Category Archives: education

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reviews, science communication

Return to the DinoSphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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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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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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