Category Archives: education

National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under collections, education, field work, museums, opinion, science communication

A Tour of Dinosaur Park

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

Introductory sign at Dinosaur Park.

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

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

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

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

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

Citizen scientists prospecting for fossils at Dinosaur Park.

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

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

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

One of several new interpretive signs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

This pregnant right whale was killed when it was hit by a boat. Displayed with the fetus skeleton in situ, it now serves as a species ambassador.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been on my list of must-see museums for some time, and I finally had a chance to visit over Memorial Day weekend. Founded in 1879 as the North Carolina State Museum, the institution was initially a showcase for local agricultural and mineral products. Over the years, the interests of both the curators and the visiting public gradually nudged the museum in the direction of more generalized natural history. Now the largest natural history museum in the southeast, NCSM hosts a world-class research staff overseeing a collection of 1.7 million specimens. Since 2000, the museum has occupied a four-story facility in downtown Raleigh. A second wing, called the Nature Research Center, opened in 2012. There are also two satellite nature centers outside the city (which I did not visit) that are under the NCSM banner.

An introduction to geologic time.

First things first: the paleontology exhibit is quite good, although somewhat compact. Perhaps too compact, given its popularity and the amount of exhibit space the museum has to work with overall. Coming up the escalator to the 3rd floor, visitors are strongly encouraged to enter Habitats of North Carolina, a colorful and attractive walk through time. The initial spaces cover the basics. First, a series of pillars introduce the primary stages of life on Earth. This is followed by exhibits about where fossils come from, how we know how old fossils are, and so on. I particularly liked the “What to Fossils Tell Us?” display. Here, a grid of spinning cubes each hold small, conventional fossils. Visitors can rotate the cubes around to see that even these modest-looking remains can be very informative. For example, leaves and pollen provide detailed climate information, and a large croc scute suggests that a substantial body of water was present.

Prestosuchus in the Triassic scene. This appears to be a cast of the Brazilian AMNH 3856.

Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus casts dominate the Cretaceous tableau.

The rest of the exhibit is built around a series of tableaus in which mounts and models of charismatic animals are placed in landscapes of replica foliage. Small, illustrative fossils are in cases throughout. First up is a cast of Prestosuchus, lurking among some Triassic horsetails. Next, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Pachcephlosaurus casts populate the Cretaceous alongside lovely ginkgos and magnolias. A baby hadrosaur model at the feet of the Edmontosaurus was apparently stolen (and recovered) in 2012. The famous Willo – a Thescelosaurus skeleton that maybe/probably doesn’t have mineralized heart tissue in its chest – is on display under glass.

Did you know that most modern fish groups evolved only 20 million years ago? I didn’t!

A ground sloth in the standard pole-dancing pose.

Moving into the Cenozoic, a set of attractive and informative cases describe the origin and evolution of modern fishes and whales. This is followed by glass tunnel through a life-sized diorama of a late Eocene sea. The models here are spectacular, but the space is altogether too dark. I found it difficult to see the diorama, much less read the signs. The final section is home to a real ground sloth skeleton. This is a composite of several specimens recovered in 1999 near Wilmington, North Carolina. Happily, the reconstructed portions of the mount are distinct and easy to see. Habitats of North Carolina ends on an eccentric note with a set of mannequins in pioneer garb discovering fossils in a creek bed. I’m not really sure what this adds to the exhibit narrative.

Acrocanthosaurus holds court in a sunny atrium all to itself.

The star fossil at NCNM is the only real Acrocanthosaurus on display anywhere in the world. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love found this rare skeleton in Oklahoma in 1983. Unfortunately, a bad case of pyrite disease made the fossils an absolute nightmare to prepare, and it exchanged hands several times before ending up with the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. In 1997, an anonymous donor purchased the skeleton on behalf of NCNM for $3 million, shortly after the museum came in second place in the bidding war for Sue the T. rex.

Acrocanthosaurus is a favorite of mine, and the mount is beautiful. The sunny atrium it’s situated in makes for an attractive display, but I wish it wasn’t so disassociated from the main paleontology exhibit. I’m told the mount included more original material when it debuted in 2000, but the creeping specter of pyrite disease has necessitated the removal of several bones for restoration and safekeeping. Be sure to see it soon, before the rest of the mount gets replaced with casts!

Whales: behold their majesty.

The paleontology exhibits are nice and all, but the real showstoppers at NCSM are the whales. No less than six giant whale skeletons are on display. Suspended over a corridor of sorts, the whales can be viewed from below or from a 2nd story mezzanine. Many museums have a whale skeleton or two, but I’ve never encountered this many cetecean skeletons in one place. From the utterly insane-looking right whale to the colossal blue whale, they are stunning to behold. Be sure to factor in plenty of time to simply stare. Immersive dioramas of local habitats, live animal exhibits, and a look at collecting and exhibition practices past and present round out the museum’s “old wing.”

As mentioned, however, a whole new wing of exhibits opened in 2012. Called the Nature Research Center, this is basically the interactive, citizen science-driven Museum of the Future that educators (including myself) have been demanding for years. This three story space is all about getting visitors involved in science. There are multiple drop-in “labs” where knowledgeable staff lead visitors through mini-experiments, designed to get people thinking scientifically. There’s a molecular lab where visitors can isolate and analyze DNA samples. There’s a digital imagery space where visitors can practice using GIS tools, or explore the possibilities of 3-D printing. And there’s a Q?rius-like collections library, where visitors can check out and study real bones, furs, minerals, and fossils. The Nature Research Center also includes several fishbowl-style labs where visitors can watch museum staff and volunteers at work. Even the highly interdisciplinary static displays are less about the “what” and more about the “how”: the tools, techniques, and people that make science possible.

One of the lab spaces in the Nature Research Center.

Distressingly, on the day I visited, the traditional museum exhibits were crowded with visitors, but the Nature Research Center was nearly deserted. Since I was there on a holiday weekend, I was probably seeing a skeleton-crew version of the staff that is usually facilitating the interactive spaces. Still, the Nature Research Center is the embodiment of the modular, interactive exhibits that educators dream about. To see it empty while the story and object-driven exhibits were packed is somewhat disconcerting.

As the scientists say, though, a single anecdotal experience is not data. I’d be very interested to learn how this pioneering exhibit space holds up in the long run.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion

Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.

References

Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

Torrens, E. and Barahona, A. 2012. Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted?” Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.

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Filed under education, opinion, science communication, systematics

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

Book Review: Life on Display

lifeondisplaycoverI’ve never written a book review here before, but Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain’s Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the 20th Century is a fine place to start. Published in 2014, this fascinating and exhaustively researched volume follows the struggle of natural history museum workers to define the purpose of their institutions. Ultimately, are museums places for exhibits, or places for collections? Rader and Cain chart the internal and external perceptions of natural history museums through time, recounting the people and events that made these institutions what they are. If you have a serious interest in science communication or the history and philosophy of science, Life on Display is a must-read.

Many accounts of the history of museum exhibits (including mine) have placed the transition from cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to audience-centered learning experiences in the latter part of the 20th century. However, Rader and Cain convincingly demonstrate that the seeds for this reform, called the “New Museum Idea”, were planted much earlier. Traditional European museums were places for quiet contemplation, designed by and for the scholarly elite. The new crop of American natural history museums that emerged in the late 19th century were physically modeled after their European forebears, but almost from the get-go their missions were distinctly populist. As early as 1910, museum leaders like Oliver Farrington and Frederic Lucas were using the same rhetoric we use today to sell museums as community resources for lifelong learning. Concerned with the state of science literacy and the increasingly urban experiences of most Americans, these reformers argued that museums could reintroduce the public to nature and hone their skills of observation and deduction.

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

Exhibit halls like this one at the first United States National Museum were incomprehensible to most visitors. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By modern standards, early expressions of the New Museum Idea were modest. Strict taxonomic organization was loosened to accommodate categories that were meaningful to laypeople, such as “game birds.”  Labels that only included the Latin name and date of a specimen’s collection were revised to include information about the behavior and habitat of the organism in question. Illustrations of the life appearance of certain animals and plants were added, and education departments were established to coordinate tours for schoolchildren. However, even these humble reforms could be hotbeds of internal controversy. Some curators insisted that any kind of reproduction – even an illustration – was bound to confuse visitors, and opined that displaying anything less than the complete range of known diversity for a given group was unfathomable.

Contrary to what one might expect, the lines of conflict did not neatly divide curators from administrators and educators. For example, American Museum of Natural History herpetologist Mary Dickerson was a scientist first, but she staunchly advocated for attractive and comprehensible exhibits. Reformers also had differing political agendas. While Dickerson’s camp wanted to use accessible exhibits to inspire young people to appreciate nature and the need for conservation, AMNH director Henry Osborn saw public displays as a way to enforce social order among immigrant populations.

By the 1920s, advocates for audience-centered exhibits seemed to have won. In the public eye, the primary purpose of a museum was not research – it was to create ever more impressive displays. In particular, meticulously crafted habitat dioramas became the centerpieces of natural history museums. Although inherently artificial, these little worlds behind glass showcased the splendor of the natural world in a way that rows of carefully organized specimens never could. Children found dioramas particularly approachable, and the museums’ primary audience shifted from scholars to families. Dioramas were also the sort of capital expenditures that attracted donors, and for a time natural history museums fared well nurturing relationships with wealthy philanthropists.

oceanic birds or whatever. AMNH 1950s

Children study a diorama of Peruvian oceanic birds. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In the interwar period, ongoing ambitions to improve science literacy among the general public birthed a new kind of museum. Carlos Cummings led the way by transforming the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences into one of the first science museums. Here, galleries were organized based on themes and connections, and specimens were utilized to illustrate general ideas. For example, separate halls of invertebrate zoology, ornithology, and mammology were combined in an exhibit that focused on evolution and ecology. After World War II, the newly established science museums also began to focus on technology and industry. Despite a laudable emphasis on practical science, these exhibits often came with significant bias. Corporate sponsorship of energy and agricultural displays was standard practice, as was outright jingoism in exhibits about aviation and space travel.

As science museums continued to carve out their own audience-centered niche, the legacy natural history museums actually regressed to their pre-New Museum Idea state. To me, this is the most fascinating part of Rader and Cain’s narrative. Curators essentially reclaimed their museums as research institutions, letting exhibits languish as they focused on collections and scholarly publications. Smithsonian entomologist Waldo Schmitt typified the mindset of mid-century curators when he declared exhibits to be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments” (quoted in Rader and Cain, pg. 170). To this generation of scientists, “outreach” meant participating in a public “ID day” once a year – anything more was beneath them. Museums compensated by hiring more dedicated exhibit and education staff, but without curatorial support these institutions remained decidedly retrograde.

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Source

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Photo Archives.

Rader and Cain devote an entire chapter to the disruption caused by Manhattan Project physicist-turned-educator Frank Oppenheimer and his San Francisco Exploratorium. A playground-like open space filled with modular interactive activities, the Exploratorium completely upended the public’s understanding of what a museum could be. The exhibits were designed with rigorous adherence to the scientific method in mind, but they were also active, alive, and more than a little chaotic. The Exploratorium resonated with the counter-culture trends of the late 1960s, and natural history museums saw their visitation plummet as families turned to Oppenheimer and his imitators. Legacy museums insisted that these new science centers weren’t real museums (they didn’t have collections!), but now that the public had a choice they were voting with their feet.

Natural history museums admitted that they had taken the public for granted, but during the 80s and 90s they compensated a little too hard. Following the lead of science centers, many natural history museums turned to business and marketing specialists to fill leadership roles. They branded themselves as tourist attractions, added play areas and gimmicky technology, and used relentlessly-marketed blockbuster exhibits to keep people coming back. Robot dinosaurs and flight simulators heralded a sad decline in museum scholarship, and what’s more, the museums all started to look the same. They sourced popular exhibits from the same vendors, showed the same IMAX movies, and stocked their gift shops with the same merchandise. In many ways, the edutainment boom seemed like a race to the lowest common denominator.

ocean hall rulez. Photo by the author.

The wonderful NMNH Ocean Hall combines real specimens and in-house research with lessons in theatricality from the Age of Edutainment. Photo by the author.

Although Rader and Cain stop at the end of the 20th century, they touch on  recent trends that have helped put natural history museums back  on track. Museums are still hurting for funding, and often rely on blockbusters and concessions to keep their doors open. However, in-house researchers are once again taking an active role in the public faces of their institutions. Scientists work with professional designers and educators to create informative displays that also utilize lessons in showmanship learned from blockbuster exhibits. Some museums are working harder to emphasize the importance of their collections, and making them more accessible to the public. Nevertheless, the fact that these collaborations revolve around public interpretation in the first place leads Rader and Cain to conclude that New Museum Idea advocates ultimately won. Exhibits, not collections, are now the heart and soul of natural history museums. Whether or not that is a good thing is, of course, open to debate.

The scope of Rader and Cain’s research is breathtaking – the book includes 164 pages of notes and references. The authors have plumbed the depths of museum archives and despite the breadth of their subject, they have emerged with a clear narrative thread and a convincing conclusion. One thing I found lacking, however, was discussion of the role of paleontology in the history of 20th century museums. Clearly I have a bit of a bias, but Life on Display contains only a few passing references to fossil displays. This seems like a critical omission, both because paleontology is so integral to the public’s understanding of what natural history museums offer and because the basic format of a fossil mount exhibit has remained remarkably consistent since the 19th century. Clearly that is the subject for another book (yes, yes, I’m working on it!).

All in all, Life on Display is an extremely readable and informative account of an oft-overlooked realm of science education. It will be a regular reference for me, and I highly recommend it.

Reference

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

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Dispatch from SEAVP2016

Wow, it’s been awhile. The real world has been keeping me busy, but I’ve been researching a couple new museum  history stories that I will write up with all haste. In the meantime, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the Southeast Association of Vertebrate Paleontology conference at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which I attended earlier this week. SEAVP has a reputation for being fairly laid back, even as gatherings of paleontologists go. No frantic networking or jostling to introduce oneself to celebrity researchers, just a bunch of enthusiastic people excited to share their work.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

With 50-some attendees, nearly everyone was either speaking or presenting a poster. Miranda Armour-Chelu took on the challenge of reconstructing the taphonomic circumstances surrounding historically collected dugong fossils. Marcelo Kramer shared his adventures prospecting for Quaternary fossils in unexplored caves in northern Brazil. Julie Rej explained the difficulty of identifying Australian agamid fossils when most modern comparative collections in museums consist of pickled lizards, rather than bones. My own talk was a show-and-tell session of some of the cool new fossils discovered by visitors to Maryland’s Dinosaur Park. If I had to pick a standout session, it would be C.T. Griffin’s fascinating research comparing the growth trajectories of early dinosaurs to modern birds and crocodillians. Not as straightforward as one might expect.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

tanywhatsit

Max’s tanywhatsit fossil.

The following day, we visited the famed Solite Fossil Site, one of the most fossiliferous terrestrial Triassic localities in the world. These shales are best known for preserving an abundance of unique insects, but vertebrates and diagnostic plant fossils are also known. In particular, the site has produced hundreds of the tiny long-necked reptile Tanytrachelos. It only took 20 minutes for my colleague Max Bovis to find a “tany”, and an hour later he reportedly found a fossil fish. Both will be entered into the VMNH collection. We also visited Virginia Tech, where Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbit provided a tour of the paleobiology department facilities. We saw unique fossils from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico and the extant comparative specimen lab, but I was most envious of their 3-D printing set-up!

An immersive

An immersive habitat diorama featuring the Ice Age beaver Castoroides.

What of the exhibits at VMNH? They’re fantastic. Despite the museum’s small size, the production quality on all the displays is really top notch. The Uncovering Virginia hall highlights several fossil sites around the state, including the Ice Age mammals from Saltville, the coal seams of Grundy, and the aforementioned Solite quarry. In addition to original specimens and reconstructions of the excavations, there are a number of inspired hands-on activities. Visitors can put a whale jaw back together and articulate a femur with a pelvis, mirroring challenges actually faced by fossil preparators (nary a sandbox dig in sight!). I also liked a multimedia display where pressing a button (labeled “press here to go back in time”) pulls back an image of the Grundy coal mine and reveals a moving diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

The central Hall of Ancient Life features local whale and Ice Age fossils, as well as some visiting dignitaries like a cast of Big Al the Allosaurus. Don’t forget to check out the second floor balcony, which contains Morrison Formation dinosaur bones and a secret Tenontosaurus mount.

aww

Group photo courtesy of Alex Hastings, VMNH.

All in all, an excellent conference – hats off to Alex Hatings, Christina Byrd, and everyone else involved in arranging it. I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting, which will be hosted by the Gray Fossil Site Museum in Tennessee!

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