Category Archives: reviews

Return to the DinoSphere

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops skeletons look particularly cool against a purple backdrop.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is one of the best museums in the United States, particularly for paleontology. That may sound surprising for those unfamiliar with the museum. A typical children’s museum serves an important function by providing young people an opportunity to create and explore, but their exhibits usually amount to glorified playgrounds. Despite its name, TCM is something else entirely.

Founded in 1925 and growing by leaps and bounds ever since, TCM is a bona fide research institution. Numerous staff curators oversee a growing collection of historical, anthropological, and natural science objects that are regularly studied by visiting researchers. TCM’s dinosaur holdings are particularly impressive, including the Dracorex hogwartsi holotype and the first Tyrannosaurus found with its furcula (wishbone) intact. The museum’s paleontologists collect new specimens from the field every year. Other highlights include a collection of 50,000 historic toys from 120 countries, 2,500 traditional garments and textiles from around the world, and hundreds of original paintings and sculptures of prehistoric creatures donated by John Lazendorf.

In 1976, TCM joined forces with Purdue University to excavate this mastodon in Greenfield, Indiana.

The exhibits at TCM include objects that are as fascinating and unique as those on display at any top tier history or science museum. And unlike typical children’s museums, TCM’s exhibits aren’t pitched exclusively at children but at families learning together. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but the effects are profound. Interactivity in one form or another is generally seen as critical to children’s learning in a museum context. However, all opportunities for interaction are not made equal, and “free choice” interactivity (such as pressing buttons and turning cranks) is increasingly seen as an ineffectual teaching tool. Educators and exhibit designers have found far more success with “scaffolding,” which is the practice of creating exhibits that are simultaneously pitched to multiple audiences. Scaffolded exhibits might include content for different age levels, or for visitors with passing familiarity with a topic as well as those with deep knowledge.

At TCM, scaffolding is used to coach parents and guardians to effectively guide children’s investigations. Wherever there is a display that is sure to attract kids’ attention, there is signage nearby to help parents ask open-ended questions, direct attention to a particular aspect of the exhibit, prompt hypotheses, or suggest connections to personal experiences. In this way, the scaffolded exhibits channel a positive educational experience for children through a trusted and familiar source of information (their parents). This also means that there’s no letting kids loose in an exhibit as though it were a playpen. Parents and guardians are given the tools they need to participate in their children’s learning process, and probably learn something interesting for themselves along the way.

Even for adults with more independent children in tow (or traveling alone!) there’s plenty to see and do. Indeed, the effort to provide quiet, contemplative experiences alongside more participatory ones is one of the most commendable aspects of the TCM exhibits. Visitors can view Dale Chiuly’s five-story blown glass sculpture, Fireworks of Glass. In the archaeology lab, they can watch conservation specialists restore artifacts collected from shipwrecks off the coast of the Dominican Republic. If they so choose, visitors can even grapple with the challenging themes presented in “The Power of Children,” an exhibit that highlights the accomplishments of children that stood up against disease, institutionalized racism, and genocide.

Gorgosaurus, Maiasaura, and Bambiraptor populate one of the main tableaus in DinoSphere.

All the best that TCM has to offer is on display in the epic paleontology exhibit, DinoSphere. The peculiar name references the fact that the exhibit occupies a globe-shaped addition to the main building that once held an Imax theater. Rather than removing the giant screen and fancy audio system, they’ve been put to use in creating a uniquely immersive experience. A series of vivid skyscapes is projected over a 22-minute cycle: a red sunrise fades into cobalt tones at midday and a deep purple at night. This is supplemented by a chorus of bird and insect sounds, and certain corners of the exhibit smell of cedar and magnolia (this isn’t the only place where scents are used – at one particularly inspired station, visitors can sniff a duckbilled dinosaur, which smells like cross between a cow and bottom of a birdcage).

Impressive as these elements are, DinoSphere is more than a special effects show. More than twenty complete skeletons of Cretaceous animals are on display, including ten real dinosaur mounts. For those keeping track, that’s as many as are in the Smithsonian and the Field Museum exhibits combined. Sourced primarily from the commercial market (including the Black Hills Institute, which also constructed the mounts)*, many of these specimens are truly unique. There’s Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus preserved with large areas of skin and muscle impressions, and the most complete Gorgosaurus yet found, which has a visible brain tumor among many other fascinating lesions and maladies.

*Yes, this isn’t 100% ideal. But at least the specimens are in a publicly accessible collection now.

Original fossils and artwork by Michael Skrepnick and Cliff Green are offered as inspiration at this drawing station.

True to form, there are many opportunities for participation in the DinoSphere. For one thing, the exhibit strongly encourages exploration. A cursory walk through the gallery is not enough to get the total experience. You have to look high and low and occasionally behind doors to find all the specimens on display. For example, there’s a Didelphodon jaw in a burrow close to the base of the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops tableau. For visitors that respond better to a more personal connection, some rather gifted interpreters are on continuous patrol. When we visited TCM in December, I was fortunate enough to watch Mookie Harris in action. He has a great repertoire with toddlers, but was just as happy to dive into more complex concepts with older children and adults.

Then there’s the dinosaur art gallery. Away from the noise and bustle of the DinoSphere proper, visitors can view samples from the Lazendorf collection in a quiet, contemplative setting (David at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs got a behind-the-scenes look at the rest of the collection – check out his photos and the rest of his TCM posts). Scaffolded signage encourages families to view the artwork with a critical eye, comparing the illustrated and sculpted dinosaurs to original fossils and separating rigorous reconstruction from artistic interpretation. There are also plenty of drawing stations, complete with prompts and sample artwork for inspiration. The whole gallery is a wonderful way to introduce visitors to the blurred lines between art and science, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Fun fact: I prepped a couple of the tail vertebrae in this Hypacrosaurus mount during a brief but inspiring “internship” when I was 13.

To sum up, if you’re looking for world-class fossil exhibits, don’t limit yourself to the big acronyms (AMNH, FMNH, and so forth). You might want to wait a couple years, though. During our visit, we were graciously invited into the fossil prep lab, where Curator William Ripley filled us in on the museum’s future plans. It rhymes with “Triassic expansion” and the TCM paleontology team is currently collecting new skeletons from a quarry in Wyoming. Can’t wait!

References

Andre, L., Durksen, T., and Volman, M.L. 2016. Museums as avenues of learning for children: a decade of research. Learning Environments Research 20: 1: 47-76. 

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, reviews

Book Review: Life on Display

lifeondisplaycoverI’ve never written a book review here before, but Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain’s Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the 20th Century is a fine place to start. Published in 2014, this fascinating and exhaustively researched volume follows the struggle of natural history museum workers to define the purpose of their institutions. Ultimately, are museums places for exhibits, or places for collections? Rader and Cain chart the internal and external perceptions of natural history museums through time, recounting the people and events that made these institutions what they are. If you have a serious interest in science communication or the history and philosophy of science, Life on Display is a must-read.

Many accounts of the history of museum exhibits (including mine) have placed the transition from cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to audience-centered learning experiences in the latter part of the 20th century. However, Rader and Cain convincingly demonstrate that the seeds for this reform, called the “New Museum Idea”, were planted much earlier. Traditional European museums were places for quiet contemplation, designed by and for the scholarly elite. The new crop of American natural history museums that emerged in the late 19th century were physically modeled after their European forebears, but almost from the get-go their missions were distinctly populist. As early as 1910, museum leaders like Oliver Farrington and Frederic Lucas were using the same rhetoric we use today to sell museums as community resources for lifelong learning. Concerned with the state of science literacy and the increasingly urban experiences of most Americans, these reformers argued that museums could reintroduce the public to nature and hone their skills of observation and deduction.

Exhibits like this one at USNM were deemed incomprehensible and inspired early reform

Exhibit halls like this one at the first United States National Museum were incomprehensible to most visitors. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By modern standards, early expressions of the New Museum Idea were modest. Strict taxonomic organization was loosened to accommodate categories that were meaningful to laypeople, such as “game birds.”  Labels that only included the Latin name and date of a specimen’s collection were revised to include information about the behavior and habitat of the organism in question. Illustrations of the life appearance of certain animals and plants were added, and education departments were established to coordinate tours for schoolchildren. However, even these humble reforms could be hotbeds of internal controversy. Some curators insisted that any kind of reproduction – even an illustration – was bound to confuse visitors, and opined that displaying anything less than the complete range of known diversity for a given group was unfathomable.

Contrary to what one might expect, the lines of conflict did not neatly divide curators from administrators and educators. For example, American Museum of Natural History herpetologist Mary Dickerson was a scientist first, but she staunchly advocated for attractive and comprehensible exhibits. Reformers also had differing political agendas. While Dickerson’s camp wanted to use accessible exhibits to inspire young people to appreciate nature and the need for conservation, AMNH director Henry Osborn saw public displays as a way to enforce social order among immigrant populations.

By the 1920s, advocates for audience-centered exhibits seemed to have won. In the public eye, the primary purpose of a museum was not research – it was to create ever more impressive displays. In particular, meticulously crafted habitat dioramas became the centerpieces of natural history museums. Although inherently artificial, these little worlds behind glass showcased the splendor of the natural world in a way that rows of carefully organized specimens never could. Children found dioramas particularly approachable, and the museums’ primary audience shifted from scholars to families. Dioramas were also the sort of capital expenditures that attracted donors, and for a time natural history museums fared well nurturing relationships with wealthy philanthropists.

oceanic birds or whatever. AMNH 1950s

Children study a diorama of Peruvian oceanic birds. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In the interwar period, ongoing ambitions to improve science literacy among the general public birthed a new kind of museum. Carlos Cummings led the way by transforming the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences into one of the first science museums. Here, galleries were organized based on themes and connections, and specimens were utilized to illustrate general ideas. For example, separate halls of invertebrate zoology, ornithology, and mammology were combined in an exhibit that focused on evolution and ecology. After World War II, the newly established science museums also began to focus on technology and industry. Despite a laudable emphasis on practical science, these exhibits often came with significant bias. Corporate sponsorship of energy and agricultural displays was standard practice, as was outright jingoism in exhibits about aviation and space travel.

As science museums continued to carve out their own audience-centered niche, the legacy natural history museums actually regressed to their pre-New Museum Idea state. To me, this is the most fascinating part of Rader and Cain’s narrative. Curators essentially reclaimed their museums as research institutions, letting exhibits languish as they focused on collections and scholarly publications. Smithsonian entomologist Waldo Schmitt typified the mindset of mid-century curators when he declared exhibits to be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments” (quoted in Rader and Cain, pg. 170). To this generation of scientists, “outreach” meant participating in a public “ID day” once a year – anything more was beneath them. Museums compensated by hiring more dedicated exhibit and education staff, but without curatorial support these institutions remained decidedly retrograde.

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Source

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Photo Archives.

Rader and Cain devote an entire chapter to the disruption caused by Manhattan Project physicist-turned-educator Frank Oppenheimer and his San Francisco Exploratorium. A playground-like open space filled with modular interactive activities, the Exploratorium completely upended the public’s understanding of what a museum could be. The exhibits were designed with rigorous adherence to the scientific method in mind, but they were also active, alive, and more than a little chaotic. The Exploratorium resonated with the counter-culture trends of the late 1960s, and natural history museums saw their visitation plummet as families turned to Oppenheimer and his imitators. Legacy museums insisted that these new science centers weren’t real museums (they didn’t have collections!), but now that the public had a choice they were voting with their feet.

Natural history museums admitted that they had taken the public for granted, but during the 80s and 90s they compensated a little too hard. Following the lead of science centers, many natural history museums turned to business and marketing specialists to fill leadership roles. They branded themselves as tourist attractions, added play areas and gimmicky technology, and used relentlessly-marketed blockbuster exhibits to keep people coming back. Robot dinosaurs and flight simulators heralded a sad decline in museum scholarship, and what’s more, the museums all started to look the same. They sourced popular exhibits from the same vendors, showed the same IMAX movies, and stocked their gift shops with the same merchandise. In many ways, the edutainment boom seemed like a race to the lowest common denominator.

ocean hall rulez. Photo by the author.

The wonderful NMNH Ocean Hall combines real specimens and in-house research with lessons in theatricality from the Age of Edutainment. Photo by the author.

Although Rader and Cain stop at the end of the 20th century, they touch on  recent trends that have helped put natural history museums back  on track. Museums are still hurting for funding, and often rely on blockbusters and concessions to keep their doors open. However, in-house researchers are once again taking an active role in the public faces of their institutions. Scientists work with professional designers and educators to create informative displays that also utilize lessons in showmanship learned from blockbuster exhibits. Some museums are working harder to emphasize the importance of their collections, and making them more accessible to the public. Nevertheless, the fact that these collaborations revolve around public interpretation in the first place leads Rader and Cain to conclude that New Museum Idea advocates ultimately won. Exhibits, not collections, are now the heart and soul of natural history museums. Whether or not that is a good thing is, of course, open to debate.

The scope of Rader and Cain’s research is breathtaking – the book includes 164 pages of notes and references. The authors have plumbed the depths of museum archives and despite the breadth of their subject, they have emerged with a clear narrative thread and a convincing conclusion. One thing I found lacking, however, was discussion of the role of paleontology in the history of 20th century museums. Clearly I have a bit of a bias, but Life on Display contains only a few passing references to fossil displays. This seems like a critical omission, both because paleontology is so integral to the public’s understanding of what natural history museums offer and because the basic format of a fossil mount exhibit has remained remarkably consistent since the 19th century. Clearly that is the subject for another book (yes, yes, I’m working on it!).

All in all, Life on Display is an extremely readable and informative account of an oft-overlooked realm of science education. It will be a regular reference for me, and I highly recommend it.

Reference

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

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Filed under education, exhibits, museums, reviews, science communication

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

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: PMNS

Life Then and Now

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

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

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

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

mosasaur and texas ornithiscians

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

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

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

benifet

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

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

vigniette

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

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

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

layered boxes instead of cladogram

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

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

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

bird evolution!

Bird evolution explained. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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

See the Elephant

Fenykovi elephant at the National Museum of Natural History, September 2014. Photo by the author.

National Museum of Natural History rotunda, September 2014. Photo by the author.

The iconic Fénykövi elephant, the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History rotunda since 1959, received an update last week in the form of a new interpretive platform. Like the Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History and Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum, this African bush elephant is the first object most NMNH visitors see upon entering. With its ears forward and its trunk raised, the elephant stands over 13 feet tall – larger than any elephant known to be living today. But in spite of it’s inspiring presence as the symbol of the museum, this elephant has a problematic history that NMNH has long struggled to interpret.

Hungarian-born Josef J. Fénykövi shot the elephant in Angola in 1955. Fénykövi owned a ranch in the west African nation (at the time a Portuguese colony), and would spend several months each year there hunting wildlife. After discovering the existence of an unusually large bull elephant in 1954, Fénykövi returned the following year equipped to track and kill what was thought to be the biggest land animal on the planet. Fénykövi and his team of guides located the giant elephant on November 13th, and eventually downed it after a full-day chase*. A truck filled with salt was required to keep the hide fresh during the hundred-mile journey from the kill site to the nearest train station in Kuito. Rather than keep the trophy for himself, Fénykövi decided to donate the animal to a museum. He offered it to the London Natural History Museum first, but the process was taking too long for his taste so he gave the elephant to the Smithsonian, instead. Later, an old-fashioned slug from a flintlock pistol found embedded in the elephant’s leg provided reason to believe the animal had been nearly 100 years old when Fénykövi killed it.

*Fénykövi’s account gives the impression that the guides did most of the work. They tracked the elephant’s prints and spoor on foot while Fénykövi followed in a jeep, and a man named Mario fired the shots that actually finished off the animal. 

The acquisition and subsequent exhibition of the Fénykövi elephant at NMNH gives us a great deal to unpack. The collection of animals for public display has fallen sharply out of favor over the past century. In the late 1800s, little worlds behind glass populated by taxidermy animals provided the increasingly urban public a window into the natural world they felt they had left behind. But even in Fénykövi’s day, popular opinion was beginning to turn against the practice. For most, this aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the unpleasantness of being confronted with a dead animal. Some scholars rightly call attention to the imperialism and exoticism inherent in collecting animals from far-flung lands. This criticism is especially apt for Fénykövi – his story contains more than a whiff of imperialist entitlement.

Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The fact that the elephant was killed as a trophy complicates matters still further. It’s one thing for a museum to display an animal that was sacrificed for science – to better understand its biology or to contribute to a record of biodiversity. Displaying a trophy is quite another. While a typical museum taxidermy display represents the life of an animal, a trophy mount celebrates that animal’s death. As Poliquin explains, “trophies arouse negative reactions not simply because they are evidence that a human killed an animal…they are evidence of a human’s desire to kill an animal” (Poliquin 2010, 152). Indeed, it is arguably impossible to fully separate a trophy mount from the narrative of the creature’s demise.

For Fénykövi, the meaning of the elephant is obvious. It represented a specific, triumphant event in his life, an attempt to communicate something about himself through the death of animal. NMNH staff have faced the much greater challenge of interpreting  Fénykövi’s trophy for the millions of visitors that enter the rotunda every year. For 56 years, they have struggled to present this animal, selfishly killed by a wealthy colonial, in a way that matched the museum’s conservation-oriented mission.

The elephant’s original context unfortunately left something to be desired. The traditional, circular pedestal in the center of the NMNH rotunda did not effectively distance the specimen from it’s origin as a trophy, and the museum was occasionally criticized for complicity with big-game hunting and the colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the elephant did eventually earn an identity as a symbol for the museum, largely separate from the man who killed it. Credit for this accomplishment goes to William Brown and Norman Deaton, who prepared and mounted the hide over sixteen months. Brown and Deaton managed to imbue this dead skin over a wood-and-plaster frame with an astonishing amount of life and character. The elephant holds court in the four-story rotunda, exuding confidence and power over it’s domain. It’s an unforgettable sight, and it almost makes one forget that this animal is only there because it lost a fight.

Words Source

The 1999 habitat diorama platform – my favorite iteration. Source

Still, it was clear by the 1990s that while the elephant was there to stay, it needed to be more thoughtfully contextualized. In 1999, NMNH replaced the old pedestal with a large, open diorama of the Angolan savanna, which brought the elephant three feet higher off the ground. The project was completed entirely by in-house staff, and was funded in part by a donation from Kenneth Behring (a big-game hunter, among other things). In the revised display, the elephant was the focal point of a story that encompassed every department at the museum. A jackal and an assortment of birds (a lilac-breasted roller, a carmine bee eater, and a white-backed vulture) joined the elephant on the platform, while Angolan grasses and trees completed the scene. Ants, flies, and dung beetles (pushing dung balls cast from examples collected at the National Zoo) abounded. A tin can allegedly tied to a tree by a local herder represented Anthropology, and bones of the extinct proboscidian Palaeoloxodon recki covered Paleobiology. In short, this display elegantly introduced visitors to everything the museum has to offer, while reinforcing the breadth and significance of natural history collections.

The elephant’s platform has now been rebuilt once again. The elephant stands at the same height and at the same angle, but the footprint of the base has been cut back significantly. The savanna diorama is gone, replaced with a straight-edged marble pedestal. Light and dark marble stripes nicely reflect the rotunda’s classic architecture, particularly the columns in front of each of the main halls. The compass rose on the rotunda floor, hidden since the elephant was first installed in 1959, is visible once again. It grounds the elephant display nicely, especially when viewed from the second floor. Finally, the new elephant platform now includes an information desk. It seems sensible to incorporate a bit of functionality into the display, and fortunately this addition does not noticeably detract from exhibit’s overall aesthetics.

Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The interdisciplinary interpretation has been removed*, replaced by displays that focus almost entirely on elephant behavior and the omnipresent threat of poaching. In fact, the only objects on display besides the elephant itself are three ivory sculptures that were seized by customs. The inclusion of these sculptures is a little strange, since it reinforces that ivory products are actually very pretty. Hopefully the adjacent message that elephant poaching has tripled since 1998 – and that an elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes – will be enough to convince visitors that it isn’t worth it.

*The one exception is a graphic that places modern elephants in their evolutionary and temporal context, featuring nearly photo-real artwork by Mauricio Anton. 

To its credit, the new display banishes Fénykövi from the elephant’s story – I didn’t see his name mentioned once. While I don’t think it’s possible (or more to the point, appropriate) to completely erase this specimen’s problematic history, it’s encouraging that it has taken on a second life as a cherished ambassador for its threatened species. I can think of no better outcome for an animal that was killed as a trophy.

What do you think of the new display? Which version do you like best?

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

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

Poliquin, R. (2010). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (2010). Explore Our Collections: Fénykövi Elephant. http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH, reviews

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Age of Man

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

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

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

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

ponies

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

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

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

Reference

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

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