Category Archives: opinion

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the Valenictus.

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

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

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

A panoramic view of the immersive Eocene diorama.

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

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

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

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

National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under collections, education, field work, museums, opinion, science communication

The Field Museum Shuffles its Dinosaurs

Rendering of Patagotitan and the Sue remount. Source

This morning, The Field Museum of Natural History announced two big changes to its dinosaur exhibits. First, the indispensable Sue the Tyrannosaurus will move from its prime location in the central Stanley Field Hall and into Evolving Planet, the museum’s permanent paleontology exhibit. Next, a cast of the South American sauropod Patagotitan will take Sue’s place in the main hall. Sue will be disassembled just a few months from now in February 2018. Patagotitan will be installed later next year, and Sue’s new home on the second floor opens in Spring 2019 (perhaps deliberately, this is within weeks of the National Fossil Hall’s reopening at the Smithsonian).

Sue has been the Field Museum’s defining attraction since the skeleton was acquired in 1997. It is the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found, but it is also more than a natural history specimen. Sue is part of the pantheon of Chicago landmarks, and the public’s association of the mount with the city it resides in has all but eclipsed the legal battle that preceeded it’s acquisition.

The current Sue mount has a touch of “grenade-swallowing syndrome.” Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Sue mount that has been on display for 17 years is not perfect. Assembled by Phil Fraley Productions, the mount has been the subject of grumbling among tyrannosaur specialists for years: the coracoids are too far apart, the furcula is incorrectly placed, the posterior ribs are unnaturally bowed out, and so forth. Happily, Sue will be getting thoroughly updated during the move. In addition to correcting the various anatomical problems, the new mount will reintroduce Sue to its gastralia (belly ribs), which have been displayed separately since 2000, and change her crouching pose to a standing one. As Collections Manager Bill Simpson explains in the announcement video, “we now know more about how a T. rex skeleton should look and Sue is going to reflect those changes.”

Sue 2.0 will take over the second floor space occupied by the recently shuttered 3-D theater. Accessible as an annex to the dinosaur section of Evolving Planet, the Sue exhibit will contextualize the Tyrannosaurus with other fossils from the Hell Creek Formation.

Rendering of Patagotitan in the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Patagotitan is the same animal that the American Museum of Natural History billed as “the titanosaur” two years ago. Argentina’s newest megasauropod was first announced in 2014 but was formally named and published by José Carballido and colleagues just three weeks ago. While not technically the biggest known sauropod, Patagotitan is the only dinosaur in its class known  from reasonably complete remains. The skeleton itself will be more or less identical to the cast Research Casting International produced for AMNH. However, instead of being crammed into a small room, this Patagotitan will have space to stretch out, its neck craning to look over the second story mezzanine. The Field Museum exhibits team also wants visitors to be able to walk under and even touch the cast skeleton.

What do I think about all this (asked nobody)? I’m thrilled with the plans for Sue – it’s great that even though Sue is such an important symbol for the Field Museum, they don’t consider it a static piece. Much credit is due for the museum’s willingness to invest in their star attraction by keeping it up to the latest scientific standard. In addition, I never entirely liked how disassociated Sue was from the rest of the paleontology displays, and it’s nice to know that somebody at the museum must have felt the same way. There’s something to be said for giving the skeleton pride of place, but ultimately I think museumgoers will be better served by seeing Sue contextualized within the story of life on Earth.

While I love me some megasauropods, I can’t help but be less excited by the Patagotitan. I realize that most people don’t go to every natural history museum, but two identical casts already exist. To be fair, the Field Museum Patagotitan will be in a very different setting from its AMNH predecessor (although it may turn out rather like the Royal Ontario Museum Futalognkosaurus). Still, I would rather have seen something more unique to the Field Museum. One idea would be to bring back the Brachiosaurus reconstruction, and display it side-by-side with a remount of the historic Apatosaurus currently in Evolving Planet. Both specimens are tied to the museum’s own expeditionary history, and together would tell the remarkable story of Elmer Riggs. The Apatosaurus in particular could anchor a Field Museum retrospective, while images of the three different locations it has been displayed in since 1908.

The last time a sauropod graced the Stanley Field Hall. Source

Somebody more cynical than me might point out that switching up iconic displays is becoming a predictable way for museums to generate press and manufacture controversy. For example, the Natural History Museum in London got no less than three media splashes when they announced Dippy the Diplodocus was to be replaced, actually removed Dippy, and finally unveiled the remounted blue whale in Hintze Hall earlier this summer. Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made that stirring up public reactions in this way is an effective way to keep the people interested in their museums. As Field Museum president Richard Lariviere told the Chicago Tribune, “the public doesn’t understand that the science…we convey is changing on an almost hourly basis here. I talk to people all the time who think that since they’ve been to the Field Museum 10 years ago they’ve seen it. By transforming the central space, we hope to convey that exact message.”

At any rate, we’re in for some great new dinosaur displays at the Field Museum over the next couple years. What do you think of the upcoming changes?

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

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

This pregnant right whale was killed when it was hit by a boat. Displayed with the fetus skeleton in situ, it now serves as a species ambassador.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been on my list of must-see museums for some time, and I finally had a chance to visit over Memorial Day weekend. Founded in 1879 as the North Carolina State Museum, the institution was initially a showcase for local agricultural and mineral products. Over the years, the interests of both the curators and the visiting public gradually nudged the museum in the direction of more generalized natural history. Now the largest natural history museum in the southeast, NCSM hosts a world-class research staff overseeing a collection of 1.7 million specimens. Since 2000, the museum has occupied a four-story facility in downtown Raleigh. A second wing, called the Nature Research Center, opened in 2012. There are also two satellite nature centers outside the city (which I did not visit) that are under the NCSM banner.

An introduction to geologic time.

First things first: the paleontology exhibit is quite good, although somewhat compact. Perhaps too compact, given its popularity and the amount of exhibit space the museum has to work with overall. Coming up the escalator to the 3rd floor, visitors are strongly encouraged to enter Habitats of North Carolina, a colorful and attractive walk through time. The initial spaces cover the basics. First, a series of pillars introduce the primary stages of life on Earth. This is followed by exhibits about where fossils come from, how we know how old fossils are, and so on. I particularly liked the “What to Fossils Tell Us?” display. Here, a grid of spinning cubes each hold small, conventional fossils. Visitors can rotate the cubes around to see that even these modest-looking remains can be very informative. For example, leaves and pollen provide detailed climate information, and a large croc scute suggests that a substantial body of water was present.

Prestosuchus in the Triassic scene. This appears to be a cast of the Brazilian AMNH 3856.

Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus casts dominate the Cretaceous tableau.

The rest of the exhibit is built around a series of tableaus in which mounts and models of charismatic animals are placed in landscapes of replica foliage. Small, illustrative fossils are in cases throughout. First up is a cast of Prestosuchus, lurking among some Triassic horsetails. Next, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Pachcephlosaurus casts populate the Cretaceous alongside lovely ginkgos and magnolias. A baby hadrosaur model at the feet of the Edmontosaurus was apparently stolen (and recovered) in 2012. The famous Willo – a Thescelosaurus skeleton that maybe/probably doesn’t have mineralized heart tissue in its chest – is on display under glass.

Did you know that most modern fish groups evolved only 20 million years ago? I didn’t!

A ground sloth in the standard pole-dancing pose.

Moving into the Cenozoic, a set of attractive and informative cases describe the origin and evolution of modern fishes and whales. This is followed by glass tunnel through a life-sized diorama of a late Eocene sea. The models here are spectacular, but the space is altogether too dark. I found it difficult to see the diorama, much less read the signs. The final section is home to a real ground sloth skeleton. This is a composite of several specimens recovered in 1999 near Wilmington, North Carolina. Happily, the reconstructed portions of the mount are distinct and easy to see. Habitats of North Carolina ends on an eccentric note with a set of mannequins in pioneer garb discovering fossils in a creek bed. I’m not really sure what this adds to the exhibit narrative.

Acrocanthosaurus holds court in a sunny atrium all to itself.

The star fossil at NCNM is the only real Acrocanthosaurus on display anywhere in the world. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love found this rare skeleton in Oklahoma in 1983. Unfortunately, a bad case of pyrite disease made the fossils an absolute nightmare to prepare, and it exchanged hands several times before ending up with the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. In 1997, an anonymous donor purchased the skeleton on behalf of NCNM for $3 million, shortly after the museum came in second place in the bidding war for Sue the T. rex.

Acrocanthosaurus is a favorite of mine, and the mount is beautiful. The sunny atrium it’s situated in makes for an attractive display, but I wish it wasn’t so disassociated from the main paleontology exhibit. I’m told the mount included more original material when it debuted in 2000, but the creeping specter of pyrite disease has necessitated the removal of several bones for restoration and safekeeping. Be sure to see it soon, before the rest of the mount gets replaced with casts!

Whales: behold their majesty.

The paleontology exhibits are nice and all, but the real showstoppers at NCSM are the whales. No less than six giant whale skeletons are on display. Suspended over a corridor of sorts, the whales can be viewed from below or from a 2nd story mezzanine. Many museums have a whale skeleton or two, but I’ve never encountered this many cetecean skeletons in one place. From the utterly insane-looking right whale to the colossal blue whale, they are stunning to behold. Be sure to factor in plenty of time to simply stare. Immersive dioramas of local habitats, live animal exhibits, and a look at collecting and exhibition practices past and present round out the museum’s “old wing.”

As mentioned, however, a whole new wing of exhibits opened in 2012. Called the Nature Research Center, this is basically the interactive, citizen science-driven Museum of the Future that educators (including myself) have been demanding for years. This three story space is all about getting visitors involved in science. There are multiple drop-in “labs” where knowledgeable staff lead visitors through mini-experiments, designed to get people thinking scientifically. There’s a molecular lab where visitors can isolate and analyze DNA samples. There’s a digital imagery space where visitors can practice using GIS tools, or explore the possibilities of 3-D printing. And there’s a Q?rius-like collections library, where visitors can check out and study real bones, furs, minerals, and fossils. The Nature Research Center also includes several fishbowl-style labs where visitors can watch museum staff and volunteers at work. Even the highly interdisciplinary static displays are less about the “what” and more about the “how”: the tools, techniques, and people that make science possible.

One of the lab spaces in the Nature Research Center.

Distressingly, on the day I visited, the traditional museum exhibits were crowded with visitors, but the Nature Research Center was nearly deserted. Since I was there on a holiday weekend, I was probably seeing a skeleton-crew version of the staff that is usually facilitating the interactive spaces. Still, the Nature Research Center is the embodiment of the modular, interactive exhibits that educators dream about. To see it empty while the story and object-driven exhibits were packed is somewhat disconcerting.

As the scientists say, though, a single anecdotal experience is not data. I’d be very interested to learn how this pioneering exhibit space holds up in the long run.

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

Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.

References

Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

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

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Filed under education, opinion, science communication, systematics

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: PMNS

Life Then and Now

Life Then and Now at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

In a recent interview at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, artist Brian Engh provided one of the best definitions of paleontology I’ve ever seen:

Paleontology is really just animals and plants doing animal and plant stuff, then dying and getting buried and all that stuff stacking up for unfathomable expanses of time.

This is how paleontology is portrayed in Life Then and Now, the fossil hall at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibit clearly and cohesively portrays the world of the past as a collection of living ecosystems, and highlights both the fossil evidence and the means by which scientists interpret it. This is in stark contrast to the Morian Hall of Paleontology in Houston, which I found to emphasize style over substance. In the last post, I critiqued the Morian Hall’s art gallery format, arguing that it discouraged understanding and ultimately diminished the meaning and reality of the specimens on display. I was pleased that this discussion sparked lively conversations here and on twitter, but now it’s only fair that I follow up with an example of what I actually like to see in a natural history exhibit.

mosasaur and texas ornithiscians

The mid-Cretaceous, by land and by sea. Photo by the author.

The purpose of any exhibit structure is to provide meaning and context for objects – to help visitors see them as more than neat things to look at. It’s the museum’s job to give visitors the intellectual tools to contextualize displayed objects in a more sophisticated way. In terms of aesthetics and overall layout, this is clearly what the designers of Life Then and Now had in mind. The exhibit occupies a large, open, and well-lit space, with long sight lines around the room. There is a set of clear, over-arching themes, with individual stories playing back into the primary learning goals. Vignettes have large, informative headings that can be seen and understood on the move, but there is also plenty of detailed content for visitors who care to look more closely. Multimedia and interactives are deployed intelligently – they don’t exist for their own sake but cover content in novel and interesting ways.

All this serves to make the exhibit useful for visitors of a variety of ages and interest levels. For one thing, visitors are encouraged to engage with content at their own pace. They can see what the exhibit has to offer as soon as they enter the space, they can view specimens in whatever order interests them, and they always have a good idea of how much they’ve seen and how much there is left. Nevertheless, the core messages are never lost, even for fly-by visitors.  Most every display refers back to the exhibit’s key themes, and the main idea behind every vignette is visible from a distance. Meanwhile, the needs of advanced visitors are not forgotten. Specimens are not in cramped corners or obscured by dramatic lighting, but out in the open and visible from numerous angles.

benifet

One benefit of an open layout is that it encourages comparison. For example, why are these two megaherbivores shaped so differently? Photo by the author.

More specifically, the primary theme of Life Then and Now is that life of the past was not a pageant show of monsters but a set of living communities that operated under the same constraints that drive the evolution of plants and animals today. This is communicated by pairing fossil specimens with modern counterparts. Below, Pachyrhinosaurus and an extant moose both sport elaborate headgear used for competition and display. Elsewhere, extinct and extant animals illustrate intercontinental migration, herd living, adaptations for harsh climates, predator-and-prey arms races, and niche partitioning. Along the way, the process and mechanisms for evolution are brought up again and again. This hammers home the point that life is never static and always responding to environmental pressures, while simultaneously demonstrating that there is evidence for evolution everywhere you look. This is quite different from the Morian Hall, where I felt that the role of evolution in producing the variety of life on display was not made especially clear. The only thing missing from this presentation is a time axis. I wish the exhibit put more emphasis on the enormous expanses of time between the various fossil specimens on display, but I suppose it can be difficult to cover every angle.

vigniette

Visitors can see the main message of this vignette from a distance, or look more closely to find out more. Photo by the author.

Many, if not most of the vignettes also include the names and faces of the scientists involved in the discovery and interpretation of the specimens on display. This personalized approach matters for several reasons. It reminds visitors that science is a process, not a set of facts. It illustrates that there is more to a museum than its exhibits, and that the institution’s most important and unique resource is the in-house research staff who use the collections to create new knowledge. Finally, since the Perot Museum is generally pitched for younger visitors, it’s critical to show that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats or pith helmets. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relatable (and for kids, something to aspire to).

Other important stories are told around the perimeter of the exhibit space. Near the entrance, a remarkably concise display covers the definition of a fossil and brings order to the diversity of life on Earth. This is accomplished with a series of stacked boxes printed on the wall. The largest boxes are labeled Trace Fossils and Body Fossils. Within Body Fossils, there are Plants, Invertebrates, and Vertebrates. Within Vertebrates, there are Fish and Amniotes, and within Amniotes there are Synapsids and Reptiles. So it continues, eventually illustrating that dinosaur bones are only a small part of the huge range of living things that are found as fossils. Since visitor research has shown that cladograms are often counter-intuitive to non-specialists, it’s nice to see an attractive and accessible alternative.

layered boxes instead of cladogram

Colorful, stacked boxes offer a more accessible alternative to a cladogram. Photo by the author.

In another corner, there is a small display devoted to dinosaurs in popular culture. While some might call this a waste of space, I think it’s helpful to draw contrasts between popular images of dinosaurs and the real animals that were part of the history of life on our planet. This display acknowledges the relevance of roadside statues and Jurassic Park while plainly separating them from the rest of the science-driven exhibit.

Quite possibly the best part of Life Then and Now (well, aside from the Alamosaurus – sauropods upstage everything) is the Rose Hall of Birds on the mezzanine level. It’s remarkable enough that the bird displays merge seamlessly with (and are in fact a part of) the dinosaur exhibit. But the Hall of Birds goes further, covering flight adaptations like unidirectional airflow and pneumatic bones, and how they first evolved for different reasons in dinosaurs. This is content that I wasn’t introduced to until grad school, but it’s all explained succinctly here, in language that is probably accessible to interested elementary school students. For some reason, this exhibit also includes digitized versions of bird-related literature dating back to the middle ages. It’s wonderful to see historic natural history acknowledged and celebrated in this context!

bird evolution!

Bird evolution explained. Photo by the author.

While Life Then and Now is barely half the size of the Morian Hall, I think it provides a much richer educational experience. While the exhibit certainly doesn’t reject what visitors expect to see (fighting dinosaurs!), it uses preconceptions and existing knowledge to make a series of important points about biology and evolution. As such, it’s an ideal blend of fun and science, visually attractive but built from the ground up on solid evidence. I can’t recommend it enough.

If any readers have visited the Perot Museum and/or HMNS, what did you think? Please don’t hesitate to weigh in!

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, opinion, reviews, science communication

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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