Category Archives: science communication

Rethinking Evolving Planet’s Triassic gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very incomplete list of acknowledgements follows:

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

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

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

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

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

Displaying the Tyrant King (Redux)

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

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

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

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

I. The Original Tyrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. A T. rex for Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

III. Rex Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

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

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

Denver’s high-kicking T. rex. Source

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

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

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

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

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

V. Restoring the Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. From South Dakota to Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII. Tyrannosaurs Invade Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII. Into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is an incredible building. This colossal art deco structure is a sight to behold inside and out, and the muraled semi-dome in its central rotunda is among the largest of its kind in the world. Built in 1933 as a train station (and functioning as one today, after a mid-century hiatus), Union Terminal is also home to the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), which relocated here from a downtown location in the early 1990s.

I visited CMC once before in 2013, to see the traveling Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit. I also saw the permanent natural history exhibits that were in place at the time, which included some very elaborate walk-through reconstructions of a Pleistocene forest and a modern cave. These exhibits were constructed in the 90s, and had a lot of the hallmarks of museum design in that era. For example, the ice age galleries were framed around visitors “examining evidence like scientists,” which in practice involved binary question-and-answer stations and interactives where the action performed didn’t really connect with the concept meant to be communicated. Nevertheless, the actual fossil collection on display—mostly from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky—was impressive, as were the ambitious, large-scale dioramas.

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

This huge diorama featured life-sized wolves, a ground sloth, and a mastodon mired in mud.

Since then, Union Terminal and CMC have undergone a sweeping transformation. In 2014, the National Trust named the building—which had never been completely renovated in its 80 year history—one of the country’s most endangered historic places. Happily, the county took action, and raised funds to restore and modernize Union Terminal. In the process, most of the existing museum galleries were completely demolished, and the spaces they occupied were restored to match the building’s original architecture.

This strikes me as a bold move. Typically, legacy museums will gradually update or replace old exhibits as funding allows. In contrast, the CMC renovation started with a total teardown, and new exhibits are now being added in phases. As of this writing, the natural history and science side of the building includes a brand-new dinosaur gallery (discussed here), the aforementioned walk-through cave, a partial exhibit on the moon landing, and an assortment of temporary-looking exhibits. A new ice age gallery, the rest of the space exhibit, and immersive exhibits about Cincinnati history are slated to open later this year, and it appears fundraising is underway for future projects, including a Paleozoic fossil hall.

The hall’s only ornithischian Othnielosaurus follows in the footsteps of Galaemopus and Diplodocus.

To cut to the chase, the dinosaur hall is excellent. Developed by senior project manager Sarah Lima and curator Glenn Storrs, this is effectively a brand-new exhibit, since the old dinosaur gallery was quite limited. When the original CMC exhibits were built, the strengths of the vertebrate paleontology collections were primarily in Quaternary mammals and Paleozoic invertebrates. Over the last 20 years, however, the museum has been focused on the Jurassic. In particular, regular field work at the Mother’s Day Quarry in Montana has yielded a trove of Jurassic fossils, including some very unique sauropod specimens. The gallery includes an 80% complete Galaemopus, a composite juvenile Diplodocus, sauropod skin impressions, and a one-of-a-kind juvenile Diplodocus skull. In spite of the unspoken adage, the Morrison fauna is not resolved, and new secrets of this ecosystem are still being recovered.

Torvosaurus towers over a composite Allosaurus assembled from Cleveland-Lloyd fossils.

Other key specimens in the new exhibit were purchased from commercial fossil collectors. Jason Cooper, a Cincinnati native, discovered the Torvosaurus, which is the only real specimen of its kind on display anywhere. Along with his father Dan and brother Ben, Cooper excavated the 50% complete skeleton from a private Colorado ranch and prepared and mounted it for display. The museum purchased the Daspletosaurus from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Center. Anthony Maltese and colleagues excavated the skeleton in 2006 and prepared it over the course of several years.

Nicknamed “Pete III,” the Daspletosaurus shares its platform with two Dromaeosaurus casts and a cast skull of the Nation’s T. rex.

Like many newer fossil exhibits, the gallery is well-lit and spacious. The art deco design of Union Terminal informs the look of the hall: large windows fill the space with natural light, and the larger specimens are arranged on minimalist platforms that can be viewed from many angles, including from above. I found it noteworthy how close visitors can get to the mounted skeletons. Although the platforms are fairly high up, there are no glass barriers. I found that I could get within a few inches of the Galaemopus feet without much effort. I’m sure a slightly taller or more determined person could manage to touch the fossils.

Hopefully, they’ll be distracted by the many exhibit elements that are meant to be touched. In contrast to the 1990s exhibits, CMC has mostly done away with physical interactives, instead emphasizing touchable models and digital touchscreens. One particularly impressive inclusion are the digital video cameras (in robust cylindrical housing) connected to large monitors. Visitors can use these to get real-time magnified views of certain fossils, including a chunk of Tyrannosaurus medullary bone. This set-up couldn’t have been cheap! I also had fun with a set of telescopes aimed at certain parts of the dinosaur skeletons, such as a series of fused vertebrae in the Galaemopus tail. These are outfitted with targeting lasers (!) to help pinpoint the key features.

Each “closer look” station includes a telescope (with targeting laser!) aimed at an important skeletal feature, plus a bronze cast of that same element.

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

Not every visitor can see the fossil mounts, so CMC worked with David Grimes of the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to help people with low vision experience the exhibit. Braille is incorporated into many of the displays, and the hall is full of touchable bronze models, ranging from individual bones (like the aforementioned Galaemopus vertebrae) to fleshed-out reconstructions (such as Confuciusornis). Four of the dinosaur mounts are recreated as bronze miniatures. Structures like ribs and vertebral processes are quite thin at this scale and susceptible to bending or breaking, so the exhibit team went with a half-fleshed look to make the models more durable. The Field Museum landed on the same solution with the touchable miniature SUE, but credit is due to the CMC team for getting their models to stand up, rather than being presented in relief.

A real Apatosaurus skull, one of many treasures hidden away in smaller cases throughout the hall.

If I were to critique one element of the hall, it would be that some of the labels, graphics, and interactives are spatially disconnected from the fossils they relate to. For example, a digital touchscreen where visitors can manipulate a 3D scan of an Apatosaurus skull is nowhere near the real skull displayed elsewhere in the exhibit, and the only label for Othnielosaurus is on the opposite side of the platform from the mounted skeleton. This is, of course, a minor concern, and I can only imagine the difficulty of arranging an exhibit with as much verticality as this one.

Overall, the new CMC dinosaur hall is fantastic, whether one is considering the specimens on display, the story being told, or the aesthetics of the space. The collection of real, new-to-science specimens makes this exhibit stand out among other paleontology halls, but I’m curious how the museum’s general audience will respond. A once-expansive museum closed for two years, and opened with an excellent exhibit that nevertheless is much smaller than what was once on display. Will visitors be satisfied with quality over quantity? And will they keep returning as new CMC exhibits are completed over the coming years? Time will tell.

 

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, reviews, sauropods, science communication, theropods, Uncategorized

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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National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.

References

Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

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

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Filed under education, opinion, science communication, systematics

A Game Changer?

Today, Google and 60 partner museums unveiled the new natural history arm of the Google Cultural Institute. Launched in 2011, the Cultural Institute is an effort to make culturally significant material accessible online. Up until this point, the primary focus has been on art and history. In conjunction with museums and other institutions around the world, Google has been uploading millions of images, archival documents, and virtual walkthroughs of significant places. The natural history project offers more of the same, but with 100% more dinosaurs.

I had no idea this was in the works, nor do I know much beyond what is said in the press release. After spending much of this morning exploring the site, however, you can color me impressed. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming: 300,000 annotated specimen photos, virtual walkthroughs of 50 museums, and 184 multimedia presentations on topics both general (cabinets of curiosities) and esoteric (native plants and fish of Korea). Unfortunately, accessing this content can be a bit of a chore. I was often confused by the user interface, and found many of the most interesting or useful items by accident.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Google Cultural Institute

For me, the museum walkthroughs are the clear highlight. Using Google’s Street View technology, users can explore the included museums and get surprisingly close to individual displays. Some of these “virtual tours” are frustratingly limited to a few corridors between exhibits, but others provide darn near the full experience of actually being there. Of the museum walkthroughs I’ve looked at so far, the National Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde are particular standouts in this regard. A handful of museums have had virtual tours available online since at least the early 2000s, but this is the first time I’ve seen the concept escape the gimmick stage and become something potentially useful.

The quality of the multimedia presentations (“virtual exhibits”, if you must) is a bit mixed. The best ones make specific use of the partner museums’ collections, highlighting the scientific, cultural, or historical significance of particular objects. These presentations provide curatorial expertise and novel insights that are not easily found elsewhere. Other presentations, however, are frustratingly generalized, and don’t include much content that one couldn’t get from skimming a Wikipedia article.

yawn, another cgi sauropod. I'd rather see the mount.

Yet another middling CGI dinosaur. Yay, I guess? Google Cultural Institute

I would include the site’s flagship attractions – narrated 360-degree tours of selected exhibit halls – in the second camp. These three short videos each feature an exhibit that “comes to life” with the help of some acceptable-but-not-spectacular CGI. Take the video about the Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde. It’s awesome to be able to look all around the hall, but most of the video is taken up by an animated version of the dinosaur that doesn’t accomplish anything it’s Jurassic Park counterpart didn’t 23 years ago. The video starts to tell some interesting stories – convergent evolution between sauropods and giraffes, the rate of extinction caused by human activities far outpaces normal background extinction – but the goofy CGI Giraffatitan is very much in the way. Museums have so many strengths, so I’ll never understand the impulse to rely on things like animated dinosaurs that a) their audience can see elsewhere and b) Hollywood will always be able to do better.

A great deal of content to be found by the bold.

A great deal of content can be found by the bold. Google Cultural Institute

All in all, the new natural history project at the Google Cultural Institute is a very impressive starting point. Nevertheless, my optimism is tempered by the fact that the web is littered with apps and mini-websites developed by museums, then almost immediately abandoned. Too often, digital projects are taken on without a clear idea of who will continue to update it, what need is being addressed, or even who the website or app is for. The real test will be whether Google and the partner museums will continue to support the Cultural Institute with new content. This has been a recurring problem with museums’ digital endeavors, but perhaps the collaboration with Google (and its extensive infrastructure) will help.

Moreover, accessibility is an admirable goal, but there is a very wide gap between putting stuff online and creating something that lots of people (teachers, students, people who don’t live near museums) actually want to use. I’m encouraged by the range of material on the Cultural Institute site. Some content is fairly general, perhaps suitable for a 3rd grade science report, while other content is far more in-depth. I will be very curious to see what the public ends up using, and for what purpose. It would also be neat to see if this ended up being the start of a truly global digital collection, useful for educators and researchers alike. We’ll see if the Cultural Institute ends up being the catalyst that finally makes digital museums happen!

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, museums, sauropods, science communication

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

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 often 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. 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. 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. 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 animals 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. 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