Category Archives: sauropods

Dinosaurs of the Field Museum — Part 1

About a year ago, I wrote this post about the dinosaurs of the London Natural History Museum, admittedly in a bit of a hurry. The post has proven very popular, which leads me to conclude there’s interest in more “quick bite” articles about the specimens on display at various museums. I’ll see about putting together more of these in the future.

For now, I’ll start close to home, with the dinosaurs on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH). This entry is about the most notable specimens that were acquired outside the living memory of current staff. I’ll follow up with an article about more recent acquisitions sometime soon. It’s important to note that while I’m focusing on dinosaurs here, the real meat of the Field Museum’s vertebrate paleontology collection is in its Cenozoic holdings. Those too will need to be a topic for another time.

Brachiosaurus altithorax (P 25107)

Menke poses with the Brachiosaurus humerus, unwittingly creating an image that every subsequent sauropod worker is obligated to recreate. Photo © Field Museum.

The first dinosaur discovered by Field Museum paleontologists was nothing less than the biggest land animal known at the time. On July 4, 1900, the museum’s first paleontologist Elmer Riggs and his assistant H.W. Menke came upon a set of enormous bones in western Colorado. Riggs—who was specifically hired two years earlier to find dinosaurs for the nascent museum—named the new dinosaur Brachiosaurus altithorax in 1903. The individual bones were set in display cabinets (left image, below) around the same time. Comprising about 25% of the skeleton, Riggs did not consider the find complete enough to assemble into a standing mount. Nevertheless, the museum commissioned a replica Brachiosaurus skeleton about 90 years later, basing the missing pieces on the related Giraffatitan.

New Brachiosaurus fossils have proven elusive. While several individual bones have been found, the holotype collected by Riggs and Menke remains the most complete example of this famous dinosaur.

Apatosaurus” sp. (P 25112 and P 27021)

The Field Museum’s “Apatosaurus” is a composite of two sauropod specimens, collected 40 years apart. Photos © Field Museum.

Riggs and Menke found another sauropod in western Colorado in 1900, and returned the following year to excavate it. This time, they had the back two-thirds of an apatosaurine sauropod, complete save for the distal portions of the limbs and tail. As museum leaders were unwilling to fund a search for more sauropod material, Riggs mounted the partial skeleton in 1908 (left image, above). 

The sauropod remained in this unfinished state until the 1950s, when preparator Orville Gilpin arranged to acquire another incomplete sauropod. Gilpin had excavated the specimen with Jim Quinn near Moab, Utah in 1941, and knew that it was a perfect complement to the skeleton on display. Long-time museum president Stanley Field (nephew of founder Marshall Field) had repeatedly resisted requests from the paleontology staff to complete the mount, but allegedly relented after overhearing a visitor ask which side of the half-dinosaur was the front. Gilpin built an armature for the neck and shoulders of the newly acquired specimen (right image, above), and finished the mount with casts of Apatosaurus forelimbs and a Camarasaurus skull from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Field Museum finally had a complete sauropod on display, which was unveiled at the April 1958 Members’ Night. 

Apatosaurus” as it is currently displayed in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

In 1992, the composite sauropod was dismantled and relocated to the new Life Over Time exhibition on the other side of the building. The museum hired Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.—a now-shuttered company specializing in mounting fossil skeletons—to do the work. The updated sauropod debuted in 1994, now posed as though looking at visitors on a nearby elevated walkway. The sauropod remained in place when Life Over Time became Evolving Planet in 2006, though with the walkway gone it now appears to be admiring the Charles Knight murals on the wall.

A note on nomenclature: Riggs identified this skeleton as Apatosaurus, but the label was changed to Brontosaurus in the mid-20th century, when Apatosaurus fell out of common parlance. The name Apatosaurus returned to labels in 1994. However the most recent word on this specimen—from Tschopp et. al 2015—is that it’s not Apatosaurus nor Brontosaurus, but likely another, yet unnamed taxon.

Triceratops horridus (P 12003)

The skull of FMNH P 12003 as it is currently displayed in the SUE gallery. Photo by the author.

In 1904, Riggs moved on from the Jurassic-aged rocks of Colorado to the Cretaceous of Carter County, Montana. Today, this part of southeast Montana is lousy with paleontologists. There’s even an annual shindig for field crews held at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka. However, Riggs’ expedition was among the first to visit the region from a large museum. The most significant find of the summer was a Triceratops skull and partial skeleton from just west of the Chalk Buttes.

The skull was prepared by 1905 and has been in every iteration of the Field Museum’s paleontology halls. The unusually thick brow horns were recently confirmed to be real bone, but it’s possible that they were originally from another, larger specimen (edit: There is real bone inside the horns, but they are padded with a lot of plaster reconstruction—see comments). The remainder of the skeleton remains in storage.

Gorgosaurus libratus (PR 2211)

Elmer the Gorgosaurus as it was last displayed, in 2017’s Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life. Photo by the author.

Most collecting was paused during World War I, but shortly after the war, Marshall Field III funded new expeditions in all four of the Field Museum’s major research areas (Zoology, Botany, Geology, and Anthropology). Riggs led three of these expeditions, one to Alberta and two to Argentina and Bolivia. Riggs saw the 1922 Alberta trip as something of a practice run, since he hadn’t been in the field for some years, and some on his team had never done fieldwork at all. 

Still, the crew was serious about bringing in fossils. Riggs decided to go to the Red Deer River region of Alberta, a place where his former colleague and classmate Barnum Brown had unearthed numerous near-complete dinosaurs for the American Museum of Natural History. Riggs also hired fossil hunter George F. Sternberg, who already knew the area well, to join him on the 14-week expedition.

After returning from Alberta, Riggs was busy getting ready for the upcoming expeditions to South America, and most of the field jackets remained unopened for years, or even decades. One jacket lingered until 1999, when the large team of preparators assembled to prep SUE the T. rex decided to crack it open. 

Inside, they found the virtually complete hips, hindlimbs, and tail of a four-year-old Gorgosaurus, which they named Elmer. Riggs’ notes indicated that the skull ought to have been present, but the preparators only found a few teeth. Further investigation revealed that the partial skull had been in its own jacket with a different number, and that it had been loaned to the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. The Berkeley scientists had subsequently lost the fossil, but (fortunately) made a cast of it, which was later returned to the Field Museum. 

Elmer was included in the touring exhibition Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, and most recently in 2017’s Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life. It is currently off exhibit.

Lambeosaurus lambei (PR 380)

Lambeosaurus under prep in 1955. Photo © Field Museum.

According to Riggs, the “prize find” of the 1922 Alberta expedition was a Lambeosaurus found by Sternberg. Even in the field, it was clear that the skeleton was completely intact, save for the head, part of the neck, and the tip of the tail. Sternberg’s field notes indicate that the weathered side included a number of large skin impressions. The Lambeosaurus was jacketed and excavated in eight sections, totaling about three tons of rock and fossil.

Like Elmer the Gorgosaurus, the Lambeosaurus was left unprepared while Field Museum preparators focused on the fossils from South America. In 1947, the University of Chicago closed its geology museum and donated its collections to the Field Museum, pushing the Alberta fossils even further down the queue. Stanley Kuczek finally prepared the Lambeosaurus in 1954, when it was slated to be paired with Daspletosaurus in a new display (more below).

Kuczek prepared only the unweathered (face-down in the field) side of the skeleton, so the skin impressions Sternberg reported are still embedded in the matrix around the fossil. A Lambeosaurus skull from the University of Chicago collection (UC 1479) was used to complete the display. Sternberg’s Lambeosaurus remains the most complete non-bird dinosaur at the Field Museum, and a (perhaps unsung) highlight of the collection.

Daspletosaurus torosus (PR 308)

Nathan Cochran recently rediscovered the original “Gorgosaurus” and Lambeosaurus label, as seen in this image. Check it out here. Photo © Field Museum.

The Field Museum’s Daspletosaurus, sometimes called “Gorgeous George,” was collected by Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History in 1914. It came from the same region of Alberta that Riggs and company would visit eight years later. At the time, the partial skeleton was considered an example of Gorgosaurus, of which the New York museum already had three. In 1955, Field Museum board member Louis Ware offered to buy the American Museum’s spare tyrannosaur, and soon the fossil was on its way to Chicago.

Orville Gilpin mounted the skeleton—which has been known as Daspletosaurus since 1999—for display. He elected to create a completely free-standing mount, with no visible armature. This required drilling through each of the vertebrae to thread a steel pipe through, as well as splitting the right femur. These destructive practices would never be undertaken today, but in the mid 20th century, dinosaurs were seen as display pieces first and scientific specimens second.

Daspletosaurus in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

Like the “Apatosaurus,” Gorgeous George was revealed to the public during Members’ Night. The skeleton was placed at the south end of the museum’s central Stanley Field Hall, standing over Sternberg’s Lambeosaurus as though it had just brought down the herbivore. In 1992, Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc. remounted the Daspletosaurus in a more accurate horizontal posture, once again poised over its Lambeosaurus prey. The real skull has never been mounted on the skeleton, but it is currently on display near the museum’s east entrance.

Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus (P 27393)

Parasaurolophus in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

The Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus holotype was found by Charles Sternberg (father of George) in 1923, near Fruitland, New Mexico. It made it to the Field Museum through a series of exchanges, but was not prepared until the 1950s. John Ostrom published a description of the skeleton and partial skull in 1961, noting that it was nearly identical to Parasaurolophus walkeri from Alberta, except for the crest on the back of its head. While P. walkeri has a long, backward-projecting crest, the New Mexico species has a short crest that curves downward.

The Parasaurolophus was first exhibited in 1994, as part of Life Over Time. The 70% complete skeleton was mounted directly to a wall, with illustrations of the missing bones behind it. Ten years later, Research Casting International was brought in to turn the Parasaurolophus into a complete standing mount. As in most modern mounts, the armature is designed so that each bone can be removed individually for study or conservation. Captured in a graceful walking pose, the Parasaurolophus is—in my opinion—the most elegant and evocative dinosaur mount at the Field Museum.

References

Brinkman, P. 2000. Establishing vertebrate paleontology at Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, 1893–1898. Archives of Natural History 27:81–114.

Brinkman, P. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brinkman, P. 2013. Red Deer River shakedown: a history of the Captain Marshall Field paleontological expedition to Alberta, 1922, and its aftermath. Earth Sciences History 32:2:204-234. 

Erickson, G.M, Makovicky, P.J., Currie, P.J., Norell, M.A., Yerby, S.A., and Brochu, C.A. 2004. Gigantism and life history parameters of tyrannosaurid dinosaurs. Nature 430:722–775.

Forster, C.A. 1996. Species resolution in Triceratops: cladistic and morphometric approaches. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16:2:259–270.

Gilpin, O. 1959. A free-standing mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator: The Museum Journal 2:2:162–168.

Ostrom, J.H. 1961. A new species of hadrosaurian dinosaur from the Cretaceous of New Mexico. Journal of Paleontology 35:3:575–577.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods

Ernestine lives!

A scaffold of foreboding surrounds the Brachiosaurus cast. Photo by the author.

Earlier this year, the Brachiosaurus cast skeleton that stood on the Field Museum’s northwest terrace was retired. On display for 23 years (and 23 brutal Chicago winters), the replica was suffering from a rusting armature and extensive cracking. Deemed structurally unsound, it was dismantled the week of June 12. Though we lament the loss of the long-necked sentinel over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, the legacy of Brachiosaurus—the Field Museum’s first dinosaur—lives on.

The story of Brachiosaurus begins with the museum’s founding, nearly 130 years ago. The Field Columbian Museum opened in Chicago on June 2, 1894 as a permanent home for the collection assembled at the previous year’s World Columbian Exposition. While the collection boasted thousands of zoological, botanical, anthropological, and geological objects, it had but a single dinosaur: a replica skeleton of Hadrosaurus. Based on the original at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the model was badly out of date by the 1890s. Oliver Farrington, the Field’s original geology curator, considered it an embarrassment and petitioned director Frederick Skiff to hire a vertebrate paleontology specialist to collect better material. Skiff passed the request on the board, but was denied—with a building full of uncataloged specimens, they saw no need to obtain anything new.

The board changed their minds in 1898, when the Carnegie Museum and American Museum of Natural History announced plans to find sauropod dinosaurs for display. The resume of Elmer Riggs, a recent University of Kansas graduate with ample fossil hunting experience, happened to be on Skiff’s desk, and so Riggs was hired to collect dinosaurs for the museum.

The Brachiosaurus site in summer 1900. This excavation was particularly well-documented, thanks to Menke’s long-exposure, plate glass photographs. Photo © Field Museum, CC BY-NC.

In 1900, Riggs was prospecting near Grand Junction, Colorado with assistant Harold William Menke and camp cook Victor Dames. Their quarry was an exhibit-worthy specimen of Brontosaurus, the largest known dinosaur at that time. On July 4, Menke made a promising find: a giant limb bone that was the right size to be a Brontosaurus femur. The group began excavating and eventually revealed additional limb bones, nine-foot ribs, an articulated series of dorsal vertebrae, the sacrum, and a scattering of other bones. The course-grained, pebbly matrix suggested burial in a fast-moving river, which probably swept away the missing parts. All told, they had about 25% of a skeleton—not enough to mount for display but still worth collecting.

Once the fossils were back at the museum and undergoing preparation, Riggs confirmed something he had probably suspected in the field. Menke’s six-foot, seven-inch limb bone wasn’t a femur, it was a humerus. The humerus of Brontosaurus was well under five feet, so this animal was substantially larger. With his 1903 publication introducing Brachiosaurus altithorax to the world, Riggs emphasized its record size—and encouraged the press to make a meal of it.

Brachiosaurus was a win for the Field Museum: the first newly described dinosaur to come out of the nascent institution was also the biggest ever (a title Brachiosaurus would hold for the better part of the century). But while many of the individual bones were put on display in 1908, the holotype wasn’t complete enough to assemble into a standing mount. Instead, another find from Riggs’ 1900 Colorado expedition—the Fruita Apatosaurus—became the museum’s first mounted sauropod.

When the Field Museum was exploring the idea to create a complete replica Brachiosaurus, an unknown staffer (“M”) drew up this illustration to show how much would need to be reconstructed. This image is stitched together from multiple scans.

It would be almost ninety years before the museum revisited the prospect of putting Brachiosaurus on display. In the early 1990s, the Exhibitions department was hard at work remaking its paleontology halls from the ground up. This project would eventually open as Life Over Time in 1994, but in the meantime it was agreed that a showstopping symbol was needed outside the exhibit proper.

That showstopper could only be Brachiosaurus. The Field Museum hired Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.—a now-shuttered company specializing in mounted fossil skeletons—to make it happen. Commonly abbreviated as PAST, the company was founded by Gilles Danis, who previously created many of the Royal Tyrell Museum’s opening day exhibitions.

Fortunately for Danis and his team, there was more Brachiosaurus (and Brachiosaurus adjacent) fossil material to work with then in Riggs’ day. A handful of specimens referred to Brachiosaurus altithorax (mostly individual bones) had since turned up in the western United States, but the bulk of information came from a pair of Tanzanian skeletons. In 1914, German paleontologist Warner Janensch determined that these specimens were a second species of BrachiosaurusBrachiosaurus brancai. More recently, the Tanzanian brachiosaur has been moved to its own genus, and is now known as Giraffatitan brancai. While there are a number of key differences, Giraffatitan and Brachiosaurus are one another’s closest known relatives, making the former a reasonable reference for the unknown parts of the latter.

Ernestine the Brachiosaurus in Stanley Field Hall. Photo © Field Museum.

To reconstruct Brachiosaurus for the Field Museum, the PAST crew started by taking molds of the Brachiosaurus holotype bones. Next, Danis and Donna Sloan traveled to the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where the Giraffatitan fossils are housed. While they were not allowed to make casts, Danis and Sloan took extensive measurements. Stephen Godfrey used this information to sculpt the missing parts of Brachiosaurus, including the head, neck, tail, and feet.

A few adjustments were made along the way. First, the PAST crew inflated the limb bones slightly, so that the steel armature would fit inside. Second, the museum wanted visitors to be able to walk under the Brachiosaurus, but its torso wasn’t quite long enough to meet the minimum fire egress requirements. PAST solved the problem by quietly duplicating two of the vertebrae in the dorsal series. In an amusing twist, these stretch-limo proportions may have inadvertently been correct. Danis named the finished replica Ernestine, because “Ernestine is an awkward name and Brachiosaurus is an awkward-looking thing.”

Ernestine the Brachiosaurus has stood in the United terminal at O’Hare since 1999. Photo by the author.

On June 29, 1993 (a Tuesday), Danis, three PAST crew members, and six Field Museum staffers assembled Ernestine in the museum’s central Stanley Field Hall. Reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune were present to document the construction (scans of these articles are at the end of this post). Seven hours later, Brachiosaurus was complete, on its feet for the first time in 152 million years. At 41 feet tall, the replica skeleton was tall enough to peer over the second floor mezzanine and into the entrance to Life Over Time.

By coincidence, Ernestine’s debut was less than three weeks after the release of Jurassic Park—which happened to feature a Brachiosaurus in an iconic opening scene. The film quickly became the highest-grossing of all time, and launched a global wave of dino-mania. While he was busy finishing up and installing the Brachiosaurus, Danis was fielding calls left and right for his services. Even hotels were inquiring about putting dinosaur skeletons in their parking lots. His response? “If they can put up the cash for them, we’ll put them up!”

The outdoor Brachiosaurus on a rare sunny day. Photo by the author.

Ernestine’s stint in Stanley Field Hall wound up being short-lived. The Field Museum acquired SUE the Tyrannosaurus in 1997, and the mounted skeleton took the sauropod’s place in May 2000. Ernestine was relocated to O’Hare International Airport, where it remains today. Meanwhile, the museum commissioned a second Brachiosaurus replica to be displayed outdoors. Made from durable, all-weather plastic resin, the outdoor Brachiosaurus stood on the northwest terrace for the next 23 years. Notably, it outlasted SUE’s time in Stanley Field Hall: the Tyrannosaurus was relocated to its own gallery in 2018, and a cast of the Argentinian sauropod Patagotitan now occupies the Field Museum’s central space.

The Brachiosaurus display in the Field Museum’s Science Hub includes parts of the holotype, a replica skull, and more. Photo by the author.

Now that the outdoor Brachiosaurus replica has been retired, it’s fair to ask what’s next for the Field Museum’s first dinosaur. Ernestine will remain at the airport for the foreseeable future, but plans for the northwest terrace have not yet solidified. In the meantime, a popup exhibit rhapsodizing Brachiosaurus recently opened in the Science Hub—a rotating exhibit space where interpreters are always present. I was happy to write the labels for this display, which tells the story of Brachiosaurus from its discovery to the removal of the outdoor skeleton (in far fewer words than this post). The exhibit includes the sculpted skull of the outdoor Brachiosaurus and parts of the holotype—including the tail vertebrae, which haven’t been on public view since the 1920s. Be sure to stop by if you’re in the area, but be quick: Science Hub exhibits typically last only six months or so.

References

Brinkman, P.D. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

Engh, B. 2020. We Found a Brachiosaurus.

Riggs, E.S. 1903. Brachiosaurus: The Largest Known Dinosaur. American Journal of Science 4:15:299-306.

Simpson, W. 2022. Pers. comm.

Taylor, M.P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janesch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:3:787-806.

Taylor, M.P. 2014. Giles Danis of PAST on the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, reptiles, sauropods

The dinosaurs of London’s Natural History Museum

Founded in 1881 as an offshoot of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London is one of the world’s best-known and most-visited museums. For millions of visitors from the UK and abroad each year, NHM provides their first—sometimes only—opportunity to see a full-sized dinosaur skeleton in person. That makes the collection of dinosaurs on display uniquely important: each one is an ambassador to paleontological science and the deep history of the Earth.

For your reference and mine, what follows is a brief introduction to NHM’s dinosaurs. Please note that I have not been to NHM and this information is based on references available online.

Diplodocus carnegii (Dippy)

dip_london_2014

For 36 years, Dippy greeted visitors in Hintze Hall. Source

Most readers are probably familiar with the story of Dippy the Diplodocus. In 1898, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded an expedition to find a sauropod dinosaur for the newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Diplodocus the team uncovered the following summer was—and still is—one of the most complete sauropod skeletons ever found. Nevertheless, Carnegie lost the race for the first mounted sauropod on permanent display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite Apatosaurus in March of 1905, while the Carnegie Museum building was still unfinished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus to King Edward VII. The replica known today as Dippy went on display in London that May. Carnegie went on to produce seven additional Diplodocus casts, and more have been created since his death in 1919.

Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy’s cultural impact is astounding. As Nieuwland writes, “Carnegie’s series of casts—and the political gesture of their donations—turned [Dippy] into a contested and open-ended object that existed at the crossroads of several interacting (social, political, cultural, scientific) domains.” The intersection of political intrigue and gossip with the sensational nature of the specimen itself resulted in a cascade of media attention, political cartoons, and eventually even films. At least in Europe, Dippy can be believably said to be the specimen that made “dinosaur” a household word.

In 1979, Dippy was moved to NHM’s cavernous entryway, called Hintze Hall. The cast served as the museum’s mascot and most iconic object until 2015, when it was replaced with a blue whale skeleton. Dippy’s time in the limelight was not over, however. The original cast was retrofitted for the traveling exhibition Dippy on Tour, and a bronze duplicate may one day be installed outside NHM.

Triceratops sp.

nhmtriceratops

Triceratops replica skeleton at the Natural History Museum. Source

This Triceratops is not an original skeleton or a cast—it’s a papier mâché model. Frederic Lucas of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) created this replica in 1900 for the Smithsonian display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. He likely used O.C. Marsh’s published illustration of a Triceratops skeleton as his primary reference. The model made a second appearance at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, but was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when Charles Gilmore finished the world’s first real Triceratops mount in 1905. While constructing the skeleton, Gilmore learned that Marsh and Lucas’s straight-legged interpretation was physically impossible—Triceratops actually had partially sprawling forelimbs.

Nevertheless, exhibit models like this rarely go waste. Two years later, NHM received Lucas’s model as a gift from USNM. It has been on nearly continuous display ever since.

Iguanodon bernissartensis

Iguanodon_bernissartensis

The Belgian Iguanodon cast as it appears today.Source

In 1878, coal miners in western Belgium discovered a clay deposit dense with Iguanodon fossils. A crew from the Belgian Royal Museum of Natural History (now the Belgium Museum of Natural Sciences) excavated dozens of skeletons, and in 1882 Louis De Pauw and Louis Dollo took on the task of assembling the best examples into standing mounts. De Pauw distributed casts of the largest and most complete individual to several institutions around Europe, including NHM (sources differ on whether the NHM cast arrived in 1895 or 1905).

While Dippy is made up of individual plaster casts of each bone, the Iguanodon was molded and cast in a handful of large sections. This means that the skeleton cannot be easily reassembled into a horizontal pose, and must remain a relic of an earlier era in our understanding of dinosaur posture.

Hypsilophodon foxii

hypsybeforeafter

Nearly all known Hypsilophodon fossils come from the”Hypsilophodon bed,” part of the Wessex Formation on the Isle of Wight. More than a hundred articulated skeletons have been found in this mudstone layer, including NHM’s mounted pair. These particular individuals were collected by Reginald Hooley, an avocational fossil collector who also described and published several new species. The bulk of Hooley’s collection was sold to NHM in 1924, shortly after his death.

The larger Hypsilophodon (R5829) was mounted in 1934 by preparators Louis Parsons and Frank Barlow, in an upright, tail-dragging pose that closely mirrored the Belgian Iguanodon. This mount remained on display until the early 1990s, when the specimen was remounted for the 1992 dinosaur hall. Nigel Larkin and colleagues adapted the original iron armature to give the skeleton its correct horizontal posture. A juvenile Hypsilophodon (R5830) from the Hooley collection was also mounted at this time, using a cast Orodromeus skull provided by the Museum of the Rockies. Both Hypsilophodon mounts remained on display until 2016, when they were removed due to conservation concerns.

Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis

mantellibeforeafter

The centerpiece of the 1924 Hooley acquisition is the holotype skeleton (R5764) of Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, known at the time as Iguanodon atherfieldensis. Hooley found the 85% complete skeleton in 1914 on the Isle of Wight, in several blocks that had already eroded out of a cliff. It was—and still is—the most complete dinosaur skeleton found in the UK. Like the Hypsilophodon, the Mantellisaurus was originally mounted in the 1930s with a kangaroo-like posture. It was remounted for the 1992 exhibit in a horizontal walking pose.

More recently, the Mantellisaurus was moved to the redesigned Hintze Hall, part of a small selection of iconic specimens that represent the NHM’s collections and research areas. As an exceptionally complete, local dinosaur, it was a natural choice to represent vertebrate paleontology at the museum. In 2019, paleontologist Susannah Maidment and preparator Mark Graham spent four days temporarily dismantling the Mantellisaurus mount and digitizing every bone for future research.

Scolosaurus cutleri

Scolosaurus

The complete Scolosaurus fossil. Image courtesy of the National History Museum, CC BY.

Another remarkable real specimen in the NHM collection is the Scolosaurus holotype (R5161). This fossil includes nearly the entire animal intact and in situ, including its osteoderms and some skin impressions. Only the head, the end of the tail, and two limbs are missing.

The Scolosaurus was found by fossil hunter William Cutler in 1914. After moving to Alberta from the UK, Cutler found work on Barnum Brown’s field expeditions before setting out as an independent collector. Cutler had a reputation for reckless behavior in the field, and often worked alone. Excavating the Scolosaurus was a case in point: it collapsed on him while he was undercutting the jacket.

NHM purchased the Scolosaurus in 1915, and Parsons set to work preparing the fossil straightaway. It has been on near-continuous display since 1929.

Cutler was hired by NHM again in 1925 to search for dinosaurs in Tanzania. Among his party was none other than Louis Leakey, on his first field season. Tragically, Cutler contracted malaria and died in the field at age 47.

Massospondylus carinatus

massospondylus

Like most of the dinosaurs in the 1992 exhibit, Massospondylus stands on a platform over visitors’ heads. Source

In 1962, NHM acquired a nearly complete, unarticulated Massospondylus cast from the South African Museum in Cape Town. Some time later, William Lindsay and colleagues mounted it for a temporary exhibition at the City of Plymouth Museum. The mount has an unusual supporting armature, composed of short, glass-reinforced epoxy tubes. Since each section of tube fits tightly into the next, the mount can be assembled without the use of adhesives. The Massospondylus was repurposed for the 1992 dinosaur hall, where it remains today.

Gallimimus bullatus

nhm27

At 18 feet long, Gallimimus is bigger than you think. Source

Like Massospondylus, this Gallimimus arrived at NHM as an unarticulated cast in an exchange with a peer institution, in this case the Polish Academy of Sciences. The original skeleton was discovered on a Polish-Mongolian joint expedition led by trailblazing paleontologist and all-around incredible person Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska.

When NHM was beginning work on the 1992 dinosaur hall, the fossil prep team elected to hire Research Casting International to mount the Gallimimus. Rather than using the plaster casts, RCI made a plastic duplicate of each bone and assembled them on an aluminum armature. The skeleton’s running pose meant that the mount’s weight had to be carefully managed. All the weight rests on the left leg, which was molded around a 22-pound steel rod to compensate.

Lindsay reports that the decision to display most of the dinosaurs on elevated platforms was not made until after most of the mounts were finished. This wasn’t an issue for the smaller, more stable skeletons, but the Gallimimus was heavy and awkward enough that the tensioned steel cables holding up its platform had to be adjusted and readjusted as the skeleton was assembled.

Baryonyx walkerii

baryonyx_nhm

A relief-mounted cast of Baryonyx, created in-house at NHM. Source

In January of 1983, William Walker discovered a large claw in a brick pit. NHM paleontologists Angela Milner and Alan Charig traveled to the site in southern England that summer to look for more. What they found was a carnivorous dinosaur unlike any other, with a crocodilian snout and smooth, straight teeth for snagging fish. Named Baryonyx walkeri, this specimen (R9951) is the only confirmed example of the species yet found.

The Baryonyx was found in particularly hard matrix loaded with iron ore, and as a result took nearly ten years to prepare, mold, and cast. A relief mount was completed just in time for the opening of the 1992 dinosaur hall.

Stegosaurus stenops (Sophie)

Sophie the Stegosaurus greets visitors in Earth Hall, at the museum’s east entrance.
Source

NHM’s most recent major dinosaur acquisition is a juvenile Stegosaurus called Sophie (R36730). Commericial fossil hunter Bob Simon collected the skeleton at a quarry in Wyoming, in 2003. The 90% complete, three-dimensionally preserved skeleton was prepared at Sauriermuseum in Switzerland. NHM purchased the specimen in 2013 with the help of multiple donors. Working in secret, staff paleontologists Susannah Maidment, Paul Barrett, and Charlotte Brassey thoroughly documented the skeleton with CT and laser scans of every bone. Sophie’s mounted skeleton was a surprise reveal in December 2014, alongside a trove of open access research covering the animal’s locomotion, bite force, and more.

References

Barrett, P., Parry, P., and Chapman, S. 2016. Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon. Natural History Museum, London.

Getty, T.A. and Crane, M.D. 1975. A Historical Account of the Palaeontological Collections found by R.W. Hooley (1865 to 1923). Newsletter of the Geological Curators Group. 4 (September 1975) :170-179.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N., and Smith, N. 1996. Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.

Maidenment, S.C.R., Brassey, C., and Barrett, P.M. 2015. The postcranial skeleton of an exceptionally complete individual of the plated dinosaur Stegosaurus stenops from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming, USA. PLoS One. 10:10: e0138352.

Nieuwland, I. 2019. American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Noe, L. and Flinney, S. 2008. Dismantling, painting, and re-erecting of a historical cast of dinosaur Iguanodon in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. NatSCA News 14:41-48.

Swinton, W.E. 1936. Notes on the Osteology of Hypsilophodon, and on the family Hypsilophodontidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 106:2:555-578.

Tanke, D.H. 2003. Lost in plain sight: Rediscovery of William Cutler’s missing Eoceratops. In New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NHM, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

The retiring dinosaur mounts at the Yale Peabody Museum

Another year, and another major renovation of a historic paleontology exhibition is underway. The dinosaur and fossil mammal halls at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) closed to the public on January 1st. The rest of the museum will follow in July, with a planned reopening in 2023. This will be the first comprehensive renovation of the museum since the current building opened in 1931, and the upgrades are long overdue. For decades, most of the YPM exhibits have been a museum of a museum—a time capsule preserving the state of natural science and museum design in the mid-20th century. The dinosaur hall in particular looks almost exactly as it did when Rudolph Zallinger completed the spectacular Age of Reptiles mural on the east wall in 1947 (a handful of newer specimens, revised labels, and video terminals notwithstanding).

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs upon my last visit in 2014.

It’s exciting to see ground breaking on the new museum and exhibits, because this renovation has been a long time in coming. Serious discussions were underway in 2010, if not earlier, and a set of conceptual images was released as part of a fundraising effort launched in 2013. It appears that a lot has changed since then. The scope of the renovation has expanded to encompass the whole museum, not just the paleontology exhibits. And certain details from the 2013 concept—such as a mezzanine in the dinosaur hall opposite the Age of Reptiles mural—have been dropped. Last year, YPM launched a dedicated website showcasing the latest renovation plans. It’s wonderful that the institution is committed to keeping their community involved in and informed about the transformation of a public space that is near and dear to so many.

Naturally, this renovation is an opportunity to take a deep dive into the YPM fossil displays, and look at the specimens, artwork, and people that defined this institution in the past and which will carry it into the future. Expect upcoming posts exploring the future of these exhibits, but for now let’s start with a look back at the exhibit that once was.

Rendering of the new dinosaur hall, as of late 2019. Source

YPM was founded in 1866 with a gift from George Peabody. Peabody was the uncle of O.C. Marsh, who had been appointed Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale that same year. Having been awarded tenure and his own museum, Marsh began to lead and send crews into the American west to collect fossils. Many of Marsh’s expeditions were under auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, and those fossils eventually made their way to the Smithsonian. The remainder, however, entered the YPM collections, where they remain to this day.

After Marsh’s death in 1899, his student Charles Beecher took over vertebrate paleontology at YPM. Beecher was, in turn, succeeded by Richard Lull. Lull never met Marsh (and the two were quite different in many ways), but he nevertheless spent much of his career carrying on his predecessor’s legacy. Like his Smithsonian counterpart Charles Gilmore, Lull expanded Marsh’s often laughably brief descriptions into proper monographs, which are still used by paleontologists today. And like Gilmore, Lull put the Marsh fossils on public display, guiding the assembly of the mounted skeletons that have held court at YPM ever since.

Lull became director of YPM in 1922, and it was in this role that he oversaw the museum’s move from it’s modest original building to the larger, French Gothic-inspired structure where it currently resides. Construction of the new museum was completed in 1925, and Lull spent the next several years developing the dinosaur hall we know today. Marsh, for his part, disliked the idea of display mounts, considering it a waste of time and effort. And limited space at the old facility meant that only two large dinosaur mounts—Edmontosaurus and Stegosaurus—were assembled between 1900 and 1925. The new building, however, had a great hall specifically built to house the Marsh dinosaurs, so Lull and his team got to work filling it.

Camarasaurus and Camptosaurus

Camarasaurus and Brontosaurus mounted skeletons.

Most of the new mounts were assembled from fossils collected around 1880 at Como Bluff, Wyoming. Working for Marsh, William Reed and his crew amassed a treasure trove of Jurassic dinosaurs there, most famously the Brontosaurus holotype. Naturally, Lull devised Brontosaurus (YPM 1980) as the centerpiece of the dinosaur hall. Because of its size and complexity, it was the first of the new mounts to begin construction and took the longest to complete. The Brontosaurus was literally built into the floor: photos from the 1920s show a latticework of steel beams designed to spread its weight. Once the floor was installed, the Brontosaurus could not be moved.

In the meantime, preparator Hugh Gibb assembled two other mounts from Como Bluff material: Camarasaurus and Camptosaurus. The Camarasaurus (YPM 1910) is 21-foot juvenile, consisting of a complete vertebral column from the 2nd or 3rd cervical to middle of the tail, and most of the larger limb bones. The feet and most of the ribs are reconstructed, as is the skull, which is a fairly crude sculpture. In his 1930 publication discussing the mount, Lull commends Gibb for how closely his reconstruction matched the nearly complete and articulated juvenile Camarasaurus collected by the Carnegie Museum at what is now Dinosaur National Monument, despite the fact that Gibb had never studied that specimen. Lull only notes that the YPM mount has one fewer cervical and one fewer caudal than the Carnegie specimen, and that the reconstructed cervical ribs are much too short.

Camptosaurus and Camarasaurus mounted skeletons.

Gibb also assembled the Camptosaurus mount (YPM 1880), which he completed in 1937. Yet another specimen from Reed’s excavations at Como Bluff, the Camptosaurus is notable for how closely it mirrors Marsh’s illustrated reconstruction from 40 years earlier. It seems reasonable to assume this was a deliberate homage, although Gibb did follow Gilmore’s example and removed Marsh’s erroneous lumbar vertebrae. The sculpted skull, modeled after Iguanodon, was typical of Camptosaurus reconstructions at the time but is now known to be inaccurate.

Neither Camarasaurus nor Camptosaurus are slated to return in the renovated exhibit. Marsh originally designated both of these specimens as holotypes for “Morosaurus” (=Camarasaurus) lentus and Camptosaurus medius. Opinions on the validity of those particular species have changed over time, but it’s important that a new generation of paleontologists has an opportunity to study the original fossils up close, which has been virtually impossible in their mounted form.

Claosaurus

Relief mount of Claosaurus.

High on the west wall is one of YPM’s most overlooked dinosaurs. This relief mount represents the only confirmed remains of Claosaurus agilis (YPM 1190), a hadrosaur found in the marine deposits of western Kansas. Claosaurus is a bit of a taxonomic mess: Marsh initially announced this fossil as a new species of Hadrosaurus, before upgrading it to its own genus. Then, he decided to sink all of the much younger Lance Formation hadrosaur material (what is now called Edmontosaurus annectens) into the Claosaurus genusIt’s a difficult web to untangle, but Claosaurus is a real taxon that lived alongside animals like Pteranodon and Tylosaurus.

Lull and Wright describe the mount as “recent” in their 1942 monograph on hadrosaurs, so it must have been assembled after the move the current building. Most of the vertebrae and limb bones are real, but the skull is (obviously) a model built around a few fragments of jaw. Although it’s hard to see from the ground, the preservation is apparently poor, and most of the bones are crushed to some degree. Lull and Wright attest to the significance of Claosaurus as the earliest known true hadrosaur, but were clearly frustrated by the quality of the specimen. Perhaps modern paleontologists will have better luck, once it’s taken off display and returned to the collections.

Centrosaurus

The Centrosaurus half-mount and its Cretaceous buddies.

Variably known as Monoclonius flexus, Centrosaurus flexus, and Centrosaurus apertus, this ceratopsian skeleton (YPM 2015) was collected by Barnum Brown on the American Museum of Natural History’s extremely productive expeditions to the Belly River region in Alberta. I’m not sure when YPM acquired the fossil (presumably in a trade), but it was mounted and on display by 1929. At some point during the development of the fossil mammal hall, Lull became enamored of half-mounts like this one, in which the animal appears bisected along its sagittal line. Half the skeleton is assembled on one side, while a fleshed-out model is visible on the other. Several mammal specimens at YPM are displayed this way, but the Centrosaurus is the only dinosaur.

Lull discusses the choices made in reconstructing Centrosaurus at length in his 1933 monograph on ceratopsians. He describes the relief-mounted Centrosaurus at AMNH as an imperfect representation of the animal’s life appearance because it preserves the death pose it was found in. In contrast, the YPM version is reconstructed in a three-dimensional standing posture. Lull specifically points to his Centrosaurus‘s nearly straight neck and sprawling forelimbs (with the humerus nearly horizontal) as superior to the AMNH presentation. The issue of ceratopsian forelimb posture is still not completely resolved, but there is probably some truth to Lull’s sprawling reconstruction.

The life-reconstruction side of Centrosaurus, as figured in Lull 1933.

For the fleshed-out portion of the mount, Lull directed the artist to match the musculature and skin texture of iguanas and alligators. A loggerhead turtle was referenced for the mouth and beak. Lull chose to give the small processes on the lower edges of the frill a horny sheath, rather than the fleshy look popularized by Charles Knight. Overall, the life restoration is on the lean side compared to our modern understanding of ceratopsians, but many details—including the digitigrade fingers and forelimb posture—have held up well.

Next time, we’ll look at how historic specimens like Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Deinonychus might be modernized for the new version of the hall.

References

Lull, R.S. 1930. Skeleton of Camarasaurus lentus recently mounted at Yale. American Journal of Science 19:105:1-5.

Lull, R.S. 1910. Stegosaurus ungulatus Marsh, recently mounted at the Peabody Museum of Yale University. American Journal of Science 30:180:361-377.

Lull, R.S. 1933. A Revision of the Ceratopsia or Horned Dinosaurs. New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse, and Taylor Co.

Lull, R.S. and Wright, N.E. 1942. Hadrosaurian Dinosaurs of North America.  New York, NY: Geological Society of America.

Marsh, O.C. 1872. Notice on a new species of Hadrosaurus. American Journal of Science 3:16:301.

Marsh, O.C. 1890. Additional characters of the Ceratopsidae, with notice of new Cretaceous dinosaurs. American Journal of Science 39:233:418-426.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, museums, ornithopods, sauropods, YPM

Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is an incredible building. This colossal art deco structure is a sight to behold inside and out, and the muraled semi-dome in its central rotunda is among the largest of its kind in the world. Built in 1933 as a train station (and functioning as one today, after a mid-century hiatus), Union Terminal is also home to the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), which relocated here from a downtown location in the early 1990s.

I visited CMC once before in 2013, to see the traveling Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit. I also saw the permanent natural history exhibits that were in place at the time, which included some very elaborate walk-through reconstructions of a Pleistocene forest and a modern cave. These exhibits were constructed in the 90s, and had a lot of the hallmarks of museum design in that era. For example, the ice age galleries were framed around visitors “examining evidence like scientists,” which in practice involved binary question-and-answer stations and interactives where the action performed didn’t really connect with the concept meant to be communicated. Nevertheless, the actual fossil collection on display—mostly from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky—was impressive, as were the ambitious, large-scale dioramas.

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

This huge diorama featured life-sized wolves, a ground sloth, and a mastodon mired in mud.

Since then, Union Terminal and CMC have undergone a sweeping transformation. In 2014, the National Trust named the building—which had never been completely renovated in its 80 year history—one of the country’s most endangered historic places. Happily, the county took action, and raised funds to restore and modernize Union Terminal. In the process, most of the existing museum galleries were completely demolished, and the spaces they occupied were restored to match the building’s original architecture.

This strikes me as a bold move. Typically, legacy museums will gradually update or replace old exhibits as funding allows. In contrast, the CMC renovation started with a total teardown, and new exhibits are now being added in phases. As of this writing, the natural history and science side of the building includes a brand-new dinosaur gallery (discussed here), the aforementioned walk-through cave, a partial exhibit on the moon landing, and an assortment of temporary-looking exhibits. A new ice age gallery, the rest of the space exhibit, and immersive exhibits about Cincinnati history are slated to open later this year, and it appears fundraising is underway for future projects, including a Paleozoic fossil hall.

The hall’s only ornithischian Othnielosaurus follows in the footsteps of Galaemopus and Diplodocus.

To cut to the chase, the dinosaur hall is excellent. Developed by senior project manager Sarah Lima and curator Glenn Storrs, this is effectively a brand-new exhibit, since the old dinosaur gallery was quite limited. When the original CMC exhibits were built, the strengths of the vertebrate paleontology collections were primarily in Quaternary mammals and Paleozoic invertebrates. Over the last 20 years, however, the museum has been focused on the Jurassic. In particular, regular field work at the Mother’s Day Quarry in Montana has yielded a trove of Jurassic fossils, including some very unique sauropod specimens. The gallery includes an 80% complete Galaemopus, a composite juvenile Diplodocus, sauropod skin impressions, and a one-of-a-kind juvenile Diplodocus skull. In spite of the unspoken adage, the Morrison fauna is not resolved, and new secrets of this ecosystem are still being recovered.

Torvosaurus towers over a composite Allosaurus assembled from Cleveland-Lloyd fossils.

Other key specimens in the new exhibit were purchased from commercial fossil collectors. Jason Cooper, a Cincinnati native, discovered the Torvosaurus, which is the only real specimen of its kind on display anywhere. Along with his father Dan and brother Ben, Cooper excavated the 50% complete skeleton from a private Colorado ranch and prepared and mounted it for display. The museum purchased the Daspletosaurus from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Center. Anthony Maltese and colleagues excavated the skeleton in 2006 and prepared it over the course of several years.

Nicknamed “Pete III,” the Daspletosaurus shares its platform with two Dromaeosaurus casts and a cast skull of the Nation’s T. rex.

Like many newer fossil exhibits, the gallery is well-lit and spacious. The art deco design of Union Terminal informs the look of the hall: large windows fill the space with natural light, and the larger specimens are arranged on minimalist platforms that can be viewed from many angles, including from above. I found it noteworthy how close visitors can get to the mounted skeletons. Although the platforms are fairly high up, there are no glass barriers. I found that I could get within a few inches of the Galaemopus feet without much effort. I’m sure a slightly taller or more determined person could manage to touch the fossils.

Hopefully, they’ll be distracted by the many exhibit elements that are meant to be touched. In contrast to the 1990s exhibits, CMC has mostly done away with physical interactives, instead emphasizing touchable models and digital touchscreens. One particularly impressive inclusion are the digital video cameras (in robust cylindrical housing) connected to large monitors. Visitors can use these to get real-time magnified views of certain fossils, including a chunk of Tyrannosaurus medullary bone. This set-up couldn’t have been cheap! I also had fun with a set of telescopes aimed at certain parts of the dinosaur skeletons, such as a series of fused vertebrae in the Galaemopus tail. These are outfitted with targeting lasers (!) to help pinpoint the key features.

Each “closer look” station includes a telescope (with targeting laser!) aimed at an important skeletal feature, plus a bronze cast of that same element.

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

Not every visitor can see the fossil mounts, so CMC worked with David Grimes of the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to help people with low vision experience the exhibit. Braille is incorporated into many of the displays, and the hall is full of touchable bronze models, ranging from individual bones (like the aforementioned Galaemopus vertebrae) to fleshed-out reconstructions (such as Confuciusornis). Four of the dinosaur mounts are recreated as bronze miniatures. Structures like ribs and vertebral processes are quite thin at this scale and susceptible to bending or breaking, so the exhibit team went with a half-fleshed look to make the models more durable. The Field Museum landed on the same solution with the touchable miniature SUE, but credit is due to the CMC team for getting their models to stand up, rather than being presented in relief.

A real Apatosaurus skull, one of many treasures hidden away in smaller cases throughout the hall.

If I were to critique one element of the hall, it would be that some of the labels, graphics, and interactives are spatially disconnected from the fossils they relate to. For example, a digital touchscreen where visitors can manipulate a 3D scan of an Apatosaurus skull is nowhere near the real skull displayed elsewhere in the exhibit, and the only label for Othnielosaurus is on the opposite side of the platform from the mounted skeleton. This is, of course, a minor concern, and I can only imagine the difficulty of arranging an exhibit with as much verticality as this one.

Overall, the new CMC dinosaur hall is fantastic, whether one is considering the specimens on display, the story being told, or the aesthetics of the space. The collection of real, new-to-science specimens makes this exhibit stand out among other paleontology halls, but I’m curious how the museum’s general audience will respond. A once-expansive museum closed for two years, and opened with an excellent exhibit that nevertheless is much smaller than what was once on display. Will visitors be satisfied with quality over quantity? And will they keep returning as new CMC exhibits are completed over the coming years? Time will tell.

 

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, reviews, sauropods, science communication, theropods, Uncategorized

A Game Changer?

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

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

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the Titanosaur

It be big

The titanosaur doesn’t photograph well. It must be experienced. Photo by the author.

On January 15, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first new fossil mount to be added to their paleontology halls in 20 years. It is the reconstructed skeleton of an as-yet-unnamed titanosaur, an immense sauropod dinosaur that lived in Argentina during the mid-Cretaceous. The titanosaur is probably the most hyped-up fossil mount since Sue, at least in the United States (Sophie the Stegosaurus in the U.K. and Tristan the Tyrannosaurus in Germany received similar attention). This merits some discussion. The AMNH public relations staff pulled no punches in selling the titanosaur as a must-see exhibit. Huge advertisements appeared on buses and buildings around New York, including in Times Square. The legendary David Attenborough hosted a television special on the discovery of the fossils. Countless local and national news outlets were invited to the titanosaur’s unveiling earlier this year. But is this dinosaur really the find of the century?

Titanosaur was even advertised in times square. Source

One of the many titanosaur ads that showed up around New York City this past winter. Source

It depends. The titanosaur represents a species new to science, but it has not yet been formally published. The fossils were recovered in 2014 by José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol, paleontologists with the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (the AMNH connection is that Pol was a doctoral student of Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell). Bones from at least six individuals of the same species were found, together representing 70% of the skeleton. However, AMNH staff have mostly avoided calling this animal the biggest dinosaur ever.

Indeed, declaring any dinosaur species to be the largest is a fool’s errand. We’ve known for some time that South American titanosaurs, as a group, are probably the biggest land animals that ever lived. Unfortunately, these giants are typically represented by only a few isolated bones. For an animal to become fossilized, it needs to be buried shortly after death. But it takes a lot more dirt to cover a large animal than a small one. A flood or landslide big enough to completely cover a sauropod over a hundred feet long would be an exceedingly rare event. More often, these animals were picked apart by scavengers for some time before a few of the more durable bones were buried and fossilized. For example, Argentinosaurus is known from about ten percent of the skeleton, and Puertasaurus is known from just four vertebrae. Paleontologists can use better-known relatives to produce reasonable reconstructions from even these limited remains, but any length estimate is a ballpark figure. Even among related animals, proportions can vary significantly. Consider, for example, the very long tail of a green iguana as compared to the stubby tail of a Galapagos land iguana. Carballido and Pol’s find stands out among other titanosaurs because two-thirds of the skeleton is known. hen the description is published, it will undoubtedly shed new light on the skeletal anatomy of this group. Still, the missing parts mostly come from the neck and tail, which will probably preclude a precise estimate of the animal’s total length.

*This level of completeness is not entirely unprecedented. Dreadnoughtus, described in 2014, is also about 70% complete.

he peekin

The titanosaur’s head and neck extend out of the room and into the corridor. Photo by the author.

We can’t say the AMNH titanosaur is absolutely the biggest known dinosaur, but what about the mount? At 122 feet, the reconstructed skeleton prepared by Research Casting International dwarfs AMNH’s resident sauropod, the 82-foot apatosaurine. It’s also a fair bit longer than the museum’s brain-breakingly huge blue whale model. AMNH is not the first museum to display a titanosaur, however. The Royal Ontario Museum has a 110-foot Futalognkosaurus, which the AMNH mount handily beats. But the new titanosaur is essentially the same size as the 123-foot Argentinosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (duplicates also exist in Europe and South America). The difference, as mentioned, is that not a lot about Argentinosaurus is actually known, and the mount is almost entirely a sculpted reconstruction. By comparison, the AMNH titanosaur is largely composed of 3-D printed components based on scans of original fossils. “The biggest reconstructed skeleton of a reasonably well-known dinosaur” isn’t the catchiest headline, though.

Suffice it so say that on paper, the AMNH titanosaur isn’t a revolution for dinosaur science. When I went to see it last weekend, I expected to see a typical example of a well-studied group of dinosaurs. I was not prepared.

the bastard

The closest I can find to a full-body photo of the titanosaur. Source

This bastard is BIG. I could go through a whole series of superlatives, but it’s impossible to describe the experience of sharing space with this magnificent skeleton. You cannot comprehend what a 122-foot dinosaur really is until you’ve experienced it. It helps that the titanosaur occupies a smallish, low-ceilinged room (a century ago, this was the infamous Hall of the Age of Man). It also helps that there are no long lines of sight into this space. You turn a corner and you are quite abruptly in the titanosaur’s presence. Regardless, the marketing line that was ubiquitous earlier this year – “everything else got a whole lot smaller” – rings unsettlingly true. Compared to the titanosaur, the mammoth and mastodon across the hall look like pipsqueaks. Even the AMNH blue whale, which usually requires a double-take, became a little easier to take in.

I’m no stranger to sauropods. I teach people about them at work all the time. But seeing the titanosaur in person was a revelation, and something I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the natural world. The titanosaur may not be the most important dinosaur discovery of our generation, but by giving it corporeal presence, AMNH created an incredible symbol. This is life at its limits, an embodiment of the incredible things the tetrapod body plan can do.

P.S.: If you’re concerned about the fate of the juvenile Barosaurus model that used to occupy this space, worry not. It now lives at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and will be on display at least through October of this year.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, sauropods

AMNH dinosaurs in vintage cartoons

Today I happened upon a pair of wonderful vintage cartoons that simply must be shared. I found them in Edwin Colbert’s The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, digitized here. The cartoons originally appeared in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, respectively.

original caption

Original caption: “And here is my first dinosaur – makes me feel like a kid again every time I look at it.”

The cartoons plainly depict the “Brontosaurus” and “Trachodon” (now labeled Apatosaurus and Anatotitan) skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History, and as representations of these mounts, they aren’t bad. At the time of the cartoons’ initial publications in 1939 and 1940, these and dozens of other fossil mounts had been on display at AMNH for over 30 years. They were iconic New York attractions, and the museum had rightly earned itself a reputation as the place to see dinosaurs.

original caption

Original caption: “I don’t mind you boosting your home state, Conroy, but stop telling the children that’s a California jack rabbit!”

Perhaps it’s unwise to interpret these images too literally, but I can’t help but wonder which version of the AMNH fossil halls the cartoonists intended to depict. Since 1922, the famous mounts had been housed in Henry Osborn’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, but during the 1930s the dinosaur exhibits underwent a significant expansion. The dinosaurs were reshuffled into two halls, one representing the Jurassic and one the Cretaceous.

osborn era

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs as it appeared in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

brown's jurassic hall

The new Jurassic Hall opened around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The inclusion of a Stegosaurus with “Brontosaurus” and the ceratopsian skulls behind the “Trachodon” lead me to believe these are illustrations of the renovated halls, which would have been brand new at the time. But again, it’s just as likely that the cartoonists only intended to capture the general feel of these famous exhibits.

References

Colbert, E.H. 1945. The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The American Museum of Natural History/McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

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

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, ornithopods, paleoart, sauropods

Installation art in the service of science

totes awesome

Unbridled awesome. Photo by the author.

Earlier this week, Dippy the Diplodocus gave me an opportunity to discuss mounted fossil skeletons as objects imbued with cultural and historical meaning. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and discuss them as art. Hold on tight, because it’s about to get interdisciplinary up in here.

The Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the most amazing fossil displays in the world. Within the historic Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, an adult Barosaurus skeleton rears to a height of fifty feet to protect its offspring from a charging Allosaurus. Although all three skeletons are glass-reinforced polyester and polyurethane foam casts (by necessity – it would be unwise to mount real fossil bones in such a precarious manner), they are based directly on real specimens. The adult Barosaurus is a cast of AMNH 6341, which was excavated by Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument in 1923. The Allosaurus is a cast of DMNH 1483. The young Barosaurus is the most speculative of the lot and mostly consists of sculpted bones, but it includes casts of real juvenile sauropod vertebrae.

Looking past its physical properties, this display comes with an explicit pedagogical agenda. AMNH paleontologist Mark Norrell stated that the objective was “to imagine dinosaurs as living organisms, facing challenges similar to those that confront animals today.” When the exhibit was built in 1991, it was considered important to showcase what active, hot-blooded dinosaurs might be capable of. In this case, we have a portrayal of considerable speed and agility, as well as a suggestion of parental care and group living. The mount and its associated signage also invite visitors to consider the nature of the fossil record, and what questions paleontologists can and cannot definitively answer. We don’t know whether Barosaurus would have protected or even lived with its young. We don’t know if Allosaurus would have attempted to attack an animal more than three times its size. Even the ability of Barosaurus to rear up on two legs has been the subject of some debate. While not enormously far-fetched, this is still an imaginative reconstruction – one which challenges visitors to consider the evidence behind this and other displays throughout the museum.

However, even this sort of interpretation does not fully capture the experience of observing this tableau – there is something else going on here. The dynamic poses give the dinosaurs a startling presence, and it is scarcely possible not to imagine them as living animals. Visitors must consider what it would be like to encounter an Allosaurus charging at full speed, or to stand beneath a multi-ton sauropod. Standing in the center of the room, the viewer is literally surrounded by the mounts, and necessarily becomes a participant in the drama. Even if we ignore the representational identities of the dinosaurs and think of this display as a set of abstract shapes, it is still decisively monumental. The mise-en-scène draws the viewer’s eye around the room and up the neck of the Barosaurus, toward the vaulted ceiling. The scene can thus be described as a visual and physical intervention that draws each and every visitor that enters the rotunda into a shared performance.

Fancy fisheye photo.

The visitors themselves become part of the installation by providing a human scale. Source

As impressive as the mounts are on their own, they cannot be divorced from the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda that surrounds them. Aesthetically, the grandiose nature of the skeletons compliments the neoclassical architecture. The site-specific composition also encourages visitors to look around the room and take note of structural elements they might have missed (e.g. the ceiling). But the room itself is far from a neutral exhibition space. It is a public monument to the first President Roosevelt, who Donna Haraway calls “the patron saint for the museum.” In addition to an array of canvases depicting scenes from Roosevelt’s public life,  quotations are etched into the walls under the headings Youth, Manhood, Nature, and The State. Roosevelt’s words, literally carved in stone, speak to his appreciation of the natural world, his support for what he called “the strenuous life”, and his belief in living honorably and compassionately. Were it not for the throngs of tourists, this space could be mistaken for a shrine.

There are a few possible ways to interpret  the relationship between the dinosaurs and the hall around them. We could cast the adult Barosaurus as Roosevelt’s idealized citizen. Rather than letting the Allosaurus pick off it’s more vulnerable companion, it stands its ground, for “the highest form of success comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.” Alternatively, we could follow Haraway and consider this space a monument to hyper-masculinity and paternalistic oppression. Haraway slams the Roosevelt Rotunda (which implies a male audience at the exclusion of others) and the adjacent Hall of African Mammals (which displays artificially-assembled nuclear families, always with a male leader) as products of the wealth and privilege of the early-20th century aristocracy. But if we assume – as many visitors apparently do – that the defending Barosaurus is female, the dinosaurs might be read as a direct critique of the institution’s history. While political and sociological readings probably didn’t come up much when these mounts were being constructed, intent isn’t the whole story. This is a public space, and visitors can and will make conscious and unconscious connections between the various objects on view. Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time fossils have been entwined with presidential politics.

Different

The fossils weren’t created to be displayed in this space, but the mounts were. Photo by the author.

A museum display always involves the staging or framing of the world. It is this infusion of creative choice that moves  fossil mounts beyond the realm of science and into art. As Polliquin puts it, a specimen from nature “permits or invites experience, wheras a work of art is intentionally made for an experience.” Whether they are composed of real fossils or casts thereof, fossil mounts are purposefully constructed to exist in the museum environment. Paradoxically, they are both the objects of scrutiny and the exhibit context. This is not something to hide or be ashamed of, but to celebrate. These mounts embody aesthetic  beauty, deep history, and rich culture, and these elements are just as important as their scientific value when we consider their role in the museological landscape.

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2005). “Thoughts in Things” Modernity, History, and North American Museums. Isis 96:4:586-601.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N. and Smith, N. (1996). Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.

Norrell, M.A., Dingus, L.W. and Gaffney, E.S. (1991). Barosaurus on Central Park West. Natural History 100:12:36-41.

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

Vogel, S. (1991). Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Displays. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, paleoart, reptiles, sauropods, theropods

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication