Category Archives: opinion

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Habitat Immersion

It’s time to revisit my sporadic series on organizational and interpretive approaches in large-scale paleontology exhibits. Check out the posts below if you’d like to catch up.

Introduction

Walk Through Time

Phylogeny

Phylogeny – Addendum

Today’s topic is immersive exhibits – walk-through artificial environments that realistically simulate the prehistoric world. There are plenty of examples, and notably most have been built in the last 30 years. The Cincinnati Museum Center has a reconstruction of the Ohio Valley during the Pleistocene. The centerpiece at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is an indoor forest presided over by an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. Probably the most dramatic example is the DinoSphere at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Here, a repurposed Imax theater contains a number of dynamically posed dinosaur skeletons standing among rocks and trees. The surround sound system provides a constant soundtrack of animal calls, while the projection screen shows the sky at different times of day on a 22-minute cycle. There are even periodic storms, complete with flashing lights and booming thunder.

Original Bucky skeleton paired with a Stan cast at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Source

Stan and Bucky  harass a Triceratops in the DinoSphere.

Exhibits like the DinoSphere and its kin are frequently derided as sensationalism with little educational value. These multi-million dollar special effects shows (which sometimes do not contain any genuine specimens at all) are plainly inspired by the successes of theme parks, and it’s easy to dismiss them as crass efforts to draw crowds with flashy gimmicks. Surely these exhibits are nothing more than misguided attempts to turn museums into entertainment, learning opportunities be damned?

Well, it depends. The role of spectacle in museums is a complex one, and arguably one that is impossible to decouple from the core identity of these institutions.  Going back to the enlightenment-era cabinets of curiosities from which modern natural history museums emerged, the public side of museums has always been about showing off the biggest, the rarest, or the most expensive. And this sensationalist modus operandi has often been reflected in the spaces where specimens are displayed. The Greco-Roman architecture of classic exhibit halls, for example, is no less artificial than the DinoSphere’s indoor thunderstorms, and serves pretty much the same purpose.

neoclassical

The neoclassical aesthetic of the Field Museum’s great was designed to impress – and is no less of a fabricated experience then the DinoSphere above. Photo by the author.

While spectacle in museums is nothing new, neither is its complicated relationship with education. Arresting displays have long been leveraged to imbue specimens with informative context. Take habitat dioramas populated by taxidermy animals, a longstanding staple of natural history museums. These little worlds behind glass first became popular in the mid 19th century, and were almost immediately controversial among museum workers. Paradoxically, dioramas provided visitors with a fuller appreciation of the ecosystems the animals lived in, but only by wrapping the specimens in a layer of theatrical artifice. The immersive fossil exhibits that have cropped up over the last few decades are essentially habitat dioramas on a larger scale, and exhibit designers are still wresting with the same issues their forebears did a century and a half ago. Which is more important in the context of public exhibits – an informative and meaningful narrative, or authenticity?

For me, spectacle and artifice are fine, even welcome, so long as they serve a purpose. In some cases, the spectacle exists to inform (as in a habitat diorama), in other cases the spectacle itself is the attraction. The robotic T. rex at the Natural History Museum in London and the neanderthal photo booth at the National Museum of Natural History come to mind as examples of the latter – they’re entertaining, but don’t facilitate any further reflection or inquiry. When implemented in a thoughtful and deliberate way, however, spectacle can be a powerful element in a museum educator’s toolkit.

Triassic horsetails

By design, the first big skeleton visitors see in Dinosaurs in Their Time isn’t a dinosaur – it’s the phytosaur Redondasaurus. Photo by the author.

Let’s look at one example of a habitat immersion exhibit that uses showy reconstructed environments to maximize its educational potential. Two years and $36 million in the making, “Dinosaurs in Their Time” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best paleontology exhibits in the world*. Whether you’re considering the scope and quality of the specimens on display, the aesthetics and layout, or the interpretive approach,  Dinosaurs in Their Time is a benchmark in natural history exhibit design. You can follow along with this nifty interactive map.

*To be absolutely fair, Dinosaurs in Their Time is focused exclusively on the Mesozoic, which makes it difficult to compare to larger exhibits that cover the entire history of life on Earth.

What makes Dinosaurs in Their Time so great? Let’s start by considering the layout. The new exhibit more than doubles the square footage of the old Carnegie dinosaur hall, and much of the interior is actually a former courtyard (incidentally, this reuse of an existing space helped the exhibit earn its LEED certification). This makes the gallery spacious and airy, with a high ceiling and  plenty of natural lighting. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, starting in the Triassic and ending in the Cretaceous, but there is plenty of space in which to roam. In fact, the pathway forms a sort of figure eight around the Apatosaurus and Diplodocus in the Jurassic zone and the Tyrannosaurus pair in the Cretaceous. This cyclical organization allows, if not encourages, visitors to view specimens from multiple perspectives, and lets each person traverse the exhibit at their own pace. It’s especially nice that the sauropods have enough room to breathe – too often, these immense skeletons are relegated to cramped quarters where it’s impossible to see them all at once.

jurassic overlook

Visitors can walk all the way around Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, and even view them from above. Photo by the author.

The open spaces and clear sight lines are nicely complemented by the reconstructed rocks and foliage that fill the exhibit, giving it a proper outdoor feel. Importantly, the flora isn’t just for show – it’s a critical component of the interpretation. “We’ve painstaking recreated the worlds of the dinosaurs,” curator Matt Lamanna explains in a Carnegie Magazine interview, “everything that is displayed together actually lived together.” One of the key themes in Dinosaurs in Their Time is that dinosaurs were but one part of rich ecosystems, which were just as complex as those of today. These animals shaped and were shaped by the world around them, and there is far more to paleontology than the pageant show of toothy monsters that many visitors have come to expect. Indeed, it’s more akin to reconstructing entire worlds.

The plurality of “worlds” is important, because Dinosaurs in Their Time also emphasizes the nigh-unfathomable time span of the Mesozoic. Over 185 million years, countless communities of organisms came and went, and once again the immersive aesthetic of the exhibit helps convey this. While the horsetail swamp of the Triassic area almost looks like an alien world, the Cretaceous is populated by flowers and deciduous trees much like those of today. In this exhibit, the fossil specimens aren’t in a neutral environment – the space itself is part of the narrative.

T. rex with flowers and magnolia.

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops mounts stand among flowers and magnolias. Photo by the author.

The habitat immersion approach comes with yet another plus: it encourages exploration. From a tiny swimming Hyphalosaurus under the waterline of an artificial pond to a Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree, visitors are constantly rewarded for looking high and low. As Lamanna explains, “many visitors are repeat visitors, so we wanted to give them something new to discover every time they come back.” This is particularly beneficial for younger visitors. Rather than barreling through the exhibit in minutes, kids are encouraged to look for tiny details and learn things along the way.

Finally, the computer terminals throughout Dinosaurs in Their Time merit some discussion because they embody the same multi-tiered educational approach as the physical space around them. Dinosaurs in Their Time actually tells several stories simultaneously: there’s the ecology story, the deep time story, the history of the specimens on display, and even a meta-story of how the new exhibit was put together. Most visitors won’t be interested in every narrative, nor should they be. Rather than filling the walls with a dizzying array of signage, the exhibit designers consolidated the various narratives into space-efficient interactives. Visitors can choose which information they would like to see, and craft their experience in the exhibit to their tastes. This is technology used intelligently and purposefully, and something I hope to see other exhibits emulate in the future.

look closely

Sharp-eyed visitors are rewarded with hidden specimens, like this Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree. 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. Spectacle is one way to achieve that goal, and Dinosaurs in Their Time is a stellar example.

References

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

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

Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PN: Pennsylvania State University Press

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Filed under CMNH, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, science communication

Here Comes Jurassic World

Gyrosphere scene. Source

A bucolic scene at the dinosaur zoo. Source

I was planning to be bitter and jaded about “Jurassic World”, but my excitement has gotten the better of me. I like much of what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film next week. Moreover, the cultural endurance of the original “Jurassic Park”, now 22 years old, is incredible. When leading tours, I am regularly asked about the (largely fanciful) ground-penetrating radar shown in the movie. The word “dromaeosaur” results in blank faces, but if I call it a “raptor-type dinosaur, like in Jurassic Park,” I get knowing nods. These movies are the frame of reference for the public’s understanding of paleontology – not just how dinosaurs looked and behaved, but how scientists learn about them.

An important digression: we can’t give sole credit for Jurassic Park’s outsized role in popular culture to its dinosaurs and visual effects. I doubt the film would have the same lasting power without its memorable story and characters. Jurassic Park turned the classic lost world fantasy on its head, mixing it with a modern, tech-infused setting and a believable – albeit impossible – method for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film raises concerns about the corporate commodification of GMOs that (whether reasonable or not) are at least as relevant today as they were in 1993. The entertaining and relatable way in which Jurassic Park broaches complex topics has not gone unnoticed by teachers. More than two decades later, the film is still being used to introduce subjects ranging from bioethics to complex mathematics.

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park features some of the most true-to-life scientist characters I’ve ever seen in a popular film (a very low bar, to be fair). Alan Grant has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that reminds me of a number of colleagues and acquaintances. He usually thinks before he speaks or acts, but he also has a playful side that demonstrates the absolute joy he takes in discovering things about the world around him. Ian Malcolm, on the other hand, is what is known as an academic asshole. Like certain celebrity scientists, he’s a self-righteous jerk who may have some wisdom to impart, but chooses to do so in an insufferably arrogant and aggressive way. Scientists are as complex as anyone else, and it’s nice to be able to point to a movie that goes beyond the usual nerds in lab coats. Some more diversity among the principal cast would be better, but Jurassic Park is a move in the right direction.

A very reasonable reaction to encountering a living Triceratops.

A very reasonable reaction upon encountering a living Triceratops. Source

Back to my main point, the Jurassic Park films have had a meaningful and substantial impact on popular impressions of dinosaur science, and in this respect they should be taken seriously. A substantial amount of ink and pixels has been spilled regarding the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for precisely this reason. Since the first Jurassic World trailer was released last fall, much of this conversation has revolved around the retrograde appearance of the new film’s saurian stars – rather than taking advantage of two decades of new science, the filmmakers stuck with the early 1990s designs. Experts have called this choice “lazy,” “a missed opportunity,” and “unbearably stupid in every conceivable way.” In response, die-hard Jurassic Park fans are rushing to the film’s defense. Many have explained away any deviations from real dinosaurs by pointing out that the cloned animals are genetic aberrations to some degree. Maddeningly, others have taken to questioning what experts truly know about extinct animals.

Misguided appeals to ignorance can be dismissed out of hand, but the “cloned aberrations” argument deserves attention, if only because it completely misses the point. The Jurassic Park series has always been viewed (and marketed) as credible science fiction. The filmmakers hired Jack Horner, probably the world’s best-known paleontologist, to vouch for the dinosaur designs of all four films. By the time the third movie came out, special effects genius Stan Winston (rest in peace) was claiming that they had “blurred the theatricality of movies with museum-type education,” and that “there’s something to be learned from watching these movies” (quotes from DVD featurette “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III”). Given statements like these, it’s important that anyone with a vested interest in natural history education be aware of the films’ content, and be prepared to call out inaccuracies as necessary.

Something is awry. Source

Pictured: inaccuracy. Source

Nevertheless, I’d also like to direct some finger-wagging at those who seem excessively eager to tear down the Jurassic Park films in the name of education. Many otherwise reasonable adults care a great deal about these movies, and “classic” dinosaur depictions in general. Perhaps this is due to an association with childhood, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of “awesomebro” culture. Either way, my job and my passion is to communicate the amazing discoveries scientists are making about our world, but I also know that telling people the things they like are stupid and wrong isn’t a great way to win over hearts and minds. Rather than alienating and antagonizing potential learners, I’d prefer to make use of what the audience is bringing to the conversation. Jurassic Park is a wide-reaching frame of reference and a helpful starting point for conversations about what we know about past life and how we know it. As I’ve argued before, the ideal approach is to acknowledge the relevance of pop-cultural dinosaurs, while working to separate them in our audience’s minds from the real dinosaurs that we learn about by studying fossils.

As an educator, what I want out of Jurassic World is a good movie, full stop. A good movie is a memorable movie, one that inspires people to visit parks and museums and to read up on paleontology. In more substantive terms, the original Jurassic Park also brought forth a great deal of funding for new research and museum exhibits, simply by creating awareness that dinosaur science has popular appeal. So to director Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World, I say bring it on. We’re ready for your inaccuracies, and we’re ready to turn them into great discussions.

PS: Please consider participating in the Jurassic World Challenge – match your movie ticket price with a donation to help fund paleontology research and outreach. 

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Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication

Fossil sandboxes are terrible

Are these kids learning yet?

Are these kids learning yet? Source

Today, I need to take a moment to rail against one of the most reliably entertaining and beloved of museum attractions – fossil sandboxes. These activities are nearly ubiquitous at paleontology-related parks and museums, and some of them can be quite large and elaborate. There are a few variations, but they generally involve children using simple hand tools to dig through sand or loose gravel to uncover planted fossils (usually replicas, but I’ve seen a few places sacrifice real Pleistocene bones for this activity). Kids and families absolutely adore fossil sandboxes, and they generate all kinds of goodwill for the museums that feature them. In fact, many visitors have come to expect sandbox digs at paleontology exhibits, and become annoyed when one isn’t available.

I understand the appeal of sandboxes. For kids, they’re an opportunity to play pretend, engage in a physical activity after a day of looking at stuff, and generally have fun making a mess. Museum educators, myself included, are all about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences – the idea that different people learn best in different ways. While some easily absorb and retain information by reading or listening quietly, others prefer to solve a problem, talk through a topic with others, or engage in some sort of hands-on activity. That last one is called bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and it is common among athletes and actors, among others. A fossil sandbox allegedly provides an activity for bodily-kinesthetic learners to develop and hone a physical skill related to the topic at hand. Kids get a chance to see and feel what it’s like to be a real paleontologist working in the field.

Except not really. A sandbox focuses kids’ attention, but that’s not the same thing as learning. What they’re doing has virtually nothing to do with actual paleontology. Digging is a comparatively minor part of field work – far more time is spent prospecting for fossils. When a team does start excavating, it’s conducted in a precise and organized manner, so that no taphonomic data is lost. By comparison, the sandbox arrangement conjures ideas of frantic treasure hunting, rather than piecing together and interpreting clues about past life. Furthermore, digging through loose sand is exceedingly rare in the field. If it were so easy to get at fossils, they would either have been found already or would have eroded away to nothing. A simulation is supposed to model a real event, or constrain that event to a limited set of variables. Sandbox digs do neither. Parents and caretakers might appreciate a place where kids can entertain themselves for a while, and educators can pat themselves on the back for providing a physically-involved experience. But there’s no use pretending that anybody is learning in what amounts to a themed playpen.

One alternative to the sandbox concept is provided by Thistle. He describes an activity in which he sets up a series of square meter “dig sites” within a room. Different specimens or artifacts are placed in each square. Participating students are then told that each square represents what was found in a layer of excavation, and are prompted to draw conclusions based on the different objects recovered from different strata. Students consider the spatial relationships among found objects, and discuss the roles of taphonomy and deep time. Unlike a sandbox dig, the results of this activity are comparable to those of a real excavation, and students are asking the same sorts of questions paleontologists would. Granted, Thistle’s activity requires much more guidance than a sandbox, but it’s a good example of something that participants might actually learn from.

The point is, we owe our audiences more than a mindless diversion with no bearing on actual science. And for that matter, we owe the scientists whose work we’re communicating more than a tacky, inaccurate simulation. If our goals are to inspire enthusiasm for science and to encourage young visitors to think scientifically, surely we can do better than a sandbox dig.

References

Thistle, P.C. 2012. Archaeology Excavation Simulation: Correcting the Emphasis. Journal of Museum Education 37:2:65-76.

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

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Age of Man

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

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

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

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

ponies

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny

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

peabody mammals

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

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

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

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

4th floor of AMNH.

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

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

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

follow the path for now

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

path disappears among dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edentates aren't real

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

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

Cows and broken videos

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fish, FMNH, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion, reptiles, reviews, systematics

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

Dinosaurs on display in 2014

Instead of repeating last year’s navel-gazing, I’m going to try something a little more interesting with my obligatory year-in-review*. This post will recap 2014’s big events in museum paleontology – I’ve covered some of it before, but there’s plenty that I missed as well.

Out with the Old

artists conception

Concept art for the new NMNH fossil hall, opening 2019.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the most important event in the world of fossil exhibits this year was the closing of the National Museum of Natural History’s east wing. This is the world’s most-visited natural history museum, and the fossil mounts on display here have been among the most widely-viewed anywhere. The east wing has been home to paleontology displays since the building opened more than a century ago, but until now it has never undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. Since the halls closed in April, NMNH staff have made significant progress de-installing the old displays, including some mounted skeletons that have been on display for over 80 years. Over the next five years, this historic space will be restored to it’s original neo-classical glory, and eventually remade into a new chronicle of the history of life on Earth suitable for the 21st century.

NMNH was among the last of the classic American natural history museums to commit to a post-dinosaur renaissance overhaul (the American Museum of Natural History started the trend in 1995, followed by the Field Museum and the Carnegie Museum). All eyes are now on the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the great hall of fossil reptiles still looks much as it did sixty years ago. A plan is in place for a $30 million renovation, and the museum is currently soliciting donations to fund the project. For now, however, New Haven is one of the last places in North America where visitors can still see early-20th century dinosaur mounts.

In With the New

Spinosaurus!

Spinosaurus at the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall. Photo by the author.

Several new temporary and traveling fossil exhibits opened in the United States this year. The biggest splash was made by “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous”, which I reviewed in September. Premiering at the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall in Washington DC, this exhibit is science outreach on a grand scale. It debuted alongside a technical paper by Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues that redescribed the well-known Spinosaurus as a short-legged analogue to early whales. While there has been some skepticism about the paper’s conclusions, credit must be given for such an ambitious public display of up-to-the-minute research. The exhibit, which includes a 50-foot reconstruction of a swimming Spinosaurus skeleton, will be on display in Washington through April 12. After that, it begins its world tour in Germany.

Washington, DC got a second new paleontology exhibit this Fall in the form of “The Last American Dinosaurs” at NMNH. Focusing on the North American ecosystem that existed just before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, this exhibit will serve as an interim dinosaur attraction while the main fossil hall is being renovated. The Last American Dinosaurs is more than a stopgap, however – it’s a remarkably well-crafted look at ecology and the phenomenon of extinction, both in the past and in the present.

Other 2014 fossil exhibits of note include “Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies” at the Peabody Museum, and “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” at AMNH. Tiny Titans didn’t feature any show-stopping fossil mounts, but it was nevertheless a charming, kid-friendly exhibit focused on how different groups of dinosaurs raised their young. I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the gorgeous artwork by Luis Rey. I missed my chance to check out Pterosaurs (it closes this week), so if you were able to see it please share your thoughts!

Mount of the Year

Sophie the Stegosaurus at the Natural History Museum in London. Source

Sophie the Stegosaurus at the Natural History Museum in London. Source

What was the coolest mounted fossil skeleton created this year? For the runner up, I’d pick the aforementioned Spinosaurus. Created by RCI and Acme Design under the direction of Paul Sereno’s lab at the University of Chicago, this replica skeleton embodies both the possibilities and pitfalls of digital technology. The Spinosaurus mount is based on a digital composite of laser-scanned fossils held in at least three countries, as well as scaled-up bones from related animals like Suchomimus, and a fair amount of sculpted material. On one hand, it’s incredible that a unified vision of this animal can be willed into three-dimensional existence. However, one could reasonably voice concern about presenting a somewhat controversial hypothesis in a format that implies authenticity. Virtually all fossil mounts are composites to some degree, but it seems we’re still working out the limits of how far this concept can be taken.

In contrast, I have no reservations in granting Mount of the Year to Sophie the Stegosaurus. Unveiled on December 4th at London’s Natural History Museum, this is the most complete Stegosaurus specimen known and the first example of this species to be displayed in Europe. It’s also the first new dinosaur skeleton to be added to historic NHM exhibit halls in more than a century. After the museum purchased the skeleton from a private dealer in 2013, Paul Barrett and Charlotte Brassey have been carefully examining (and laser-scanning) every inch of it for the better part of the last year. New data on the biomechanics and behavior of Stegosaurus is due out soon, but for now the public can enjoy the 18-foot skeleton in a dramatic display at the museum. In addition to the impressive work creating a dynamic pose with nearly invisible supports, I’m particularly taken by NHM’s outreach efforts, which explain the importance of this skeleton for a broad range of audiences.

All in all, 2014 was a pretty good year for paleontology on display. While fossil exhibits remained stagnant for much of the 20th century, the last decade plus has seen an explosion of displays to feed the public’s insatiable appetite for dinosaurs. Perhaps in the future we will call this time the second golden age of fossil mounts!

*For the record, Dinosours! got about 26,000 visitors last year, many of which I owe to the good people at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and SV-POW. My review of the Spinosaurus exhibit was by far the most popular post, followed by the two-parter on Triceratops posture and the true story of the mismatched “Brontosaurus” skull.

 

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, NMNH, opinion, theropods, thyreophorans