Category Archives: dinosaurs

Return to the DinoSphere

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops skeletons look particularly cool against a purple backdrop.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is one of the best museums in the United States, particularly for paleontology. That may sound surprising for those unfamiliar with the museum. A typical children’s museum serves an important function by providing young people an opportunity to create and explore, but their exhibits usually amount to glorified playgrounds. Despite its name, TCM is something else entirely.

Founded in 1925 and growing by leaps and bounds ever since, TCM is a bona fide research institution. Numerous staff curators oversee a growing collection of historical, anthropological, and natural science objects that are regularly studied by visiting researchers. TCM’s dinosaur holdings are particularly impressive, including the Dracorex hogwartsi holotype and the first Tyrannosaurus found with its furcula (wishbone) intact. The museum’s paleontologists collect new specimens from the field every year. Other highlights include a collection of 50,000 historic toys from 120 countries, 2,500 traditional garments and textiles from around the world, and hundreds of original paintings and sculptures of prehistoric creatures donated by John Lazendorf.

In 1976, TCM joined forces with Purdue University to excavate this mastodon in Greenfield, Indiana.

The exhibits at TCM include objects that are as fascinating and unique as those on display at any top tier history or science museum. And unlike typical children’s museums, TCM’s exhibits aren’t pitched exclusively at children but at families learning together. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but the effects are profound. Interactivity in one form or another is generally seen as critical to children’s learning in a museum context. However, all opportunities for interaction are not made equal, and “free choice” interactivity (such as pressing buttons and turning cranks) is increasingly seen as an ineffectual teaching tool. Educators and exhibit designers have found far more success with “scaffolding,” which is the practice of creating exhibits that are simultaneously pitched to multiple audiences. Scaffolded exhibits might include content for different age levels, or for visitors with passing familiarity with a topic as well as those with deep knowledge.

At TCM, scaffolding is used to coach parents and guardians to effectively guide children’s investigations. Wherever there is a display that is sure to attract kids’ attention, there is signage nearby to help parents ask open-ended questions, direct attention to a particular aspect of the exhibit, prompt hypotheses, or suggest connections to personal experiences. In this way, the scaffolded exhibits channel a positive educational experience for children through a trusted and familiar source of information (their parents). This also means that there’s no letting kids loose in an exhibit as though it were a playpen. Parents and guardians are given the tools they need to participate in their children’s learning process, and probably learn something interesting for themselves along the way.

Even for adults with more independent children in tow (or traveling alone!) there’s plenty to see and do. Indeed, the effort to provide quiet, contemplative experiences alongside more participatory ones is one of the most commendable aspects of the TCM exhibits. Visitors can view Dale Chiuly’s five-story blown glass sculpture, Fireworks of Glass. In the archaeology lab, they can watch conservation specialists restore artifacts collected from shipwrecks off the coast of the Dominican Republic. If they so choose, visitors can even grapple with the challenging themes presented in “The Power of Children,” an exhibit that highlights the accomplishments of children that stood up against disease, institutionalized racism, and genocide.

Gorgosaurus, Maiasaura, and Bambiraptor populate one of the main tableaus in DinoSphere.

All the best that TCM has to offer is on display in the epic paleontology exhibit, DinoSphere. The peculiar name references the fact that the exhibit occupies a globe-shaped addition to the main building that once held an Imax theater. Rather than removing the giant screen and fancy audio system, they’ve been put to use in creating a uniquely immersive experience. A series of vivid skyscapes is projected over a 22-minute cycle: a red sunrise fades into cobalt tones at midday and a deep purple at night. This is supplemented by a chorus of bird and insect sounds, and certain corners of the exhibit smell of cedar and magnolia (this isn’t the only place where scents are used – at one particularly inspired station, visitors can sniff a duckbilled dinosaur, which smells like cross between a cow and bottom of a birdcage).

Impressive as these elements are, DinoSphere is more than a special effects show. More than twenty complete skeletons of Cretaceous animals are on display, including ten real dinosaur mounts. For those keeping track, that’s as many as are in the Smithsonian and the Field Museum exhibits combined. Sourced primarily from the commercial market (including the Black Hills Institute, which also constructed the mounts)*, many of these specimens are truly unique. There’s Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus preserved with large areas of skin and muscle impressions, and the most complete Gorgosaurus yet found, which has a visible brain tumor among many other fascinating lesions and maladies.

*Yes, this isn’t 100% ideal. But at least the specimens are in a publicly accessible collection now.

Original fossils and artwork by Michael Skrepnick and Cliff Green are offered as inspiration at this drawing station.

True to form, there are many opportunities for participation in the DinoSphere. For one thing, the exhibit strongly encourages exploration. A cursory walk through the gallery is not enough to get the total experience. You have to look high and low and occasionally behind doors to find all the specimens on display. For example, there’s a Didelphodon jaw in a burrow close to the base of the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops tableau. For visitors that respond better to a more personal connection, some rather gifted interpreters are on continuous patrol. When we visited TCM in December, I was fortunate enough to watch Mookie Harris in action. He has a great repertoire with toddlers, but was just as happy to dive into more complex concepts with older children and adults.

Then there’s the dinosaur art gallery. Away from the noise and bustle of the DinoSphere proper, visitors can view samples from the Lazendorf collection in a quiet, contemplative setting (David at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs got a behind-the-scenes look at the rest of the collection – check out his photos and the rest of his TCM posts). Scaffolded signage encourages families to view the artwork with a critical eye, comparing the illustrated and sculpted dinosaurs to original fossils and separating rigorous reconstruction from artistic interpretation. There are also plenty of drawing stations, complete with prompts and sample artwork for inspiration. The whole gallery is a wonderful way to introduce visitors to the blurred lines between art and science, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Fun fact: I prepped a couple of the tail vertebrae in this Hypacrosaurus mount during a brief but inspiring “internship” when I was 13.

To sum up, if you’re looking for world-class fossil exhibits, don’t limit yourself to the big acronyms (AMNH, FMNH, and so forth). You might want to wait a couple years, though. During our visit, we were graciously invited into the fossil prep lab, where Curator William Ripley filled us in on the museum’s future plans. It rhymes with “Triassic expansion” and the TCM paleontology team is currently collecting new skeletons from a quarry in Wyoming. Can’t wait!

References

Andre, L., Durksen, T., and Volman, M.L. 2016. Museums as avenues of learning for children: a decade of research. Learning Environments Research 20: 1: 47-76. 

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, reviews

Looking Back at Fossils: History of Life

The renovated hall 2 upon its initial completion. Photo from Kopper 1982.

It is with some trepidation that I attempt to tell the story of the third incarnation of the National Museum of Natural History’s paleontology exhibits.  For one thing, this was “my” space, insofar that any of us feel ownership over familiar public spaces. I explored these halls regularly as a toddler. I volunteered there as a teenager and interned there after college. More recently, I’ve found myself working among these same displays on a number of occasions as a museum professional*. As such, it is difficult to establish an appropriate amount of cognitive distance, even now that the galleries have been cleared from wall to wall, and new exhibits are being installed in their place.

“Fossils: History of Life” closed for renovation in April 2014. Because this exhibit existed largely unchanged for most of my life, a part of me likes to think of it as something that has always been there. Nevertheless, these displays were designed and built by specific people at a specific point in time. And while the specimens, artwork, and craftsmanship in Fossils: History of Life were nothing short of iconic, the process of putting those pieces together was surprisingly contentious. The creation of this exhibit was beset by internal strife and controversy, as conflicts that had been simmering for decades about the very nature of museums finally came to bear.

The Story So Far

The east wing of the National Museum of Natural History (prior to 1964, the United States National Museum) has been home to fossil displays since the current building opened in 1910. From opening day to 1945, the exhibits were primarily under the stewardship of Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Charles Gilmore. Intermittently called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” this iteration was somewhat haphazard in its layout. Like many early 20th century exhibits, the galleries were filled with a sampling of static objects from the collections, occasionally accompanied by an explanatory painting, map, or model. Gilmore’s version of the east wing remained in place until 1962, when the space was redesigned as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. Between 1953 and 1963, the modernization committee chaired by Frank Taylor oversaw improvements of nearly all of the National Museum’s exhibits. Taylor pushed for exhibits that catered to laypeople, rather than specialists. Paths visitors might travel through the space, common visitor questions, and consistent aesthetics were all considered when overhauling the east wing fossil halls.

Modernization-era version of hall 2, completed in 1962. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As Rader and Cain convincingly argue, the transition from exhibits dominated by cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to story-driven learning experiences began in most American museums at the beginning of the 20th century. However, this was not the case at the Smithsonian. By the 1950s, the National Museum had developed a reputation as an old-fashioned place. Its neo-classical exhibition halls mostly contained rows of cases jam-packed with specimens, and that was the way the curatorial staff liked it. Entomologist Waldo Schmitt summed up the prevailing institutional attitude when he said that exhibits should be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments.” Curators like Schmitt worried that shoehorning objects into generalized narratives about nature and anthropology would distort or occlude their meaning and provenance. NMNH Director Remington Kellogg agreed, and Taylor’s modernization committee faced an uphill battle with every exhibit they sought to make more broadly accessible.

It was a stalemate between two competing visions for what a museum should be. The 1962 fossil hall renovation at NMNH experimented with dioramas, color-coded signage, and text divided into area titles, headings, and subheadings, but compared to peer institutions it was hardly revolutionary. This could be partially attributed to the design process, in which the development of each of the four east wing galleries (halls 2, 3, 4, and 5) was led by a different curator. As a result, the galleries landed in different places on the spectrum between traditionally-arranged specimens and cohesive narratives.

The 1974 Ice Age Hall was a turning point for NMNH exhibits. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, a turning point was on the horizon. The east wing modernization plan also called for the annexing of hall 6 (formerly the home of geology exhibits) as a dedicated Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. In part due to the larger number of new specimens being prepared for display, this Quaternary Hall was repeatedly delayed. By the time hall 6 was ready to reopen in 1970, its old-fashioned organization was no longer what administrators wanted. In 1973, Director Porter Kier decided to shut down the nascent Quaternary Hall and assemble a new team to redesign it. A group of geologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and education specialists reworked the exhibit into an interdisciplinary exploration of the ice ages. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans were all presented as a single, holistic story. For NMNH staff, it was clear that the 1974 Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man represented the future of exhibition at the museum. From that point onward, exhibit design would be a collaborative process between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists. Moreover, the galleries themselves would be seen more like fully-formed architectural spaces, rather than modular associations of artifacts. Above all, the primary purpose of exhibits would be the education and engagement of visitors.

Planning “History of Life”

After the positive reception of the Ice Age Hall, Kier were eager to retool the rest of the ever-popular paleontology galleries in the same manner. In early 1977, he appointed fossil cnidarian specialist Ian Macintyre to chair a committee of curators tasked with devising an overarching plan for the exhibit renovation. Joining Macintyre was Daniel Appelman (geology), Robery Emry (fossil mammals), Leo Hickey (fossil plants), Nicholas Hotton (fossil reptiles), Kenneth Towe (early atmosphere), and Thomas Waller (fossil mollusks). In June, the group submitted their theme statement:

The fundamental theme which has been developed in the context of a single all-encompassing hall is the history of the progress of life as revealed by the geological record in terms of:

  1. The great periods of time involved in the evolution of life forms preserved
  2. The changing environmental conditions associated with the evolutionary process
  3. The increase in diversity and complexity of life forms

The phrase “all-encompassing hall” is key. The curators agreed that, unlike the 1962 iteration, the new exhibit should have a single voice and follow a single narrative. This decision was influenced not only by changing expectations for exhibits, but also by recent developments in their own department. The NMNH Division of Paleontology had been disbanded in 1963, and paleontologists were reorganized into the Department of Paleobiology. The new title represented a push among research staff to focus less on descriptive systematics and more on how the fossil record can inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. Macintyre’s team wanted to bring the same change of focus to the new exhibit.

Visitor map of NMNH ground floor, circa 1982. Adapted from Yochelson 1985.

The curators spent the next year hashing out the hall in further detail. Early on, the group agreed that an illustrated column of geologic time should be the exhibit’s centerpiece. This would eventually manifest as the “Tower of Time,” with key artwork provided by John Gurche. The group also decided to break the main “progress of life” concept into several smaller storylines, which they counterintuitively called “highlights.” The highlights would include “The Earliest Traces of Life,” “Conquest of the Land,” “Reptiles: Masters of the Land,” “Living Fossils,” “Fossils and Industry,” and “Mammals in the Limelight,” among others.

Each highlight would correspond to a part of the east wing exhibit space. The central, high-ceilinged hall 2 would be occupied by Reptiles: Masters of the Land, which included the dinosaurs, as well as a substantial display of of Paleozoic marine invertebrates at the rotunda-side entrance. A new mezzanine and ramp over hall 2 would include Living Fossils, Fossils and Industry, the evolution of flight, and fossil fishes. Hall 4 would feature Earliest Traces of Life and Conquest of the Land. Mammals in the Limelight would occupy hall 3, and hall 5 would remain empty for the time being. For practical reasons, the highlights would each be overseen by a different subcommittee of specialists, and they would be built and unveiled on a staggered schedule. Still, the main committee would oversee the entire process and make sure the writing and visual design of each section came across as parts of a cohesive whole.

John Gurche’s Tower of Time was the centerpiece of the exhibit. Photo by Mary Parrish. Source

Between the lines, the need to include dinosaurs was apparently seen as a nuisance by at least some of the curators. There were no dinosaur specialists on the exhibit team, and indeed, NMNH had not employed one since Gilmore retired in 1945. Although the dinosaur renaissance was picking up speed by the late 70s, for NMNH paleontologists dinosaurs were overexposed and less interesting than their own research subjects. The museum’s eleven dinosaur mounts were decades-old relics, but their popularity among visitors obligated the curators to include them. Disarticulating and remounting the skeletons was not in the budget, and many of the dinosaurs were too big to cart out of the hall in one piece. That left the exhibit team with the unenviable task of finding places for the existing mounts in addition to all the new specimens and models they wanted to add, while still leaving enough room for visitors to get around. As internal legend has it, the giant slab of Climactichnites tracks was placed at the front of hall 2 specifically to block the view of the dinosaurs from the rotunda.

You’ll look at invertebrate fossils first, and you’ll like it! Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Although Macintyre and his curator colleagues were the only formal members of the exhibit committee, the Department of Exhibits was also involved from the start. Exhibits staff at NMNH had increased from six people in the 1960s to over 30 by 1985. This expanded force included all manner of artists, architects, industrial designers, and communications specialists, and they had an impressive on-site workshop to make use of their talents. In the 1980s, everything from silk-screened signage to cabinetry to dioramas could be created in-house. However, the increased professionalization of exhibits specialists required curators to relinquish some of the control they historically had over displays.

This, unfortunately, led to the two departments regularly butting heads. Curators complained that exhibits staff did not know enough of the science, and that the ideas they were generating simplified content to the point of being inaccurate. Meanwhile, exhibits staff had to deal with the fact that the curators had final approval authority over all content, but typically saw the exhibit work as secondary to their research obligations. Deadlines were routinely missed, leading to frenzied, last-minute crunch periods. The result was signage with avoidable errors making it the exhibit floor, and a culture of finger pointing in all directions.

This clay and paper model of the reconfigured hall 2 was produced during the planning period. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (but the terrible photo is my fault).

John Elliot’s Diana of the Tides fresco was briefly visible during the renovation of hall 2. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Two postdoctoral research associates – Jessica Harrison and George Stanley – were brought on board to help with the exhibit design and construction. Harrison and Stanley had offices in both the Exhibits and Paleobiology departments, and were well-liked by both groups of staff. The most difficult part of their job was drafting label copy. Text had to be rewritten again and again to please educators who found it too technical and content specialists who demanded more precision and detail. Harrison in particular was widely praised for effectively explaining scientific concepts to the exhibits staff and for guiding the key themes of the exhibit from concept to completion.

Specimens and Artwork

The east wing exhibits formally closed for renovation on May 29, 1979. In spite of the administrative-level disagreements, the museum’s technical staff was producing great creative work in short order. The recent expansion of the Department of Exhibits meant that nearly everything that went into the exhibit was created in-house (today, large exhibits are created largely in collaboration with contractors). Only the biggest construction projects, such as the addition of a mezzanine over hall 2, had to be contracted out.

Arnie Lewis puts the finishing touches on Eryops. Photo from Smith 1994.

Scores of never-before-exhibited specimens were prepared for Fossils: History of Life. Examples include a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite from Australia, the reconstructed jaws of Carcharocles megalodon, and curator Nicholas Hotton’s beloved Thrinaxodon fossil, which he called “baby doll.” Preparator Arnold Lewis led the creation of the new mounted skeletons, which included Eryops and Strobodon. Some existing mounts were updated, including Dimetrodon, which was given a longer tail. The most ambitious new mount was Allosaurus, or as Hotton insisted on calling it, “Antrodemus.” The Allosaurus (USNM 4734) came to NMNH in the 1890s with the rest of the Marsh collection, but only the skull and a few other pieces had ever been displayed. Lewis spent two years creating the mount. He started by preparing the bones that had never been completely freed from the matrix they were found in. After laying the skeleton out in a giant sandbox, Lewis secured the bones one at a time to a custom steel armature. This form-fitting structure proved to be almost invisible against the dark grey bones. Unlike most theropod mounts of the time, Lewis’s Allosaurus included belly ribs, modeled in rubber after those of a crocodile.

Antro – er, Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

Fossils: History of Life also called for a number of new paintings and dioramas. Peter Sawyer painted a cyclorama of a primordial Archean landscape for the Earliest Traces of Life section. Robert Hynes contributed several murals, as well, including a beach scene and a Cooksonia marsh for Conquest of the Land. In addition to the key art on the Tower of Time, John Gurche provided illustrations for the horse evolution cul-de-sac and the backdrop for a new lungfish diorama. Jay Matternes’ Cenozoic murals were carried over from the old exhibit.

Sawyer’s recreation of Archean Greenland. Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Diorama depicting the earliest land vertebrates, with a background by John Gurche. Photo by the author.

George Merchand’s marine dioramas and Norman Deaton’s dinosaur dioramas were reused, while the NMNH exhibits shop produced several brand new displays. In addition to the aforementioned lungfish scene, these included a recreation of the Burgess Shale environment and a group of eurypterids patrolling the Silurian shallows. There was also a walk-through diorama of a Cretaceous Maryland forest, featuring reconstructions of some of the earliest flowering plants.

The Smithsonian’s central exhibit shop handled the most challenging projects. Their biggest contribution was the life-sized Quetzalcoatlus model. The artists started with a clay miniature, then moved on to a 1/6th scale fiberglass model. With final approval from Nicholas Hotton and Jessica Harrison, the team moved on to the 40-foot final version. The wings were constructed like those of airplanes, with a hollow steel rod supporting wood and aluminum trusses. The wing membranes were plastic, and translucent in the right light. The head and legs were sculpted in clay then cast in plastic, and the body was covered in deer fur. Exhibits Central also built a set of cycads to accompany the historic Stegosaurus model. Several of these were real conifers, freeze dried and covered in glycerin.

How to built a Quetzalcoatlus in the late 70s. Photos from Kopper 1982.

Finally, Fossils: History of Life included some of NMNH’s first forays into video displays. The “Enter Life” film explored possible scenarios for biogenesis. An animated film starring “Frank Anchorfish” and “Arthur Pod” (voiced by DC-area newscasters) was a whimsical take on the challenges of moving from the aquatic to the terrestrial realm. A popular, albeit short lived, part of the exhibit was “A Star is Hatched,” which featured clips from Hollywood dinosaur movies accompanied by discussion of dinosaurs’ pop culture significance.

Legacy

On April 17, 1980, Hall 4 – with exhibits covering the origins of life, the transition to life on land, and Paleozoic and Mesozoic plants – was the first part of the east wing to reopen. The dinosaur-filled hall 2 followed on December 4, 1981. These initial phases of Fossils: History of Life were generally well-received by the public, although some media critics scoffed at the silly puns and cultural references in the label copy (“A duckbill in every pot,” “the better to eat you with, my dear,” and so forth). Robert Emry took over for Ian Macinyre as lead curator for the final phase of development and construction. After a few delays, Mammals in the Limelight in hall 3 was ready for visitors on May 30, 1985.

Behind the scenes, the occasionally tense working relationships and difficulty meeting deadlines contributed to major changes to how exhibits are put together at NMNH. When Richard Fiske took over as Director in 1983, he promoted Beth Miles, Sheila Mutchler, and Sue Voss from the Department of Exhibits to formal members of the paleontology exhibit team. A dedicated project manager position was added, and formal guidelines were prepared for exhibit-related duties. A key part of this formalized exhibit protocol was explicit acknowledgement that exhibits (not research and collections) are the public face of the museum and therefore the primary impetus for public support. Maintaining that support meant creating visitor-focused exhibits that are as relatable, educational, and entertaining as possible. This effectively killed the old idea of exhibits as mere showrooms for collections. Research and collections staff were no less important to the identity and purpose of the museum, but as far as exhibits were concerned their content knowledge would have to go hand in hand with other kinds of expertise. Exhibits and education specialists took leadership roles on future exhibit projects, a system which remains in place to this day.

A Callixylon trunk was a focal point in hall 4. Photo by Chip Clark.

Fossils: History of Life saw many changes over its 33 year life span. A Star is Hatched was one of the first displays to go. While popular among visitors, scientific staff hated the film because it trivialized exhibit content and featured long-outdated images of dinosaurs (interacting with modern humans, no less). The theater built for A Star is Hatched was eventually demolished and replaced with a windowed fossil prep lab, which became one of the most popular parts of the exhibit complex. An enclosure housing a live caiman in the Living Fossils area of the mezzanine only lasted as long as the animal. When the caiman died, the exhibit was boarded up and never replaced. Later, the Flowering Plant Revolution area – including the walk-through diorama – was dismantled to make way for a concessions stand. The largest addition to the east wing was Life in the Ancient Seas, an exhibit of marine fossils that filled the unused portion of hall 5. Completed in 1990, Life in the Ancient Seas nearly doubled the number of specimens in the fossil halls and added a splash of color with Ely Kish’s 150-foot mural of extinct marine life.

Hall 2 in 2013, with Stan the T. rex and the revised Hatcher the Triceratops in place. Photo by the author.

More recently, three of the historic dinosaur mounts were taken off exhibit and replaced with updated casts. Triceratops, Camptosaurus, and Stegosaurus had been on display since 1905, 1912, and 1913, respectively, and a century of vibration from passing crowds and fluctuating temperature and humidity had taken their toll on the fragile fossils. Ralph Chapman took the opportunity to turn the Triceratops into the world’s first digitized dinosaur, pioneering a process that is standard practice today. The Triceratops that returned to the hall in 1999 was made from foam and plastic molded directly from digital scans of the original fossils. It was accompanied by a mini-exhibit that explained how the new mount was made, and featured artwork by Bob Walters in addition to several new original and cast skulls. Shortly thereafter, NMNH acquired a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus as a conciliation prize for missing out on SueCamptosaurus and Stegosaurus were removed and replaced more quietly, but these mounts are of note because much of the casting and restoration work was done by a crew of veteran volunteers.

The mezzanine over hall 2 was closed for safety reasons after a 2011 earthquake. These exhibits never reopened, which meant that visitors could no longer see the pterosaurs, phytosaurs, and Xiphactinus. In the exhibit’s final years, an assortment of new signs were added, including updates to geologic time scale and an explanation of the dinosaur-bird connection. Unfortunately, these updates amounted to little more than bandaids for an increasingly tired exhibit.

Hall 3’s Mammals in the Limelight was delayed for over a year but finally opened in 1985. Photo by the author.

In retrospect, Fossils: History of Life was conceived at an inopportune time. Some aspects, like the focus on biology and evolution rather than classical systematics, were cutting-edge. However, much of the exhibit content was quickly outmoded by sweeping changes to the field of paleontology that occurred during the 80s and 90s. Conservative ideas about dinosaur endothermy and bird evolution were obsolete within a decade, as was much of the pre-cladistics taxonomy and the central theme of evolution as progress. The exhibit team could not have known how different our understanding of paleontology would be just a few years after the renovated halls debuted.

Moreover, the fact that Fossils: History of Life was built over the skeleton of the 1963 renovation (which was, in turn, built on top of the original east wing exhibits) proved to be a significant handicap. Since the space was never completely gutted, the designers had to work around existing specimens and structures, such as the 80-foot Diplodocus and the three separate doorways off of the rotunda. As a result, creating a logical path for visitors to follow through the halls proved impossible. Updates and additions to the exhibit only exacerbated the issue. As it stood in its final years, there was no way to view Fossils: History of Life in historical order without repeatedly doubling back. Bottlenecks that impeded traffic flow were also a problem, especially during mid-afternoon rush hour at the T. rex.

Despite these issues, Fossils: History of Life was seen – and loved – by tens of millions of visitors during its 34 years on display. After many false starts, in 2012 NMNH was finally able to secure the funding needed to overhaul the east wing properly. For the first time, the five galleries are getting a top-to-bottom revamp: every specimen has been removed and every corner of the exhibit has been redesigned, word by word and inch by inch. The bad news was that this process would take five years. Word about the lengthy closing resulted in minor outrage, particularly from parents of young children. After four decades of designing, building, maintaining, and updating the hall, Museum staff understood completely. As Director Kirk Johnson told the Washington Post, “it’s an iconic, favorite space. People have made lots of memories here.”

Additional photos are below.

*Please note that this is my personal blog and I am solely responsible for its content. For official information from NMNH and the Smithsonian Institution please see  Digging the Fossil Record and the Department of Paleobiology.

References

Bohaska, S. 2013. Personal communication.

Kopper, P. 1982. The National Museum of Natural History: A Smithsonian Museum. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

Park, E. 1981. A Remarkable Tower of Time Tells the Story of Evolution. Smithsonian Magazine. December 1981, pp. 99 –114.

Parrish, M. 2014. Memories of John Gurche at the National Museum of Natural History. Journal of Natural Science Illustration. 2014:1. https://gnsi.org/journal/memories-john-gurche-national-museum-natural-history

Parrish, M. 2017. Personal communication.

Post, R.C. 2013. Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Smith, N. 1994. Official Guide to the National Museum of Natural History/National Museum of Man. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

1986. Statement by the Secretary. Smithsonian Year 1985: Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ended September 30, 1985. Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution.

Thomson, P. 1985. Auks, Rocks, and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. New York,  NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Wolf, R.L. and Tymitz, B.L. 1978. Whatever Happened to the Giant Wombat: An Investigation of the Impact of the Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man Exhibit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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 dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart

Bath Time for Sue

I moved to the Chicago area a couple months ago, and yesterday I witnessed a very important event that only happens twice a year. I am referring, of course, to Field Museum Collections Manager Bill Simpson dusting the mounted skeleton of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex.

It’s unusual for a collections manager to personally perform this sort of basic maintenance at an institution the size of the Field Museum, but Simpson makes an exception for Sue. He has been in charge of the dinosaur’s well-being since the half-prepared fossils arrived in Chicago in October 1997, and has been cleaning the mounted skeleton twice a year since it was unveiled in 2000. The cleaning schedule is a compromise between the exhibits and geology departments. Exhibits would have Sue polished up more often, but the collections staff advise that the delicate fossils be touched as infrequently as possible.

Simpson blows dust off of Sue with a portable vacuum.

The cleaning process took about 90 minutes. Simpson accessed the mount by way of a scissor lift, about six feet off the floor. With the help of two assistants (one to man the lift and one to keep track of an extension cord), he used a portable vacuum to blow air on the fossils, unsettling any dust that had accumulated. Notably, Simpson took care not to bring the vacuum within twelve inches of the specimen, and never touched the fossils directly. After repeating this process eight or nine times from different vantage points around the mount, Simpson exited the lift and climbed onto the platform, going after some of the harder-to-reach crevices with a feather duster.

Truth be told, the process isn’t that interesting. I was a little embarrassed to stand around watching for as long as I did. Like most things with Sue, T. rex cleaning day is an example of really good marketing on the part of the Field Museum. Dusting is pretty standard upkeep, and I’m aware of no other museum that puts it on their public calendar. But for the fossil the world knows by name, even this basic maintenance is newsworthy. Indeed, Sue’s semiannual dusting seems to generate a major news story almost every year.

Sue’s ribs get a gentle dusting.

As the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found and the onetime subject of an ugly four-way legal battle, Sue has been been famous since its discovery in 1990. The Field Museum won the specimen at auction in October 1997 and has been leveraging its star power ever since. A frenzy of reporters greeted the truck delivering Sue to Chicago a few days after the auction. Millions of visitors watched the fossils being prepared in a windowed lab at the Field Museum and a satellite facility at Disney World in Orlando. A naming contest (for a time, it appeared that the name “Sue” might not be legally available) generated an overwhelming 6,000 entries. And when the mounted skeleton was finally unveiled on May 17, 2000, 10,000 visitors came to see Sue in a single day. The week-long press junket saw visits from Bill Clinton and Steven Spielberg, and the Field Museum’s annual attendance soared that year from 1.6 to 2.4 million.

Sue remains a media magnet to this day. Headlines about the dinosaur are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SuetheTrex twitter account has 30,000 followers and counting. Sue has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When the Field Museum’s corporate partners paid seven figures for Sue, they weren’t just buying the museum a display specimen, they were creating an icon. Sue is a blockbuster attraction that brings visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness is continuously marketed for additional earned income. For example, there are now two different Sue-themed beers available!

Why isn’t Akeley elephant cleaning day a thing?

As I’ve discussed before, fossil mounts occupy a tenuous middle ground between conflicting identities. These composites of rock and plaster and steel are at once scientific specimens, works of art, and cultural touchstones. Sue takes this contradiction to previously unseen levels. On one hand, Sue the specimen is the subject of more scientific papers than any other Tyrannosaurus, and has contributed enormously to our understanding of dinosaur life history, histology, and pathology. On the other hand, Sue is a towering icon seen by 25 million Field Museum visitors of all ages. Its likeness appears on shirts, snow globes, and the aforementioned beer. And on the third hand, the Sue twitter account is, at this very moment, posting pictures of Jeff Goldblum for some reason. And that’s not even getting into Sue’s pre-Field Museum identities. Depending on who you ask, Sue could be the one that got away, a close call, a symbol of government overreach, or a harbinger of the fossil poaching crisis.

As former Field Museum president John McCarter put it, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish.” Natural history museums hold immense collections in the public trust that record the world’s biodiversity. This task is neither simple nor cheap. Leveraging star attractions like Sue generates income and perhaps equally important, public interest and goodwill, which makes the less overtly captivating functions of the museum possible. The Field Museum has a great thing going with Sue, and I’m all for pushing it even further. Vials of Sue dust bunnies in the gift shop, anyone?

References

Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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

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

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Filed under dinosaurs, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, theropods

The Field Museum Shuffles its Dinosaurs

Rendering of Patagotitan and the Sue remount. Source

This morning, The Field Museum of Natural History announced two big changes to its dinosaur exhibits. First, the indispensable Sue the Tyrannosaurus will move from its prime location in the central Stanley Field Hall and into Evolving Planet, the museum’s permanent paleontology exhibit. Next, a cast of the South American sauropod Patagotitan will take Sue’s place in the main hall. Sue will be disassembled just a few months from now in February 2018. Patagotitan will be installed later next year, and Sue’s new home on the second floor opens in Spring 2019 (perhaps deliberately, this is within weeks of the National Fossil Hall’s reopening at the Smithsonian).

Sue has been the Field Museum’s defining attraction since the skeleton was acquired in 1997. It is the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found, but it is also more than a natural history specimen. Sue is part of the pantheon of Chicago landmarks, and the public’s association of the mount with the city it resides in has all but eclipsed the legal battle that preceeded it’s acquisition.

The current Sue mount has a touch of “grenade-swallowing syndrome.” Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Sue mount that has been on display for 17 years is not perfect. Assembled by Phil Fraley Productions, the mount has been the subject of grumbling among tyrannosaur specialists for years: the coracoids are too far apart, the furcula is incorrectly placed, the posterior ribs are unnaturally bowed out, and so forth. Happily, Sue will be getting thoroughly updated during the move. In addition to correcting the various anatomical problems, the new mount will reintroduce Sue to its gastralia (belly ribs), which have been displayed separately since 2000, and change her crouching pose to a standing one. As Collections Manager Bill Simpson explains in the announcement video, “we now know more about how a T. rex skeleton should look and Sue is going to reflect those changes.”

Sue 2.0 will take over the second floor space occupied by the recently shuttered 3-D theater. Accessible as an annex to the dinosaur section of Evolving Planet, the Sue exhibit will contextualize the Tyrannosaurus with other fossils from the Hell Creek Formation.

Rendering of Patagotitan in the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Patagotitan is the same animal that the American Museum of Natural History billed as “the titanosaur” two years ago. Argentina’s newest megasauropod was first announced in 2014 but was formally named and published by José Carballido and colleagues just three weeks ago. While not technically the biggest known sauropod, Patagotitan is the only dinosaur in its class known  from reasonably complete remains. The skeleton itself will be more or less identical to the cast Research Casting International produced for AMNH. However, instead of being crammed into a small room, this Patagotitan will have space to stretch out, its neck craning to look over the second story mezzanine. The Field Museum exhibits team also wants visitors to be able to walk under and even touch the cast skeleton.

What do I think about all this (asked nobody)? I’m thrilled with the plans for Sue – it’s great that even though Sue is such an important symbol for the Field Museum, they don’t consider it a static piece. Much credit is due for the museum’s willingness to invest in their star attraction by keeping it up to the latest scientific standard. In addition, I never entirely liked how disassociated Sue was from the rest of the paleontology displays, and it’s nice to know that somebody at the museum must have felt the same way. There’s something to be said for giving the skeleton pride of place, but ultimately I think museumgoers will be better served by seeing Sue contextualized within the story of life on Earth.

While I love me some megasauropods, I can’t help but be less excited by the Patagotitan. I realize that most people don’t go to every natural history museum, but two identical casts already exist. To be fair, the Field Museum Patagotitan will be in a very different setting from its AMNH predecessor (although it may turn out rather like the Royal Ontario Museum Futalognkosaurus). Still, I would rather have seen something more unique to the Field Museum. One idea would be to bring back the Brachiosaurus reconstruction, and display it side-by-side with a remount of the historic Apatosaurus currently in Evolving Planet. Both specimens are tied to the museum’s own expeditionary history, and together would tell the remarkable story of Elmer Riggs. The Apatosaurus in particular could anchor a Field Museum retrospective, while images of the three different locations it has been displayed in since 1908.

The last time a sauropod graced the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Somebody more cynical than me might point out that switching up iconic displays is becoming a predictable way for museums to generate press and manufacture controversy. For example, the Natural History Museum in London got no less than three media splashes when they announced Dippy the Diplodocus was to be replaced, actually removed Dippy, and finally unveiled the remounted blue whale in Hintze Hall earlier this summer. Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made that stirring up public reactions in this way is an effective way to keep the people interested in their museums. As Field Museum president Richard Lariviere told the Chicago Tribune, “the public doesn’t understand that the science…we convey is changing on an almost hourly basis here. I talk to people all the time who think that since they’ve been to the Field Museum 10 years ago they’ve seen it. By transforming the central space, we hope to convey that exact message.”

At any rate, we’re in for some great new dinosaur displays at the Field Museum over the next couple years. What do you think of the upcoming changes?

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, sauropods, theropods

A Tour of Dinosaur Park

I generally use this blog to write about other people’s work, but today I’m going to turn the tables and share a project I’ve been involved with for the past couple years. As of this month, the new interpretive area at Laurel, Maryland’s Dinosaur Park is (just about) complete. I’m proud of my own contributions, and ecstatic with all the work my immeasurably talented and dedicated colleagues have done to bring this project to fruition.

Introductory sign at Dinosaur Park.

Dinosaur Park is a 41-acre site operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission that preserves the most productive dinosaur fossil quarry in the eastern United States. Historically known as the Muirkirk quarry, this location has been a known source of dinosaur material since 1858. Fossils were first discovered by ironworkers collecting siderite for processing at the nearby Muirkirk ironworks. Later, O.C. Marsh, John Bell Hatcher, Charles Gilmore, Richard Lull and other prominent paleontologists would collect or study fossils from this deposit. The site was largely forgotten for most of the 20th century, but in the 1980s Peter Kranz, Tom Lipka, and others relocated it and began unearthing new material. Highlights included a massive sauropod femur, basal ceratopsian teeth, and the only Mesozoic mammal fossils ever found east of the Mississippi River.

The Muirkirk quarry produced some of the first dinosaur fossils to be scientifically studied in North America, and as such conceptions of its position in geologic time have understandably changed over the years. Marsh assumed the site was Jurassic in age because of the presence of sauropods, but Gilmore later revised it to Cretaceous. Based on pollen data, we can now place the site (and the Patuxant Formation as a whole) at the Aptian-Albian boundary in the Lower Cretaceous. Contrary to older proposals, the Muirkirk dinosaur fauna has more in common with the middle strata of the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah than the Wealden Group in England.

Excavating a sauropod femur at the future site of Dinosaur Park in 1991. Photo courtesy of Pete Kroehler.

Dinosaur Park fossils aren’t much to look at, but they are remarkable for their diversity. This is a record of a complete ecosystem.

Thanks to some determined lobbying, the M-NCPPC (a bi-county organization that administers parks and urban planning) acquired the Muirkirk site and formally dedicated Dinosaur Park in October 2008. From its inception, Dinosaur Park was conceived as a citizen science project. During school programs and regularly scheduled open houses, visitors are invited to take part in ongoing prospecting for fossils. These programs emphasize stewardship of natural heritage, rather than treasure hunting, and to date visitors have discovered thousands of specimens. All of these fossils are accessioned into the county’s collection for research and education, and important specimens are turned over to the National Museum of Natural  History for final curation (search the NMNH Paleobiology collections database for “Arundel” to view this material).

Citizen scientists prospecting for fossils at Dinosaur Park.

Back in 2008, there wasn’t much to Dinosaur Park beyond the fossil site, a protective fence, and a small gravel parking lot. There were always plans to further develop the site, however, and thanks to the Park’s ongoing popularity we were able to kick off the phase II construction in 2016. The project involved developing the entrance area with exhibits and visitor amenities. There wasn’t a lot of space to work with, and the new facilities would have to do double duty: they needed to be useful both during guided programs and for drop-in visitors during the week (when the fossil site is closed). We ended up with an integrated, multipurpose space incorporating a series of exhibit signs, a garden of “living fossil” plants, a presentation area, a climbable dinosaur skeleton, two picnic benches, and a restroom and drinking fountain.

A number of additions were – to the probable annoyance of my colleagues –  the result of me piping up with a last-minute “wouldn’t it be cool if…” suggestion. That’s how we ended up with a life-sized image of the Astrodon femur discovered by the Norden  family in 1991, a trail of sauropod footprints, and a series of displays about baby sauropods (perhaps there’s a theme there?).

The garden, play area, and other new facilities at Dinosaur Park.

One of several new interpretive signs.

The content of the exhibit signs was directly informed by formal and informal visitor surveys. We took note of visitors’ most frequent questions, as well as which parts of our old displays were being ignored or misunderstood. For example, lots of visitors wanted to know about the biggest or most important fossils found at the Park. These weren’t illustrated on our old signs, but they’re integral parts of the new ones. Meanwhile, very few visitors were engaging with content about local geology, so those sections ended up being cut.

A section of Shoe’s masterful Cretaceous Maryland mural. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

For me, and hopefully many visitors, the highlight of the new displays is the spectacular mural created by Clarence “Shoe” Schumaker. Shoe has produced artwork for numerous parks and museums, including several National Park Service facilities, but to my knowledge he had never painted dinosaurs before. Nevertheless, he approached the project with unquenchable enthusiasm, determined to get every detail correct. Working with Shoe was a fantastic experience – I would send him my hasty sketches and random ideas and he would somehow turn them into spectacular imagery. Our goal was to produce an image that would be at home in any nature center. This is an overview of an ecosystem, and the presence of dinosaurs is only by happenstance. The final piece is mesmerizing, and I think its hyper-detailed placidity gives it a certain Zallinger-like quality.

The finished mural was so cool that I couldn’t help but ask for more. One under-reported virtue of the Dinosaur Park collection is that we have sauropod remains from a variety of ages and sizes – from 70-foot adults to tiny hatchlings. I suggested a single image of a baby sauropod to help illustrate these animals’ remarkable growth potential. Shoe turned around and produced two full paintings and a life-sized model. The man is seriously unstoppable.

Shoe’s 2D and 3D baby Astrodon art. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

It’s been a wonderful experience seeing the Dinosaur Park interpretive area come together, and the few places where compromises were made are vastly overshadowed by the many prominent successes. Dinosaur Park is an important resource, both for growing our knowledge of prehistory and for introducing the local community to the process of scientific discovery. I can’t wait to see it continue to grow!

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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work

Do fossil exhibits have too many dinosaurs?

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

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

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

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

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

Field Museum of Natural History

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

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

National Museum of Natural History

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

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

American Museum of Natural History

gallery usage at amnh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acrocanthosaurus, the Terror of the South

Acrocanthosaurus at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

Following yesterday’s travelogue about the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science (NCSM), I thought I’d go into a little more depth about the museum’s star fossil. One of only five Acrocanthosaurus specimens ever found, NCSM 14345 is the most complete and the only one on public display. The mounted skeleton has been at the Raleigh museum since 2000. Among other things, its story highlights the challenging relationship between academic paleontologists and the private fossil trade.

Despite its current home in North Carolina, this Acrocanthosaurus hails from the town of Idabel in southeast Oklahoma, more than a thousand miles away. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love (both now deceased) discovered the skeleton in 1983. After making an arrangement with the landowner, the pair spent the next three years carefully excavating the find.

The Acrocanthosaurus was recovered from the early to mid Cretaceous rocks of the Antlers Formation. Found in a deposit of fine sandstone and dark mudstone alongside lots of lignitized wood, the animal’s final resting place was probably a stagnant swamp or pond. Additional evidence for the depositional environment comes from the way the bones are preserved. They contain a great deal of pyrite, and were encrusted with dense concretions of calcium carbonate. Both of these minerals are formed by bacteria blooms in low-oxygen locales, such as the mud at the bottom of a swamp. Gouges in the skull, ribs, and foot indicate scavengers – crocodiles and possibly other Acrocanthosaurus – were feeding on the carcass before it was buried.

All told, the find included a complete skull (the only one of its kind), the pelvis and sacral vertebrae, both arms and shoulder girdles, the right leg, and parts of the rib cage and tail. Paleontologist Richard Cifelli of the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma became aware of the discovery in 1987. Cifelli initially hoped that the museum could acquire the specimen for study and safekeeping, but Hall and Love’s asking price was beyond their means. Instead, Hall and Love loaned the fossils to the University of Texas. They were unsatisfied with this arrangement, however, and drove down to Austin to retrieve their dinosaur (the details of this event are apparently contentious). Hall and Love then sold the fossils to Geological Enterprises, a for-profit outfit based in Ardmore, Oklahoma, for $225,000 plus the promise of a cast once the prep work was completed. Geological Enterprises founder A. Allen Graffham gave the specimen the nickname “Fran,” after his wife.

The meticulously reconstructed Acrocanthosaurus skull. Photo by the author.

The calcium carbonate concretions and heavy pyrite content made the Acrocanthosaurus a particularly challenging fossil to prepare. The concretions are like natural cement and are very difficult to remove without damaging the bones. Meanwhile, pyrite breaks down into sulfur when exposed to oxygen and humidity, which can cause bones to crumble. In 1991, Graffham outsourced the preparation job to the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. Terry Wentz led the preparation project at BHI, which was reportedly one of the most challenging assignments of his career. The concretions encrusting the bones were so dense that they often had to be ground off, rather than chipped. This process could take several hours just to remove a few millimeters of calcium carbonate. To make matters worse, removing pyrite releases acidic particulates into the air. Preparators had to wear respirators and the bones had to be prepared in vacuum boxes.

The most daunting part of the project was reconstructing the specimen’s beautiful and intact skull. Although virtually complete, the skull was found crushed flat. Everyone involved agreed that the skull would be more informative and more impressive if it could be reinflated, but that was easier said then done. Over a year of work went into carefully separating the individual skull bones and reassembling them into their life position.

After five years of what was probably one of the most difficult fossil prep jobs ever attempted, the Acrocanthosaurus was ready to be sold. However, Graffham initially had trouble finding a buyer. There were interested parties in Japan, but he reportedly did not want the fossils to leave the United States.

On October 4, 1997, another well-preserved theropod skeleton went up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Sue – the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found – was already legendary thanks to the protracted legal battle over the fossils. Now that the one-of-a-kind skeleton was being sold at a high profile auction, paleontologists feared that it would disappear into the hands of a private collector. On the night of the auction, most of the museums and other public repositories in the running were outbid within minutes. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Science appeared to be the only museum left after the price topped $5 million, and so the hopes of the paleontological community rested on their shoulders. NCSM dropped out at $7.2 million, and moments later Richard Gray, a veteran of art auctions, won Sue on behalf of a mysterious client. Happily, that client turned out to be the Field Museum (with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney), and so Sue ended up in a public repository after all.

The Acrocanthosaurus and its sauropod companion can be seen from the ground and from a balcony. Photo by the author.

Still, NCSM had been willing to stake an enormous amount of money on a name brand dinosaur, and they weren’t about to give up. Two months after the Sue auction, the Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought the Acrocanthosaurus from Graffham’s company for $3 million. BHI prepared the mount, which debuted along with the rest of the museum’s new building on April 7, 2000. It may not be coincidental that this was just one month before the mounted skeleton of Sue was unveiled in Chicago.

The Acrocanthosaurus occupies a well-lit, circular atrium on the museum’s third floor. Visible both from the ground and from a balcony, the mount is accompanied by a rather goofy-looking sauropod statue. Model pterosaurs circle overhead on a rotating arm, and recreations of theropod and sauropod tracks from Dinosaur State Park in Paluxy, Texas can be seen throughout the room. The original skull is on display in a case outside the atrium.

Sadly, pyrite deterioration has continued to ravage the delicate fossils. Several of the original bones once included in the NCSM mount have been retired to the collections for safekeeping. As of this year, only the arms, right foot, and vertebrae appear to be original material. The rest have been replaced with casts.

Exhibit signs have also changed since the 2000 debut. NCSM exhibits staff learned from surveys that 80% of visitors thought the dinosaur on display was a T. rex, and plenty more assumed the whole skeleton was a replica. In response, most of the signage was redesigned. The displays now highlight the differences between “Acro” and T. rex, and highlight the exceptional rarity of the museum’s Acrocanthosaurus specimen.

A number of NCSM 14345 casts are on display at museums throughout North America, including the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Houston Museum of Nature and Science, and the Kenosha Public Museum. As promised, Hall and Love were awarded a complete cast of the skeleton,  but without the means to assemble or display it, the replica sat in storage for several years. Eventually, local third and fourth graders successfully raised the $150,000 needed to display the cast at the Museum of the Red River in Idabel.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

Fossils are precious remains of real organisms, clues about ecosystems from long ago and the making of the world as we know it today. In an ideal world, all significant fossils would, from the moment of their discovery, be accessioned and held in a public collection at a museum or university. A fossil sitting on somebody’s mantelpiece or waiting to be sold at auction is doing nothing to grow our collective knowledge. However, public institutions don’t have the resources to find and excavate every fossil, and in the United States fossils found on private land belong to the landowners. That means that, for better or worse, there is a thriving commercial market for rare fossils.

A plurality of paleontologists do not engage with fossil dealers for ethical reasons. Indeed, even if they wanted to buy rare specimens, academic institutions can seldom match the prices individual collectors are willing to pay. Museums don’t usually have $3 million sitting around. That kind of money could fund a whole research team for years. As such, we’re left with a Catch-22. Paleontologists want important fossils to be in museums where they can be seen and studied by everyone. But if those fossils are in private hands, buying them would support and legitimize the industry that is also keeping fossils out of public collections. If there was an easy solution, it would have been worked out by now.

Nevertheless, serendipity occasionally strikes. This seems to have been the case with the Acrocanthosaurus. News about Sue generated interest in buying a name-brand dinosaur, and donors were willing to put up the money to get the specimen for NCSM. The skeleton is now in a public collection, at a free museum, no less. Meanwhile, the collectors were well compensated for their considerable investment. It’s hard to chalk that up as anything but a win, all around.

References

Carpenter, K. 2016. Acrocanthosaurus Inside and Out. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

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

Eddy, D.R. and Clarke, J.A. 2011. New Information on the Cranial Anatomy of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis and Its Implications for the Phylogeny of Allosauroidea (Dinosauria: Theropoda). PLoS ONE 6:3:e17932.

Lovelady, W. 2012. Every Step You Take. Exhibits and Emerging Media, North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. 

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