Category Archives: science communication

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

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

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

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

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

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

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

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

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

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

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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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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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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Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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