Category Archives: exhibits

A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 1

The Hall of Mammals upon its 2003 opening. Photo by John Steiner, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

A century ago, before zoos were widespread and before wildlife videos were a click away, mounting animal pelts on mannequins was the best way to bring nature to an increasingly industrialized populace. Today, taxidermy exhibits seem inherently antiquated, even creepy. Taxidermy is by no means a dead art (competitions are still going strong), but the practice has certainly lost some of its grandeur. For most, the aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the discomfort of being confronted with a dead animal. There is of course far more complexity to unpack, from the uneasy suspension of disbelief stemming from seeing an animal skin made to look alive to the taxidermy piece’s multifaceted identities (including natural specimen, work of art, historic relic, and so forth). Who was this creature, and how did it die? How did it end up on display? How long has this animal endured its second life? These are the questions that fill visitors’ minds when confronted with a taxidermy exhibits. This presents a challenge for museums seeking to continue to use these specimens to educate visitors about ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. That is the problem staff at the National Museum of Natural History took on when they set out to create a taxidermy hall for a contemporary audience.

Out with the Old

Like any century-old natural history museum, NMNH has a long history of taxidermy displays. Animal mounts filled the original United States National Museum and the Smithsonian’s various world’s fair exhibits. These specimens came from a variety of sources, including private donations and collecting expeditions by Smithsonian researchers. Several animals, such as the hippo mounted by William Brown, lived and eventually died at the National Zoo. Some of the museum’s most famous taxidermy mounts are the animals collected for the Smithsonian by Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan in 1909. Putting the Roosevelt specimens on display was a priority when the building that is now NMNH opened in 1910. The prepared animals—including a family of lions, a giraffe, three northern white rhinos, and many others—filled an entire room in the new building’s west wing.

Northern white rhinos collected during the Roosevelt expedition, as displayed in 1915. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In the late 1950s, the NMNH west wing was completely remodeled as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The wing’s center hall became the Marine Ecosystems exhibit (starring a life-like blue whale model), while the U-shaped corridors surrounding it were rebranded as the World of Mammals Hall and the North American Mammals Hall. In the new exhibits, many specimens were grouped into realistic dioramas, complete with lush foreground landscapes and background murals. Other animals filled more sterile cases dedicated to particular subjects, such as “Mammals versus Climate” and “Dogs of the World.”

African ungulates in the 1959 World of Mammals exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By the mid-1990s, the modernized exhibits were looking a little rough around the edges. Many of the taxidermy pieces were over 80 years old, and the fur had become faded or frayed. The exhibit text was wordy and overly technical for the average museumgoer. In 1998, the Smithsonian Institutional Studies Office underwent a detailed evaluation of the mammal exhibits, which involved interviewing hundreds of visitors about their reactions to the halls. Overall, visitors seemed satisfied with the exhibits, but the evaluation nevertheless provided a lot of useful information.

The 1959 exhibits mixed complete dioramas with simpler cases covering specific topics. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Although more than half of museum visitors passed through the mammal exhibits, it was seldom seen as the main attraction. For most visitors, the mammal halls were neither the first exhibit they saw, nor their favorite part of the museum. Older visitors tended to respond better to the mammal exhibits than children or teenagers, who saw the halls as old, boring, or creepy. Indeed, the yuck factor of the taxidermy and the specter of death in general was on many visitors’ minds. While they were often not comfortable talking about it, many visitors expressed concern about the fact that the animals on display were dead, and wondered about how they ended up that way. Out of 750 visitors, 11% were sad or uneasy about the taxidermy and 5% were outright disturbed.

In with the New

In 1997, California real estate developer Kenneth Behring donated $20 million to fund a new mammal hall at NMNH. At the time, this was the largest single donation the museum had ever received, and it presented an exciting opportunity. However, there was a conflict of interest: Behring was a big game hunter with a history of going after threatened species. For example, earlier that year Behring drew criticism from the Humane Society after killing a Kara-Tau argali (an endangered mountain sheep) in Kazakhstan. In a news release, Behring stated that he followed all applicable laws and always obtained proper permits, but many individuals—both within and outside the Smithsonian—were concerned that his hunting activities conflicted with the museum’s conservation-oriented mission. What’s more, Behring’s donation included 22 animals from his own collection, and the Smithsonian was accused of allowing him to buy his way into the institution’s prestigious exhibits.

While the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals bears the donor’s name, and several of his personal trophies are on display, NMNH staff have made it very clear that Behring had no say in the exhibit’s message or content. That was just as well, because developing the exhibit internally proved plenty difficult. Pencils were allegedly thrown during meetings, and one conservator chose to retire rather than work on the new hall.

Several individuals can rightly claim authorship of the Hall of Mammals, including Project Manager Sally Love and Writer Sharon Barry. However, the primary advocate for the hall’s striking and controversial design was Associate Director of Exhibits Robert “Sully” Sullivan. Sullivan envisioned a wide open hall, forgoing enclosed dioramas and instead displaying animals in simple settings with lots of negative space. The idea was to keep the focus on the animals, their anatomy, and their behavior. This steel-and-glass, contemporary aesthetic had more in common with trendy tech showrooms than traditional taxidermy displays, and not everyone was initially on board.

This Alaskan moose group was one of several dioramas dismantled to make way for the new Hall of Mammals. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Unfortunately, the bold new vision could not be accomplished without destroying the old exhibits, including the historic dioramas. In the early 20th century, the proliferation of habitat dioramas radically transformed museums. Dioramas were accessible to broad audiences and brought with them the idea that museum exhibits should tell stories. These exhibits even had a tangible effect on the increasingly urban public’s interest in conservation. Today, historic museum dioramas are often considered quaint, but in their day they represented a bold fusion of art, technology, and science.

According to Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History, the NMNH dioramas “were not particularly good.” Still, they were important historical artifacts and represented a huge amount of work on the part of the craftspeople who created them. After inspecting the exhibits, NMNH conservators reported that it would be possible to preserve the dioramas intact for some future use. However, top officials decided that this would be too expensive, and all of the dioramas were ultimately demolished. Some of the taxidermy mounts were cleaned up for the new exhibit, while others were passed on to other museums. Still others would up homeless, and were ultimately dismantled and harvested for parts.

The minimalist watering hole in the Hall of Mammals. Photo by the author.

While some traditionalists fretted about Sullivan’s push to eliminate the dioramas, he also made waves with his restructuring of the exhibit team. In the past, curators had primary authorship over exhibit content, but Sullivan wanted to democratize the process. He gave designers and educators a greater voice, and insisted that their specialized knowledge be heard. While many applauded the recognition Sullivan brought to professionals whose work was usually undervalued, others weren’t so sure. Research staff avoided exhibit work during Sullivan’s tenure because they felt they were being railroaded into plans that had already been made. It was a tense period, and for a time, there were no curators on the Hall of Mammals team. Fortunately, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Anna K. Behrensmeyer and senior mammal specialist (and former NMNH director) Robert Hoffman eventually stepped up as advisers for the project. They brought to the table a phylogenetic approach that enhanced the strictly regional layout that had been planned for the exhibit.

Phylogeny became a key theme once Behrensmeyer and Hoffman joined the exhibit team. Photo by the author.

Yet another challenge emerged when the architectural firm NMNH hired to collaborate on the design restructured their staff midway through the project. No longer getting the results they wanted, NMNH hired a new firm—Reich+Petch Design International—to finish the job, at the cost of a multi-month delay. The new exhibit architects determined that the first draft simply had too much content. If all the planned displays were included, the Hall of Mammals would be very crowded and visitor traffic flow would be encumbered. The team confirmed this by laying out a mock-up of the floor plan on the National Mall. After walking through the space, the exhibit team decided to cut about 40% of the content and tighten up the interpretive themes. The hall’s final design is all about evolution, and our own place in the mammal family tree.

With a plan in place, construction and fabrication were set to begin. We’ll cover that in the next post. Stay tuned!

References

Institutional Studies Office. 1999. Examining Mammals: Three Studies of Visitor Responses to the Mammals Hall in the National Museum of Natural history. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

Milgrom, M. 2010. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

National Park Service. 2004. Mammal Hall Study Report: Evaluation by National Park Service Media Specialists of New Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/si-mammal-hall-report.pdf

Parrish, M. and Griswold, B. 2004. March 2004 Meeting Report: Mammals on Parade. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. http://www.gnsi.science-art.com/GNSIDC/reports/2004Mar/mar2004.html

Trescott, J. 2003. Look Alive! The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/07/14/look-alive/d1944407-ffbb-4e1f-8e06-06cd9ddec57d

Ulaby, N. 2010. Smithsonian Taxidermist: A Dying Job Title. All Things Considered, National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125914878

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH

A Tour of Dinosaur Park

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

Introductory sign at Dinosaur Park.

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

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

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

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

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

Citizen scientists prospecting for fossils at Dinosaur Park.

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

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

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

One of several new interpretive signs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do fossil exhibits have too many dinosaurs?

Reflexive discussion about the practice of communicating paleontological science to general audiences has become more common recently – there was even a two-day Popularizing Paleontology workshop in London last year.  It’s about time – paleontology encompasses some of the most important questions about the world around us, from how life evolves to how ecosystems respond to planetary changes. Paleontology is the study of how the world came to be, and our understanding of the natural world is hopelessly incomplete without it. For the larger public, however, paleontology is synonymous with dinosaurs, and this can be a problem. Dinosaurs are awesome, but they are but one branch of the tree of life. And while their 160 million year dominance is significant, the era of non-avian dinosaurs is only a fraction of the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth. Their story is not the only story worth telling.

Why the outsized fascination with dinosaurs? I suspect it’s the result of a self-perpetuating cycle. Human curiosity peaks somewhere between subjects an individual knows well and subjects that are completely new to them. In other words, people prefer to learn about things they are already familiar with. That means that museum visitors are drawn to dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus because they already know something about them. Meanwhile, other fascinating creatures are bypassed precisely because visitors lack an existing mental framework to contextualize them. Somewhat paradoxically, in the sphere of informal learning, familiarity is king.

Generally, educators have been happy to indulge the public craving for dinosaurs*. In a must-read blog post resulting from the aforementioned Popularizing Paleontology workshop, Mark Witton describes dinosaurs as “one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal” because they are “gateways” to discussions about evolution, extinction, deep time, and even the nature of the scientific method. Witton then unpacks this conventional wisdom, highlighting several ways that relying on the built-in appeal of dinosaurs may not be as effective as traditionally assumed. It’s a fascinating discussion that I highly recommend reading.

Witton’s post got me thinking that if we’re going to consider easing up on dinosaurs in outreach efforts, we need some sort of baseline to firmly establish if (or the degree to which) they are being overused. One argumentum ad nauseum in these conversations is that museum exhibits are overstocked with dinosaurs. Allegedly, exhibit designers have responded to the popularity of Mesozoic dinosaurs by devoting an excessive amount of exhibit space to them, while relegating Paleozoic and Cenozoic specimens to the collections. This supposition can be (very, very crudely) tested by comparing the percentage of available exhibit space to the percentage of time non-avian dinosaurs dominated the planet. Assuming that exhibits should not be expected to allocate proportional space to pre-Phanerozoic life, I figure that the “Age of Dinosaurs” should cover 30-35% of an exhibit about life since the Cambrian (~160 million out of 541 million years).

To satisfy my own curiosity, I’ve gone and checked this figure against the three big paleontology exhibits with which I am most familiar. The slapdash maps below are traced from museum guides available online, with percentages calculated with the help of the Photoshop ruler tool. Green denotes dinosaurs, brown represents Cenozoic mammals, and blue encompasses everything else, including Paleozoic fossils, overviews of life over time, and non-dinosaurian Mesozoic life.

Field Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 31%; Mammals: 31%; Other: 38%.

Let’s start with the Field Museum, since it’s the most straightforward. The Evolving Planet exhibit (on view since 2006) occupies three elongated halls totaling 27,000 square feet. Evolving Planet is a classic “walk through time”-style exhibit, and the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic are given remarkably equal amounts of floor space. Even though the central hall is larger than the other two, it is partially occupied by plants, marine animals, and early Triassic weirdos. At 31% of the total exhibit, dinosaurs are right about where they should be.

National Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in the old fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 15%; Mammals: 43%; Other 42%.

The old paleontology halls at the National Museum of Natural History (closed since 2014) demonstrate what happens when a museum goes without a dinosaur specialist for three quarters of a century. Cenozoic mammals and Paleozoic marine life were given room to spread out, while the dinosaurs were crowded into a paltry 15% of the available 31,000 square feet. It’s worth noting that unlike the Field Museum’s current fossil halls, which were designed from the ground up in the early 1990s, the NMNH paleontology wing was built up in a piecemeal fashion over the course of a century. The space was repeatedly carved into smaller sections to make room for new exhibits, and designers had to work around existing specimens that were too expensive or difficult to move. By the 1980s the halls had become something like a maze, and much of the available space wasn’t used very efficiently. Still, the consistently meager amount of space allotted to dinosaurs made it clear where the curators’ interests lay.

American Museum of Natural History

gallery usage at amnh

Space allotment by subject on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 40%; Mammals: 30%; Other: 30%.

At the American Museum of Natural History, fossil exhibits are spread across six halls on the fourth floor. The last substantial renovation was completed in 1995, although a titanosaur skeleton was added to the Orientation Hall in 2016. This exhibit differs from its counterparts at FMNH and NMNH in that it’s arranged phylogenetically, rather than chronologically. It is also limited to vertebrate evolution, so plants and invertebrates are not included. With those caveats in mind, dinosaurs occupy 40% of the 65,000 square feet of exhibit space.

So, do museums have too many dinosaurs? Based on this exercise, these three museums have just the right amount (or even too few). The proportion of space allocated to dinosaurs closely matches the time span of their ecological dominance during the Phanerozoic. The percentage of dinosaur space at AMNH is on the high side, but if we also incorporated the square footage of the human evolution exhibit and the assortment of marine invertebrate fossils on display elsewhere in the museum, that percentage would decrease significantly. In fact, if this exercise has revealed anything, it’s that Cenozoic mammals get an awful lot of space, given that the “Age of Mammals” takes up only 13% of the Phanerozoic.

Again, this is an extremely crude way to measure dinosaur-themed engagement efforts. One might also look at the number of specimens on exhibit, or the newness of the displays (are dinosaurs getting updated more frequently, while other exhibits are left to languish?). And that’s to say nothing of outreach beyond the permanent exhibits. Still, I hope this is a helpful starting point. At the very least, it suggests to me that “are museums over-emphasizing dinosaurs?” is not the only question worth asking. We also need to tease out if audiences are ignoring non-dinosaur paleontology outreach efforts, and if there’s a way to counter that.

*It’s a tired but worthwhile point that comparatively few people can articulate what a dinosaur actually is. For many, anything big and dead (and displayed in skeletal form) is a dinosaur. This complicates the matter, because when people ask for dinosaurs they may actually mean prehistoric animals.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, NMNH, systematics

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

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

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

An introduction to geologic time.

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

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

Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus casts dominate the Cretaceous tableau.

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

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

A ground sloth in the standard pole-dancing pose.

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

Acrocanthosaurus holds court in a sunny atrium all to itself.

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

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

Whales: behold their majesty.

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

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

One of the lab spaces in the Nature Research Center.

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

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

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

Jurassic Museum

Teaser image for Jurassic Park 5, via Colin Trevorrow/Universal.

Well, this is a doozy. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow tweeted the above image this afternoon, which is a teaser for the upcoming “Jurassic World 2” (Jurassic Park 5?). The film doesn’t have an official title yet, but apparently they started shooting on February 23rd and are aiming for a June 2018 release.

The Victorian-style museum gallery piqued my interest immediately. Since this is the first promotional image they put out, it stands to reason that natural history exhibits might play a significant role in the film. Is this a flashback to a formative experience for a main character? Or is it a brief moment of quiet before Chris Pratt smashes through the wall riding a mutant cyborg T. rex? Both are probably equally likely at this point, but there are still a few things worth noting.

First, this scene is plainly referencing the century-old association in the public consciousness between museums and dinosaurs. When we think of museums, we think of dinosaurs, and vice versa. This is no accident – as I’ve discussed here on many occasions, dinosaurs (and their mounted skeletons in particular) played a central role in defining the modern museum at the start of the 20th century. The first Jurassic Park film played with this iconography in its classic finale, when the flesh-and-blood Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor literally obliterate a pair of skeletal mounts. In that case, the implication was clear: the living, cloned dinosaurs represent new technology and scientific progress smashing the old and obsolete incarnations of paleontology to bits.

Y’know, this scene. (Universal).

Is “Jurassic World 2” pushing a similar message, casting the iconography of a museum hall as a past doomed to extinction? Maybe. The Victorian design elements – wood paneled walls, skeletons on open pedestals in orderly rows – distinctly evoke museums of the past. You’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit that looks like that today. Perhaps the filmmakers are using the Victorian iconography to enhance the impression of dusty obsolescence. Or maybe the baby boomer producers are recreating the sort of museum they remember from their childhood. The primary counterpoint is that the mise en scène on display here is stately and impressive. That dramatically-lit ceratopsian skull looks formidable, not at all like something shrinking back into history.

Let’s talk about that ceratopsian skull for a hot sec. The other skeletons are (perhaps incredibly) reasonably accurate representations of identifiable dinosaurs. We’ve got a tyrannosaur, a hadrosaur, and a dromaeosaur on the left, and what looks like Euoplocephalus, Kosmoceratops, and Protoceratops on the right. The skull in the center stands out as the sole fanciful element in the scene. It looks like an oversized, exaggerated Triceratops, with extra-long, tapering brow horns and a frill studded with spikes. Jurassic World established fantasy dinosaurs as being part of the Jurassic Park universe, so it’s possible this represents some kind of new, fictitious hybrid.

Charles Knight’s 1897 Agathaumas painting. Source

However, I was immediately reminded of Charles Knight’s classic take on Agathaumas. E.D. Cope named Agathaumas sylvestris in 1872, based on a pelvis and a number of vertebrae discovered in southwest Wyoming. It was technically the first ceratopsian dinosaur to be named and described, but without a skull, Cope had little idea of what the animal looked like (today, it’s considered a synonym of Triceratops).  Charles Knight depicted imagined the animal as a sort of spiny uber-Triceratops. His striking reconstruction was copied almost exactly for the Agathaumas that appeared in 1925’s The Lost World.

Triceratops and Agathaumas models, sculpted by Marcel Delgado and animated by Willis O’Brien. Source

It would be beyond awesome if the dramatic ceratopsian skull was meant to be a throwback or nod to the mythic Agathaumas. Or perhaps I’m reading too much in to it.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, movies

The Hidden Rhomaleosaurus

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center. Source

Residing upon the wall of the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland is the skeleton of a giant prehistoric reptile. This is a cast of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, a short-necked plesiosaur from the early Jurassic rocks of England’s westeast coast. With broad jaws bristling with teeth and a length exceeding 22 feet, this specimen would surely be a crowd pleaser, and yet it has never been on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Since the MSC opened in 1983, only staff, visiting scientists, and gaggles of interns have seen it.

The original fossil from which the Smithsonian cast was taken came from an alunite mine on the Yorkshire coast. Miners unearthed the nearly  complete Rhomaleosaurus in 1848. This was a year after Mary Anning‘s death, and plesiosaurs were already well known to British naturalists. The new specimen was uncommonly large, however, and the mine’s owner, George Augustus Phipps, displayed it with pride at his residence. Five years later, Phipps gifted the skeleton to his friend Phillip Crampton, an Irish anatomist. Crampton arranged for the plesiosaur to be displayed at the 1853 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Dublin.

Illustration

Illustration of the Rhomaleosaurus cast for sale from Henry Ward’s 1866 catalog.

For nearly a decade, the skeleton remained in a semi-permanent tent that had been erected for the meeting. Eventually, increasing concern that the tent structure was not protecting the fossil from the elements led to the specimen’s conditional relocation to the Royal Dublin Society Museum. It was here that Alexander Carte and William Baily published the first – albeit brief – description of the Yorkshire plesiosaur, naming it Plesiosaurus cramptoni (Harry Seely moved it to the genus Rhomaleosaurus in 1874).

Around the same time that Carte and Baily were preparing their description, the Rhomaleosaurus received another fateful visitor. This was Henry Ward of Rochester, New York, founder of Ward’s Scientific Company. At the time, Ward was a well-known and well-regarded fossil and mineral dealer. Ward first traveled to Europe in 1854 at the age of 20. He continued to venture around the world collecting geological specimens, which he sold to fund his degree at the Paris School of Mines. Ward’s timing was excellent, and the connections he made during his studies put him in an ideal position to start a company supplying specimens to the new natural history museums that were springing up on both sides of the Atlantic. Ward was also permitted to take casts of museum specimens, apparently including the Rhomaleosaurus in Dublin.

Starting in 1866, the Ward Scientific Company catalog offered a plaster cast of “Plesiosaurus” cramptoni for sale. Described as the largest plesiosaur ever discovered, the fully painted cast was listed at $150, which would be a little over $4000 today. The skull or left fore-flipper could be had for $15 and $10, respectively.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the London Museum of Natural History.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the Museum of Natural History in London. Source

It is unknown how many Rhomaleosaurus casts Ward sold, but five survive today. In addition to the Smithsonian copy, casts are held by Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, and the Natural History Museum in London. Each of these casts varies slightly from the others. While the Smithsonian Rhomaleosaurus closely matches the catalog illustration (missing left flipper and all), the Bath version has duplicate front and back flippers, which means that they are backwards on one side. Meanwhile, all four flippers on the London cast are sculpted replacements.

Most of the Rhomaleosaurus casts are tucked away in geology departments or seminar rooms where they are not often seen by the public. The London copy is an exception, however. The Rhomaleosaurus holds court in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery, where it is the largest specimen on display. In fact, it may well be the second most-photographed object in the museum, after Dippy the Diplodocus. Somewhat anachronistically, the London Rhomaleosaurus is displayed with a placard about Mary Anning, even though it is one of the few specimens in the gallery she didn’t discover.

USNM prep lab 1913

USNM fossil preparation lab in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast was purchased from Ward’s Scientific Company in 1895, when the United States National Museum was still operating out of the Arts and Industries building. Surprisingly, the cast is not on Curator Charles Gilmore’s list of display specimens, either in the old Arts and Industries exhibit or in the new USNM building that opened in 1910. Although the Department of Paleontology prepared exhibits for the 1896 International Exposition in Atlanta and the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, the Rhomaleosaurus was not featured in either. Indeed, the plesiosaur can only be seen in historic photographs of the fossil preparation lab. From these, we can determine that the Rhomaleosaurus adorned the wall of this space as early as 1913 and as late as 1926. The cast was not part of any of the mid-century modifications to the paleontology exhibits, and was eventually relegated to MSC in 1983. It is still intact, but its existence is not widely known, even to paleontologists.

Sadly, the original Rhomaleosaurus fossils have not fared as well as the casts. In 1877, the Royal Dublin Society Museum was incorporated into the National Museum of Ireland, at which time the institution gained permanent ownership of the specimen. During a move in the 1920s, the Rhomaleosaurus was broken up with sledgehammers for ease of transport. Afterwards, the pieces were scattered throughout the collections for decades. Adam Smith has been instrumental in reuniting and restoring this historic skeleton (video of the pieces here). It was a principal subject of his 2007 doctoral thesis, and he oversaw the complete, three-dimensional preparation of the original skull. Currently, there are long-term plans to reassemble and display the Rhomaleosaurus at the National Museum of Ireland.

Hall overview

Overview artwork of the National Fossil Hall, on display in “Last American Dinosaurs” at NMNH. Note Rhomaleosaurus in the upper left, behind the Jurassic platform.

Back in the United States, the Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast will finally go on exhibit in 2019. It will be featured in the new National Fossil Hall, mounted on the south wall of hall 4 (roughly where the café used to be – see the upper left of the image above). It seems that 168 years after its discovery, this Yorkshire plesiosaur is poised to re-enter the realm of public display on both sides of the Atlantic.

References

Smith, A. 2006. Dublin’s Jurassic “Sea-Dragon.” Geoscience 17: 26-27. http://plesiosauria.com/pdf/Smith_2006_Dublin_seadragon.pdf

Smith, A.S. 2007. Anatomy and Systematics of the Rhomaleosauridae (Sauropterygia: Plesiosauria). PhD thesis. School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin.

Smith, A.S. and Dyke, G.J. 2008. The skull of the giant predatory pliosaur Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni: implications for plesiosaur phylogenetics. Naturwissenschaften 95: 975-980.

Gilmore, C.W. 1941 A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 90.

Ward, H.A. 1866. Catalog of Casts and Fossils From the Principle Museums of Europe and America with Short Descriptions and Illustrations. Rochester, NY: Benton and Andrews.

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Filed under exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NHM, reptiles

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

In April 2014, the paleontology exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History closed for a wall-to-wall renovation. The re-imagined National Fossil Hall will reopen in 2019. We are now approaching the halfway point of this journey, which seems like a fine time to say farewell to some of the more charismatic specimens that are being rotated off display.

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster. Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers. Retired specimens are of course not going far – they have been relocated to the collections where students and scientists can study them as needed.

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon is the largest single specimen that is being retired from the NMNH fossil halls. James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona, during the same 1921 collecting trip that produced the museum’s Glyptotherium (which will be returning). While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

There are at least two reasons the Stegomastodon will not be returning in 2019. First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires. More importantly, the Stegomastodon is a holotype specimen, and the exhibit team elected to remove most of these important specimens from the public halls. This is both to keep them safe from the damaging effects of vibration, humidity, and fluctuating temperature, as well as to make them more accessible to researchers.

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

During the 1960s, Assistant Curator Clayton Ray oversaw the construction of the short-lived Quaternary Hall, which was reworked into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals. This meant creating a number of brand-new mounts, including several animals from the Rancho La Brea Formation in Los Angeles County. La Brea fossils are not found articulated, but as a jumble of individual elements preserved in asphalt. The Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided NMNH with an assortment of these bones, which preparator Leroy Glenn assembled into two dire wolves, a saber-toothed cat, and the sheep cow-sized sloth Paramylodon.

Paramylodon is another cut for the sake of eliminating redundancy: the colossal Eremotherium completely overshadows this more modestly-sized sloth. This mount also needed some TLC. For aesthetic reasons, the Paramylodon was given an internal armature, which involves drilling holes through each of the bones. Last year, preparator Alan Zdinak took on the task of disassembling and conserving these damaged fossils with assistance from Michelle Pinsdorf.

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)

efwewfwefwe

Zygorhiza cast in the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery. Source

When the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery opened in 1990, it featured a historic Basilosaurus skeleton that had been on display since the 1890s. This ancestral whale was relocated to the Ocean Hall in 2008, and a cast of the smaller whale Zygorhiza took its place in Life in the Ancient Seas. Since there is now an extensive whale evolution exhibit in Ocean Hall, this subject will not be a major part of the new paleontology exhibit. Both Zygorhiza and the dolphin Eurhinodelphis will have to go.

After the old fossil halls closed, Smithsonian affiliate Mark Uhen managed to acquire the retired Zygorhiza mount for George Mason University, where he is a professor. The whale is now on display in the Exploratory Hall atrium, suspended 30 feet in the air.

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

The tapir Hyrachyus and the mini-horse Orohippus. Photo by the author.

The last two major renovations of the NMNH fossil exhibits occurred when mammal specialists were in charge of the Paleobiology Department, and as a result the halls ended up with a lot of Cenozoic mammal mounts (at least 50, by my count). Virtually every major group was covered, often several times over. This menagerie has been culled for the new hall, which will focus on specimens that best tell the story of Earth’s changing climate during the past 66 million years. Casualties include the trio of Hagerman’s horses, the smaller horse Orohippus, the tapirs Hyrachyus and Helaletes, the ruminant Hypertragulus, and the oreodont Merycoidodon. Interestingly, the classic hall’s three large rhinos are sticking around, and will in fact be joined by at least one more.

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The pocket-sized ceratopsian historically called Brachyceratops has been on display at NMNH since 1922. Discovered in 1913 by Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, this animal is one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described, and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. Assembled by Norman Boss, the mount is actually a composite of five individuals Gilmore found together in northeast Montana.

Gilmore described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, but in 1997 Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed that all five specimens were juveniles. Unfortunately, the fossils lack many diagnostic features that could link them to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus. Nevertheless, without the ability to recognize other growth stages of the same species, the name Brachyceratops is unusable and is generally regarded as a nomen dubium.

It is not difficult to surmise why the Brachyceratops would end up near the bottom of the list of specimens for the new exhibit. It is not especially large or impressive, it doesn’t have a recognizable name (or any proper name at all, really) and it doesn’t tell a critical story about evolution or deep time. With limited space available and new specimens being prepped for display, little Brachyceratops will have to go.

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

Corythosaurus as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History launched the first of several expeditions to the Red Deer River region of Alberta. Seeing Brown’s success and under pressure to prevent the Americans from hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian Geological Survey assembled their own team of fossil collectors in 1912. This group was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who was accompanied by his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. Having secured several articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons, Brown’s team moved on five years later. The Sternbergs, however, remained at the Red Deer River, and continued to collect specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In 1933, Levi discovered a well-preserved back end of a Corythosaurus, complete with impressions of its pebbly skin. The Smithsonian purchased this specimen in 1937 for use at the Texas Centennial Exposition. It eventually found its way into the permanent paleontology exhibit at NMNH. Unfortunately, the half-Corythosaurus ended up crowded behind more eye-catching displays and was often overlooked by visitors. In the new exhibit, it will have to move aside to make room for new Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

Original skull of Hatcher the Triceratops, one of many dinosaur skulls coming off exhibit. Photo by the author.

In addition to complete dinosaur mounts, the old NMNH fossil halls included several dinosaur skulls, ranging from the giant cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus to the miniscule Bagaceratops. Most of these standalone skulls have been cut, although a few (Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Centrosaurus) are sticking around, to say nothing of new specimens being added. Other retirees in this category include the original skulls of Nedoceratops (labeled Diceratops), TriceratopsEdmontosaurus, and Corythosaurus, as well as casts of Protoceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegoceras, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae.

As usual, the reasons these specimens are coming off exhibit are varied. The Nedoceratops skull is a one-of-a-kind holotype that has been the subject of a great deal of conflicting research over its identity and relevance to Maastrichtian ceratopsian diversity. Putting this specimen back in the hands of scientists should help clarify what this bizarre creature actually is. Meanwhile, many of the other skulls (e.g. Protoceratops, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae) come from Asian taxa. In the new fossil hall, the Mesozoic displays will primarily focus on a few well-known ecosystems in North America.

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The NMNH Dolichorhynchops is a relatively new mount. It was collected in Montana in 1977 and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared it for display in 1987. 24 years later, “Dolly” is being retired to the collections. This is not due to anything wrong with the specimen, but to make way for a bigger, cooler short-necked plesiosaur. NMNH purchased a cast of Rhomaleosaurus from the Henry Ward Natural Science Establishment in the 1890s, but it has not been on exhibit since at least 1910. This cast, which is based on an original at the National Museum of Ireland (and which is identical to the cast at the London Natural History Museum) will make its first public appearance in over a century in the new National Fossil Hall. Sorry, Dolichorhynchops.

This has hardly been a comprehensive list – just a few examples that illustrate the decisions that are made when planning a large-scale exhibit. If you are curious about other favorites from the old halls, you can check on their fate by searching the Department of Paleobiology’s online database. Just go to Search by Field and enter “Deep Time” under Collection Name to see most of the specimens earmarked for the new exhibit.

References

Gidley, J.W. 1925. Fossil Proboscidea and Edentata of the San Pedro Valley, Arizona. Shorter Contributions to General Geology (USGS). Professional Paper 140-B, pp. 83-95.

Gilmore, C.W. 1922. The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, BrachyceratopsProceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

Gilmore, C.W.  1941. A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 90.

Gilmore, C.W. 1946. Notes on Recently Mounted Reptile Fossil Skeletons in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 96 No. 3196.

McDonald, A.T. 2011. A Subadult Specimen of Rubeosaurus ovatus(Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae), with Observations on other Ceratopsids from the Two Medicine Formation. PLoS ONE 6:8.

Sampson, S.D., Ryan, M.J. and Tanke, D.H. 1997. Craniofacial Ontogeny in Centrosaurine Dinosaurs: Taxonomic and Behavioral Implications. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 12:1:293-337.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods

A Game Changer?

Today, Google and 60 partner museums unveiled the new natural history arm of the Google Cultural Institute. Launched in 2011, the Cultural Institute is an effort to make culturally significant material accessible online. Up until this point, the primary focus has been on art and history. In conjunction with museums and other institutions around the world, Google has been uploading millions of images, archival documents, and virtual walkthroughs of significant places. The natural history project offers more of the same, but with 100% more dinosaurs.

I had no idea this was in the works, nor do I know much beyond what is said in the press release. After spending much of this morning exploring the site, however, you can color me impressed. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming: 300,000 annotated specimen photos, virtual walkthroughs of 50 museums, and 184 multimedia presentations on topics both general (cabinets of curiosities) and esoteric (native plants and fish of Korea). Unfortunately, accessing this content can be a bit of a chore. I was often confused by the user interface, and found many of the most interesting or useful items by accident.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Google Cultural Institute

For me, the museum walkthroughs are the clear highlight. Using Google’s Street View technology, users can explore the included museums and get surprisingly close to individual displays. Some of these “virtual tours” are frustratingly limited to a few corridors between exhibits, but others provide darn near the full experience of actually being there. Of the museum walkthroughs I’ve looked at so far, the National Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde are particular standouts in this regard. A handful of museums have had virtual tours available online since at least the early 2000s, but this is the first time I’ve seen the concept escape the gimmick stage and become something potentially useful.

The quality of the multimedia presentations (“virtual exhibits”, if you must) is a bit mixed. The best ones make specific use of the partner museums’ collections, highlighting the scientific, cultural, or historical significance of particular objects. These presentations provide curatorial expertise and novel insights that are not easily found elsewhere. Other presentations, however, are frustratingly generalized, and don’t include much content that one couldn’t get from skimming a Wikipedia article.

yawn, another cgi sauropod. I'd rather see the mount.

Yet another middling CGI dinosaur. Yay, I guess? Google Cultural Institute

I would include the site’s flagship attractions – narrated 360-degree tours of selected exhibit halls – in the second camp. These three short videos each feature an exhibit that “comes to life” with the help of some acceptable-but-not-spectacular CGI. Take the video about the Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde. It’s awesome to be able to look all around the hall, but most of the video is taken up by an animated version of the dinosaur that doesn’t accomplish anything it’s Jurassic Park counterpart didn’t 23 years ago. The video starts to tell some interesting stories – convergent evolution between sauropods and giraffes, the rate of extinction caused by human activities far outpaces normal background extinction – but the goofy CGI Giraffatitan is very much in the way. Museums have so many strengths, so I’ll never understand the impulse to rely on things like animated dinosaurs that a) their audience can see elsewhere and b) Hollywood will always be able to do better.

A great deal of content to be found by the bold.

A great deal of content can be found by the bold. Google Cultural Institute

All in all, the new natural history project at the Google Cultural Institute is a very impressive starting point. Nevertheless, my optimism is tempered by the fact that the web is littered with apps and mini-websites developed by museums, then almost immediately abandoned. Too often, digital projects are taken on without a clear idea of who will continue to update it, what need is being addressed, or even who the website or app is for. The real test will be whether Google and the partner museums will continue to support the Cultural Institute with new content. This has been a recurring problem with museums’ digital endeavors, but perhaps the collaboration with Google (and its extensive infrastructure) will help.

Moreover, accessibility is an admirable goal, but there is a very wide gap between putting stuff online and creating something that lots of people (teachers, students, people who don’t live near museums) actually want to use. I’m encouraged by the range of material on the Cultural Institute site. Some content is fairly general, perhaps suitable for a 3rd grade science report, while other content is far more in-depth. I will be very curious to see what the public ends up using, and for what purpose. It would also be neat to see if this ended up being the start of a truly global digital collection, useful for educators and researchers alike. We’ll see if the Cultural Institute ends up being the catalyst that finally makes digital museums happen!

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, museums, sauropods, science communication

Painting the Ancient Seas

During a 1958 benchmarking trip to a number of North American natural history museums, Smithsonian exhibits specialist Ann Karras wrote to Assistant Secretary Remington Kellogg about the state of artwork in paleontology displays. She noted with some frustration that since the paleontological community’s early 20th century love affair with Charles Knight, very little had been accomplished in this field. Everywhere she went, Karras saw reproductions of the same decades-old Knight paintings, supplemented by only the most tentative attempts at original artwork. As Karras postulated, “reverence for [Knight’s] work on the part of paleontologists may have thwarted any ambitions in that area of illustration for some years.” The sole outlier was the Peabody Museum of Natural History, home of the 1947 Age of Reptiles mural by Rudolph Zallinger. Impressed by the scale and quality of this 110-foot fresco, Karras suggested that the Smithsonian  invest in a similarly monumental piece of up-to-date paleoart at some point in the future.

Karras’s wish was finally realized in 1990, with the debut of Eleanor Kish’s epic Life in the Ancient Seas mural in the exhibit of the same name. Sixteen feet high and 130 feet long (with a sixteen by twenty foot supplement on the opposite wall), this mural is even larger than Zallinger’s better-known magnum opus. It also covers more of Earth’s history, spanning 541 years of deep time across the entire Phanerozoic Eon. But while The Age of Reptiles charts the progression of life on land, Life in the Ancient Seas follows the denizens of the undersea realm. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural demonstrates that the history of life is most thoroughly documented by marine fossils.

Dunkleosteus. Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

Close-up of Dunkleosteus and eurypterids. Art by Eleanor Kish. Source

The idea to include a mural in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit came relatively late. There was no mention of the artwork in the 1987 briefing document for potential donors, and as late as June of that year curator Nicholas Hotton was writing in hopeful terms about the inclusion of a full-color illustration of Dolichorhynchops. Eventually, however, the exhibit team got the go-ahead to start looking for an artist. Content Specialist Linda Deck started by assembling a list of three dozen prominent paleoartists. She sent each of them a letter of invitation, describing the project and emphasizing the immense scale of the desired product. Half of the artists responded with resumes and portfolio samples, and from these the exhibit team narrowed the field to six candidates*.

The short-list candidates were then given a $1000 stipend to paint a small sample piece. Each artist was provided with the scenario (a group of ammonites releasing a cloud of ink upon being attacked by a mosasaur), an assortment of fossil reference photos, and encouragement to get in touch with NMNH curators as needed. Of the five artists who completed this challenge, the exhibit team agreed unanimously that Kish’s work was the best fit for the project. Not only did she demonstrate the ability to accurately render the animals with anatomical precision, her bold color palate would work well as the backdrop for the entire exhibit.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The mosasaur section of the mural, presumably not far off from Kish’s original concept piece. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Eleanor (or Ely) Kish was born in 1924 to a family of artists. Growing up in New Jersey, she became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1972. While Kish was a professional artist for most of her adult life, her career in paleontological illustration kicked off in the 1970s, at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature. It was there that she worked with paleontologist Dale Russell on some of the earliest Renaissance-era dinosaur reconstructions (an assortment of paintings from Russel’s An Odessey of Time: The Dinosaurs of North America can be seen here). Tales of dinosaur art from this era often focus on Gregory Paul, John Sibbick, and their imitators, but Kish’s work was similarly prominent in books and magazines of the day.

Kish’s art is instantly recognizable for its portrayal of active, highly expressive dinosaurs in breathtakingly realized landscapes. The worlds she created – particularly the skies – have an almost poetic beauty, while the plants and animals that inhabit them drip with dew and pulsate with life. Kish’s work is often overlooked today because her dinosaurs are shrink-wrapped in the extreme, sometimes appearing emaciated or even ghoulish. The skeletal look is very much out of vogue (modern paleontologists prefer their dinosaurs appropriately bulked out with muscle, fat, and feathers), but as Christian Kammerer pointed out on twitter, it’s important to consider Kish’s art in context. Her carefully-researched work was a powerful counterpoint to the rotund, shapeless dinosaurs that had dominated paleoart in preceding decades, and a critical step on the road to the reconstructions we know today.

Kish with pencil sketch, color comprehensive, and models.

The artist with her models, pencil sketch, and color comprehensive. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

kish pretends to paint

Kish pretends to size up her canvas during a video shoot. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Once she received her work visa in May 1988, Kish moved to the Washington, DC area to begin Life in the Ancient Seas. She began by constructing small models of the most prominent animals that would appear in the mural. Working primarily with Sculptey, she built the animals’ skeletons first, using fossil photos as reference. Once these were approved, Kish sculpted the animals’ musculature and outer surfaces. She then used her models to paint a 16-foot small scale (1.5 inch to 1 foot) pencil sketch of the mural. This enabled her to work out the poses and behaviors of the animals, as well as the overall composition of the artwork. The next step was to produce the “color comprehensive”: a miniature painting with all the detail of the final piece. Since it would be impossible to photograph the entire mural within the narrow confines of Hall 5, this is the version that was reproduced for books, magazines, and postcards.

After fourteen months of preliminary work, Kish applied the first brushstrokes to the wall in the Spring of 1989. The museum’s graphics shop had prepared the surface well in advance, laying overlapping sheets of canvas onto drywall and carefully buffing out wrinkles and tears. Kish painted 130 feet of ocean backdrop for the main mural first, which took nearly two months. Next, Kish completed the smaller Cretaceous mural on the south side of the gallery, then moved on to the daunting task of filling in the large mural. She populated the scene chronologically, starting with the Paleozoic on the far left and moving forward through time. The exhibits department coordinated closely with Kish, so that the rest of the exhibit could be installed in her wake as each section of the mural was finished. The project took a total of two years to complete.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The “small” 20-foot Mesozoic mural, which appeared on the south wall of Hall 5. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas is an absolute masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms. The three biggest animals – Dunkleosteus, Tylosaurus, and Basilosaurus – anchor the action and provide a focal point for the viewer. From there, dynamic schools of fish draw the eye back and forth across the canvas. The longer one looks at this vibrant and colorful seascape, the more details emerge.

Of course, the primary function of the mural is to bring the static fossils on display to life, and Kish does not disappoint. The canvas is filled with hundreds of animals in perpetual motion. Streams of bubbles erupting from the creatures’ mouths imbue them with breath and energy. Although plenty of animals are being eaten, Life in the Ancient Seas is not a savage struggle of life and death. In one area, an inquisitive shark gets a face full of ink from a cephalopod that has no time for its antics. In another, a school of fish is sent careening in different directions by the powerfully swishing tail of the Tylosaurus. Instead of focusing on the macabre, Kish brilliantly incorporates whimsical humor into her work without plunging into the realm of cartoonishness. It is a feat that other paleoartists might do well to emulate. Meanwhile, Kish cleverly grounds some of the stranger extinct animals by juxtaposing them with their more familiar brethren. For example, the association of Basilosaurus, which resembles a fanciful sea dragon, with comparably mundane dugongs and dolphins makes this serpentine ancestral whale seem more plausible.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The back lit cove where Miocene sea lions and penguins frolic is easily the most beautiful part of the mural. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas was the largest project Kish ever took on. As she stated in multiple interviews, the Smithsonian commission made her career. The money she earned allowed her to buy a rural home in Ontario and convert it into a studio, which allowed her to produce more work more quickly. “I always wanted a studio,” she told the Ottawa Star,  “but I never had the money. The Smithsonian gave me that chunk of cash.”

Ely Kish passed away on October 12, 2014 at the age of 90. Those who knew her are quick to mention her kindness and generosity, particularly toward young artists. Past colleagues also fondly recall her impressive bouts of swearing, which would occasionally punctuate her normally soft-spoken demeanor. For the rest of us, we have Kish’s amazing artwork to remember her by. Kish created worlds we could otherwise never see, and she did it on a breathtaking scale. Although hers was a visual medium, she made the past into something we could feel and even experience. She and her talents will be missed.

Many thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff for providing access to the materials used in writing this article. 

References

Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles

Revisting the Ancient Seas

Between 1981 and 1990, the National Museum of Natural History carried out its second major overhaul of the east wing paleontology exhibits. Entitled “Fossils: The History of Life”, the new exhibit complex represented a significant departure from earlier iterations of this space. While the previous renovation arranged specimens according to taxonomy and curatorial specialties, “The History of Life” followed the evolutionary progression of fossil plants and animals through time. The new exhibits also differed from prior efforts in that they were not put together exclusively by curators. Instead, the design process was led by educators and exhibits specialists, who sought curatorial input at all stages. The result was a (comparably) more relatable and approachable paleontology exhibit, created with the museum’s core audience of laypeople in mind.

By 1987, four sections were completed: The Earliest Traces of Life, Conquest of the Land, Reptiles: Masters of the Land, and Mammals in the Limelight. Occupying halls 2, 3, and 4, these exhibits (along with the older Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man in Hall 6) told the complete story of the terrestrial fossil record. However, Hall 5 (the narrow space running parallel to the central dinosaur exhibit on its north side) was still vacant.

1987 map

1987 map of planned additions to the “History of Life” exhibit complex, including the never-realized Changing Earth. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Going back to the 1977 theme statement that kicked off the History of Life renovations, the intent was always for Hall 5 to feature two exhibits: one on prehistoric sea life and another on the geological context for the fossil record. These ideas were fleshed out in a 1987 briefing packet that was distributed to potential donors. As the document explained, “it is in the undersea realm that the history of life is most abundantly documented,” and coverage of fossil marine life is therefore “critical” to visitors’ understanding of evolution through deep time. From the beginning, the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit promised to feature a life-sized diorama of a Permian reef community, mounted skeletons suspended in life-like swimming poses, and an immersive underwater ambiance. Meanwhile, the proposed “Changing Earth” exhibit would “illuminate the entire story [told in the fossil halls] by looking at the ways geological processes have affected the course of evolution over millions of years.” A key feature was a “video disc time machine”, which was essentially a computer terminal where artwork reconstructing different time periods could be viewed.

Changing Earth was ultimately never built. Instead, the allocated space became a windowed fossil preparation lab, which would prove to be one of the most popular exhibits in the History of Life complex. Nevertheless, many of the ideas planned for Changing Earth would be revisited in the Geology, Gems, and Minerals hall, which opened in 1997. Life in the Ancient Seas did get funding, however, and with a budget of approximately $4 million, production of the exhibit was underway by early 1988.

concept 1

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

concept 2

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As with any large exhibit, Life in the Ancient Seas was made possible through the combined efforts of dozens of talented scientists, artists, and technicians. Like the rest of the History of Life complex, the Department of Exhibits generally initiated and produced the content, which the Department of Paleobiology then revised or approved. Linda Deck was the content specialist, steering the ship throughout the planning and production process. She selected specimens, chose the major storylines, and acted as a bridge between the curators and exhibits staff. Li Bailey and Steve Makovenyi were the designers, overseeing the exhibit’s aesthetics and making sure it functioned as a cohesive whole. Sue Voss was the lead writer of label copy.

The hall’s design revolved around two main ideas, one aesthetic and one pedagogical. Visually, the exhibit needed to “simulate the perspective of a scuba diver” (Deck 1992). Makovenyi and Bailey gave the hall a blue-green color palate, with a low, black-tiled ceiling. Shimmering lights projected on the floor contributed to the illusion of traveling through the underwater world. Meanwhile, the layout of the hall adhered strictly to the chronology of geologic time. As visitors traversed the space, archways and glass barriers emphasized the conceptual divisions between the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.

Tylosaurus photo by the author

Tylosaurus and Hesperornis are classic NMNH mounts. Photo by the author.

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Life in the Ancient Seas featured over 1,000 specimens, most of which were invertebrates like trilobites, brachiopods, ammonites, and bivalves. Early lists of vertebrates earmarked for display were (as is typical) much longer than the final selection of twelve mounted skeletons – a walrus and a baleen whale were among the casualties. A few of the mounts, like the  ancestral whale Basilosaurus (USNM V 4675) and the sea lizard Tylosaurus (USNM V 8898), had already been on display for decades and needed only modest touch-ups for the new exhibit. Most of the vertebrate skeletons, however, were brand new. The Dolichorhynchops (USNM PAL 419645) was collected in Montana in 1977, and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared and assembled the mount in 1987. A Eurhinodelphis dolphin (USNM PAL 24477) from Maryland was mounted by contractor Constance Barut Rankin. Her work was so impressive that she earned a full-time position for her trouble. The sea cow Metaxytherium (USNM PAL 244477) was a very late addition, having been excavated in Florida during the 1988 field season.

miocene

Miocene dolphin and sea cow. Photo by the author.

A variety of created objects joined the real specimens in telling the story of marine life through time. Model Hybodus sharks swam near the ceiling, and a realistic papier-mâché seabed extended the length of the exhibit beneath the mounted skeletons (little did visitors know this “seabed” was fragile enough to be punched through if it was ever stepped on). The exhibit team decided early on that Life in the Ancient Seas would include an 11-foot high, life-sized diorama of a Permian reef, based on the Glass Mountains deposits in Texas. Smithsonian paleontologist G. Arthur Cooper spent years collecting and publishing on the immaculate fossils found in this region, so a reconstruction of the Permian near-shore ecosystem was an obvious choice. What’s more, there was already a man lined up for the job. Terry Chase of Missouri-based Chase Studios (who would later go on to create Phoenix the whale) had already built a Permian reef for the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, and most of the same molds and designs could be re-used. Still, the NMNH diorama was a massive undertaking, featuring 100,000 unique models – some hand-sculpted and some cast in translucent resin or wax.

Phillip Anderson experimented with a variety of materials to create the shimmering of sunlight shining through water that appeared in the diorama and at the exhibit’s two main entrances. As it turns out, nothing looks as good as actual light penetrating actual water. To accomplish the effect, Anderson rigged a piston cylinder to continuously produce waves in a shoebox-sized plexiglass container of water. A quartz light shone through the container and projected the pattern onto the floors and walls.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version. Source

Life in the Ancient Seas opened in May 1990. In a Washington Post review, Hank Burchard raved about the ocean-themed design and especially Voss’s text, stating that “every museum text writer in town should study her style.” For the next 23 years, Life in the Ancient seas stood out as the gem among the east wing fossil exhibits. It was more colorful, easier to navigate, and generally more inviting than the other History of Life galleries. The theatrical label copy was arguably over the top (“Act One had been a bottom-dweller’s ballet, Act Two would be a swimmer’s spectacle”), but the exhibit as a whole plainly succeeded in presenting the story of evolution, adaptation, and extinction in an appealing and attractive way. Over the years, there were a few changes: the shimmering lights were shut off, a charming clay-mation video about the end-Cretaceous food chain collapse was removed, and the Dunkleosteus skull and Basilosaurus skeleton were relocated to the Ocean Hall (the latter was replaced with a cast of the related whale Zygorhiza). Indeed, the opening of the similarly-themed but far larger Ocean Hall in 2008 overshadowed Life in the Ancient Seas, and made many of its displays redundant. Although it was the best part of the History of Life complex, Life in the Ancient Seas was also the shortest lived. It was the last section to open, and in 2013, it was the first section to close.

Those familiar with the exhibit will have surely noticed that I have yet to discuss the beautiful 122-foot mural painted by Ely Kish. Running the entire length of the exhibit, this amazing artwork outclasses even the famous “Age of Reptiles” at the Yale Peabody Museum in terms of scale and number of subjects depicted. This monumental accomplishment will be the subject of the next post – stay tuned!

References

Burchard, H. 1990. Fossils Fuel Sea Journey. The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/05/25/fossils-fuel-sea-journey/d582f067-0745-44a0-90c8-248c1328962a/

Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.

Telfer, A. 2013. Goodbye to Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit. Digging the Fossil Record: Paleobiology at the Smithsonianhttp://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2013/11/ancient-seas.html

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, reptiles