Category Archives: mammals

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

A standing Quetzalcoatlus skeleton is a sight to behold, but is that enough? Photo by the author.

Last week, I checked two major fossil exhibits off my must-see list – the Morian Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Life Then and Now at the Perot Museum in Dallas. Although both exhibits opened the same year and cover the same basic subject matter, they are radically different in terms of aesthetics, design, and interpretation. Life Then and Now is unabashedly excellent and pretty much embodies everything I called a Good Thing in my series on paleontology exhibit design. I’ll be sure to discuss it in detail later on. Nevertheless, I’m itching to write about the HMNS exhibit first because it’s—in a word—weird. The Morian Hall essentially rejects the last quarter century of conventional wisdom in developing fossil displays, and for that matter, science exhibits of any kind.

The Morian Hall occupies a brand-new 36,000 square foot addition to HMNS, apparently the largest in the museum’s history. The first thing I noticed walking into the exhibit was that the space doesn’t look like any other science exhibit I’ve seen, past or present. Instead, it strongly resembles a contemporary art gallery, and this fossils-as-art aesthetic permeates every aspect of the exhibit design. Specimens are displayed against stark white backgrounds, with smaller fossils in austere wall cases and larger mounted skeletons on angular, minimalist platforms. Most objects are displayed individually, with lots of negative space between them. Interpretive labels, where present, are small and out of the way (and the text is all in Helvetica, because of course it is). There are no interactive components of any kind—no movies, no computer terminals, not even question-and-answer flip-up panels. The exhibit is defined by its own absence, the structural elements and labels fading into the background with the intent that nothing distract from the specimens themselves.

white walls and art gallery format

The HMNS paleontology exhibit looks and feels like a contemporary art gallery. Photo by the author.

For the benefit of those outside the museum field, I should clarify that for myself and many others trained in science and history museums, art museums are basically opposite world. In an art museum, objects are collected and displayed for their own sake. Each artwork is considered independently beautiful and thought-provoking, and curators often strive to reduce interpretation to the bare minimum. Some museums have gone so far as to forgo labels entirely, so that objects can be enjoyed and contemplated simply as they are. Not coincidentally, art museums have a reputation as being “highbrow” establishments that attract and cater to a relatively narrow group of people. People who do not fit the traditional definition of art museum visitor sometimes find these institutions irrelevant or even unwelcoming (more on that in a moment). This summation is hardly universal, but I would argue that the participatory, audience-centered art museum experiences created by Nina Simon and others are an exception that proves the rule.

Natural history museums are different. Collections of biological specimens are valuable because of what they represent collectively. These collections are physical representations of our knowledge of biodiversity, and we could never hope to understand, much less protect, the natural world without them. Each individual specimen is not necessarily interesting or even rare, but it matters because it is part of a larger story. It represents something greater, be it a species, a habitat, or an evolutionary trend. Likewise, modern natural history exhibits aren’t about the objects on display, but rather the big ideas those objects illustrate. Since the mid-2oth century, designers have sought to create exhibits that are accessible and meaningful learning experiences for the widest possible audience, and natural history museums are generally considered family-friendly destinations.

label your damn casts

You can tell Robert Bakker was involved because everyone is rearing. Photo by the author.

There is much to like in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. For one thing, the range of animals on display is incredible. I cherished the opportunity to stand in the presence of a standing Quetzalcoatlus, a Sivatherium, a gorgonopsid, and many other taxa rarely seen in museums. Other specimens are straight-up miracles of preservation and preparation, including a number of Eocene crabs from Italy. I also enjoyed that many of the mounts were in especially dynamic poses, and often interacting with one another. With fossil mount tableaus placed up high as well as at eye level, there was always incentive to look around and take in every detail.

Nevertheless, the art gallery aesthetic raised a number of red flags for me. To start, the minimalist design means that interpretation takes a serious hit. Although the exhibit is arranged chronologically, there are many routes through the space and the correct path is not especially clear. Meanwhile, there are no large headings that can be seen on the move—visitors need to go out of their way to read the small and often verbose text. All this means that the Morian Hall is an essentially context-free experience. Visitors are all but encouraged to view the exhibit as a parade of cool monsters, rather than considering the geological, climatic, and evolutionary processes that produced that diversity. There is an incredible, interrelated web of life through time on display in the Morian Hall, but I fear that most visitors are not being given the tools to recognize it. By decontextualizing the specimens, the exhibit unfortunately removes their meaning, and ultimately their reality*.

*Incidentally, most of the mounted skeletons are casts. This is quite alright, but I was very disappointed that they were not identified as such on accompanying labels.

gorgeous but what does it mean

This double-helix trilobite growth series is gorgeous—but what does it communicate, exactly? Photo by the author.

What’s more, the idealized, formal purity of the exhibit design echoes a darker era in the history of museums. It’s no secret that many of the landmark museums we know today were born out of 19th century imperialism. Colonial domination was achieved not only with military power, but through academia. When colonial powers took over another nation, they brought their archaeologists, naturalists, and ethnographers along to take control of the world’s understanding of that place, its environment, and its people. Museums were used to house and display natural and cultural relics of conquered nations, and to disseminate western scientists’ interpretation of these objects. Even today, it is all too common to see ethnographic objects displayed in austere exhibit spaces much like the Morian Hall of Paleontology. These displays erase the objects’ original cultural meaning. Dinosaurs don’t care about being silenced, of course, but it’s odd that HMNS would choose to bring back such loaded visual rhetoric.

Pretty ammonites with donor names prominently displayed send the wrong message. Photo by the author.

Pretty ammonites with donor names prominently displayed send the wrong message. Photo by the author.

My final concern with the art gallery format is the implication that fossils have monetary value. Fossils are priceless pieces of natural heritage, and they cannot be valued because they’re irreplaceable. While there is a thriving commercial market for rare fossils, a plurality of paleontologists do not engage with private dealers. Buying and selling significant fossils for private use is explicitly forbidden under the ethics statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and it is institutional policy at many museums that staff never discuss the monetary value of fossil specimens.

The art world has its own rules and standards. The price tags of famous pieces, including what a museum paid to acquire them, are widely known. Private collectors are celebrated, even revered. In fact, it is common to see exhibits built around a particular individual’s collection. These exhibits are not about an artist or period but the fact that somebody purchased these objects, and has given (or merely loaned) them to the museum. Two rooms in the Morian Hall are actually just that: otherwise unrelated specimens displayed together because they were donated by a specific collector. By displaying specimens with the same visual language as art objects, the Morian Hall undermines the message that fossils should not be for sale. Not only is the private fossil trade legitimized, it communicates that the primary value of fossils is their aesthetic appeal. Like the lack of contextual signage, this serves to obscure the specimens’ scientific meaning. Fossils are precious remains of real organisms, clues about ecosystems from long ago and the making of the world as we know it today. But that information is only available if they are publicly accessible, not sitting on someone’s mantelpiece.

action!

A truly remarkable fossil mount tableau, in which a mastodon flings a human hunter while a mammoth is driven off a “cliff” in the background. Photo by the author.

Now hold on (regular readers might be saying), haven’t I argued repeatedly that fossil mounts should be considered works of art? Absolutely, and that is part of why I was taken aback by this exhibit. The difference is that while the Morian Hall displays fossils the way art is traditionally exhibited, it does not interpret them like art. When I call fossil mounts works of art, I mean that they have authorship and context. They have encoded and decoded meaning, as well as relationships with their viewers, creators, host institutions, and ultimately, the animals they represent. Calling something art is opening it up to discussion and deconstruction. The HMNS exhibits do the opposite.

For the last few decades, natural history museums have been opening windows onto the process of creating knowledge. Modern exhibits seek to show how scientists draw conclusions from evidence, and invite visitors to do the same. In the Morian Hall, those windows are closed. Specimens are meant to be seen as they are, reducing the experience to only the object and the viewer. But there is no “as they are” for fossils. Thousands of hours of fossil preparation and mount construction aside, every display in that exhibit is the result of literally centuries of research into geology, anatomy, and animal behavior. These are representations of real animals, but they also represent the cumulative interpretive work of a great many people. The display simply isn’t complete without their stories.

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Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, HMNS, mammals, museums, opinion, paleoart, reviews, science communication

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 1

The Field Museum of Natural History (variously known as the Field Colombian Museum and the Chicago Museum of Natural History) was founded by wealthy philanthropists in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It has since expanded into one of the largest natural history museums in the world, a destination attraction and a hub for ongoing research. What follows is a summary of the historic paleontology exhibits at the Field Museum – when and how they expanded and changed, when major specimens were added, and who spearheaded these efforts.

As with my previous overviews of fossil exhibits at AMNH and NMNH, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or research by museum staff in any detail, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere (see Paul Brinkman’s extensive work, for starters). My primary interest here is in the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.

Phase I: The Field Columbian Museum

The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, principally as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Lasting six months and attended by 27 million people, the Exposition was monumental in size and scope. Years before it even opened, there was talk about using the Exposition displays to seed a new museum, which would rival the great natural history museums in New York and Washington, DC. Eager to establish an enduring cultural attraction in their city, a group of wealthy Chicagoans – including Marshall Field, who donated an unprecedented $1 million – contributed the necessary funds to buy up many of the Exposition’s exhibits and found the Field Columbian Museum.

As the largest and most elegant of the 200 temporary buildings constructed for the Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts became the Field Museum’s home. Frederick Skiff served as the first director, acting as an intermediary between the board of trustees and the new curatorial staff, who would manage the collections and assemble the exhibits. Skiff hired geologist Oliver Farrington to curate the earth science collections, a diverse mix of minerals, gems, meteorites, fossils, and fabricated displays purchased from the Henry Ward Natural Sciences Establishment. With thousands of specimens to catalog, Farrington was soon overwhelmed. He repeatedly asked Skiff to hire a paleontology specialist to support him, but the board (composed of the businessmen who founded the museum) was uninterested in paying more salaries or acquiring new specimens.

fossils

The model icthyosaur and thousands of fossils in cases were among the specimens purchased from the Ward Natural Sciences Establishment after the World’s Columbian Exposition. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

When the Field Columbian Museum opened on June 2nd, 1894, most the 5,000-piece fossil collection was on public display. In addition to the cases of as-yet unlabled invertebrates, plants, and other small fossils, the exhibit included several large reconstructions of prehistoric animals. As of opening day, a life reconstruction of a mammoth stood in the west court, while skeletons of MegalocerosScistopleurum, MegatheriumHadrosaurus, and a uintathere stood in halls 35 and 36. With the exception of the Megaloceros, these were all replicas of mounts from other institutions. The Hadrosaurus in particular was woefully outdated, considered by contemporary scholars to have “long since ceased to have any value except as a historic attempt” (Beecher 1901).

After completing his catalog of the earth science collections in 1896, Farrington continued to lobby for a dedicated staff paleontologist. The board paid no attention until 1897, when the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History announced ambitious plans to scour the western interior for fossils. So began what Brinkman calls the second Jurassic dinosaur rush – a frenzied race among leading American museums to be the first to collect and mount a sauropod dinosaur. Not wanting to be left behind by peer institutions, the trustees approved the conditional hiring of Elmer Riggs to collect dinosaurs for the Field Museum.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

Hadrosaurus stands among other fossil casts in the Field Columbian Museum. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Riggs and his classmate Barnum Brown cut their teeth in paleontology while studying under Samuel Wendell Williston at the University of Kansas. The two young men took part in an AMNH collecting expedition in 1896. Brown, who had quit his studies to work for the museum, quickly became a favorite at AMNH. Concerned about his own future, Riggs sent an unsolicited letter to Frederick Skiff, offering his skills as a fossil collector and preparator. The letter crossed Skiff’s desk at an opportune time, and in the summer of 1898 Riggs was paid a small stipend for a trial collecting trip with Farrington. The expedition was a success, and Riggs was hired as an Assistant Curator before the end of the year.

Riggs’ first three collecting seasons with the Field Museum were enormously successful. In addition to the holotype of Brachiosaurus, at the time the largest known dinosaur, Riggs collected a very-well-preserved back end of an Apatosaurus near Fruita, Colorado. Nevertheless, AMNH won the sauropod race when they completed their composite “Brontosaurus” mount in 1905. The Carnegie Museum had a Diplodocus on display in 1907, and was busy cranking out casts for European heads of state. While Riggs’ Apatosaurus was more complete than any single specimen the other museums had recovered, it was still only half a dinosaur. Riggs and Farrington repeatedly lobbied the board for funding to find more sauropod material with which to complete the skeleton, but the trustees had moved on to other things.

Riggs' Apatosaurus mount stood unfinished from 1908-1958. Photo from the Field Museum Library.

Riggs’ Apatosaurus mount stood unfinished from 1908-1958. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Plans were afoot to move the Field Museum to a new lakefront campus. However, when legal issues halted progress on the new building, Riggs was granted permission to mount the partial Apatosaurus in hall 35. The plaster casts previously displayed in this space were discarded, and unfortunately are now lost to history. A gas furnace was installed on the museum grounds, which Riggs and his small team used to shape massive steel I-beams for use in the armature. The teetering sauropod hindquarters was unveiled in 1908, but if Riggs hoped that the museum administrators would want to complete the mount once they saw how absurd the incomplete skeleton looked, he was out of luck.

Indeed, the years that followed were among the most frustrating of Riggs’ career. He received no funding to collect fossils after 1910, and could only look on enviously at the thriving paleontology research and exhibit programs at AMNH and the Carnegie Museum. The institutions in New York and Pittsburgh were headed by paleontologists, and bankrolled by wealthy fossil enthusiasts like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. By comparison, the Field Museum was controlled by trustees with seemingly little interest in paleontology. Already paid less than the museum’s other curators, Farrington and Riggs were left with meager resources and little to do until the 1920s.

Phase II: Halls 37 and 38

The Palace of Fine Arts was intended to last six months, and after ten years it was in dire shape. The roof leaked constantly, putting exhibits and collections in danger, and fences had to be placed around the perimeter to protect visitors from falling brick. Before his death in 1906, Marshall Field worked with architect Daniel Burnham to design a new home for the museum. It took years to settle disputes over where to place the building, but ground was eventually broken off Lake Shore Drive in 1915. Completed in 1920, the new Field Museum of Natural History was a gleaming marble fortress, decorated inside and out with intricate neoclassical reliefs and statuary.

hall 37

In the spirit of a classic cabinet of curiosity, some of the cases in Hall 37 contained over a thousand specimens apiece. Source

Exhibits and collections were transported by rail car, often without being removed from their display cases. Earth science exhibits found a new home on the west side of the upper level. Hall 37, an east-west facing gallery accessible directly off the west mezzanine, housed invertebrate and plant fossils. Hall 38, running north to south against the far west side of the building, contained vertebrate fossils. Although it was colloquially known as the “dinosaur hall”, this space never contained many dinosaurs. In the 1920s, the only dinosaurs to be found were the half-Apatosaurus, a Triceratops skull, an articulated “Morosaurus” (Camarasaurus) limb, and parts of Brachiosaurus. The bulk of the specimens on display were Cenozoic mammals, including horses, rhinos, camelids, and a mammoth and mastodon. There was also a life-sized “coal swamp” diorama behind a glass barrier, with large model insects suspended in flight.

This comparatively modest exhibit was expanded significantly between 1922 and 1927, when Elmer Riggs was once again able to collect fossils in the field. Thanks to a bequest from Marshall Field’s grandson, Riggs traveled to Alberta, Argentina, and Bolivia, securing many unique specimens along the way. These included several new species, like the marsupial cat Thylacosmilus and the predatory bird Andalgalornis. A colossal Megatherium Riggs recovered in Argentina was immediately mounted for display, and became one of the most memorable elements of Hall 38.

hall 38

A postcard of the partial Apatosaurus at the south end of Hall 38. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

A postcard of the north end of Hall 38, featuring a South American giant sloth and other Cenozoic mammals.

Megatherium at the north end of Hall 38. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Hall 38 also boasted a spectacular set of murals by Charles Knight. The undisputed master of paleontological reconstructions and wildlife art, Knight had a long working relationship with Henry Osborn, president of AMNH. Osborn had commissioned Knight to create many large and small paintings for his museum’s fossil exhibits, but the two frequently argued over Knight’s remuneration. For years, Osborn and Knight discussed a series of immense wall canvases illustrating the entire history of life. Osborn could never get the money together, however, and Knight refused to produce any concept sketches for fear that they would be turned over to a less-skilled artist. In 1926, the Field Museum’s board of trustees asked for a meeting with Knight about an identical project for their new fossil hall. The initial discussion did not go well, and Knight walked out when the trustees started making “suggestions” about the content, color, and composition of the proposed artwork. Knight was very talented, but also very particular. He gladly accepted anatomical expertise from scientists but would not suffer meddling with the artistic aspects of his work. Fortunately for both parties, Knight’s daughter/manager Lucy intervened, securing her father the biggest commission of his career.

Knight completed 28 murals for the Field Museum, the largest of them measuring 25 feet long and nine feet high. Subjects ranged from the Proterozoic primordial soup to an iconic standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. These images were not only painstakingly researched reconstructions based on the latest fossil evidence, they were (and still are) gorgeous works of art in their own right. With Knight’s murals in place, the Field Museum finally had a world-class paleontology exhibit.

hall 38 mastodon

The mastodon in Hall 38, with fossil horses visible beyond. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Gorgo in Stanley Field Hall. Photo courtesy of Field Museum Photo Archives.

Gorgosaurus” in the Stanley Field Hall. Photo courtesy of Field Museum Photo Archives.

Riggs retired in 1942, leaving paleontology at the Field Museum to the next generation, among them Eugene Richardson, Brian Patterson, and Orville Gilpin. In 1951, Richardson oversaw a thorough modernization of Hall 37. The number of specimens on display was drastically reduced, making room for more accessible explanations of the fossils and ten new dioramas of Paleozoic marine life. The resulting exhibit was one of the most comprehensive displays of fossil invertebrates in the world.

Although virtually no dinosaur research was done at the Field Museum between 1910 and the late 1990s, the 1950s saw the acquisition of two significant specimens for the benefit of the visiting public. In 1956, preparator Orville Gilpin assembled a Daspletosaurus (then called Gorgosaurus) for the central Stanley Field Hall. The skeleton was a surplus specimen from Barnum Brown’s years collecting along Alberta’s Red Deer River, and trustee Louis Ware spearheaded the effort to buy it from AMNH. Since the Daspletosaurus was acquired explicitly for display, Gilpin opted to skewer and otherwise permanently damage many of bones for the sake of an unobstructed, free-standing mount. In the mid 20th century, dinosaur fossils were thought of as display pieces first, and irreplaceable specimens second.

apatosaurus revised

The newly-finished Apatosaurus serves as a backdrop for an educational video shoot. Source

Two years after installing the Daspletosaurus, Gilpin finally completed Riggs’ partial Apatosaurus in Hall 38. When Edward Holt announced that he had discovered the front half of a sauropod near Green River, Utah, the Field Museum purchased the rights to excavate and display the find. Gilpin added the new fossils to the existing mount without dismantling Riggs’ heavy-duty armature. Relabeled “Brontosaurus” and erroneously given a casted Camarasaurus skull, the refreshed sauropod debuted in April 1958 – half a century after Riggs started the project.

The next three decades saw occasional piecemeal additions to the fossil halls. For example, the University of Chicago donated its entire geology collection to the Field Museum in 1965. This included a unique assortment of Permian amphibians and synapsids from the red beds of central Texas, many of them holotypes. Field Museum preparators remounted several of these specimens and integrated them into the exhibits. Nevertheless, Hall 38 never received a complete overhaul, and by the late 1980s it was quite dated. Not only were the fossil mounts in stiff, tail-dragging poses, but the stilted label copy written by curators past did not meet modern expectations for natural history exhibits. Even the vibrant Charles Knight murals looked tired behind years of accumulated dust and dirt. In short, the Field Museum was long overdue for a total re-imaging of its paleontology displays.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Field Museum’s fossil exhibits from the 1990s onward. Stay tuned!

References

Beecher, C.E. 1901. The reconstruction of a Cretaceous dinosaur, Claosaurus annectens Marsh. Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. 11: 311-324.

Brinkman, P.D. 2000. Establishing Vertebrate Paleontology at Chicago’s Field Colombian Museum: 1893-1898. Archives of Natural History 27: 1: 81-114.

Brinkman, P.D. 2o10. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Glut, D.F. 2001. Remembering the Field Museum’s Hall 38. Jurassic Classics: A Collection of Saurian Essays and Mesozoic Musings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Lelièvre, M A. 2006. Evolving Planet: Constructing the Culture of Science at Chicago’s Field Museum. Anthropologica 48: 2: 293-296.

Milner, R. 2012. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York, NY: Abrams.

Tubitis, T.J. 2005. Revitalizing Life Over Time: A New Look for a Very Old Topic. In the Field 76: 2: 18.

Williams, P.M. 1968. The Burham Plan and the Field Museum. Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 39: 5: 8-12.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles, sauropods

Envisioning the Ice Age at NMNH

neanderthal diorama

The neanderthal burial diorama. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man, 1974.

On September 13, 1974, the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man opened in Hall 6 at the National Museum of Natural History. Part of the “third wave” of NMNH exhibits, the Ice Age Hall was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration and a new drive to create more accessible, visitor-centric museum experiences. Specifically, the exhibit was a response to increasing pressure for museums to become destination attractions, valuing visitors’ desire to be entertained above anything else. The Ice Age Hall was meant to prove that good science and the intrinsic value of specimens could, in fact, be applied in a way that would appeal to contemporary audiences. The curators, designers, educators, and artists involved with the project saw it as an important departure from old methodologies, and expected it to be a template for future exhibits. This transition did not necessarily come easily, but for 40 years the results spoke for themselves.

The Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates

wegegeg

Large fossil mounts in the short-lived Pleistocene Hall. Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Despite the fanfare accompanying the Ice Age Hall’s opening, NMNH regulars would be forgiven for noticing that much of the exhibit looked familiar. Just four years earlier, this same space saw the opening of the brand-new Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. This was the fifth and final phase of a thorough re-imagining of the museum’s fossil displays that began in 1959. Under the guidance of exhibit designer Ann Karras, the loose arrangement of specimens that had characterized the east wing for half a century was replaced with a directed narrative of the biological and geological history of the Earth.

This new direction was motivated by complementary revolutions in the museum field and in paleontology. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. At NMNH, this change in ideology inspired paleontologists to break away from the Geology Department and form their own Department of Paleobiology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Piano wire barely visible. Photo from Marsh 2014.

Two dire wolves posed over a horse. This display didn’t make it into the Ice Age Hall. Source

As Curator of Paleontology, C.L. Gazin oversaw most of the east wing modernization and designed the Tertiary Mammals exhibit in Hall 4 himself. Gazin retired in 1970, however, so responsibility for the unfinished Quaternary exhibit in Hall 6 went to new hire Clayton Ray, the Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals. To fill out the Quaternary Hall, Ray arranged a number of trades with other museums. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County provided a saber toothed cat, two dire wolves, and the sheep-sized sloth Paramylodon (USNM 15164) from the La Brea tar pits, while the American Museum of Natural History was able to spare a bison “mummy” (USNM 26387) and a taxidermied musk ox. Ray also selected a complete set of mammoth bones from the AMNH collections, which were found during a gold mining operation near Fairbanks, Alaska. The bones were collected individually and belonged to an unknown number of individuals (they may well represent multiple species), but they were sufficient for preparator Leroy Glenn to construct a complete mounted skeleton.

Ray placed the new mammoth (USNM 23792) alongside the Michigan mastodon (USNM 8204), which had been on display since 1904. The mammoth was so tall that it had less than an inch of clearance with the ceiling. The other big draw in  the Quaternary Hall was a pair of never-before-exhibited giant sloths (USNM 20867 and USNM 20872) assembled from material Gazin collected in Panama. Referred to as “megatheres” at the time, these sloths are actually Eremotherium, and they are composites of at least eight individuals. The giant sloths were positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. All four giant mammal skeletons were supplemented with 1/5th scale life restorations created by staff artist Vernon Rickman. Exhibits specialist Lucius Lomax came up with the idea to display the fossil mounts behind piano wire, stretched from the floor to the ceiling and arranged in rows. The Eremotherium platform alone required 500 strands – or about 6000 feet – of wire.

A New Vision

Chimera mammoth

The composite mammoth looms over other specimens along the right wall of the Ice Age Hall. Photo by the author.

Neither NMNH staff nor museum visitors were overjoyed with the Quaternary Hall as it stood in 1970. The piano wire Lomax had installed was a frequent cause for complaint: visitors would constantly pluck at the strings and occasionally break them. The wires also ruined photos. Automatic lenses would focus on the wire, so when visitors got their vacation pictures developed they would end up with a bunch of images of vertical strands with darkness beyond them. Nevertheless, the piano wire was really just a scapegoat for deep-seated disagreements over content between paleontology curators and exhibit designers. This apparently unsolvable clash of personalities contributed to the hall being closed indefinitely after just a couple years.

Paleontologist Porter Kier became Director of NMNH in 1973, and one of his first moves was to assemble a new team to reinvent the Quaternary Hall. Paleobotanist Leo Hickey, geologists Robert Emery and Thomas Simkin, and anthropologist William Fitzhugh conceived of an interdisciplinary exhibit that would explore the ice ages from multiple perspectives. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans would all be presented in a single, holistic story. In what was at the time a novel development, the curators worked with Elaine Anderson and other “conceptualizers/writers” from the Office of Exhibits. The scientists conceived of the main ideas and ensured factual accuracy, but the Office of Exhibits ultimately wrote the label copy and oversaw the construction of the exhibition.

arch section

A statue of an archaeologist at work was a popular part of the exhibit. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974.

To accommodate new content, the existing Quaternary Hall layout had to be completely gutted and replaced. Although Clayton Ray was conspicuously absent from the exhibit team, most of the modern and fossil animal specimens he had gathered were reused in different locations. The center of the exhibit became an enclosed theater with a video presentation about the advance and retreat of North American glaciers. The north end of the hall was overtaken by human evolution displays. Replica skulls and full-body illustrations showed the progression of hominids from australopithicines to modern humans, amusingly represented by a hippie. Vernon Rickman returned to create a life-sized diorama depicting a neanderthal burial ceremony. While directly based on excavations at Regourdou Cave in France, the scene was also inspired by the much-publicized Shanidar Cave site in Iraq, where neanderthals allegedly laid their dead to rest on a bed of freshly picked flowers. Finally, a cast of an engraved mammoth tusk, based on a 25,000 year old original from the Czech Republic, was added to the south entrance. This piece was meant to tie the exhibit’s narrative together, symbolizing “man’s emergence in the ice age as a dominant influence on other animals and his environment” (Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974).

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution archives.

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Ice Age Hall was completed remarkably quickly. Kier pulled the team together in early 1974 and the new displays were designed, written, and fabricated by September. At least internally, a great deal of excitement accompanied the reopening of Hall 6. The Ice Age Hall was a serious departure from how exhibit work had traditionally been done at NMNH, but it also represented an attempt by the museum to stand its ground in the face of pressure to delve into “edutainment.” This was a trial run at developing a visitor-focused but science-driven exhibit, and everyone involved was anxious to see how the public would react.

Legacy of the Exhibit

Eremotherium today. Photo by the author.

Few visitors can help but stop in their tracks at the sight of the Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

In 1978, Robert Wolf and Barbara Tymitz published a “naturalistic/responsive” evaluation of the Ice Age Hall. Their groundbreaking and oft-cited methodology involved interviewing visitors and surreptitiously tracking them through the gallery space, seeking to understand how museumgoers were using and interpreting the “complex set of stimuli” presented by the exhibit. This document, and especially the taxonomy of visitor types it describes, may well have influenced the museum field more than the Ice Age Hall itself.

According to Wolf and Tymitz, the Ice Age Hall was largely successful. Visitors generally remembered the major topics under discussion, and frequently left more curious about natural history than when they entered. They also noticed the difference in layout from the rest of the museum, describing it as easier to navigate and understand. Not surprisingly, the mammoth, mastodon, Eremotherium, and neanderthal burial were the most popular and most photographed objects. In comparison, the carved mammoth tusk at the front of the hall recieved surprisingly little attention. This object was intended to be tie the entire exhibit together, but most people ignored it entirely. Likewise, the separation of North and South American animals via an architectural “land bridge” was completely lost on visitors. Wolf and Tymitz observed that visitors entering from the south paid more attention to the fossil mounts, while visitors entering from the north were drawn to the glacier theater. A lesson about the importance of sight lines and traffic flow lies therein.

La brea mounts. Photo by the author.

Paramylodon and Smilodon from the La Brea tar pits. Take a good look at the sloth, because it won’t be returning in 2019. Photo by the author.

After 40 years, not every element of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man aged gracefully. Most obviously, the androcentric title and frequent use of the word “man” to describe humans throughout the label copy comes across as painfully dated. Displays that warned of another period of global cooling were removed (or at least stopped being lit) when anthropogenic warming emerged as a crucial public policy concern. The multimedia demonstration of continental glaciation was shut down by the early 2000s, and the human evolution corner was boarded up once the Hall of Human Origins opened in 2010. While the neanderthal diorama remained on display, recent research has shown that the affectionate burial it depicts is probably a misinterpretation. Ironically, the gradual removal of geology and anthropology components effectively turned the Ice Age Hall into the straightforward menagerie of Pleistocene animals that Ray initially envisioned.

The Ice Age Hall closed along with the rest of the NMNH fossil displays in April 2014. When the east wing reopens, many of the specimens will return restored and remounted, but in a different location. Since the new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order, Hall 8 itself will house displays on the origins of life and an expanded FossiLab. Still, the Ice Age Hall experiment continues to leave its mark on the museum. The collaborative workflow and sharing of responsibilities between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists pioneered in the development of this exhibit remains standard practice today. The result has been ever more effective displays, providing solid scientific content to the widest possible audience.

References

Eschelman, R.E., Emry, R.J., Domning, D.P. and Bohaska, D.J. (2002). Biography and Bibliography of Clayton Edward Ray. Cenozoic Mammals of Land and Sea: Tributes to the Career of Clayon E. Ray. Emry, R.J., ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology.

Lay, M. (2013). Major Activities of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology During the 1960s. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/lay1960s.html

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

Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (1974). Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man. Washington, DC: Elephant Press.

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

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Filed under anthropology, education, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, science communication

See the Elephant

Fenykovi elephant at the National Museum of Natural History, September 2014. Photo by the author.

National Museum of Natural History rotunda, September 2014. Photo by the author.

The iconic Fénykövi elephant, the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History rotunda since 1959, received an update last week in the form of a new interpretive platform. Like the Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History and Máximo at the Field Museum, this African bush elephant is the first object most NMNH visitors see upon entering. With its ears forward and its trunk raised, the elephant stands over 13 feet tall—larger than any elephant known to be living today. But in spite of its inspiring presence as the symbol of the museum, this elephant has a problematic history that NMNH has long struggled to interpret.

Hungarian-born Josef J. Fénykövi shot the elephant in Angola in 1955. Fénykövi owned a ranch in the west African nation (at the time a Portuguese colony), where he spent several months each year hunting wildlife. After discovering the existence of an unusually large bull elephant in 1954, Fénykövi returned the following year equipped to track and kill what was thought to be the biggest land animal on the planet. Fénykövi and his team of guides located the giant elephant on November 13th, and eventually downed it after a full-day chase*. A truck filled with salt was required to keep the hide fresh during the hundred-mile journey from the kill site to the nearest train station in Kuito. Rather than keep the trophy for himself, Fénykövi decided to donate the animal to a museum. He offered it to the London Natural History Museum first, but the process was taking too long for his taste so he gave the elephant to the Smithsonian, instead. Later, an old-fashioned slug from a flintlock pistol found embedded in the elephant’s leg provided reason to believe the animal had been nearly 100 years old when Fénykövi killed it.

*Fénykövi’s account gives the impression that the guides did most of the work. They tracked the elephant’s prints and spoor on foot while Fénykövi followed in a jeep, and a man named Mario fired the shots that actually finished off the animal. 

The acquisition and subsequent exhibition of the Fénykövi elephant at NMNH gives us a great deal to unpack. The collection of animals for public display has fallen sharply out of favor over the past century. In the late 1800s, little worlds behind glass populated by taxidermy animals provided the increasingly urban public a window into the natural world they felt they had left behind. But even in Fénykövi’s day, popular opinion was beginning to turn against the practice. For most, this aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the unpleasantness of being confronted with a dead animal. Some scholars rightly call attention to the imperialism and exoticism inherent in collecting animals from far-flung lands. This criticism is especially apt for Fénykövihis story contains more than a whiff of imperialist entitlement.

Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives..

The fact that the elephant was killed as a trophy complicates matters still further. It’s one thing for a museum to display an animal that was sacrificed for science—to better understand its biology or to contribute to a record of biodiversity. Displaying a trophy is quite another. While a typical museum taxidermy display represents the life of an animal, a trophy mount celebrates that animal’s death. As Poliquin explains, “trophies arouse negative reactions not simply because they are evidence that a human killed an animal…they are evidence of a human’s desire to kill an animal” (Poliquin 2010, 152). Indeed, it is arguably impossible to fully separate a trophy mount from the narrative of the creature’s demise.

For Fénykövi, the meaning of the elephant is obvious. It represented a specific, triumphant event in his life, an attempt to communicate something about himself through the death of animal. NMNH staff have faced the much greater challenge of interpreting Fénykövi’s trophy for the millions of visitors that enter the rotunda every year. For 60 years, they have struggled to present this animal, selfishly killed by a wealthy colonial, in a way that matched the museum’s conservation-oriented mission.

The elephant’s original context unfortunately left something to be desired. The traditional, circular pedestal in the center of the NMNH rotunda did not effectively distance the specimen from it’s origin as a trophy, and the museum was occasionally criticized for complicity with big-game hunting and the colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the elephant did eventually earn an identity as a symbol for the museum, largely separate from the man who killed it. Credit for this accomplishment goes to William Brown and Norman Deaton, who prepared and mounted the hide over sixteen months. Brown and Deaton managed to imbue this dead skin over a wood-and-plaster frame with an astonishing amount of life and character. The elephant holds court in the four-story rotunda, exuding confidence and power over its domain. It’s an unforgettable sight, and it almost makes one forget that this animal is only there because it lost a fight.

Words Source

The 1999 habitat diorama platform—my favorite iteration. Source

Still, it was clear by the 1990s that while the elephant was there to stay, it needed to be more thoughtfully contextualized. In 1999, NMNH replaced the old pedestal with a large, open diorama of the Angolan savanna, which brought the elephant three feet higher off the ground. The project was completed entirely by in-house staff, and was funded in part by a donation from Kenneth Behring (a big-game hunter, among other things). In the revised display, the elephant was the focal point of a story that encompassed every department at the museum. A jackal and an assortment of birds (a lilac-breasted roller, a carmine bee eater, and a white-backed vulture) joined the elephant on the platform, while Angolan grasses and trees completed the scene. Ants, flies, and dung beetles (pushing dung balls cast from examples collected at the National Zoo) abounded. A tin can implied to have been tied to a tree by a local herder represented Anthropology, and bones of the extinct proboscidian Palaeoloxodon recki covered Paleobiology. In short, this display elegantly introduced visitors to everything the museum has to offer, while reinforcing the breadth and significance of natural history collections.

The elephant’s platform has now been rebuilt once again. The elephant stands at the same height and at the same angle, but the footprint of the base has been cut back significantly. The savanna diorama is gone, replaced with a straight-edged marble pedestal. Light and dark marble stripes reflect the rotunda’s classic architecture, particularly the columns in front of each of the main halls. The compass rose on the rotunda floor, hidden since the elephant was first installed in 1959, is visible once again. It grounds the elephant display nicely, especially when viewed from the second floor. Finally, the new elephant platform now includes an information desk. It seems sensible to incorporate a bit of functionality into the display, and fortunately this addition does not noticeably detract from exhibit’s overall aesthetics.

Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The interdisciplinary interpretation has been removed*, replaced by displays that focus on elephant behavior and the omnipresent threat of poaching. In fact, the only objects on display besides the elephant itself are three ivory sculptures that were seized by customs. The inclusion of these sculptures is a little strange, since it reinforces that ivory products are actually very pretty. Hopefully the adjacent message that elephant poaching has tripled since 1998—and that an elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes—will be enough to convince visitors that it isn’t worth it.

*The one exception is a graphic that places modern elephants in their evolutionary and temporal context, featuring nearly photo-real artwork by Mauricio Anton. 

To its credit, the new display banishes Fénykövi from the elephant’s story—I didn’t see his name mentioned once. While I don’t think it’s possible (or more to the point, appropriate) to completely erase this specimen’s problematic history, it’s encouraging that it has taken on a second life as a cherished ambassador for its threatened species. I can think of no better outcome for an animal that was killed as a trophy.

What do you think of the new display? Which version do you like best?

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Love, S. (1997). Curators as Agents of Change: An Insect Zoo for the Nineties. Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Poliquin, R. (2010). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (2010). Explore Our Collections: Fénykövi Elephant. http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH, reviews

Permo-Triassic Synapsids at NMNH

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, museum theory and paleontological science were undergoing complementary revolutions. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced visitor-centric, education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists like Stephen J. Gould and David Raup moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Between 1953 and 1963, the Smithsonian implemented an institution-wide modernization program, transforming virtually every exhibit in the museum complex. The National Museum of Natural History began renovations to its classic fossil halls in 1959, and the new exhibits were emblematic of contemporary trends in both museum design and paleontology. The plan, as devised by exhibit designer Ann Karras, was to do away with the loose arrangement of specimens and turn the east wing into a guided narrative of the biological and geological history of Earth. Responsibility for selecting specimens and writing label copy in each of the four halls fell to a different curator. In Hall 2, which housed dinosaurs and fossil reptiles, that curator was Nicholas Hotton.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

Layout of the NMNH east wing as of 1963.

Hotton joined NMNH in 1959 as an Associate Curator of Paleontology. Entirely onboard with Karras’s vision and the paleobiology movement as a whole, Hotton described the old exhibits as “crowded” and “unorganized.” He thought NMNH had plenty of dinosaurs, but “mammal-like reptiles”* were sorely needed if Hall 2 was to tell the complete story of amniote evolution. Following that, Hotton’s mission over the next several years was to assemble a respectable collection of synapsid specimens for NMNH, and to incorporate them into a well-illustrated exhibit on the origins of mammals. This post highlights just a few of the specimens featured in Hotton’s version of Hall 2.

*In Hotton’s day, early mammalian relatives were usually called “mammal-like reptiles”, hence their inclusion in the fossil reptile exhibit. Today, most specialists prefer a more precise definition of reptiles that excludes synapsid (mammal-line) animals. In this post, I will be using the modern classification wherever possible. 

The Dimetrodon

Prior to 1960, the non-mammalian synapsid collections at NMNH were mostly limited to early Permian pelycosaurs. The most impressive of these was a Dimetrodon gigas collected in 1917 by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg. One of the best collectors of his day, Sternberg worked intermittently for E.D. Cope, O.C. Marsh, and various North American museums. In the summer of 1917, however, Sternberg was on a personal collecting trip with his son Levi. Their target was the Craddock Ranch bone bed of Baylor County, Texas, which was first explored in 1909 by a University of Chicago team. Sternberg was already quite familiar with this part of western Texas, having made some of the first thorough surveys of the Permian “red beds” in the 1880s, but the site itself was new to him. Nevertheless, Sternberg was extraordinarily successful that summer, collecting hundreds of fossils from a wide range of animals. He offered this bounty to the Smithsonian, and they purchased it from him immediately.

The Craddock Ranch fossils were particularly appealing because of their unique preservation. Buried in soft clay at the bottom of a shallow pond, the fossils could be removed from the ground with relative ease, and were largely free of encrusting matrix. Although few of the bones were articulated, many were identifiable. All told, the Sternberg collection included at least 35 skulls and partial skeletons from amphibians like Cardiocephalus, Diplocaulus, and Seymouria, plus hundreds of individual Dimetrodon bones, and a single articulated Dimetrodon specimen.

Note short tail

An early photograph of the Dimetrodon mount. Image from Gilmore 1919.

Dimetrodon first displaed on north wall

The Dimetrodon was first displayed on the north wall of the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Source

That Dimetrodon (USNM 8635) was the basis for a mount constructed by T.J. Horne. The articulated skeleton included a complete series of presacral vertebrae, the shoulder girdles, most of the forelimbs, and the left femur and tibia. The skull and jaw bones were found disarticulated, but bound together in the same mass of matrix as the skeleton. Horne added the pelvic bones and sacrum from smaller Dimetrodon specimens, and sculpted the rest of the missing material in plaster to complete the mount. Notably, his reconstructed tail was extremely short and stubby. Although the American Museum and Field Museum already had Dimetrodon mounts on display, the NMNH version stood out because of its open jaws, which Charles Gilmore said “gives the animal an appearance of angrily defying one who has suddenly blocked his path.”

Gilmore added the Dimetrodon to the Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1918. Like the other standing mounts constructed under Gilmore’s supervision, the skeleton was placed on a base textured and painted to resemble the rocks in which it was found. At this point in time, the NMNH fossil halls lacked any overarching organizational scheme, and interpretive content was minimal. Nevertheless, Gilmore displayed the Dimetrodon mount with both a small model and a 15-foot oil painting by Garnet Jex, which provided general audiences a better understanding of the animal’s life appearance.

dimetrodon

Dimetrodon in the 1963 fossil reptiles exhibit. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dimetrodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

Dimetrodon after the 1981 renovation. Photo by the author.

During the 1962 renovation, Hotton re-contextualized the classic Dimetrodon mount as a mammal ancestor. Unmissable orange arrows pointed to the specific anatomical traits that signify the animal’s kinship with mammals, including heterodont teeth and a single temporal fenestra. By design, visitors would pass Dimetrodon before visiting the true mammals in the adjacent hall.

The Dimetrodon skeleton itself was altered during the next renovation in 1981, when it was placed on a new, untextured base and given a longer replica tail. Contemporary staff also repainted the plaster sections to more closely resemble the original fossils – a surprising reversal of Gilmore and Horne’s original intention to make the reconstructed bones obvious to viewers.

The Thrinaxodon

Pelycosaurs like Dimetrodon represent the first major synapsid radiation, but by the middle Permian they were almost entirely replaced by therapsids. A more derived group which includes modern mammals, therapsids spread across the globe and became increasingly diverse as the Permian progressed. From weasel-sized burrowers to multi-ton herbivores, non-mammalian therapsids were among the first animal groups to conquer a wide range of terrestrial niches. Hotton wanted to tell this story in the modernized fossil exhibit, but there were hardly any non-mammalian therapsids in the NMNH collections. To correct this problem, Hotton took to the field for several months in 1960, and again in 1961. He joined James Kitching in exploring the Beafort Group rocks of South Africa, which were known to produce plentiful Permian and Triassic vertebrate fossils. Hotton returned to the museum with over 200 new specimens, the best of which were used in the renovated exhibit.

Hotton’s display of South African synapsids and amphibians. Note “Baby Doll” on the far left. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Thrinraxodon with Cynognathus skull

Thrinaxodon paired with Cynognathus skull. Photo by the author.

Hotton’s most prized find from South Africa was a gorgeously preserved and nearly complete Thrinaxodon liorhinus (USNM 22812). Hotton called this specimen “Baby Doll”, and while it was not prepared in time for Hall 2’s 1963 opening, it would later earn a spot of honor in the exhibit. Before that happened, though, Baby Doll was actually stolen by an over-enthusiastic volunteer. The FBI located and returned the fossil a year and a half later.

Since the 1980s, the Thrinaxodon has been displayed alongside the skull of Cynognathus crateronotus (USNM 22813), which Hotton collected on the same expedition. Both are members of the cynodont clade, which includes some of the closest relatives of modern mammals.

 The Daptocephalus

Less than a month after hall 2 reopened, Nicholas Hotton returned to South Africa. This time, he was accompanied by his spouse Ruth Hotton and their three young children. For seven months, the Hottons traveled among fossil sites on different ranches, camping most nights. They collected some 300 specimens for the Smithsonian, and Hotton’s biostratigraphic mapping of the Beaufort Group brought a measure of clarity to this region’s historically convoluted geology.

Ruth Hotton made one of the trip’s most impressive finds while prospecting in a dry riverbed with her daughter, Carol (who is now a paleobotanist at NMNH). Turning a corner, she stumbled upon a dicynodont skeleton, completely exposed and lying in the middle of the channel. One can only imagine the surprise and delight of finding an articulated fossil skeleton completely uncovered. If the Hottons had been there one season earlier or one season later, the river would have undoubtedly destroyed the fossils.

Daptocephalus on display. Photo by James Di Loreto, National Museum of Natural History.

Back at the museum, Nicholas Hotton prepared the specimen (USNM 299746) and determined it to be Daplocephalus leoniceps, one of the plethora of dicynodonts known from the Beaufort Group. Based on this classification, he reconstructed the damaged skull to resemble more complete Daplocephalus specimens, and added casts of Daplocephalus limbs.

The specimen was restored in 2019 and is now labeled Platypodosaurus. Photo by the author.

As it turns out, however, USNM 299749 is not a Daplocephalus—it is a somewhat distantly related dicynodont currently called Platypodosaurus. To varying degrees, fossil mounts are hypotheses made of bone and plaster. They are based on the best information available at the time, but sometimes they need to be corrected. The NMNH “Daplocephalus” had been mislabeled and erroneously reconstructed for many years, but the 2014 renovation of the NMNH fossil halls now presented an opportunity to deconstruct the specimen and study it up close. As of 2019, Platypodosaurus was back on display with a newly reconstructed skull and limbs.

Thanks to Christian Kammerer for kindly sharing images and insight on “Daptocephalus”!

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1919). A Mounted Skeleton of Dimetrodon gigas in the United States National Museum, with Notes on the Skeletal Anatomy. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 56:2300:525-539.

Kammerer, C. (2015). Personal communication.

Lay, M. (2013). Major Activities of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology During the 1960s. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/lay1960s.html

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

Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the Fossil record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 2

Start with History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1.

During his leadership of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and later, the museum at large, Henry Osborn oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the institution’s paleontology exhibits. As fossils poured in from the Department’s international collecting expeditions, these displays expanded into five separate galleries on the museum’s fourth floor. During the first two decades of the 20th century, AMNH staff was installing newly prepared and mounted specimens every single year, and AMNH was the undisputed center of American vertebrate paleontology. The increasingly marginal role of descriptive natural history in the greater field of biology at this time made the scale of Osborn’s program all the more impressive.

Nevertheless, this golden age of fossil exhibits would not last forever. Osborn supported the expensive expeditions and monumental displays through his personal connections with wealthy benefactors. The combination of the Great Depression and Osborn’s death in 1933 all but eliminated this source of income, and the museum had to scale back its activities considerably. In 1942, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work continued under the Department of Geology, but with only a fraction of its former staff and budget.

Phase IV: 1940 – 1955

amnhmap_1939

In the post-Osborn era, responsibility for the fourth floor exhibits deservedly transferred to Barnum Brown. Indeed, Brown’s adventures as a swashbuckling fossil hunter not only brought him personal fame, but made the museum’s world-class paleontology exhibits what they were. Of the 36 dinosaurs on display by 1939, no less than 27 had been discovered by Brown. Most of these iconic finds were made in his 20s and 30s, but Brown nevertheless remained at AMNH for most of his life. Even after officially retiring in 1943, Brown still frequented the museum, often giving spontaneous personal tours of the exhibits.

brown's jurassic hall

Brown’s Jurassic Hall, around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

In 1932, the architectural firm Trowbridge and Livingston completed the 13th building in the AMNH complex. This meant that for the first time, the paleontology exhibits formed a complete circuit, an arrangement that persists to this day. Brown opted to spread the dinosaurs into two halls, making the new space the Jurassic Hall and converting the Osborn-era Great Hall of Dinosaurs into the Cretaceous Hall. Several existing fossil mounts had to be moved as a result, including the massive “Brontosaurus.”  Eyeballing the widths of the doorways and corridors separating the present day Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs (formerly the Jurassic Hall) and Hall of Ornithiscian Dinosaurs (formerly the Cretaceous Hall and Great Hall of Dinosaurs), it’s difficult to imagine how museum staff could have moved the 66-foot sauropod in one piece. This photograph suggests that the skeleton was divided into several sections, which then had to be brought down the freight elevator on one side of museum and carted around to an elevator on the other side. This would be the third and final position for the “Brontosaurus” – even when the mount was updated  in 1995, preparators left the torso and legs in place.

brown's cretaceous hall

Brown’s Cretaceous Hall, around 1939. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1930s and 40s saw a number of new dinosaur mounts added to the displays, nearly all of which were discovered by Brown. The new Jurassic Hall gained a Stegosaurus and Tenontosaurus (oddly, not a Jurassic dinosaur), and the Cretaceous Hall gained Brown’s astonishingly intact Centrosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Styracosaurus from Alberta.

Phase V: 1956 – 1990

amnhmap_1956

Edwin Colbert joined AMNH in 1930 as Osborn’s assistant (he called this “a time of experiences and incidents,” whatever that means). Eventually rising to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Colbert was one of only a handful of mid-century researchers studying dinosaurs. He is also notable for his public outreach — in collaboration with his partner, Margaret Colbert, he wrote more than 20 popular books about paleontology.

In 1953, Colbert worked with exhibit specialist Katharine Beneker to redesign the Jurassic and Cretaceous Halls. The Jurassic Hall received the most dramatic aesthetic makeover — windows were covered up to create a “black box” effect, while the dinosaur mounts were illuminated dramatically from above and below. The most significant addition to this space wasn’t a standing mount, but a trace fossil. Exhibit developers incorporated several slabs of sauropod tracks (collected at the Paluxy River in Texas by Roland T. Bird) into the central pedestal, as though left behind by the “Brontosaurus.” Cemented together, the slabs weighed 22 tons — apparently nobody expected that they would ever need to be moved. The fossil fish alcove, formerly part of the 1905 Hall of Fossil Reptiles, also found a home in this space.

In stark contrast to the Charles Knight oil and watercolor murals commissioned by Osborn, Colbert elected to decorate the Jurassic Hall with a series of understated chalk drawings. Joseph Guerry created the illustrations, which was then projected onto the walls and traced in chalk. The initial plan was to paint over the chalk outlines, but Colbert enjoyed the blackboard-like look and left them as they were. The exhibit team didn’t even add fixative, since it would have turned the lines an unpleasant yellow.

Jurassic hall colbert. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The Jurassic —or Brontosaur— Hall opened in 1953. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Architectural modifications to the Cretaceous Hall were minimal, although the standing dinosaur mounts were all clustered onto a single platform. Interestingly, both the National Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Natural History would arrange their dinosaurs in precisely the same way within the decade. While it’s possible that these museums were copying AMNH, this similarity is probably a reflection of the transition to more holistic natural history displays that was occurring in museums nationwide. Rather than displaying specimens individually, exhibit designers in the 1950s and 60s began to arrange them in meaningful ways — for example, grouping animals with a shared habitat. The Cretaceous Hall also gained some new specimens, including an array of Protoceratops skulls recovered during the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Signs and labels were updated with more approachable language, once again reflecting contemporary museum theory.

The Cretaceous —or Tyrannosaur— Hall opened in 1954. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, some of the oldest AMNH fossil exhibits were retired and replaced during this period. In 1961, the classic geology hall — the oldest exhibit on the fourth floor — became the research library and was closed to regular museum visitors. Its spiritual successor was the new Earth History exhibit, which replaced Osborn’s Hall of the Age of Man. Around the same time, George Gaylord Simpson curated what was colloquially known as the “Sloth Hall.” Occupying the space that was once the Hall of Fossil Reptiles, this exhibit featured ground sloths and glyptodonts, plus a sizable display demonstrating how fossils are collected and prepared. Only the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained ostensibly untouched during this wave of modernization.

The Hall of Advanced Mammals in 1982. Some sections were boarded up but remaining exhibits were virtually unchanged from the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1950s and 60s iterations of the AMNH fossil halls endured for 30 years, making them the longest-lasting versions to date. Displays like the “Brontosaurus” and Tyrannosaurus became immutable symbols for the institution, visited again and again by generations of museum-goers. However, time gradually took its toll. A large section of the Hall of Fossil Mammals was boarded up, since museum staff had removed so many specimens for study or conservation. Railings were eventually added to the Jurassic Hall, because it was too tempting for visitors to join the dinosaurs on the platform, Ke$ha-style.

The Brontosaur Hall in 1988. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Most importantly, the exhibit content became increasingly out-of-date with each passing year. This obsolescence permeated nearly every aspect of the exhibits, from the discussion of the dinosaurs’ extinction to the drab, earth-tone aesthetics. However, the most visibly antiquated elements were the fossil mounts themselves. A new wave of dinosaur research demonstrated that these animals had been active and socially sophisticated, a far cry from the the coldblooded tail-draggers that populated the galleries. AMNH had once been the center of American paleontology, but by the late 1980s its dated displays were lagging far behind newer museums.

Phase VI: 1995 – Present

amnhmap_1995

Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive, $44 million renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits (previously discussed here and here). The original plan was to renovate only the Hall of Fossil Mammals, since it had remained largely unaltered since 1895. Within a year, however, the project had expanded to encompass all six halls on the fourth floor, telling the entire story of vertebrate evolution. Two primary goals originated very early in the planning process. First, the “walk through time” layout would be replaced with one rooted in phylogenetic classification. The cladistic methodology for tracing organisms’ evolutionary history became the central theme that unified the new exhibits. This required a fairly substantial reorganization of existing specimens. The mammals could remain in the same two halls, but the denizens of the Jurassic and Cretaceous halls had to be rearranged to feature Saurischian and Ornithiscian dinosaurs, respectively. Meanwhile, the research library moved to a new location to make way for the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

Advanced Mammals

The Hall of Advanced Mammals was the first renovated exhibit opened to the public. Photo by the author.

The second major goal was to restore the original architecture in each hall, ensuring that both the historic specimens and the spaces they occupied would come “as close to their original grandeur as possible” (Dingus 2006). In many cases original architecture elements — such as the molded ceilings — were still intact behind panels that had been installed over them. These features were painstakingly restored, or when necessary, recreated. Classic decorative elements, from the colonnades to the elegant chandeliers, were reintroduced.

Apatosaurus remount

The updated Apatosaurus in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

The vast majority of the fossil mounts in the renovated exhibits had already been on display for years. Among the classic mounts, only the two most iconic displays were completely overhauled. The restoration of Apatosaurus (formerly “Brontosaurus“) took more than a year. A conservation team led by Jeanne Kelly worked from a temporary wooden scaffold, filling cracks in the aging fossils with epoxy and securing loose joints on the armature. The mount’s torso and legs remained in place throughout the process, but the neck and tail were dismantled and remounted by Phil Fraley’s exhibit company. In addition to a new head, the revised Apatosaurus gained several caudal and cervical vertebrae, extending its total length to 88 feet. Remounting the Tyrannosaurus rex was even more difficult, because the fossils were so fragile. Once again, Phil Fraley was responsible for disassembling and reposing the skeleton. The T. rex now sports a more accurate horizontal posture, and its weight is supported by steel cables extending from the ceiling.

The new fossil mounts are easily recognized by their dynamic poses. In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, the amphibian “Buettneria” (now Koskinonodon) assumes a diving pose, while a Prestosuchus charges with its tail aloft. Among the dinosaurs, a new Deinonychus mount (assembled in part from previously-unidentified historic material) is posed in mid-leap. Finally, the dog-like Amphicyon chases the tiny antelope Ramoceros in the Hall of Advanced Mammals.

hall of ver

In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, a new Koskinodon mount represents the vertebrates’ critical transition to terrestrial life. Photo by the author.

The AMNH fossil halls represent one of the most exhaustively complete fossil collections in the world, but these exhibits ultimately tell two stories. On one hand, we have the story represented by the fossils themselves. The exhibit is an extended genealogy, tracing our origins across 500 million years of deep time. On the other hand, we have the museum’s history, which highlights both the praiseworthy and the ugly sides of 20th century science. It reminds us where our society has been and where it needs to go. Both stories are relevant to each and every person passing through these halls, and laudably, the latest renovation highlights both.

References

Colbert, E.H. (1958). Chalk Murals. Curator 4:10-16.

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

Norell, M, Gaffney, E, and Dingus, L. (1995). Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1

Much of what I write for this site starts with an attempt to find one reference or another, only to discover that it does not exist online. This time, I was curious how many times the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls had been renovated, but I quickly found that there was no simple answer.  Unlike the fossil exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, which have occupied the same large hall since the building opened, the AMNH counterparts have been moving and growing for more than 120 years. The museum expanded organically, eventually encompassing 27 interconnected buildings. And as its footprint grew, the paleontology exhibits grew with it.

The following is my attempt to make sense of the fourth floor exhibit halls’ convoluted history. I’ve divided it into six phases, although this should only be considered a rudimentary outline. Many specimens were added and removed during each phase, particularly during the period of frantic expansion in the early 20th century. At the very least, however, this should be enough to contextualize most of the historic photos made available by the AMNH Research Library. As with my NMNH posts, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or scientific discoveries by museum staff, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere. My focus here is solely on the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.

Phase I: 1874 – 1904

amnhmap_1891

AMNH was founded in 1869, although the first buildings in Manhattan Square did not begin construction until 1874. The original structure was designed by architect Calvert Vaux. Since electric lights were not yet available, Vaux created exhibit spaces that maximized the impact of natural lighting. Large windows were divided into slits that paralleled rows of glass display cabinets. The sun would shine through the windows and directly into the cabinets, illuminating the specimens within. When the museum first opened, the single exhibit hall on the fourth floor was dedicated to geology specimens. While this space mostly housed rocks, minerals, and small fossils, a handful of mounted skeletons stood among the cabinets. Early acquisitions included a moa and the Pleistocene deer Megaloceros, shown below.

geology hall with moa

Geology Hall, before 1887. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Things changed radically shortly after Henry Osborn was hired in 1891. As a paleontologist, Osborn emerged from Princeton riding the crest of a wave of goodwill his discipline had enjoyed for most of the 19th century. Paleontology was the darling of American science, and one man in particular, O.C. Marsh of Yale, received generous federal funding to find and describe new fossils from the western interior. In the 1880s, however, an economy-minded Congress pulled that funding. Meanwhile, the rise of experimental biology led to the marginalization of descriptive natural history, including paleontology. The next generation of paleontologists needed a new home for their work, and they found it in museums. AMNH was one of several new museums backed by wealthy benefactors with an interest in public education. These benefactors gravitated toward paleontology because, as Ronald Rainger put it, fossils are “rare, valuable, and visible.” The skeletons of extinct monsters were huge and sensational, and naturally complimented the grandiose neoclassical halls of the nascent museums. But while the paleontology programs at institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum were quite respectable, they all were overshadowed by Osborn’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH.  Osborn’s goal was to make AMNH the center of American vertebrate paleontology in the post-Marsh world, and by most any measure he succeeded.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The next Phase I exhibit was the Hall of Fossil Mammals, which opened to the public in 1895. Osborn’s research was focused on Cenozoic mammals, especially brontotheres, and he tasked his department with assembling a suitably impressive collection. Some of the fossils on display were acquired in an 1897 purchase of Edward Cope’s personal collection. Many others were collected by AMNH staff in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. Among these in-house finds was the famous (and famously misleading) series of fossil horses, most of which were found and prepared by William Matthew. The largest and most captivating mounted skeleton on view was the Warren mastodon. Discovered in 1845 in a bog near Newburgh, New York, this specimen was the first complete mastodon ever found. It was initially described and displayed by Boston-based anatomist John Warren, but Osborn convinced J.P. Morgan to buy it for AMNH in 1906.

Aside from a few shuffled mounts (including the aforementioned mastodon, which seems to have been in nearly every room on the fourth floor), the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained mostly intact for the duration of the 20th century. Shortly after it was completed, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology shifted its focus to dinosaurs. The mammals were only the star attractions for a few short years, but this display would nevertheless endure in its original form for generations.

“Ancestry of Man” case in the Hall of the Age of Man, 1929. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

At this point, it is crucial to mention that Osborn was an objectively lousy scientist, and that much of his work was motivated by a bigoted personal agenda.  He subscribed to an inaccurate orthogenetic (or as he called it, “aristogenetic”) interpretation of evolution, professing that all life forms had their place in a natural hierarchy. According to Osborn, people of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestry were the pinnacle of existence, and he endeavored to turn his flagrantly racist beliefs into public knowledge by way of his exhibits. Nowhere is this clearer than the Hall of the Age of Man, which opened around 1900. This hall included a range of extinct animals that coexisted with early humans, but the central cases were dedicated to Osborn’s unorthodox narrative of human evolution. Hominid fossils were co-opted to illustrate Osborn’s unfounded view that modern human races were evolutionarily distinct, and to communicate his support for eugenics and racial purity. Osborn’s agenda was supported by many of the aristocratic elite that funded the museum, but apparently few of the AMNH research staff endorsed it. Margaret Mead in particular was highly critical of Osborn’s views, and especially his influence over public-facing interpretation.

Phase II: 1905 – 1920

map

Edit: The map above should read “Invertebrate Fossils and Minerals.” 

For all of Osborn’s bigotry and bad science, it’s difficult to imagine the modern museum field without his influence. He was very good at marketing himself and his paleontology program, and he knew how to put on a show that would attract visitors in droves. Osborn heightened the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular fossil mounts in order to make science exciting for a wide audience. Osborn’s devotion to storytelling and drama in the exhibits he curated brought millions of visitors to AMNH and defined public expectations for what museums should offer.

In 1906, Osborn became the fourth president of AMNH, and he oversaw its most rapid period of expansion. As president, he tripled municipal funding for the museum from New York City, and gained plenty more through his connections with wealthy potential donors. Much of this income was funneled into the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology’s famous dinosaur collecting expeditions, in which fossil hunters like Barnum Brown and Walter Granger earned fame and notoriety. However, the pioneering work on fossil preparation and mounting at AMNH was also significant. While many peer institutions were assembling and exhibiting new dinosaur mounts during this period, none matched the output or ambition of AMNH. With the sheer quantity of fossils coming in and institutional pressure to mount them for display as quickly as possible, chief preparator Adam Hermann had no choice but to modernize and professionalize his craft. Hermann developed a sophisticated prep lab with overhead tracks for hoisting heavy fossils, as well as electric and pnuematic hook-ups for power tools. Techniques like sand-blasting, acid preparation, and on-site metalworking developed by Hermann are still standard practice today.

trachodon crowded reptile hall

“Trachodon” pair in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Dinosaurs take up a lot of space, and to accommodate them, a new gallery was opened on the far end of the Hall of Fossil Mammals. This Hall of Fossil Reptiles debuted in 1905 with “Brontosaurus” – the first mounted sauropod ever built – as its centerpiece. Actually a composite of four individuals and many sculpted elements (including the way-off-the-mark head), the “Brontosaurus” took Hermann’s team the better part of six years to construct. After that, the Hall of Fossil Reptiles filled with new dinosaur mounts very quickly, cementing the repuation of AMNH as the place to see dinosaurs. In 1906, Hermann added the “Trachodon” pair. The standing individual came from the Cope collection, but the crouching specimen was excavated that very year by Barnum Brown. The Allosaurus was also a Cope specimen, but apparently the 19th century paleontologist had never unpacked or inspected it. Several years passed before Hermann’s team discovered that the skeleton was remarkably complete, although it was missing a skull. The Allosaurus fossils were mounted in 1908, posed as though feeding on a set of Apatosaurus vertebrae.

crowded reptile hall

Tyrannosaurus stands with Allosaurus and “Brontosaurus” in the increasingly crowded Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Arguably the most important mount added during the early 20th century mounting spree was the Tyrannosaurus rex. This specimen is no less than an icon, and has been a destination attraction in New York for longer than the Empire State Building. When the Tyrannosaurus was unveiled in 1915, it was a sensation, akin to mythical dragon made real. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could stand in the presence of a T. rex, and to this day the image of the classic mount is quintessential to both paleontology and museums in general. For example, you may recognize it from the cover of a certain Michael Crichton novel.

Phase III: 1921 – 1939

map

In 1922, the 9th building in the AMNH complex was completed, and the paleontology exhibits expanded into what Osborn called the “Great Hall of Dinosaurs.” The largest dinosaur mounts – including Tyrannosaurus, “Brontosaurus”, “Trachodon”, and Allosaurus – were moved from the comparatively cramped Hall of Fossil Reptiles into this new space. The extra breathing room allowed for the mounts to be clustered into Jurassic and Cretaceous areas on opposite sides of the room. There were also a few new skeletons, including Leptoceratops, Thescelosaurus, and most significantly, Triceratops.

brontosaurus in great dinosaur hall

“Brontosaurus” in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, AMNH fossil collecting efforts had moved from the American West to Mongolia. The primary goal of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions was to find evidence for Osborn’s pseudoscientific ideas about human ancestry, but no such remains were found. Instead, the expedition returned a wealth of new dinosaur fossils, including the first dinosaur nests ever found. Dispatches from the field also drummed up considerable publicity for the New York museum.

great dinosaur hall

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Osborn’s iron-fisted reign over American paleontology lasted until his death in 1933. Unfortunately for the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, Osborn’s activities depended heavily on personal relationships with private donors. With Osborn out of the picture (and the Great Depression at its bottom), those donations dried up. Meanwhile, Osborn’s good standing in the scientific community had begun to wane, and his unorthodox anthropological ideas became something of a joke. The results of internal investigations into Osborn’s less-than-legitimate use of funds and favors during his time as president did not help matters. In 1942 the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work was folded into the Department of Geology with a much smaller budget and fewer staff. The Osborn-era fossil displays at AMNH remained largely unaltered in the years that followed, but only because of the lack of staff time, money, and interest.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this timeline, passing through the era of Edwin Colbert and into the present day. Stay tuned!

References

Brinkman, P.D. (2009). Dinosaurs, Museums, and the Modernization of American Fossil Preparation at the Turn of the 20th Century. Fossil Preparation: Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium 21-34.

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

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

Haraway, D. (1984). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Hermann, A. (1909). Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 56:283-331.

Osborn, H.F. (1921). The Hall of the Age of Man in the American Museum. Nature 107:236-240.

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

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Filed under AMNH, anthropology, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, reptiles

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

After I posted my slightly critical evaluation of the AMNH fossil halls last month, a reader suggested I take a look at Next of Kin by Lowell Dingus. Dr. Dingus was the project director for the 1995 renovation, and his book chronicles the decade-long process of overhauling these genre-defining exhibits. It also includes plenty of gorgeous photos of the AMNH fossil exhibits past and present. Although out of print, Next of Kin can be found online for next to nothing. If you find anything on this blog interesting, I would call this book required reading. I cannot recommend it enough.

Edwin Colbert designed this version of the Jurassic exhibit in 1956. This space is now the Hall of Saurichian Dinosaurs. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Next of Kin is full of fascinating information about the renovation, and the history of the halls in general. For instance, it was news to me that the original plan in 1987 was to modernize only the two fossil mammal halls. When William Moynihan took over as Director of AMNH the following year, however, he asked in a planning meeting why the dinosaur exhibits weren’t being renovated, and soon the project expanded to include all six halls on the 4th floor. Apparently the approaches to interpretation, aesthetics, and layout that characterize the exhibits today were already fully formed. The concept of a main pathway with branching alcoves representing individual clades was in place, so the exhibit team only needed to set the starting point back a ways to include the dinosaurs and the rest of the vertebrate family tree. Restoring the historic interior architecture, obscured since the 1950s, was also an early priority. Dingus relates how he wanted to eliminate the “black box” look of the midcentury exhibits and let natural light back into the halls. In my opinion, the well-lit, airy aesthetic is one of the standout features of the AMNH fossil halls, and one other museums might do well to emulate.

Dingus also points out a number of clever design choices that I missed during my last visit to the museum. For instance, the primate section was deliberately placed in the center of the mammal hall, to avoid the implications of directed evolution and human superiority that once marked the AMNH exhibits. Another cool feature is the use of minimalist metal armatures to suggest the size and shape of animals for which only limited material is available. This is an artful way to convey the dimensions of these species without resorting to fabricating most of the skeleton. Again, this is something I’d love to see more of at other museums.

Photo by the author.

Minimalist armatures suggest the size and shape of incomplete specimens. Photo by the author.

Still, I was most interested in reading Dingus’s rationale for the design and layout of the AMNH fossil halls. In my previous post, I argued that the phylogenetic arrangement was a worthwhile experiment, but in practice it may not be the most practical way to make the history of life meaningful to the museum’s primary audience. More than any other organizational scheme, phylogeny is the way biologists think about the natural world, and I applaud the effort to encourage visitors to look at fossils the way scientists do. However, even the most basic elements of evolutionary classification are specialized knowledge, and require a daunting amount of up-front explanation (especially when targeting multiple age groups). I don’t think this integrates well with the multi-entrance, non-linear exhibit space at AMNH.

During the initial planning stages of the AMNH renovation, Dingus and other staff toured several large-scale paleontology exhibits in North America and Europe. Dingus clearly did not like what he saw, lamenting that “some institutions rely heavily on easy-to-understand, anecdotal labels and robotic recreations of dinosaurs that appeal to the lowest common denominator of visitor intellect.” He rejected the “prominent contemporary school of exhibit design that advocates only giving the visitor what he or she asks for,” feeling strongly that his institution could do better. Referring to the renovation as a “scientific crusade,” Dingus was inspired to challenge his audience in a way that peer institutions did not. Dingus and his colleagues wanted to show visitors the real science behind paleontological reconstructions. The phylogeny-based arrangement was central to that goal, emphasizing rigorous anatomical analysis and empiricism in a field historically characterized by idle speculation.

Age of Man

The orientation hall is in the oldest of the 4th floor exhibit spaces. Until the 1960s, this space was occupied by the Hall of the Age of Man. Photo from Dingus 1996.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of this. There was a period in the 80s and 90s (I think the worst is behind us) when the trend toward visitor-focused, educational exhibits got mixed up with a push to make museums more competitive with other leisure activities. Customer enjoyment was valued above all else, even if it meant sacrificing the informative content and access to real specimens that made museums worthwhile institutions in the first place. The resulting displays were filled with paltry nonsense like simulators, pointless computer terminals, and the aforementioned robot dinosaurs*. These exhibits imitated amusement parks, but with only a fraction of the budget they quickly fell into disrepair and technological obsolescence. Despite being museums’ most important and unique resources, curators and research staff found themselves increasingly divorced from their institutions’ public faces.

*Fine, I admit robot dinosaurs are cool. But I’d prefer that they weren’t in museums.

Under these circumstances, a backlash is quite understandable. Nevertheless, it is a common mistake (which I am by no means accusing Dingus of making!) that a visitor-centered exhibit is the same as a frivolous one. When educators push for audience-focused exhibits, they have the same goal as curators: to communicate as much content as possible. Audience-focused exhibits aren’t about dumbing down or eliminating content. They’re about presenting content in a way that effectively reaches the museum’s diverse audience. The AMNH fossil halls would work well for an informed adult visitor with ample time to inspect every specimen and read every label. But this is not the typical audience for natural history museums, and unless AMNH is a major outlier, it’s not the core audience for these exhibits. Most visitors come in mixed-aged groups. The trip to the museum is a social experience, and interactions occur among visitors as much as they occur between visitors and the exhibits. The best museums anticipate and meet the needs of these visitors in order to provide a quality learning experience.

ponies

An updated version of the classic (and classically misleading) horse evolution exhibit. Photo by the author.

It’s admittedly fun to share horror stories about dumb comments overheard in museums. Who in this field hasn’t rolled their eyes at the parent who makes up an answer to their child’s question, when the correct information is on the sign right in front of them? And yet, some of the blame for this failed educational encounter should fall on the museum. Why was that parent unable to spot the relevant information with a quick glace? Can we design signage so that the most important information is legible on the move, or from across the room? Can we correct commonly misunderstood concepts in intuitive ways?

As Dingus argues, it’s important to aim high in the amount of information we want to convey. There’s nothing worse than a condescending teacher. But a carefully-honed message in common language will always be more successful than a textbook on the wall. Happily, this is the way the wind is blowing these days. In a strong reversal of the situation a decade ago, curators now work closely with educators on the front lines to produce exhibits that are both accessible and intellectually challenging. It’s been 20 years since AMNH opened the latest version of its fossil exhibits…perhaps a new and even better iteration is already on its way!

Reference

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

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Filed under AMNH, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion, reviews, science communication, systematics

Real or cast? If only it were that simple!

Norman Boss Brachyceratops courtesy Smithsonian archives

Norman Boss assembles  a “Brachyceratops” mount. White bones and portions thereof are sculpted. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Back in January, London’s Natural History Museum incited a flurry of debate when it announced that Dippy, the Diplodocus skeleton that has graced the museum’s entrance hall for decades, will soon be retired and replaced with a blue whale. One of the recurring arguments in favor of the change has been that Dippy is not an original specimen – it’s a cast, or as some commentators have called it, “a fake.” As I argued last month, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. An excellent post by Liz Martin covers this in more detail – “fake” implies deception, or something invented outright. Fossil casts are nothing of the sort. They are exact replicas of fossils, and they could not exist without the original specimens they are based on.

Nevertheless, the idea that fossil mounts are either original bones or casts is a bit of a false dichotomy. I’m as guilty as anyone of propagating this myth – it’s a simple way to assuage the fears of museum visitors that the fossil skeletons on display aren’t real. The truth is that most mounts include some amount of straight-up sculpted material. After all, the fossilized remains of vertebrate animals, particularly large ones, are almost never found articulated or anywhere near complete. The specimens chosen for museum mounts are among the absolute best available, but even they are not perfect. For instance, the NHM Dippy (actually one of many) is mostly a cast of a single Diplodocus specimen held at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but the forelimbs were reconstructed. When the mount was assembled, no Diplodocus forelimb material of comparable size was available, so Arthur Coggeshall and colleagues sculpted some based on smaller specimens.

Sculpted feet

The sculpted feet of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. Photo by the author.

From Hadrosaurus, the first mounted dinosaur skeleton, to modern reconstructions like Anzu, fossil mounts as we know them would not be possible without some amount of informed reconstruction. Take the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History, assembled in 1915. The skeleton is a composite of two T. rex specimens, neither of which included any of the bones of the feet. Rather than creating a skeleton that stopped short at the ankles, Adam Herman sculpted a set of feet based on Allosaurus, another large meat-eating dinosaur. When Tyrannosaurus feet were eventually discovered, the allosaur-inspired feet turned out to be a little too bulky – tyrannosaurs actually had relatively long, gracile toes. But it’s not like T. rex turned out to have hooves or wheels. In most respects, from the basic three-toed arrangement to the shape and position of each individual bone, Hermann’s hypothesized tyrannosaur feet were spot-on. In fact, they were so close that the museum didn’t bother updating them when the skeleton was remounted in 1995.

The sculpted portions of fossil mounts aren’t wild speculation. They are very reasonable hypotheses based on a solid understanding of skeletal anatomy. As anatomist Georges Cuvier wrote in 1798:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged…this is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts – the idea that all backboned animals are built on the same basic body plan – is fundamental to the science of paleontology. If we have the right forelimb of an animal, we know that it had a mirror-image left forelimb. If we find a skeleton with it’s skull missing, we can still be confident that it had a head. What’s more, specialists can often recognize the group an animal belongs to (and sometimes the species) from just a few bones or teeth. Salamander vertebrae have a characteristic hourglass shape. Frog limb bones have “double-barreled” cavities in cross section. Marsupial teeth have a stylar shelf. New world monkeys have an extra premolar in each quadrant of the mouth. With enough specialized knowledge of related taxa, it is entirely possible to produce an educated reconstruction of most any animal from a minority of its skeleton.

How much is too much?

Argentinosaurus and Giganotosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Source

But as far as mounted skeletons in museums go, how far can we take this? Is it reasonable to build a standing mount when only 50% of the skeleton is definitively known? What about 30%? 10%? By bone count, that’s about the percentage of fossils ever found from the sauropod Argentinosaurus. And yet, the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta has a (rather spectacular) Argentinosaurus mount in its lobby. The whole thing is, of course, a fiberglass sculpture, dutifully based on better-known relatives. This mount is probably a fair reconstruction of what a complete Argentinosaurus skeleton would look like (although see this list of inaccuracies at Paleoking), but some still might consider it misleading. Your mileage may vary.

Museums generally do a good job labeling reconstructions. In particular, The Carnegie Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum are to be commended for posting charts alongside mounted skeletons that show which bones are original, which are casts, and which are reconstructions. In other cases, a little more transparency would not be unwelcome. For example, the four skulls below appear to include at least as much plaster reconstruction as bone, but they are all labeled as original specimens.

Photos by the author.

Four heavily-reconstructed fossil skulls at AMNH. Clockwise from top: Eryops, Indricotherium, Ophiacodon, and Triceratops. Photos by the author.

This is ultimately more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. Museum mounts, regardless of the amount of sculpted material, are usually well-supported reconstructions of the animal in question. If new information shows that a mount is wrong – as sometimes happens – staff are undoubtedly aware and will correct it as soon as funding and bureaucracy allow (granted, that can take decades). But as I’ve argued before, fossil mounts are unique among museum exhibits in that they are both the specimens and the interpretive context. They are hypotheses, but are presented (or at least understood) as straightforward truth. With this paradox in mind, how much is a museum ethically obligated to share about a mount’s creation? How can we do this without spurring visitors to use the dreaded f-word?

Comments are open, as always, and I’d be thrilled to hear what readers think.

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Filed under AMNH, anatomy, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NHM, reptiles, sauropods, science communication, theropods

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny

This is the third part of an on-again, off-again series about organizational and interpretive approaches in large-scale paleontology exhibits (see the introduction and walk through time entries). This time, I’ll be discussing exhibits arranged according to phylogenetics – that is, the evolutionary relationships among living things. Natural history museums have displayed specimens according to their place on the tree of life since the days of Charles Wilson Peale, and more than any other organizational scheme, phylogeny is the way biologists think about the living world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this arrangement was more common in the past, when exhibits were typically designed by and for experts. Examples of these old-school displays include the fossil mammal gallery at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the paleontology halls at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum (neither has been thoroughly overhauled since the 1950s).

peabody mammals

The jargon-heavy signage in the Peabody Museum’s classic fossil mammal exhibit is probably ignored by most visitors. Photo by the author.

Modern natural history museums rarely attempt phylogenetic exhibits. In vertebrate paleontology, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is fundamental to our science. However, most people simply don’t think about the world in this way. For example, I was halfway through my first semester teaching an undergraduate anatomy course when I realized that most of the class didn’t really understand what a mammal is. The students were familiar with the word “mammal” and could provide some examples, but they couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them. It’s easy to forget that even the most basic elements of evolutionary classification are specialized knowledge, even among biology students.

Describing the history of life on Earth chronologically is relatively easy—museum visitors intuitively understand the forward progression of time. But scientific classification (as opposed to colloquial categorization) requires a lot of explanation up front, and it’s easy to overwhelm an audience with jargon. While not impossible (see Neil Shubin’s masterful Your Inner Fish), it is very difficult to explain phylogeny to a general audience in a relatable and approachable way.

In 1995, the American Museum of Natural History attempted to do just that with the most recent renovation of its historic 4th floor fossil halls. This evolutionary arrangement was a major change for AMNH, since this space had a “walk through time” layout for most of the 20th century. In the accompanying book Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, curators Norell, Gaffney, and Dingus explain that phylogenetics (and the cladistic methodology in particular) is the only way to approach the study of prehistoric life in an objective way. Patterns of evolutionary relationships revealed by cladistic analyses are hard evidence in a field of study traditionally characterized by idle speculation. Norell and colleagues argue that the new exhibit arrangement shows visitors the credibility and scientific rigor behind modern paleontology.

4th floor of AMNH.

Map of the fossil halls on the 4th floor of AMNH. Source

Communicating the rigorous and trustworthy nature of scientific conclusions is a worthy goal, and the choice to ground the AMNH exhibit in this way seems almost prophetic given the litany of speculation-heavy paleontology “documentaries” that have proliferated in the years since it opened. Scientific rigor is definitely a running theme here – sign after sign explains that popularly depicted dinosaur behaviors like parental care and pack-hunting are largely untestable speculation. To a degree, this label copy takes the fun out of an undeniably fun subject, but I can appreciate the effort to legitimize paleontological science in the public eye. Overall, the AMNH exhibits represent an attempt to train visitors to look at fossils the way scientists do, and the phylogenetic layout is central to that goal.

In the exhibit, visitors are meant to walk through a cladogram of chordates. You’ll pass through large halls dedicated to broad groups like saurischian dinosaurs and advanced mammals, while visiting smaller cul-de-sacs that  represent narrower clades like ornithomimids and testudines. A central black path guides you through the evolution of life, and centrally-situated pillars along your route identify major evolutionary innovations, such as jaws or the ability to reproduce on land. The insanely comprehensive vertebrate fossil collections at AMNH make this institution uniquely capable of putting so much diversity on display (although non-tetrapods are woefully underrepresented). Meanwhile, an open floor plan allows you to spend as much or as little time in each area as you wish, and ample natural lighting goes a long way toward making it possible to study specimens in detail.

follow the path for now

Pillars mark major evolutionary milestones in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins. Photo by the author.

path disappears among dinosaurs

The evolutionary pathway becomes considerably less obvious among the dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, I agree with Riley Black that the AMNH fossil halls don’t do the best job communicating the story of vertebrate evolution to their core audience. The underlying purpose of any exhibit structure is to provide meaning and context for objects – to help visitors see them as more than neat things to look at. According to visitor surveys, the default mode of understanding for most people passing through a paleontology exhibit is what I’ve been calling “dinosaur pageantry.” After seeing the exhibit, most visitors will recall a list of cool skeletons they saw. A few might consider which ones are meat-eaters and which ones are plant-eaters, but without further prompting that’s all we can usually expect from non-specialists. It’s the museum’s job to give visitors the intellectual tools to contextualize those fossils in a more sophisticated way, but there’s a fine line to walk. Provide too little information and nobody learns anything, but provide too much and the content is ignored. Unfortunately, the AMNH exhibits fall into the “overkill” category.

As discussed, phylogeny is complicated, often counter-intuitive, and largely unfamiliar to many visitors. To overcome this, the AMNH designers rely on a fairly long orientation film, which introduces the concept of categorizing organisms based on shared derived characteristics. There are a few problems with this. First there’s the film itself, which dives right into the traits that characterize different groups – like the stirrup-shaped stapes of derived mammals and the temporal fenestrae of archosaurs – without explaining why these traits are significant. To a layperson, these probably seem like really inconsequential things to hang a whole group on. The video also presents a cladogram of vertebrates without explaining how to read it. As Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, interpreting a phylogenetic tree is a specialized skill that many natural history museum visitors lack. Second, I saw no incentive or instruction to actually start my visit to the 4th floor in the orientation hall. There are no less than four entrances to the fossil exhibits, so many visitors won’t know there is an orientation film (I sure didn’t) until they’re halfway through the galleries. Finally, there’s the reliance on media in general: do we really want visitors to spend even a portion of their time in an exhibit full of real fossils watching a video in a darkened room? Telling visitors what to think in a narrated video is easy, but it’s not nearly as meaningful as showing them the same concept with specimens (or better yet, coaxing them to reach conclusions themselves).

Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Iconic mounts in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs are iconic. Photo by the author.

Within the actual fossil halls, interpretation remains stubbornly unapproachable. For example, the sign introducing proboscidians tells visitors that this group is defined primarily by eye sockets located near the snout. An observant visitor might wonder why scientists rely on such an obscure detail, as opposed to the obvious trunks and tusks. There’s a good teaching moment there concerning why some characteristics might face more selection pressure (and thus change more radically) than others, but instead visitors are only offered esoteric statements. Relatedly, the exhibit does little to prioritize information. Most label text is quite small, and there’s a lot of it. Compare this to Evolving Planet at the Field Museum, where there is a clear hierarchy of headings and sub-headings. Visitors can read the main point of a display without even stopping, and parents can quickly find relevant information to answer their charges’ questions (rather than making something up).

Evolving Planet also compares favorably to the AMNH fossil halls in its informative aesthetics and spatial logic. At FMNH, walls and signs in each section are distinctly color-coded, making transitions obvious and intuitive. Likewise, consistent iconography  – such as the mass extinction zones – helps visitors match recurring themes and topics throughout the exhibit. AMNH, in contrast, has a uniform glass and white-walled Apple Store aesthetic. It’s visually appealing, but doesn’t do much to help visitors navigate the space in a meaningful way.

edentates aren't real

Phylogenetic interpretations change quickly – Edentata is no longer considered a natural group. Photo by the author.

The phylogenetic layout introduces a number of other unique interpretive challenges. Since there is no temporal axis,  it’s often unclear whether the lineage in a particular cul-de-sac cluster went extinct, continued on, or gave rise to another group elsewhere in the exhibit. Visitors that want to know which animals lived contemporaneously are out of luck. Meanwhile, the exhibit sometimes uses modern animal skeletons to fill out displays where fossil examples are limited, such as bats and primates. While these are labeled, the text is too small to be seen from a distance. The evolutionary organization is also burdened by the fact that phylogenetics is a fast-moving and often changing field of study. While the order of geologic time periods will never change, the 20 year-old displays at AMNH are already out of date in several details. For example, there is a cul-de-sac devoted to edentates, which is now considered polyphyletic, and a cladogram in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs incorrectly places tyrannosaurids among the carnosaurs.

Cows and broken videos

Glass architecture lets visitors see through displays and get a sense of what lies beyond. Photo by the author.

Neat comparison of mammal teeth. Too bad there's no obvious label.

This display is a great example of the diversity in mammal teeth, but it’s a confusing centerpiece for the Hall of Primitive Mammals. Photo by the author.

The AMNH fossil exhibits excel in many respects, chiefly in the amazing diversity and quantity of specimens on display. The exhibit throws a lot of good science at visitors, but falters in explaining why it matters. The point of all this is not to nit-pick the design choices at AMNH, but to reiterate that phylogenetically-arranged fossil exhibits are really hard to pull off. This is not the most intuitive way to introduce the history of life, or even the process of evolution. With so much background to cover, perhaps a more structured and linear layout would be better. In fact, a lot of my issues with the AMNH fossil exhibits seem to stem from a disconnect between the phylogenetic interpretive content and the wide-open aesthetics. Open exhibits can be great, but in this case it hinders the learning opportunities for self-guided groups of visitors. It’s difficult to imagine a typical visitor, arriving with their family or another mixed-age group, having the patience to make sense of it all. Regrettably, such visitors default to the dinosaur pageantry level of understanding, making all the work invested in creating a meaningful exhibit space for naught.

References

Norell, M, Gaffney, E, and Dingus, L. (1995). Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Torrens, E. and Barahona, A. (2012). Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted? Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.

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