Category Archives: education

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.


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.


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!


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.


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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Filed under education, exhibits, museums, reviews, science communication

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.


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.


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!


Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reptiles, reviews

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 2

Start with History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 1.

Where we left off, the fossil exhibits in Halls 37 and 38 at the Field Museum of Natural History had gone for decades without more than piecemeal improvements. In the meantime, the field of paleontology – and our understanding of dinosaurs in particular – had progressed by leaps and bounds. What’s more, standards for natural history exhibits had changed. Cases of specimens with esoteric labels written by curators past were no longer enough. Visitors expected exhibits that were relatable and accessible for children as well as interested adults, and multimedia and interactive elements had become standard. This combined with ever-growing public interest in all things prehistoric gave Field Museum staff serious incentive to start with a clean slate.

Phase III: Life Over Time

The end of the old fossil halls came not with a bang but with a whimper. In 1990, specimens started disappearing and areas were roped off without warning. Hundreds of specimens were relocated to Halls 25, 26, and 29 on the other side of the second floor, where they would be part of the exhaustive new exhibit “Life Over Time.” Meanwhile, Halls 37 and 38 became the home of the pacific islands exhibit and Ruatepupuke II, the Maori Meeting House.

life over time albertosaurus remount

Remounted Daspletosaurus in Life Over Time, then labeled Albertosaurus. Photo courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

As the name suggests, Life Over Time was a chronological journey through the history of life, from its origins around four billion years ago up to the last ice ages. Paleobotanist Peter Crane chaired the Geology Department during the development period, and geologist and children’s education specialist Eric Gyllenhaall oversaw the contractors and in-house staff that created the the exhibit itself. In total, the project took five years and cost $7 million.

Gyllenhaal and the rest of the team conceived of Life Over Time as a directed experience. The space was shaped like a U, with switch-backing corridors flanking a more open dinosaur section in the middle. With the exception of a shortcut between the Carboniferous and the Mesozoic, visitors had no choice but to walk through the exhibit chronologically, viewing the displays in the order the designers mandated. Since visitors tend to be more focused and more likely to read signs early in the exhibit, the designers deliberately used the introductory rooms to cover the most unfamiliar concepts. Displays on the origins of life and the evolution of aerobic respiration made up the “homework” part of the exhibit. After that, visitors were set free in the Mesozoic section, where open sight lines allowed people to choose what they wished to view, and in what order. This served as a reward for putting up with the more challenging material early on. Ultimately, what set Life Over Time apart from its predecessors was the focus on ideas rather than specimens. The fossils were meant to illustrate broader concepts like adaptation, extinction, and biogeography, and were in some ways subordinate to the hands-on activities and multimedia displays.

new triceratops

This cast of the AMNH Triceratops was a new addition to Life Over Time. Photo by Gary Todd.


In Life Over Time, visitors circled the dinosaurs on an elevated ramp before visiting them at ground level. Photo by Erik Peterson.

The process of developing Life Over Time was an occasionally tense give-and-take between the research staff (who traditionally had the last word on exhibit content) and the administrators, exhibit specialists, and educators (who had greater influence this time around). Looking back, it would seem that the curators lost more of these fights than they won. Life Over Time ended up with a decidedly kitschy tone, and was full of overtly silly elements. Near the front of the exhibit, a mannequin dressed as a game show host invited visitors to spin the “Wheel of Adaptation.” There were Dial-A-Dinosaur phones, which visitors could pick up and listen to first-person accounts of life as a dinosaur. An animatronic puppet show explained the switch from aerobic to anaerobic life. Video “weather reports” with CBS anchor Bill Kurtis updated visitors on climate change over time. There was even a ridable trilobite on a spring.

This carnival-like atmosphere is particularly distinctive when compared to the present fossil halls at the American Museum of Natural History, which were developed at the same time. AMNH project director Lowell Dingus rejected contemporary trends in exhibit design, which, in his view, were pitched to “the lowest common denominator of visitor intellect.” Wishing to challenge audiences to think about fossils the way scientists do, Dingus created a phylogeny-based exhibit that emphasized empiricism and rigorous anatomical analysis over idle speculation. While it was certainly not devoid of informative content, Life Over Time was designed for a much younger audience, with particular attention paid to the under-five set. This marked contrast between the New York and Chicago exhibits speaks volumes about the differing influence of the scientific staff at the two museums, as well as the institutions’ overall priorities at the time.

Permian cluster

Postcard of the pelycosaur cluster in Life Over Time. These specimens were donated by the University of Chicago in the 1960s.

Happily, the Field Museum didn’t opt to replace its authentic mounted fossil skeletons with the roaring robots that were in vogue at the time. The classic fossil mounts were restored and rebuilt by Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc., a Canadian company headed by Gilles Danis. A biologist by training and a veteran of the Royal Tyrell Museum, Danis led the process of disassembling, cleaning, and remaking the most significant mounts. The ApatosaurusDaspletosaurus, and Megathierum were all given more accurate and active poses: the Daspletosaurus now crouched over its Lambeosaurus prey with its tail held aloft, while the giant sloth stretched to its full height against a replica tree. Although it was completely rebuilt, the Apatosaurus retained its dragging tail in the new exhibit – an unusual choice for a 1990s reconstruction. I’ve asked a number of people at the Field Museum, but nobody has been able to confirm how or why this decision was made.

In addition to the classic mounts, Life Over Time featured a partial Parasaurolophus and a new cast of the AMNH Triceratops. The most substantial addition was a complete Brachiosaurus reconstruction. This 40 foot tall mount combined casts taken from the material Elmer Riggs collected at the turn of the century with sculpted elements prepared by Stephen Godfry.  Far too large for the second floor exhibit halls, the Brachiosaurus earned a place of honor in the central Stanley Field Hall. In order to comply with the fire code while allowing visitors to walk under the towering sauropod,  the torso was extended by adding two extra dorsal vertebrae (for a total of twelve). In an amusing twist, newer research shows that this vertebrae count – and the mount’s stretch limo proportions – is probably correct.

main hall brachiosaurus

The Brachiosaurus skeleton was tall enough to look over the second floor mezzanine. Source

Life Over Time opened to the public in June 1994 (the Brachiosaurus had been on display for a year prior). Nevertheless, it was the shortest-lived iteration of the Field Museum’s fossil displays, closing down after only ten years. Why didn’t it last? For one thing, the numerous interactive elements suffered more wear and tear than expected, and they broke frequently. Meanwhile, in-house evaluations showed that the exhibit’s intended messages were not coming across to most visitors. For example, Asma recalls a child frantically spinning the Wheel of Adaptation with all his might, completely oblivious to the information the display was meant to convey. Unfortunately, an interactive exhibit is not necessarily an educational one, and it can be very difficult to create a learning experience that accomplishes both goals.

Phase IV: Evolving Planet

There was one more reason the Field Museum needed to revisit its fossil displays: the sudden acquisition of Sue the Tyrannosaurus in 1997. The story of the four-way legal battle that preceded this has been told often (although not always fairly), so suffice it to say that few came out of that fight unscathed. The Field Museum entered the picture when landowner Maurice Williams, to whom the courts had awarded ownership of Sue, announced that the fossils would be placed on the auction block. Paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest when the Field Museum won Sue with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.


Some obscure theropod. Photo by the author.

The Field Museum committed to a summer 2000 unveiling of Sue’s mounted skeleton. However, most of the bones was still buried in rock and plaster. The fossils had to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they had to be studied before they could be mounted. Most of this work was done on-site, in view of the public. The armature itself was created by Phil Fraley Productions, the same exhibit company that rebuilt the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. Field Museum administrators decided that Sue would replace the Brachiosaurus in the Stanley Field Hall, even though the sauropod had only been on display for seven years. According to Exhibit Project Manager Janet Hong, Sue was such a monumental exhibit that she really deserved pride of place. Meanwhile, the Brachiosaurus was relocated to O’Hare International Airport, while a weather-proof duplicate was placed outside the museum.

Sue was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the literal raising of a curtain. A week-long series of celebrations and press junkets introduced Sue to Chicago, and she has been one of the city’s biggest attractions every since. All the publicity paid off, at least in the short term: Field Museum attendance soared that year from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. 16 years later, Sue’s new identity as a Chicago landmark seems to have all but eclipsed the legal dispute that was her original source of fame. Hong likens Sue to Chicago’s David, and even former Field Museum President John McCarter feels that he underestimated what a force Sue would be for the city.

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

The acquisition of Sue created a strong public association between the Field Museum and dinosaur research. This was ironic, because while the museum had hosted a talented array of paleontologists over the years, it had never employed a dinosaur specialist. Even Elmer Riggs, who collected the museum’s iconic sauropods at the turn of the century, was more interested in mammal evolution. In 2001, the Field Museum began a concerted effort to expand its vertebrate paleontology program, and make a name for itself as a hub for dinosaur science. Among the new hires were fossil preparator Akiko Shinya and paleontologist Peter Makovicky, who immediately began organizing expeditions to grow the museum’s collection.

The new emphasis on paleontology research brought greater expectations for the Field Museum’s interpretive efforts, and Life Over Time wasn’t doing the job. The initial plan was to merely refresh the decade-old exhibits, but ambitions grew and the renovation snowballed into something much more substantial. Project Manager Todd Tubutis and Content Specialist Richard Kissel spent five years overseeing the development of Life Over Time’s replacement, eventually titled “Evolving Planet.”

Once we reach the Permian, the fossils can start to speak for themselves. Photo by the author.

Each section of Evolving Planet is differentiated by its own color palate and ambient audio. In the Permian, olive green walls and signs are accompanied by the sounds of a windswept desert. Photo by the author.


Yes, of course this series needs another picture of the Apatosaurus. Photo by the author.

While the new exhibit uses the same space and directed, U-shaped layout as its predecessor, the end result is virtually unrecognizable. The hokey parts of Life Over Time are gone, replaced by all-new signs, labels, and interactives. New specimens include original Parasaurolophus, Rapetosaurus, and Arctodus mounts, plus casts of Stegosaurus and Deinonychus, all prepared by Research Casting International. An entire room is dedicated to fossils from Utah’s Green River Formation, acquired on a recent Field Museum collecting expedition. Phlesh Bubble Studios provided a panoramic CGI reconstruction of the Burgess Shale Fauna, while Karen Carr produced 150 original paintings to supplement the classic Charles Knight murals. These, in turn, were restored by Parma Conservation and are contextualized as the historic masterpieces they are. Nevertheless, Evolving Planet has a few holdovers from Life Over Time. The existing dinosaur mounts were not moved or changed, and major set pieces like the walk-through Carboniferous swamp diorama remain in place.

Timeline moments and consistent iconography

Repeating iconography keeps visitors engaged in story of life on Earth. Photo by the author.

Karen Carr art fills in gaps in classic Knight pieces

New artwork by Karen Carr fills gaps left by the classic Charles Knight murals. Photo by the author.

The interpretation in Evolving Planet arose from three main objectives. First, the exhibit needed to highlight the Field Museum’s own collections and the work of its in-house research staff. Second, it had to contextualize Sue and the environment she lived in. Finally, it had to effectively explain the process of evolution, and the evidence for it. Life Over Time had faltered here, and with the influence of the anti-science lobby increasing, it was crucial to get it right. Tubutis and Kissel accomplished this in part by facilitating closer collaboration between the exhibit designers and research staff. Evolving Planet weaves the evidence for evolution into all aspects of the displays. The first thing visitors see is the thesis of the exhibit – “everything that has ever lived is connected through and is the result of evolution” – printed on an otherwise blank wall. Moving forward, visitors learn how evolution via natural selection works, and how we know. Along the way, common misconceptions, such as the idea that lineages improve over time, or that evolution is “just a theory”, are proactively addressed and corrected.

The visual design of Evolving Planet deserves particular mention. The new exhibit subtly but effectively uses repeating iconography to guide visitors through the story being told. Every geological period is associated with a specific color scheme and soundscape, making visitors’ progression from one stage to another obvious and distinct. “Timeline Moments” at the beginning of each section update visitors on their progress, and ensure that they expect to see something new and different up ahead. Special symbols remind visitors of recurring themes, such as mass extinctions (or even the repeated evolution of saber-teeth). Lastly, variations in font and text size are cleverly employed to call attention to key words and phrases.

old riggs mounts, new sloth, charles knight

A new pose and context for Megatherium, along with historic Riggs mounts and Knight artwork. Photo by the author.

Evolving Planet opened on March 10, 2006. A decade later, this award-winning exhibition remains a favorite with scientists and educators alike. As Cleveland Museum of Natural History Educator Ashley Hall explains:

Evolving Planet is my all-time favorite museum exhibit. It is not only rich with some of the world’s best known fossil specimens, but provides label copy for visitors of all learning levels. You can visit multiple times and still learn something new. Museums provide visitors with unique settings for learning, and it is a museum’s job not to short-change, dumb down, or simplify information. Evolving Planet hits the nail on the head.

From its clear-as-day thesis to its poignant finish (a counter showing the number of species going extinct daily), Evolving Planet is ambitious but uncommonly relatable. It places familiar dinosaurs and mammoths in a broader evolutionary context, introducing visitors to the true breadth of deep time. And yet, the exhibit is also remarkable for its restraint. It doesn’t overwhelm casual visitors with specimens and facts, but instead sticks to a handful of broadly-applicable themes.

The Field Museum’s paleontology program spent its early years playing catch-up to peer institutions. While other American natural history museums were conducting yearly fossil-collecting expeditions and building collections of one-of-a-kind specimens, the Field Museum’s founding paleontologists struggled for basic resources and recognition within their institution. Today, the department’s public showroom is what Kissell describes as “one of, if not the, most comprehensive explanations of the history of life on Earth in any museum.” It would seem that the Field Museum has found its voice in the pantheon of great natural history museums.

Many thanks to Ashley Hall, Oliver Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Devin Myers for sharing their time, expertise, and experiences when I was writing this post. Any factual errors are, of course, my own.


Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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

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

Glut, D.F. 2001. Remembering the Field Museum’s Hall 38. Jurassic Classics: A Collection of Saurian Essays and Mesozoic Musings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

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

Lelièvre, M A. 2006. Evolving Planet: Constructing the Culture of Science at Chicago’s Field Museum. Anthropologica 48: 2: 293-296.

Milner, R. 2012. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York, NY: Abrams.

Tubitis, T.J. 2005. Revitalizing Life Over Time: A New Look for a Very Old Topic. In the Field 76: 2: 18.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, paleoart

Envisioning the Ice Age at NMNH

neanderthal diorama

The neanderthal burial diorama. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man, 1974.

On September 13, 1974, the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man opened in Hall 6 at the National Museum of Natural History. Part of the “third wave” of NMNH exhibits, the Ice Age Hall was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration and a new drive to create more accessible, visitor-centric museum experiences. Specifically, the exhibit was a response to increasing pressure for museums to become destination attractions, valuing visitors’ desire to be entertained above anything else. The Ice Age Hall was meant to prove that good science and the intrinsic value of specimens could, in fact, be applied in a way that would appeal to contemporary audiences. The curators, designers, educators, and artists involved with the project saw it as an important departure from old methodologies, and expected it to be a template for future exhibits. This transition did not necessarily come easily, but for 40 years the results spoke for themselves.

The Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates


Large fossil mounts in the short-lived Pleistocene Hall. Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Despite the fanfare accompanying the Ice Age Hall’s opening, NMNH regulars would be forgiven for noticing that much of the exhibit looked familiar. Just four years earlier, this same space saw the opening of the brand-new Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. This was the fifth and final phase of a thorough re-imagining of the museum’s fossil displays that began in 1959. Under the guidance of exhibit designer Ann Karras, the loose arrangement of specimens that had characterized the east wing for half a century was replaced with a directed narrative of the biological and geological history of the Earth.

This new direction was motivated by complementary revolutions in the museum field and in paleontology. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. At NMNH, this change in ideology inspired paleontologists to break away from the Geology Department and form their own Department of Paleobiology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Piano wire barely visible. Photo from Marsh 2014.

Two dire wolves posed over a horse. This display didn’t make it into the Ice Age Hall. Source

As Curator of Paleontology, C.L. Gazin oversaw most of the east wing modernization and designed the Tertiary Mammals exhibit in Hall 4 himself. Gazin retired in 1970, however, so responsibility for the unfinished Quaternary exhibit in Hall 6 went to new hire Clayton Ray, the Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals. To fill out the Quaternary Hall, Ray arranged a number of trades with other museums. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County provided a saber toothed cat, two dire wolves, and the sheep-sized sloth Paramylodon (USNM 15164) from the La Brea tar pits, while the American Museum of Natural History was able to spare a bison “mummy” (USNM 26387) and a taxidermied musk ox. Ray also selected a complete set of mammoth bones from the AMNH collections, which were found during a gold mining operation near Fairbanks, Alaska. The bones were collected individually and belonged to an unknown number of individuals (they may well represent multiple species), but they were sufficient for preparator Leroy Glenn to construct a complete mounted skeleton.

Ray placed the new mammoth (USNM 23792) alongside the Michigan mastodon (USNM 8204), which had been on display since 1904. The mammoth was so tall that it had less than an inch of clearance with the ceiling. The other big draw in  the Quaternary Hall was a pair of never-before-exhibited giant sloths (USNM 20867 and USNM 20872) assembled from material Gazin collected in Panama. Referred to as “megatheres” at the time, these sloths are actually Eremotherium, and they are composites of at least eight individuals. The giant sloths were positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. All four giant mammal skeletons were supplemented with 1/5th scale life restorations created by staff artist Vernon Rickman. Exhibits specialist Lucius Lomax came up with the idea to display the fossil mounts behind piano wire, stretched from the floor to the ceiling and arranged in rows. The Eremotherium platform alone required 500 strands – or about 6000 feet – of wire.

A New Vision

Chimera mammoth

The composite mammoth looms over other specimens along the right wall of the Ice Age Hall. Photo by the author.

Neither NMNH staff nor museum visitors were overjoyed with the Quaternary Hall as it stood in 1970. The piano wire Lomax had installed was a frequent cause for complaint: visitors would constantly pluck at the strings and occasionally break them. The wires also ruined photos. Automatic lenses would focus on the wire, so when visitors got their vacation pictures developed they would end up with a bunch of images of vertical strands with darkness beyond them. Nevertheless, the piano wire was really just a scapegoat for deep-seated disagreements over content between paleontology curators and exhibit designers. This apparently unsolvable clash of personalities contributed to the hall being closed indefinitely after just a couple years.

Paleontologist Porter Kier became Director of NMNH in 1973, and one of his first moves was to assemble a new team to reinvent the Quaternary Hall. Paleobotanist Leo Hickey, geologists Robert Emery and Thomas Simkin, and anthropologist William Fitzhugh conceived of an interdisciplinary exhibit that would explore the ice ages from multiple perspectives. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans would all be presented in a single, holistic story. In what was at the time a novel development, the curators worked with Elaine Anderson and other “conceptualizers/writers” from the Office of Exhibits. The scientists conceived of the main ideas and ensured factual accuracy, but the Office of Exhibits ultimately wrote the label copy and oversaw the construction of the exhibition.

arch section

A statue of an archaeologist at work was a popular part of the exhibit. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974.

To accommodate new content, the existing Quaternary Hall layout had to be completely gutted and replaced. Although Clayton Ray was conspicuously absent from the exhibit team, most of the modern and fossil animal specimens he had gathered were reused in different locations. The center of the exhibit became an enclosed theater with a video presentation about the advance and retreat of North American glaciers. The north end of the hall was overtaken by human evolution displays. Replica skulls and full-body illustrations showed the progression of hominids from australopithicines to modern humans, amusingly represented by a hippie. Vernon Rickman returned to create a life-sized diorama depicting a neanderthal burial ceremony. While directly based on excavations at Regourdou Cave in France, the scene was also inspired by the much-publicized Shanidar Cave site in Iraq, where neanderthals allegedly laid their dead to rest on a bed of freshly picked flowers. Finally, a cast of an engraved mammoth tusk, based on a 25,000 year old original from the Czech Republic, was added to the south entrance. This piece was meant to tie the exhibit’s narrative together, symbolizing “man’s emergence in the ice age as a dominant influence on other animals and his environment” (Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974).

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution archives.

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Ice Age Hall was completed remarkably quickly. Kier pulled the team together in early 1974 and the new displays were designed, written, and fabricated by September. At least internally, a great deal of excitement accompanied the reopening of Hall 6. The Ice Age Hall was a serious departure from how exhibit work had traditionally been done at NMNH, but it also represented an attempt by the museum to stand its ground in the face of pressure to delve into “edutainment.” This was a trial run at developing a visitor-focused but science-driven exhibit, and everyone involved was anxious to see how the public would react.

Legacy of the Exhibit

Eremotherium today. Photo by the author.

Few visitors can help but stop in their tracks at the sight of the Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

In 1978, Robert Wolf and Barbara Tymitz published a “naturalistic/responsive” evaluation of the Ice Age Hall. Their groundbreaking and oft-cited methodology involved interviewing visitors and surreptitiously tracking them through the gallery space, seeking to understand how museumgoers were using and interpreting the “complex set of stimuli” presented by the exhibit. This document, and especially the taxonomy of visitor types it describes, may well have influenced the museum field more than the Ice Age Hall itself.

According to Wolf and Tymitz, the Ice Age Hall was largely successful. Visitors generally remembered the major topics under discussion, and frequently left more curious about natural history than when they entered. They also noticed the difference in layout from the rest of the museum, describing it as easier to navigate and understand. Not surprisingly, the mammoth, mastodon, Eremotherium, and neanderthal burial were the most popular and most photographed objects. In comparison, the carved mammoth tusk at the front of the hall recieved surprisingly little attention. This object was intended to be tie the entire exhibit together, but most people ignored it entirely. Likewise, the separation of North and South American animals via an architectural “land bridge” was completely lost on visitors. Wolf and Tymitz observed that visitors entering from the south paid more attention to the fossil mounts, while visitors entering from the north were drawn to the glacier theater. A lesson about the importance of sight lines and traffic flow lies therein.

La brea mounts. Photo by the author.

Paramylodon and Smilodon from the La Brea tar pits. Take a good look at the sloth, because it won’t be returning in 2019. Photo by the author.

After 40 years, not every element of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man aged gracefully. Most obviously, the androcentric title and frequent use of the word “man” to describe humans throughout the label copy comes across as painfully dated. Displays that warned of another period of global cooling were removed (or at least stopped being lit) when anthropogenic warming emerged as a crucial public policy concern. The multimedia demonstration of continental glaciation was shut down by the early 2000s, and the human evolution corner was boarded up once the Hall of Human Origins opened in 2010. While the neanderthal diorama remained on display, recent research has shown that the affectionate burial it depicts is probably a misinterpretation. Ironically, the gradual removal of geology and anthropology components effectively turned the Ice Age Hall into the straightforward menagerie of Pleistocene animals that Ray initially envisioned.

The Ice Age Hall closed along with the rest of the NMNH fossil displays in April 2014. When the east wing reopens, many of the specimens will return restored and remounted, but in a different location. Since the new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order, Hall 8 itself will house displays on the origins of life and an expanded FossiLab. Still, the Ice Age Hall experiment continues to leave its mark on the museum. The collaborative workflow and sharing of responsibilities between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists pioneered in the development of this exhibit remains standard practice today. The result has been ever more effective displays, providing solid scientific content to the widest possible audience.


Eschelman, R.E., Emry, R.J., Domning, D.P. and Bohaska, D.J. (2002). Biography and Bibliography of Clayton Edward Ray. Cenozoic Mammals of Land and Sea: Tributes to the Career of Clayon E. Ray. Emry, R.J., ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology.

Lay, M. (2013). Major Activities of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology During the 1960s.

Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (1974). Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man. Washington, DC: Elephant Press.

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

Yochelson, E. (1985). The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.


Filed under anthropology, education, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.


The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.


Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists.


Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication