Category Archives: reptiles

Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

Between late 2018 and early 2020, the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition—which covers the entire history of life on Earth—received a series of updates and improvements.  Although it’s been around since 2006, Evolving Planet is an excellent exhibition and does not need a complete overhaul any time soon. Still, the last 14 years have been some of the most active in the history of paleontology, so there is no shortage of new science to cover. Likewise, technological advancements have made it possible to introduce more large-scale multimedia experiences and digital interactives.

As one of four exhibition developers on the project, my role was to conceptualize many of the new additions, as well as write the text. The changes to Evolving Planet include new specimens, new interactives, well over a hundred label updates, and a giant media presentation on the end-Permian extinction. In this post, I’d like to highlight my personal favorite part of the project: the new Triassic tableau.

The original Evolving Planet Triassic display, from 2006. Photo by the author.

If you visited Evolving Planet between 2006 and 2019, you’ll recall a pair of Herrerasaurus reconstructions (one fleshed-out, one skeletal) on a platform in the center of the Triassic gallery. This display actually had its roots in the Field Museum’s previous paleontology exhibit, Life Over Time, which featured four Herrerasaurus. In scaling back to two Herrerasaurus, literally and figuratively pedestaled, the original Evolving Planet team intended the display to be a grand introduction to the dinosaur menagerie to follow.

Unfortunately, the 2006 version of the Triassic gallery never had much drawing power—the lure of the larger dinosaurs around the corner was too great. This was a shame, because the Triassic is a really important chapter in the story of life on Earth. Life bounced back after the biggest mass extinction ever, and the new groups that evolved on land would be major players up to the present day. The ancestors of everything from crocodiles and turtles to mammals and dinosaurs can be traced to this time. We thought the origin of mammals was particularly important to emphasize, both because these were our distant ancestors and because the fact that mammals have been around about as long as dinosaurs have isn’t widely known. The gallery already had a small case of Mesozoic mammal teeth, but it was almost completely ignored by visitors. The revamped display needed to put the mammal story front and center.

I used this back-of-the-napkin sketch to pitch our proposed arrangement for the new display.

How do you get visitors to stick around when Apatosaurus and Daspletosaurus are visible up ahead? You need something similarly big and impressive, like a life-sized diorama. We decided to set our diorama in the Ischigualasto Formation of Argentina because it meant we could reuse the Herrerasaurus model. Created by the late, great Stephen Czerkas, this model is nearly 30 years old but still holds up well. In fact, the beefy musculature around the thighs and tail and the “lips” obscuring the teeth are in line with modern thinking about theropod life appearance.

The complete Triassic tableau, finished earlier this year. Photo by the author.

The star of the diorama is Chiniquodon, a cynodont related to the ancestors of mammals. As this little creature pokes its whiskered snout out of its burrow, it takes in a wide world of potential dangers, including Herrerasaurus, Pseudochampsa, and a herd of lumbering Ischigualastia in the distance. A second, larger Chiniquodon is visible in a cutaway of the burrow, and a partial skeleton is in a case in front of the diorama. Since visitors look onto the scene from the bottom of a dry stream bed, they are getting a Chiniquodon‘s eye view of the Triassic, and its strange mix of familiar and alien plants and animals.

The Chiniquodon burrow is set in the bank of a dry stream bed, part of a larger river system visible in the background mural. Photo by the author.

On the left side of the display, the muddy landform gives way to smooth MDF. This is where we complicate the origin of dinosaurs beyond the presentation of Herrerasaurus as an “ur-dinosaur.” Evolution occurs as a continuum and the exact point we define as the start of any particular group is always somewhat arbitrary. This is particularly clear when we look at the first dinosaurs. Dinosaurs belong to a larger group called archosaurs, and they are difficult to distinguish from some of the archosaurs they existed alongside. They looked alike, they ate the same food, and they lived in the same sorts of habitats. Skeletons of Asilisaurus and Parringtonia, a Desmatosuchus skull, and a Teleocrater hindlimb help illustrate Triassic archosaur diversity.

Clockwise from top left: Desmatosuchus, Pseudochampsa, Asilisaurus, and Parringtonia. Photos by the author.

For me, the most challenging part of developing this display was explaining the evolutionary relationships of these animals clearly and concisely. As fundamental as it is to paleontological science, the basic shape of the tree of life is extremely specialized knowledge. Most visitors will get lost and disinterested by a bombardment of unfamiliar group names, but it’s also easy to be so vague as to communicate nothing at all. I hope that I successfully toed the line between establishing the concept of uneasy boundaries between named groups and getting overly bogged down in specifics.

A very incomplete list of acknowledgements follows:

The Field Museum Exhibitions Department, which designed and built this display in-house.

My fellow Evolving Planet developers: the sensational Tori Lee, Monisa Ahmed, and Meredith Whitfield.

Liam Elward, Janice Lim, Velizar Simeonovski, and Katherine Ulschmid produced the artwork in the Triassic display.

Ken Angielczyk, Az Klymiuk, Brandon Peecook, Olivier Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Pia Viglietti oversaw the scientific content. Any mistakes in this post are my own.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, mammals, museums, reptiles, science communication

Displaying the Tyrant King (Redux)

This is an updated version of a series of posts from 2014. With Deep Time and the new SUE exhibition now open, I’m dusting it off and bringing it up to date.

Woodrow Wilson is in the white house. The first World War is raging in Europe, but the United States is not yet involved. The women’s suffrage movement is picking up speed. And you just heard that the skeleton of an actual dragon is on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. It is difficult to imagine a time before Tyrannosaurus rex was a household name, but such was the case barely a century ago. In 1915, AMNH unveiled the very first mounted skeleton of the tyrant lizard king, immediately and irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche.

Today, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity among dinosaurs, appearing in every form of media imaginable. More importantly, it is an icon for paleontology and an ambassador to science. Much has been written about T. rex — about its discovery, about the animal itself, and about its role in popular culture. This article will take a slightly different tack. This is an overview of the history of the tyrant king on display, and how it has defined (and been defined by) the museum experience.

The cult of T. rex began in the halls of museums, and museums remain the prehistoric carnivore’s symbolic home. Mounted skeletons provide the legendary T. rex its credibility: these are the authentic remains of the giant predator that once stalked North America. And yet, most of the dozens of  Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display around the world are casts, and none of them represent complete skeletons (rather, they are filled in with spare parts from other specimens and the occasional sculpted bone). These are sculptures as well as scientific specimens, works of installation art created by artists, engineers, and scientists. Herein lies the paradox presented by all fossil mounts: they are natural specimens and constructed objects, embodying a challenging duality between the realms of empiricism and imagination.

I. The Original Tyrant

Tyrannosaurus as it was displayed at AMNH in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Between 1890 and 1910, the United States’ natural history museums entered into a frenzied competition to find and display the largest and most spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Although discoveries by paleontologists like O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late 19th century fleshed out the scientific understanding of Mesozoic reptiles, it was these turn-of-the-century museum displays that brought dinosaurs into the public sphere. Bankrolled by New York’s wealthy aristocrats and led by the ambitious (and extremely problematic—read on) Henry Osborn, the American Museum of Natural History won the fossil race by most any measure. The New York museum completed the world’s first mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur in 1905, and also left its peer institutions in the dust with the highest visitation and the most fossil mounts on display.

Osborn’s goal was to establish AMNH as the global epicenter for paleontology research and education, and in 1905 he revealed his ace in the hole: two partial skeletons of giant meat-eating dinosaurs uncovered by fossil hunter Barnum Brown. In a deceptively brief paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn described the fossils from Wyoming and Montana, coining the names Dynamosaurus imperiosus and Tyrannosaurus rex (a follow-up paper in 1906 reclassified “Dynamosaurus” as a second Tyrannosaurus specimen). Fully aware of what a unique prize he had in his possession, Osborn wasted no time leveraging the fossils for academic glory. He placed the unarticulated bones on display shortly after his initial publication, and commissioned artist Charles Knight to prepare a painting of the animal’s life appearance.

E.S. Christman’s miniature models act out Osborn’s unrealized battling Tyrannosaurus display. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In 1908, Brown collected a much more complete Tyrannosaurus specimen (AMNH 5027), with over 50% of the skeleton intact, including the first complete skull and a significant portion of the torso. With this specimen in hand, AMNH technician Adam Hermann and his team began work on a mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton to join the Museum’s growing menagerie of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Inspired by the museum’s habitat dioramas and seeking to accentuate the spectacle of his reptilian monster, Osborn initially wanted to mount two Tyrannosaurus skeletons facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even published a brief description, complete with 1/10th scale wooden models illustrating the proposed exhibit (above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve.

Instead, Hermann prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with plaster casts of the hips and femur from the 1905 holotype. The original skull was impractically heavy, so a cast was used in its place. Missing portions of the skeleton, including the arms, feet, and most of the tail, were sculpted by hand using bones from Allosaurus as reference. During the early 20th century, constructing fossil mounts was a relatively new art form, and while Hermann was one of the most talented and prolific mount-makers around, his techniques were somewhat unkind to the fossil material. Bolts were drilled directly into the fragile bones to secure them to the armature, and in some cases steel rods were tunneled right through them. Any fractures were sealed with plaster, and reconstructed portions were painted to be nearly indistinguishable from the original fossils. Like most of the early AMNH fossil mounts, preserving the integrity of the Tyrannosaurus bones was secondary to aesthetic concerns like concealing the unsightly armature.

The Tyrannosaurus mount takes shape. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The completed Tyrannosaurus mount, a magnificent sculptural combination of bone, plaster, and steel, was unveiled in 1915 to stunned audiences. With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years. The December 3rd New York Times article was thick with hyperbole, declaring the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity”, “the king of all kings in the domain of animal life,” “the absolute warlord of the earth” and “the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatsoever.” Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.”

Brian Noble argues that Osborn’s descriptions of T. rex betray his own racial anxiety and fear of obsolescence. As a member of the New York aristocratic class, Osborn supported eugenics and lobbied for race-based quotas on immigration. Within months of penning museum labels that lament the extinction of “great and noble” carnivores like Tyrannosaurus, Osborn was writing that “the greatest danger to the American republic is the gradual dying out…of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political, and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of a less noble character” (quoted in Noble 2017, pg. 73). Whether knowingly or not, Osborn allowed his fear of the fall of the de facto ruling class to which he belonged influence his interpretation of a long-dead dinosaur.

Hermann’s Tyrannosaurus continued to delight AMNH visitors through the 1980s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Today, we know that the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was inaccurate in many ways. The upright, tail-dragging pose, which had been the most popular attitude for bipedal dinosaurs since Joseph Leidy’s 1868 Hadrosaurus mount, is now known to be incorrect. More complete Tyrannosaurus skeletons have revealed that the tail reconstructed by Osborn and Hermann was much too long. The Allosaurus-inspired feet were too robust, the legs (partially cast from the 1905 holotype) were too large, and the hands had too many fingers. It would be misleading to presume that the prehistoric carnivore’s skeleton sprang from the ground exactly as it was presented, but it is equally incorrect to reject it as a fake. The 1915 mount was a solid representation of the best scientific data available at the time, presented in an evocative and compelling manner.

The AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was no less than a monument: for paleontology, for its host museum, and for the city of New York. The mount has been a New York attraction for longer than the Empire State Building, and for almost 30 years, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could see a T. rex in person. In 1918, Tyrannosaurus would make its first Hollywood appearance in the short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This star turn was followed by roles in 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong, firmly establishing the tyrant king’s celebrity status. It is noteworthy that special effects artist Willis O’Brian and model maker Marcel Delgado copied the proportions and posture of the AMNH display exactly when creating the dinosaurs for each of these films. The filmmakers took virtually no artistic liberties, depicting Tyrannosaurus precisely how contemporary scientists had reconstructed it at the museum.

II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh

The Carnegie Museum’s first attempt at restoring the skull of T. rexSource

In 1941, AMNH ended its Tyrannosaurus monopoly and sold the incomplete type specimen (the partial skeleton described in Osborn’s 1905 publication) to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While it is sometimes reported that this transfer took place to keep the valuable fossils out of harm’s way during World War II (e.g. Larson 2008), the deal was actually underway well before the United States became involved in the war. Carnegie Museum Director Andrew Avinoff spent nearly a year bargaining with Barnum Brown over a price, eventually settling on $100,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars) for the fossils with appropriate bases and mounting fixtures. Carnegie staff wasted no time assembling a mount of their own, but since the Tyrannosaurus holotype only included about 18% of the skeleton, most of the Pittsburgh T. rex had to be made from casted and sculpted elements. Somewhat pointlessly, the skull fragments included with the specimen were buried inside a plaster skull replica (above), making them inaccessible to researchers for several decades. Completed in less than a year, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus was given a more hunched posture than its AMNH predecessor.

The Tyrannosaurus faced off with Diplodocus and Apatosaurus at the Carnegie Museum for more than 60 years. Source

The mid-20th century was a quiet phase for vertebrate paleontology. After enjoying public fame and generous federal support during the late 1800s, paleontology as a discipline was largely marginalized when experiment-driven “hard” sciences rose to prominence. By the 1950s and 60s, the comparably small number of researchers studying ancient life were chiefly concerned with theoretical models for quantifying trends in evolution. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals were perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists.

While New York and Pittsburgh remained the only places where the tyrant king could be seen in person, the ongoing fame of T. rex was secured in part by two additional museum displays, ironically at institutions that did not have any actual Tyrannosaurus fossils on hand. In 1928, the Field Museum of Natural History commissioned Charles Knight to paint a series of prehistoric landscapes, the most recognizable of which depicts a face-off between Triceratops and a surprisingly spry Tyrannosaurus. In 1947, Rudolph Zallinger painted a considerably more bloated and lethargic T. rex as part of his Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both paintings would be endlessly imitated for decades, and would go on to define the prehistoric predator in the public imagination.

III. Rex Renaissance

RTMP 81.6.1, aka Black Beauty, mounted in relief at the Royal Tyrell Museum. Source

The sparse scientific enthusiasm for dinosaurs that defined mid-century paleontology changed rather suddenly in the 1970s and 80s. The “dinosaur renaissance” brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. The next generation of paleontologists endeavored to look at fossils in new ways to understand dinosaur behavior, biomechanics, ontogeny, and ecology. Tyrannosaurus was central to the new wave of research, and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers since 1980. More interest brought more fossil hunters into the American west, leading to an unprecedented expansion in known Tyrannosaurus fossils.

The most celebrated Tyrannosaurus find from the dinosaur renaissance era came from Alberta, making it the northernmost and westernmost T. rex to date. The 30% complete “Black Beauty” specimen, so named for the black luster of the fossilized bones, was found in 1980 by a group of high schoolers and was excavated by paleontologist Phil Curie. The original Black Beauty fossils were taken on a tour of Asia before finding a permanent home at the newly established Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. In lieu of a standing mount, Black Beauty was embedded in a faux sandstone facade, mirroring the environment in which the fossils were found and the animal’s presumed death pose. This relief mount set Black Beauty apart from its AMNH and Carnegie predecessors, and even today it remains one of the most visually striking Tyrannosaurus displays.

The mid-sized reconstruction (right) in this 2011 growth series at LACM incorporates Garbani’s juvenile T. rex fossils. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus was once considered vanishingly rare, but by the early 1990s the number of known specimens had increased dramatically. Harley Garbani found three specimens, including the first T. rex juvenile, while prospecting in Montana for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM). “I was pretty excited,” Garbani recounted, “I didn’t figure another of those suckers would ever be found” (quoted in Horner and Lessem 1993). Meanwhile, the Royal Tyrell Museum tracked down a partial T. rex in Alberta that Charles Sternberg had marked in 1946 but never excavated.

One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens was discovered by avocational collector Kathy Wankel while prospecting on Montana land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Museum of Rockies (MOR) excavated the Wankel Rex in 1989, and until recently it was held it trust at the Bozeman museum. All of these specimens have allowed paleontologists to conduct extensive research on the growth rate, cellular structure, sexual dimorphism, speed, and energetics of T. rex, turning the species into a veritable model organism among dinosaurs.

IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

Cast of Peck’s Rex, accompanied by a Wankel Rex skull, at the Maryland Science Center. Photo by the author.

Despite the relative bonanza of new Tyrannosaurus specimens uncovered in the 1980s and 90s, very few of those skeletons were immediately assembled as display mounts. Instead, many museums have purchased complete casts to meet the increasing public demand for dinosaurs. In 1986, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened Discovering Dinosaurs, the world’s first major exhibit showcasing active, endothermic dinosaurs. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, posed for the first time in the horizontal posture that we now know was the animal’s habitual stance. The following year, another AMNH cast appeared in the lobby of Denver Museum of Nature and Science in a strikingly bizarre pose, with one leg kicking high in the air. Robert Bakker—the mount’s designer— intended to push boundaries and demonstrate what a dynamic and energetic Tyrannosaurus might be capable of, although the mount has subsequently been described as dancing, kicking a soccer ball, or peeing on a fire hydrant.

Denver’s high-kicking T. rex. Source

Since the late 1990s, however, casts of another specimen have overtaken AMNH 5027 for the title of most ubiquitous T. rex. BHI 3033, more commonly known as Stan, was excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute (BHI), a commercial outfit specializing in excavating, preparing, and mounting fossils. BHI has sold dozens of Stan casts to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. With over 50 casts sold as of 2017, Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world.

Stan cast at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

All these new Tyrannosaurus mounts are forcing museums to get creative, whether they are displaying casts or original fossils. Predator-prey pairings are a popular display choice: for example, the Wankel Rex cast at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science  is positioned alongside the sauropod Alamosaurus, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History matches the tyrant dinosaur with its eternal enemy, Triceratops. Meanwhile, the growing number juvenile Tyrannosaurus specimens has allowed for family group displays. LACM features an adult, subadult, and baby, while the Burpee Museum of Natural History pairs its original juvenile T. rex “Jane” with an AMNH 5027 cast. The most unique Tyrannosaurus mount so far is certainly the copulating pair at the Jurassic Museum of Asturias.

While not as widespread as Stan, casts of the Wankel Rex (distributed by Research Casting International) are increasingly common. This copy at the Google headquarters is periodically attacked by smaller, pinker theropods. Source

Each of these displays gives a substantially different impression of Tyrannosaurus. Depending on the mount, visitors might see T. rex as a powerful brute, a fast and agile hunter, or a nurturing parent (or a gentle lover). Most mounts are accurate insofar that a real Tyrannosaurus probably adopted a similar stance at some point, but the museum’s choice of pose nevertheless influences visitors’ understanding of and attitude toward the dinosaur.

V. Restoring the Classics

An update for the first T. rex ever displayed. Photo by the author.

With dozens of new Tyrannosaurus mounts springing up across the country and around the world, the original AMNH and Carnegie displays began to look increasingly obsolete. However, modernizing historic fossil mounts is an extremely complex and expensive process. The early 20th century technicians that built these displays generally intended for them to be permanent: bolts were drilled directly into the bones and gaps were sealed with plaster that can only be removed by manually chipping it away. What’s more, the cumulative effects of corroding armatures, fluctuating humidity, and vibration from passing crowds had damaged the historic mounts over the course of their decades on display.

Despite these challenges, AMNH and the Carnegie Museum have both been able to restore and update their classic Tyrannosaurus displays. Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the iconic T. rex. The fossils proved especially fragile, and some elements had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of paint and shellac applied by the original preparators.

Exhibit specialist Phil Fraley constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the old mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling with a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Each bone is secured to an individual metal bracket, allowing researchers to remove elements for study as necessary. A new cast of the skull was also prepared, this time with open fenestrae for a more natural appearance. Curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose—a closed mouth and subtly raised left foot convey a quiet dignity befitting this historic specimen.

One of many conceptual drawings created by Phil Fraley Productions during the process of planning the Carnegie Museum renovation. Source

Historically, the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus had never quite lived up to its AMNH predecessor. Although it incorporated the Tyrannosaurus holotype, it was mostly composed of casts from the New York skeleton, and it sported an unfortunately crude replica skull. It is therefore ironic that the Carnegie Museum now exhibits the more spectacular T. rex display, one which  realizes Osborn’s plan to construct an epic confrontation between two giant predators.

While less complete than many subsequent finds, the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype is still important because it defines the species. It had not been studied properly since the early 20th century, however, and the skull elements were completely inaccessible—entombed in plaster since 1941. The conservation team overseen by Hans-Dieter Sues sought not only to rebuilt the exhibit mount, but to re-describe the specimen and provide casts of individual bones to other museums. The Carnegie website once hosted a fascinating day-by-day account this process. The page seems to have been removed but an archived version can be found here.

Old meets new: the restored Tyrannosaurus holotype faces off with a cast of Peck’s Rex. Photo by the author.

Phil Fraley, now heading an independent company based in New Jersey, oversaw the construction of the new mount. Michael Holland contributed a new restored skull, actually a composite of several Tyrannosaurus skulls. The mount was completed in 2007, and is displayed alongside a cast of “Peck’s Rex,” a specimen housed at MOR. Despite the difficulty of modernizing the historic specimen, the team reportedly developed a healthy respect for turn-of-the-century mount-makers like Adam Hermann and Arthur Coggeshall, who developed the techniques for making enduring displays of fragile fossils that are still being refined today.

VI. From South Dakota to Chicago

The skull of SUE the T. rex. Photo by the author.

Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real—a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.

The other dinosaur of the decade was SUE, who scarcely requires an introduction. SUE is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 90% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 30 years old at the time of their death, SUE is also the eldest T. rex known, and within the margin of error for the title of largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about this individual dinosaur. In particular, SUE’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infections that together paint a dramatic picture of a violent life at the top of the food chain.

It was the events of SUE’s second life, however, that made this the fossil the world knows by name. SUE was discovered in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on ranch land within the Cheyenne River reservation of South Dakota. The Black Hills Institute excavated the skeleton and initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City. Even at this point, SUE was a flashpoint for controversy among paleontologists: while several researchers signed up to work with BHI on a monograph about SUE, others did not think a for-profit company was an appropriate place for such an important specimen. Things heated up in 1992, when BHI became embroiled in a four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne Council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little legal precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton (I recommend the relevant chapter in Grande 2017 as the most evenhanded account of how this went down).

Williams announced that he would put SUE on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) won SUE with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

Research Casting International prepared two SUE casts: one for a traveling exhibition and this one at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Photo by the author.

FMNH and its corporate backers did not pay seven figures for SUE solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  SUE’s remarkable completeness would be a boon for scientists, but the fossil’s star power was at least as important for the museum. SUE was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As former FMNH president John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). A Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn support less sensational but equally important collections maintenance.

Once SUE arrived at FMNH, the museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of SUE’s teeth went on display days after the auction. This expanded organically into the “SUE Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Although BHI had already put in 4,000 hours of prep work, much of SUE’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted.

SUE as displayed from 2000 to 2017. Photo by the author.

After reviewing a number of bids, FMNH selected Phil Fraley to prepare SUE’s armature. Fraley had already remounted the AMNH T. rex at that point, and left his post at the New York museum and founded his own company so that he could work on SUE. Just as had been done with the AMNH skeleton, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils were not damaged for the sake of the exhibit. SUE was placed right at the heart of the museum, in the half-acre, four-story expanse of Stanley Field Hall. Despite these cavernous surroundings, SUE was given a low, crouching posture—the intent was to give visitors a face-to-face encounter with T. rex.

SUE was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the dropping of a curtain. 10,000 visitors came to see SUE on opening day, and that year the museum’s attendance soared from 1.6 to 2.4 million. To this day, headlines about SUE are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SUEtheTrex twitter account has 60,000 followers and counting. SUE has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When FMNH brought SUE to Chicago, they weren’t just preserving an important specimen in perpetuity, they were creating an icon.

VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe

Tristan at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde. Photo by Heinrich Mallison.

Tyrannosaurus is an exclusively North American animal. It follows that real Tyrannosaurus skeletons have historically only been displayed in American and Canadian museums, while the rest of the world has had to content itself with casts of Stan and the Wankel Rex. This situation changed recently, and there are now two original T. rex skeletons on display in European museums.

The first was Tristan, a Tyrannosaurus collected in 2000 by private collectors. Niels Nielsen, a Danish real estate developer, bought the skeleton for an undisclosed sum (he named the dinosaur Tristan after his son). While it is common for art museums to display privately owned objects, scientific institutions usually avoid such arrangements.  There are many reasons for this: it may be a museum’s policy to avoid legitimizing the private market for one-of-a-kind specimens, or they may simply want to steer clear of demands by owners regarding exhibition and interpretation. Perhaps most importantly, scientific research on privately owned specimens is not necessarily reproducible, because there is no guarantee the specimen will remain in a publicly-accessible repository.

Despite these drawbacks, Director Johannes Vogel of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin decided to accept Tristan as a loan. Paleontologist Heinrich Mallison worked with Nielsen and others to design the mount and plan how it would fit into the exhibit hall. The team opted to pose Tristan as though making a rapid left turn around a “tree” (one of the cast iron columns bisecting the room). Unfortunately, the final armature did not effectively capture the intended twisting motion in the torso, hips, and right leg, and the resulting mount is stiffer looking then the initial renders. The public does not seem to have minded, however. Tristan was unveiled in September 2015 and drew half a million visitors in its first six months on display.

Trix the T. rex in a temporary exhibit space at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Source

Europe’s second Tyrannosaurus mount debuted in September 2016 at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Named Trix after the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix, this specimen was collected in Montana by a crew from the museum working in collaboration with the Black Hills Institute. The mount constructed by BHI uniquely includes the original skull, rather than a lightweight replica. This was accomplished by posing Trix in a low running pose, with its head skimming less than a foot above the ground.

VIII. Into the Future

A 1/10th scale 3-D printed model of the Nation’s T. rex recalls the wooden maquettes used at AMNH over a century ago. Source

New T. rex displays just keep coming. In 2019, the National Museum of Natural History reopened its paleontology halls after a five year renovation. The new “Deep Time” exhibition has a brand-new Tyrannosaurus mount as its centerpiece. The specimen in question is the Wankel Rex, which had been held in trust at the Museum of the Rockies since it was excavated in 1989. Found on Army Corps of Engineers land, the fossils are owned by the federal government and therefore an ideal candidate for display at the national museum (technically, they are on a 50 year loan from the Corps to the Smithsonian).

Look closely the fallen Triceratops and you’ll see crushed ribs, a broken horn, and that its head is no longer attached to its body

Although several casts of the Wankel Rex are on display around the world, this is the first time the original fossils have been assembled into a standing mount. For Curator Matt Carrano, it was important that the T. rex was presented like an animal, rather than a sculpture. To accomplish this, he devised a deliriously cool pose, with the Tyrannosaurus poised as though prying the head off a prone Triceratops. Pulling off such a scene was easier said than done. Extreme poses are relatively straightforward when working with lightweight casts, but the degree of dynamism Carrano wanted is much more complicated when creating a frame that safely supports real fossils. Just like Hermann and Christian a century earlier, Matt Fair and his colleagues at Research Casting International started with a 10th scale miniature before moving on to the real skeleton.

Now on display at NMNH, the Wankel Rex has a new nickname: the Nation’s T. rex. This moniker is appropriate: NMNH follows only the Louvre in annual visitation, sometimes topping 8 million people. That means the Nation’s T. rex will soon be the most-viewed Tyrannosaurus skeleton in the world. In all likelihood, 60 million people will pass by the mounted skeleton in the next decade.

SUE the T. rex in their not-quite-finished throne room. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex has competition. In 2018, the Field Museum moved SUE to a 6,500 square foot gallery adjacent to the main dinosaur hall. The new exhibition (full disclosure: I was a co-developer on this project) gives SUE some much-needed context. In contrast to the neoclassical space it once occupied, the mounted T. rex is now part of a media-rich experience that Brown, Hermann, and Osborn could have scarcely imagined. An animated backdrop illustrates the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived, and a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton—highlighting pathologies and other key features.

With guidance from Pete Makovicky, Tom Cullen, and Bill Simpson, Garth Dallman and colleagues at Research Casting International modified the original SUE mount to correct a range of anatomical inaccuracies and reunite the skeleton with its gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles). This is the first time a Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been mounted with a real gastral basket, and it gives the dinosaur a girthier silhouette. Many lines of evidence have converged onto this new look for T. rex. The animal was not the lithe pursuit predator it was portrayed as in the 1990s, but an ambush hunter with the raw weight and muscle to overpower its bus-sized prey.

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

As we have seen, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. Fifty years ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide (most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens). These displays have evolved over time: new scientific discoveries changed the animal’s pose and shape, new technology has allowed for more enriching and immersive exhibits, and popular media presentations of T. rex have continuously increased the public’s expectations for their encounter with the real thing.

Meanwhile, each T. rex on display exists in a socio-political context: human actors “create the initial and enduring performative iterations of T. rex” (Noble 2016, 71). A century ago, the first-ever T. rex exhibit was encoded with one man’s prejudice and social hangups. In the present, another T. rex—SUE—has become a nonbinary icon.  The Field Museum now refers to SUE as “they” instead of “she,” both in the spirit of scientific accuracy (we don’t know SUE’s sex) and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. As explained in a press release, “this kind of representation can make a big difference in the lives of the LGBTQ community. It’s not about politics; it’s about respect. If our Twitter dinosaur gets more people used to using singular “they/them” pronouns and helps some folks out there feel less alone, that seems worth it to us.”

For museums, acquiring and displaying a T. rex is not exactly a risk. As Carrano explained with respect to the Nation’s T. rex, “the T. rex is not surprising, but that’s not its job. Its job is to be awesome.” Specimens like the Nation’s T. rex or SUE are ideal for museums because they are at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

References

Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.

Black, R. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Clemens, W.A. and Hartman, J.H. 2014. “From Tyrannosaurus rex to asteroid impact: Early studies (1901-1980 of the Hell Creek Formation in its type area.” Through the End of the Cretaceous in the Type Locality of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and Adjacent Areas. Eds. Wilson, G.P., Clemens, W.A., Horner, J.R., and Hartman, J.H. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.

Colbert, E.H., Gillette, D.D. and Molnar, R.N. “North American Dinosaur Hunters.” The Complete Dinosaur, Second Edition. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O., eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.

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

Dingus, L. 2004. Hell Creek, Montana: America’s Key to the Prehistoric Past. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

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

Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Fox, A. and Carrano, M. 2018. Q&A: Smithsonian Dinosaur Expert Helps T. rex Strike a New Pose. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-of-natural-history/2018/07/17/q-smithsonian-dinosaur-expert-helps-t-rex-strike-new-pose

Freedom du Lac, J. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. Washington Post.

Glut, D. 2008. “Tyrannosaurus rex: A century of celebrity.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Grande, L. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hermann, A. 1909. “Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 21:283-331.

Horner, J.R. and Lessem, D. 1993. The Complete T. rex: How Stunning New Discoveries are Changing Our Understanding of the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Johnson, K. and Stucky, R.K. 2013. “Paleontology: Discovering the Ancient History of the American West.” Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals, No. 4.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.

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

“Mining for Mammoths in the Badlands: How Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Dug Out of His 8,000,000 Year old Tomb,” The New York Times, December 3, 1905, page SM1.

Nobel, B. 2016. Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Norell, M., Gaffney, E.S. and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.

Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of OrnitholestesStruthiomimus, and TyrannosaurusBulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.

Psihoyos, L. 1994. Hunting Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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

Wesihampel, D.B. and White, Nadine M. 2003.The Dinosaur Papers: 1676-1906. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, HMNS, museums, reptiles, science communication, theropods

More Real than Real: Leon Walters’ Celluloid Process

Taxidermy occupies a nebulous, contradictory realm between actuality and artifice. These objects incorporate real pelts and skins of once-living animals, and at first glance they appear alive themselves, albeit frozen in time. That life is, nevertheless, an illusion, carefully crafted by skilled artisans. Depending on the age and quality of the taxidermy, this artificiality can become more pronounced. Fur frays, colors fade, and skins stretched over less-than-perfect mannequins can appear warped or even freakish. Even for the most skilled taxidermists, dead skin and fur are imperfect mediums for creating the appearance of life.

For Leon Walters, a taxidermist and model-maker at the Field Museum of Natural History from 1911 to 1954, the organic nature of real skins was a shortcoming he could do without. Rather than trying to will dead animals into looking alive, he turned to plastics and other inorganic materials to create more perfect animal replications.

Walters sculpts a model gorilla hand. Photo (c) Field Museum. Source

Walters was aware of the philosophical quandary of filling museum displays with entirely artificial animals. “Taxidermy has realism as its ideal,” Walters wrote, “and this brings up the question of just what constitutes all we see or regard as ‘life’ or the appearance of life…is there anything expressed through form or color [that] cannot be translated into glass, marble, celluloid, metals, or other materials?” Walters recognized that the goal of a natural history display was to show authentic nature to the public. He argued, however, that the custom of putting actual animal specimens on display was limiting. Too often, these specimens showed visitors what an animal looked like in death, rather than in life. Walters was convinced that other materials were better suited for the task.

And so the “Walters celluloid process” was conceived. Walters would begin by posing a dead animal specimen. This could be as simple as stuffing the skin, but more often Walters used the taxidermy techniques pioneered by Karl Akeley, which involved constructing a clay mannequin to represent the musculature over which the skin could be stretched. Walters preferred very fresh specimens at this stage, and offered some gruesome commentary on how to procure them (drowning is apparently “very satisfactory in most cases.” Scientist or serial killer?). The next step was making a plaster mold of the posed animal. Molds could be taken in multiple parts if needed, but Walters usually attempted to make a single mold, even when working with large mammals.

Molding and casting a hippo in Walter’s studio. Photo (c) Field Museum. Source

After the molds were taken, the role of the original specimens was over. Walters experimented with a number of materials for casting, including varnish gums and gelatin. Ultimately, he settled on cellulose acetate, a translucent compound that has been used to make laminating foil, playing cards, and most famously, film stock. The advantage of cellulose acetate is its ability to hold varying consistencies of pigment. Walters would dissolve pigment into the viscous material and apply it directly to the mold. By building up many layers of cellulose acetate with different pigments and patterns, he could reproduce the subtle color shifts of living skin or scales. This was a carefully orchestrated process with little margin for error. Sometimes, Walters had to keep his models rotating on a wheel, synchronized to match the flow of the compound so that the colors would not mix or distort.

Walters’ cellulose acetate gila monster. Photo by the author.

Walters’ cellulose acetate babirusa. Photo by the author.

In addition to the use of novel materials, Walters’ animal models benefited from his careful observation of nature. When preparing the animal specimens for molding, no detail was too trivial. He took particular care to ensure that the set of the eyes and eyelids was true to life, often propping them up with bits of cotton. Walters also observed animal behavior in the wild, whenever possible. He found that animals in their natural habitat displayed behaviors he never saw in their captive counterparts. For example, he observed that wild crocodiles adopted a “dinosaur-like position in walking” unheard of in the more lethargic zoo crocs. Walters ended up using that very pose for his caiman model.

Walters’ cellulose acetate caiman in a “dinosaur-like” pose. Photo by the author.

Walters’ cellulose acetate northern white rhino. Photo by the author.

When Walters first pioneered his celluloid process for creating convincing animal models, his primary focus was reptiles and amphibians. As the years passed, he became more ambitious, molding and casting a hippo, a rhino, great apes, and even a pod of narwhals. Most of these models are still on display at the Field Museum today, and I suspect that few visitors recognize them as entirely fabricated animals.

Walters’ models are not perfect. Up close, one can see a slight loss of detail from the casting process, not unlike one might see on a 3-D print. Like traditional taxidermy, the cellulose acetate is not permanent, and sometimes splits and cracks over time. These models are also extremely flammable, and modern fire regulations require them to be housed in airtight cases.

Ultimately, the Walters celluloid process did not catch on, and real skins and pelts continue to be used for animal displays today. Still, his work has stood the test of time, and he is to be remembered for his absolute commitment to realism in natural history displays. In Walters’ words, “a fabrication in form and color is no less a misrepresentation than if it were in written words.”

References

Bauer, M.J. March 1946. Twice as natural and large as life are the animals mounted by modern techniques in taxidermy. Popular Mechanics.

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

Walters, L.L. 1925. New Uses of Celluloid and Similar Material in Taxidermy. Field Museum of Natural History Museum Technique Series No. 2.

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Filed under exhibits, FMNH, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles

Acrocanthosaurus, the Terror of the South

Acrocanthosaurus at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Photo by the author.

Following yesterday’s travelogue about the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science (NCSM), I thought I’d go into a little more depth about the museum’s star fossil. One of only five Acrocanthosaurus specimens ever found, NCSM 14345 is the most complete and the only one on public display. The mounted skeleton has been at the Raleigh museum since 2000. Among other things, its story highlights the challenging relationship between academic paleontologists and the private fossil trade.

Despite its current home in North Carolina, this Acrocanthosaurus hails from the town of Idabel in southeast Oklahoma, more than a thousand miles away. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love (both now deceased) discovered the skeleton in 1983. After making an arrangement with the landowner, the pair spent the next three years carefully excavating the find.

The Acrocanthosaurus was recovered from the early to mid Cretaceous rocks of the Antlers Formation. Found in a deposit of fine sandstone and dark mudstone alongside lots of lignitized wood, the animal’s final resting place was probably a stagnant swamp or pond. Additional evidence for the depositional environment comes from the way the bones are preserved. They contain a great deal of pyrite, and were encrusted with dense concretions of calcium carbonate. Both of these minerals are formed by bacteria blooms in low-oxygen locales, such as the mud at the bottom of a swamp. Gouges in the skull, ribs, and foot indicate scavengers – crocodiles and possibly other Acrocanthosaurus – were feeding on the carcass before it was buried.

All told, the find included a complete skull (the only one of its kind), the pelvis and sacral vertebrae, both arms and shoulder girdles, the right leg, and parts of the rib cage and tail. Paleontologist Richard Cifelli of the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma became aware of the discovery in 1987. Cifelli initially hoped that the museum could acquire the specimen for study and safekeeping, but Hall and Love’s asking price was beyond their means. Instead, Hall and Love loaned the fossils to the University of Texas. They were unsatisfied with this arrangement, however, and drove down to Austin to retrieve their dinosaur (the details of this event are apparently contentious). Hall and Love then sold the fossils to Geological Enterprises, a for-profit outfit based in Ardmore, Oklahoma, for $225,000 plus the promise of a cast once the prep work was completed. Geological Enterprises founder A. Allen Graffham gave the specimen the nickname “Fran,” after his wife.

The meticulously reconstructed Acrocanthosaurus skull. Photo by the author.

The calcium carbonate concretions and heavy pyrite content made the Acrocanthosaurus a particularly challenging fossil to prepare. The concretions are like natural cement and are very difficult to remove without damaging the bones. Meanwhile, pyrite breaks down into sulfur when exposed to oxygen and humidity, which can cause bones to crumble. In 1991, Graffham outsourced the preparation job to the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. Terry Wentz led the preparation project at BHI, which was reportedly one of the most challenging assignments of his career. The concretions encrusting the bones were so dense that they often had to be ground off, rather than chipped. This process could take several hours just to remove a few millimeters of calcium carbonate. To make matters worse, removing pyrite releases acidic particulates into the air. Preparators had to wear respirators and the bones had to be prepared in vacuum boxes.

The most daunting part of the project was reconstructing the specimen’s beautiful and intact skull. Although virtually complete, the skull was found crushed flat. Everyone involved agreed that the skull would be more informative and more impressive if it could be reinflated, but that was easier said then done. Over a year of work went into carefully separating the individual skull bones and reassembling them into their life position.

After five years of what was probably one of the most difficult fossil prep jobs ever attempted, the Acrocanthosaurus was ready to be sold. However, Graffham initially had trouble finding a buyer. There were interested parties in Japan, but he reportedly did not want the fossils to leave the United States.

On October 4, 1997, another well-preserved theropod skeleton went up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Sue – the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found – was already legendary thanks to the protracted legal battle over the fossils. Now that the one-of-a-kind skeleton was being sold at a high profile auction, paleontologists feared that it would disappear into the hands of a private collector. On the night of the auction, most of the museums and other public repositories in the running were outbid within minutes. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Science appeared to be the only museum left after the price topped $5 million, and so the hopes of the paleontological community rested on their shoulders. NCSM dropped out at $7.2 million, and moments later Richard Gray, a veteran of art auctions, won Sue on behalf of a mysterious client. Happily, that client turned out to be the Field Museum (with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney), and so Sue ended up in a public repository after all.

The Acrocanthosaurus and its sauropod companion can be seen from the ground and from a balcony. Photo by the author.

Still, NCSM had been willing to stake an enormous amount of money on a name brand dinosaur, and they weren’t about to give up. Two months after the Sue auction, the Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought the Acrocanthosaurus from Graffham’s company for $3 million. BHI prepared the mount, which debuted along with the rest of the museum’s new building on April 7, 2000. It may not be coincidental that this was just one month before the mounted skeleton of Sue was unveiled in Chicago.

The Acrocanthosaurus occupies a well-lit, circular atrium on the museum’s third floor. Visible both from the ground and from a balcony, the mount is accompanied by a rather goofy-looking sauropod statue. Model pterosaurs circle overhead on a rotating arm, and recreations of theropod and sauropod tracks from Dinosaur State Park in Paluxy, Texas can be seen throughout the room. The original skull is on display in a case outside the atrium.

Sadly, pyrite deterioration has continued to ravage the delicate fossils. Several of the original bones once included in the NCSM mount have been retired to the collections for safekeeping. As of this year, only the arms, right foot, and vertebrae appear to be original material. The rest have been replaced with casts.

Exhibit signs have also changed since the 2000 debut. NCSM exhibits staff learned from surveys that 80% of visitors thought the dinosaur on display was a T. rex, and plenty more assumed the whole skeleton was a replica. In response, most of the signage was redesigned. The displays now highlight the differences between “Acro” and T. rex, and highlight the exceptional rarity of the museum’s Acrocanthosaurus specimen.

A number of NCSM 14345 casts are on display at museums throughout North America, including the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Houston Museum of Nature and Science, and the Kenosha Public Museum. As promised, Hall and Love were awarded a complete cast of the skeleton,  but without the means to assemble or display it, the replica sat in storage for several years. Eventually, local third and fourth graders successfully raised the $150,000 needed to display the cast at the Museum of the Red River in Idabel.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Acrocanthosaurus cast at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

Fossils are precious remains of real organisms, clues about ecosystems from long ago and the making of the world as we know it today. In an ideal world, all significant fossils would, from the moment of their discovery, be accessioned and held in a public collection at a museum or university. A fossil sitting on somebody’s mantelpiece or waiting to be sold at auction is doing nothing to grow our collective knowledge. However, public institutions don’t have the resources to find and excavate every fossil, and in the United States fossils found on private land belong to the landowners. That means that, for better or worse, there is a thriving commercial market for rare fossils.

A plurality of paleontologists do not engage with fossil dealers for ethical reasons. Indeed, even if they wanted to buy rare specimens, academic institutions can seldom match the prices individual collectors are willing to pay. Museums don’t usually have $3 million sitting around. That kind of money could fund a whole research team for years. As such, we’re left with a Catch-22. Paleontologists want important fossils to be in museums where they can be seen and studied by everyone. But if those fossils are in private hands, buying them would support and legitimize the industry that is also keeping fossils out of public collections. If there was an easy solution, it would have been worked out by now.

Nevertheless, serendipity occasionally strikes. This seems to have been the case with the Acrocanthosaurus. News about Sue generated interest in buying a name-brand dinosaur, and donors were willing to put up the money to get the specimen for NCSM. The skeleton is now in a public collection, at a free museum, no less. Meanwhile, the collectors were well compensated for their considerable investment. It’s hard to chalk that up as anything but a win, all around.

References

Carpenter, K. 2016. Acrocanthosaurus Inside and Out. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

du Lac, J.F. 2014. The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur. The Washington Post

Eddy, D.R. and Clarke, J.A. 2011. New Information on the Cranial Anatomy of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis and Its Implications for the Phylogeny of Allosauroidea (Dinosauria: Theropoda). PLoS ONE 6:3:e17932.

Lovelady, W. 2012. Every Step You Take. Exhibits and Emerging Media, North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. 

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Filed under dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, reptiles, theropods

The Hidden Rhomaleosaurus

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center. Source

Residing upon the wall of the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland is the skeleton of a giant prehistoric reptile. This is a cast of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, a short-necked plesiosaur from the early Jurassic rocks of England’s westeast coast. With broad jaws bristling with teeth and a length exceeding 22 feet, this specimen would surely be a crowd pleaser, and yet it has never been on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Since the MSC opened in 1983, only staff, visiting scientists, and gaggles of interns have seen it.

The original fossil from which the Smithsonian cast was taken came from an alunite mine on the Yorkshire coast. Miners unearthed the nearly  complete Rhomaleosaurus in 1848. This was a year after Mary Anning‘s death, and plesiosaurs were already well known to British naturalists. The new specimen was uncommonly large, however, and the mine’s owner, George Augustus Phipps, displayed it with pride at his residence. Five years later, Phipps gifted the skeleton to his friend Phillip Crampton, an Irish anatomist. Crampton arranged for the plesiosaur to be displayed at the 1853 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Dublin.

Illustration

Illustration of the Rhomaleosaurus cast for sale from Henry Ward’s 1866 catalog.

For nearly a decade, the skeleton remained in a semi-permanent tent that had been erected for the meeting. Eventually, increasing concern that the tent structure was not protecting the fossil from the elements led to the specimen’s conditional relocation to the Royal Dublin Society Museum. It was here that Alexander Carte and William Baily published the first – albeit brief – description of the Yorkshire plesiosaur, naming it Plesiosaurus cramptoni (Harry Seely moved it to the genus Rhomaleosaurus in 1874).

Around the same time that Carte and Baily were preparing their description, the Rhomaleosaurus received another fateful visitor. This was Henry Ward of Rochester, New York, founder of Ward’s Scientific Company. At the time, Ward was a well-known and well-regarded fossil and mineral dealer. Ward first traveled to Europe in 1854 at the age of 20. He continued to venture around the world collecting geological specimens, which he sold to fund his degree at the Paris School of Mines. Ward’s timing was excellent, and the connections he made during his studies put him in an ideal position to start a company supplying specimens to the new natural history museums that were springing up on both sides of the Atlantic. Ward was also permitted to take casts of museum specimens, apparently including the Rhomaleosaurus in Dublin.

Starting in 1866, the Ward Scientific Company catalog offered a plaster cast of “Plesiosaurus” cramptoni for sale. Described as the largest plesiosaur ever discovered, the fully painted cast was listed at $150, which would be a little over $4000 today. The skull or left fore-flipper could be had for $15 and $10, respectively.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the London Museum of Natural History.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the Museum of Natural History in London. Source

It is unknown how many Rhomaleosaurus casts Ward sold, but five survive today. In addition to the Smithsonian copy, casts are held by Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, and the Natural History Museum in London. Each of these casts varies slightly from the others. While the Smithsonian Rhomaleosaurus closely matches the catalog illustration (missing left flipper and all), the Bath version has duplicate front and back flippers, which means that they are backwards on one side. Meanwhile, all four flippers on the London cast are sculpted replacements.

Most of the Rhomaleosaurus casts are tucked away in geology departments or seminar rooms where they are not often seen by the public. The London copy is an exception, however. The Rhomaleosaurus holds court in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery, where it is the largest specimen on display. In fact, it may well be the second most-photographed object in the museum, after Dippy the Diplodocus. Somewhat anachronistically, the London Rhomaleosaurus is displayed with a placard about Mary Anning, even though it is one of the few specimens in the gallery she didn’t discover.

USNM prep lab 1913

USNM fossil preparation lab in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast was purchased from Ward’s Scientific Company in 1895, when the United States National Museum was still operating out of the Arts and Industries building. Surprisingly, the cast is not on Curator Charles Gilmore’s list of display specimens, either in the old Arts and Industries exhibit or in the new USNM building that opened in 1910. Although the Department of Paleontology prepared exhibits for the 1896 International Exposition in Atlanta and the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, the Rhomaleosaurus was not featured in either. Indeed, the plesiosaur can only be seen in historic photographs of the fossil preparation lab. From these, we can determine that the Rhomaleosaurus adorned the wall of this space as early as 1913 and as late as 1926. The cast was not part of any of the mid-century modifications to the paleontology exhibits, and was eventually relegated to MSC in 1983. It is still intact, but its existence is not widely known, even to paleontologists.

Sadly, the original Rhomaleosaurus fossils have not fared as well as the casts. In 1877, the Royal Dublin Society Museum was incorporated into the National Museum of Ireland, at which time the institution gained permanent ownership of the specimen. During a move in the 1920s, the Rhomaleosaurus was broken up with sledgehammers for ease of transport. Afterwards, the pieces were scattered throughout the collections for decades. Adam Smith has been instrumental in reuniting and restoring this historic skeleton (video of the pieces here). It was a principal subject of his 2007 doctoral thesis, and he oversaw the complete, three-dimensional preparation of the original skull. Currently, there are long-term plans to reassemble and display the Rhomaleosaurus at the National Museum of Ireland.

Hall overview

Overview artwork of the National Fossil Hall, on display in “Last American Dinosaurs” at NMNH. Note Rhomaleosaurus in the upper left, behind the Jurassic platform.

Back in the United States, the Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast will finally go on exhibit in 2019. It will be featured in the new National Fossil Hall, mounted on the south wall of hall 4 (roughly where the café used to be – see the upper left of the image above). It seems that 168 years after its discovery, this Yorkshire plesiosaur is poised to re-enter the realm of public display on both sides of the Atlantic.

References

Smith, A. 2006. Dublin’s Jurassic “Sea-Dragon.” Geoscience 17: 26-27. http://plesiosauria.com/pdf/Smith_2006_Dublin_seadragon.pdf

Smith, A.S. 2007. Anatomy and Systematics of the Rhomaleosauridae (Sauropterygia: Plesiosauria). PhD thesis. School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin.

Smith, A.S. and Dyke, G.J. 2008. The skull of the giant predatory pliosaur Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni: implications for plesiosaur phylogenetics. Naturwissenschaften 95: 975-980.

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

Ward, H.A. 1866. Catalog of Casts and Fossils From the Principle Museums of Europe and America with Short Descriptions and Illustrations. Rochester, NY: Benton and Andrews.

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Filed under exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NHM, reptiles

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

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

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

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

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

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

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

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

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

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)

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

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

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

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

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

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

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

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

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

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

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

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

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

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

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

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

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

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

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting the Ancient Seas

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

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

Dunkleosteus. Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

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

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

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

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

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

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

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

Kish with pencil sketch, color comprehensive, and models.

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

kish pretends to paint

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

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

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

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

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

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

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

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Revisting the Ancient Seas

Between 1981 and 1990, the National Museum of Natural History carried out its second major overhaul of the east wing paleontology exhibits. Entitled “Fossils: The History of Life”, the new exhibit complex represented a significant departure from earlier iterations of this space. While the previous renovation arranged specimens according to taxonomy and curatorial specialties, “The History of Life” followed the evolutionary progression of fossil plants and animals through time. The new exhibits also differed from prior efforts in that they were not put together exclusively by curators. Instead, the design process was led by educators and exhibits specialists, who sought curatorial input at all stages. The result was a (comparably) more relatable and approachable paleontology exhibit, created with the museum’s core audience of laypeople in mind.

By 1987, four sections were completed: The Earliest Traces of Life, Conquest of the Land, Reptiles: Masters of the Land, and Mammals in the Limelight. Occupying halls 2, 3, and 4, these exhibits (along with the older Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man in Hall 6) told the complete story of the terrestrial fossil record. However, Hall 5 (the narrow space running parallel to the central dinosaur exhibit on its north side) was still vacant.

1987 map

1987 map of planned additions to the “History of Life” exhibit complex, including the never-realized Changing Earth. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Going back to the 1977 theme statement that kicked off the History of Life renovations, the intent was always for Hall 5 to feature two exhibits: one on prehistoric sea life and another on the geological context for the fossil record. These ideas were fleshed out in a 1987 briefing packet that was distributed to potential donors. As the document explained, “it is in the undersea realm that the history of life is most abundantly documented,” and coverage of fossil marine life is therefore “critical” to visitors’ understanding of evolution through deep time. From the beginning, the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit promised to feature a life-sized diorama of a Permian reef community, mounted skeletons suspended in life-like swimming poses, and an immersive underwater ambiance. Meanwhile, the proposed “Changing Earth” exhibit would “illuminate the entire story [told in the fossil halls] by looking at the ways geological processes have affected the course of evolution over millions of years.” A key feature was a “video disc time machine”, which was essentially a computer terminal where artwork reconstructing different time periods could be viewed.

Changing Earth was ultimately never built. Instead, the allocated space became a windowed fossil preparation lab, which would prove to be one of the most popular exhibits in the History of Life complex. Nevertheless, many of the ideas planned for Changing Earth would be revisited in the Geology, Gems, and Minerals hall, which opened in 1997. Life in the Ancient Seas did get funding, however, and with a budget of approximately $4 million, production of the exhibit was underway by early 1988.

concept 1

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

concept 2

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As with any large exhibit, Life in the Ancient Seas was made possible through the combined efforts of dozens of talented scientists, artists, and technicians. Like the rest of the History of Life complex, the Department of Exhibits generally initiated and produced the content, which the Department of Paleobiology then revised or approved. Linda Deck was the content specialist, steering the ship throughout the planning and production process. She selected specimens, chose the major storylines, and acted as a bridge between the curators and exhibits staff. Li Bailey and Steve Makovenyi were the designers, overseeing the exhibit’s aesthetics and making sure it functioned as a cohesive whole. Sue Voss was the lead writer of label copy.

The hall’s design revolved around two main ideas, one aesthetic and one pedagogical. Visually, the exhibit needed to “simulate the perspective of a scuba diver” (Deck 1992). Makovenyi and Bailey gave the hall a blue-green color palate, with a low, black-tiled ceiling. Shimmering lights projected on the floor contributed to the illusion of traveling through the underwater world. Meanwhile, the layout of the hall adhered strictly to the chronology of geologic time. As visitors traversed the space, archways and glass barriers emphasized the conceptual divisions between the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.

Tylosaurus photo by the author

Tylosaurus and Hesperornis are classic NMNH mounts. Photo by the author.

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

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

Life in the Ancient Seas featured over 1,000 specimens, most of which were invertebrates like trilobites, brachiopods, ammonites, and bivalves. Early lists of vertebrates earmarked for display were (as is typical) much longer than the final selection of twelve mounted skeletons – a walrus and a baleen whale were among the casualties. A few of the mounts, like the  ancestral whale Basilosaurus (USNM V 4675) and the sea lizard Tylosaurus (USNM V 8898), had already been on display for decades and needed only modest touch-ups for the new exhibit. Most of the vertebrate skeletons, however, were brand new. The Dolichorhynchops (USNM PAL 419645) was collected in Montana in 1977, and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared and assembled the mount in 1987. A Eurhinodelphis dolphin (USNM PAL 24477) from Maryland was mounted by contractor Constance Barut Rankin. Her work was so impressive that she earned a full-time position for her trouble. The sea cow Metaxytherium (USNM PAL 244477) was a very late addition, having been excavated in Florida during the 1988 field season.

miocene

Miocene dolphin and sea cow. Photo by the author.

A variety of created objects joined the real specimens in telling the story of marine life through time. Model Hybodus sharks swam near the ceiling, and a realistic papier-mâché seabed extended the length of the exhibit beneath the mounted skeletons (little did visitors know this “seabed” was fragile enough to be punched through if it was ever stepped on). The exhibit team decided early on that Life in the Ancient Seas would include an 11-foot high, life-sized diorama of a Permian reef, based on the Glass Mountains deposits in Texas. Smithsonian paleontologist G. Arthur Cooper spent years collecting and publishing on the immaculate fossils found in this region, so a reconstruction of the Permian near-shore ecosystem was an obvious choice. What’s more, there was already a man lined up for the job. Terry Chase of Missouri-based Chase Studios (who would later go on to create Phoenix the whale) had already built a Permian reef for the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, and most of the same molds and designs could be re-used. Still, the NMNH diorama was a massive undertaking, featuring 100,000 unique models – some hand-sculpted and some cast in translucent resin or wax.

Phillip Anderson experimented with a variety of materials to create the shimmering of sunlight shining through water that appeared in the diorama and at the exhibit’s two main entrances. As it turns out, nothing looks as good as actual light penetrating actual water. To accomplish the effect, Anderson rigged a piston cylinder to continuously produce waves in a shoebox-sized plexiglass container of water. A quartz light shone through the container and projected the pattern onto the floors and walls.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version. Source

Life in the Ancient Seas opened in May 1990. In a Washington Post review, Hank Burchard raved about the ocean-themed design and especially Voss’s text, stating that “every museum text writer in town should study her style.” For the next 23 years, Life in the Ancient seas stood out as the gem among the east wing fossil exhibits. It was more colorful, easier to navigate, and generally more inviting than the other History of Life galleries. The theatrical label copy was arguably over the top (“Act One had been a bottom-dweller’s ballet, Act Two would be a swimmer’s spectacle”), but the exhibit as a whole plainly succeeded in presenting the story of evolution, adaptation, and extinction in an appealing and attractive way. Over the years, there were a few changes: the shimmering lights were shut off, a charming clay-mation video about the end-Cretaceous food chain collapse was removed, and the Dunkleosteus skull and Basilosaurus skeleton were relocated to the Ocean Hall (the latter was replaced with a cast of the related whale Zygorhiza). Indeed, the opening of the similarly-themed but far larger Ocean Hall in 2008 overshadowed Life in the Ancient Seas, and made many of its displays redundant. Although it was the best part of the History of Life complex, Life in the Ancient Seas was also the shortest lived. It was the last section to open, and in 2013, it was the first section to close.

Those familiar with the exhibit will have surely noticed that I have yet to discuss the beautiful 122-foot mural painted by Ely Kish. Running the entire length of the exhibit, this amazing artwork outclasses even the famous “Age of Reptiles” at the Yale Peabody Museum in terms of scale and number of subjects depicted. This monumental accomplishment will be the subject of the next post – stay tuned!

References

Burchard, H. 1990. Fossils Fuel Sea Journey. The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/05/25/fossils-fuel-sea-journey/d582f067-0745-44a0-90c8-248c1328962a/

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

Telfer, A. 2013. Goodbye to Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit. Digging the Fossil Record: Paleobiology at the Smithsonianhttp://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2013/11/ancient-seas.html

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, reptiles

Dispatch from SEAVP2016

Wow, it’s been awhile. The real world has been keeping me busy, but I’ve been researching a couple new museum  history stories that I will write up with all haste. In the meantime, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the Southeast Association of Vertebrate Paleontology conference at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which I attended earlier this week. SEAVP has a reputation for being fairly laid back, even as gatherings of paleontologists go. No frantic networking or jostling to introduce oneself to celebrity researchers, just a bunch of enthusiastic people excited to share their work.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

With 50-some attendees, nearly everyone was either speaking or presenting a poster. Miranda Armour-Chelu took on the challenge of reconstructing the taphonomic circumstances surrounding historically collected dugong fossils. Marcelo Kramer shared his adventures prospecting for Quaternary fossils in unexplored caves in northern Brazil. Julie Rej explained the difficulty of identifying Australian agamid fossils when most modern comparative collections in museums consist of pickled lizards, rather than bones. My own talk was a show-and-tell session of some of the cool new fossils discovered by visitors to Maryland’s Dinosaur Park. If I had to pick a standout session, it would be C.T. Griffin’s fascinating research comparing the growth trajectories of early dinosaurs to modern birds and crocodillians. Not as straightforward as one might expect.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

tanywhatsit

Max’s tanywhatsit fossil.

The following day, we visited the famed Solite Fossil Site, one of the most fossiliferous terrestrial Triassic localities in the world. These shales are best known for preserving an abundance of unique insects, but vertebrates and diagnostic plant fossils are also known. In particular, the site has produced hundreds of the tiny long-necked reptile Tanytrachelos. It only took 20 minutes for my colleague Max Bovis to find a “tany”, and an hour later he reportedly found a fossil fish. Both will be entered into the VMNH collection. We also visited Virginia Tech, where Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbit provided a tour of the paleobiology department facilities. We saw unique fossils from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico and the extant comparative specimen lab, but I was most envious of their 3-D printing set-up!

An immersive

An immersive habitat diorama featuring the Ice Age beaver Castoroides.

What of the exhibits at VMNH? They’re fantastic. Despite the museum’s small size, the production quality on all the displays is really top notch. The Uncovering Virginia hall highlights several fossil sites around the state, including the Ice Age mammals from Saltville, the coal seams of Grundy, and the aforementioned Solite quarry. In addition to original specimens and reconstructions of the excavations, there are a number of inspired hands-on activities. Visitors can put a whale jaw back together and articulate a femur with a pelvis, mirroring challenges actually faced by fossil preparators (nary a sandbox dig in sight!). I also liked a multimedia display where pressing a button (labeled “press here to go back in time”) pulls back an image of the Grundy coal mine and reveals a moving diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

The central Hall of Ancient Life features local whale and Ice Age fossils, as well as some visiting dignitaries like a cast of Big Al the Allosaurus. Don’t forget to check out the second floor balcony, which contains Morrison Formation dinosaur bones and a secret Tenontosaurus mount.

aww

Group photo courtesy of Alex Hastings, VMNH.

All in all, an excellent conference – hats off to Alex Hatings, Christina Byrd, and everyone else involved in arranging it. I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting, which will be hosted by the Gray Fossil Site Museum in Tennessee!

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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reptiles, reviews

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 1

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

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

Phase I: The Field Columbian Museum

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

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

fossils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase II: Halls 37 and 38

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

hall 37

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

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

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

hall 38

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

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

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

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

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

hall 38 mastodon

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

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

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

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

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

apatosaurus revised

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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