Category Archives: exhibits

Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

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

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

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Deep Time is a masterpiece

A spectacle of evolution.

About ten years ago, a team at the National Museum of Natural History set out to reinvent their aging fossil halls for a new generation. Paleontology exhibitions had occupied the building’s east wing since 1911, and while there had been several renovations and additions, these were always additive. The result was a crowded and jumbled space, a hodge-podge of displays created by different people, at different times, for different reasons. In the early 2000s, a new core team—including Project Manager and Developer Siobhan Starrs, Designer Pauline Dolovich, and Curators Matt Carrano, Kay Behrensmeyer, and Scott Wing—had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear the east wing from wall to wall and start over with a blank slate. Their task was to fill 31,000 square feet with the story of life on Earth, with the latest science and a modern understanding of how visitors use museums in mind.

The result is breathtaking. Deep Time, as the new exhibition is colloquially known, sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions. What follows is a brief discussion of some the hall’s many successes. I will undoubtably have more to say in the coming weeks.

Themes

The Time Spiral, illustrated by Julius Csotonyi, appears at both entrances to Deep Time. It is the spiritual successor to John Gurche’s Tower of Time.

As has been well publicized, Deep Time contains a strong message about how humans are changing the Earth in unprecedented ways. This is introduced the moment visitors enter the exhibition, with an illustrated spiral of time that ends in a mirror. The implication is simple, but direct: we are part of the story of our planet.

Throughout the hall, visitors are reminded of humanity’s connection to the rest of the planet in different ways. In one corner, an interactive (admirably starring a gender-neutral cartoon host) illustrates the evolutionary origins of different features of the human body. In the Quaternary section, large graphics present the percentage of megafauna on each continent that went extinct as humans spread around the globe.

The bridge is a highly-visible and centrally-located destination in the Deep Time hall.

The hardest-hitting message, however, is about the modern climate crisis. The fact that industrial activity is profoundly warming the climate—a change that comes with dire consequences—is presented in clear, matter-of-fact language. It’s not preachy, it’s not political, it’s just the truth. The exhibition does not explicitly say we should stop harming the planet (although we should), but it clearly presents the evidence that we are, and that we have the ability to stop. This information is centered on an overlook called “the bridge.” The centrality of this location and its proximity to the dinosaurs makes the climate narrative unmissable. The nature of the modern media landscape is such that many NMNH visitors may well have never seen this message presented in non-political terms. I’m eager to see the results.

Layout

The Jurassic and Permian are visible from the Cretaceous.

One of the earliest decisions in Deep Time’s development was to restore the original architecture. This had already been done in the north and west wings for the Ocean and Mammals halls, and restoring the east wing would bring back the building’s intended symmetry. This choice dovetailed with an acknowledgement of visitors’ tendency to pinball around an exhibition, rather than view displays in a prescribed order. The team decided to welcome this spirit of exploration. The new hall can be navigated in any order, but still makes sense as a cohesive story.

Most of the displays are on island platforms. Each platform represents a particular time period, and for the most part, specimens displayed together represent species that would have coexisted in a single ecosystem. Big, show-stopping skeletons are in the center, while smaller specimens and accompanying labels and interactives can be found around the perimeter. Vertical pillars, which are visible from across the hall, indicate where each platform is in time. Meanwhile, mass extinctions are represented by large walls that physically divide the space. The result is a hall where it’s always clear whether the display you’re looking at is earlier or later in time than any other display, even though you can circulate among the islands at will.

The remounted Diplodocus can be seen from anywhere in Deep Time, as well as from the rotunda.

NMNH gets several million visitors each year, so traffic flow is a major concern. This was a problem in the old hall, where decades of partial renovations had resulted in several frustrating bottlenecks. The new hall allocates nearly 50% of its floor space to visitor movement. A central avenue allows quick movement around the exhibition. Visitors short on time can pop in and “snack” on a few displays, rather than investing in the whole meal. Unlike linear exhibitions, visitors can backtrack without disrupting the traffic flow.

Furthermore, most of the hall can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Another function of the bridge is to provide an elevated vantage point. From the overlook, visitors can see Tyrannosaurus and Diplodocus over the heads of the crowd. Digital interactives show highlights on a 3-D model of the hall, helping visitors think about the entire history of life all at once. Actually, this is one area where I wish the developers had gone further. I would have loved to see displays that encouraged visitors to compare the animals visible on either side of the mass extinctions, or to think about what environmental factors led to the evolution of very different megaherbivores (the sauropods and proboscideans) at different points in time.

Animals

Dimetrodon prepares to scavenge Ophiacodon, while Xenacanthus and Diplocaulus swim below.

Lead Curator Matt Carrano came to the project with a vision. He wanted the mounted skeletons to read as animals, not as monsters or trophies. That meant they should be doing the sorts of things that animals do. Nearly every mount tells a story. The well-publicized Tyrannosaurus is dismembering a Triceratops: look closely and you’ll see fractured ribs, a broken horn, and that the Triceratops‘s head is actually separated from its body. The Eremotherium is plucking Osage oranges from a tree, referencing the hypothesis that these inedible fruits were cultivated by recently-extinct megafauna. A Menoceras is lying on its side in a characteristic rhino resting pose. The Stegoceras is scratching its jaw. Each pose gives the mounted skeletons a reality that is rarely seen in fossil exhibits. These are the remains of once-living creatures, after all. They got hurt, hungry, tired, and itchy.

Although the resting Menoceras bears a certain resemblance to the Roosevelt white rhino on the other side of the museum, this was a lucky accident rather than a deliberate quote.

Another more subtle reason these mounts are so successful is that the animals’ feet are always touching the ground. Many mounted skeletons are elevated on their supports, which makes the interplay between the armature and the base (typically built separately) easier to manage but also makes the skeletons look like they’re hovering. Grounding the animals’ feet was extremely challenging: ultimately, beds of gravel were used to smooth out the point of contact. Few visitors are likely to notice this achievement specifically, but the result is that each skeleton is imbued with weight and energy rarely seen in similar displays.

Placing the ground sloth at the entrance was an early design decision.

Research Casting International prepared and constructed most of the mounted skeletons, while NMNH preparators handled the rest in-house. The scope of the mounting and remounting of fossil skeletons for Deep Time is probably unprecedented. For comparison, the renovation of the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls in the mid 90s involved two remounts (Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus) and around ten new skeletons. By my rough count, Deep Time has 40 remounts and 13 brand-new mounts, to say nothing of the work that went in to dismantling the skeletons from the old hall that have been returned to collections.

Discovery

The Jurassic diorama, one of more than a dozen new scenes created for Deep Time.

It wasn’t until my second day exploring Deep Time that I noticed the dioramas cycle between day and night. I can only imagine the challenge the designers faced in arguing for this feature. It doesn’t have any particular educational purpose, after all, and only a small fraction of visitors are likely to notice it. Still, for those who do notice (I’m picturing a child poring over every detail of the miniature landscape while their parents wait impatiently), the effect is beautiful and magical. Those are the moments exhibition creators strive for.

Good thing that glass is there or we’d be in a real pickle.

A stroll through Deep Time is filled with similar moments of discovery, on many different scales. Follow the gaze of the two bronze Ice Age humans and you’ll realize they’re reacting to the Smilodon stalking nearby. Look beneath the platforms where Tyrannosaurus and Dimetrodon are standing and find a secret world of freshwater fossils. Although there are few levers to pull and wheels to turn in the exhibition, tactile experiences abound. There are touchable fossil casts, and a plethora of life-sized bronzes to interact with. I’m particularly enamored with the Mesozoic and early Cenozoic mammals: these are difficult to conceptualize with fossils alone and the bronzes bring them to digging, scratching, yawning life.

Seriously, these guys rule.

There are a hundred more examples, but I should stop for now. In short, Deep Time is an incredible exhibition. You should visit, and then visit several more times, because you’ll undoubtably discover new things to wonder at.

Reference

Marsh, D.E. 2019. Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of the Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls. New York, NY: Berghan Books.

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Filed under Deep Time, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, opinion, reviews

Making The Third Planet

The Milwaukee Public Museum’s famous Hell Creek diorama. Photo by the author.

The late 19th century saw a wave of large natural history museums established in urban centers across the United States. From the American Museum in New York City to the Field Museum in Chicago, these institutions were born out of a desire to provide public access to knowledge and culture. Opening its doors in 1884, the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) was part of this trend, but it has always differed somewhat from its peers. For one thing, MPM was (and remains, in part) a municipal project, and its collections are publicly owned. More obvious to visitors, however, are the uniquely crafted, immersive exhibits that have always been a part of this institution’s identity.

Referred to by staff as the “Milwaukee style,” these exhibits de-emphasize cases of artifacts in favor of large-scale theatrical scenes that recreate particular times and places. While the museum boasts a collection of four million natural and cultural objects, the public-facing exhibits favor models, set pieces, and sound effects that immerse visitors in the story being told.  This approach started early.  In 1890, “father of modern taxidermy” Carl Akeley created his first habitat diorama (a muskrat colony) at MPM. 1965 saw the opening of the locally beloved Streets of Old Milwaukee, a walk-through recreation of shops and houses from the turn of the century. Other examples of the Milwaukee style include a 12,000 square foot, multi-story artificial rainforest, Guatemalan and Indian marketplaces populated by mannequins and taxidermy animals, and some of the biggest, most ambitious habitat dioramas to be found anywhere.

Map of The Third Planet from a 1980s student worksheet.

Most pertinent to this blog is the paleontology exhibit, called The Third Planet. Now over 35 years old, The Third Planet is dated scientifically but remains a masterful example of Milwaukee style exhibit design. Its most celebrated component is a 2,500 square foot diorama of a Tyrannosaurus eating a Triceratops in a Late Cretaceous cypress swamp. If you haven’t been to MPM, you may well have seen photos of this display endlessly reproduced in dinosaur books from the 80s and early 90s. Nevertheless, the inception of the exhibit was less about the dinosaurs and more about geology.

According to former Curator of Geology Robert West, The Third Planet was primarily conceived as an exhibit about plate tectonics. MPM’s previous geology and paleontology exhibit, called A Trip Through Time, opened in 1964 and omitted plate tectonics as a unified explanation for geological processes like mountain building, as well as the distribution of plants and animals in the fossil record. While the general principles of continental drift had been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea became a universally accepted theory underlying all of earth sciences. A Trip Through Time was on the wrong side of that sea change, and West and his colleagues were keen to correct it.

In 1977, the community-led support organization Friends of the Milwaukee Public Museum provided $20,000 to start developing a new geology exhibit. This seed money allowed the museum to assemble a core concept team: content advisors West and fellow curator Peter Sheehan, designers Jim Kelly and Vern Kamholtz, and educators Barbara Robertson and Martha Schultz. The team began by visiting other museums as a benchmarking exercise, and eventually produced a draft script and statement of purpose for the new exhibit.

The limestone cavern is modeled after Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. Photo by the author.

Plate tectonics — and the idea that the Earth and life on it have been in constant motion throughout history — was to be the unifying theme of the proposed exhibit. Visitors would begin with an orientation film, then proceed on a walk through time, visiting a series of reconstructed habitats from the distant past. Highlights would include a limestone cavern, a Carboniferous coal swamp, life-sized dinosaurs, and the edge of an advancing glacier with an enterable ice cave. The overall budget was $1.9 million, a comparatively modest figure made possible by the extensive in-house production facilities already available at MPM. Funded in part by private donations and a National Science Foundation grant, the exhibit was green-lit to start production in early 1979.

While the scientists and collections staff worked on deinstalling A Trip Through Time and gathering specimens for the new exhibit, designers Kelly and Kamholtz started producing floor plans and miniatures. Script revisions were an ongoing process, informed by the availability of specimens and practical realities of construction.

MPM’s historic mastodon was joined by new mounts of a moa and an ice age bison constructed by Rolf Johnson. Photo by the author.

The in-house art department had the most daunting job. A team including Wendy Christiansen, Floyd Easterman, Mike Malicki, and Greg Septon created no less than six distinct immersive environments from scratch, and designed an assortment of life-sized animals to populate them. Bob Frankowiak, Carol Harding, and Syl Swonski painted the various murals and illustrations. Only a few pieces were purchased, among them a pair of dinosaurs from the famed Sinclair Dinoland exhibition at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Struthiomimus is a Dinoland original, while the Stegosaurus is a duplicate made from the original molds.

The Stegosaurus. Photo by the author.

The Tyrannosaurus diorama can be viewed from ground level or from a mezzanine. Photo by the author.

The exhibit artists put everything they had into the Tyrannosaurus scene. This was to be the first life-sized diorama of dinosaurs in their environment ever built, so it had to be spectacular. Artists created hundreds of individual fronds and leaves, pressed dozens of footprints into the simulated mud, and populated the scene with animals large and small. Although the bloody spectacle of T. rex digging into the side of Triceratops steals the show, the scene also contains a paddlefish, a Champsosaurus, a tiny mammal, a loon-like bird, and more. No detail was too small: the Tyrannosaurus even has drool (made from clear plastic lacquer) dangling from its teeth. Computer-controlled lighting (state-of-the-art in the early 1980s) cycles through different times of day, and a richly-layered soundtrack of animal calls brings the motionless tableau to life. All told, the diorama was nearly five years in the making from the earliest drawings to final installation.

The Ordovician reef. Photo by the author.

The Third Planet opened to the public on October 8th, 1983. 28,518 visitors attended opening events across three consecutive weekends, and media coverage was universally positive. The introductory film on plate tectonics even won a Golden Eagle Film Award in the Science category. Museum director Kenneth Starr (no relation to the former independent counsel) handled the occasional visitor complaint personally. In one amusing reply to a visitor complaining that the T. rex diorama was too gory, Starr wrote that “such is the way that life was and still continues to be in the natural world. We do no one any educational courtesy by portraying life a la Walt Disney and Fantasia.”

For the most part, The Third Planet is still exactly as it was 35 years ago. The most significant change was the addition of a mounted Torosaurus skeleton to the exhibit entrance in 1991, replacing the orientation film. The fossils were found by Bob and Gail Chambers during one of the museum’s “Dig-A-Dinosaur” summer field programs. Rolf Johnson coordinated a team of volunteers to prepare and mount the skeleton, all in view of the public. The now-classic Tyrannosaurus diorama was updated in 2017 with enhanced lighting and sound. According to regular visitors, the scene is now louder and more intense than ever. Two dromaeosaurs were removed from the diorama so that museum artists could outfit them with feathers, but they have yet to be reinstalled.

Torosaurus had a colossal head. At nine feet long and nearly as wide, it is rivaled only by modern whales. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, much of the content in The Third Planet is decades out of date. This is largely the result of a major budget crisis MPM faced, and overcame, in the early 2000s. A CFO’s mismanagement put the museum eight figures in debt, and 40% of staff left or were laid off. The museum had to fight for its existence in a conservative-leaning state, fending off unhelpful suggestions to privatize, sell off collections, or close altogether.

Happily, MPM is now completely out of debt and looking toward the future. The museum’s collections facilities are in poor shape, and significant renovations would be needed for the institution to maintain its accreditation. Rather than continuing to lobby Milwaukee County (which owns the building the museum occupies) to update the structure, MPM is looking to move to a new, purpose-built location elsewhere in the city. Earlier this year, MPM revealed a series of conceptual images, all of which emphasize bright, open interiors and a mix of indoor and outdoor displays.

As explained in the museum’s FAQ document about the move, the best historic dioramas and exhibits would be moved to the new location. That means that, assuming MPM can find a location and funding for the new building, highlights of The Third Planet would surely be restored and re-contextualized in any future incarnation of the institution. At the very least, the prominence of dinosaurs and fossils in nearly all of the conceptual images makes it clear that paleontology exhibits will be part of MPM for a long time to come.

Many thanks to Archivist Ruth King for her generous assistance in accessing materials used for this article.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, mammals, MPM, museums, paleoart

More Real than Real: Leon Walters’ Celluloid Process

Taxidermy occupies a nebulous, contradictory realm between actuality and artifice. These objects incorporate real pelts and skins of once-living animals, and at first glance they appear alive themselves, albeit frozen in time. That life is, nevertheless, an illusion, carefully crafted by skilled artisans. Depending on the age and quality of the taxidermy, this artificiality can become more pronounced. Fur frays, colors fade, and skins stretched over less-than-perfect mannequins can appear warped or even freakish. Even for the most skilled taxidermists, dead skin and fur are imperfect mediums for creating the appearance of life.

For Leon Walters, a taxidermist and model-maker at the Field Museum of Natural History from 1911 to 1954, the organic nature of real skins was a shortcoming he could do without. Rather than trying to will dead animals into looking alive, he turned to plastics and other inorganic materials to create more perfect animal replications.

Walters sculpts a model gorilla hand. Photo (c) Field Museum. Source

Walters was aware of the philosophical quandary of filling museum displays with entirely artificial animals. “Taxidermy has realism as its ideal,” Walters wrote, “and this brings up the question of just what constitutes all we see or regard as ‘life’ or the appearance of life…is there anything expressed through form or color [that] cannot be translated into glass, marble, celluloid, metals, or other materials?” Walters recognized that the goal of a natural history display was to show authentic nature to the public. He argued, however, that the custom of putting actual animal specimens on display was limiting. Too often, these specimens showed visitors what an animal looked like in death, rather than in life. Walters was convinced that other materials were better suited for the task.

And so the “Walters celluloid process” was conceived. Walters would begin by posing a dead animal specimen. This could be as simple as stuffing the skin, but more often Walters used the taxidermy techniques pioneered by Karl Akeley, which involved constructing a clay mannequin to represent the musculature over which the skin could be stretched. Walters preferred very fresh specimens at this stage, and offered some gruesome commentary on how to procure them (drowning is apparently “very satisfactory in most cases.” Scientist or serial killer?). The next step was making a plaster mold of the posed animal. Molds could be taken in multiple parts if needed, but Walters usually attempted to make a single mold, even when working with large mammals.

Molding and casting a hippo in Walter’s studio. Photo (c) Field Museum. Source

After the molds were taken, the role of the original specimens was over. Walters experimented with a number of materials for casting, including varnish gums and gelatin. Ultimately, he settled on cellulose acetate, a translucent compound that has been used to make laminating foil, playing cards, and most famously, film stock. The advantage of cellulose acetate is its ability to hold varying consistencies of pigment. Walters would dissolve pigment into the viscous material and apply it directly to the mold. By building up many layers of cellulose acetate with different pigments and patterns, he could reproduce the subtle color shifts of living skin or scales. This was a carefully orchestrated process with little margin for error. Sometimes, Walters had to keep his models rotating on a wheel, synchronized to match the flow of the compound so that the colors would not mix or distort.

Walters’ cellulose acetate gila monster. Photo by the author.

Walters’ cellulose acetate babirusa. Photo by the author.

In addition to the use of novel materials, Walters’ animal models benefited from his careful observation of nature. When preparing the animal specimens for molding, no detail was too trivial. He took particular care to ensure that the set of the eyes and eyelids was true to life, often propping them up with bits of cotton. Walters also observed animal behavior in the wild, whenever possible. He found that animals in their natural habitat displayed behaviors he never saw in their captive counterparts. For example, he observed that wild crocodiles adopted a “dinosaur-like position in walking” unheard of in the more lethargic zoo crocs. Walters ended up using that very pose for his caiman model.

Walters’ cellulose acetate caiman in a “dinosaur-like” pose. Photo by the author.

Walters’ cellulose acetate northern white rhino. Photo by the author.

When Walters first pioneered his celluloid process for creating convincing animal models, his primary focus was reptiles and amphibians. As the years passed, he became more ambitious, molding and casting a hippo, a rhino, great apes, and even a pod of narwhals. Most of these models are still on display at the Field Museum today, and I suspect that few visitors recognize them as entirely fabricated animals.

Walters’ models are not perfect. Up close, one can see a slight loss of detail from the casting process, not unlike one might see on a 3-D print. Like traditional taxidermy, the cellulose acetate is not permanent, and sometimes splits and cracks over time. These models are also extremely flammable, and modern fire regulations require them to be housed in airtight cases.

Ultimately, the Walters celluloid process did not catch on, and real skins and pelts continue to be used for animal displays today. Still, his work has stood the test of time, and he is to be remembered for his absolute commitment to realism in natural history displays. In Walters’ words, “a fabrication in form and color is no less a misrepresentation than if it were in written words.”

References

Bauer, M.J. March 1946. Twice as natural and large as life are the animals mounted by modern techniques in taxidermy. Popular Mechanics.

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

Walters, L.L. 1925. New Uses of Celluloid and Similar Material in Taxidermy. Field Museum of Natural History Museum Technique Series No. 2.

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Filed under exhibits, FMNH, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles

Building Gorgeous George

The Field Museum has shared this fascinating raw footage of the assembly and installation of Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus (formerly Gorgosaurus and Albertosaurus). It is made available under a  Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 license.

The fossils in question were discovered by Barnum Brown in 1914 during an American Museum of Natural History expedition to Alberta. It was the largest but least complete of several (presumed) Gorgosaurus skeletons collected by Brown, and only the skull was ever displayed in New York. In 1955, Field Museum trustee Louis Ware bought the fossils, an event heralded in the members’ newsletter as “the most important acquisition to the museum in recent years.” Preparator Orville Gilpin assembled the skeleton with the help of Stanley Kukzek, Cameron Gifford, and William Turnbull. Gorgeous George debuted in the Field Museum’s central Stanley Field Hall in March 1956, alongside a scale model created by staff artist Maide Weibe.

The similarities to modern mounting techniques on display in the video are more striking than the differences. From ratchets to chain hoists, the tools used by Gilpin and his colleagues appear quite similar to those used for this sort of work today. I suppose the lab coat-over-slacks look has gone out of style, though.

Gorgeous Gorge in its updated poses, as it is exhibited today. Photo by the author.

Gorgeous George remained in place until 1990, when it was relocated and remounted as part of the Life Over Time exhibition. While the updated Daspletosaurus trades the old Godzilla pose for a more accurate horizontal posture, it does not include the original skull (as Gilpin’s version did). The real skull is now on display at the Museum’s east entrance, however.

On the subject of Gorgeous George, check out Emily Graslie’s Brain Scoop video on paleoart at the Field Museum, which includes a not-to-be-missed dramatic reading of a poem by Curator Eugene Richardson!

References

Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. (March 1956). 27:3.

Gilpin, O.L. (1959). A Freestanding Mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator 2:2:162-168.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, theropods

One Year to Deep Time

When the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History closed for renovation in 2014, five years seemed like an interminable amount of time to wait for the reopening. But the NMNH crew has been hard at work, and suddenly the June 2019 debut of the new National Fossil Hall is almost in sight. I’ve mostly avoided reporting on each and every bit of information pertaining to the new exhibit, but as we approach the one-year-to-opening milestone the drip is likely to become a deluge. That means that this is probably a good time to do a round-up of everything that has been officially revealed about the new exhibit up to this point.

The East Wing Restored

The original architectural grandeur is back. Images from of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Washington Post.

The building that is now NMNH opened in 1910. Its granite-heavy, Beaux Arts construction was a departure from the Victorian style of the first United States National Museum, but it looked right at home with the other federal buildings around the National Mall. As originally designed, the building resembled a squat “T” from above, with three large wings (facing east, north, and west) extending from a central rotunda. The east wing — a vast space with bay windows, intricate plaster detailing, and a skylight three stories up — has always housed fossil displays. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the once spacious hall was repeatedly carved into smaller sections. Windows and architectural flourishes were covered up, and by the time the last round of renovations was completed in 1985 the east wing had become cramped and gloomy.

A major part of the current renovation has been returning the space to its original glory. Grunley Construction spent two years restoring and recreating the east wing’s 1910 architecture, as well as updating infrastructure and improving the space’s energy efficiency. Most of this process was visible via webcam. Last November, the Washington Post provided some stunning floor-level photos of the restored hall. Wide open and filled with natural light, the renovated hall is glorious to behold, even without the fossils.

A Story of Environmental Change

Many exhibits and books about paleontology portray the evolution of life as though it occurred in a vacuum. In fact, the evolution of animals and plants is primarily driven by environmental upheaval — changing climate, shifting geography, and so forth. Sometimes this relationship goes the other way, and keystone organisms (such as grass in the Neogene or humans in the present day) drastically change the world around them. Environmental change over time is at the heart of the National Fossil Hall’s story. It’s worth quoting the official theme statement in full:

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

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

These themes are reflected by the physical layout of the exhibit, which is chronological but not strictly proportional. Specimens are clustered onto islands situated throughout the open floorplan, each representing North America at a particular point in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the islands also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, each island shows a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among these displays, visitors should get a sense of how phenomena like climate change and faunal interchange can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years.

During the development process, curators and exhibit specialists agreed that the hall should not be an encyclopedia of past life. Instead, everything ties back to main story. Big, showy specimens like dinosaurs are contextualized as products of environmental change. Meanwhile, fossils that visitors might otherwise overlook but are critical to our understanding of ecological change over time, like pollen grains or leaves, are literally and figuratively pedestaled to emphasize their importance.

The Nation’s T. rex

The Nation’s T. rex, temporarily assembled in the Research Casting International workshop. Image by Great Big Story.

The centerpiece of the National Fossil Hall is a real Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton — the first real T. rex (as opposed to a cast) the Smithsonian has ever displayed. The specimen in question has been known as the “Wankel Rex” since it was discovered by avocational fossil hunter Kathy Wankel in 1988. It has been held in trust at Bozeman, Montana’s Museum of the Rockies, but since it came from Army Corps of Engineers land it is technically owned by the U.S. federal government. Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, the original fossils have never before been assembled into a standing mount. That’s changing now that the fossils have been transferred to the Smithsonian.

Curator Matt Carrano designed a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off of a prone Triceratops. NMNH is visited by eight million people every year, so the Wankel Rex (now the Nation’s T. rex) will soon be the most viewed T. rex skeleton in the world. The Nation’s T. rex story has been covered by the Washington Post, NPR, National Geographic, and Smithsonian Magazine, among many others.

Poses that Show Behavior

The remounted mammoth demonstrates plausible behavior. Left image by the author, right image from Smithsonian Magazine.

Historically, mounted fossil skeletons were most often given anatomically neutral poses. This was a structural engineering necessity as much as it was a curatorial preference. However, modern technology has made it possible to safely display casts and even real skeletons in surprisingly dynamic poses. At many museums, this has usually manifested as mounted skeletons fighting or simply roaring at each other. In contrast, the NMNH team has endeavored to create dynamic mounts that show a greater variety of interesting behavior evidenced by the fossil record. For example, the remounted mammoth (shared during a talk by NMNH Director Kirk Johnson) is pushing its tusks along the ground, as if clearing snow off the grass. The Allosaurus (headless in the right image) is crouching next to a nest mound. Even the aforementioned T. rex and Triceratops scene is inspired by real research into T. rex feeding mechanics.

The Anthropocene

Most exhibits about the history of life close at some point in the past, but the National Fossil Hall continues the story into the present day. We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making, and anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid. During our very limited time on Earth, humans have altered the climate, the rate of erosion, and the acidity of oceans. Whether or not you think adopting “Anthropocene” as a formal geologic unit is reasonable, we have inarguably changed the planet in geologically measurable ways.

Curator Scott Wing discussed his approach to interpreting the age of humans in a Geological Society of America talk and in an Earth Matters blog post. The key is to make it clear that in spite of our destructive potential, humans have the power to mitigate and manage the consequences of altering the world around us. The exhibit will show visitors how they can take responsibility for humanity’s collective legacy.

Marsh Dinosaurs Re-imagined

An updated Stegosaurus replaces the 2004 cast, which replaced the original 1913 mount. Images from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Kirk Johnson on twitter.

The new Edmontosaurus cast replaces the original mount, which had gone unmodified since 1904. Images by NMNH Paleobiology and Will S.

Most of the dinosaur skeletons exhibited at NMNH were assembled before 1920. Originally excavated by O.C. Marsh’s crews in the 19th century, these specimens have gone on to lead second lives on display, and have been seen by generations of visitors. Nevertheless, time has taken its toll. Some mounts have been rendered out-of-date by new discoveries, while others have gradually deteriorated due to fluctuating temperature and humidity, not to mention constant vibration from passing crowds. Before the fossil halls closed in 2014, NMNH preparators had already dismantled three historic dinosaurs (Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Camptosaurus) and replaced them with updated casts. Returning these fossils to the collections ensures their continued safety, while also giving paleontologists a chance to study them for the first time in decades.

The renovation has been an opportunity to give other at-risk specimens the same treatment. It was especially important to get the real Ceratosaurus, Edmontosaurus, and Thescelosaurus skeletons off the exhibit floor because these are all holotypes — the original specimens that were used to define the species. Set in plaster on the exhibit walls, these important skeletons were virtually inaccessible. And as the preparators discovered when they removed them, they had not even been fully extracted from the rock they were found in. The real fossils are now available for research, while casts with lively poses and up-to-date anatomy will take their place on display (before anyone panics, the new exhibit will still feature several real dinosaur skeletons).

The Pocahontas Mine

As reported by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, a Smithsonian crew of paleobotanists, geologists, and exhibits specialists visited the historic Pocahontas Exhibition Mine last November. This coal mine near Pocahontas, Virginia operated from 1882 to 1938, when ceased production and became a tourist attraction. The Smithsonian crew took photographs, video, and silicon molds of the mine’s walls, which are covered with Carboniferous-era plant impressions. A reconstruction of the fossiliferous mine will anchor the Carboniferous section of the exhibit.

Treasures from the Collection

A near-perfect Ophiacodon from Texas. Photo via the NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

A typical natural history museum has less than one percent of its collection on display at any time, and NMNH is no exception. In addition to introducing brand-new specimens and updating old ones, the renovation is an opportunity to bring a variety of never-before-displayed objects from the collections to the display floor. Of the hundreds of specimens earmarked for display, I can only highlight a few.  There’s the historic cast of the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus, which has been in the collection since 1895 but never displayed. There’s the skull of the tusked whale Odobenocetops, which preparator Michelle Pinsdorf profiled in a webcast last year. Carrano showed NPR’s Adam Cole a sauropod osteoderm, collected decades ago but only identified recently. And then there’s the near-perfect Ophiacodon pictured above, collected in 1988 by Arnie Lewis and Nicholas Hotton. I remember this guy from my intern days, when it was referred to as “sleeping beauty.”

Research Casting International will start installing the large skeletons this summer, and then the countdown to opening day begins in earnest. Here’s wishing the NMNH team all the best as their years of work finally comes to fruition!

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Tyler Keillor’s new tyrannosaurs

Paleoartist Tyler Keillor has not one but two new tyrannosaur sculptures on display in museums north of Chicago, and this past weekend I paid both of them a visit. Keillor has been reconstructing extinct animals since 2001, most frequently in collaboration with Paul Sereno. You may well have seen Keillor’s fleshed models of Rugops, Kaprosuchus, Eodromaeus, and others, all commissioned by Sereno to accompany press releases announcing new discoveries. Keillor also specializes in restoring incomplete fossil material, assembling physical or digital models of the complete, undamaged bones. The composite Spinosaurus skeleton from the 2014 National Geographic traveling exhibit was his work, as is the skull on the mounted skeleton of Jane the juvenile Tyrannosaurus at the Burpee Museum of Natural History.

Tyler Keillor’s Dryptosaurus at the Bess Bower Dunn Museum.

One of Keillor’s latest and most ambitious pieces debuted on March  24th at the brand-new Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville, Illinois. Standing at the entrance to the museum’s galleries, the life-sized Dryptosaurus is a show-stopping centerpiece. Never mind that no dinosaur fossils have been found in Illinois –  Dryptosaurus lived on the other side of the Cretaceous continent of Appalachia, which is as good an excuse as any to include a giant model dinosaur.

During the very well-attended opening event, Keillor gave a standing-room-only talk about creating the model. Dryptosaurus is only known from a handful of fossils, the most complete parts being the arm and leg. Working with Richard Kissel, who served as the project’s scientific advisor, Keillor had to make a number of educated choices to turn the available fossil material into a 20-foot fleshed model. The shape of the head, for example, is based on that of Jane, while the tiny, millimeter-sized scales are informed by recently published skin impressions of various tyrannosaurs. Less certain is the choice to give Dryptosaurus a two-fingered hand. For the time being, the three-fingered skeletons Research Casting International built for the New Jersey State Museum are no less reasonable.

Opening day at the Dunn Museum was mobbed – it’s great to see so many people excited about a new museum!

Keillor’s 2009 Dryptosaurus head is meant to be a male, while the new sculpture represents a female.

During the planning stages, Keillor prepared three possible poses for the museum to pick from. The Dryptosaurus could be standing tall, leaning forward with its mouth open, or crouching down next to a nest mound. Keillor favored the nesting pose, both because it was unusual and because the Dryptosaurus holotype fossils may have come from an animal that had recently laid eggs*. Unsurprisingly, museum staff opted for the more spectacular open-mouthed version.

The bulk of the model is foam, created on a milling machine using data from a digital model produced by Keillor. The foam body form is covered with nearly 200 pounds of epoxy putty, applied and textured by hand. Keillor casted the head as a separate piece, using the molds from a standalone Dryptosaurus head he produced for the Dunn Museum’s predecessor in 2009. The patches of fluff are made from a commercially-available synthetic fiber that resembles kiwi feathers.

*Edward Cope noted in the 1880s that the Dryptosaurus limb bones had large, hollow medullary cavities. Gravid female birds grow extra layers of bone in their medullary cavities to stockpile calcium, which they use to produce eggshells. We now know that several non-avian dinosaur species did the same. 

Little Clint at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum.

Keillor’s other new model is “Little Clint” the infant Tyrannosaurus rex, which debuted at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin with absolutely no fanfare. The model is part of a new exhibit all about the discovery and interpretation of the pocket-sized T. rex fossils it’s based on. Frustratingly, there’s no mention of the exhibit on the museum’s website, and I would have never known about it if Keillor hadn’t mentioned it (I’m sure it’s not the museum’s fault, I too have known the joys of working within the constraints of a large municipal website). The model is roughly two and a half feet long, and is almost grotesque in its spindly proportions. Judging by photos accompanying the model, Keillor used a traditional build-up process, rather than the physical-digital hybrid techniques employed in the making of the Dryptosaurus.

Dryptosaurus and Tyrannosaurus both belong to the same group of theropod dinosaurs (tyrannosaurs), but in creating the two models Keillor went in two very different directions when reconstructing their soft tissues. Working with Richard Kissel of the Yale Peabody Museum, Keillor gave Dryptosaurus a patchy coat of shaggy integument, as well as fleshy lips that would easily cover the animal’s teeth if it were to ever close its mouth. However, Carthage College’s Thomas Carr, scientific advisor for Little Clint, requested a scaly hide with a crocodilian tooth-exposing grin.

Little Clint’s toothy grin.

It turns out feathers and lips on large theropods (and tyrannosaurs in particular) are fairly contentious subjects, at least among the sort of people who like to argue about these things on the internet. It is well-established that feathery integument was widespread among theropods, and even certain other dinosaurs. Several members of the tyrannosaur family have been found with fossilized fuzz impressions, including the Dryptosaurus-sized Yutyrannus. This means it’s reasonable to expect that all tyrannosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex, were feathered to some degree. However, a recent publication by Phil Bell and colleagues suggests the opposite: an assortment of small skin impressions from Tyrannosaurus and its closest relatives reveal only scaly skin. Meanwhile, ongoing research by Robert Reisz demonstrates that theropods had fleshy lips, but this is contradicted by Carr’s own findings that some tyrannosaurs had armored scales on their maxillary margins.

So which interpretation of tyrannosaur soft tissue is right? For now, there is compelling evidence for both interpretations. Perhaps more fossils or new analytical techniques will eventually steer the consensus in one direction or the other. Or maybe we will never know for sure what the faces of Dryptosaurus and Tyrannosaurus looked like. For now, Keillor’s models make fascinating companion pieces. They are windows into two possible versions of the deep past, reminding us to accept a little ambiguity now and then.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, museums, paleoart, theropods