Category Archives: fossil mounts

Displaying the Tyrant King (Redux)

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

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

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

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

I. The Original Tyrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

III. Rex Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

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

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

Denver’s high-kicking T. rex. Source

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

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

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

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

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

V. Restoring the Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. From South Dakota to Chicago

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

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

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

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

Williams announced that he would put SUE on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) won SUE with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII. Into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Peabody: what to expect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 concept for the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. Source

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

2013 concept for the Hall of Mammal Evolution. Source

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

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

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

Tylosaurus and Archelon duel in the new central gallery. Source

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

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

A high angle on the new dinosaur hall. Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, opinion, YPM

Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

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

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

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

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

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

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

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

 

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Deep Time is a masterpiece

A spectacle of evolution.

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

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

Themes

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

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

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

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

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

Layout

The Jurassic and Permian are visible from the Cretaceous.

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

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

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

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

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

Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery

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

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

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

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

Seriously, these guys rule.

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

Reference

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

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

Building Gorgeous George

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

One Year to Deep Time

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

The East Wing Restored

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

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

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

A Story of Environmental Change

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

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

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

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

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

The Nation’s T. rex

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

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

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

Poses that Show Behavior

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

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

The Anthropocene

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

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

Marsh Dinosaurs Re-imagined

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

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

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

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

The Pocahontas Mine

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

Treasures from the Collection

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

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

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

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, theropods, thyreophorans

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 3

We ended our southern California museum tour with the Western Science Center and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Regrettably, my memory of the Western Science Center is not as detailed as it could be – probably because we stopped by the morning after an 8-hour romp through the San Diego Safari Park and I was still a little braindead. Open since 2006, the Western Science Center was established to house and interpret the fossils and archaeological artifacts recovered during the construction of Diamond Valley Lake, an artificial reservoir near Hemet, California. The fossils in question are from the Pleistocene (roughly contemporaneous with the La Brea Tar Pits) and the museum has nearly a million of them.

“Snapshots in Time” is the main exhibit at the Western Science Center.

The heart of the museum is the permanent “Snapshots in Time” exhibit, which features both paleontology and archaeology displays. Dominating the room are the mounted skeletons of Max the mastodon and Xena the columbian mammoth. Unlike conventional fossil mounts, in which real or cast bones are cradled by a custom armature, Max and Xena are represented by two-dimensional frames, which establish the animals’ shape in life. Casted bones are attached to the frames in their proper locations, and the real fossils are in glass-covered sandboxes at the feet of the mounts. These visually distinctive displays have some noteworthy interpretive advantages. For one thing, they show the true shape of a proboscidian (in contrast, a conventional mammoth or mastodon mount omits the boneless trunk). These displays also clearly illustrate how much of the specimen was actually found – no reconstructed bones are needed. The Max and Xena mounts are a clever way to help visitors understand the subtleties of paleontological reconstruction: vertebrate fossils are rarely found as complete skeletons, but the inferred portions are far more than idle speculation.

The Western Science Center’s interactives are inspired, as well. Most impressive is a station where visitors can make clay casts from metal molds set into a counter. The amount of upkeep an activity like this requires would be prohibitive for a higher-traffic museum, but here it seemed to work just fine. I also liked a station that invites visitors to interpret archaeological objects through the rules of superposition. However, a mostly-digital interactive that demonstrates taphonomic processes in different microenvironments felt clunky and difficult to use.

As long as clay and plastic wrap can be continuously provided, this cast-making station is worth attempting to emulate.

The Valley of the Mastodons special exhibit, featuring a killer mural by Brian Engh.

We also got to see “Valley of the Mastodons,” a special exhibit that will be on display until next month. The exhibit is the result of an experimental public conference arranged by Western Science Center Director Alton Dooley and Dr. Katy Smith of Georgia State University. During the event last August, a group of paleontologists spent several days studying as-yet undescribed fossils from the museum’s collection on the exhibit floor and in view of the public. Visitors could chat with scientists and learn about their discoveries and methods in real time. I can’t report on the event itself (do check out Jeanne Timmons’s top-notch reporting at PLOS Paleo), but I liked the slap-dash, science-in-progress look of the exhibits. There were pieces of over a dozen mastodon individuals on display in various states of preparation, accompanied by notes from the visiting scientists feverishly scrawled on whiteboards. Between Valley of the Mastodons and the Western Science Center’s event calendar, it seems that the museum’s secret strength its its ceaseless slate of public programming. Workshops, activities, and lectures on topics ranging well beyond the boundaries of paleontology and archaeology suggest that the museum has successfully situated itself as an indispensable community resource.

Despite its size, the SDNHM building doesn’t have a ton of usable exhibit space, and many displays are crowded onto mezzanines.

If I had to pick a favorite southern California museum, it would be the San Diego Natural History Museum (or “the Nat,” as it is rather insistently branded). Like the Field Museum, SDNHM got its start as a permanent home for a collection of objects assembled for a world’s fair, in this case the 1914 Panama-California Exposition. The museum occupied a series of temporary structures built for the Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park until 1933, when the purpose-built museum building was completed. A 2001 renovation more than doubled the museum’s size. Near as I can tell, no pre-renovation exhibits remain on display. Nevertheless, there’s a ton of great stuff to see, from an urban ecosystems-focused wildlife exhibit to a temporary “random cool specimens from the collections” gallery (this sort of exhibit has been popular lately, and I’m all for it). In keeping with the theme of this blog I’ll focus my comments on the paleontology exhibit.

“Fossil Mysteries” showcases prehistoric life from the San Diego area from the Mesozoic through the ice ages. The regional focus means that the exhibit is full of incredible creatures I had never heard of. Examples include Semirostrum, a porpoise with an absurdly elongated chin, and Dusignathus, a walrus with seal-like teeth for hunting fish (unlike modern walruses, which are adapted to suck up mollusks). Beautiful mounted skeletons of the walrus Valenictus, the fearsome-looking pinniped Allodesmus, and an unnamed grey whale relative introduced me to a brand-new prehistoric ecosystem. While southern California is not known for its dinosaur fossils, the handful of specimens on display were interesting because of their unique taphonomy. Found in marine deposits, the hadrosaur femur and armored shoulders of Alectopelta are studded with bivalves.

I am the Valenictus.

This Alectopelta was swept out to sea before being buried in marine sediments, and is now studded with oysters.

Fossil Mysteries also boasts an impressive array of fabricated displays. Life-sized models of Carcharocles megalodon and Hydrodamalis gigas hang over the central hall, while half-model, half-cast reconstructions of Lambeosaurus and Albertosaurus make up for the paucity of real dinosaur material. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is the walk-through diorama of an Eocene rainforest. I’ve seen Carboniferous coal swamps represented like this at several other museums, but this is the first time I’ve seen this approach applied to the early Cenozoic. I can’t imagine why, since Lagerstätten from this time period found across North America and Europe make it a natural choice for a highly detailed, immersive display. In a rare but very welcome move, SDNHM provides information about the artists that contributed to the exhibit on its website.

Half-model, half-cast skeletons of Lambeosaurus and Albertosaurus were designed by Mark Rehkopf of Research Casting International.

A panoramic view of the immersive Eocene diorama.

Aside from the specimens and objects, what I really love about Fossil Mysteries is the interpretation. For me, the best signage grabs visitors’ attention by starting with what they know, then poses new questions and provides the tools needed to answer them. Good signs relate directly to the objects on display whenever possible, because that is what visitors come to see in the first place. And all this should be done with brutal succinctness. People can read textbooks at home, so its a mark of a truly talented exhibit writer when complex ideas can be consistently communicated in 40 words or less. With the right phrasing and arrangement, an exhibit can move beyond merely sharing information and become a space for conversation, reflection, and meaningful engagement. Basically, visitors should be able to learn something new in a way that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. I want to give the exhibit developers and writers at SDNHM the highest of fives, because they absolutely nailed it.

In an informative and weirdly potent interactive, visitors learn about the special adaptations in primate wrists by helping a gibbon skeleton turn a doorknob.

So there you have it – five museums in as many days, and another corner of the world map of natural history museums checked off. Have you been to any of the southern California museums I’ve been discussing? What did you think? Please share in the comments!

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

Return to the DinoSphere

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops skeletons look particularly cool against a purple backdrop.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is one of the best museums in the United States, particularly for paleontology. That may sound surprising for those unfamiliar with the museum. A typical children’s museum serves an important function by providing young people an opportunity to create and explore, but their exhibits usually amount to glorified playgrounds. Despite its name, TCM is something else entirely.

Founded in 1925 and growing by leaps and bounds ever since, TCM is a bona fide research institution. Numerous staff curators oversee a growing collection of historical, anthropological, and natural science objects that are regularly studied by visiting researchers. TCM’s dinosaur holdings are particularly impressive, including the Dracorex hogwartsi holotype and the first Tyrannosaurus found with its furcula (wishbone) intact. The museum’s paleontologists collect new specimens from the field every year. Other highlights include a collection of 50,000 historic toys from 120 countries, 2,500 traditional garments and textiles from around the world, and hundreds of original paintings and sculptures of prehistoric creatures donated by John Lazendorf.

In 1976, TCM joined forces with Purdue University to excavate this mastodon in Greenfield, Indiana.

The exhibits at TCM include objects that are as fascinating and unique as those on display at any top tier history or science museum. And unlike typical children’s museums, TCM’s exhibits aren’t pitched exclusively at children but at families learning together. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but the effects are profound. Interactivity in one form or another is generally seen as critical to children’s learning in a museum context. However, all opportunities for interaction are not made equal, and “free choice” interactivity (such as pressing buttons and turning cranks) is increasingly seen as an ineffectual teaching tool. Educators and exhibit designers have found far more success with “scaffolding,” which is the practice of creating exhibits that are simultaneously pitched to multiple audiences. Scaffolded exhibits might include content for different age levels, or for visitors with passing familiarity with a topic as well as those with deep knowledge.

At TCM, scaffolding is used to coach parents and guardians to effectively guide children’s investigations. Wherever there is a display that is sure to attract kids’ attention, there is signage nearby to help parents ask open-ended questions, direct attention to a particular aspect of the exhibit, prompt hypotheses, or suggest connections to personal experiences. In this way, the scaffolded exhibits channel a positive educational experience for children through a trusted and familiar source of information (their parents). This also means that there’s no letting kids loose in an exhibit as though it were a playpen. Parents and guardians are given the tools they need to participate in their children’s learning process, and probably learn something interesting for themselves along the way.

Even for adults with more independent children in tow (or traveling alone!) there’s plenty to see and do. Indeed, the effort to provide quiet, contemplative experiences alongside more participatory ones is one of the most commendable aspects of the TCM exhibits. Visitors can view Dale Chiuly’s five-story blown glass sculpture, Fireworks of Glass. In the archaeology lab, they can watch conservation specialists restore artifacts collected from shipwrecks off the coast of the Dominican Republic. If they so choose, visitors can even grapple with the challenging themes presented in “The Power of Children,” an exhibit that highlights the accomplishments of children that stood up against disease, institutionalized racism, and genocide.

Gorgosaurus, Maiasaura, and Bambiraptor populate one of the main tableaus in DinoSphere.

All the best that TCM has to offer is on display in the epic paleontology exhibit, DinoSphere. The peculiar name references the fact that the exhibit occupies a globe-shaped addition to the main building that once held an Imax theater. Rather than removing the giant screen and fancy audio system, they’ve been put to use in creating a uniquely immersive experience. A series of vivid skyscapes is projected over a 22-minute cycle: a red sunrise fades into cobalt tones at midday and a deep purple at night. This is supplemented by a chorus of bird and insect sounds, and certain corners of the exhibit smell of cedar and magnolia (this isn’t the only place where scents are used – at one particularly inspired station, visitors can sniff a duckbilled dinosaur, which smells like cross between a cow and bottom of a birdcage).

Impressive as these elements are, DinoSphere is more than a special effects show. More than twenty complete skeletons of Cretaceous animals are on display, including ten real dinosaur mounts. For those keeping track, that’s as many as are in the Smithsonian and the Field Museum exhibits combined. Sourced primarily from the commercial market (including the Black Hills Institute, which also constructed the mounts)*, many of these specimens are truly unique. There’s Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus preserved with large areas of skin and muscle impressions, and the most complete Gorgosaurus yet found, which has a visible brain tumor among many other fascinating lesions and maladies.

*Yes, this isn’t 100% ideal. But at least the specimens are in a publicly accessible collection now.

Original fossils and artwork by Michael Skrepnick and Cliff Green are offered as inspiration at this drawing station.

True to form, there are many opportunities for participation in the DinoSphere. For one thing, the exhibit strongly encourages exploration. A cursory walk through the gallery is not enough to get the total experience. You have to look high and low and occasionally behind doors to find all the specimens on display. For example, there’s a Didelphodon jaw in a burrow close to the base of the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops tableau. For visitors that respond better to a more personal connection, some rather gifted interpreters are on continuous patrol. When we visited TCM in December, I was fortunate enough to watch Mookie Harris in action. He has a great repertoire with toddlers, but was just as happy to dive into more complex concepts with older children and adults.

Then there’s the dinosaur art gallery. Away from the noise and bustle of the DinoSphere proper, visitors can view samples from the Lazendorf collection in a quiet, contemplative setting (David at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs got a behind-the-scenes look at the rest of the collection – check out his photos and the rest of his TCM posts). Scaffolded signage encourages families to view the artwork with a critical eye, comparing the illustrated and sculpted dinosaurs to original fossils and separating rigorous reconstruction from artistic interpretation. There are also plenty of drawing stations, complete with prompts and sample artwork for inspiration. The whole gallery is a wonderful way to introduce visitors to the blurred lines between art and science, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Fun fact: I prepped a couple of the tail vertebrae in this Hypacrosaurus mount during a brief but inspiring “internship” when I was 13.

To sum up, if you’re looking for world-class fossil exhibits, don’t limit yourself to the big acronyms (AMNH, FMNH, and so forth). You might want to wait a couple years, though. During our visit, we were graciously invited into the fossil prep lab, where Curator William Ripley filled us in on the museum’s future plans. It rhymes with “Triassic expansion” and the TCM paleontology team is currently collecting new skeletons from a quarry in Wyoming. Can’t wait!

References

Andre, L., Durksen, T., and Volman, M.L. 2016. Museums as avenues of learning for children: a decade of research. Learning Environments Research 20: 1: 47-76. 

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, reviews

The Great Mammoth of Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska is home to a legendary giant. The University of Nebraska State Museum, known locally as Morrill Hall or Elephant Hall, has the largest mammoth skeleton on display anywhere in the world. “Archie” the columbian mammoth is literally a giant among giants. 14 feet tall and striding on bizarre, stilt-like legs, he towers over the twelve other extinct and extant proboscidians (ten skeletons and two taxidermy mounts) in the museum’s great hall.

Like the Field Museum’s Sue the Tyrannosaurus, Archie is not only a scientific specimen, but something of a mascot. The mammoth is regularly cited as the museum’s star attraction. Its image adorns museum merchandise, and a dancing costumed Archie shows up at local schools and on game days. A bronze sculpture of a fur and flesh Archie created by local artist Fred Hoppe was placed outside the museum’s entrance in 2006, and it is apparently traditional for students to slap its outstretched forefoot for luck. At the center of it all, though, is the real mounted skeleton, which has been on display for 84 years and admired by generations of visitors.

The bronze Archie statue outside the University of Nebraska State Museum. Source

Archie’s skeleton was famously discovered by chickens. In 1921, southwest Nebraska farmer Henry Kariger noticed that his chickens were pecking at some white minerals eroding out of a hillside. Thinking the substance would be a good source of lime for his flock, Kariger started collecting it and adding it to their feed. Eventually the hill eroded further, and Kariger realized he had something more impressive than lime deposits – it was the jaws and teeth of a giant animal.

On November 14, Kariger sent a brief handwritten letter to Erwin Barbour, director of the Nebraska State Museum, describing his find. A geologist and paleontologist, Barbour started his career as O.C. Marsh’s second-in-command at the United States Geological Survey. In 1891, Barbour took the dual posts of Director of the Department of Geology at the University of Nebraska and Nebraska State Geologist. He was appointed Director of the State Museum shortly thereafter, and spent the next fifty years scouring the Nebraskan countryside for fossils to build the museum’s collection. Barbour replied to Kariger two weeks after receiving his letter, informing the farmer that he had found a mammoth, and that he was “entirely sure of this without seeing it.”

Barbour typically received dozens of letters about fossil finds every year, and he gave Kariger the same instructions he gave everyone else: avoid handling the fossils, and absolutely refrain from attempting to extract more bones from the ground. Barbour had seen countless fossils destroyed by overeager members of the public trying to pry them out by hand, or with crowbars. He informed Kariger that the museum would pay for an important find, but only if it was kept intact. Barbour requested that Kariger leave the fossils until the spring, when a museum crew could come out and assess them.

Archie the mammoth in 2010, with the author looking characteristically ridiculous.

Barbour soon discovered that Kariger had contacted a number of other museums, shopping his find around in an effort to get the best price. In a letter, Kariger informed Barbour that he had been told he had a giant sloth, and that it was exceptionally rare. Barbour held firm, repeating that the find was certainly a mammoth and that he could look at it in the spring. Apparently impatient, Kariger decided to ignore Barbour and got to work excavating the rest of the skeleton, hauling the bones out of the hillside with a team of horses. Miraculously, Kariger did not completely destroy the fossils in the process. With a good portion of a mammoth skeleton in his possession, Kariger brought his find to Lincoln the following summer to display it at the state fair. It was here that Barbour met Kariger – and his mammoth – for the first time. Barbour was suitably impressed, and immediately wrote to Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, describing the skeleton as complete save for its tusks and the lower portions of its limbs.

According to an account by Walter Linnemeyer (who was about six years old at the time), local authorities discovered that Kariger was selling bootlegged whiskey out of the back of his tent at the state fair, and confiscated both the whiskey and the fossils. Although this makes for an exciting story, Vertebrate Paleontology Collections Manager George Corner confirms that the skeleton “was not confiscated by the Museum or anyone else and then given to the Museum.” In fact, documents in the museum archives confirm that Barbour paid Kariger $250 for the fossils, and that the entirely amicable transfer occurred at the fair in 1922. Since no other documentation about Kariger being involved in illicit sales has surfaced, we must assume that the story is, as Corner puts it, “a product of the times.” Prohibition was the law of the land in 1922, and rumors about sources of illegal liquor must have been common. One might also speculate that anti-government sentiments in rural communities may have played a role in the myth-making.

Barbour poses with Archie’s legs in 1925. Source

Another reason to discount the notion that Kariger’s fossils were seized is that he and Barbour maintained a friendly relationship for years afterward. In December 1922, Kariger wrote to Barbour to inform him that he had found one of the missing tusks, but that he had damaged it while removing it from the ground (it didn’t help that his pigs had chewed on it a bit). Barbour once again asked that Kariger leave any further finds buried, reminding him that the museum would pay more for undamaged fossils. Barbour and his student William Hall made the two-day journey to Kariger’s farm the following June. They stayed with the Kariger family for five nights, paying them for room and board, as well as the services of a draft team. Even after resorting to dynamite to blast away the rest of the hill, Barbour went back to Lincoln empty handed. Still, both he and the Karigers enjoyed the experience, and they fondly reminisced about the trip in subsequent letters.

Barbour initially published the Kariger mammoth as a new species, Elephas maibeni, after museum donor Hector Maiben. Osborn’s monograph on proboscidian evolution, posthumously published in 1936, redescribed it as Archidiskodon imperator (hence “Archie”). Archidiskodon has since been folded into Mammuthus columbi, or the columbian mammoth, a species which ranged throughout the western United States and Central America.

Barbour oversees his impeccably-dressed staff as they mount Archie’s skeleton. Source

When the University of Nebraska State Museum acquired Archie in 1922, space was severely limited. Collections were already stuffed into attics, cellars, and even the steam tunnels between university buildings. Nevertheless, Barbour ensured that at least part of the record-sized mammoth was on display. In 1925, he mounted the forelimbs and part of the torso, forming an archway at the museum’s entrance. A new, larger museum building funded by donor Charles Morrill was completed two years later, and the Kariger mammoth was immediately a candidate for display as a complete mounted skeleton. Barbour sent preparator Henry Reider out that summer to collect isolated mammoth bones that could fill in Archie’s incomplete legs. Soon work on the full mount was underway, with contributions from Reider, Eugene Vanderpool, Frank Bell, and others. The 14-foot tall, 25-foot long mount took years to construct, but was finally completed in the spring of 1933.

Even before Archie was complete, it was clear that the new museum’s central hall would be a showcase for fossil elephants. The lineup of mounted skeletons, which has not changed significantly since the mid-20th century, includes two columbian mammoths, an American mastodon, Stegomastodon, Gomphotherium, Amebelodon, Eubelodon, a pygmy mammoth, and contemporary African and Asian elephants. Elizabeth Dolan provided two parallel background murals which depict elephants around a forested watering hole in an impressionistic style. Today, a contemporary mammoth mural by Mark Marcuson adorns the far wall.

The spectacular elephant hall (Archie is along the left wall, blocked by the taxidermy elephants from this angle). Source

84 years after it was first assembled, the skeleton of Archie the mammoth is a Nebraska icon. Indeed, this mount and the hall it resides in have become a time capsule, a landmark to return to again and again for generations of visitors. Nevertheless, even the most beloved icons are not completely safe. The Nebraska state legislature has repeatedly hit the State Museum with budget cuts, including an astonishing 50% cut in 2003 accompanied by the dismissal of several tenured curators. Thanks to inspired leadership by Director Priscilla Grew, the museum re-earned its accreditation in 2009 and became a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2014. Still, the series of events is a sobering reminder that while museums exist as a public service, they are also dependent on public support. Funding museums must be a top priority if we want legendary displays like Archie to be on exhibit for generations to come.

Many thanks to George Corner for answering my questions about Kariger’s mammoth. Any factual errors are my own.

References

Barbour, E.H. 1925. Skeletal Parts of the Columbian Mammoth Elephas maibeniBulletin of the Nebraska State Museum. 10: 95-118.

Corner, R.G. 2017. Personal communication.

Debus, A.A. and Debus, D.E. 2002. Dinosaur Memories: Dino-trekking for Beats of Thunder, Fantastic Saurians, “Paleo-people,” “Dinosaurabilia,” and other “Prehistoria.” Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press.

Knopp, L. 2002. Mammoth Bones. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. 9:1: 2002.

Linnemeyer, W. and Nutt, M. 2009. Mammoth Bones and Bootleg Whiskey. The Mammoth: A Newsletter for the Friends of the University of Nebraska State Museum. August 2009.

Osborn, H.F. and Percy, M.R. 1936. Proboscidia: A monograph of the discovery, evolution, migration, and extinction of the mastodonts and elephants of the world. New York, NY: American Museum Press.

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Filed under exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, paleoart

Looking Back at Fossils: History of Life

The renovated hall 2 upon its initial completion. Photo from Kopper 1982.

It is with some trepidation that I attempt to tell the story of the third incarnation of the National Museum of Natural History’s paleontology exhibits.  For one thing, this was “my” space, insofar that any of us feel ownership over familiar public spaces. I explored these halls regularly as a toddler. I volunteered there as a teenager and interned there after college. More recently, I’ve found myself working among these same displays on a number of occasions as a museum professional*. As such, it is difficult to establish an appropriate amount of cognitive distance, even now that the galleries have been cleared from wall to wall, and new exhibits are being installed in their place.

“Fossils: History of Life” closed for renovation in April 2014. Because this exhibition existed largely unchanged for most of my life, a part of me likes to think of it as something that has always been there. Nevertheless, these displays were designed and built by specific people at a specific point in time. And while the specimens, artwork, and craftsmanship in Fossils: History of Life were nothing short of iconic, the process of putting those pieces together was surprisingly contentious. The creation of this exhibition was beset by internal strife and controversy, as conflicts that had been simmering for decades about the very nature of museums finally came to bear.

The Story So Far

The east wing of the National Museum of Natural History (prior to 1964, the United States National Museum) has been home to fossil displays since the current building opened in 1910. From opening day to 1945, the exhibits were primarily under the stewardship of Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Charles Gilmore. Intermittently called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” this iteration was somewhat haphazard in its layout. Like many early 20th century exhibitions, the galleries were filled with a sampling of static objects from the collections, occasionally accompanied by an explanatory painting, map, or model. Gilmore’s version of the east wing remained in place until 1962, when the space was redesigned as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. Between 1953 and 1963, the modernization committee chaired by Frank Taylor oversaw improvements of nearly all of the National Museum’s exhibits. Taylor pushed for exhibitions that catered to laypeople, rather than specialists. Paths visitors might travel through the space, common visitor questions, and consistent aesthetics were all considered when overhauling the east wing fossil halls.

Modernization-era version of hall 2, completed in 1962. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As Rader and Cain convincingly argue, the transition from exhibits dominated by cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to story-driven learning experiences began in most American museums at the beginning of the 20th century. However, this was not the case at the Smithsonian. By the 1950s, the National Museum had developed a reputation as an old-fashioned place. Its neo-classical exhibition halls mostly contained rows of cases jam-packed with specimens, and that was the way the curatorial staff liked it. Entomologist Waldo Schmitt summed up the prevailing institutional attitude when he said that exhibits should be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments.” Curators like Schmitt worried that shoehorning objects into generalized narratives about nature and anthropology would distort or occlude their meaning and provenance. NMNH Director Remington Kellogg agreed, and Taylor’s modernization committee faced an uphill battle with every exhibit they sought to make more broadly accessible.

It was a stalemate between two competing visions for what a museum should be. The 1962 fossil hall renovation at NMNH experimented with dioramas, color-coded signage, and text divided into area titles, headings, and subheadings, but compared to peer institutions it was hardly revolutionary. This could be partially attributed to the design process, in which the development of each of the four east wing galleries (halls 2, 3, 4, and 5) was led by a different curator. As a result, the galleries landed in different places on the spectrum between traditionally-arranged specimens and cohesive narratives.

The 1974 Ice Age Hall was a turning point for NMNH exhibits. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, a turning point was on the horizon. The east wing modernization plan also called for the annexing of hall 6 (formerly the home of geology exhibits) as a dedicated Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. In part due to the larger number of new specimens being prepared for display, this Quaternary Hall was repeatedly delayed. By the time hall 6 was ready to reopen in 1970, its old-fashioned organization was no longer what administrators wanted. In 1973, Director Porter Kier decided to shut down the nascent Quaternary Hall and assemble a new team to redesign it. A group of geologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and education specialists reworked the exhibit into an interdisciplinary exploration of the ice ages. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans were all presented as a single, holistic story. For NMNH staff, it was clear that the 1974 Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man represented the future of exhibition at the museum. From that point onward, exhibit design would be a collaborative process between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists. Moreover, the galleries themselves would be seen more like fully-formed architectural spaces, rather than modular associations of artifacts. Above all, the primary purpose of exhibits would be the education and engagement of visitors.

Planning “History of Life”

After the positive reception of the Ice Age Hall, Kier were eager to retool the rest of the ever-popular paleontology galleries in the same manner. In early 1977, he appointed fossil cnidarian specialist Ian Macintyre to chair a committee of curators tasked with devising an overarching plan for the exhibit renovation. Joining Macintyre was Daniel Appelman (geology), Robery Emry (fossil mammals), Leo Hickey (fossil plants), Nicholas Hotton (fossil reptiles), Kenneth Towe (early atmosphere), and Thomas Waller (fossil mollusks). In June, the group submitted their theme statement:

The fundamental theme which has been developed in the context of a single all-encompassing hall is the history of the progress of life as revealed by the geological record in terms of:

  1. The great periods of time involved in the evolution of life forms preserved
  2. The changing environmental conditions associated with the evolutionary process
  3. The increase in diversity and complexity of life forms

The phrase “all-encompassing hall” is key. The curators agreed that, unlike the 1962 iteration, the new exhibit should have a single voice and follow a single narrative. This decision was influenced not only by changing expectations for exhibits, but also by recent developments in their own department. The NMNH Division of Paleontology had been disbanded in 1963, and paleontologists were reorganized into the Department of Paleobiology. The new title represented a push among research staff to focus less on descriptive systematics and more on how the fossil record can inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. Macintyre’s team wanted to bring the same change of focus to the new exhibit.

Visitor map of NMNH ground floor, circa 1982. Adapted from Yochelson 1985.

The curators spent the next year hashing out the hall in further detail. Early on, the group agreed that an illustrated column of geologic time should be the exhibit’s centerpiece. This would eventually manifest as the “Tower of Time,” with key artwork provided by John Gurche. The group also decided to break the main “progress of life” concept into several smaller storylines, which they counterintuitively called “highlights.” The highlights would include “The Earliest Traces of Life,” “Conquest of the Land,” “Reptiles: Masters of the Land,” “Living Fossils,” “Fossils and Industry,” and “Mammals in the Limelight,” among others.

Each highlight would correspond to a part of the east wing exhibit space. The central, high-ceilinged hall 2 would be occupied by Reptiles: Masters of the Land, which included the dinosaurs, as well as a substantial display of of Paleozoic marine invertebrates at the rotunda-side entrance. A new mezzanine and ramp over hall 2 would include Living Fossils, Fossils and Industry, the evolution of flight, and fossil fishes. Hall 4 would feature Earliest Traces of Life and Conquest of the Land. Mammals in the Limelight would occupy hall 3, and hall 5 would remain empty for the time being. For practical reasons, the highlights would each be overseen by a different subcommittee of specialists, and they would be built and unveiled on a staggered schedule. Still, the main committee would oversee the entire process and make sure the writing and visual design of each section came across as parts of a cohesive whole.

John Gurche’s Tower of Time was the centerpiece of the exhibit. Photo by Mary Parrish. Source

Between the lines, the need to include dinosaurs was apparently seen as a nuisance by at least some of the curators. There were no dinosaur specialists on the exhibit team, and indeed, NMNH had not employed one since Gilmore retired in 1945. Although the dinosaur renaissance was picking up speed by the late 70s, for NMNH paleontologists dinosaurs were overexposed and less interesting than their own research subjects. The museum’s eleven dinosaur mounts were decades-old relics, but their popularity among visitors obligated the curators to include them. Disarticulating and remounting the skeletons was not in the budget, and many of the dinosaurs were too big to cart out of the hall in one piece. That left the exhibit team with the unenviable task of finding places for the existing mounts in addition to all the new specimens and models they wanted to add, while still leaving enough room for visitors to get around. As internal legend has it, the giant slab of Climactichnites tracks was placed at the front of hall 2 specifically to block the view of the dinosaurs from the rotunda.

You’ll look at invertebrate fossils first, and you’ll like it! Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Although Macintyre and his curator colleagues were the only formal members of the exhibit committee, the Department of Exhibits was also involved from the start. Exhibits staff at NMNH had increased from six people in the 1960s to over 30 by 1985. This expanded force included all manner of artists, architects, industrial designers, and communications specialists, and they had an impressive on-site workshop to make use of their talents. In the 1980s, everything from silk-screened signage to cabinetry to dioramas could be created in-house. However, the increased professionalization of exhibits specialists required curators to relinquish some of the control they historically had over displays.

This, unfortunately, led to the two departments regularly butting heads. Curators complained that exhibits staff did not know enough of the science, and that the ideas they were generating simplified content to the point of being inaccurate. Meanwhile, exhibits staff had to deal with the fact that the curators had final approval authority over all content, but typically saw the exhibit work as secondary to their research obligations. Deadlines were routinely missed, leading to frenzied, last-minute crunch periods. The result was signage with avoidable errors making it the exhibit floor, and a culture of finger pointing in all directions.

This clay and paper model of the reconfigured hall 2 was produced during the planning period. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (but the terrible photo is my fault).

John Elliot’s Diana of the Tides fresco was briefly visible during the renovation of hall 2. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Two postdoctoral research associates—Jessica Harrison and George Stanley—were brought on board to help with the exhibit design and construction. Harrison and Stanley had offices in both the Exhibits and Paleobiology departments, and were well-liked by both groups of staff. The most difficult part of their job was drafting label copy. Text had to be rewritten again and again to please educators who found it too technical and content specialists who demanded more precision and detail. Harrison in particular was widely praised for effectively explaining scientific concepts to the exhibits staff and for guiding the key themes of the exhibit from concept to completion.

Specimens and Artwork

The east wing exhibits formally closed for renovation on May 29, 1979. In spite of the administrative-level disagreements, the museum’s technical staff was producing great creative work in short order. The recent expansion of the Department of Exhibits meant that nearly everything that went into the exhibit was created in-house (today, large exhibitions are often created in collaboration with contractors). Only the biggest construction projects, such as the addition of a mezzanine over hall 2, had to be contracted out.

A preparator puts the finishing touches on Eryops. Photo from Smith 1994 (previously labeled Arnie Lewis, see comments).

Scores of never-before-exhibited specimens were prepared for Fossils: History of Life. Examples include a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite from Australia and the reconstructed jaws of Carcharocles megalodon. Preparator Arnold Lewis led the creation of the new mounted skeletons, which included Eryops and Strobodon. Some existing mounts were updated, including Dimetrodon, which was given a longer tail. The most ambitious new mount was Allosaurus, or as Hotton insisted on calling it, “Antrodemus.” The Allosaurus (USNM 4734) came to NMNH in the 1890s with the rest of the Marsh collection, but only the skull and a few other pieces had ever been displayed. Lewis spent two years creating the mount. He started by preparing the bones that had never been completely freed from the matrix they were found in. After laying the skeleton out in a giant sandbox, Lewis secured the bones one at a time to a custom steel armature. This form-fitting structure proved to be almost invisible against the dark grey bones. Unlike most theropod mounts of the time, Lewis’s Allosaurus included belly ribs, modeled in rubber after those of a crocodile.

Antro – er, Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

Fossils: History of Life also called for a number of new paintings and dioramas. Peter Sawyer painted a cyclorama of a primordial Archean landscape for the Earliest Traces of Life section. Robert Hynes contributed several murals, as well, including a beach scene and a Cooksonia marsh for Conquest of the Land. In addition to the key art on the Tower of Time, John Gurche provided illustrations for the horse evolution cul-de-sac and the backdrop for a new lungfish diorama. Jay Matternes’ Cenozoic murals were carried over from the old exhibit.

Sawyer’s recreation of Archean Greenland. Photo by Loren Ybarrondo. Screen capture from NMNH Virtual Tour.

Diorama depicting the earliest land vertebrates, with a background by John Gurche. Photo by the author.

George Merchand’s marine dioramas and Norman Deaton’s dinosaur dioramas were reused, while the NMNH exhibits shop produced several brand new displays. In addition to the aforementioned lungfish scene, these included a recreation of the Burgess Shale environment and a group of eurypterids patrolling the Silurian shallows. There was also a walk-through diorama of a Cretaceous Maryland forest, featuring reconstructions of some of the earliest flowering plants.

The Smithsonian’s central exhibit shop handled the most challenging projects. Their biggest contribution was the life-sized Quetzalcoatlus model. The artists started with a clay miniature, then moved on to a 1/6th scale fiberglass model. With final approval from Nicholas Hotton and Jessica Harrison, the team moved on to the 40-foot final version. The wings were constructed like those of airplanes, with a hollow steel rod supporting wood and aluminum trusses. The wing membranes were plastic, and translucent in the right light. The head and legs were sculpted in clay then cast in plastic, and the body was covered in deer fur. Exhibits Central also built a set of cycads to accompany the historic Stegosaurus model. Several of these were real conifers, freeze dried and covered in glycerin.

How to built a Quetzalcoatlus in the late 70s. Photos from Kopper 1982.

Finally, Fossils: History of Life included some of NMNH’s first forays into video displays. The “Enter Life” film explored possible scenarios for biogenesis. An animated film starring “Frank Anchorfish” and “Arthur Pod” (voiced by DC-area newscasters) was a whimsical take on the challenges of moving from the aquatic to the terrestrial realm. A popular, albeit short lived, part of the exhibit was “A Star is Hatched,” which featured clips from Hollywood dinosaur movies accompanied by discussion of dinosaurs’ pop culture significance.

Legacy

On April 17, 1980, Hall 4 – with exhibits covering the origins of life, the transition to life on land, and Paleozoic and Mesozoic plants – was the first part of the east wing to reopen. The dinosaur-filled hall 2 followed on December 4, 1981. These initial phases of Fossils: History of Life were generally well-received by the public, although some media critics scoffed at the silly puns and cultural references in the label copy (“A duckbill in every pot,” “the better to eat you with, my dear,” and so forth). Robert Emry took over for Ian Macinyre as lead curator for the final phase of development and construction. After a few delays, Mammals in the Limelight in hall 3 was ready for visitors on May 30, 1985.

Behind the scenes, the occasionally tense working relationships and difficulty meeting deadlines contributed to major changes to how exhibits are put together at NMNH. When Richard Fiske took over as Director in 1983, he promoted Beth Miles, Sheila Mutchler, and Sue Voss from the Department of Exhibits to formal members of the paleontology exhibit team. A dedicated project manager position was added, and formal guidelines were prepared for exhibit-related duties. A key part of this formalized exhibit protocol was explicit acknowledgement that exhibits (not research and collections) are the public face of the museum and therefore the primary impetus for public support. Maintaining that support meant creating visitor-focused exhibits that are as relatable, educational, and entertaining as possible. This effectively killed the old idea of exhibits as mere showrooms for collections. Research and collections staff were no less important to the identity and purpose of the museum, but as far as exhibits were concerned their content knowledge would have to go hand in hand with other kinds of expertise. Exhibits and education specialists took leadership roles on future exhibit projects, a system which remains in place to this day.

A Callixylon trunk was a focal point in hall 4. Photo by Chip Clark.

Fossils: History of Life saw many changes over its 33 year life span. A Star is Hatched was one of the first displays to go. While popular among visitors, scientific staff hated the film because it trivialized exhibit content and featured long-outdated images of dinosaurs (interacting with modern humans, no less). The theater built for A Star is Hatched was eventually demolished and replaced with a windowed fossil prep lab, which became one of the most popular parts of the exhibit complex. An enclosure housing a live caiman in the Living Fossils area of the mezzanine only lasted as long as the animal. When the caiman died, the exhibit was boarded up and never replaced. Later, the Flowering Plant Revolution area – including the walk-through diorama – was dismantled to make way for a concessions stand. The largest addition to the east wing was Life in the Ancient Seas, an exhibit of marine fossils that filled the unused portion of hall 5. Completed in 1990, Life in the Ancient Seas nearly doubled the number of specimens in the fossil halls and added a splash of color with Ely Kish’s 150-foot mural of extinct marine life.

Hall 2 in 2013, with Stan the T. rex and the revised Hatcher the Triceratops in place. Photo by the author.

More recently, three of the historic dinosaur mounts were taken off exhibit and replaced with updated casts. Triceratops, Camptosaurus, and Stegosaurus had been on display since 1905, 1912, and 1913, respectively, and a century of vibration from passing crowds and fluctuating temperature and humidity had taken their toll on the fragile fossils. Ralph Chapman took the opportunity to turn the Triceratops into the world’s first digitized dinosaur, pioneering a process that is standard practice today. The Triceratops that returned to the hall in 1999 was made from foam and plastic molded directly from digital scans of the original fossils. It was accompanied by a mini-exhibit that explained how the new mount was made, and featured artwork by Bob Walters in addition to several new original and cast skulls. Shortly thereafter, NMNH acquired a cast of Stan the Tyrannosaurus as a conciliation prize for missing out on SueCamptosaurus and Stegosaurus were removed and replaced more quietly, but these mounts are of note because much of the casting and restoration work was done by a crew of veteran volunteers.

The mezzanine over hall 2 was closed for safety reasons after a 2011 earthquake. These exhibits never reopened, which meant that visitors could no longer see the pterosaurs, phytosaurs, and Xiphactinus. In the exhibit’s final years, an assortment of new signs were added, including updates to geologic time scale and an explanation of the dinosaur-bird connection. Unfortunately, these updates amounted to little more than bandaids for an increasingly tired exhibit.

Hall 3’s Mammals in the Limelight was delayed for over a year but finally opened in 1985. Photo by the author.

In retrospect, Fossils: History of Life was conceived at an inopportune time. Some aspects, like the focus on biology and evolution rather than classical systematics, were cutting-edge. However, much of the exhibit content was quickly outmoded by sweeping changes to the field of paleontology that occurred during the 80s and 90s. Conservative ideas about dinosaur endothermy and bird evolution were obsolete within a decade, as was much of the pre-cladistics taxonomy and the central theme of evolution as progress. The exhibit team could not have known how different our understanding of paleontology would be just a few years after the renovated halls debuted.

Moreover, the fact that Fossils: History of Life was built over the skeleton of the 1963 renovation (which was, in turn, built on top of the original east wing exhibits) proved to be a significant handicap. Since the space was never completely gutted, the designers had to work around existing specimens and structures, such as the 80-foot Diplodocus and the three separate doorways off of the rotunda. As a result, creating a logical path for visitors to follow through the halls proved impossible. Updates and additions to the exhibit only exacerbated the issue. As it stood in its final years, there was no way to view Fossils: History of Life in historical order without repeatedly doubling back. Bottlenecks that impeded traffic flow were also a problem, especially during mid-afternoon rush hour at the T. rex.

Despite these issues, Fossils: History of Life was seen – and loved – by tens of millions of visitors during its 34 years on display. After many false starts, in 2012 NMNH was finally able to secure the funding needed to overhaul the east wing properly. For the first time, the five galleries are getting a top-to-bottom revamp: every specimen has been removed and every corner of the exhibit has been redesigned, word by word and inch by inch. The bad news was that this process would take five years. Word about the lengthy closing resulted in minor outrage, particularly from parents of young children. After four decades of designing, building, maintaining, and updating the hall, Museum staff understood completely. As Director Kirk Johnson told the Washington Post, “it’s an iconic, favorite space. People have made lots of memories here.”

Additional photos are below.

*Please note that this is my personal blog and I am solely responsible for its content. For official information from NMNH and the Smithsonian Institution please see  Digging the Fossil Record and the Department of Paleobiology.

References

Bohaska, S. 2013. Personal communication.

Kopper, P. 1982. The National Museum of Natural History: A Smithsonian Museum. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

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

Park, E. 1981. A Remarkable Tower of Time Tells the Story of Evolution. Smithsonian Magazine. December 1981, pp. 99 –114.

Parrish, M. 2014. Memories of John Gurche at the National Museum of Natural History. Journal of Natural Science Illustration. 2014:1. https://gnsi.org/journal/memories-john-gurche-national-museum-natural-history

Parrish, M. 2017. Personal communication.

Post, R.C. 2013. Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing US Museums of Science & Natural History in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, N. 1994. Official Guide to the National Museum of Natural History/National Museum of Man. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

1986. Statement by the Secretary. Smithsonian Year 1985: Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ended September 30, 1985. Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution.

Thomson, P. 1985. Auks, Rocks, and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. New York,  NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Wolf, R.L. and Tymitz, B.L. 1978. Whatever Happened to the Giant Wombat: An Investigation of the Impact of the Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man Exhibit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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 dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart