Category Archives: exhibits

Telling SUE’s story (part 2)

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The fleshed-out reconstruction of SUE is the show-stopping highlight of SUE: The T. rex Experience. Photo by Chris Schneider.

Start with Telling SUE’s story (part 1).

Just a few weeks after the new SUE gallery opened at the Field Museum, a smaller team was convened to create a new traveling exhibition about the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. The original traveling exhibit—A T. rex Named SUE—launched in 2000 and ran for more than fifteen years, touring all over North America, Europe, and Asia. But the components were getting worn out, some of the science was lukewarm, and the market for traveling dinosaur exhibits had gotten more competitive. Our task was to build a bigger, better SUE exhibit, using the assets we had just developed for the permanent gallery as a starting point.

Finding an angle

In the permanent SUE gallery, we could rely on the drawing power of the real skeleton of the most complete adult Tyrannosaurus ever found. The traveling exhibit, however, would have to use a cast. That meant we needed to put greater emphasis on storytelling, and as Exhibition Developer, storytelling was my responsibility. To figure out what kind of story we wanted to tell, we started by checking in on our peers. The American Museum of Natural History had just opened the temporary exhibit T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, so the design team and I traveled to New York to have a look.

The visual language of T. rex the Ultimate Predator is stark, angular, and black-and-white. Photo by the author.

T. rex: The Ultimate Predator considers the evolutionary history of Tyrannosaurus rex. The exhibition is about the entire tyrannosaur family and explores how the traits that define T. rex gradually accumulated over a hundred million years. Because this story exists in the realm of cladograms and morphometric analyses, the design language is sparse, almost clinical. The life-sized models, fossils, and illustrations seem to float in a black-and-white void. This visual style pairs well with the story being told, and the team behind T. rex: The Ultimate Predator did some phenomenal work. However, it was clear that we wanted to go in a different direction.

We decided that our exhibit—now titled SUE: The T. rex Experience—would be about the relationship between the titular dinosaur and their environment. The Hell Creek Formation (the rock layer in which SUE was found) preserves one of the most well-studied ecosystems from the Age of Dinosaurs. That meant that we could reconstruct SUE’s life and times in detail, showcasing the world this famous predator lived in and giving visitors a sense of what it was like to be a T. rex

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A narrated light show tells SUE’s story. Photo by Chris Schneider.

The Hell Creek environment was a place of danger and opportunity for SUE, and it was important that our star Tyrannosaurus was never divorced from that context. This environmental focus dovetailed with the story told by the SUE fossil itself. SUE is exquisitely preserved and is the subject of dozens of scientific papers—we know more about this individual than almost any other dinosaur. From how SUE grew up and grew old to how they got injured and sick, SUE’s skeleton tells the life story of the oldest—and therefore the most successful—T. rex known to science. Put another way, we wanted to make SUE a character (to the extent that was scientifically credible, of course). By spotlighting the evidence for SUE’s hard life as an apex predator, we hoped the exhibit would inspire visitors to empathize with this long-dead dinosaur, while discouraging them from conceptualizing T. rex as a fantastical monster.

SUE’s world

SUE: The T. rex Experience immerses visitors in the Hell Creek environment. Scientific advisors Tom Cullen and Az Klymiuk were instrumental in this regard, bringing a focus on the methods used to reconstruct paleoenvironments—including isotopic analysis of microfossils and sedimentology. Not only is this ecological perspective something that visitors specifically asked for during our audience studies, I think it sets our exhibit apart from other paleontology exhibits and media. For example, learning that summertime in Hell Creek brought temperatures of 75 to 85° F and around 80 inches of rain (and how we know) makes the prehistoric past tangible and tactile in a way that the usual dinosaur stats and trivia rarely do. 

A picture is worth a thousand words: this panoramic mural illustrates both the Hell Creek ecosystem and SUE’s place in it. Photo by Chris Schneider.

An exhibit is more than a collection of facts, of course. It’s a story told through physical space, assembled from words, specimens, images, interactives, and media. We leveraged all of these tools to place visitors in the world of Tyrannosaurus rex. Nearly every display is set against a verdant backdrop of Hell Creek swamps and forests (in fact, we made a point of ensuring every image of T. rex is situated in its habitat). Some of these images are pulled from the animated scenes produced for the permanent SUE gallery, but we also commissioned original artwork by Beth Zaiken. It’s easy to get lost in Zaiken’s extraordinary panoramic mural, which vividly captures the waterlogged, angiosperm-dominated forests of the Hell Creek ecosystem. I’m particularly fond of this take on SUE, shown presiding over their kingdom with the relaxed confidence of modern apex predators (lions and alligators have the same energy).

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Fossils from SUE’s world are divided into three microhabitats: upland forest, shore of the inland sea, and lowland river (shown here). Photo by Chris Schneider.

The habitat reconstructions are ground-truthed by a variety of Cretaceous fossils, including some never-before-exhibited Field Museum specimens. These include a huge paddlefish, a range of beautiful leaves and fronds, and an articulated Edmontosaurus tail. We rounded out the displays with casts of the most iconic Hell Creek fossils from other museums, such as the AMNH Ankylosaurus and Royal Ontario Museum Acheroraptor. The complete Triceratops skeleton is none other than Hatcher from NMNH. Standing in an imposing, defensive posture, Hatcher ably demonstrates the risks that a top predator like SUE had to face in order to stay fed.

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SUE’s caretaker Bill Simpson had wanted to pair the T. rex with a Triceratops for over 20 years. Photo by Chris Schneider. 

Visitors to SUE: The T. rex Experience won’t just see Hell Creek—they’ll hear, feel, and smell it too. There are ten touchable casts and replications in the exhibit, including a reconstruction of SUE’s skull as it looked when it was first excavated. Meredith Whitfield developed the physical interactives: you can simultaneously hear and feel the infrasonic rumble a T. rex could have produced at a bone conduction platform, and—if you really want to—you can smell SUE’s rancid breath. The scent is actually synthetic rotting flesh, used for training disaster response dogs. I smelled it once, and have no pressing need to do so again!

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For us 90s kids, the image of SUE’s smushed, partially-prepared skull is at least as iconic as the mounted skeleton, so I was thrilled we could recreate it for this exhibit. Photo by the author.

As in the permanent SUE gallery, a media overlay ties everything together. Animated scenes of the Cretaceous world are projected on a 20-foot screen, and overhead lights change color in sync with the time of day in the animations. A primordial soundscape of birds, frogs, and insects can be heard throughout the hall. Finally, a light show produced by Latoya Flowers and rigged by Paul Horst takes visitors on a tour of SUE’s skeleton. This narrated presentation highlights SUE’s battle scars, signs of illness, and more. 

SUE in the flesh

Of course, another way to make an exhibit stand out is to build a really big toy. We partnered with the exhibit fabrication maestros at Blue Rhino Studio to realize SUE in the flesh. Blue Rhino had already collaborated with the Field Museum on Mammoths and Mastodons, Antarctic Dinosaurs, and the flock of pterosaurs in Stanley Field Hall, but SUE was a much bigger undertaking.

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The miniature maquette in front of the full-scale model. Photo by the author.

More than a dozen artists took part in building SUE, but I’m told this was primarily Jim Burt’s baby. Burt started the process by sculpting a miniature maquette in clay. The maquette was build directly over a 1/12th scale 3-D print of SUE’s skeleton, ensuring that the proportions were exactly right. At the Field Museum, Tom Cullen and Bill Simpson provided several rounds of anatomical revisions, paying particularly close attention to the arrangement of cornified bumps and knobs on SUE’s face. Of course, it wouldn’t be SUE without also including some of the scars and injuries SUE is famous for. The result is a restoration of not just any T. rex, but a specific old and punch-drunk individual that has lived a tough life but is still thriving.

Jim Burt feeds Deadmonto to SUE. Photo by the author.

Why is SUE eating a young Edmontosaurus? The primary reason is gravity. This model doesn’t have the same weight distribution as a real Tyrannosaurus, and it had to be light enough to break down and travel every few months. We needed a third point of contact with the ground to ensure maximum stability, and the Edmontosaurus prey was the coolest way to accomplish that. By design, it’s initially ambiguous whether SUE killed or scavenged this animal, but a close look at the muddy substrate reveals a set of tracks—Deadmonto’s last steps. What happens next? Imagine SUE horking down the Edmontosaurus whole, not unlike this seagull.

After the maquette was approved, the Blue Rhino team had it scanned, then milled out of giant blocks of foam at full size. It then took about six months to sculpt in the fine details (down to each individual scale) and paint SUE’s burgundy hide. In addition to being an extraordinary artistic creation, this model is a feat of engineering. While it looks seamless, it breaks down into chunks that fit through a standard six-foot door. It’s also light enough that a single person can push it across the floor.

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The finished model. Photo courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio.

This model must be seen in person to fully appreciate—not just the amount of detail but the sheer size. SUE is absolutely massive, but when you look at the skeleton with gastralia in place and consider the muscles needed to move this beast around, it’s hard to imagine T. rex any other way. 

As I’ve said previously, working with SUE is a humbling experience. It means standing on the shoulders of dozens of researchers, preparators, artists, educators, and more who have contributed to our understanding of this incredible fossil since it was unearthed. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to join their ranks and help bring SUE to the next generation, and am indebted to my colleagues who willed this latest iteration of SUE into reality. It wasn’t lost on us that SUE: The T. rex Experience debuted 30 years after Sue Hendrikson discovered the fossil—approximately the same amount of time that SUE was alive during their previous existence on Earth. SUE’s second life is now longer than their first, so here’s to the next 30 years.

SUE: The T. rex Experience has been touring since August 2020 and is currently at the Liberty Science Center. Upcoming destinations will be posted on the Field Museum’s traveling exhibitions page.  

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, science communication

Great Whales at the Royal Ontario Museum

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The sperm whale Alulgwet is the first of three skeletons visitors encounter.

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, checking another North American natural history museum off my bucket list. There’s plenty to say about the ROM, but I’d like to focus on Great Whales: Up Close and Personal, a temporary exhibition that opened this summer. Great Whales is, in a word, magnificent. It is among the very best natural history exhibits I’ve seen in recent years—no small feat given that much of its development occurred in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

An exhibit is a story told through physical space, made up of words, objects, images, sounds, and experiences. Great Whales leverages all of these tools to not only immerse visitors in the multi-faceted world of giant whales, but also evoke feelings of awe, reverence, and humility. More than any exhibit or wildlife documentary in recent memory, Great Whales captures the humbling effect of real encounters with the natural world. 

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Displayed at eye level, the scale of this blue whale—80 tons in life—is particularly apparent.

The presence of three real whales is a major part of this. The colossal skeletons of a sperm whale, a blue whale, and a right whale dominate the space, but they are introduced as individuals, rather than specimens. They each have a name and a story: for example, the right whale Alasuwinu was found dead on Epekwitk/Prince Edward Island in 2017. Scientists had tracked this adult male for many years and he had survived a number of close calls with fishing nets, but he ultimately perished after being struck by a boat.  

The ethereal atmosphere of the exhibition is also powerful. The whale skeletons are bathed in a blue glow, casting mesmerizing shadows on the walls and ceilings. Sounds of the ocean—including whale songs—can be heard throughout. In one corner, the whale songs are played at their true volume, which is loud and deep enough to feel in your bones. It’s hard not to imagine sailors from centuries past lying awake at night and hearing those eerie rumbles through the hulls of their ships.

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Visitors can step inside the baleen-laden jaws of this replica skull.

However, I think the exhibition’s biggest strength is that it is told through multiple voices. One of those voices is the standard, omniscient museum voice, through which we learn about the biomechanics of hearts and lungs on a massive scale, as well as the evolution of whales (which could be an exhibit all its own). We also hear from scientists, including ROM mammalogy technician Jacqueline Miller. In one video, Miller recounts the experience of breaking down the blue whale (named Blue), which was found trapped by shifting ice in 2014. She describes the overpowering stench and the overwhelming amount of gore, but also the excitement of turning a tragedy into an opportunity to learn something new and maybe help other whales in the future.

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The evolution section includes skeletons of Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, Kutchicetus, and Dorudon.

Most unique to a science exhibition like this one is the recurring presence of Indigenous Elders, artists, and storytellers. Wolastoq artist and cultural educator Possesom Paul describes whales as ancient partners of humans—powerful, mysterious, but also vulnerable. In two areas of the exhibit, we hear Passamaquoddy Elder Maggie Paul singing the song All My People, which honors the whales. As a non-Native person, I felt privileged that these perspectives were being shared with me. These ways of knowing do not conflict with the scientific ones—instead, they complement one another and provide visitors with more pathways to connect with the exhibition content.

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The remaining North Atlantic right whale population, visualized.

Traditional and scientific perspectives converge in the exhibit’s conservation message. Choice statistics make the plight of whales in the industrialized world particularly stark. I’ve been unable to forget one infographic informing me that 10% of the right whale population has died since 2017—equivalent to losing every person in North and South America. Another graphic illustrates how precious each individual whale is: a wall of polaroid photos introduces us to most of the 300-some right whales alive today. 

Great Whales is poignant, thought-provoking, and often beautiful, representing the best of what a natural history exhibit can be. It will be on display at the ROM until March 2022. It’s unclear if it will travel after that, but I very much hope it does. 

 

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, reviews, ROM, science communication

Meeting Peale’s Mastodon

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A mastodon in an art museum.

Last week, I met a very special fossil. Pictured above is Charles Wilson Peale’s mastodon, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Exhumed in 1799 near the banks of the Hudson River and unveiled to the public on Christmas Eve, 1801, this was the very first mounted skeleton of a prehistoric animal ever exhibited in the United States. Preceding Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six decades, the mastodon entered public discourse at a time when even the idea of extinction was still hotly debated. The mastodon proved to be a source of national pride for European Americans, demonstrating that North America’s natural wonders could rival Europe’s great architecture and rich history.

After Peale’s Philadelphia museum closed in 1848, the mastodon was sold and wound up at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. There it remained for over 170 years, largely forgotten in its home country, until SAAM senior curator Eleanor Harvey had the idea to include it in a new exhibition.

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A red curtain evokes Peale’s self portrait, The Artist in his Museum

Harvey’s exhibition isn’t about fossils, or even about Peale. Her subject is Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century naturalist who left a profound impact on the scholars, artists, and politicians of the young United States. Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture tracks the legacy of Humboldt’s brief but highly influential visit to America. During a six-week tour in 1804, Humboldt met with President Thomas Jefferson and other dignitaries, planting intellectual seeds that would shape America’s aspirational ideals for decades and centuries to come. From his vision of nature as an interconnected network to his advocacy for democracy, the abolition of slavery, and learning from Indigenous knowledge, Humboldt’s influence was wide-reaching*. 

*I personally found the exhibition’s presentation of Humboldt’s influence on US policy a bit doe-eyed. While triumphs like the founding of the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution can be traced to Humboldt’s legacy, it’s hard to argue that his social ideals had much practical effect in the 19th century

An important stop on Humboldt’s American tour was Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. Humboldt dined with Peale’s family beneath the ribcage of the mounted mastodon, later citing the beast as a key example of America’s incredible natural heritage. For Humboldt, Peale, and Jefferson, the mastodon embodied the young nation’s great potential—if this land was home to creatures as mighty at the mastodon, then its future would have to be equally monumental. 

To Harvey, the mastodon skeleton perfectly encapsulated the story she wanted to tell about Humboldt. She initially thought that shipping the mastodon from Germany for a temporary exhibition was a long shot, but her counterparts at the Landesmuseum were game. Curator Oliver Sandrock oversaw the process of preparing the mastodon for travel, which involved a deep cleaning, as well as breaking down the original 19th century armature into several pieces.

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The mastodon is presented primarily as a historical object—there is no discussion of the animal’s life appearance or behavior to be found.

I spoke to Advait Jukar, a Research Associate with the National Museum of Natural History, about his involvement with the mastodon. He inspected the skeleton in early 2020, shortly after it arrived in Washington, DC. As a fossil elephant specialist, Jukar was able to determine that the mastodon was an adult male, and that about 50% of the mount was composed of real, partially mineralized bone. Fascinatingly, most of the reconstructed bones were carved from wood. This was the handiwork of Rembrandt Peale (Charles’ son), William Rush, and Moses Williams. Most of the wooden bones were carved in multiple pieces, which were locked together with nails and pegs. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and the joins are difficult to make out unless you stand quite close. The mandible is entirely wood, but the teeth are real. These teeth probably came from a different individual—one tooth on the right side didn’t fit properly and was inserted sideways!

The mastodon at SAAM differs from the original presentation at Peale’s museum in a few ways. The missing top of the skull was once modeled in papier-mâché, but this reconstruction was destroyed when the Landesmuseum was bombed during the second world war. It has since been remodeled in plaster. While the mastodon was never mounted with real tusks, the mount has traditionally sported strongly curved replica tusks, more reminiscent of a mammoth. While Rembrandt Peale published a pamphlet in 1803 suggesting that the mastodon’s tusks should be positioned downward, like a pair of predatory fangs, it’s unclear if the tusks on the skeleton were ever mounted this way. At SAAM, the mastodon correctly sports a pair of nearly straight replicated tusks, which curve gently upward. 

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Rembrandt Peale’s carnivorous mammoth, with downward-facing tusks. Public domain.

Overall, the work of Peale, Rush, and Williams remains remarkably intact. Although it’s now lit by electric lights instead of oil lamps, this is the same beast that Humboldt encountered 220 years ago. Harvey even included a mouse in a small case at the mastodon’s feet, just as Peale did in Philadelphia. If anything, it’s remarkable how similar the mastodon mount looks to newer displays of fossil skeletons. Its creators pioneered an art form that has not changed enormously to this day.

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Artwork of the mastodon, its excavation, and its presentation by the Peale family.

While the mastodon is undeniably the star of the show, the exhibition also utilizes artworks from the SAAM collection, loans from other institutions, and three lengthy media presentations to tell Humboldt’s story. I was excited to see Peale’s The Artist in His Museum and Exhumation of the Mastodon reunited, and the collection of George Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans is impressive. However, I was most captivated by a media presentation exploring Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes. While the original painting had to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the video—which can be seen online here—explores the details and historical context of the painting with visually arresting style. I’ve been critical in the past of art museums’ proclivity for opaque and unwelcoming interpretive styles, but this video is great and I hope to see more efforts like it.

Overall, I was delighted by the exhibition. Seeing a fossil in an art museum, interpreted as a cultural artifact, is extraordinary. Like Humboldt himself, the mastodon is an interception of art, nature, and culture, and I relished the opportunity to meet such an icon.

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture runs through July 11, 2021. 

References

Jukar, A. 2021. Pers. comm.

O’Connor, A. 2020. Mysteries of the first mastodon.

Semonin, P. 2000. American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.

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Filed under art history, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reviews

Telling SUE’s story (part 1)

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

SUE—the Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex—has been busy lately. In 2018, the skeleton was moved from Stanley Field Hall to a dedicated gallery within the Evolving Planet exhibition. A new traveling exhibition about SUE began its North American tour earlier this year. I was involved with both these projects as an Exhibition Developer, and in this post (divided into two parts), I’ll share my experiences and some of the choices I made along the way. Basically, the sort of things I’d want to know about an exhibit at another museum.

Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that authorship of the new SUE exhibits is shared among dozens of talented professionals. In addition to my SUE co-developers Susan Golland and Meredith Whitfield, these exhibits were imagined and willed into existence by a small army of project managers, designers, scientists, mount-makers, programmers, and more. And all of us are standing on the shoulders of the researchers, preparators, artists, and educators who have contributed to our understanding of this incredible fossil since it was unearthed 30 years ago.

Why move SUE?

In January 2018, the Museum held an event for members to say a temporary goodbye to SUE. Photo by the author.

The role of a developer differs depending on the institution, but at the Field Museum we are essentially storytellers (or perhaps story organizers). Working closely with curators (staff scientists) and designers, we craft a narrative that can be expressed through physical space, and write most of the words visitors read or hear. One thing we do not do is decide which projects the Museum takes on and when. As I understand it, however, the decision to relocate SUE was a long time in coming.

After acquiring SUE as a partially prepared skeleton in 1998, Museum leadership decided that the mounted skeleton should be on display within two years. With a large team, that was enough time to prepare the fossil and publish a monograph, but renovating the existing paleontology halls to make room for a T. rex would have been impossible. So SUE debuted in Stanley Field Hall, with an understanding that this was a temporary solution (Edit: The choice to display SUE in Stanley Field Hall was actually a bit more complicated, with many factors besides schedule involved).

Thanks to Phil Fraley’s well-designed armature, SUE was taken down in just two weeks. Photo by the author.

While SUE’s position as a centerpiece in Stanley Field Hall was instantly iconic, the display could provide only minimal context for the fossil. And even though SUE is the size of a bus, visitors were right to point out that the skeleton looked small in the four-story, half-acre expanse. A dedicated gallery would be needed to properly represent SUE’s role as a rosetta stone for dinosaur science, to contextualize T. rex within the history of life on Earth, and to give SUE the presence they deserved.

As it turned out, the opportune moment to create such a gallery wouldn’t arrive until nearly two decades later. A multi-part plan was established in 2016: the SUE move would occur concurrently with a rebranding and redecorating of Stanley Field Hall, with hanging gardens and a Patagotitan cast filling the vertical space better than the Tyrannosaurus ever could. Meanwhile, the temporary (and now traveling) exhibition Antarctic Dinosaurs would keep fossil fans happy during the 9 months SUE was off display.

You can make a dinosaur do anything on paper, but assembling the real bones always comes with unexpected surprises. Photo by the author.

Naturally, any change to a beloved display was bound to be controversial. After all, SUE had been a mainstay in Stanley Field Hall for a generation of visitors (I’m old enough to remember the Brachiosaurus, so SUE always seemed like a newcomer to me). If anything, public relations staff leaned into the controversy, since it was a magnet for media attention. At times, the press generated by the SUE move felt comparable to adding an entire wing to the museum. The team working on the new gallery kept quiet, confident that visitors concerned about the change would come around once they saw what we were up to.

An encounter with SUE

The new SUE gallery occupies a space called Hall 25A, between the two arms of the U-shaped Evolving Planet exhibition. This hall didn’t exist when SUE first arrived at the Field Museum—it was one of four light wells that were original to the building, which weren’t filled in until the early 2000s. Finding space for a new exhibit is challenging in a century-old museum, but Hall 25A’s location was a lucky break. It could be connected directly to the existing dinosaur hall, so that the SUE gallery appeared precisely where it should during a visitor’s walk through time.

Our overall goal with the new gallery was to give visitors a dramatic encounter with SUE, contextualized within the Cretaceous world. Accordingly, designer Eric Manabat arranged the space with drama in mind. Visitors no longer get their first look at SUE from 300 feet away. Instead, SUE is hidden behind a scrim wall—visitors move around the wall and find themselves quite suddenly looking up into the face of the T. rex (SUE certainly doesn’t look small anymore).  Updates to the mounted skeleton—overseen by Pete Makovicky, Bill Simpson, and Tom Cullen—also give SUE a more imposing presence. The addition of SUE’s real gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles) and adjustments to the ribs and shoulders provide a better sense of how massive Tyrannosaurus was. SUE is also standing up straighter, and the jaws are now open.

SUE’s skeleton is visible through the translucent scrim wall, and we made sure the fleshed-out reconstruction was posed and scaled to line up perfectly. Photo by the author.

The look and feel of modern natural history exhibitions often leans toward one of two extremes. They either take design cues from art galleries, placing objects against a minimalist, neutral backdrop, or they are highly immersive recreations of a particular setting. The new SUE exhibition does a bit of both. The physical space is austere and elegant, although the use of wood paneling makes it warmer and more inviting than a typical art gallery. The immersion comes in the form of multimedia. Animated scenes of the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived are projected on a staggered row of screens, creating a living backdrop behind the skeleton. A primordial soundscape of birds, frogs, and insects can be heard throughout the hall.

I think this multimedia overlay makes the SUE gallery particularly unique, because it’s constantly changing. The animated scenes take you to three locations in SUE’s habitat on a 20-minute cycle: an upland forest at dawn, the shore of the inland sea during a midday rainstorm, and a lowland river in the late afternoon. When the visuals change, the soundscape and the color of the overhead lights change with them. Visitors are themselves part of the ebb and flow of the gallery. They move among and between the screens, placing themselves in the scenes and pointing out minute details. Every time there’s a bout of dinosaur action, visitors gather to watch, then disperse around the hall once more.

At one point during the light show, all the real fossils included in the mount are highlighted. Photo by the author.

The exhibit’s biggest surprise comes during the “nighttime” portion of the media loop, when a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton. Projection mapping is used to highlight pathologies and other key features, helping visitors see details that they might have overlooked. Media Producer Latoya Flowers’s work on the show is spectacular, and it’s no wonder that visitors sometimes break out into spontaneous applause upon seeing it.

Bringing SUE to life

How could we not pay homage to Charles Knight’s timeless standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops? Above: Artwork by Charles Knight. Below: render by Atlantic Productions, © Field Museum.

As one might imagine, creating the animated scenes was one of the most involved aspects of the project, as well as one of the most fun. These scenes were produced by the London-based studio ZooVFX, known for their work on Flying Monsters and Natural History Museum Alive, among other effects-heavy educational programs. However, this was was not simply a matter of sending the animators some parameters and accepting whatever they gave us. The process was deeply collaborative, and the Field Museum team of scientists, developers, and designers teleconferenced with ZooVFX at least once a week for well over a year.

Like any animation project, the process of creating these vignettes began with storyboards. We settled on the T. rex behaviors we wanted to depict: hunting, scavenging, drinking, defecating, and a standoff with Triceratops (basically, unsuccessful hunting). A scene with SUE sleeping was also considered, but curators decided that posing a sleeping T. rex would require too much speculation. We didn’t want constant, cacophonous dinosaur action in the gallery, so the moments with SUE are interspersed with longer periods of calm.

Next came designing and modeling (Vladimir Venkov was the primary artist at ZooVFX) the ten animal species to be featured. Naturally, the curators led this process. I think it’s fair to say that we strove for “safe” dinosaur reconstructions, insofar that they adhere to what is most definitively known from the fossil record. Your aesthetic preferences may vary, but they work well in the context of this exhibit.

The staggered, two-sided screens allow visitors to place themselves in the scenes, and also recall the ribs and vertebrae of the mounted skeleton. Photo by the author.

Animating SUE was relatively straightforward, but establishing the gaits of Triceratops and Edmontosaurus required a lot of iteration. The first walk cycle attempts were too mammalian, and lacked the bilaterally asymmetrical gait of four-legged reptiles. Edmontosaurus was particularly tricky because its back legs are much larger than its front legs, but its stiffened spine doesn’t allow the body to twist very much. Fossil trackways proved very helpful: when the animators matched the dinosaurs’ footfalls  to the footprints, biomechanically plausible movement usually followed. The folks at ZooVFX were fantastic, providing something like twenty variations on a hurried hadrosaur before we found one that worked.

Once we had basic walk and run animations, it was time to choreograph the action scenes. Once again, the Edmontosaurus scene caused trouble. How do you sell SUE ambushing the herd when T. rex can’t actually run? The finished version reminds me more of a crocodile than a lion—SUE gets really close, ultimately only taking four steps to reach their unfortunate quarry. The audio sells it. Pete Makovicky asked that SUE’s jaws slam shut with a crack you feel in your bones, like a really, really big crocodile. One bite, and “deadmonto” is toast.

Other challenges included designing SUE’s poop (we consulted a Bristol stool chart and decided on a 2 or 3), and staging the fight between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Naturally, we wanted a “Charles Knight moment” where the animals face off, but it had to be believable. I enjoyed the opportunity to script out the fight, move by move. In the final version, SUE’s attack is a moment too slow, so they find themselves temporarily cornered by their prey. SUE limps away with a stab wound in their left leg, matching the fossil skeleton’s infected tibia.

It’s nice in here. Photo by the author.

Susan Golland once called the new SUE gallery an oasis, which I think is a perfect descriptor. By the time visitors reach SUE, they’ve come two thirds of the way through Evolving Planet. It’s an extremely dense exhibition, covering the entire history of life with over 1,000 specimens. But then, they reach a big, open gallery that is all about a single specimen. There’s ample space to sit down and collect yourself. And the ever-changing media overlay means that you’ll actually see more if you take a break, rather than hurrying on ahead. I find the SUE gallery quite beautiful, and I hope that it does justice to such an extraordinary fossil.

Next time, we’ll look at updates to the SUE gallery since 2018, creating the traveling SUE exhibition, and realizing SUE in the flesh.

Awesome. Photo by the author.

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T. rex in Context: Deep Time’s Cretaceous Display

A little over a year ago, the National Museum of Natural History re-opened its paleontology halls after a five-year renovation. As I detailed in a previous post, the new exhibition—called Deep Time—is exceptional. Breathtaking to look at, intuitive to explore, and (of course) brimming with fascinating specimens, Deep Time sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at one display in Deep Time, the Cretaceous tableau, and elaborate on what makes it so effective. Many thanks to Designers Pauline Dolovich and Fang Pin Lee, Developer Siobhan Starrs, and Curator Matt Carrano for discussing their work with me.

The Cretaceous display tells a story through its carefully-composed design.

The Cretaceous display is home to Deep Time’s centerpiece, the Tyrannosaurus rex. As was well-covered by various media outlets in the months and years leading up to the exhibition’s opening, the “Nation’s T. rex” was discovered in 1988 on Army Corps of Engineers land, and is now on loan to the Smithsonian. Although it’s one of the most thoroughly-studied Tyrannosaurus specimens around, this is the first time the real skeleton has been assembled into a standing mount. Like many of the mounted skeletons in Deep Time, the T. rex strikes a dynamic pose that evokes the behavior of the living animal. In this case, the Tyrannosaurus is prying the head off a prone Triceratops.

Obviously, the T. rex draws a crowd. It’s hard to imagine any visitor passing through Deep Time without stopping to see it. But while the exhibit team acknowledged and emphasized the spectacular nature of the tyrant king, they also harnessed its star power to make a broader statement. Tyrannosaurus was part of a rich ecosystem of plants and animals, and while this apex predator had an impact on the entire community (eating some animals, providing leftovers for others), T. rex and other meat-eating dinosaurs were far outnumbered by the turtles, lizards, salamanders, and insects they lived alongside. By placing Tyrannosaurus within its ecological context, the display makes the seemingly fantastic dinosaur much more real. This reinforces one of the exhibition’s overarching themes: life in the past functioned much like life in the present, and studying past life can inform our understanding of the world today. It’s no accident that this cross-section of a prehistoric ecosystem is at the center of the hall, and includes its most popular specimen.

To avoid cluttering the historic architecture of the east wing, the designers integrated display lighting into the platforms.

While the Cretaceous display tells a complex story that is integral to the narrative of the exhibition as a whole, its footprint is remarkably compact. This efficient use of space is the result of a long and methodical design process. Designers Fang Pin Lee and Pauline Dolovich envisioned a broad avenue across the entire hall, which would accommodate large crowds (NMNH gets up to eight million visitors each year) and allow quick access to any part of the exhibition. This avenue needed to double as a central social space, where groups could congregate around built-in seating and look out onto the various displays. But more space for visitors means less space for specimens, and dinosaurs need a lot of room. Lee and Dolovich used digital renders and a miniature model to find the optimal position for the 40-foot Tyrannosaurus and its companions. This was a careful balancing act—they had to keep the T. rex visible from multiple approaches while working around the twin rows of structural columns down the center of the hall.

With ample space for visitor traffic, long sight lines, and some very large skeletons in the mix, there was precious little room in the Cretaceous display for text panels. This worked in the display’s favor, because it meant that much of the message had to be communicated through the design. For example, the Tyrannosaurus poised over its Triceratops meal evokes the predator’s role in the ecosystem, while conveniently reducing the footprint the two skeletons would require if displayed independently. Meanwhile, a cutaway in the platform next to the T. rex‘s foot contains an alligator, a turtle, clams, and aquatic plants. While only subtly implying the presence of a pond or river (the alligator skeleton is posed as though swimming along the surface, while lotus-like flowers “float” nearby), this area demonstrates these organisms’ ecological relationship to T. rex by placing them literally underfoot.

Stangerochampsa swims among floating Nelumbago leaves in an implied waterway.

To the right of Tyrannosaurus, a densely-layered series of specimens and display elements provides a nuanced look at the Hell Creek ecosystem within a limited amount of space. In the back, a pair of large murals by Julius Csotonyi set the stage: this was a lush, green world dense with weedy flowering plants (as opposed to the open conifer forests dinosaurs are often depicted in). To the left, a lone Torosaurus is dwarfed by the forest around it. To the right, an Edmontosaurus group tramples through the undergrowth, disturbing the smaller Thescelosaurus and Polyglyphanodon. Skeletons of Edmontosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and the aquatic reptile Champsosaurus stand in front of the murals, alongside three slabs of fossil leaves.

A vivid green panel among the skeletons spells out the key takeaway: these plants and animals were part of a single ecosystem that existed in North America at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Similar header panels can be found throughout the exhibition, and the writers iterated on the text for years. These short phrases had to convey the context and significance of a display at a glance, even if these were the only words a visitor read. The team settled on the headline “T. rex in Context” for the Cretaceous display, but when test audiences began visiting the hall, this proved to be a mistake. Because the words appeared so close to the Edmontosaurus, visitors were concluding that the hadrosaur was a T. rex. With weeks to go before opening, the team opted to replace the headline with the tried-and-true “Last American Dinosaurs.

Those vertical mounts for the fossil leaf slabs are incredible.

The final layer in the Cretaceous display is the rail at the very front. Smaller specimens—the lizard Polyglyphanodon, several fossil leaves, and an assortment of microfossils—are mounted in cases, while a dinosaur bone with insect damage is out in the open where it can be touched. The text on the rail is almost superfluous, but it is cleverly divided by trophic level. One panel addresses primary producers, another herbivores, and a third carnivores and decomposers. The plants and small animals are given the same amount of attention as the dinosaurs, reinforcing that all of these organisms have their part to play in the community.

Taken together, the elements of the Cretaceous display encourage deep looking without requiring a great deal of reading. Visitors drawn by the star power of the Tyrannosaurus find themselves surveying the “beautiful density” of specimens and display elements. They may notice minute details, like platform tiles slanted and dislodged as though by the movement of the dinosaurs, or the broken Triceratops horn that has rolled away from the skeleton. Intuitively, they understand that they’re looking at the complete ecological context of T. rex, and that this ecosystem is just as diverse and complex as those of today. If they choose to read the text panels, visitors will learn details like the names of the animals or the feeding strategies of different herbivores, but most of the information is conveyed through the layout alone. This is the mark of an uncommonly well-designed museum display.

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Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

Between late 2018 and early 2020, the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition—which covers the entire history of life on Earth—received a series of updates and improvements.  Although it’s been around since 2006, Evolving Planet is an excellent exhibition and does not need a complete overhaul any time soon. Still, the last 14 years have been some of the most active in the history of paleontology, so there is no shortage of new science to cover. Likewise, technological advancements have made it possible to introduce more large-scale multimedia experiences and digital interactives.

As one of four exhibition developers on the project, my role was to conceptualize many of the new additions, as well as write the text. The changes to Evolving Planet include new specimens, new interactives, well over a hundred label updates, and a giant media presentation on the end-Permian extinction. In this post, I’d like to highlight my personal favorite part of the project: the new Triassic tableau.

The original Evolving Planet Triassic display, from 2006. Photo by the author.

If you visited Evolving Planet between 2006 and 2019, you’ll recall a pair of Herrerasaurus reconstructions (one fleshed-out, one skeletal) on a platform in the center of the Triassic gallery. This display actually had its roots in the Field Museum’s previous paleontology exhibit, Life Over Time, which featured four Herrerasaurus. In scaling back to two Herrerasaurus, literally and figuratively pedestaled, the original Evolving Planet team intended the display to be a grand introduction to the dinosaur menagerie to follow.

Unfortunately, the 2006 version of the Triassic gallery never had much drawing power—the lure of the larger dinosaurs around the corner was too great. This was a shame, because the Triassic is a really important chapter in the story of life on Earth. Life bounced back after the biggest mass extinction ever, and the new groups that evolved on land would be major players up to the present day. The ancestors of everything from crocodiles and turtles to mammals and dinosaurs can be traced to this time. We thought the origin of mammals was particularly important to emphasize, both because these were our distant ancestors and because the fact that mammals have been around about as long as dinosaurs have isn’t widely known. The gallery already had a small case of Mesozoic mammal teeth, but it was almost completely ignored by visitors. The revamped display needed to put the mammal story front and center.

I used this back-of-the-napkin sketch to pitch our proposed arrangement for the new display.

How do you get visitors to stick around when Apatosaurus and Daspletosaurus are visible up ahead? You need something similarly big and impressive, like a life-sized diorama. We decided to set our diorama in the Ischigualasto Formation of Argentina because it meant we could reuse the Herrerasaurus model. Created by the late, great Stephen Czerkas, this model is nearly 30 years old but still holds up well. In fact, the beefy musculature around the thighs and tail and the “lips” obscuring the teeth are in line with modern thinking about theropod life appearance.

The complete Triassic tableau, finished earlier this year. Photo by the author.

The star of the diorama is Chiniquodon, a cynodont related to the ancestors of mammals. As this little creature pokes its whiskered snout out of its burrow, it takes in a wide world of potential dangers, including Herrerasaurus, Pseudochampsa, and a herd of lumbering Ischigualastia in the distance. A second, larger Chiniquodon is visible in a cutaway of the burrow, and a partial skeleton is in a case in front of the diorama. Since visitors look onto the scene from the bottom of a dry stream bed, they are getting a Chiniquodon‘s eye view of the Triassic, and its strange mix of familiar and alien plants and animals.

The Chiniquodon burrow is set in the bank of a dry stream bed, part of a larger river system visible in the background mural. Photo by the author.

On the left side of the display, the muddy landform gives way to smooth MDF. This is where we complicate the origin of dinosaurs beyond the presentation of Herrerasaurus as an “ur-dinosaur.” Evolution occurs as a continuum and the exact point we define as the start of any particular group is always somewhat arbitrary. This is particularly clear when we look at the first dinosaurs. Dinosaurs belong to a larger group called archosaurs, and they are difficult to distinguish from some of the archosaurs they existed alongside. They looked alike, they ate the same food, and they lived in the same sorts of habitats. Skeletons of Asilisaurus and Parringtonia, a Desmatosuchus skull, and a Teleocrater hindlimb help illustrate Triassic archosaur diversity.

Clockwise from top left: Desmatosuchus, Pseudochampsa, Asilisaurus, and Parringtonia. Photos by the author.

For me, the most challenging part of developing this display was explaining the evolutionary relationships of these animals clearly and concisely. As fundamental as it is to paleontological science, the basic shape of the tree of life is extremely specialized knowledge. Most visitors will get lost and disinterested by a bombardment of unfamiliar group names, but it’s also easy to be so vague as to communicate nothing at all. I hope that I successfully toed the line between establishing the concept of uneasy boundaries between named groups and getting overly bogged down in specifics.

A very incomplete list of acknowledgements follows:

The Field Museum Exhibitions Department, which designed and built this display in-house.

My fellow Evolving Planet developers: the sensational Tori Lee, Monisa Ahmed, and Meredith Whitfield.

Liam Elward, Janice Lim, Velizar Simeonovski, and Katherine Ulschmid produced the artwork in the Triassic display.

Ken Angielczyk, Az Klymiuk, Brandon Peecook, Olivier Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Pia Viglietti oversaw the scientific content. Any mistakes in this post are my own.

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Displaying the Tyrant King (Redux)

This is an updated version of a series of posts from 2014. With Deep Time and the new SUE exhibition now open, I’m dusting it off and bringing it up to date.

Woodrow Wilson is in the white house. The first World War is raging in Europe, but the United States is not yet involved. The women’s suffrage movement is picking up speed. And you just heard that the skeleton of an actual dragon is on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. It is difficult to imagine a time before Tyrannosaurus rex was a household name, but such was the case barely a century ago. In 1915, AMNH unveiled the very first mounted skeleton of the tyrant lizard king, immediately and irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche.

Today, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity among dinosaurs, appearing in every form of media imaginable. More importantly, it is an icon for paleontology and an ambassador to science. Much has been written about T. rex — about its discovery, about the animal itself, and about its role in popular culture. This article will take a slightly different tack. This is an overview of the history of the tyrant king on display, and how it has defined (and been defined by) the museum experience.

The cult of T. rex began in the halls of museums, and museums remain the prehistoric carnivore’s symbolic home. Mounted skeletons provide the legendary T. rex its credibility: these are the authentic remains of the giant predator that once stalked North America. And yet, most of the dozens of  Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display around the world are casts, and none of them represent complete skeletons (rather, they are filled in with spare parts from other specimens and the occasional sculpted bone). These are sculptures as well as scientific specimens, works of installation art created by artists, engineers, and scientists. Herein lies the paradox presented by all fossil mounts: they are natural specimens and constructed objects, embodying a challenging duality between the realms of empiricism and imagination.

I. The Original Tyrant

Tyrannosaurus as it was displayed at AMNH in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Between 1890 and 1910, the United States’ natural history museums entered into a frenzied competition to find and display the largest and most spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Although discoveries by paleontologists like O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late 19th century fleshed out the scientific understanding of Mesozoic reptiles, it was these turn-of-the-century museum displays that brought dinosaurs into the public sphere. Bankrolled by New York’s wealthy aristocrats and led by the ambitious (and extremely problematic—read on) Henry Osborn, the American Museum of Natural History won the fossil race by most any measure. The New York museum completed the world’s first mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur in 1905, and also left its peer institutions in the dust with the highest visitation and the most fossil mounts on display.

Osborn’s goal was to establish AMNH as the global epicenter for paleontology research and education, and in 1905 he revealed his ace in the hole: two partial skeletons of giant meat-eating dinosaurs uncovered by fossil hunter Barnum Brown. In a deceptively brief paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn described the fossils from Wyoming and Montana, coining the names Dynamosaurus imperiosus and Tyrannosaurus rex (a follow-up paper in 1906 reclassified “Dynamosaurus” as a second Tyrannosaurus specimen). Fully aware of what a unique prize he had in his possession, Osborn wasted no time leveraging the fossils for academic glory. He placed the unarticulated bones on display shortly after his initial publication, and commissioned artist Charles Knight to prepare a painting of the animal’s life appearance.

E.S. Christman’s miniature models act out Osborn’s unrealized battling Tyrannosaurus display. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In 1908, Brown collected a much more complete Tyrannosaurus specimen (AMNH 5027), with over 50% of the skeleton intact, including the first complete skull and a significant portion of the torso. With this specimen in hand, AMNH technician Adam Hermann and his team began work on a mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton to join the Museum’s growing menagerie of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Inspired by the museum’s habitat dioramas and seeking to accentuate the spectacle of his reptilian monster, Osborn initially wanted to mount two Tyrannosaurus skeletons facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even published a brief description, complete with 1/10th scale wooden models illustrating the proposed exhibit (above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve.

Instead, Hermann prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with plaster casts of the hips and femur from the 1905 holotype. The original skull was impractically heavy, so a cast was used in its place. Missing portions of the skeleton, including the arms, feet, and most of the tail, were sculpted by hand using bones from Allosaurus as reference. During the early 20th century, constructing fossil mounts was a relatively new art form, and while Hermann was one of the most talented and prolific mount-makers around, his techniques were somewhat unkind to the fossil material. Bolts were drilled directly into the fragile bones to secure them to the armature, and in some cases steel rods were tunneled right through them. Any fractures were sealed with plaster, and reconstructed portions were painted to be nearly indistinguishable from the original fossils. Like most of the early AMNH fossil mounts, preserving the integrity of the Tyrannosaurus bones was secondary to aesthetic concerns like concealing the unsightly armature.

The Tyrannosaurus mount takes shape. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The completed Tyrannosaurus mount, a magnificent sculptural combination of bone, plaster, and steel, was unveiled in 1915 to stunned audiences. With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years. The December 3rd New York Times article was thick with hyperbole, declaring the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity”, “the king of all kings in the domain of animal life,” “the absolute warlord of the earth” and “the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatsoever.” Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.”

Brian Noble argues that Osborn’s descriptions of T. rex betray his own racial anxiety and fear of obsolescence. As a member of the New York aristocratic class, Osborn supported eugenics and lobbied for race-based quotas on immigration. Within months of penning museum labels that lament the extinction of “great and noble” carnivores like Tyrannosaurus, Osborn was writing that “the greatest danger to the American republic is the gradual dying out…of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political, and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of a less noble character” (quoted in Noble 2017, pg. 73). Whether knowingly or not, Osborn allowed his fear of the fall of the de facto ruling class to which he belonged influence his interpretation of a long-dead dinosaur.

Hermann’s Tyrannosaurus continued to delight AMNH visitors through the 1980s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Today, we know that the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was inaccurate in many ways. The upright, tail-dragging pose, which had been the most popular attitude for bipedal dinosaurs since Joseph Leidy’s 1868 Hadrosaurus mount, is now known to be incorrect. More complete Tyrannosaurus skeletons have revealed that the tail reconstructed by Osborn and Hermann was much too long. The Allosaurus-inspired feet were too robust, the legs (partially cast from the 1905 holotype) were too large, and the hands had too many fingers. It would be misleading to presume that the prehistoric carnivore’s skeleton sprang from the ground exactly as it was presented, but it is equally incorrect to reject it as a fake. The 1915 mount was a solid representation of the best scientific data available at the time, presented in an evocative and compelling manner.

The AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was no less than a monument: for paleontology, for its host museum, and for the city of New York. The mount has been a New York attraction for longer than the Empire State Building, and for almost 30 years, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could see a T. rex in person. In 1918, Tyrannosaurus would make its first Hollywood appearance in the short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This star turn was followed by roles in 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong, firmly establishing the tyrant king’s celebrity status. It is noteworthy that special effects artist Willis O’Brian and model maker Marcel Delgado copied the proportions and posture of the AMNH display exactly when creating the dinosaurs for each of these films. The filmmakers took virtually no artistic liberties, depicting Tyrannosaurus precisely how contemporary scientists had reconstructed it at the museum.

II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh

The Carnegie Museum’s first attempt at restoring the skull of T. rexSource

In 1941, AMNH ended its Tyrannosaurus monopoly and sold the incomplete type specimen (the partial skeleton described in Osborn’s 1905 publication) to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While it is sometimes reported that this transfer took place to keep the valuable fossils out of harm’s way during World War II (e.g. Larson 2008), the deal was actually underway well before the United States became involved in the war. Carnegie Museum Director Andrew Avinoff spent nearly a year bargaining with Barnum Brown over a price, eventually settling on $100,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars) for the fossils with appropriate bases and mounting fixtures. Carnegie staff wasted no time assembling a mount of their own, but since the Tyrannosaurus holotype only included about 18% of the skeleton, most of the Pittsburgh T. rex had to be made from casted and sculpted elements. Somewhat pointlessly, the skull fragments included with the specimen were buried inside a plaster skull replica (above), making them inaccessible to researchers for several decades. Completed in less than a year, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus was given a more hunched posture than its AMNH predecessor.

The Tyrannosaurus faced off with Diplodocus and Apatosaurus at the Carnegie Museum for more than 60 years. Source

The mid-20th century was a quiet phase for vertebrate paleontology. After enjoying public fame and generous federal support during the late 1800s, paleontology as a discipline was largely marginalized when experiment-driven “hard” sciences rose to prominence. By the 1950s and 60s, the comparably small number of researchers studying ancient life were chiefly concerned with theoretical models for quantifying trends in evolution. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals were perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists.

While New York and Pittsburgh remained the only places where the tyrant king could be seen in person, the ongoing fame of T. rex was secured in part by two additional museum displays, ironically at institutions that did not have any actual Tyrannosaurus fossils on hand. In 1928, the Field Museum of Natural History commissioned Charles Knight to paint a series of prehistoric landscapes, the most recognizable of which depicts a face-off between Triceratops and a surprisingly spry Tyrannosaurus. In 1947, Rudolph Zallinger painted a considerably more bloated and lethargic T. rex as part of his Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both paintings would be endlessly imitated for decades, and would go on to define the prehistoric predator in the public imagination.

III. Rex Renaissance

RTMP 81.6.1, aka Black Beauty, mounted in relief at the Royal Tyrell Museum. Source

The sparse scientific enthusiasm for dinosaurs that defined mid-century paleontology changed rather suddenly in the 1970s and 80s. The “dinosaur renaissance” brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. The next generation of paleontologists endeavored to look at fossils in new ways to understand dinosaur behavior, biomechanics, ontogeny, and ecology. Tyrannosaurus was central to the new wave of research, and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers since 1980. More interest brought more fossil hunters into the American west, leading to an unprecedented expansion in known Tyrannosaurus fossils.

The most celebrated Tyrannosaurus find from the dinosaur renaissance era came from Alberta, making it the northernmost and westernmost T. rex to date. The 30% complete “Black Beauty” specimen, so named for the black luster of the fossilized bones, was found in 1980 by a group of high schoolers and was excavated by paleontologist Phil Curie. The original Black Beauty fossils were taken on a tour of Asia before finding a permanent home at the newly established Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. In lieu of a standing mount, Black Beauty was embedded in a faux sandstone facade, mirroring the environment in which the fossils were found and the animal’s presumed death pose. This relief mount set Black Beauty apart from its AMNH and Carnegie predecessors, and even today it remains one of the most visually striking Tyrannosaurus displays.

The mid-sized reconstruction (right) in this 2011 growth series at LACM incorporates Garbani’s juvenile T. rex fossils. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus was once considered vanishingly rare, but by the early 1990s the number of known specimens had increased dramatically. Harley Garbani found three specimens, including the first T. rex juvenile, while prospecting in Montana for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM). “I was pretty excited,” Garbani recounted, “I didn’t figure another of those suckers would ever be found” (quoted in Horner and Lessem 1993). Meanwhile, the Royal Tyrell Museum tracked down a partial T. rex in Alberta that Charles Sternberg had marked in 1946 but never excavated.

One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens was discovered by avocational collector Kathy Wankel while prospecting on Montana land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Museum of Rockies (MOR) excavated the Wankel Rex in 1989, and until recently it was held it trust at the Bozeman museum. All of these specimens have allowed paleontologists to conduct extensive research on the growth rate, cellular structure, sexual dimorphism, speed, and energetics of T. rex, turning the species into a veritable model organism among dinosaurs.

IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

Cast of Peck’s Rex, accompanied by a Wankel Rex skull, at the Maryland Science Center. Photo by the author.

Despite the relative bonanza of new Tyrannosaurus specimens uncovered in the 1980s and 90s, very few of those skeletons were immediately assembled as display mounts. Instead, many museums have purchased complete casts to meet the increasing public demand for dinosaurs. In 1986, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened Discovering Dinosaurs, the world’s first major exhibit showcasing active, endothermic dinosaurs. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, posed for the first time in the horizontal posture that we now know was the animal’s habitual stance. The following year, another AMNH cast appeared in the lobby of Denver Museum of Nature and Science in a strikingly bizarre pose, with one leg kicking high in the air. Robert Bakker—the mount’s designer— intended to push boundaries and demonstrate what a dynamic and energetic Tyrannosaurus might be capable of, although the mount has subsequently been described as dancing, kicking a soccer ball, or peeing on a fire hydrant.

Denver’s high-kicking T. rex. Source

Since the late 1990s, however, casts of another specimen have overtaken AMNH 5027 for the title of most ubiquitous T. rex. BHI 3033, more commonly known as Stan, was excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute (BHI), a commercial outfit specializing in excavating, preparing, and mounting fossils. BHI has sold dozens of Stan casts to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. With over 50 casts sold as of 2017, Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world.

Stan cast at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

All these new Tyrannosaurus mounts are forcing museums to get creative, whether they are displaying casts or original fossils. Predator-prey pairings are a popular display choice: for example, the Wankel Rex cast at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science  is positioned alongside the sauropod Alamosaurus, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History matches the tyrant dinosaur with its eternal enemy, Triceratops. Meanwhile, the growing number juvenile Tyrannosaurus specimens has allowed for family group displays. LACM features an adult, subadult, and baby, while the Burpee Museum of Natural History pairs its original juvenile T. rex “Jane” with an AMNH 5027 cast. The most unique Tyrannosaurus mount so far is certainly the copulating pair at the Jurassic Museum of Asturias.

While not as widespread as Stan, casts of the Wankel Rex (distributed by Research Casting International) are increasingly common. This copy at the Google headquarters is periodically attacked by smaller, pinker theropods. Source

Each of these displays gives a substantially different impression of Tyrannosaurus. Depending on the mount, visitors might see T. rex as a powerful brute, a fast and agile hunter, or a nurturing parent (or a gentle lover). Most mounts are accurate insofar that a real Tyrannosaurus probably adopted a similar stance at some point, but the museum’s choice of pose nevertheless influences visitors’ understanding of and attitude toward the dinosaur.

V. Restoring the Classics

An update for the first T. rex ever displayed. Photo by the author.

With dozens of new Tyrannosaurus mounts springing up across the country and around the world, the original AMNH and Carnegie displays began to look increasingly obsolete. However, modernizing historic fossil mounts is an extremely complex and expensive process. The early 20th century technicians that built these displays generally intended for them to be permanent: bolts were drilled directly into the bones and gaps were sealed with plaster that can only be removed by manually chipping it away. What’s more, the cumulative effects of corroding armatures, fluctuating humidity, and vibration from passing crowds had damaged the historic mounts over the course of their decades on display.

Despite these challenges, AMNH and the Carnegie Museum have both been able to restore and update their classic Tyrannosaurus displays. Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the iconic T. rex. The fossils proved especially fragile, and some elements had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of paint and shellac applied by the original preparators.

Exhibit specialist Phil Fraley constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the old mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling with a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Each bone is secured to an individual metal bracket, allowing researchers to remove elements for study as necessary. A new cast of the skull was also prepared, this time with open fenestrae for a more natural appearance. Curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose—a closed mouth and subtly raised left foot convey a quiet dignity befitting this historic specimen.

One of many conceptual drawings created by Phil Fraley Productions during the process of planning the Carnegie Museum renovation. Source

Historically, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus had never quite lived up to its AMNH predecessor. Although it incorporated the Tyrannosaurus holotype, it was mostly composed of casts from the New York skeleton, and it sported an unfortunately crude replica skull. It is therefore ironic that the Carnegie Museum now exhibits the more spectacular T. rex display, one which  realizes Osborn’s plan to construct an epic confrontation between two giant predators.

While less complete than many subsequent finds, the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype is still important because it defines the species. It had not been studied properly since the early 20th century, however, and the skull elements were completely inaccessible—entombed in plaster since 1941. The conservation team overseen by Hans-Dieter Sues sought not only to rebuilt the exhibit mount, but to re-describe the specimen and provide casts of individual bones to other museums. The Carnegie website once hosted a fascinating day-by-day account this process. The page seems to have been removed but an archived version can be found here.

Old meets new: the restored Tyrannosaurus holotype faces off with a cast of Peck’s Rex. Photo by the author.

Phil Fraley, now heading an independent company based in New Jersey, oversaw the construction of the new mount. Michael Holland contributed a new restored skull, actually a composite of several Tyrannosaurus skulls. The mount was completed in 2007, and is displayed alongside a cast of “Peck’s Rex,” a specimen housed at MOR. Despite the difficulty of modernizing the historic specimen, the team reportedly developed a healthy respect for turn-of-the-century mount-makers like Adam Hermann and Arthur Coggeshall, who developed the techniques for making enduring displays of fragile fossils that are still being refined today.

VI. From South Dakota to Chicago

The skull of SUE the T. rex. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real—a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.

The other dinosaur of the decade was SUE, who scarcely requires an introduction. SUE is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 90% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 30 years old at the time of their death, SUE is also the eldest T. rex known, and within the margin of error for the title of largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about this individual dinosaur. In particular, SUE’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infections that together paint a dramatic picture of a violent life at the top of the food chain.

It was the events of SUE’s second life, however, that made this the fossil the world knows by name. SUE was discovered in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on ranch land within the Cheyenne River reservation of South Dakota. The Black Hills Institute excavated the skeleton and initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City. Even at this point, SUE was a flashpoint for controversy among paleontologists: while several researchers signed up to work with BHI on a monograph about SUE, others did not think a for-profit company was an appropriate place for such an important specimen. Things heated up in 1992, when BHI became embroiled in a four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne Council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little legal precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton (I recommend the relevant chapter in Grande 2017 as the most evenhanded account of how this went down).

Williams announced that he would put SUE on the auction block, and 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 in 1997 when the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) won SUE with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

Research Casting International prepared two SUE casts: one for a traveling exhibition and this one at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Photo by the author.

FMNH and its corporate backers did not pay seven figures for SUE solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  SUE’s remarkable completeness would be a boon for scientists, but the fossil’s star power was at least as important for the museum. SUE was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As former FMNH president John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). A Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn support less sensational but equally important collections maintenance.

Once SUE arrived at FMNH, the museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of SUE’s teeth went on display days after the auction. This expanded organically into the “SUE Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Although BHI had already put in 4,000 hours of prep work, much of SUE’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted.

SUE as displayed from 2000 to 2017. Photo by the author.

After reviewing a number of bids, FMNH selected Phil Fraley to prepare SUE’s armature. Fraley had already remounted the AMNH T. rex at that point, and left his post at the New York museum and founded his own company so that he could work on SUE. Just as had been done with the AMNH skeleton, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils were not damaged for the sake of the exhibit. SUE was placed right at the heart of the museum, in the half-acre, four-story expanse of Stanley Field Hall. Despite these cavernous surroundings, SUE was given a low, crouching posture—the intent was to give visitors a face-to-face encounter with T. rex.

SUE was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the dropping of a curtain. 10,000 visitors came to see SUE on opening day, and that year the museum’s attendance soared from 1.6 to 2.4 million. To this day, headlines about SUE are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SUEtheTrex twitter account has 60,000 followers and counting. SUE has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When FMNH brought SUE to Chicago, they weren’t just preserving an important specimen in perpetuity, they were creating an icon.

VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe

Tristan at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde. Photo by Heinrich Mallison.

Tyrannosaurus is an exclusively North American animal. It follows that real Tyrannosaurus skeletons have historically only been displayed in American and Canadian museums, while the rest of the world has had to content itself with casts of Stan and the Wankel Rex. This situation changed recently, and there are now two original T. rex skeletons on display in European museums.

The first was Tristan, a Tyrannosaurus collected in 2000 by private collectors. Niels Nielsen, a Danish real estate developer, bought the skeleton for an undisclosed sum (he named the dinosaur Tristan after his son). While it is common for art museums to display privately owned objects, scientific institutions usually avoid such arrangements.  There are many reasons for this: it may be a museum’s policy to avoid legitimizing the private market for one-of-a-kind specimens, or they may simply want to steer clear of demands by owners regarding exhibition and interpretation. Perhaps most importantly, scientific research on privately owned specimens is not necessarily reproducible, because there is no guarantee the specimen will remain in a publicly-accessible repository.

Despite these drawbacks, Director Johannes Vogel of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin decided to accept Tristan as a loan. Paleontologist Heinrich Mallison worked with Nielsen and others to design the mount and plan how it would fit into the exhibit hall. The team opted to pose Tristan as though making a rapid left turn around a “tree” (one of the cast iron columns bisecting the room). Unfortunately, the final armature did not effectively capture the intended twisting motion in the torso, hips, and right leg, and the resulting mount is stiffer looking then the initial renders. The public does not seem to have minded, however. Tristan was unveiled in September 2015 and drew half a million visitors in its first six months on display.

Trix the T. rex in a temporary exhibit space at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Source

Europe’s second Tyrannosaurus mount debuted in September 2016 at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Named Trix after the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix, this specimen was collected in Montana by a crew from the museum working in collaboration with the Black Hills Institute. The mount constructed by BHI uniquely includes the original skull, rather than a lightweight replica. This was accomplished by posing Trix in a low running pose, with its head skimming less than a foot above the ground.

VIII. Into the Future

A 1/10th scale 3-D printed model of the Nation’s T. rex recalls the wooden maquettes used at AMNH over a century ago. Source

New T. rex displays just keep coming. In 2019, the National Museum of Natural History reopened its paleontology halls after a five year renovation. The new “Deep Time” exhibition has a brand-new Tyrannosaurus mount as its centerpiece. The specimen in question is the Wankel Rex, which had been held in trust at the Museum of the Rockies since it was excavated in 1989. Found on Army Corps of Engineers land, the fossils are owned by the federal government and therefore an ideal candidate for display at the national museum (technically, they are on a 50 year loan from the Corps to the Smithsonian).

Look closely the fallen Triceratops and you’ll see crushed ribs, a broken horn, and that its head is no longer attached to its body

Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, this is the first time the original fossils have been assembled into a standing mount. For Curator Matt Carrano, it was important that the T. rex was presented like an animal, rather than a sculpture. To accomplish this, he devised a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off a prone Triceratops. Pulling off such a scene was easier said than done. Extreme poses are relatively straightforward when working with lightweight casts, but the degree of dynamism Carrano wanted is much more complicated when creating a frame that safely supports real fossils. Just like Hermann and Christian a century earlier, Matt Fair and his colleagues at Research Casting International started with a 10th scale miniature before moving on to the real skeleton.

Now on display at NMNH, the Wankel Rex has a new nickname: the Nation’s T. rex. This moniker is appropriate: NMNH follows only the Louvre in annual visitation, sometimes topping 8 million people. That means the Nation’s T. rex will soon be the most-viewed Tyrannosaurus skeleton in the world. In all likelihood, 60 million people will pass by the mounted skeleton in the next decade.

SUE the T. rex in their not-quite-finished throne room. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex has competition. In 2018, the Field Museum moved SUE to a 6,500 square foot gallery adjacent to the main dinosaur hall. The new exhibition (full disclosure: I was a co-developer on this project) gives SUE some much-needed context. In contrast to the neoclassical space it once occupied, the mounted T. rex is now part of a media-rich experience that Brown, Hermann, and Osborn could have scarcely imagined. An animated backdrop illustrates the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived, and a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton—highlighting pathologies and other key features.

With guidance from Pete Makovicky, Tom Cullen, and Bill Simpson, Garth Dallman and colleagues at Research Casting International modified the original SUE mount to correct a range of anatomical inaccuracies and reunite the skeleton with its gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles). This is the first time a Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been mounted with a real gastral basket, and it gives the dinosaur a girthier silhouette. Many lines of evidence have converged onto this new look for T. rex. The animal was not the lithe pursuit predator it was portrayed as in the 1990s, but an ambush hunter with the raw weight and muscle to overpower its bus-sized prey.

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

As we have seen, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. Fifty years ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide (most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens). These displays have evolved over time: new scientific discoveries changed the animal’s pose and shape, new technology has allowed for more enriching and immersive exhibits, and popular media presentations of T. rex have continuously increased the public’s expectations for their encounter with the real thing.

Meanwhile, each T. rex on display exists in a socio-political context: human actors “create the initial and enduring performative iterations of T. rex” (Noble 2016, 71). A century ago, the first-ever T. rex exhibit was encoded with one man’s prejudice and social hangups. In the present, another T. rex—SUE—has become a nonbinary icon.  The Field Museum now refers to SUE as “they” instead of “she,” both in the spirit of scientific accuracy (we don’t know SUE’s sex) and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. As explained in a press release, “this kind of representation can make a big difference in the lives of the LGBTQ community. It’s not about politics; it’s about respect. If our Twitter dinosaur gets more people used to using singular “they/them” pronouns and helps some folks out there feel less alone, that seems worth it to us.”

For museums, acquiring and displaying a T. rex is not exactly a risk. As Carrano explained with respect to the Nation’s T. rex, “the T. rex is not surprising, but that’s not its job. Its job is to be awesome.” Specimens like the Nation’s T. rex or SUE are ideal for museums because they are at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

References

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

Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.

Black, R. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Clemens, W.A. and Hartman, J.H. 2014. “From Tyrannosaurus rex to asteroid impact: Early studies (1901-1980 of the Hell Creek Formation in its type area.” Through the End of the Cretaceous in the Type Locality of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and Adjacent Areas. Eds. Wilson, G.P., Clemens, W.A., Horner, J.R., and Hartman, J.H. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.

Colbert, E.H., Gillette, D.D. and Molnar, R.N. “North American Dinosaur Hunters.” The Complete Dinosaur, Second Edition. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O., eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.

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

Dingus, L. 2004. Hell Creek, Montana: America’s Key to the Prehistoric Past. New York, NY: St. Martin’s 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.

Fox, A. and Carrano, M. 2018. Q&A: Smithsonian Dinosaur Expert Helps T. rex Strike a New Pose. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-of-natural-history/2018/07/17/q-smithsonian-dinosaur-expert-helps-t-rex-strike-new-pose

Freedom du Lac, J. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. Washington Post.

Glut, D. 2008. “Tyrannosaurus rex: A century of celebrity.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Grande, L. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hermann, A. 1909. “Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 21:283-331.

Horner, J.R. and Lessem, D. 1993. The Complete T. rex: How Stunning New Discoveries are Changing Our Understanding of the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Johnson, K. and Stucky, R.K. 2013. “Paleontology: Discovering the Ancient History of the American West.” Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals, No. 4.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

McGinnis, H.J. 1982. Carnegie’s Dinosaurs: A Comprehensive Guide to Dinosaur Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh, PA: The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

“Mining for Mammoths in the Badlands: How Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Dug Out of His 8,000,000 Year old Tomb,” The New York Times, December 3, 1905, page SM1.

Nobel, B. 2016. Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Norell, M., Gaffney, E.S. and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.

Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of OrnitholestesStruthiomimus, and TyrannosaurusBulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.

Psihoyos, L. 1994. Hunting Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. University of Alabama Press.

Wesihampel, D.B. and White, Nadine M. 2003.The Dinosaur Papers: 1676-1906. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, HMNS, museums, reptiles, science communication, theropods

The new Peabody: what to expect

Map of the YPM galleries as they are currently arranged. North is right.

The dinosaur and fossil mammal halls at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) closed on January 1st of this year. In the last post, I covered some of the exhibition’s history, with a focus on the mounted dinosaur skeletons that won’t be returning when the halls reopen in 2023. This time, I want to explore what the new paleontology exhibits might be like. To be clear, I don’t have any privileged information about the YPM renovation. I only have my own insight from working on exhibits at other museums, and my immoderate interest in historic fossil displays (see the rest of this website). Fortunately, YPM staff have been very generous with news about the project, and there is even a dedicated website with details about the renovation. Let’s see how much we can piece together.

The dinosaur hall in 2014. Photo by Michael Taylor, CC BY.

As I touched on in the previous post, this renovation has been a long time in coming. Few significant changes had been made to the paleontology halls since the 1950s, and these spaces are in many ways time capsules from another era—both in terms of paleontological science and exhibit design. Serious conversations about redeveloping the dinosaur and mammal halls were underway by 2010. During this process, the team noted the disjointed nature of the existing exhibits, which had been installed on an ad hoc basis. For instance, a visitor moving along the west side of the dinosaur hall would encounter modern crocodilians, Triassic trees, and a Cretaceous mosasaur, before passing into the fossil mammal hall and encountering a Quaternary mastodon. These random jumps back and forth through time undoubtably made it difficult for visitors to make much sense of what they were seeing, beyond a menagerie of old dead things.

Seeking to unify the fossils on display within a single, cohesive story, the team proposed a variation on the traditional “walk through time.” Rather than dividing the space into segmented galleries based on the formal divisions of geologic time, the emphasis would be on broad-scale environmental changes. This presentation would synergize with the existing Rudolph Zallinger murals. The 110-foot The Age of Reptiles (completed in 1947) and the 60-foot The Age of Mammals (completed in 1967) are epically-scaled frescos that show the evolution of life over time without hard boundaries. Instead, flora and landscapes from different time periods blend seamlessly into one another. In the same way, the proposed exhibition would present its narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary changes. As I discussed some time ago, this is not dissimilar from the approach taken for Deep Time.

The Hall of Mammal Evolution in 2014. Photo by the author.

These discussions must have been the basis for the set of concept images released alongside the launch of a new fundraising effort in 2013 (why they needed to fundraise when Yale has a $30 billion endowment is beyond me—I promise this will be my only snarky aside about that). Architectural firm Studio Joseph envisioned wide-open and well-lit spaces, in which the grey carpet and grid-patterned walls were replaced by bright earth tones accentuated by ash wood panels. A mezzanine on the west side of the dinosaur hall would have allowed visitors to view The Age of Reptiles directly, rather than from the floor. A long, continuous case directly beneath the mural would contain fossil specimens that corresponded with the scene above.

In the center of the hall, remounted Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus skeletons were to be joined by a brand-new Allosaurus, shown attacking the Stegosaurus. In the concept images, the dinosaur skeletons are directly on the floor, rather than on platforms. Barely-visible glass barriers prevent visitors from getting too close to the specimens. In the background, the Beecher Edmontosaurus is in the same position it’s held on the north wall since 1925. A mosasaur attacking an Archelon appears to be suspended from the ceiling in the northwest corner.

2013 concept for the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. Source

The 2013 mammal hall concept follows the same aesthetic principles as the dinosaur hall. The space-hogging floor-to-ceiling cases are gone, replaced by the same circular glass barriers shown around the dinosaur mounts. Whereas the old hall was loosely organized around a mid-century understanding of evolutionary relationships, this new version would be strictly chronological. The old fundraising page lists a Megacerops display, a Moropus display, and a mastodon display, and indeed, those skeletons appear to anchor the three major areas portrayed in the concept image. One can imagine these early, middle, and late Cenozoic tableaus illustrating the climactic shift from warm and wet to cool and dry. Oddly, the arrangement shown here runs in the opposite direction of The Age of Mammals mural, in which the ice age is on the west side of the hall.

2013 concept for the Hall of Mammal Evolution. Source

But all that was seven years ago. Near as I can tell, everything changed when Yale alumnus Peter Bass made a $160 million donation, apparently the largest single gift ever made to an American natural history museum. YPM also changed directors—in 2014, freshwater ecologist David Skelly took over the position from geologist Derek Briggs. The renovation is no longer limited to the two paleontology halls, but will encompass the entire museum—and more. Over the next four years, the YPM and surrounding area will gain a north courtyard and new museum entrance, a dedicated entrance and gathering area for school groups, a multi-story lobby connecting YPM to the academic building next door, new collections and research facilities, new classrooms, 50% more exhibit space, and a 500-seat lecture hall named for O.C. Marsh.

Centerbrook Architects and Planners—a company already responsible for twelve other projects on the Yale campus—was hired to continue the design process. Centerbrook’s renders (and a video flythrough) are available on the Peabody Evolved website. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell which parts of these renders represent real plans and which parts are placeholder. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be taking the renders at face value, but will note when something might be merely suggestive of a to-be-determined element.

It’s clear that after the renovation, fossil displays will range far beyond the dinosaur and mammal halls. Some of these are already complete: in August 2019, a crew from Research Casting International moved a Triceratops skull and a relief-mounted Pteranodon from their traditional home in the dinosaur hall to the lobby of the new Marsh lecture hall (part of the recently-completed Yale Science Building to the north of the museum). Meanwhile, the Centerbrook plans shows a mosasaur to the left of the new north entrance to YPM. It’s the approximate size and shape of the Platecarpus skeleton in the old dinosaur hall, so perhaps that fossil will be relocated, as well.

Tylosaurus and Archelon duel in the new central gallery. Source

At the heart of the renovated museum will be the central gallery, a brand-new structure filling in an empty space between the YPM and the Environmental Science Center to the east. It will run parallel to the dinosaur hall, sharing a wall on the existing gallery’s west side. Although the overall design is quite modern, the scale and color palette of this new 4-story space is meant to complement the French Gothic revival architecture of the original museum building. Lit by a skylight and filled with comfortable seating, the designers hope that the central gallery will be a space for students and museum visitors to relax and co-mingle, better integrating the museum into the campus community.

Flying high over people’s heads will be battling Archelon and Tylosaurus skeletons. You’ll remember that this scene was originally envisioned for the dinosaur hall. Relocating these skeletons to the central gallery gives them far more room to spread out. The Archelon in question is the holotype (YPM 3000), which was collected in 1885 in South Dakota. Measuring 15 feet across, this Cretaceous sea turtle has been on display since the turn of the 20th century. Given that it will be suspended an inaccessible 30 feet in the air, this new version of Archelon will almost certainly be a cast (Update: In fact, the real Archelon will be remounted). The Tylosaurus is reportedly a specimen from the YPM collection that has never been displayed before.

A high angle on the new dinosaur hall. Source

That brings us to Centerbrook’s revised take on the dinosaur hall. Several elements of the Studio Joseph design are still in evidence: the remounted Brontosaurus is at the center of the gallery, the Edmontosaurus remains on the north wall, and the specimen cases below the Zallinger mural are arranged in sync with the artwork above. Nevertheless, many changes have clearly been made. The ash wood panels are gone, and the walls are now austere white. The mezzanine is out, along with the battling Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. The Archelon and Tylosaurus are missing, of course, but we know that they’re in the central gallery. I imagine that these cuts have less to do with money than with real estate: once designers started laying out the proposed elements in 3-D space, it became clear that there was no way everything would fit.

I see five major sections in this version of the dinosaur hall. First is the curved wall, which faces visitors when they enter the exhibit from the south, or from the central gallery. The render shows ammonites on the south side of this wall, but these might be placeholder images. I expect this area to be an introduction to the exhibition and its organization.

On the opposite side of the curved wall and hidden from immediate view is Stegosaurus (YPM 1853), a companion to YPM’s famous Brontosaurus (YPM 1980). We can call this the Jurassic dinosaurs section, which occupies most of the floor space. Both dinosaurs were recovered around 1879 by William Reed’s field crew at Como Bluff, Wyoming, and were subsequently described by Marsh. Richard Lull (who called it “the most grotesque reptile the world ever saw”) oversaw the construction of the Stegosaurus mount in 1910. The great hall was specifically designed to fit the Brontosaurus, which was completed in 1931. Both of these historically-significant specimens will be restored and remounted for the new exhibition. Brontosaurus is afforded a large platform with built-in seating. The designers have included lots of space for visitors around this star attraction, allowing for plenty of photo opportunities. It’s disappointing that Stegosaurus is no longer fighting Allosaurus (this hall could use a large theropod or two), but it’s not like we can’t see similar scenes at other museums.

The view upon entering the dinosaur hall from the central gallery. Source

A row of cases under The Age of Reptiles appears to be arranged chronologically, with fossil specimens corresponding with the mural overhead. On the south end of the east wall, I see YPM’s complete Limnoscelis and the fin-backed Edaphosaurus. In the old hall, Edaphosaurus was mounted in relief, but this render shows a three-dimensional mount. I’m assuming the wire-frame theropod shown under the Cretaceous portion of the mural represents a Deinonychus mount. Including Deinonychus is a must, of course, since John Ostrom did his groundbreaking work demonstrating the theropod origin of birds at YPM. There is a smaller row of a cases on the west wall, and the only specimen I can make out appears to be YPM’s swimming Hesperornis mount. Perhaps this section is about the evolution of marine life, while the displays under the mural are about terrestrial life.

Finally, the relief-mounted Edmontosaurus anchors the Cretaceous dinosaurs section at the north end of the hall. Built in 1901, this is the oldest surviving dinosaur mount in North America. Contrary to the common narrative that all early 20th century paleontologists saw dinosaurs as cumbersome tail-draggers, this mount is downright sprightly, and could be mistaken for a reconstruction from the last 20 years. As such, it’s fitting that Edmontosaurus should remain in its original form. Since the Edmontosaurus was installed in the great hall in 1925, the space in front of it was gradually filled with a myriad of dinosaur skeletons, skulls, and models. In the new exhibition, this will be simplified to feature the skulls of three Edmontosaurus contemporaries: Triceratops, Torosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.

The new dinosaur hall as seen facing south. I think this render is slightly older than the images above. Source

Although no new images of the mammal hall have been shared yet, there is a telling change visible in the dinosaur hall renders. Currently, the doorway between the two fossil halls is on the west side of the north wall, but the new plans show it moved to the east side (there used to be a door there, but it’s been buried behind exhibit cases for decades). Relocating that door means visitors will enter the mammal hall in the center, and have the choice to move to the left or to the right. Presently the only other entrance to this space is from the human evolution gallery to the east, but perhaps once the central gallery is built the emergency exit to the left can become a regular passageway. What all this means for the content is anyone’s guess. On option would be to place the mounts on a central island—then visitors could circle counterclockwise and generally follow the Zallinger mural (which runs east to west) through time.

One thing these images tell us nothing about is media and interactivity—important parts of many contemporary exhibitions. Speculating wildly for a moment, I think it would be incredible if YPM used projection mapping or similar technology to create a media presentation directly on The Age of Reptiles. I’m imagining something vaguely like a planetarium show, with either pre-recorded or live narration. The show could illustrate how the mural was created, projecting an animated Zallinger on his ladder, looking tiny against the massive canvas. It could also portray the animals in motion, or provide us glimpses of modern reconstructions of the more outdated creatures. A show like this might draw more visitors to pay attention to the mural and appreciate its historical significance.

Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus in January 2020, a few days before deinstallation. Photo kindly shared by Mariana Di Giacomo.

Research Casting International—the leading company specializing in preparing and mounting fossil skeletons—started work at YPM on January 20th. The crew has already dismantled several of the dinosaur skeletons, which will travel to their workshop outside Toronto for restoration, and in some cases, remounting. After that, we have a three year wait until the new YPM opens. I guess we’ll see then how many of my predictions here hold true.

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The retiring dinosaur mounts at the Yale Peabody Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camarasaurus and Camptosaurus

Camarasaurus and Brontosaurus mounted skeletons.

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

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

Camptosaurus and Camarasaurus mounted skeletons.

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

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

Claosaurus

Relief mount of Claosaurus.

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

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

Centrosaurus

The Centrosaurus half-mount and its Cretaceous buddies.

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

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

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

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

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

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

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

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

 

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