Category Archives: NMNH

One Year to Deep Time

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

The East Wing Restored

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

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

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

A Story of Environmental Change

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

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

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

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

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

The Nation’s T. rex

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

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

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

Poses that Show Behavior

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

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

The Anthropocene

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

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

Marsh Dinosaurs Re-imagined

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

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

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

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

The Pocahontas Mine

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

Treasures from the Collection

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

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

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

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

Looking Back at Fossils: History of Life

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

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

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

The Story So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning “History of Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specimens and Artwork

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

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

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

Antro – er, Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional photos are below.

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

References

Bohaska, S. 2013. Personal communication.

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

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

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

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

Parrish, M. 2017. Personal communication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 2

Old and new taxidermy pieces introduce visitors to their extended family tree. Source

Start with A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 1.

The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals opened at the National Museum of Natural History in November 2003. The hall’s airy, minimalist aesthetic represented a radical departure from traditional wildlife exhibits, shaking off taxidermy’s dusty reputation and utilizing the museum’s mammal collection to tell the story of evolution for modern audiences. As we saw last time, developing such an exhibit was not without controversy – everything from the source of funding to the ethics of demolishing historic dioramas came under intense scrutiny. In this post, we’ll explore the work that went into building the exhibit, and how the team’s bold vision eventually paid off.

Building the Animals

The Hall of Mammals cost $31 million and involved over 300 people. However, the job of constructing or updating the 274 taxidermy mounts was largely done by three individuals. John Matthews and Paul Rhymer were the Smithsonian’s last full-time taxidermy specialists. Rhymer in particular was a 3rd generation legacy – his grandfather had worked on the now-dismantled dioramas in the old mammal halls. The newcomer was Ken Walker, an award-winning taxidermist who moved to Washington from Alberta to work on the exhibit.

Beasts take shape in a massive workshop just outside the beltway.

Matthews, Rhymer, and Walker set up shop in a 50,000 square foot studio in northern Virginia. As museum taxidermists, they took no shortcuts in making the animals they built look right. The process for a creating a given mount would start with hours of research, using photos and videos to get a sense of the animal being recreated. The goal is to get inside the creature’s head, to understand how it thinks, moves, and behaves. Next, the artist builds a clay sculpture, either from scratch or using a commercial mannequin as a starting point. It is at this stage that the pose and attitude are set, and the bulge of every bone and muscle must be perfect. Only then can the tanned skins be stitched onto the sculpture and final adjustments be made. A single animal can take 100 hours or more to create.

Making the animals for the Hall of Mammals was particularly challenging because the designers called for so many dramatic and unusual behaviors. These animals aren’t just standing around – the gerenuk is stretching to full height in order to browse from a tree, the bobcat is leaping to catch a bird in mid flight, and the giraffe is spreading its forelimbs and bending down to drink. Cutaways reveal an anteater’s tongue snaking into an insect nest and a blackfooted ferret interloping in a prairie dog burrow. Achieving this level of dynamism with clay, wax, and dead fur is only possible with a top-notch understanding of biomechanics.

This paca scratching itself behind the ear is an example of the expressive and dynamic mounts produced for the Hall of Mammals. Photo by the author.

90% of the featured animals are on display for the first time, and the pelts came from a variety of sources. NMNH sent out a wishlist to museums, zoos, research facilities, and private collectors. A tree kangaroo came from the National Zoo’s offsite research facility in Virginia. The okapi had recently died of old age at Chicago’s Brookville Zoo. The playpus and koala were imported from Australia, and the leopard, jackal, and Chinese water deer were from Kenneth Behring’s personal collection.

All of the animals came from existing collections – nothing was killed specifically for the new exhibit. Given modern sensibilities and the museum’s conservation-oriented mission, this was a laudable decision. Nevertheless, using old specimens created many new challenges. The tiger and panda that had been at NMNH for over a century had faded fur, which had to be dyed. The orangutan was a lab animal preserved in a vat of alcohol. The fur was usable, but the face and hands were ruined, and had to be reconstructed. Only a male lemur was available, but some clever alterations turned it into a female carrying a baby. The Brookfield zoo okapi had hooves which were overgrown from lack of use. The taxidermists filed them down to make the animal look like its wild counterparts. In many cases, the taxidermists were not merely making dead animals look  alive, they were creating imaginary lives that these individuals never actually had.

Creating the Space

While the taxidermists were working 10 to 12 hour days building the animals, yet another team was working on creating the spaces they would inhabit. The animals would be set in minimalist, conceptual environments – a terraced floor suggests a watering hole, and metal poles and plastic tubes stand in for branches and trees. The specimens are presented like sculptures in an art gallery, or perhaps trendy gadgets at a tech showcase.

Visitors explore the Apple Store of taxidermy. Photo by the author.

A key aspect of the new hall is the restoration of the west wing’s original Beaux Arts architecture. Designed by the historic Washington architectural firm Hornblower and Marshall, the space was originally a three-story neoclassical chamber with a large skylight and ornate plaster and chrome embellishments. Over the years, false walls had been added to carve the hall into ever smaller spaces to accommodate new exhibits. The original architects may have been on to something, however. NMNH gets upwards of seven million visitors every year, and crowding is a common complaint. To help mitigate this, the Hall of Mammals design team wanted to return to the wide open floor plan, with lots of space for visitor traffic and multiple viewing angles on most specimens. Starting in 1999, Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern spent two years restoring the west wing to its former glory.

Since the new exhibit furnishings couldn’t touch the historic structure of the building, creating the hall was like assembling a building within a building. The designers settled on a steel framework that would visually separate the new exhibits in the center of the hall from the classic architecture. The metal structures double as mounts for the exhibit’s complex lighting systems, and also recall the ribcage of a whale. The choice to display some of the taxidermy pieces in open settings has been a point of contention from a conservation standpoint. The mounts placed in open air, rather than climate controlled cases, can be expected to deteriorate over time. According to Project Manager Sally Love, this was a deliberate trade-off. “We felt it was important to break barriers between the animals and our visitors” said Love, “and the animals not behind glass are ones that we can more readily obtain replacements for.”

The Hall of Mammals uses contrast as a key visual motif – in this case the huge walrus juxtaposed with tiny bats. Photo by the author.

Throughout the hall, the architecture is meant to compliment and support the hall’s  interpretive themes. The exhibit drives home the point that mammals are tremendously diverse, but also similar in key ways due to their common ancestry. The entry space, flanked by two-story cases of taxidermy specimens, illustrates that diversity. Contrast is a key visual motif: large animals beside small ones, specimens exhibited high and low, and so on. Height in particular is used to keep visitors looking in all directions. A leopard snoozes on a branch over visitors’ heads, while a platypus in its burrow can only be seen by crouching down. Meanwhile, the perimeter of the hall is devoted to animals that share particular habitats, referencing the impact environmental change has had on mammalian evolution.

Animals of the North American forest. Photo by the author.

Among the most exciting parts of the exhibit is the east African watering hole in the center of the hall. Since the taxidermy mounts are static, the designers filled the space with video screens and dynamic lighting to keep the scene in motion. Footage of animals in motion cycles on rear-projected frosted-glass panels behind the mounts, while screens set in the floor show footprints and evidence of changing seasons. Suzanne Powaduik designed the immersive light effects, which repeat every ten minutes. The highlight is a thunderstorm heralding the arrival of the rainy season, accomplished with sound effects and a xenon flasher. Director of Exhibits Stephen Petri explains how the special effects tie in with the exhibit’s narrative: “evolution occurs over long periods of time but is a response to changes that happen moment to moment.”

Legacy

The completed Hall of Mammals occupies 25,000 square feet, minus about 3,000 annexed by a gift shop and special exhibit space. It contains 274 taxidermy specimens, 12 fossil replicas, and numerous sculptures and interactives. The hall is the culmination of five years of work – a long time to be sure, but a breakneck pace compared to the 25 years it took to complete the classic Akeley Hall of African Mammals at AMNH. It was also one of the biggest taxidermy projects attempted in the past 80 years, and for at least a little while, it made Matthews, Rhymer, Walker, and their peculiar trade into stars.

Although the animals themselves are motionless, light, sound, and video fill the space around them with life. Source

The Hall of Mammals received at least nine industry awards, and has become a benchmark for exhibits in development today. Teachers have also praised the exhibit – writer Sharon Berry’s text is pitched for families, and written with National Science Foundation Life Science Standards in mind. While the exhibit has showy special effects and some playground-like elements, the meaning and message is omnipresent.

While historic wildlife dioramas are incredible works of art and science, they are absolutely of another time. Indeed, a major part of their appeal is that they are a look into the past, to an era when naturalists believed ecosystems could be summed up in a window box. For all their meticulous detail, dioramas have never been able to truly recreate nature. They are uncanny reflections of nature, filtered through the worldview of their creators. Dioramas have great cultural and intellectual value, and it is a tragedy whenever one of these irreplaceable time capsules is lost. At the same time, though, NMNH should be commended for stepping outside the box (so to speak). The Hall of Mammals does not attempt to replicate the experience of viewing living wildlife – it showcases the diversity of nature in a way that only a museum can. It’s gorgeous, engaging, informative…and it’s a beast all its own.

References

Liao, A. 2003. Natural history exhibits venture beyond black-box dioramas. Architectural Record 11:04:275279.

Milgrom, M. 2010. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

National Park Service. 2004. Mammal Hall Study Report: Evaluation by National Park Service Media Specialists of New Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/si-mammal-hall-report.pdf

Parrish, M. and Griswold, B. 2004. March 2004 Meeting Report: Mammals on Parade. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. http://www.gnsi.science-art.com/GNSIDC/reports/2004Mar/mar2004.html

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

Trescott, J. 2003. Look Alive! The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/07/14/look-alive/d1944407-ffbb-4e1f-8e06-06cd9ddec57d

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH

A 21st Century Hall of Mammals – Part 1

The Hall of Mammals upon its 2003 opening. Photo by John Steiner, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In her 2010 book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom compares the making of a 21st century taxidermy exhibit in a major museum to “building an indoor skiing facility in Dubai” (Migrom 2010, 90). It’s a lot of work for something nobody asked for, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. A century ago, before zoos were widespread and before wildlife videos were a click away, mounting animal pelts on mannequins was the best way to bring nature to an increasingly industrialized populace. Today, taxidermy exhibits seem inherently antiquated, even creepy. Taxidermy is by no means a dead art (competitions are still going strong), but the practice has certainly lost some of its grandeur.

For most, the aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the discomfort of being confronted with a dead animal. There is of course far more complexity to unpack, from the uneasy suspension of disbelief stemming from seeing an animal skin made to look alive to the taxidermy piece’s multifaceted identities (including natural specimen, work of art, historic relic, and so forth). Who was this creature, and how did it die? How did it end up on display? How long has this animal endured its second life? These are the questions that fill visitors’ minds when confronted with a taxidermy exhibits. This presents a challenge for museums seeking to continue to use these specimens to educate visitors about ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. That is the problem staff at the National Museum of Natural History took on when they set out to create a taxidermy hall for a contemporary audience.

Out with the Old

Like any century-old natural history museum, NMNH has a long history of taxidermy displays. Animal mounts filled the original United States National Museum and the Smithsonian’s various world’s fair exhibits. These specimens came from a variety of sources, including private donations and collecting expeditions by Smithsonian researchers. Several animals, such as the hippo mounted by William Brown, lived and eventually died at the National Zoo. Some of the museum’s most famous taxidermy mounts are the animals collected for the Smithsonian by Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan in 1909. Putting the Roosevelt specimens on display was a priority when building that is now NMNH opened in 1910. The prepared animals – including a family of lions, a giraffe, three northern white rhinos, and many others – filled an entire room in the new building’s west wing.

Northern white rhinos collected during the Roosevelt expedition, as displayed in 1915. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In the late 1950s, the NMNH west wing was completely remodeled as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project. The wing’s center hall became the Marine Ecosystems exhibit (starring a life-like blue whale model), while the U-shaped corridors surrounding it were rebranded as the World of Mammals Hall and the North American Mammals Hall. In the new exhibits, many specimens were grouped into realistic dioramas, complete with lush foreground landscapes and background murals. Other animals filled more sterile cases dedicated to particular subjects, such as “Mammals versus Climate” and “Dogs of the World.”

African ungulates in the 1959 World of Mammals exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By the mid-1990s, the modernized exhibits were looking a little rough around the edges. Many of the taxidermy pieces were over 80 years old, and the fur had become faded or frayed. The exhibit text was wordy and overly technical for the average museumgoer. In 1998, the Smithsonian Institutional Studies Office underwent a detailed evaluation of the mammal exhibits, which involved interviewing hundreds of visitors about their reactions to the halls. Overall, visitors seemed satisfied with the exhibits, but the evaluation nevertheless provided a lot of useful information.

The 1959 exhibits mixed complete dioramas with simpler cases covering specific topics. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Although more than half of museum visitors passed through the mammal exhibits, it was seldom seen as the main attraction. For most visitors, the mammal halls were neither the first exhibit they saw, nor their favorite part of the museum. Older visitors tended to respond better to the mammal exhibits than children or teenagers, who saw the halls as old, boring, or creepy. Indeed, the yuck factor of the taxidermy and the specter of death in general was on many visitors’ minds. While they were often not comfortable talking about it, many visitors expressed concern about the fact that the animals on display were dead, and wondered about how they ended up that way. Out of 750 visitors, 11% were sad or uneasy about the taxidermy and 5% were outright disturbed.

In with the New

In 1997, California real estate developer Kenneth Behring donated $20 million to fund a new mammal hall at NMNH. At the time, this was the largest single donation the museum had ever received, and it presented an exciting opportunity. However, there was a conflict of interest: Behring was a big game hunter with a history of going after threatened species. For example, earlier that year Behring drew criticism from the Humane Society after killing a Kara-Tau argali (an endangered mountain sheep) in Kazakhstan. In a news release, Behring stated that he followed all applicable laws and always obtained proper permits, but many individuals – both within and outside the Smithsonian – were concerned that his hunting activities conflicted with the museum’s conservation-oriented mission. What’s more, Behring’s donation included 22 animals from his own collection, and the Smithsonian was accused of allowing him to buy his way into the institution’s prestigious exhibits.

While the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals bears the donor’s name, and several of his personal trophies are on display, NMNH staff have made it very clear that Behring had no say in the exhibit’s message or content. That was just as well, because developing the exhibit internally proved plenty difficult. Pencils were allegedly thrown during meetings, and one conservator chose to retire rather than work on the new hall.

Several individuals can rightly claim authorship of the Hall of Mammals, including Project Manager Sally Love and Writer Sharon Barry. However, the primary advocate for the hall’s striking and controversial design was Associate Director of Exhibits Robert “Sully” Sullivan. Sullivan envisioned a wide open hall, forgoing enclosed dioramas and instead displaying animals in simple settings with lots of negative space. The idea was to keep the focus on the animals, their anatomy, and their behavior. This steel-and-glass contemporary aesthetic has more in common with trendy tech showrooms than traditional taxidermy displays, and not everyone was initially on board.

This Alaskan moose group was one of several dioramas dismantled to make way for the new Hall of Mammals. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Unfortunately, the bold new vision could not be accomplished without destroying the old exhibits, including the historic dioramas. In the early 20th century, the proliferation of habitat dioramas radically transformed museums. Dioramas were accessible to broad audiences and brought with them the idea that museum exhibits should tell stories. These exhibits even had a tangible effect on the increasingly urban public’s interest in conservation. Today, historic museum dioramas are often considered quaint, but in their day they represented a bold fusion of art, technology, and science.

According to Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History, the NMNH dioramas “were not particularly good.” They certainly didn’t hold up to the standard set by Karl Akeley, Robert Rockwell, and others at the American Museum of Natural History. Still, they were undoubtedly important historical artifacts and represented a huge amount of work on the part of the craftsmen who created them. After inspecting the exhibits, NMNH conservators reported that it would be possible to preserve the dioramas intact for some future use. However, top officials decided that this would be too expensive, and all of the dioramas were ultimately demolished. Some of the taxidermy mounts were cleaned up for the new exhibit, while others were passed on to other museums. Still others would up homeless, and were ultimately dismantled and harvested for parts.

The minimalist watering hole in the Hall of Mammals. Photo by the author.

While some traditionalists fretted about Sullivan’s push to eliminate the dioramas, he also made waves with his restructuring of the exhibit team. In the past, curators had primary authorship over exhibit content, but Sullivan wanted to democratize the process. He gave designers and educators a greater voice, and insisted that their specialized knowledge be heard. While many applauded the recognition Sullivan brought to professionals whose work was usually undervalued, others weren’t so sure. Research staff avoided exhibit work during Sullivan’s tenure because they felt they were being railroaded into plans that had already been made. It was a tense period, and for a time, there were no curators on the Hall of Mammals team. Fortunately, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Anna K. Behrensmeyer and senior mammal specialist (and former NMNH director) Robert Hoffman eventually stepped up as advisers for the Hall of Mammals. They brought to the table a phylogenetic approach that enhanced the strictly regional layout that had been planned for the exhibit.

Phylogeny became a key theme once Behrensmeyer and Hoffman joined the exhibit team. Photo by the author.

Yet another challenge emerged when the architectural firm NMNH hired to collaborate on the design restructured their staff midway through the project. No longer getting the results they wanted, NMNH hired a new firm – Reich+Petch Design International – to finish the job, at the cost of a multi-month delay. The new exhibit architects determined that the first draft simply had too much content. If all the planned displays were included, the Hall of Mammals would be very crowded and visitor traffic flow would be encumbered. The team confirmed this by laying out a mock-up of the floor plan on the National Mall. After walking through the space, the exhibit team decided to cut about 40% of the content and tighten up the interpretive themes. The hall’s final design is all about evolution, and our own place in the mammal family tree.

With a plan in place, construction and fabrication were set to begin. We’ll cover that in the next post. Stay tuned!

References

Institutional Studies Office. 1999. Examining Mammals: Three Studies of Visitor Responses to the Mammals Hall in the National Museum of Natural history. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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

Milgrom, M. 2010. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

National Park Service. 2004. Mammal Hall Study Report: Evaluation by National Park Service Media Specialists of New Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/si-mammal-hall-report.pdf

Parrish, M. and Griswold, B. 2004. March 2004 Meeting Report: Mammals on Parade. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. http://www.gnsi.science-art.com/GNSIDC/reports/2004Mar/mar2004.html

Trescott, J. 2003. Look Alive! The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/07/14/look-alive/d1944407-ffbb-4e1f-8e06-06cd9ddec57d

Ulaby, N. 2010. Smithsonian Taxidermist: A Dying Job Title. All Things Considered, National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125914878

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH

Do fossil exhibits have too many dinosaurs?

Reflexive discussion about the practice of communicating paleontological science to general audiences has become more common recently – there was even a two-day Popularizing Paleontology workshop in London last year.  It’s about time – paleontology encompasses some of the most important questions about the world around us, from how life evolves to how ecosystems respond to planetary changes. Paleontology is the study of how the world came to be, and our understanding of the natural world is hopelessly incomplete without it. For the larger public, however, paleontology is synonymous with dinosaurs, and this can be a problem. Dinosaurs are awesome, but they are but one branch of the tree of life. And while their 160 million year dominance is significant, the era of non-avian dinosaurs is only a fraction of the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth. Their story is not the only story worth telling.

Why the outsized fascination with dinosaurs? I suspect it’s the result of a self-perpetuating cycle. Human curiosity peaks somewhere between subjects an individual knows well and subjects that are completely new to them. In other words, people prefer to learn about things they are already familiar with. That means that museum visitors are drawn to dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus because they already know something about them. Meanwhile, other fascinating creatures are bypassed precisely because visitors lack an existing mental framework to contextualize them. Somewhat paradoxically, in the sphere of informal learning, familiarity is king.

Generally, educators have been happy to indulge the public craving for dinosaurs*. In a must-read blog post resulting from the aforementioned Popularizing Paleontology workshop, Mark Witton describes dinosaurs as “one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal” because they are “gateways” to discussions about evolution, extinction, deep time, and even the nature of the scientific method. Witton then unpacks this conventional wisdom, highlighting several ways that relying on the built-in appeal of dinosaurs may not be as effective as traditionally assumed. It’s a fascinating discussion that I highly recommend reading.

Witton’s post got me thinking that if we’re going to consider easing up on dinosaurs in outreach efforts, we need some sort of baseline to firmly establish if (or the degree to which) they are being overused. One argumentum ad nauseum in these conversations is that museum exhibits are overstocked with dinosaurs. Allegedly, exhibit designers have responded to the popularity of Mesozoic dinosaurs by devoting an excessive amount of exhibit space to them, while relegating Paleozoic and Cenozoic specimens to the collections. This supposition can be (very, very crudely) tested by comparing the percentage of available exhibit space to the percentage of time non-avian dinosaurs dominated the planet. Assuming that exhibits should not be expected to allocate proportional space to pre-Phanerozoic life, I figure that the “Age of Dinosaurs” should cover 30-35% of an exhibit about life since the Cambrian (~160 million out of 541 million years).

To satisfy my own curiosity, I’ve gone and checked this figure against the three big paleontology exhibits with which I am most familiar. The slapdash maps below are traced from museum guides available online, with percentages calculated with the help of the Photoshop ruler tool. Green denotes dinosaurs, brown represents Cenozoic mammals, and blue encompasses everything else, including Paleozoic fossils, overviews of life over time, and non-dinosaurian Mesozoic life.

Field Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 31%; Mammals: 31%; Other: 38%.

Let’s start with the Field Museum, since it’s the most straightforward. The Evolving Planet exhibit (on view since 2006) occupies three elongated halls totaling 27,000 square feet. Evolving Planet is a classic “walk through time”-style exhibit, and the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic are given remarkably equal amounts of floor space. Even though the central hall is larger than the other two, it is partially occupied by plants, marine animals, and early Triassic weirdos. At 31% of the total exhibit, dinosaurs are right about where they should be.

National Museum of Natural History

Space allotment by subject in the old fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 15%; Mammals: 43%; Other 42%.

The old paleontology halls at the National Museum of Natural History (closed since 2014) demonstrate what happens when a museum goes without a dinosaur specialist for three quarters of a century. Cenozoic mammals and Paleozoic marine life were given room to spread out, while the dinosaurs were crowded into a paltry 15% of the available 31,000 square feet. It’s worth noting that unlike the Field Museum’s current fossil halls, which were designed from the ground up in the early 1990s, the NMNH paleontology wing was built up in a piecemeal fashion over the course of a century. The space was repeatedly carved into smaller sections to make room for new exhibits, and designers had to work around existing specimens that were too expensive or difficult to move. By the 1980s the halls had become something like a maze, and much of the available space wasn’t used very efficiently. Still, the consistently meager amount of space allotted to dinosaurs made it clear where the curators’ interests lay.

American Museum of Natural History

gallery usage at amnh

Space allotment by subject on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs: 40%; Mammals: 30%; Other: 30%.

At the American Museum of Natural History, fossil exhibits are spread across six halls on the fourth floor. The last substantial renovation was completed in 1995, although a titanosaur skeleton was added to the Orientation Hall in 2016. This exhibit differs from its counterparts at FMNH and NMNH in that it’s arranged phylogenetically, rather than chronologically. It is also limited to vertebrate evolution, so plants and invertebrates are not included. With those caveats in mind, dinosaurs occupy 40% of the 65,000 square feet of exhibit space.

So, do museums have too many dinosaurs? Based on this exercise, these three museums have just the right amount (or even too few). The proportion of space allocated to dinosaurs closely matches the time span of their ecological dominance during the Phanerozoic. The percentage of dinosaur space at AMNH is on the high side, but if we also incorporated the square footage of the human evolution exhibit and the assortment of marine invertebrate fossils on display elsewhere in the museum, that percentage would decrease significantly. In fact, if this exercise has revealed anything, it’s that Cenozoic mammals get an awful lot of space, given that the “Age of Mammals” takes up only 13% of the Phanerozoic.

Again, this is an extremely crude way to measure dinosaur-themed engagement efforts. One might also look at the number of specimens on exhibit, or the newness of the displays (are dinosaurs getting updated more frequently, while other exhibits are left to languish?). And that’s to say nothing of outreach beyond the permanent exhibits. Still, I hope this is a helpful starting point. At the very least, it suggests to me that “are museums over-emphasizing dinosaurs?” is not the only question worth asking. We also need to tease out if audiences are ignoring non-dinosaur paleontology outreach efforts, and if there’s a way to counter that.

*It’s a tired but worthwhile point that comparatively few people can articulate what a dinosaur actually is. For many, anything big and dead (and displayed in skeletal form) is a dinosaur. This complicates the matter, because when people ask for dinosaurs they may actually mean prehistoric animals.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, NMNH, systematics

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

In April 2014, the paleontology exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History closed for a wall-to-wall renovation. The re-imagined National Fossil Hall will reopen in 2019. We are now approaching the halfway point of this journey, which seems like a fine time to say farewell to some of the more charismatic specimens that are being rotated off display.

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster. Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers. Retired specimens are of course not going far – they have been relocated to the collections where students and scientists can study them as needed.

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon is the largest single specimen that is being retired from the NMNH fossil halls. James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona, during the same 1921 collecting trip that produced the museum’s Glyptotherium (which will be returning). While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

There are at least two reasons the Stegomastodon will not be returning in 2019. First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires. More importantly, the Stegomastodon is a holotype specimen, and the exhibit team elected to remove most of these important specimens from the public halls. This is both to keep them safe from the damaging effects of vibration, humidity, and fluctuating temperature, as well as to make them more accessible to researchers.

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

During the 1960s, Assistant Curator Clayton Ray oversaw the construction of the short-lived Quaternary Hall, which was reworked into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals. This meant creating a number of brand-new mounts, including several animals from the Rancho La Brea Formation in Los Angeles County. La Brea fossils are not found articulated, but as a jumble of individual elements preserved in asphalt. The Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided NMNH with an assortment of these bones, which preparator Leroy Glenn assembled into two dire wolves, a saber-toothed cat, and the sheep cow-sized sloth Paramylodon.

Paramylodon is another cut for the sake of eliminating redundancy: the colossal Eremotherium completely overshadows this more modestly-sized sloth. This mount also needed some TLC. For aesthetic reasons, the Paramylodon was given an internal armature, which involves drilling holes through each of the bones. Last year, preparator Alan Zdinak took on the task of disassembling and conserving these damaged fossils with assistance from Michelle Pinsdorf.

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)

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Zygorhiza cast in the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery. Source

When the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery opened in 1990, it featured a historic Basilosaurus skeleton that had been on display since the 1890s. This ancestral whale was relocated to the Ocean Hall in 2008, and a cast of the smaller whale Zygorhiza took its place in Life in the Ancient Seas. Since there is now an extensive whale evolution exhibit in Ocean Hall, this subject will not be a major part of the new paleontology exhibit. Both Zygorhiza and the dolphin Eurhinodelphis will have to go.

After the old fossil halls closed, Smithsonian affiliate Mark Uhen managed to acquire the retired Zygorhiza mount for George Mason University, where he is a professor. The whale is now on display in the Exploratory Hall atrium, suspended 30 feet in the air.

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

The tapir Hyrachyus and the mini-horse Orohippus. Photo by the author.

The last two major renovations of the NMNH fossil exhibits occurred when mammal specialists were in charge of the Paleobiology Department, and as a result the halls ended up with a lot of Cenozoic mammal mounts (at least 50, by my count). Virtually every major group was covered, often several times over. This menagerie has been culled for the new hall, which will focus on specimens that best tell the story of Earth’s changing climate during the past 66 million years. Casualties include the trio of Hagerman’s horses, the smaller horse Orohippus, the tapirs Hyrachyus and Helaletes, the ruminant Hypertragulus, and the oreodont Merycoidodon. Interestingly, the classic hall’s three large rhinos are sticking around, and will in fact be joined by at least one more.

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The pocket-sized ceratopsian historically called Brachyceratops has been on display at NMNH since 1922. Discovered in 1913 by Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, this animal is one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described, and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. Assembled by Norman Boss, the mount is actually a composite of five individuals Gilmore found together in northeast Montana.

Gilmore described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, but in 1997 Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed that all five specimens were juveniles. Unfortunately, the fossils lack many diagnostic features that could link them to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus. Nevertheless, without the ability to recognize other growth stages of the same species, the name Brachyceratops is unusable and is generally regarded as a nomen dubium.

It is not difficult to surmise why the Brachyceratops would end up near the bottom of the list of specimens for the new exhibit. It is not especially large or impressive, it doesn’t have a recognizable name (or any proper name at all, really) and it doesn’t tell a critical story about evolution or deep time. With limited space available and new specimens being prepped for display, little Brachyceratops will have to go.

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

Corythosaurus as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History launched the first of several expeditions to the Red Deer River region of Alberta. Seeing Brown’s success and under pressure to prevent the Americans from hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian Geological Survey assembled their own team of fossil collectors in 1912. This group was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who was accompanied by his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. Having secured several articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons, Brown’s team moved on five years later. The Sternbergs, however, remained at the Red Deer River, and continued to collect specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In 1933, Levi discovered a well-preserved back end of a Corythosaurus, complete with impressions of its pebbly skin. The Smithsonian purchased this specimen in 1937 for use at the Texas Centennial Exposition. It eventually found its way into the permanent paleontology exhibit at NMNH. Unfortunately, the half-Corythosaurus ended up crowded behind more eye-catching displays and was often overlooked by visitors. In the new exhibit, it will have to move aside to make room for new Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

Original skull of Hatcher the Triceratops, one of many dinosaur skulls coming off exhibit. Photo by the author.

In addition to complete dinosaur mounts, the old NMNH fossil halls included several dinosaur skulls, ranging from the giant cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus to the miniscule Bagaceratops. Most of these standalone skulls have been cut, although a few (Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Centrosaurus) are sticking around, to say nothing of new specimens being added. Other retirees in this category include the original skulls of Nedoceratops (labeled Diceratops), TriceratopsEdmontosaurus, and Corythosaurus, as well as casts of Protoceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegoceras, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae.

As usual, the reasons these specimens are coming off exhibit are varied. The Nedoceratops skull is a one-of-a-kind holotype that has been the subject of a great deal of conflicting research over its identity and relevance to Maastrichtian ceratopsian diversity. Putting this specimen back in the hands of scientists should help clarify what this bizarre creature actually is. Meanwhile, many of the other skulls (e.g. Protoceratops, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae) come from Asian taxa. In the new fossil hall, the Mesozoic displays will primarily focus on a few well-known ecosystems in North America.

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The NMNH Dolichorhynchops is a relatively new mount. It was collected in Montana in 1977 and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared it for display in 1987. 24 years later, “Dolly” is being retired to the collections. This is not due to anything wrong with the specimen, but to make way for a bigger, cooler short-necked plesiosaur. NMNH purchased a cast of Rhomaleosaurus from the Henry Ward Natural Science Establishment in the 1890s, but it has not been on exhibit since at least 1910. This cast, which is based on an original at the National Museum of Ireland (and which is identical to the cast at the London Natural History Museum) will make its first public appearance in over a century in the new National Fossil Hall. Sorry, Dolichorhynchops.

This has hardly been a comprehensive list – just a few examples that illustrate the decisions that are made when planning a large-scale exhibit. If you are curious about other favorites from the old halls, you can check on their fate by searching the Department of Paleobiology’s online database. Just go to Search by Field and enter “Deep Time” under Collection Name to see most of the specimens earmarked for the new exhibit.

References

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

Gilmore, C.W. 1922. The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, BrachyceratopsProceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

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

Gilmore, C.W. 1946. Notes on Recently Mounted Reptile Fossil Skeletons in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 96 No. 3196.

McDonald, A.T. 2011. A Subadult Specimen of Rubeosaurus ovatus(Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae), with Observations on other Ceratopsids from the Two Medicine Formation. PLoS ONE 6:8.

Sampson, S.D., Ryan, M.J. and Tanke, D.H. 1997. Craniofacial Ontogeny in Centrosaurine Dinosaurs: Taxonomic and Behavioral Implications. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 12:1:293-337.

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

Painting the Ancient Seas

During a 1958 benchmarking trip to a number of North American natural history museums, Smithsonian exhibits specialist Ann Karras wrote to Assistant Secretary Remington Kellogg about the state of artwork in paleontology displays. She noted with some frustration that since the paleontological community’s early 20th century love affair with Charles Knight, very little had been accomplished in this field. Everywhere she went, Karras saw reproductions of the same decades-old Knight paintings, supplemented by only the most tentative attempts at original artwork. As Karras postulated, “reverence for [Knight’s] work on the part of paleontologists may have thwarted any ambitions in that area of illustration for some years.” The sole outlier was the Peabody Museum of Natural History, home of the 1947 Age of Reptiles mural by Rudolph Zallinger. Impressed by the scale and quality of this 110-foot fresco, Karras suggested that the Smithsonian  invest in a similarly monumental piece of up-to-date paleoart at some point in the future.

Karras’s wish was finally realized in 1990, with the debut of Eleanor Kish’s epic Life in the Ancient Seas mural in the exhibit of the same name. Sixteen feet high and 130 feet long (with a sixteen by twenty foot supplement on the opposite wall), this mural is even larger than Zallinger’s better-known magnum opus. It also covers more of Earth’s history, spanning 541 years of deep time across the entire Phanerozoic Eon. But while The Age of Reptiles charts the progression of life on land, Life in the Ancient Seas follows the denizens of the undersea realm. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural demonstrates that the history of life is most thoroughly documented by marine fossils.

Dunkleosteus. Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

Close-up of Dunkleosteus and eurypterids. Art by Eleanor Kish. Source

The idea to include a mural in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit came relatively late. There was no mention of the artwork in the 1987 briefing document for potential donors, and as late as June of that year curator Nicholas Hotton was writing in hopeful terms about the inclusion of a full-color illustration of Dolichorhynchops. Eventually, however, the exhibit team got the go-ahead to start looking for an artist. Content Specialist Linda Deck started by assembling a list of three dozen prominent paleoartists. She sent each of them a letter of invitation, describing the project and emphasizing the immense scale of the desired product. Half of the artists responded with resumes and portfolio samples, and from these the exhibit team narrowed the field to six candidates*.

The short-list candidates were then given a $1000 stipend to paint a small sample piece. Each artist was provided with the scenario (a group of ammonites releasing a cloud of ink upon being attacked by a mosasaur), an assortment of fossil reference photos, and encouragement to get in touch with NMNH curators as needed. Of the five artists who completed this challenge, the exhibit team agreed unanimously that Kish’s work was the best fit for the project. Not only did she demonstrate the ability to accurately render the animals with anatomical precision, her bold color palate would work well as the backdrop for the entire exhibit.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The mosasaur section of the mural, presumably not far off from Kish’s original concept piece. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Eleanor (or Ely) Kish was born in 1924 to a family of artists. Growing up in New Jersey, she became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1972. While Kish was a professional artist for most of her adult life, her career in paleontological illustration kicked off in the 1970s, at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature. It was there that she worked with paleontologist Dale Russell on some of the earliest Renaissance-era dinosaur reconstructions (an assortment of paintings from Russel’s An Odessey of Time: The Dinosaurs of North America can be seen here). Tales of dinosaur art from this era often focus on Gregory Paul, John Sibbick, and their imitators, but Kish’s work was similarly prominent in books and magazines of the day.

Kish’s art is instantly recognizable for its portrayal of active, highly expressive dinosaurs in breathtakingly realized landscapes. The worlds she created – particularly the skies – have an almost poetic beauty, while the plants and animals that inhabit them drip with dew and pulsate with life. Kish’s work is often overlooked today because her dinosaurs are shrink-wrapped in the extreme, sometimes appearing emaciated or even ghoulish. The skeletal look is very much out of vogue (modern paleontologists prefer their dinosaurs appropriately bulked out with muscle, fat, and feathers), but as Christian Kammerer pointed out on twitter, it’s important to consider Kish’s art in context. Her carefully-researched work was a powerful counterpoint to the rotund, shapeless dinosaurs that had dominated paleoart in preceding decades, and a critical step on the road to the reconstructions we know today.

Kish with pencil sketch, color comprehensive, and models.

The artist with her models, pencil sketch, and color comprehensive. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

kish pretends to paint

Kish pretends to size up her canvas during a video shoot. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Once she received her work visa in May 1988, Kish moved to the Washington, DC area to begin Life in the Ancient Seas. She began by constructing small models of the most prominent animals that would appear in the mural. Working primarily with Sculptey, she built the animals’ skeletons first, using fossil photos as reference. Once these were approved, Kish sculpted the animals’ musculature and outer surfaces. She then used her models to paint a 16-foot small scale (1.5 inch to 1 foot) pencil sketch of the mural. This enabled her to work out the poses and behaviors of the animals, as well as the overall composition of the artwork. The next step was to produce the “color comprehensive”: a miniature painting with all the detail of the final piece. Since it would be impossible to photograph the entire mural within the narrow confines of Hall 5, this is the version that was reproduced for books, magazines, and postcards.

After fourteen months of preliminary work, Kish applied the first brushstrokes to the wall in the Spring of 1989. The museum’s graphics shop had prepared the surface well in advance, laying overlapping sheets of canvas onto drywall and carefully buffing out wrinkles and tears. Kish painted 130 feet of ocean backdrop for the main mural first, which took nearly two months. Next, Kish completed the smaller Cretaceous mural on the south side of the gallery, then moved on to the daunting task of filling in the large mural. She populated the scene chronologically, starting with the Paleozoic on the far left and moving forward through time. The exhibits department coordinated closely with Kish, so that the rest of the exhibit could be installed in her wake as each section of the mural was finished. The project took a total of two years to complete.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The “small” 20-foot Mesozoic mural, which appeared on the south wall of Hall 5. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas is an absolute masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms. The three biggest animals – Dunkleosteus, Tylosaurus, and Basilosaurus – anchor the action and provide a focal point for the viewer. From there, dynamic schools of fish draw the eye back and forth across the canvas. The longer one looks at this vibrant and colorful seascape, the more details emerge.

Of course, the primary function of the mural is to bring the static fossils on display to life, and Kish does not disappoint. The canvas is filled with hundreds of animals in perpetual motion. Streams of bubbles erupting from the creatures’ mouths imbue them with breath and energy. Although plenty of animals are being eaten, Life in the Ancient Seas is not a savage struggle of life and death. In one area, an inquisitive shark gets a face full of ink from a cephalopod that has no time for its antics. In another, a school of fish is sent careening in different directions by the powerfully swishing tail of the Tylosaurus. Instead of focusing on the macabre, Kish brilliantly incorporates whimsical humor into her work without plunging into the realm of cartoonishness. It is a feat that other paleoartists might do well to emulate. Meanwhile, Kish cleverly grounds some of the stranger extinct animals by juxtaposing them with their more familiar brethren. For example, the association of Basilosaurus, which resembles a fanciful sea dragon, with comparably mundane dugongs and dolphins makes this serpentine ancestral whale seem more plausible.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The back lit cove where Miocene sea lions and penguins frolic is easily the most beautiful part of the mural. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas was the largest project Kish ever took on. As she stated in multiple interviews, the Smithsonian commission made her career. The money she earned allowed her to buy a rural home in Ontario and convert it into a studio, which allowed her to produce more work more quickly. “I always wanted a studio,” she told the Ottawa Star,  “but I never had the money. The Smithsonian gave me that chunk of cash.”

Ely Kish passed away on October 12, 2014 at the age of 90. Those who knew her are quick to mention her kindness and generosity, particularly toward young artists. Past colleagues also fondly recall her impressive bouts of swearing, which would occasionally punctuate her normally soft-spoken demeanor. For the rest of us, we have Kish’s amazing artwork to remember her by. Kish created worlds we could otherwise never see, and she did it on a breathtaking scale. Although hers was a visual medium, she made the past into something we could feel and even experience. She and her talents will be missed.

Many thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff for providing access to the materials used in writing this article. 

References

Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles