of them holotypes, and there was no shortage of gorgeous display-caliber material. Even after the “condemnation of worthless material” Gilmore and his team quickly filled the available exhibit space in the Arts and Industries Building with mounted skeletons.

The Ceratosaurus

With no more display space and plenty more fossils, it was fortunate that the USNM moved to a new, larger building in 1910. In this iconic, green-domed building (now the National Museum of Natural History), the paleontology department received newly furnished collections spaces and the entire east wing to fill with display specimens. The evocatively titled Hall of Extinct Monsters provided a new home for the mounted skeletons already constructed for the old exhibit, as well as plenty of room for new displays.

The Ceratosaurus nasicornis holotype was originally housed in a glass case. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library.

Ceratosaurus. Photo by the author.

The delicate arms of Ceratosaurus were removed several years prior to the hall’s closing. Photo by the author.

One of the first new additions was the type specimen of Ceratosaurus nasicornis (USNM 4735), mounted in relief. Marshall Felch led the excavation of this specimen in 1883 at a quarry near Cañon City, Colorado. The nearly complete skeleton received a cursory description from Marsh upon its discovery, but it was Gilmore who described it properly in 1920, ten years after it was put on display. When it was introduced to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, this was the only Ceratosaurus specimen yet found, making the mount a USNM exclusive. The skeleton was originally displayed in a glass case, but during the 1963 renovation it was placed in a more open setting.

Even today, Ceratosaurus is only known from a handful of specimens. For this reason, the original Ceratosaurus fossils will not be returning when the current renovation is completed in 2019. The new hall will instead feature a three-dimensional, standing cast of this skeleton. The original fossils are now in the museum’s collections, available for proper study for the first time in over a century.

The Camptosaurus

In 1912, two mounted skeletons of Camptosaurus, one large (USNM 4282) and one small (USNM 2210), were introduced to the Hall of Extinct Monsters. William Read excavated both specimens at Quarry 13 in the Como region of Wyoming a quarter of a century earlier. Representing the first-ever mounted skeletons of Camptosaurus, these specimens have had a rather complex taxonomical history. Marsh initially described both specimens as Camptosaurus nanus, a new species within the genus Camptosaurus (the type species was Camptosaurus dispar, also coined by Marsh). After the fossils were acquired by the USNM, Gilmore re-described the larger individual as a new species, Camptosaurus browni. This designation remained until the 1980s, when Peter Galton and H.P. Powell determined that C. nanus and C. browni were actually both growth stages of C. dispar.

Regardless of what they are called, both specimens were remarkably well-preserved and reasonably complete. Most of the skeletal elements of the larger Camptosaurus came from a single individual that was found articulated in situ. However, some of the cervical vertebrae came from another specimen from the same quarry, and the skull, pubis, and some of the ribs were reconstructed. Of particular interest is the right ilium, which has been punctured all the way through by a force delivered from above. Gilmore postulated that “the position of the wounds suggest…that this individual was a female who might have received the injuries during copulation.” The smaller “C. nanus” was also found mostly complete, but two metatarsals came from a different individual and the skull and left forelimb were sculpted.

The original pair of Camptosaurus mounts. Image from Backyard Dinosaurs.

Gilmore supervised the creation of both mounts, and constructed the larger individual himself. Norman Boss took the lead on the smaller specimen. As with the other dinosaur skeletons, the mount was centered on an inch-thick steel rod bent to conform to the shape of the vertebral column. Bolts were drilled directly into the vertebrae to attach them to the armature, and the vertebral foramina were filled with liberal amounts of plaster to secure them to the rod. A similar process was used to assemble each of the limbs, and the ribs were supported by a wire cage.

Gilmore aimed to correct many specifics of Marsh’s  original illustrated reconstruction of Camptosaurus. To start, he shortened the presacral region to make a more compact torso. Marsh had also inexplicably illustrated Camptosaurus with lumbar vertebrae (a characteristic exclusive to mammals), which Gilmore corrected. Finally, Marsh had reconstructed the animal as an obligate biped, but Gilmore  determined that “Camptosaurus used the quadrupedal mode of progression more frequently than any other known member of Ornithopoda.” Accordingly, the larger Camptosaurus mount was posed on all fours. The completed Camptosaurus mounts were placed together in a freestanding glass case toward the rear of the Hall of Extinct Monsters. In 1962 the pair was moved to the left of the Diplodocus on the central pedestal of the redesigned exhibit. During the 1981 renovation they were moved a few feet back, so that they were alongside the sauropod’s tail.

This cast replaced the original Camptosaurus mount in 2010. Photo by the author.

This cast replaced the original Camptosaurus mounts in 2010. Photo by the author.

The retired plaster skulls of the original Camptosaurus mounts. Photo by the author.

The retired plaster skulls of the original Camptosaurus mounts. Photo by the author.

Both Camptosaurus skeletons taken off exhibit in 2010 and replaced with a cast of the adult. The delicate fossils, which had suffered from considerable wear and tear over the past hundred years, were stabilized and stored individually for their protection. The new mount has a number of upgrades to reflect our improved understanding of dinosaur anatomy. The arms are closer together and the palms face inward, because the pronated (palms down) hands on Gilmore’s version have been determined to be a physical impossibility. The new mount also features a completely different skull. The rectangular model skull used on the original mount was based on Iguanodon, but new discoveries show that the skull of Camptosaurus was more triangular in shape. Both the adult and juvenile Camptosaurus will appear in the new National Fossil Hall.

The Stegosaurus

The Smithsonian’s first Stegosaurus exhibit was a life-sized model built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. This model found its way into the Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1910. In 1913, the model was joined by a mounted Stegosaurus skeleton found at the same Cañon City quarry as the Ceratosaurus. A third Stegosaurus, the holotype of S. stenops, was introduced in 1918. Lovingly called the “roadkill” Stegosaurus, USNM 4934 is remarkable in part because it was found completely articulated. In fact, before its 1886 discovery by Marshall Felch, it was unknown exactly how the animal’s plates were positioned on its back.

Standing Stegosaurus mount and life-size model, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Stegosaurus

Stegosaurus model, standing mount, and “roadkill” on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Source

All three Stegosaurus displays were moved in 1963 and 1981. In Fossils: The History of Life, the Stegosaurus skeletons were positioned flanking the Diplodocus in the central display area, with the standing mount on the right and the roadkill skeleton on the left. The model Stegosaurus stood opposite the mount. Just like the Triceratops and Camptosaurus, many decades on display took their toll on the standing Stegosaurus, so in 2003 the fossils were removed from the exhibit. Dismantling the Stegosaurus was particularly challenging because of the large amount of plaster applied by the mount’s creators. In some cases the plaster infill had to be removed with hand tools, which put further pressure on the fossils. Additionally, the rod supporting the backbone had been threaded right through each of the vertebrae, and was extremely difficult to remove. A casted Stegosaurus mount in a more active pose was returned to the exhibit in 2004.

Cast of Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus. Photo by the author.

Casts of Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus. Photo by the author.

Roadkill stego

“Roadkill” Stegosaurus in 2014. Photo by the author.

After 110 years on display at the Smithsonian, the model Stegosaurus has been donated to the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. The roadkill Stegosaurus, however, will feature prominently in the new National Fossil Hall, mounted upright on the wall by the exhibit’s secondary entrance. The 2004 Stegosaurus cast had a number of anatomical issues and will not be returning – instead, it will be replaced by an updated cast made from the same original fossils.

The Marsh dinosaurs have been of critical importance in our understanding of the Mesozoic world, but at this point these fossils are historic artifacts as well. When they were uncovered, the American civil war was still a recent memory, and railroads had only recently extended to the western United States. Before the first world war they had been assembled into mounts, and for more than a century these fossils have been mesmerizing and inspiring millions of visitors. Several of these mounts, including the Triceratops, Ceratosaurus and Camptosaurus, were the first reconstructions of these species to ever appear in the public realm, and therefore defined popular interpretations that have lasted for generations. Some visitors may lament that many of the original specimens have been recently been replaced with replicas, but the fact is that these are irreplaceable and invaluable national treasures. They inform us of our culture, and our dedication to expanding knowledge and our rich natural history. We only get one chance with these fossils, and that is why the absolute best care must be taken to preserve them for future generations.

References

Gilmore, C.W. 1912 “The Mounted Skeletons of Camptosaurus in the United States National Musuem.” Proceedings of the US National Museum 14:1878.

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.

Jabo, S. 2012. Personal communication.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods, thyreophorans

Extinct Monsters: History of Smithsonian Fossil Exhibits

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Upon his death in 1829, British scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the United States government to found “at Washington…an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Congress used Smithson’s estate to establish the publicly funded Smithsonian Institution in 1846, which has since grown into an expansive research institute and museum complex that is recognized the world over. Vertebrate paleontology has been an important part of the Smithsonian’s agenda since the beginning, and this article by Ray Rye provides a compelling history of the scientific staff and their research. This post will take a slightly different approach, summarizing the changing public face of Smithsonian paleontology in the form of its genre-defining exhibits.

In 1847, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first secretary, started construction on the original Smithsonian building, which today is colloquially known as “the castle.” The first vertebrate paleontology exhibit housed within its walls consisted of a trio of casted skeletons: the ground sloth Megatherium, the glyptodont Scistopleurum, and the tortoise Collossochelys. These exhibits were probably obtained through Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. The Smithsonian’s first skeletal mount made from original fossils was a Megaloceros, purchased from antiquities dealers Thomas and Sons in 1872.

Exhibits like this one at USNM were deemed incomprehensible and inspired early reform

Basilosaurus, Megatherium, and Megaloceros are visible in the southwest court of the first United States National Museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

1881 saw the completion of the original United States National Museum, next door to the castle (this structure is now called the Arts and Industries Building). The southwest court was dedicated to osteology and paleontology, and the existing skeletal mounts were placed here among rows of cases containing smaller specimens. At this point in time, the Smithsonian had very few permanent staff members, instead relying mostly on scholars serving in unpaid “honorary” positions to curate the growing national collection. Famed paleontologist O.C. Marsh (the beardier half of the “bone wars” rivals) was the honorary curator of vertebrate paleontology. Under contract with the United States Geological Survey, Marsh supervised numerous field expeditions to the American west and oversaw the collection of untold thousands of fossil specimens. When Marsh died in 1899 the fossils he collected for the government were relocated from Yale University (his home institution) to the Smithsonian.

Gilmore and the Hall of Extinct Monsters

Gilmore with Diplodocus vertebrae.

C.W. Gilmore with some Diplodocus vertebrae. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Charles Whitney Gilmore was a student in mine engineering at the University of Wyoming when he became involved in the Carnegie Museum’s fossil hunting expeditions in 1899. Recognizing the young man’s enthusiasm and talent, John Bell Hatcher hired Gilmore immediately after his graduation in 1901. Gilmore worked with Hatcher for two field seasons, but in 1903 he moved to Washington, DC upon being offered a position as a full-time preparator at the USNM. He was promoted to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1924, and is fondly remembered as an exceptionally modest but extraordinarily productive scientist. As curator, Gilmore led sixteen fossil-hunting expeditions to the western interior. Gilmore’s most enduring contribution to paleontology, however, is his extensive body of descriptive publications on the Marsh fossils. His monographs on Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, and many others are still regularly cited today.

Along with preparators Norman Boss and James Gidley, Gilmore is responsible for creating most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that are on display at the Smithsonian. The first dinosaur mount Gilmore and his team completed was Edmontosaurus, which went on display in the original USNM building in 1904. Gilmore would go on to supervise the construction of Triceratops (the first mount of this taxon in the world), Camptosaurus, Stegosaurus, DimetrodonCeratosaurus, Diplodocus, and numerous other displays that have been enjoyed by generations of museum visitors.

extinctmonstersfront_1913

The Hall of Extinct Monsters, sometime before 1929. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Congress authorized the construction of a new United States National Museum on the north side of the National Mall in 1911. In contrast to the Victorian style of the original building, the new museum sported neoclassical granite construction which matched the aesthetic of the other federal buildings. Exactly when the museum opened is the subject of some debate. Collections and offices began moving across the mall via horse and wagon in 1908, and part of the first floor opened to the public on March 17th, 1910. Nevertheless, it was not until 1911 that all the exhibit spaces were ready for visitors, including the evocatively titled “Hall of Extinct Monsters” in the museum’s east wing. This cavernous space devoted to fossil displays was primarily under Gilmore’s stewardship, and generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design. Gilmore and his team would gradually fill the Hall of Extinct Monsters will new specimens over the coming decades, culminating in the towering Diplodocus mount completed in 1932.

Modernization and Renaissance

Gilmore retired in 1945, and vertebrate paleontology research at the USNM, particularly in dinosaurs, quieted in his absence. Charles Gazin, Gilmore’s successor as Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, specialized in mammals, and the museum remained without a curator specializing in dinosaurs until Matt Carrano was hired in 2003. In 1957, the USNM split into two subdivisions, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. The Smithsonian’s history collections were moved to a new building next door, now called the National Museum of American History, and other collections gradually dispersed into 20-some other Smithsonian museums. The site of the disbanded USNM was officially renamed the National Museum of Natural History in 1967, and remains the home of natural sciences and anthropology.

The Diplodocus, as it stood from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Hall of Fossil Reptiles lasted from 1962 to 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Hall of Extinct Monsters persisted largely unchanged until 1962, when it was finally renovated as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The fossil exhibits were among the last to be updated, in part due to ambivalence from the paleontology curators. The department did not employ any staff members exclusively devoted to exhibit work, so the task of reinventing the displays was an added burden for the research staff. As such, the changes to the hall ended up being more cosmetic than structural. The largest mount, Gilmore’s Diplodocus, was too difficult to disassemble and move, so the new exhibit was designed around it. Solid earth tones and wall-to-wall carpet replaced the original neoclassical aesthetic. The John Elliot mural Diana of the Tides, positioned high on the east wall, was simply boarded over during construction (and has remained so ever since).

The 1981 renovation saw the addition of a mezzanine over the dinosaur exhibit. Source

In 1974, the addition of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man expanded the paleontology display space beyond the east wing. Further renovations took place in three stages starting in 1979. Entitled “Fossils: The History of Life”, the overhauled exhibit complex represented a significant departure from earlier iterations of this space. While the previous renovation arranged specimens according to taxonomy and curatorial specialties, “The History of Life” followed the evolutionary progression of fossil plants and animals through time. The new exhibits also differed from prior efforts in that they were not put together exclusively by curators. Instead, the design process was led by educators and exhibits specialists, who sought curatorial input at all stages. The new specimens and displays also required the once spacious hall to be carved up into a maze of small rooms and narrow corridors. Even with the additional floor space provided by a new balcony over the dinosaurs, the east wing had become quite crowded.

Of course, the science of paleontology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1980s, and NMNH staff have made piecemeal updates to the exhibits when possible. These changes include restorations of deteriorating mounts, the addition of a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus, and a few revised signs addressing the dinosaurian origin of birds and new dates for geologic time periods. Still, the east wing remained largely the same for over 30 years, and began to look a bit tired next to the brand-new exhibits that have opened at NMNH over the last decade.

Looking Ahead

The NMNH fossil halls closed on April 27th, 2014 for a five year renovation project. For the first time, the east wing was completely gutted and its underlying infrastructure overhauled. Aging specimens like the 1932 Diplodocus and the 1911 Ceratosaurus were be painstakingly disassembled and conserved, and the space itself was restored to its original Beaux Arts splendor. The re-imagined exhibit is arranged in reverse chronological order: visitors  start among mammoths and ground sloths in the Pleistocene and move backward in time through increasingly alien-looking versions of North America. Unlike the present exhibit, however, an open floor plan will allow visitors to get a sense of what they’re in for from the moment they walk into the hall.

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Mesozoic section of the new Hall of Fossils – Deep Time. Concept art on display in the Last American Dinosaurs exhibit at NMNH.

The overall theme is change over geologic time, highlighting the myriad ways that climate, geography, evolution, and other living and nonliving systems interact and shape the world’s environments. Not all the classic mounts will make it into the new space (Brachyceratops, Zygorhiza, and Stegomastodon are among the retirees), but there are many new additions, including the Nation’s T. rex The result will be a compelling mix of classic early 20th century museum aesthetics and modern visitor-focused educational strategies.

References

Gilmore, C.W.  (1941). A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 90.

Rye, R. (2002.) History of the NMNH Paleobiology Department. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/rye.html

Sues, H. and Marsh, D. (2013). Charles Whitney Gilmore: The Forgotten Dinosaur Hunter. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/gilmore.html

Yochelson, E.L. (1985). The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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

More Fun at the Carnegie Museum

I just have to share this picture, also from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (see previous post). While the “Dinosaurs in their Time” gallery is fantastic, this has to be one of the worst museum displays I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the most fascinating.

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Filed under CMNH, collections, education, exhibits, museums, opinion, theropods