Category Archives: Extinct Monsters

Extinct Monsters: Brachyceratops

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Most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) represent taxa that are well-known to casual paleontology enthusiasts. But nestled amongst household names like Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Diplodocus is an easily-overlooked horned dinosaur that was historically called Brachyceratops montanensis (it’s currently labeled Styracosaurus sp). Tucked away in a glass case behind the giant Triceratops, this pocket-sized ceratopsian may not be the most spectacular display in the exhibit, but it is nevertheless an important one for the Museum. Discovered in 1913 by the Smithsonian’s own Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, Brachyceratops represents one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. It is therefore unfortunate that modern researchers have banished the name Brachyceratops to the realm of taxonomic obscurity. What’s more, the days of the Brachyceratops mount, on exhibit since 1922, are numbered: when the NMNH paleontology halls closed for renovation in April 2014, this specimen was be retired to the collections, and is not planned for inclusion when the exhibit reopens in 2019.

The Brachyceratops mount today. Photo by the author.

The Brachyceratops mount today. Photo by the author.

During his tenure at NMNH, Gilmore was an inexhaustibly productive writer, publishing at least 170 scientific articles, including numerous important descriptions and reassessments of fossils discovered by O.C. Marsh’s teams in the 19th century. However, Gilmore was much happier studying fossils in his lab than excavating new finds in the field, taking part in a scant 16 NMNH-sponsored field expeditions over the course of his career. A 1913 trip to the Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation in Northeast Montana was therefore unusual for Gilmore. He was following in the footsteps of Eugene Stebinger of the US Geological Survey, who had reported the previous year that the region was only minimally explored but clearly awash in vertebrate fossils.

On this inaugural fossil prospecting trip, Gilmore’s team located abundant remains of fish, small reptiles and dinosaurs, especially hadrosaurs and ankylosaurs. The most notable find, however, was a small bone bed (about six feet square) of ceratopsian fossils, representing at least five individuals. Gilmore described this find in a 1917 monograph, naming the dinosaur Brachyceratops montanensis. Today we know that ceratopsians were quite diverse, particularly during the Campanian, but in the early 20th century the true extent of the group was only just being revealed. Still, it was clear to Gilmore that at an estimated six feet in length, Brachyceratops was an unusually small ceratopsian. He proposed that it may have fed on different plants or occupied a different niche than larger contemporaries like Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus.

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Reconstruction of Brachyceratops holotype skull. Plate from Gilmore 1917.

In 1917, most of the dinosaur mounts on display at NMNH came from fossils collected by Marsh for the US Geological Survey, and many represented species also on display in New York, Pittsburgh and New Haven. Accordingly, Gilmore was doubtlessly enthused by the prospect of displaying a dinosaur exclusive to Smithsonian. He awarded the task of creating a Brachyceratops mount to preparator Norman Boss, who would spend 345 working days on the project. Of the five individuals found in Montana, USNM 7953 was selected as the basis for the mount because it was the most complete, with the sacrum, pelvis, femora and complete set of caudal vertebrae found articulated in situ. Helpfully, Gilmore published a list of precisely which parts of the mount came from which individual specimen (see below). This was a marked contrast from some of his contemporaries at other museums, who would not bother to record such information, or even actively obscure how many disparate specimens they were using to build their mounts.

Gilmore's helpful list

A helpful breakdown of the Brachyceratops mount from Gilmore 1922.

Boss based his restoration of Brachyceratops closely on the complete, articulated Monoclonius (=Centrosaurus) specimen (AMNH 5351) discovered by Barnum Brown in 1914. In particular, Boss replicated the angle of the scapulae and the number of vertebrae (22) on the American Museum of Natural History skeleton. Missing bones and portions thereof were sculpted in plaster, easily recognized by their solid color and smooth texture. Just as Gilmore and Boss had done with their 1905 Triceratops mount, the Brachyceratops was given strongly flexed elbows. According to Gilmore, a very large olecranon process on the ulna would have forced all ceratopsians into this somewhat awkward stance. Of particular note is the restoration of the skull, which was found shattered into dozens of pieces, many smaller than one inch. A close look at the specimen reveals how Boss painstakingly reassembled these fragments. Unfortunately, this is difficult in the exhibit hall because the mount is posed with the side of the skull that is mostly plaster facing visitors.

Norman Boss Brachyceratops courtesy Smithsonian archives

Norman Boss puts the finishing touches on the Brachyceratops mount. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives.

The completed Brachyceratops mount was placed on exhibit in 1922, on the same pedestal in the Hall of Extinct Monsters as the Triceratops. The substrate beneath the mount was colored and textured to match the Two Medicine Formation sandstone in which the fossils were found. Gilmore also prepared one of his charming models of Brachyceratops, mirroring the pose of the mount, but it is unclear whether it was ever exhibited.

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Brachyceratops on exhibit with Triceratops. Plate from Gilmore 1922.

The Brachyceratops has remained on view through each subsequent renovation of the fossil halls, always placed close to Triceratops. This close association has prompted many visitors to mistake the diminutive Brachyceratops for a baby Triceratops, and in fact these visitors are on the right track. While Gilmore always described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed in 1997 that all five specimens were juveniles. A century’s worth of new fossil discoveries has provided modern paleontologists with a thorough understanding of ceratopsian ontogeny, and characteristics like the unfused nasal horn clearly mark the mounted Brachyceratops as a young animal. Unfortunately, Gilmore’s Brachyceratops specimens lack any good diagnostic features that could link it to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus ovatus, which was, incidentally, discovered by Gilmore on a 1922 repeat trip to the Two Medicine site. 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 mounts to include in a renovated gallery. 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. It’s not all bad, though. Taking these fossils off exhibit will make them more accessible to researchers, and allow them to be closely examined in all aspects for the first time in decades. Perhaps one day soon we will have a clearer idea of the identity of one of Gilmore’s great finds.

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1917). Brachyceratops, a Ceratopsian Dinosaur from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana, with Notes on Associated Fossil Reptiles. Washington, DC: US Geological Survey.

Gilmore, C.W. (1922). The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, Brachyceratops. Proceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

Gilmore, C.W. (1930). On Dinosaurian Reptiles from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana. Proceedings of the US National Museum 77:2839.

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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The NMNH fossil halls, circa 1963

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A revamp for the dinosaur displays in Hall 2. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Since the NMNH building opened in 1910 as the United States National Museum, the east wing has been home to fossil displays. Although there have been many small adjustments and additions to the exhibits over the years, we can separate the east wing’s layout into three main periods. From 1910 t0 1945, the exhibits were primarily under the stewardship of Charles Gilmore. Called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters”, this iteration was somewhat haphazard in its layout and generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design. Gilmore’s version of the east wing remained in place until 1963, when the space was redesigned as part of the Smithsonian-wide modernization project. In the updated halls, there was a directed effort to compartmentalize exhibits based on the subdivisions of the Museum’s research staff, with each area of the gallery becoming the responsibility of a different curator. A second renovation was carried out in several stages starting in 1980. This version, which was open until 2014, was part of the new museology wave that started in the late 1970s. As such, the exhibits form a more cohesive narrative of the history of life on earth, and much of the signage carries the voice of educators, rather than curators.

Of course, the field of paleontology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the early 1980s, and NMNH staff have made piecemeal updates to the galleries when possible, including restorations of deteriorating mounts, and additional signage that addresses the dinosaurian origin of birds and the importance of the fossil record for understanding climate change. A third renovation is currently underway and will be completed in 2019.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of the NMNH fossil halls as they stood in 1963, after the first major renovation. This iteration of the east wing was long gone before I was born, so this information is pieced together from historic photographs, archived exhibit scripts, and correspondence among the individuals involved in the modernization project (my thanks to the staff of the Smithsonian Institution Archives for their assistance in accessing these materials). Perhaps unsurprisingly, records of the dinosaur gallery are by far the most thorough. Information on the other halls is considerably harder to come by, so if any readers who saw the older exhibits in person remember any details, it would be fantastic if you could share them.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

As mentioned, the Smithsonian underwent a thorough modernization project in the middle of the 20th century. The modernization committee, chaired by Frank Taylor (the eventual director-general of Smithsonian museums), was established in 1948. Under the committee’s guidance, most of the institution’s exhibits were redesigned between 1953 and 1963. Keep in mind that at the time, the United States National Museum was the only Smithsonian museum – it would not be divided into the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) until 1964.

Completed in 1963, the USNM fossil exhibits were among the last to be modernized. Only a small number of specimens were added that had not already been on view in the previous version of the space – in fact, many specimens were removed. The changes primarily focused on the layout of the exhibit, turning what was a loosely organized set of displays into a series of themed galleries. The east wing included four halls in 1963, the layout of which can be seen in the map above. Each hall was the responsibility of a particular curator. Nicholas Hotton oversaw Paleozoic and Mesozoic reptiles in Hall 2. David Dunkle was in charge of fossil fish in Hall 3. Porter Kier oversaw fossil invertebrates and plants in Hall 4. Finally, Charles Gazin, head curator of the Paleontology Division, was responsible for Cenozoic mammals in Hall 5. Each curator had a central role in selecting specimens for display and writing accompanying label copy.

Invertebrates and Fossil Plants

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Echinoderm fossil display in Hall 4. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

It is likely that part of the reason the fossil halls were late on the modernization schedule was that the curators of the Paleontology Division were not terribly interested in exhibits or outreach. There were no staff members in the division exclusively devoted to exhibit work, so the task of designing the new exhibit space was an added burden for the research staff. As invertebrate paleontology curator G. Arthur Cooper put it in a 1950 memo, “all divisions of Geology at present are in an apathetic state toward exhibition.”

Nevertheless, work on the east wing halls had begun by 1957, if not a bit earlier. The first of the new exhibits to be worked on was Hall 4, featuring fossil invertebrates and plants. The long and narrow space was divided into four sections: the first introduced the study of fossils and how they are preserved, the second was devoted to paleobotany, the third contained terrestrial and marine invertebrates, and the forth provided an overview of geological time. Cooper described the new exhibit as a progressive story of the expansion of life, “its stem connecting all life which is now culminating in man.”

Carboniferous coal swamp fossils in Hall 4. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In addition to a variety of fossil specimens, Hall 4 featured a series of dioramas built by George Merchand, an exhibit specialist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Merchand built at least 4 dioramas between 1957 and 1958, each depicting representative invertebrate marine fauna from a different Paleozoic period. Most, if not all, of these dioramas were retained during the 1980s renovation and remained on view through 2014.

Fossil Fishes and Amphibians

Fossil fishes in Hall 3. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Fossil fish and a smattering of amphibians were located in Hall 3, on the far east side of the wing. This space would be converted into “Mammals in the Limelight” in the 1980s. David Dunkle, for whom everyone’s favorite placoderm Dunkleosteus is named, was in charge of this gallery during his tenure at USNM between 1946 and 1968. The specimens on view were arranged temporally, starting with placoderms on the south side and progressing into actinopterygians and basal amphibians on the north end. Among the more prominently displayed specimens were Xiphactinus, Seymouria, and “Buettneria” (=Koskinonodon). The hall also contained a replica of the recently discovered modern coelacanth, and small diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

Dinosaurs and Other Reptiles

Dinosaurs in Hall 2, as seen facing west. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Hall 2, featuring dinosaurs and other reptiles, was the main draw for most visitors. It was not, however, a major priority for the Smithsonian research staff. The museum had not had a dinosaur specialist since Gilmore passed away in 1945 and indeed, dinosaurs were not an especially popular area of study among mid-century paleontologists in general. As such, responsibility for Hall 2 fell to Nicholas Hotton, at the time a brand-new Associate Curator. Later in his career, Hotton would be best known as an opponent to the dinosaur endothermy movement, but in the early 1960s he was most interested in early amniotes and the origin of mammals.

Hotton’s display of South African synapsids and amphibians. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Perhaps due to the general disinterest among USNM curators, changes to the dinosaur exhibits were mostly organizational. Most of the free-standing dinosaur mounts built by Gilmore and his team were collected on a single central pedestal. Preferring not to tackle the massive undertaking of disassembling and remounting the 70-foot Diplodocus skeleton, the exhibit designers left the sauropod in place and clustered the smaller moutns around it. In the new arrangement, the Diplodocus was flanked by the two Camptosaurus and prone Camarasaurus on its right and by Triceratops and Brachyceratops on its left. The Stegosaurus stenops holotype, splayed on its side in a recreation of how it was first discovered, was placed behind the sauropods at the back of the platform.

Close up of Thescelosaurus on the south wall. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

 The north and south walls of Hall 2 were lined with additional specimens. On the south side, Gilmore’s relief mounts of Ceratosaurus and Edmontosaurus (called “Anatosaurus” in this exhibit) were joined by the gallery’s one new dinosaur, a relief mount of Gorgosaurus in a death pose. The north wall featured a long, narrow, glass-enclosed case illustrating the basics of dinosaur classification. In addition to saurischian and ornithischian pelves, the case featured skulls representing most of the major dinosaur groups. Amusingly, all but two of these skulls (Triceratops and Diplodocus) were labeled with names that are no longer considered valid. These skulls included “Antrodemus” (Allosaurus), “Trachodon” (Edmontosaurus) “Procheneosaurus” (probably Corythosaurus)  and “Monoclonius” (Centrosaurus).

In the southwest corner of Hall 2 (where FossiLab is today), visitors could see the Museum’s two free-standing Stegosaurus: the fossil mount constructed by Gilmore in 1913 and the charmingly ugly papier mache version, which had received a fresh coat of paint. Finally, the rear (east) wall of Hall 2 held Gilmore’s relief mounted Tylosaurus.

Mammals

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Brontotherium and Matternes’ Oligocene mural in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Fossil mammals were exhibited in Hall 5, a corridor-like space accessible from the main rotunda and via two doorways on the north side of Hall 2. After 1990, this space would house the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit. Charles Gazin, head curator of the Division of Paleontology, was in charge of this space on paper, but my impression is that his attention was elsewhere during its design and construction. Gazin was apparently approached by the modernization committee several times during the 1950s, but was reluctant to commit his time to a major renovation project. Gazin had been spending a great deal of time at a Pliocene dig site in Panama, and the collection of new fossils proved more interesting than designing displays. As Gazin tersely explained, “It is a little difficult to concentrate objectively on exhibition problems here in the interior of Panama.”

Basilosaurus and Cenozoic reptiles in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Nevertheless, Gazin’s interest in Cenozoic mammals ensured that his gallery was exceptionally thorough. Thanks to Gazin’s own collecting expeditions throughout the 1950s, the new fossil mammals galleries contained representatives of nearly all major mammal groups, from every epoch from the Paleocene through the Pliocene (the Pleistocene was deliberately excluded, as a separate ice age exhibit was also in the works). Classic mounts from the Gilmore era like Basilosaurus and Teleoceras were joined by dozens of less showy specimens like rodents, small perissodactyls, and early primates. The new exhibit also introduced the first wave of Jay Matternes’ much-beloved murals, illustrating the changing flora and fauna in North America over the course of the Cenozoic.

Unveiling and Reactions

The new east wing galleries officially opened on June 25, 1963. According to the press release, “the new exhibit features in colorful and dramatic settings more than 24 skeletons and skulls of the largest land animals the world has ever known.” The exhibits were officially unveiled with a late afternoon ceremony, in which Carol Hotton (Nicholas Hotton’s daughter) cut the ribbon and the lights to Hall 2 were suddenly turned on to dramatic effect.

Unfortunately, the new exhibits were not universally loved by the museum staff. The wing had been planned a set of compartmentalized exhibits, each corresponding to a subdivision of the Division of Paleontology, with a different curator taking responsibility for each hall. While seeming sensible on paper, this plan turned out to be a logistical nightmare, and a common cause for complaint among Division staff for the next decade. In addition, Gazin in particular voiced concerns as early as January 1964 that the design of the new halls was entirely inadequate for preventing accidental or deliberate damage to specimens by visitors. The mounts in Hall 2 were raised only about a foot off the ground, and were not protected by any sort of guard rail or barrier. As a result, within a few months of the exhibit’s unveiling, several ribs and vertebral processes had been broken off or stolen from CamarasaurusGorgosaurus, Ceratosaurus and others.

With the notable caveat that I never saw the 1963 exhibits in person, I would say that this is aesthetically my least favorite iteration of the east wing. The grandiose, institutional Greco-Roman architecture originally displayed in the Hall of Extinct Monsters was replaced with what can only be described as extremely 1960s design. Solid earth-tone colors, wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting gave the halls a much more austere character. While the efforts to categorize specimens into thematic zones was commendable for a museum of that era, the label copy (written by the curators) was still highly pedantic and verbose. As such, the 1963 fossil halls seem to have been very much of their time. While the designers were working to avoid the overt religiosity and grandeur of turn of the century museums, they had not yet reached the point of developing truly audience-centered educational experiences. The result was an exhibit that was humble, yet still largely inacessible. Perhaps for this reason, the 1963 fossil halls were the shortest-lived at NMNH to date, being replaced within 20 years of their debut.

This post was updated and edited on January 8, 2018.

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Extinct Monsters: Murals and Dioramas

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Fossils are the hard evidence behind paleontology. They tell us not only that prehistoric organisms existed, but hold clues as to how they lived and behaved. However, it is only through  artwork that extinct animals and ecosystems can be brought back to life. Since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built the first life-sized dinosaur sculptures in 1842, skilled artists have played a critical role in visualizing the results of paleontological research and making that information available to a wider audience.

At the National Museum of Natural History, spectacular works of art have always appeared alongside displays of original fossils, firing up the viewer’s imagination and inviting them to visualize the world of prehistory. Although many of these pieces are now scientifically dated, they were on the cutting edge in their time. These artworks remain exquisite works of craftsmanship, invaluable for their decades of contribution to science education.

The Life-Sized Models

The charmingly ugly Stegosaurus is one of the oldest fixtures of the Smithsonian fossil exhibits. F.A.L. Richardson created this model for the the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair in 1904. Made from papier mâché with a foam skin, the Stegosaurus was based on small sculpture produced by Charles Gilmore. With its sagging belly, sprawling forelimbs, and head held well below the horizontal plane, this Stegosaurus is typical of reconstructions from the early to mid 20th century.

As legend had it, the paper used to fabricate the Stegosaurus was ground-up money from the National Treasury. The model had even earned the nickname “Mr. Moneybags” among some of the museum staff. Curator Emeritus Ray Rye got to the bottom of this in 1981. He contacted the Treasury to find out what was done with worn-out paper money at the turn of the century – apparently it was burned at a plant in Maryland. Nevertheless, at Rye’s request a group of historians from the Treasury took a sample of the Stegosaurus while the hall was closed for construction, and confirmed that it was made from regular paper.

This pudgy papier mache Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904.

This pudgy Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1910, the Stegosaurus was given a spot of honor right in the center of the room. In 1913, a real Stegosaurus skeleton was placed alongside it. Both dinosaurs would remain in place until the exhibit was renovated in 1963. In the reconfigured and renamed Hall of Fossil Reptiles, the model Stegosaurus was relocated to a corner display.  Most recently, the 1981 renovation saw the Stegosaurus model moved to the south side of the gallery, protected by a low plexiglass barrier. This time, it was given a cycad replica for company, and a mural of lush Jurassic jungle behind it. The Stegosaurus remained in this position until the fossil halls closed in 2014.

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The NMNH exhibits team with their nearly-finished Quetzalcoatlus. Image from Thomson 1985.

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The Quetzalcoatlus survived a 2010 earthquake, although the plaster molding above it was damaged. Photo by the author.

The 1981 renovation also saw the introduction of a life-sized model of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus. Having been discovered in 1971, the largest flying animal that ever lived was big news at that time. In-house modelmakers spent two years on the project, first sculpting the animal in clay, then casting it in lightweight fiberglass with a steel armature. Paleontologist Nicholas Hotton served as the scientific consultant. Although he was dubious that pterosaurs had any sort of soft body covering, he okayed the use of deer fur to give the model believable texture. However, Hotton nixed the idea of placing a dangling fish in the mouth of the Quetzalcoatlus. Contemporary wisdom was that even giant pterosaurs were extremely light, weighing as little as 75 pounds, so even a 5-pound fish was thought to be enough to disrupt a Quetzalcoatlus in flight.

The Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus both now reside at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.

The Murals

The first dedicated prehistoric mammal exhibit at NMNH opened in the summer of 1961. Alongside the array of Cenozoic fossil mounts, the exhibit featured four brand new murals created by paleoartist Jay Matternes (he painted two more for the Ice Age hall several years later). Still active today, Matternes is a prolific artist of both modern and prehistoric wildlife. In addition to the NMNH murals, Matternes has contributed to exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine.

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Matternes’ Oligocene mural as first exhibited in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Oligocene and early Miocene murals, as seen in the 1985-2014 iteration of the exhibit, Mammals in the Limelight. Photo by the author.

Each of the murals Matternes contributed to the exhibit depicts North America during an epoch of the Cenozoic, and is displayed behind corresponding fossil mounts. Most of the animals on display coincide with life reconstructions in the murals, so visitors can match the skeletons to images of how they may have looked in life. Matternes’ hyper-detailed style is particularly striking. The environments look nearly photo-real, and not too far removed from the world today. Likewise, the artist’s knowledge of anatomy plainly shows in the utterly lifelike appearances of the animals. I particularly like Matternes’ use of familiar color patterns on the relatives of modern taxa. The Pliocene and Pleistocene murals will be returning in 2019.

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The Cenozoic section of Kish’s 130-foot magnum opus. Source

The “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit debuted in 1990 with a monumental 130-foot mural by Eleanor Kish. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural spans 541 years of deep time. The project took Kish two years to complete and is, simply put, a 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 its strong leftward momentum.

The Dioramas

The dinosaur dioramas were one of my favorite parts of the old NMNH fossil halls. Norman Neal Deaton created three dioramas, representing North America during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The Mesozoic dioramas were commissioned for the 1963 exhibit renovation, and were on display until 2014. Each 1″:1′ scale diorama is set into a recessed space in the wall and is protected by glass.  The scenes are populated by a menagerie of outdated but gorgeously detailed dinosaurs and contemporary reptiles, set among dense forests of ferns and craggy rock formations. The complexity of the dioramas allows viewers to get lost in them as their eye wanders from one static encounter to the next. I’ve been admiring these scenes since literally before I could talk and I still notice minute details I hadn’t seen before.

The diorama project began in 1963 and took four years to complete. The scenes were initially blocked out by Jay Matternes and Nicholas Hotton, the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the time. Matternes and Hotton worked together on anatomical drawings for each of the animals to be reconstructed, and planned the basic layout of the dioramas. Deaton created the final dioramas at his studio in Newton, Iowa. Deaton had been previously employed at the Smithsonian as an exhibits specialist, but had left to found his own studio in the late 1950s, where he continued to work on projects for the Smithsonian as a contractor. In addition to the dinosaur dioramas, Deaton led the creation of the iconic Fénykövi elephant that stands in the NMNH rotunda today, and has created sculptures and dioramas for dozens of other museums. Deaton is still active today, and much of his 2-D and 3-D work can be seen at his website.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton sculpted each of the animals in clay based on the drawings provided by Matternes and Hotton. Nearly every model went through a few incremental adjustments based on notes from Hotton, changing things like the bulk of the muscles or how visible the scapula or pelvis would be under the skin. The soft anatomy was based on modern reptiles, particularly crocodiles, although Deaton found that some of the animals had no obvious analogs. Once the clay models were approved, they were casted in rubber, then painted. Deaton also created the miniature worlds inhabited by the animals, including foliage, muddy riverbanks, and sheer cliffs. The backdrops, however, were painted by Matternes.

The completed dioramas represented the most up-to-date knowledge of the Mesozoic world at that time. Of course, our understanding of dinosaurs has been overhauled significantly since then. Compared to the active, fleet-footed, and often feathered dinosaurs we know today, the inhabitants of the NMNH dioramas at first look a bit ponderous and inert. Inaccuracies are easy to point out: the Ankylosaurus has a weird clubless armadillo tail, the torso of the Diplodocus is much too long, the Cretaceous diorama mixes Hell Creek and Belly River dinosaurs that were separated by at least 20 million years, and there are sprawly tail-draggers aplenty.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Source: flickr.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Photo by the author.

Triassic diorama

Triassic diorama by Norman Deaton. Source

Still, these issues are easy to overlook when one appreciates just how engaging these scenes are. Little details like footprints behind each animal and mud splattered on their feet fill the motionless dioramas with life and the possibility of more adventures in the imagination of the viewer. And several of the models are surprisingly energetic for 60’s dinosaurs. The Ceratosaurus face-biting the Camptosaurus (above) is full of energy, and the Elphrosaurus  is running full-tilt with its tail in the air (and even has propatagia for some reason).

Many of the works of art in the NMNH fossil halls are no longer appropriate as literal representations of prehistoric animals. But that does not mean they are irrelevant relics of mid-century science. Each model and painting is a stunning example of artistry, and more to the point, every inaccuracy is an opportunity to start up a conversation about what we know about prehistory and how we know it. These pieces are time capsules in the history of science, representing different eras of understanding and the researchers that took part in them. I, for one, would hate to see them forgotten.

A big thank you  to Norman Deaton and Raymond Rye for their assistance with this article.

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Filed under dinosaurs, Extinct Monsters, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles, science communication

Extinct Monsters: The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part II

Read the Marsh Dinosaurs, Part I or start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the United States National Museum paleontology department was located in an offsite building in northwest Washington, DC. It was here that preparators Charles Gilmore, Norman Boss, and James Gidley slowly but surely worked through the literal trainloads of fossil specimens O.C. Marsh had acquired for the United States Geological Survey. The Marsh Collection included unknown thousands of specimens, many of them holotypes, and there was no shortage of gorgeous display-caliber material. Even after the “condemnation of worthless material” Gilmore and his team quickly filled the available exhibit space in the Arts and Industries Building with mounted skeletons.

The Ceratosaurus

With no more display space and plenty more fossils, it was fortunate that the USNM moved to a new, larger building in 1910. In this iconic, green-domed building (now the National Museum of Natural History), the paleontology department received newly furnished collections spaces and the entire east wing to fill with display specimens. The evocatively titled Hall of Extinct Monsters provided a new home for the mounted skeletons already constructed for the old exhibit, as well as plenty of room for new displays.

The Ceratosaurus nasicornis holotype was originally housed in a glass case. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library.

Ceratosaurus. Photo by the author.

The delicate arms of Ceratosaurus were removed several years prior to the hall’s closing. Photo by the author.

One of the first new additions was the type specimen of Ceratosaurus nasicornis (USNM 4735), mounted in relief. Marshall Felch led the excavation of this specimen in 1883 at a quarry near Cañon City, Colorado. The nearly complete skeleton received a cursory description from Marsh upon its discovery, but it was Gilmore who described it properly in 1920, ten years after it was put on display. When it was introduced to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, this was the only Ceratosaurus specimen yet found, making the mount a USNM exclusive. The skeleton was originally displayed in a glass case, but during the 1963 renovation it was placed in a more open setting.

Even today, Ceratosaurus is only known from a handful of specimens. For this reason, the original Ceratosaurus fossils will not be returning when the current renovation is completed in 2019. The new hall will instead feature a three-dimensional, standing cast of this skeleton. The original fossils are now in the museum’s collections, available for proper study for the first time in over a century.

The Camptosaurus

In 1912, two mounted skeletons of Camptosaurus, one large (USNM 4282) and one small (USNM 2210), were introduced to the Hall of Extinct Monsters. William Read excavated both specimens at Quarry 13 in the Como region of Wyoming a quarter of a century earlier. Representing the first-ever mounted skeletons of Camptosaurus, these specimens have had a rather complex taxonomical history. Marsh initially described both specimens as Camptosaurus nanus, a new species within the genus Camptosaurus (the type species was Camptosaurus dispar, also coined by Marsh). After the fossils were acquired by the USNM, Gilmore re-described the larger individual as a new species, Camptosaurus browni. This designation remained until the 1980s, when Peter Galton and H.P. Powell determined that C. nanus and C. browni were actually both growth stages of C. dispar.

Regardless of what they are called, both specimens were remarkably well-preserved and reasonably complete. Most of the skeletal elements of the larger Camptosaurus came from a single individual that was found articulated in situ. However, some of the cervical vertebrae came from another specimen from the same quarry, and the skull, pubis, and some of the ribs were reconstructed. Of particular interest is the right ilium, which has been punctured all the way through by a force delivered from above. Gilmore postulated that “the position of the wounds suggest…that this individual was a female who might have received the injuries during copulation.” The smaller “C. nanus” was also found mostly complete, but two metatarsals came from a different individual and the skull and left forelimb were sculpted.

The original pair of Camptosaurus mounts. Image from Backyard Dinosaurs.

Gilmore supervised the creation of both mounts, and constructed the larger individual himself. Norman Boss took the lead on the smaller specimen. As with the other dinosaur skeletons, the mount was centered on an inch-thick steel rod bent to conform to the shape of the vertebral column. Bolts were drilled directly into the vertebrae to attach them to the armature, and the vertebral foramina were filled with liberal amounts of plaster to secure them to the rod. A similar process was used to assemble each of the limbs, and the ribs were supported by a wire cage.

Gilmore aimed to correct many specifics of Marsh’s  original illustrated reconstruction of Camptosaurus. To start, he shortened the presacral region to make a more compact torso. Marsh had also inexplicably illustrated Camptosaurus with lumbar vertebrae (a characteristic exclusive to mammals), which Gilmore corrected. Finally, Marsh had reconstructed the animal as an obligate biped, but Gilmore  determined that “Camptosaurus used the quadrupedal mode of progression more frequently than any other known member of Ornithopoda.” Accordingly, the larger Camptosaurus mount was posed on all fours. The completed Camptosaurus mounts were placed together in a freestanding glass case toward the rear of the Hall of Extinct Monsters. In 1962 the pair was moved to the left of the Diplodocus on the central pedestal of the redesigned exhibit. During the 1981 renovation they were moved a few feet back, so that they were alongside the sauropod’s tail.

This cast replaced the original Camptosaurus mount in 2010. Photo by the author.

This cast replaced the original Camptosaurus mounts in 2010. Photo by the author.

The retired plaster skulls of the original Camptosaurus mounts. Photo by the author.

The retired plaster skulls of the original Camptosaurus mounts. Photo by the author.

Both Camptosaurus skeletons taken off exhibit in 2010 and replaced with a cast of the adult. The delicate fossils, which had suffered from considerable wear and tear over the past hundred years, were stabilized and stored individually for their protection. The new mount has a number of upgrades to reflect our improved understanding of dinosaur anatomy. The arms are closer together and the palms face inward, because the pronated (palms down) hands on Gilmore’s version have been determined to be a physical impossibility. The new mount also features a completely different skull. The rectangular model skull used on the original mount was based on Iguanodon, but new discoveries show that the skull of Camptosaurus was more triangular in shape. Both the adult and juvenile Camptosaurus will appear in the new National Fossil Hall.

The Stegosaurus

The Smithsonian’s first Stegosaurus exhibit was a life-sized model built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. This model found its way into the Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1910. In 1913, the model was joined by a mounted Stegosaurus skeleton found at the same Cañon City quarry as the Ceratosaurus. A third Stegosaurus, the holotype of S. stenops, was introduced in 1918. Lovingly called the “roadkill” Stegosaurus, USNM 4934 is remarkable in part because it was found completely articulated. In fact, before its 1886 discovery by Marshall Felch, it was unknown exactly how the animal’s plates were positioned on its back.

Standing Stegosaurus mount and life-size model, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Stegosaurus

Stegosaurus model, standing mount, and “roadkill” on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Source

All three Stegosaurus displays were moved in 1963 and 1981. In Fossils: The History of Life, the Stegosaurus skeletons were positioned flanking the Diplodocus in the central display area, with the standing mount on the right and the roadkill skeleton on the left. The model Stegosaurus stood opposite the mount. Just like the Triceratops and Camptosaurus, many decades on display took their toll on the standing Stegosaurus, so in 2003 the fossils were removed from the exhibit. Dismantling the Stegosaurus was particularly challenging because of the large amount of plaster applied by the mount’s creators. In some cases the plaster infill had to be removed with hand tools, which put further pressure on the fossils. Additionally, the rod supporting the backbone had been threaded right through each of the vertebrae, and was extremely difficult to remove. A casted Stegosaurus mount in a more active pose was returned to the exhibit in 2004.

Cast of Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus. Photo by the author.

Casts of Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus. Photo by the author.

Roadkill stego

“Roadkill” Stegosaurus in 2014. Photo by the author.

After 110 years on display at the Smithsonian, the model Stegosaurus has been donated to the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. The roadkill Stegosaurus, however, will feature prominently in the new National Fossil Hall, mounted upright on the wall by the exhibit’s secondary entrance. The 2004 Stegosaurus cast had a number of anatomical issues and will not be returning – instead, it will be replaced by an updated cast made from the same original fossils.

The Marsh dinosaurs have been of critical importance in our understanding of the Mesozoic world, but at this point these fossils are historic artifacts as well. When they were uncovered, the American civil war was still a recent memory, and railroads had only recently extended to the western United States. Before the first world war they had been assembled into mounts, and for more than a century these fossils have been mesmerizing and inspiring millions of visitors. Several of these mounts, including the Triceratops, Ceratosaurus and Camptosaurus, were the first reconstructions of these species to ever appear in the public realm, and therefore defined popular interpretations that have lasted for generations. Some visitors may lament that many of the original specimens have been recently been replaced with replicas, but the fact is that these are irreplaceable and invaluable national treasures. They inform us of our culture, and our dedication to expanding knowledge and our rich natural history. We only get one chance with these fossils, and that is why the absolute best care must be taken to preserve them for future generations.

References

Gilmore, C.W. 1912 “The Mounted Skeletons of Camptosaurus in the United States National Musuem.” Proceedings of the US National Museum 14:1878.

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.

Jabo, S. 2012. Personal communication.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods, thyreophorans

Extinct Monsters: Ice Age Giants

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

The old fossil mammal exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History were notable for their sheer diversity. From rabbits to elephants and from bats to whales, virtually every major group of North American mammals, particularly eutherian (placental) mammals, was represented. By my count, there were no less than 48 mounted mammal skeletons on display (not including individual skulls and other parts) in 2014, arranged by time period and distributed across three sizable halls.

The comprehensive nature of these exhibits was largely thanks to C.L. Gazin, head curator of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the 1950s and 60s. During the modernization of the fossil halls in the early 1960s, Gazin focused his efforts on assembling a complete narrative of Cenozoic mammal evolution. The six-part exhibit debuted in 1961 in Hall 5, and was relocated two decades later to Hall 3. Gazin also initiated the construction of the adjacent Ice Age exhibit, although it would not be permanently opened to the public until 1974.

Now that the fossil halls are being renovated, NMNH staff face the enormous task of disassembling and restoring the dozens of historic mammal skeletons. Many will return when the exhibit reopens in 2019, but others may be retired to the collections if they are deemed too fragile for continued display, or if they are not illustrative of the story being told in the new exhibit.

The Megaloceros

This Megaloceros

This Megaloceros has the distinction of being the Smithsonian’s first mounted skeleton composed of original fossils. Photo by the author.

The Smithsonian’s first mounted fossil skeletons went on display in 1871 in the building colloquially called “the castle.” The exhibit included plaster casts of the ground sloth Megatherium, the tortoise Colossochelys and the glyptodont Scistopleurum, all made from originals at the British Museum. The following year saw the addition of the giant deer Megaloceros (USNM V 7051) — the Smithsonian’s first mounted skeleton composed of original fossils. The Smithsonian purchased this complete Megaloceros, which was uncovered in an Irish peat bog, from Philadelphia-based antiques dealer Thomas and Sons. The mount was assembled by none other than Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the sculptor who created the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

Note basilo

Megaloceros in the southeast court of the Arts and Industries building, circa 1896. The British Museum Megatherium cast can be seen on the left. Source

When construction of the original United States National Museum (what is now called the Arts and Industries Building) was completed in 1881, all of the fossil displays were moved to the new setting. Vertebrate fossils found a home in the 80,000 square foot southeast court. Gradually, the Megaloceros and British Museum casts were joined by many more crowd-pleasing skeletons, including a copy of the Philadelphia Hadrosaurus, an Edmontosaurus, a Triceratops, and a mastodon (discussed below). By the time the USNM was preparing to move to yet another new building across the national mall in 1910, the southeast court had become quite crowded. Unfortunately, the Megatherium and Collossochelys never made it to the new location. These casts were discarded due to the damage they had accumulated while on display. Although the glyptodont cast was still on exhibit as of 1940, it too was eventually destroyed. Happily, the Megaloceros survived, and has been included in each subsequent iteration of the fossil exhibits.

Starting in 1974, the Megaloceros was displayed alongside the extinct bird Diornis in the Ice Age hall. It’s weight was partially supported by cables descending from the ceiling, which proved to be a problem when it came time to disassemble it in July 2014. Rather than attempting to lift the delicate skull and heavy antlers off the armature, the exhibit team strapped the skull to a mechanical lift so that it could be slowly and gently lowered to the floor. In the new National Fossil Hall, the Megaloceros will be sitting on the ground. This pose was selected in order to bring the spectacular antlers to visitors’ eye level.

The Mastodon

The Indiana mastodon in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1901, Michigan farmer Levi Wood found a well-preserved, nearly complete Mammut americanum (USNM 2106) in a peat swamp on his land. The USNM purchased the rights to excavate the skeleton from Wood and began work that same year. The specimen turned out to be virtually complete, save for the forelimbs and left hindlimb. Alban Stewart mounted the skeleton, adding a left hindlimb from another mastodon specimen from Missouri, and filling in other missing elements with plaster replicas. The completed mount was first exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.

For a time, there were two mastodon mounts on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

After the Exposition, the Michigan mastodon was added to the fossil displays in the  southeast court of the Arts and Industries Building. It remained there for four years, before joining the rest of the paleontology exhibits and collections in the move to the new USNM building.

In 1915, a second mastodon (USNM V 8204) from Indiana was added to the Hall of Extinct Monsters. The matching set can be seen on the left side of the image above, with the plaster skull of a Deinotherium (USNM V 1917) positioned between them. The larger Indiana mastodon persisted through the 1963 and 1981 renovations, and will return with an energetic trumpeting pose in 2019. NMNH loaned the Michigan mastodon to the Oregon Zoo for many years. It has since been returned, dismantled, and retired to the collections.

The Stegomastodon

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon (USNM 10707) was collected by James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona. This 1921 collecting trip also produced the museum’s Glyptotherium. 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.

Stegomastodon with

Stegomastodon with its original tusks. Photo from Gidley 1925.

The Stegomastodon will not be returning when the National Fossil Hall reopens in 2019. For one thing, 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.

The Eremotherium pair

Eremotherium

The unique and impressive Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

The immense pair of giant ground sloths (USNM V 20867 and USNM V 20872) are among the most impressive and unique skeletal mounts at NMNH. Many a visitor has ascended the ramp to the Ice Age gallery only to stop and stare at them. Unlike the Megaloceros, mastodon, and many others, these were new additions added during the 1960s modernization. Gazin’s team recovered the fossils in Panama between 1950 and 1951, bringing back over 100 plaster jackets representing at least eight individual sloths of the genus Eremotherium.

sou

John Ott and Gladwyn Sullivan attach the scapula of the standing sloth. Source

Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals Clayton Ray oversaw the assembly of the two Eremotherium mounts in 1969. Both the larger standing sloth and smaller kneeling one are composites of fossils from many individuals (there are also plenty of reconstructed bones, easily spotted by their solid beige coloration). Most of the surplus bones were repatriated to Panama before the mounts went on display. The sloths were originally positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. However, this layout only lasted a few years. In 1974, the Quaternary Hall was completely reorganized into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man. In the new arrangement, the Eremotherium pair was relocated to a corner at the north end of the gallery. In 2019, only one Eremotherium will be on display.

The Mammoth

Chimera mammoth

This mammoth was assembled from as many as 70 individual specimens. Photo by the author.

Although it was always labeled as a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the Smithsonian’s third proboscidian skeleton (USNM V 23792) is actually a composite of over fifty individual specimens, some of which probably belong to the more southerly Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). Most of these fossils were acquired in a trade with the American Museum of Natural History in the 1960s, specifically to build a mounted skeleton for the Ice Age hall. Perhaps because they were acquired for display, rather than study, the origin of these fossils was not well-recorded. It is only now that the mammoth has been disassembled that collections staff can begin to to learn more about this iconic chimera. Some of the bones are marked with the year and location of their collection, crucial details for piecing together their provenance.

The mammoth in its new, snow-shoveling pose. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Newsdesk.

In the new fossil hall, the mammoth will be leaning forward, pushing its great tusks across the ground as though it were brushing away snow. In the meantime, the original mount was digitally scanned, and the model is freely available from Smithsonian 3D.

References

Carrano, M. 2018. Pers. comm.

Gazin, C.L. 1956.  Exploration for the remains of giant ground sloths in Panama. Smithsonian report, 341-354.

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

Gilmore, C.W. 1906. Notes on Some Recent Additions to the Exhibition Series of Vertebrate Fossils. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 30.

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 No. 90.

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 Extinct Monsters, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH

Extinct Monsters: Gilmore’s Diplodocus

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

More than 80 years ago, Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Whitney Gilmore supervised the installation of the mounted Diplodocus skeleton known as USNM 10865. In December 2014, that same skeleton was finally disassembled for conservation and eventual re-mounting.This post is about the history of this particular mount: where it came from, who put it together, and what it has and continues to tell us about prehistory.

Predecessor at CMNH

The story of the NMNH Diplodocus mount actually began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania around the turn of the century. In November of 1898, Steel tycoon-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie read that the remains of a giant “Brontosaurus” had been discovered in Wyoming. Carnegie’s interest was piqued and the following year, he contributed $10,000 to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (which he had founded two years earlier) to find a complete “Brontosaurus” – or something like it – for display in Pittsburgh. Perhaps proving that money can indeed buy anything, on July 4th, 1989 the CMNH team found a reasonably complete sauropod skeleton in Sheep Creek Basin, Wyoming. CMNH Curator of Paleontology John Bell Hatcher declared the specimen to be a new species, which he named for the Museum’s benefactor: Diplodocus carnegii.

Back in Pittsburgh, the task of preparing and mounting the fossils fell to preparator Arthur Coggeshall and his staff.  Creating a permanent armature for a delicate 84-foot skeleton was a monumental undertaking, beyond anything that had ever been attempted before. Coggeshall used a steel rod, shaped to the contours of the vertebral column, as the basis for the mount. Once the backbone was in place, the limbs, ribs, and other extremities were mounted on steel rods of their own and attached to the rest of the skeleton. The fossils were connected to the steel armature by drilling screws and bolts directly into the bone. Since the original Diplodocus carnegii skeleton was not complete, the mount was supplemented with fossils uncovered during subsequent field seasons at Sheep Creek and elsewhere in Wyoming.

The CMNH Diplodocus was unveiled in 1907 in a brand-new wing that had been constructed to display it. Although the American Museum of Natural History had by that point completed a sauropod mount of their own, the Pittsburgh display was well-received by paleontologists and laypeople alike. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie also commissioned eight Diplodocus replicas, which he donated to museums throughout Europe and Latin America.

The original CMNH Diplodocus mount, in the hall built specifically to accomodate it. Source

The original CMNH Diplodocus mount, in the hall built specifically to accommodate it. Source

This wave of publicity allowed the paleontology staff at CMNH and elsewhere to continue to undergo large-scale fossil hunting expeditions. In 1909, a team led by Earl Douglass hit the jackpot north of Jensen, Utah. At the site now known as Dinosaur National Monument, CMNH teams excavated over 300 tons of Jurassic fossils over 13 field seasons. The immensely productive “Dinosaur Quarry” site is thought to represent a prehistoric river bar, where dead animals from upsteam accumulated over time. In addition to an assortment of crocodiles and other small reptiles, this location has yielded remains of Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and many other taxa. Although the site was far from exhausted, the CMNH team moved on in 1922, at which point paleontologist Charles Gilmore from the United States National Museum took over.

USNM Excavation at Dinosaur National Monument

Gilmore led the first USNM field season at Dinosaur National Monument in May of 1923. In their final year at the site, the CMNH team had located two partial sauropod skeletons. Gilmore opted to focus on excavating these “in order to secure a mountable skeleton” for display (Gilmore 1932). As with the CMNH team before them, the primary motivation of Gilmore’s team was not scientific research, but to bring back spectacular display specimens. Gilmore was unarguably a phenomenal scientist who made lasting contributions to our knowledge about prehistory, but this focus on impressive displays was typical of early 20th century paleontology. As such, valuable taphonomic and ecological data that would been collected by modern paleontologists was probably destroyed when unearthing this and other exhibition-caliber dinosaur specimens.

Once the excavation began, Gilmore decided that the Diplodocus skeleton dubbed specimen 355 was the best candidate for a mount. The skeleton consisted of an articulated vertebral column, from the 15th cervical to the 5th caudal, a separated but virtually complete tail, the pelvis, both pectoral girdles, much of the rib cage, both humeri, and a complete left hind limb. Unfortunately, the head and most of the neck had eroded out of the hillside and  long since weathered away. Some elements not preserved with specimen 355 were reportedly cherry-picked from another specimen at the same site. Again, this sort of selective excavation is discouraged today, but was typical at the time. On August 8, the team wrapped up and shipped 25 tons of material back to Washington, DC via railway.

Preparation, Mounting and Description

Preparing and mounting the Diplodocus was, according to Gilmore, the single most ambitious undertaking attempted by the department during his tenure.  In his words, “the magnitude of the task, by a small force, of preparing one of these huge skeletons for public exhibition can be fully appreciated only by those who have passed through such an experience” (Gilmore 1932).  Gilmore, along with preparators Norman Boss, Thomas Horne, and John Barrett, spent  2,545 working days over the course of six years preparing the skeleton for exhibition. Gilmore reported that his team  followed the method Arthur Coggeshall had developed at CMNH over 20 years earlier for mounting their sauropod. The vertebral column was assembled first, supported by a series of steel rods. This structure was mounted at the appropriate height on four upright steel beams securely anchored to the floor. Limbs and other extremities were subsequently added, with steel rods shaped to the contours of the fossils supporting each portion of the skeleton.

Diplodocus under construction, ca. 1930. Source

Diplodocus under construction, ca. 1930. Source

Missing parts of the skeleton, including the right hindlimb and the distal portions of the forelimbs, were filled in using casts of the Carnegie Diplodocus. According to Gilmore, the casted elements were colored “to harmonize with the actual bones but with sufficient difference to be at once distinguished from the originals” (Gilmore 1932). This is noteworthy, because the creators of other dinosaur mounts at that time had been known to deliberately disguise artificial elements by painting them to match the fossils. Although the Smithsonian Diplodocus was a composite of multiple specimens and therefore does not represent any single animal that actually existed, the decision to make the casted elements readily visible represents a degree of honesty and integrity that is more common in modern museum displays than it was in Gilmore’s time.

Gilmore presents plans for the in-progress Diplodocus mount at the 1927 Conference of the Future of the Smithsonian. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In the process of preparing and mounting the Diplodocus (at this point designated USNM 10865), Gilmore was able to further refine our understanding of sauropod physiology. Looking at the specimen, Gilmore was easily able to dismiss notions by earlier workers that Diplodocus had sprawled like a crocodile, asserting that “the crocodilian attitude for Diplodocus involves anotomical imposibilities” (Gilmore 1932). Additionally, since the entire dorsal portion of the vertebral column was present and intact, Gilmore determined that the presacral vertebrae (in the lower back) arch downward, toward the sacrum. The CMNH Diplodocus and AMNH Apatosaurus had been mounted with completely straight backs, so Gilmore was able to create a more accurate mount. Studying the articulated vertebral column also convinced Gilmore to raise the tail higher than in previous sauropod mounts. Although it would be decades before paleontologists started raising the tail completely clear of the ground, this was certainly a step in the right direction. Gilmore refrained, however, from definitively assigning USNM 10865 to a particular species of Diplodocus, since at the time (and to this day, apparently) the differences among the named species of this genus were unclear.

Exhibition and Legacy

USNM 10865 in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, circa 1932. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The completed Diplodocus skeleton was 70 feet, 2 inches long and 12 feet, five inches tall at the hips, making it about 14 feet shorter in length than its CMNH counterpart. The mount was introduced to the Hall of Extinct Monsters at the United States National Museum in 1931, positioned atop three pedestals so that visitors could walk right underneath it. The Diplodocus was placed right in the center of the  gallery, facing west so that it could stare down visitors as they entered the hall.

The unveiling of the Diplodocus mount was a big deal, but did not catch the public’s attention in quite the same way as its CMNH predecessor. After all, by 1931 several of the other major natural history museums had had sauropods on display for over two decades. Nevertheless, for residents and visitors in Washington, DC the new mount was an unforgettable look at the life of the past.

The Diplodocus, as it stood from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Diplodocus, as it stood from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Diplodocus was not moved during the 1963 modernization of the fossil exhibits, but the walkable area around the mount was significantly reduced. Visitors could no longer walk under the skeleton, or get as close to it. The Diplodocus was not moved during the 1981 renovation, either, but the neck support coming up from the floor was replaced by less intrusive cables suspended from the ceiling. In the new exhibit, the sauropod centerpiece was surrounded by contemporaneous friends from the Morrison Formation, including Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, Camarasaurus and Allosaurus.

National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Diplodocus as it stood from 1981-2014. Photo by the author.

From 1931 to 2014, the Diplodocus remained an unchanging fixture of the Museum’s east wing. Although this specimen’s story has not been as widely told as that of the CMNH Diplodocus, the Smithsonian sauropod is certainly just as interesting. For more than 80 years, USNM 10865 has mesmerized generations of viewers with its size and elegance.  What’s more, this specimen, and the associated measurements and drawings meticulously prepared by Gilmore, are frequently referred to in publications by modern paleontologists. For its contributions to public education and to scientific inquiry, USNM 10865 is one to celebrate.

References

Brinkman, P.D. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Gilmore, C.W. “On a Newly Mounted Skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81:1-21, 1932.

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

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Filed under anatomy, CMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, reptiles, sauropods

Extinct Monsters: History of Smithsonian Fossil Exhibits

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Upon his death in 1829, British scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the United States government to found “at Washington…an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Congress used Smithson’s estate to establish the publicly funded Smithsonian Institution in 1846, which has since grown into an expansive research institute and museum complex that is recognized the world over. Vertebrate paleontology has been an important part of the Smithsonian’s agenda since the beginning, and this article by Ray Rye provides a compelling history of the scientific staff and their research. This post will take a slightly different approach, summarizing the changing public face of Smithsonian paleontology in the form of its genre-defining exhibits.

In 1847, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first secretary, started construction on the original Smithsonian building, which today is colloquially known as “the castle.” The first vertebrate paleontology exhibit housed within its walls consisted of a trio of casted skeletons: the ground sloth Megatherium, the glyptodont Scistopleurum, and the tortoise Collossochelys. These exhibits were probably obtained through Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. The Smithsonian’s first skeletal mount made from original fossils was a Megaloceros, purchased from antiquities dealers Thomas and Sons in 1872.

Exhibits like this one at USNM were deemed incomprehensible and inspired early reform

Basilosaurus, Megatherium, and Megaloceros are visible in the southwest court of the first United States National Museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

1881 saw the completion of the original United States National Museum, next door to the castle (this structure is now called the Arts and Industries Building). The southwest court was dedicated to osteology and paleontology, and the existing skeletal mounts were placed here among rows of cases containing smaller specimens. At this point in time, the Smithsonian had very few permanent staff members, instead relying mostly on scholars serving in unpaid “honorary” positions to curate the growing national collection. Famed paleontologist O.C. Marsh (the beardier half of the “bone wars” rivals) was the honorary curator of vertebrate paleontology. Under contract with the United States Geological Survey, Marsh supervised numerous field expeditions to the American west and oversaw the collection of untold thousands of fossil specimens. When Marsh died in 1899 the fossils he collected for the government were relocated from Yale University (his home institution) to the Smithsonian.

Gilmore and the Hall of Extinct Monsters

Gilmore with Diplodocus vertebrae.

C.W. Gilmore with some Diplodocus vertebrae. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Charles Whitney Gilmore was a student in mine engineering at the University of Wyoming when he became involved in the Carnegie Museum’s fossil hunting expeditions in 1899. Recognizing the young man’s enthusiasm and talent, John Bell Hatcher hired Gilmore immediately after his graduation in 1901. Gilmore worked with Hatcher for two field seasons, but in 1903 he moved to Washington, DC upon being offered a position as a full-time preparator at the USNM. He was promoted to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1924, and is fondly remembered as an exceptionally modest but extraordinarily productive scientist. As curator, Gilmore led sixteen fossil-hunting expeditions to the western interior. Gilmore’s most enduring contribution to paleontology, however, is his extensive body of descriptive publications on the Marsh fossils. His monographs on Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, and many others are still regularly cited today.

Along with preparators Norman Boss and James Gidley, Gilmore is responsible for creating most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that are on display at the Smithsonian. The first dinosaur mount Gilmore and his team completed was Edmontosaurus, which went on display in the original USNM building in 1904. Gilmore would go on to supervise the construction of Triceratops (the first mount of this taxon in the world), Camptosaurus, Stegosaurus, DimetrodonCeratosaurus, Diplodocus, and numerous other displays that have been enjoyed by generations of museum visitors.

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The Hall of Extinct Monsters, sometime before 1929. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Congress authorized the construction of a new United States National Museum on the north side of the National Mall in 1911. In contrast to the Victorian style of the original building, the new museum sported neoclassical granite construction which matched the aesthetic of the other federal buildings. Exactly when the museum opened is the subject of some debate. Collections and offices began moving across the mall via horse and wagon in 1908, and part of the first floor opened to the public on March 17th, 1910. Nevertheless, it was not until 1911 that all the exhibit spaces were ready for visitors, including the evocatively titled “Hall of Extinct Monsters” in the museum’s east wing. This cavernous space devoted to fossil displays was primarily under Gilmore’s stewardship, and generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design. Gilmore and his team would gradually fill the Hall of Extinct Monsters will new specimens over the coming decades, culminating in the towering Diplodocus mount completed in 1932.

Modernization and Renaissance

Gilmore retired in 1945, and vertebrate paleontology research at the USNM, particularly in dinosaurs, quieted in his absence. Charles Gazin, Gilmore’s successor as Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, specialized in mammals, and the museum remained without a curator specializing in dinosaurs until Matt Carrano was hired in 2003. In 1957, the USNM split into two subdivisions, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. The Smithsonian’s history collections were moved to a new building next door, now called the National Museum of American History, and other collections gradually dispersed into 20-some other Smithsonian museums. The site of the disbanded USNM was officially renamed the National Museum of Natural History in 1967, and remains the home of natural sciences and anthropology.

The Diplodocus, as it stood from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Hall of Fossil Reptiles lasted from 1962 to 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Hall of Extinct Monsters persisted largely unchanged until 1962, when it was finally renovated as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The fossil exhibits were among the last to be updated, in part due to ambivalence from the paleontology curators. The department did not employ any staff members exclusively devoted to exhibit work, so the task of reinventing the displays was an added burden for the research staff. As such, the changes to the hall ended up being more cosmetic than structural. The largest mount, Gilmore’s Diplodocus, was too difficult to disassemble and move, so the new exhibit was designed around it. Solid earth tones and wall-to-wall carpet replaced the original neoclassical aesthetic. The John Elliot mural Diana of the Tides, positioned high on the east wall, was simply boarded over during construction (and has remained so ever since).

The 1981 renovation saw the addition of a mezzanine over the dinosaur exhibit. Source

In 1974, the addition of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man expanded the paleontology display space beyond the east wing. Further renovations took place in three stages starting in 1979. Entitled “Fossils: The History of Life”, the overhauled 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 new specimens and displays also required the once spacious hall to be carved up into a maze of small rooms and narrow corridors. Even with the additional floor space provided by a new balcony over the dinosaurs, the east wing had become quite crowded.

Of course, the science of paleontology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1980s, and NMNH staff have made piecemeal updates to the exhibits when possible. These changes include restorations of deteriorating mounts, the addition of a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus, and a few revised signs addressing the dinosaurian origin of birds and new dates for geologic time periods. Still, the east wing remained largely the same for over 30 years, and began to look a bit tired next to the brand-new exhibits that have opened at NMNH over the last decade.

Looking Ahead

The NMNH fossil halls closed on April 27th, 2014 for a five year renovation project. For the first time, the east wing was completely gutted and its underlying infrastructure overhauled. Aging specimens like the 1932 Diplodocus and the 1911 Ceratosaurus were be painstakingly disassembled and conserved, and the space itself was restored to its original Beaux Arts splendor. The re-imagined exhibit is arranged in reverse chronological order: visitors  start among mammoths and ground sloths in the Pleistocene and move backward in time through increasingly alien-looking versions of North America. Unlike the present exhibit, however, an open floor plan will allow visitors to get a sense of what they’re in for from the moment they walk into the hall.

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Mesozoic section of the new Hall of Fossils – Deep Time. Concept art on display in the Last American Dinosaurs exhibit at NMNH.

The overall theme is change over geologic time, highlighting the myriad ways that climate, geography, evolution, and other living and nonliving systems interact and shape the world’s environments. Not all the classic mounts will make it into the new space (Brachyceratops, Zygorhiza, and Stegomastodon are among the retirees), but there are many new additions, including the Nation’s T. rex The result will be a compelling mix of classic early 20th century museum aesthetics and modern visitor-focused educational strategies.

References

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 No. 90.

Rye, R. (2002.) History of the NMNH Paleobiology Department. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/rye.html

Sues, H. and Marsh, D. (2013). Charles Whitney Gilmore: The Forgotten Dinosaur Hunter. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/gilmore.html

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

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

Extinct Monsters at NMNH

National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

The dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Easily the best thing about living in the Washington, DC area is the plethora of free, public museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution. Tens of millions converge on the mall each year to this national center of learning, but for locals like myself, these museums are part of the backdrop of our lives. From field trips to rainy days to awkward first dates, the Smithsonian museums are an integral part of the DC experience. Still, I’d wager that I’ve spent more time at the museums than most residents, and the lion’s share of that time has been in the Paleobiology halls at the National Museum of Natural History.

When I was very young, my parents supported my interest in dinosaurs by taking me to the Museum at least monthly. Later, stopping at the Museum for a bit of quiet contemplation among the dinosaur mounts would prove irresistible whenever I was nearby. And over the course of two lengthy internships, I still occasionally took the long route across the Museum,  cutting through the Paleobiology hall to take another look at the abscess on the pelvis of the Camptosaurus, to check out something I’ve recently read about diplodocoid vertebrae for myself, or even to hear the all-too-familiar narration of the evolution of the horse one more time. In short, these galleries at NMNH have been and continue to be largely responsible for my life-long love of paleontology. They mean a lot to me.

It is no secret that NMNH has recently received a generous donation to renovate the Paleontology halls. The exhibits have changed incrementally over the course of my lifetime, including the remounting of at least three specimens and updated signage, but the exhibits are absolutely overdue for a major overhaul. In comparison to the NMNH’s new Ocean Hall and Hall of Human Origins, not to mention newer paleontology exhibits at peer institutions like CMNH and AMNH, the Paleobiology halls look quite tired. What’s more, the science of paleontology has exploded since the last major renovation in 1981, and there is tons of new information to cover.

It is an exciting time for the NMNH Paleobiology hall, but  looking into this exhibit’s past proves to be just as interesting. From the Smithsonian’s inheritance of fossils from government-funded expeditions of O.C. Marsh to the nationwide rush for dinosaur mounts in the early 20th century, to the dinosaur renaissance of the 1970s, the history of the Paleobiology hall mirrors the history of scientific and popular interest in prehistory over the past century. Many of the specimens in the hall have been on display longer than the NMNH building has existed, and seeing how their physical positioning and interpretation has changed over the years tells a fascinating story about the intersection of science, education and icons of American culture. In this series, I will attempt to tell that story as accurately as I can manage. Notable people and specimens will be introduced, and each iteration of the Paleobiology gallery will be explored.

A Road Map

Use this hub to explore the history of the NMNH Paleobiology halls. The following list will become links as the articles are completed.

Introduction

History of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian

The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part I

The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part II

BasilosaurusMegaloceros, and Other Mammals

The Brachyceratops

Gilmore’s Diplodocus

Murals, Models and Dioramas

Selected References

“A Brief History.” Celebrating 100 Years. 2010. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Accessed July 2, 2012.<http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/brief_history.htm>

Brinkman, P.D. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Gilmore, C.W. “The mounted skeleton of Triceratops prorsus.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 29:433-435, 1905.

Gilmore, C.W. “On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81:1-21, 1932.

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

“History of the Dinosaur Collection.” Dinosaurs. Department of Paleobiology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Accessed July 2, 2012. <http://paleobiology.si.edu/dinosaurs/index.html>

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Filed under dinosaurs, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH