Category Archives: mammals

More Real than Real: Leon Walters’ Celluloid Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walters’ cellulose acetate babirusa. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reviews, science communication

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 1

I’ve spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of southern California, visiting natural history museums, zoos, and botanic gardens, as well as seeing a fair assortment of marine mammals. Suffice it to say, my (endlessly patient) travel partner Stephanie and I ended the trip with a bit of sensory overload. I had planned to start off with a brief travelogue post and save more thorough analysis for later, but as usual I’ve gone and written much more than I intended.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum

Howard Ball’s famous mammoth statues in La Brea’s lake pit.

The La Brea Tar Pits (a.k.a. the the tar tar pits) is an iconic fossil locality in downtown Los Angeles. I visited  in my single-digit years, but I remember the site better from documentaries like Denver the Last Dinosaur. The region’s asphalt seeps have been known to local people for thousands of years, and they were first commercially mined in the 1700s, when Rancho La Brea was a Mexican land grant. The animal bones commonly found in the asphalt were seen as a nuisance until 1875, when William Denton of Wellesley College identified a large tooth from Rancho La Brea as belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat. Several years of largely unrestricted fossil collecting followed, until the Hancock family that had come to own the land gave exclusive collecting rights to the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) in 1913.

Within two years, museum paleontologists had collected about a million bones, mostly from large Pleistocene animals like mammoths, ground sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. This enormous abundance meant that the La Brea fossils were useful not only as research specimens but as trade goods. The LACM amassed much of its present-day fossil collection by trading La Brea fossils to other museums.

The Hancock family donated the 23 acres around the La Brea asphalt seeps to Los Angeles County in 1924. From that point on, the area functioned as a public park, where visitors could learn about ice age California and even watch ongoing excavations. Park facilities and exhibits expanded gradually over the ensuing decades. Sculptures of bears and ground sloths by Herman Beck were added to the grounds in the late 1920s. In 1952, a concrete bunker over one of the excavation sites became the first La Brea museum. The LACM board commissioned the site’s most iconic display – the trio of mammoth statues – in 1965, and sculptor Howard Ball installed them in 1968.

The George C. Page Museum, plus a man who wouldn’t move.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened in 1977. The remarkable Brutalist building is adorned by a fiberglass frieze depicting ice age animals in a savanna environment. The aluminum frame holding up the frieze also contains an atrium of tropical plants, which the indoor exhibit halls encircle. Architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton designed the museum to fit organically into the established park setting, and to subliminally reflect the fossil excavations it celebrates. The building appears to be erupting from the ground, much like the asphalt and the fossils therein. The entrance is below ground level, so visitors must descend a ramp to meet the fossils at their point of origin.

The giant camel Camelops hesternus (front) with adult and juvenile mastodons (back). Those logs were also hauled out of the asphalt seeps.

Panthera atrox was apparently more like a giant jaguar than a lion. Small-by-comparison Smilodon fatalis in the back.

In many ways, the Page Museum is now a museum of a museum. Most of the interior exhibits, including the fossil mounts designed by Eugene Fisher*, are the same as they were in 1977. Photos show that the exhibit halls, prep labs, and collections areas have changed little in the last 40 years. And that’s okay! The museum building and the outdoor displays around it have been part of the Los Angeles landscape for decades, and cherished by generations of visitors. To the museum’s credit, the 1970s exhibits were well ahead of their time. Windows onto the prep lab and collections would be right at home in modern “inside out” museums, and an oft-repeated message that microfossils (such as insects, birds, rodents, and pollen) are more informative than megafauna fossils vis-à-vis paleoclimate and ancient environments is still very relevant to the field of paleontology today.

That isn’t to say there is nothing new to see. Newer signage around the park grounds does an excellent job re-interpreting older displays, especially those that are now considered inaccurate. For example, Howard Ball’s mammoth statues are probably among the most photographed paleoart installations in the world, but they completely misrepresent the way most of the animals found at La Brea actually died. Ball’s female mammoth is hip-deep in a man-made lake filling in an old asphalt quarry. As the signage (and tireless tour guides) explains, the animals trapped here thousands of years ago actually became stuck in asphalt seeps that were six inches deep or less. Meanwhile, while the classic friezes and murals throughout the Page Museum depict savanna-like landscapes, more recent analysis of microfossils demonstrates that the area was actually a fairly dense woodland.

Turkeys, condors, eagles, and storks are among the more unusual fossil mounts at the Page Museum.

There are two main reasons that the Page Museum is a must-see. First, it provides an in-depth view of a single prehistoric ecosystem. As mentioned, LACM traded La Brea fossils to all sorts of other museums, so chances are you’ve already seen a La Brea Smilodon, Paramylodon, or dire wolf. The Page Museum has these animals, but it also has rarely-seen creatures like ice age turkeys, condors, and coyotes. I counted 25 mounted skeletons in total, to say nothing of the hundreds of smaller specimens. My favorite display was a Smilodon skull growth series, where you can see how the adult saber teeth erupt and push out the baby sabers. In addition, the Page Museum stands right next to the La Brea fossil quarries, past and present. The museum and the park that preceded it were conceived as places where the public could see science in action. Researchers have been uncovering fossils at La Brea for over a hundred years, and visitors have been watching over their shoulders the entire time. That alone makes La Brea a very special place.

*All the La Brea mounts (at the Page Museum or elsewhere) are composites. To my knowledge no articulated remains have ever been recovered from the asphalt seeps. As Stephanie pointed out, the skull of the Equus occidentalis mount actually belonged to a significantly younger animal than the mandible. 

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

This Tyrannosaurus growth series is the centerpiece of the LACM Dinosaur Hall.

Our next stop was the Page Museum’s parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which I will continue to abbreviate as LACM for consistency). LACM actually features two fossil exhibits: the 2010 Age of Mammals Hall and the 2011 Dinosaur Hall. Both were part of a $135 million project to restore and update much of the LACM building, which first opened in 1913. While the two halls were developed concurrently by different teams, they are architecturally very similar. Parallel mezzanines flank spacious central aisles, which maximizes usable space in the two-story rooms and allows visitors to view most of the mounted skeletons from ground level or from above.

The primary strength of both the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall is that they look really good. New skylights and newly uncovered bay windows yield plenty of natural light. Primary-colored panels provide interesting backdrops for the specimens, and fossil mounts on the ground and in the air keep visitors looking in all directions. These exhibits were clearly designed to look incredible from the moment you enter the room, and the abundant natural light means they photograph quite well.

Suspended skeletons make use of the vertical space and keep visitors looking all around the exhibit.

Triceratops and Mamenchisaurus at the front end of the Dinosaur Hall.

LACM’s mammal collection has been built up over the last century, while the dinosaur specimens were mostly collected by Luis Chiappe’s Dinosaur Institute in the decade preceding the exhibit’s opening. Nevertheless, both exhibits feature an uncommon diversity of beautifully-prepared fossils. I was particularly taken by the metal fixtures constructed to display incomplete skulls of Augustynolophus and Tyrannosaurus. The mounted skeletons were handled by two different companies: Research Casting International did the mammals and Phil Fraley Productions did the dinosaurs. I actually like the mammal mounts slightly better. There’s a greater range of interesting poses, and they don’t suffer from Fraley’s signature exploding chests.

The Poebrotherium, Hoplophoneus, and Hyracodon mounts are full of life and character.

A metalwork frame artfully shows the missing parts of this Augustynolophus skull.

All that said, there is a surprising divergence in the quality of interpretation between the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall. On this front, the Age of Mammals Hall is better by far. There is an open floor plan that visitors can circulate freely, but everything comes back to three main ideas posted near the entrance: continents move, climates change, mammals evolve. In no particular order, the exhibit demonstrates how Cenozoic mammals diversified in response to the environmental upheaval around them.

On the ground floor, one tableau shows how dogs, horses, rhinos, and camels evolved to move swiftly across the emergent grasslands of the Miocene. Another area covers how mammals grew larger to adapt to an ice age climate. Overhead, a whale, sea cow, sea lion, and desmostylian illustrate four independent lineages that evolved to make use of marine resources. Exhibits on the mezzanine level focus on how paleontologists learn about prehistoric mammals. One area compares different sorts of teeth and feet. Another explains how pollen assemblages can be used to determine the average temperature and moisture of a particular time and place, while drill cores illustrate how a region’s environment changed over time. Although the exhibit as a whole has no time axis, it does an excellent job conveying how evolution works at an environmental scale.

The addition of dogs, camels, and rhinos makes for an informative twist on the classic horse evolution exhibit.

Struthiomimus is accompanied by a modern ostrich and tundra swan.

By comparison, the Dinosaur Hall doesn’t have any obvious guiding themes. The exhibit is a grab-bag of topics, and to my eyes, specimens and labels appear to be placed wherever they fit. Jurassic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are surrounded by displays about the end-Cretaceous extinction. Carnotaurus of Cretaceous Argentina is paired with Camptosaurus of Jurassic Colorado. Mamenchisaurus shares a platform with distantly-related Thescelosaurus, which lived 80 million years later on the other side of the world. An explanation of what defines a dinosaur is confusingly juxtaposed with non-dinosaurian marine reptiles. If there’s any logic here, I didn’t see it. This is accentuated by the fact that the label copy is no more specific than a run-of-the-mill dinosaur book for kids. It all feels very generalized and unambitious, especially compared to the Age of Mammals Hall. I would have liked to see more information on what makes these particular specimens special, as well as how they were found, prepared, and interpreted. I suppose it’s up to the visitor whether an exhibit like this can get by on looks alone.

And so concludes day one of our trip. Next time, the Raymond M. Alf Museum and places south!

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, history of science, LACM, mammals, museums, paleoart, 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 exhibit 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 exhibit 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 exhibits, 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 exhibits 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 exhibits are created largely in collaboration with contractors). Only the biggest construction projects, such as the addition of a mezzanine over hall 2, had to be contracted out.

Arnie Lewis puts the finishing touches on Eryops. Photo from Smith 1994.

Scores of never-before-exhibited specimens were prepared for Fossils: History of Life. Examples include a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite from Australia, the reconstructed jaws of Carcharocles megalodon, and curator Nicholas Hotton’s beloved Thrinaxodon fossil, which he called “baby doll.” 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