Category Archives: PMNH

Beecher’s “Claosaurus”

Readers are likely aware that the Hadrosaurus Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created for the Academy of Natural Sciences was the first mounted dinosaur skeleton. It is less widely known, however, that this Hadrosaurus was a plaster facsimile, which included none of the actual fossils that inspired it. (edit: not quite, see comments). The title of first dinosaur mount composed of original fossils belongs to the Belgian Iguanodon assembled by Louis Dollo in 1891 (I should probably write about this eventually, but Fernanda Castano has an excellent account at Letters From Gondwana). So what was the first real fossil dinosaur mount on this side of the Atlantic? Glad you asked – that would be none other than the 1901 Edmontosaurus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Edmontosaurus is surprisingly modern

The PMNH Edmontosaurus with Deinonychus and Centrosaurus. Photo by the author.

There are plenty of Edmontosaurus skeletons on display today, but the Yale mount is noteworthy because of its remarkably modern appearance. While the Hawkins Hadrosaurus and Dollo Iguanodon were upright tail-draggers, the Edmontosaurus could be mistaken for a mount constructed in the last quarter century. Its raised tail, horizontal posture, and energetic gait all reflect current thinking about dinosaur posture and locomotion. And yet, it was built at the turn of the century, back when paleontologists supposedly all thought of dinosaurs as lethargic lizards.

The Hawkins Hadrosarus and Dollo Iguanodon. Photos from

The Hawkins Hadrosarus and Dollo Iguanodon. Images from Paper Dinosaurs.

The scientist behind this mount was Charles Beecher. Born in Pennsylvania, Beecher studied at the University of Michigan before taking an Assistant of Paleontology position at Yale in 1888. He completed his PhD under Marsh, who apparently thought highly of him (and Marsh didn’t think highly of many people). Although his preferred research subjects were Paleozoic invertebrates, Beecher could be counted on to help prepare his mentor’s vast collection of dinosaur fossils, when needed. When Marsh died in 1899, Beecher succeeded him as the head of the Peabody Museum, and set himself the task of mounting one of the institution’s best dinosaur specimens for display.

Beecher selected YPM VP 2182 as the Peabody Museum’s first fossil mount because it was nearly complete and mostly articulated. Known to Marsh and Beecher as “Claosaurus” annectens*, this Edmontosaurus skeleton was collected in Wyoming by John Bell Hatcher (because of course it was). Beecher and assisting preparator Hugh Gibb attempted to preserve the fossils within their original matrix as much as possible. Since the specimen was somewhat laterally compressed, Beecher kept the right side mostly in situ and built up the left in high relief. The head and neck were technically never removed from their matrix block, but since the head was found curved under the body it had to be rotated into its life position. All told, only the right ribs, the corocoids, the final two-thirds of the tail, and some of the vertebral processes were reconstructed. No attempt was made to restore the ossified dorsal tendons, which were poorly preserved on this specimen.

woo

Beecher’s Edmontosaurus, ca. 1917. Source

The complete mount is 13 feet tall and 29 feet long, its tail extending past the edge of the 27 foot slab. For a few years, it was the largest fossil mount ever built. The slab itself is made up of original matrix blocks sealed together with a manufactured surface created from plaster, resin, and ground Laramie Formation sandstone. It was assembled in four pieces secured to wooden frames. These were designed to be separated and moved with relative ease, although PMNH staff have yet to try.

According to Beecher, he imbued the Edmontosaurus with its lively pose in order to preserve the in situ orientation of the pelvis and left femur. It is worth quoting Beecher’s 1901 description of the mount in full:

“It is intended that this huge specimen should convey to the observer the impression of the rapid rush of a Mesozoic brute. The head is thrown up and turned outward. The jaws are slightly separated. The forearms are balancing the sway of the shoulders. The left hind leg is at the end of the forward stride and bears the entire weight of the animal. The right foot has completed a step and has just left the ground preparatory to the forward swing. The ponderous and powerful tail is lifted free and doubly curved so as to balance the weight and compensate for the swaying of the body and legs. The whole expression is one of action and the spectator with little effort may endow this creature with many of its living attributes.”

Much like the AMNH Gorgosaurus, the Yale Edmontosaurus demonstrates that early 20th century paleontologists’ supposed aversion to energetic and agile dinosaurs has been grossly overstated. Beecher saw Edmontosaurus as a powerful, active animal, and actually criticized the earlier reconstructions by Hawkins and Dollo. He correctly pointed out that the back-swept ischia of ornithopod dinosaurs would not allow room for the drooping tails they had reconstructed, and also noted that fossilized dinosaur trackways never show the mark of a dragging tail.

In the great hall of dinosaurs

Edmontosaurus as presently displayed in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. Source

Beecher died suddenly in January of 1904, and the Edmontosaurus display ended up being one of his final professional accomplishments. Despite the relative dearth of dinosaur material available at the time, Beecher’s careful and impartial study of the available evidence allowed him to reconstruct this animal in a way that is still considered accurate 114 years later. Beecher’s work shows us that old research isn’t necessarily outmoded. Good science can come from any age and any source, if one only takes the time to look.

*Today, the genus Claosaurus is reserved for Claosaurus agilis from Kansas. The referred species annectens has since been placed in Thespesius, Trachodon, Anatosaurus, and now Edmontosaurus.

References

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

Jackson, R.T. 1904. Charles Emerson Beecher. The American Naturalist. Vol 38, No. 450.

Marsh, Othniel C. 1892. Restorations of Claosaurus and Ceratosaurus. American Journal of Science. Vol. 44, pp. 343-349.

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Filed under dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, ornithopods, PMNH, reptiles

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

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

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

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.

Reich

The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.

References

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

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication