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 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.
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.
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.”
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.