Category Archives: Deep Time

T. rex in Context: Deep Time’s Cretaceous Display

A little over a year ago, the National Museum of Natural History re-opened its paleontology halls after a five-year renovation. As I detailed in a previous post, the new exhibition—called Deep Time—is exceptional. Breathtaking to look at, intuitive to explore, and (of course) brimming with fascinating specimens, Deep Time sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at one display in Deep Time, the Cretaceous tableau, and elaborate on what makes it so effective. Many thanks to Designers Pauline Dolovich and Fang Pin Lee, Developer Siobhan Starrs, and Curator Matt Carrano for discussing their work with me.

The Cretaceous display tells a story through its carefully-composed design.

The Cretaceous display is home to Deep Time’s centerpiece, the Tyrannosaurus rex. As was well-covered by various media outlets in the months and years leading up to the exhibition’s opening, the “Nation’s T. rex” was discovered in 1988 on Army Corps of Engineers land, and is now on loan to the Smithsonian. Although it’s one of the most thoroughly-studied Tyrannosaurus specimens around, this is the first time the real skeleton has been assembled into a standing mount. Like many of the mounted skeletons in Deep Time, the T. rex strikes a dynamic pose that evokes the behavior of the living animal. In this case, the Tyrannosaurus is prying the head off a prone Triceratops.

Obviously, the T. rex draws a crowd. It’s hard to imagine any visitor passing through Deep Time without stopping to see it. But while the exhibit team acknowledged and emphasized the spectacular nature of the tyrant king, they also harnessed its star power to make a broader point. Tyrannosaurus was part of a rich ecosystem of plants and animals, and while this apex predator had an impact on the entire community (eating some animals, providing leftovers for others), T. rex and other meat-eating dinosaurs were far outnumbered by the turtles, lizards, salamanders, and insects they lived alongside. By placing Tyrannosaurus within its ecological context, the display makes the seemingly fantastic dinosaur much more real. This reinforces one of the exhibition’s overarching themes: life in the past functioned much like life in the present, and studying past life can inform our understanding of the world today. It’s no accident that this cross-section of a prehistoric ecosystem is at the center of the hall, and includes its most popular specimen.

To avoid cluttering the historic architecture of the east wing, the designers integrated display lighting into the platforms.

While the Cretaceous display tells a complex story that is integral to the narrative of the exhibition as a whole, its footprint is remarkably compact. This efficient use of space is the result of a long and methodical design process. Designers Fang Pin Lee and Pauline Dolovich envisioned a broad avenue across the entire hall, which would accommodate large crowds (NMNH gets up to eight million visitors each year) and allow quick access to any part of the exhibition. This avenue needed to double as a central social space, where groups could congregate around built-in seating and look out onto the various displays. But more space for visitors means less space for specimens, and dinosaurs need a lot of room. Lee and Dolovich used digital renders and a miniature model to find the optimal position for the 40-foot Tyrannosaurus and its companions. This was a careful balancing act—they had to keep the T. rex visible from multiple approaches while working around the twin rows of structural columns down the center of the hall.

With ample space for visitor traffic, long sight lines, and some very large skeletons in the mix, there was precious little room in the Cretaceous display for text panels. This worked in the display’s favor, because it meant that much of the message had to be communicated through the design. For example, the Tyrannosaurus poised over its Triceratops meal evokes the predator’s role in the ecosystem, while conveniently reducing the footprint the two skeletons would require if displayed independently. Meanwhile, a cutaway in the platform next to the T. rex‘s foot contains an alligator, a turtle, clams, and aquatic plants. While only subtly implying the presence of a pond or river (the alligator skeleton is posed as though swimming along the surface, while lotus-like flowers “float” nearby), this area demonstrates these organisms’ ecological relationship to T. rex by placing them literally underfoot.

Stangerochampsa swims among floating Nelumbago leaves in an implied waterway.

To the right of Tyrannosaurus, a densely-layered series of specimens and display elements provides a nuanced look at the Hell Creek ecosystem within a limited amount of space. In the back, a pair of large murals by Julius Csotonyi set the stage: this was a lush, green world dense with weedy flowering plants (as opposed to the open conifer forests dinosaurs are often depicted in). To the left, a lone Torosaurus is dwarfed by the forest around it. To the right, an Edmontosaurus group tramples through the undergrowth, disturbing the smaller Thescelosaurus and Polyglyphanodon. Skeletons of Edmontosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and the aquatic reptile Champsosaurus stand in front of the murals, alongside three slabs of fossil leaves.

A vivid green panel among the skeletons spells out the key takeaway: these plants and animals were part of a single ecosystem that existed in North America at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Similar header panels can be found throughout the exhibition, and the writers iterated on the text for years. These short phrases had to convey the context and significance of a display at a glance, even if these were the only words a visitor read. The team settled on the headline “T. rex in Context” for the Cretaceous display, but when test audiences began visiting the hall, this proved to be a mistake. Because the words appeared so close to the Edmontosaurus, visitors were concluding that the hadrosaur was a T. rex. With weeks to go before opening, the team opted to replace the headline with the tried-and-true “Last American Dinosaurs.

Those vertical mounts for the fossil leaf slabs are incredible.

The final layer in the Cretaceous display is the rail at the very front. Smaller specimens—the lizard Polyglyphanodon, several fossil leaves, and an assortment of microfossils—are mounted in cases, while a dinosaur bone with insect damage is out in the open where it can be touched. The text on the rail is almost superfluous, but it is cleverly divided by trophic level. One panel addresses primary producers, another herbivores, and a third carnivores and decomposers. The plants and small animals are given the same amount of attention as the dinosaurs, reinforcing that all of these organisms have their part to play in the community.

Taken together, the elements of the Cretaceous display encourage deep looking without requiring a great deal of reading. Visitors drawn by the star power of the Tyrannosaurus find themselves surveying the “beautiful density” of specimens and display elements. They may notice minute details, like platform tiles slanted and dislodged as though by the movement of the dinosaurs, or the broken Triceratops horn that has rolled away from the skeleton. Intuitively, they understand that they’re looking at the complete ecological context of T. rex, and that this ecosystem is just as diverse and complex as those of today. If they choose to read the text panels, visitors will learn details like the names of the animals or the feeding strategies of different herbivores, but most of the information is conveyed through the layout alone. This is the mark of an uncommonly well-designed museum display.

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Filed under Deep Time, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, theropods

Deep Time is a masterpiece

A spectacle of evolution.

About ten years ago, a team at the National Museum of Natural History set out to reinvent their aging fossil halls for a new generation. Paleontology exhibitions had occupied the building’s east wing since 1911, and while there had been several renovations and additions, these were always additive. The result was a crowded and jumbled space, a hodge-podge of displays created by different people, at different times, for different reasons. In the early 2000s, a new core team—including Project Manager and Developer Siobhan Starrs, Designer Pauline Dolovich, and Curators Matt Carrano, Kay Behrensmeyer, and Scott Wing—had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear the east wing from wall to wall and start over with a blank slate. Their task was to fill 31,000 square feet with the story of life on Earth, with the latest science and a modern understanding of how visitors use museums in mind.

The result is breathtaking. Deep Time, as the new exhibition is colloquially known, sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions. What follows is a brief discussion of some the hall’s many successes. I will undoubtably have more to say in the coming weeks.

Themes

The Time Spiral, illustrated by Julius Csotonyi, appears at both entrances to Deep Time. It is the spiritual successor to John Gurche’s Tower of Time.

As has been well publicized, Deep Time contains a strong message about how humans are changing the Earth in unprecedented ways. This is introduced the moment visitors enter the exhibition, with an illustrated spiral of time that ends in a mirror. The implication is simple, but direct: we are part of the story of our planet.

Throughout the hall, visitors are reminded of humanity’s connection to the rest of the planet in different ways. In one corner, an interactive (admirably starring a gender-neutral cartoon host) illustrates the evolutionary origins of different features of the human body. In the Quaternary section, large graphics present the percentage of megafauna on each continent that went extinct as humans spread around the globe.

The bridge is a highly-visible and centrally-located destination in the Deep Time hall.

The hardest-hitting message, however, is about the modern climate crisis. The fact that industrial activity is profoundly warming the climate—a change that comes with dire consequences—is presented in clear, matter-of-fact language. It’s not preachy, it’s not political, it’s just the truth. The exhibition does not explicitly say we should stop harming the planet (although we should), but it clearly presents the evidence that we are, and that we have the ability to stop. This information is centered on an overlook called “the bridge.” The centrality of this location and its proximity to the dinosaurs makes the climate narrative unmissable. The nature of the modern media landscape is such that many NMNH visitors may well have never seen this message presented in non-political terms. I’m eager to see the results.

Layout

The Jurassic and Permian are visible from the Cretaceous.

One of the earliest decisions in Deep Time’s development was to restore the original architecture. This had already been done in the north and west wings for the Ocean and Mammals halls, and restoring the east wing would bring back the building’s intended symmetry. This choice dovetailed with an acknowledgement of visitors’ tendency to pinball around an exhibition, rather than view displays in a prescribed order. The team decided to welcome this spirit of exploration. The new hall can be navigated in any order, but still makes sense as a cohesive story.

Most of the displays are on island platforms. Each platform represents a particular time period, and for the most part, specimens displayed together represent species that would have coexisted in a single ecosystem. Big, show-stopping skeletons are in the center, while smaller specimens and accompanying labels and interactives can be found around the perimeter. Vertical pillars, which are visible from across the hall, indicate where each platform is in time. Meanwhile, mass extinctions are represented by large walls that physically divide the space. The result is a hall where it’s always clear whether the display you’re looking at is earlier or later in time than any other display, even though you can circulate among the islands at will.

The remounted Diplodocus can be seen from anywhere in Deep Time, as well as from the rotunda.

NMNH gets several million visitors each year, so traffic flow is a major concern. This was a problem in the old hall, where decades of partial renovations had resulted in several frustrating bottlenecks. The new hall allocates nearly 50% of its floor space to visitor movement. A central avenue allows quick movement around the exhibition. Visitors short on time can pop in and “snack” on a few displays, rather than investing in the whole meal. Unlike linear exhibitions, visitors can backtrack without disrupting the traffic flow.

Furthermore, most of the hall can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Another function of the bridge is to provide an elevated vantage point. From the overlook, visitors can see Tyrannosaurus and Diplodocus over the heads of the crowd. Digital interactives show highlights on a 3-D model of the hall, helping visitors think about the entire history of life all at once. Actually, this is one area where I wish the developers had gone further. I would have loved to see displays that encouraged visitors to compare the animals visible on either side of the mass extinctions, or to think about what environmental factors led to the evolution of very different megaherbivores (the sauropods and proboscideans) at different points in time.

Animals

Dimetrodon prepares to scavenge Ophiacodon, while Xenacanthus and Diplocaulus swim below.

Lead Curator Matt Carrano came to the project with a vision. He wanted the mounted skeletons to read as animals, not as monsters or trophies. That meant they should be doing the sorts of things that animals do. Nearly every mount tells a story. The well-publicized Tyrannosaurus is dismembering a Triceratops: look closely and you’ll see fractured ribs, a broken horn, and that the Triceratops‘s head is actually separated from its body. The Eremotherium is plucking Osage oranges from a tree, referencing the hypothesis that these inedible fruits were cultivated by recently-extinct megafauna. A Menoceras is lying on its side in a characteristic rhino resting pose. The Stegoceras is scratching its jaw. Each pose gives the mounted skeletons a reality that is rarely seen in fossil exhibits. These are the remains of once-living creatures, after all. They got hurt, hungry, tired, and itchy.

Although the resting Menoceras bears a certain resemblance to the Roosevelt white rhino on the other side of the museum, this was a lucky accident rather than a deliberate quote.

Another more subtle reason these mounts are so successful is that the animals’ feet are always touching the ground. Many mounted skeletons are elevated on their supports, which makes the interplay between the armature and the base (typically built separately) easier to manage but also makes the skeletons look like they’re hovering. Grounding the animals’ feet was extremely challenging: ultimately, beds of gravel were used to smooth out the point of contact. Few visitors are likely to notice this achievement specifically, but the result is that each skeleton is imbued with weight and energy rarely seen in similar displays.

Placing the ground sloth at the entrance was an early design decision.

Research Casting International prepared and constructed most of the mounted skeletons, while NMNH preparators handled the rest in-house. The scope of the mounting and remounting of fossil skeletons for Deep Time is probably unprecedented. For comparison, the renovation of the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls in the mid 90s involved two remounts (Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus) and around ten new skeletons. By my rough count, Deep Time has 40 remounts and 13 brand-new mounts, to say nothing of the work that went in to dismantling the skeletons from the old hall that have been returned to collections.

Discovery

The Jurassic diorama, one of more than a dozen new scenes created for Deep Time.

It wasn’t until my second day exploring Deep Time that I noticed the dioramas cycle between day and night. I can only imagine the challenge the designers faced in arguing for this feature. It doesn’t have any particular educational purpose, after all, and only a small fraction of visitors are likely to notice it. Still, for those who do notice (I’m picturing a child poring over every detail of the miniature landscape while their parents wait impatiently), the effect is beautiful and magical. Those are the moments exhibition creators strive for.

Good thing that glass is there or we’d be in a real pickle.

A stroll through Deep Time is filled with similar moments of discovery, on many different scales. Follow the gaze of the two bronze Ice Age humans and you’ll realize they’re reacting to the Smilodon stalking nearby. Look beneath the platforms where Tyrannosaurus and Dimetrodon are standing and find a secret world of freshwater fossils. Although there are few levers to pull and wheels to turn in the exhibition, tactile experiences abound. There are touchable fossil casts, and a plethora of life-sized bronzes to interact with. I’m particularly enamored with the Mesozoic and early Cenozoic mammals: these are difficult to conceptualize with fossils alone and the bronzes bring them to digging, scratching, yawning life.

Seriously, these guys rule.

There are a hundred more examples, but I should stop for now. In short, Deep Time is an incredible exhibition. You should visit, and then visit several more times, because you’ll undoubtably discover new things to wonder at.

Reference

Marsh, D.E. 2019. Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of the Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls. New York, NY: Berghan Books.

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Filed under Deep Time, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, opinion, reviews