Category Archives: reviews

Deep Time is a masterpiece

A spectacle of evolution.

About ten years ago, a team at the National Museum of Natural History set out to reinvent their aging fossil halls for a new generation. Paleontology exhibitions had occupied the building’s east wing since 1911, and while there had been several renovations and additions, these were always additive. The result was a crowded and jumbled space, a hodge-podge of displays created by different people, at different times, for different reasons. In the early 2000s, a new core team—including Project Manager and Developer Siobhan Starrs, Designer Pauline Dolovich, and Curators Matt Carrano, Kay Behrensmeyer, and Scott Wing—had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear the east wing from wall to wall and start over with a blank slate. Their task was to fill 31,000 square feet with the story of life on Earth, with the latest science and a modern understanding of how visitors use museums in mind.

The result is breathtaking. Deep Time, as the new exhibition is colloquially known, sets a high standard for excellence in natural history exhibitions. What follows is a brief discussion of some the hall’s many successes. I will undoubtably have more to say in the coming weeks.

Themes

The Time Spiral, illustrated by Julius Csotonyi, appears at both entrances to Deep Time. It is the spiritual successor to John Gurche’s Tower of Time.

As has been well publicized, Deep Time contains a strong message about how humans are changing the Earth in unprecedented ways. This is introduced the moment visitors enter the exhibition, with an illustrated spiral of time that ends in a mirror. The implication is simple, but direct: we are part of the story of our planet.

Throughout the hall, visitors are reminded of humanity’s connection to the rest of the planet in different ways. In one corner, an interactive (admirably starring a gender-neutral cartoon host) illustrates the evolutionary origins of different features of the human body. In the Quaternary section, large graphics present the percentage of megafauna on each continent that went extinct as humans spread around the globe.

The bridge is a highly-visible and centrally-located destination in the Deep Time hall.

The hardest-hitting message, however, is about the modern climate crisis. The fact that industrial activity is profoundly warming the climate—a change that comes with dire consequences—is presented in clear, matter-of-fact language. It’s not preachy, it’s not political, it’s just the truth. The exhibition does not explicitly say we should stop harming the planet (although we should), but it clearly presents the evidence that we are, and that we have the ability to stop. This information is centered on an overlook called “the bridge.” The centrality of this location and its proximity to the dinosaurs makes the climate narrative unmissable. The nature of the modern media landscape is such that many NMNH visitors may well have never seen this message presented in non-political terms. I’m eager to see the results.

Layout

The Jurassic and Permian are visible from the Cretaceous.

One of the earliest decisions in Deep Time’s development was to restore the original architecture. This had already been done in the north and west wings for the Ocean and Mammals halls, and restoring the east wing would bring back the building’s intended symmetry. This choice dovetailed with an acknowledgement of visitors’ tendency to pinball around an exhibition, rather than view displays in a prescribed order. The team decided to welcome this spirit of exploration. The new hall can be navigated in any order, but still makes sense as a cohesive story.

Most of the displays are on island platforms. Each platform represents a particular time period, and for the most part, specimens displayed together represent species that would have coexisted in a single ecosystem. Big, show-stopping skeletons are in the center, while smaller specimens and accompanying labels and interactives can be found around the perimeter. Vertical pillars, which are visible from across the hall, indicate where each platform is in time. Meanwhile, mass extinctions are represented by large walls that physically divide the space. The result is a hall where it’s always clear whether the display you’re looking at is earlier or later in time than any other display, even though you can circulate among the islands at will.

The remounted Diplodocus can be seen from anywhere in Deep Time, as well as from the rotunda.

NMNH gets several million visitors each year, so traffic flow is a major concern. This was a problem in the old hall, where decades of partial renovations had resulted in several frustrating bottlenecks. The new hall allocates nearly 50% of its floor space to visitor movement. A central avenue allows quick movement around the exhibition. Visitors short on time can pop in and “snack” on a few displays, rather than investing in the whole meal. Unlike linear exhibitions, visitors can backtrack without disrupting the traffic flow.

Furthermore, most of the hall can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Another function of the bridge is to provide an elevated vantage point. From the overlook, visitors can see Tyrannosaurus and Diplodocus over the heads of the crowd. Digital interactives show highlights on a 3-D model of the hall, helping visitors think about the entire history of life all at once. Actually, this is one area where I wish the developers had gone further. I would have loved to see displays that encouraged visitors to compare the animals visible on either side of the mass extinctions, or to think about what environmental factors led to the evolution of very different megaherbivores (the sauropods and proboscideans) at different points in time.

Animals

Dimetrodon prepares to scavenge Ophiacodon, while Xenacanthus and Diplocaulus swim below.

Lead Curator Matt Carrano came to the project with a vision. He wanted the mounted skeletons to read as animals, not as monsters or trophies. That meant they should be doing the sorts of things that animals do. Nearly every mount tells a story. The well-publicized Tyrannosaurus is dismembering a Triceratops: look closely and you’ll see fractured ribs, a broken horn, and that the Triceratops‘s head is actually separated from its body. The Eremotherium is plucking Osage oranges from a tree, referencing the hypothesis that these inedible fruits were cultivated by recently-extinct megafauna. A Menoceras is lying on its side in a characteristic rhino resting pose. The Stegoceras is scratching its jaw. Each pose gives the mounted skeletons a reality that is rarely seen in fossil exhibits. These are the remains of once-living creatures, after all. They got hurt, hungry, tired, and itchy.

Although the resting Menoceras bears a certain resemblance to the Roosevelt white rhino on the other side of the museum, this was a lucky accident rather than a deliberate quote.

Another more subtle reason these mounts are so successful is that the animals’ feet are always touching the ground. Many mounted skeletons are elevated on their supports, which makes the interplay between the armature and the base (typically built separately) easier to manage but also makes the skeletons look like they’re hovering. Grounding the animals’ feet was extremely challenging: ultimately, beds of gravel were used to smooth out the point of contact. Few visitors are likely to notice this achievement specifically, but the result is that each skeleton is imbued with weight and energy rarely seen in similar displays.

Placing the ground sloth at the entrance was an early design decision.

Research Casting International prepared and constructed most of the mounted skeletons, while NMNH preparators handled the rest in-house. The scope of the mounting and remounting of fossil skeletons for Deep Time is probably unprecedented. For comparison, the renovation of the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls in the mid 90s involved two remounts (Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus) and around ten new skeletons. By my rough count, Deep Time has 40 remounts and 13 brand-new mounts, to say nothing of the work that went in to dismantling the skeletons from the old hall that have been returned to collections.

Discovery

The Jurassic diorama, one of more than a dozen new scenes created for Deep Time.

It wasn’t until my second day exploring Deep Time that I noticed the dioramas cycle between day and night. I can only imagine the challenge the designers faced in arguing for this feature. It doesn’t have any particular educational purpose, after all, and only a small fraction of visitors are likely to notice it. Still, for those who do notice (I’m picturing a child poring over every detail of the miniature landscape while their parents wait impatiently), the effect is beautiful and magical. Those are the moments exhibition creators strive for.

Good thing that glass is there or we’d be in a real pickle.

A stroll through Deep Time is filled with similar moments of discovery, on many different scales. Follow the gaze of the two bronze Ice Age humans and you’ll realize they’re reacting to the Smilodon stalking nearby. Look beneath the platforms where Tyrannosaurus and Dimetrodon are standing and find a secret world of freshwater fossils. Although there are few levers to pull and wheels to turn in the exhibition, tactile experiences abound. There are touchable fossil casts, and a plethora of life-sized bronzes to interact with. I’m particularly enamored with the Mesozoic and early Cenozoic mammals: these are difficult to conceptualize with fossils alone and the bronzes bring them to digging, scratching, yawning life.

Seriously, these guys rule.

There are a hundred more examples, but I should stop for now. In short, Deep Time is an incredible exhibition. You should visit, and then visit several more times, because you’ll undoubtably discover new things to wonder at.

Reference

Marsh, D.E. 2019. Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of the Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls. New York, NY: Berghan Books.

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Filed under Deep Time, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, opinion, reviews

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the Valenictus.

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

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

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

A panoramic view of the immersive Eocene diorama.

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

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

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

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

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reviews, science communication

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 1

I’ve spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of southern California, visiting natural history museums, zoos, and botanic gardens, as well as seeing a fair assortment of marine mammals. Suffice it to say, my (endlessly patient) travel partner Stephanie and I ended the trip with a bit of sensory overload. I had planned to start off with a brief travelogue post and save more thorough analysis for later, but as usual I’ve gone and written much more than I intended.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum

Howard Ball’s famous mammoth statues in La Brea’s lake pit.

The La Brea Tar Pits (a.k.a. the the tar tar pits) is an iconic fossil locality in downtown Los Angeles. I visited  in my single-digit years, but I remember the site better from documentaries like Denver the Last Dinosaur. The region’s asphalt seeps have been known to local people for thousands of years, and they were first commercially mined in the 1700s, when Rancho La Brea was a Mexican land grant. The animal bones commonly found in the asphalt were seen as a nuisance until 1875, when William Denton of Wellesley College identified a large tooth from Rancho La Brea as belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat. Several years of largely unrestricted fossil collecting followed, until the Hancock family that had come to own the land gave exclusive collecting rights to the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) in 1913.

Within two years, museum paleontologists had collected about a million bones, mostly from large Pleistocene animals like mammoths, ground sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. This enormous abundance meant that the La Brea fossils were useful not only as research specimens but as trade goods. The LACM amassed much of its present-day fossil collection by trading La Brea fossils to other museums.

The Hancock family donated the 23 acres around the La Brea asphalt seeps to Los Angeles County in 1924. From that point on, the area functioned as a public park, where visitors could learn about ice age California and even watch ongoing excavations. Park facilities and exhibits expanded gradually over the ensuing decades. Sculptures of bears and ground sloths by Herman Beck were added to the grounds in the late 1920s. In 1952, a concrete bunker over one of the excavation sites became the first La Brea museum. The LACM board commissioned the site’s most iconic display – the trio of mammoth statues – in 1965, and sculptor Howard Ball installed them in 1968.

The George C. Page Museum, plus a man who wouldn’t move.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened in 1977. The remarkable Brutalist building is adorned by a fiberglass frieze depicting ice age animals in a savanna environment. The aluminum frame holding up the frieze also contains an atrium of tropical plants, which the indoor exhibit halls encircle. Architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton designed the museum to fit organically into the established park setting, and to subliminally reflect the fossil excavations it celebrates. The building appears to be erupting from the ground, much like the asphalt and the fossils therein. The entrance is below ground level, so visitors must descend a ramp to meet the fossils at their point of origin.

The giant camel Camelops hesternus (front) with adult and juvenile mastodons (back). Those logs were also hauled out of the asphalt seeps.

Panthera atrox was apparently more like a giant jaguar than a lion. Small-by-comparison Smilodon fatalis in the back.

In many ways, the Page Museum is now a museum of a museum. Most of the interior exhibits, including the fossil mounts designed by Eugene Fisher*, are the same as they were in 1977. Photos show that the exhibit halls, prep labs, and collections areas have changed little in the last 40 years. And that’s okay! The museum building and the outdoor displays around it have been part of the Los Angeles landscape for decades, and cherished by generations of visitors. To the museum’s credit, the 1970s exhibits were well ahead of their time. Windows onto the prep lab and collections would be right at home in modern “inside out” museums, and an oft-repeated message that microfossils (such as insects, birds, rodents, and pollen) are more informative than megafauna fossils vis-à-vis paleoclimate and ancient environments is still very relevant to the field of paleontology today.

That isn’t to say there is nothing new to see. Newer signage around the park grounds does an excellent job re-interpreting older displays, especially those that are now considered inaccurate. For example, Howard Ball’s mammoth statues are probably among the most photographed paleoart installations in the world, but they completely misrepresent the way most of the animals found at La Brea actually died. Ball’s female mammoth is hip-deep in a man-made lake filling in an old asphalt quarry. As the signage (and tireless tour guides) explains, the animals trapped here thousands of years ago actually became stuck in asphalt seeps that were six inches deep or less. Meanwhile, while the classic friezes and murals throughout the Page Museum depict savanna-like landscapes, more recent analysis of microfossils demonstrates that the area was actually a fairly dense woodland.

Turkeys, condors, eagles, and storks are among the more unusual fossil mounts at the Page Museum.

There are two main reasons that the Page Museum is a must-see. First, it provides an in-depth view of a single prehistoric ecosystem. As mentioned, LACM traded La Brea fossils to all sorts of other museums, so chances are you’ve already seen a La Brea Smilodon, Paramylodon, or dire wolf. The Page Museum has these animals, but it also has rarely-seen creatures like ice age turkeys, condors, and coyotes. I counted 25 mounted skeletons in total, to say nothing of the hundreds of smaller specimens. My favorite display was a Smilodon skull growth series, where you can see how the adult saber teeth erupt and push out the baby sabers. In addition, the Page Museum stands right next to the La Brea fossil quarries, past and present. The museum and the park that preceded it were conceived as places where the public could see science in action. Researchers have been uncovering fossils at La Brea for over a hundred years, and visitors have been watching over their shoulders the entire time. That alone makes La Brea a very special place.

*All the La Brea mounts (at the Page Museum or elsewhere) are composites. To my knowledge no articulated remains have ever been recovered from the asphalt seeps. As Stephanie pointed out, the skull of the Equus occidentalis mount actually belonged to a significantly younger animal than the mandible. 

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

This Tyrannosaurus growth series is the centerpiece of the LACM Dinosaur Hall.

Our next stop was the Page Museum’s parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which I will continue to abbreviate as LACM for consistency). LACM actually features two fossil exhibits: the 2010 Age of Mammals Hall and the 2011 Dinosaur Hall. Both were part of a $135 million project to restore and update much of the LACM building, which first opened in 1913. While the two halls were developed concurrently by different teams, they are architecturally very similar. Parallel mezzanines flank spacious central aisles, which maximizes usable space in the two-story rooms and allows visitors to view most of the mounted skeletons from ground level or from above.

The primary strength of both the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall is that they look really good. New skylights and newly uncovered bay windows yield plenty of natural light. Primary-colored panels provide interesting backdrops for the specimens, and fossil mounts on the ground and in the air keep visitors looking in all directions. These exhibits were clearly designed to look incredible from the moment you enter the room, and the abundant natural light means they photograph quite well.

Suspended skeletons make use of the vertical space and keep visitors looking all around the exhibit.

Triceratops and Mamenchisaurus at the front end of the Dinosaur Hall.

LACM’s mammal collection has been built up over the last century, while the dinosaur specimens were mostly collected by Luis Chiappe’s Dinosaur Institute in the decade preceding the exhibit’s opening. Nevertheless, both exhibits feature an uncommon diversity of beautifully-prepared fossils. I was particularly taken by the metal fixtures constructed to display incomplete skulls of Augustynolophus and Tyrannosaurus. The mounted skeletons were handled by two different companies: Research Casting International did the mammals and Phil Fraley Productions did the dinosaurs. I actually like the mammal mounts slightly better. There’s a greater range of interesting poses, and they don’t suffer from Fraley’s signature exploding chests.

The Poebrotherium, Hoplophoneus, and Hyracodon mounts are full of life and character.

A metalwork frame artfully shows the missing parts of this Augustynolophus skull.

All that said, there is a surprising divergence in the quality of interpretation between the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall. On this front, the Age of Mammals Hall is better by far. There is an open floor plan that visitors can circulate freely, but everything comes back to three main ideas posted near the entrance: continents move, climates change, mammals evolve. In no particular order, the exhibit demonstrates how Cenozoic mammals diversified in response to the environmental upheaval around them.

On the ground floor, one tableau shows how dogs, horses, rhinos, and camels evolved to move swiftly across the emergent grasslands of the Miocene. Another area covers how mammals grew larger to adapt to an ice age climate. Overhead, a whale, sea cow, sea lion, and desmostylian illustrate four independent lineages that evolved to make use of marine resources. Exhibits on the mezzanine level focus on how paleontologists learn about prehistoric mammals. One area compares different sorts of teeth and feet. Another explains how pollen assemblages can be used to determine the average temperature and moisture of a particular time and place, while drill cores illustrate how a region’s environment changed over time. Although the exhibit as a whole has no time axis, it does an excellent job conveying how evolution works at an environmental scale.

The addition of dogs, camels, and rhinos makes for an informative twist on the classic horse evolution exhibit.

Struthiomimus is accompanied by a modern ostrich and tundra swan.

By comparison, the Dinosaur Hall doesn’t have any obvious guiding themes. The exhibit is a grab-bag of topics, and to my eyes, specimens and labels appear to be placed wherever they fit. Jurassic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are surrounded by displays about the end-Cretaceous extinction. Carnotaurus of Cretaceous Argentina is paired with Camptosaurus of Jurassic Colorado. Mamenchisaurus shares a platform with distantly-related Thescelosaurus, which lived 80 million years later on the other side of the world. An explanation of what defines a dinosaur is confusingly juxtaposed with non-dinosaurian marine reptiles. If there’s any logic here, I didn’t see it. This is accentuated by the fact that the label copy is no more specific than a run-of-the-mill dinosaur book for kids. It all feels very generalized and unambitious, especially compared to the Age of Mammals Hall. I would have liked to see more information on what makes these particular specimens special, as well as how they were found, prepared, and interpreted. I suppose it’s up to the visitor whether an exhibit like this can get by on looks alone.

And so concludes day one of our trip. Next time, the Raymond M. Alf Museum and places south!

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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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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