Category Archives: Extinct Monsters

Extinct Monsters: Ice Age Giants

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

While not as immediately eye-catching as the dinosaurs, the fossil mammals on display at the National Museum of Natural History are 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, is 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 is 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 a more energetic 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 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 provenience. Experts can also determine whether this mount is more primigenius or columbi, and decide if a composite like this is even appropriate for continued display.

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

In the new fossil hall, the mammoth will be kneeling down, 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.

extinctmonstersfront_1913

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.

4-07

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