Category Archives: science communication

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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

Envisioning the Ice Age at NMNH

neanderthal diorama

The neanderthal burial diorama. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man, 1974.

On September 13, 1974, the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man opened in Hall 6 at the National Museum of Natural History. Part of the “third wave” of NMNH exhibits, the Ice Age Hall was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration and a new drive to create more accessible, visitor-centric museum experiences. Specifically, the exhibit was a response to increasing pressure for museums to become destination attractions, valuing visitors’ desire to be entertained above anything else. The Ice Age Hall was meant to prove that good science and the intrinsic value of specimens could, in fact, be applied in a way that would appeal to contemporary audiences. The curators, designers, educators, and artists involved with the project saw it as an important departure from old methodologies, and expected it to be a template for future exhibits. This transition did not necessarily come easily, but for 40 years the results spoke for themselves.

The Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates

wegegeg

Large fossil mounts in the short-lived Pleistocene Hall. Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Despite the fanfare accompanying the Ice Age Hall’s opening, NMNH regulars would be forgiven for noticing that much of the exhibit looked familiar. Just four years earlier, this same space saw the opening of the brand-new Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. This was the fifth and final phase of a thorough re-imagining of the museum’s fossil displays that began in 1959. Under the guidance of exhibit designer Ann Karras, the loose arrangement of specimens that had characterized the east wing for half a century was replaced with a directed narrative of the biological and geological history of the Earth.

This new direction was motivated by complementary revolutions in the museum field and in paleontology. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. At NMNH, this change in ideology inspired paleontologists to break away from the Geology Department and form their own Department of Paleobiology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Piano wire barely visible. Photo from Marsh 2014.

Two dire wolves posed over a horse. This display didn’t make it into the Ice Age Hall. Source

As Curator of Paleontology, C.L. Gazin oversaw most of the east wing modernization and designed the Tertiary Mammals exhibit in Hall 4 himself. Gazin retired in 1970, however, so responsibility for the unfinished Quaternary exhibit in Hall 6 went to new hire Clayton Ray, the Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals. To fill out the Quaternary Hall, Ray arranged a number of trades with other museums. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County provided a saber toothed cat, two dire wolves, and the sheep-sized sloth Paramylodon (USNM 15164) from the La Brea tar pits, while the American Museum of Natural History was able to spare a bison “mummy” (USNM 26387) and a taxidermied musk ox. Ray also selected a complete set of mammoth bones from the AMNH collections, which were found during a gold mining operation near Fairbanks, Alaska. The bones were collected individually and belonged to an unknown number of individuals (they may well represent multiple species), but they were sufficient for preparator Leroy Glenn to construct a complete mounted skeleton.

Ray placed the new mammoth (USNM 23792) alongside the Michigan mastodon (USNM 8204), which had been on display since 1904. The mammoth was so tall that it had less than an inch of clearance with the ceiling. The other big draw in  the Quaternary Hall was a pair of never-before-exhibited giant sloths (USNM 20867 and USNM 20872) assembled from material Gazin collected in Panama. Referred to as “megatheres” at the time, these sloths are actually Eremotherium, and they are composites of at least eight individuals. The giant sloths were positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. All four giant mammal skeletons were supplemented with 1/5th scale life restorations created by staff artist Vernon Rickman. Exhibits specialist Lucius Lomax came up with the idea to display the fossil mounts behind piano wire, stretched from the floor to the ceiling and arranged in rows. The Eremotherium platform alone required 500 strands – or about 6000 feet – of wire.

A New Vision

Chimera mammoth

The composite mammoth looms over other specimens along the right wall of the Ice Age Hall. Photo by the author.

Neither NMNH staff nor museum visitors were overjoyed with the Quaternary Hall as it stood in 1970. The piano wire Lomax had installed was a frequent cause for complaint: visitors would constantly pluck at the strings and occasionally break them. The wires also ruined photos. Automatic lenses would focus on the wire, so when visitors got their vacation pictures developed they would end up with a bunch of images of vertical strands with darkness beyond them. Nevertheless, the piano wire was really just a scapegoat for deep-seated disagreements over content between paleontology curators and exhibit designers. This apparently unsolvable clash of personalities contributed to the hall being closed indefinitely after just a couple years.

Paleontologist Porter Kier became Director of NMNH in 1973, and one of his first moves was to assemble a new team to reinvent the Quaternary Hall. Paleobotanist Leo Hickey, geologists Robert Emery and Thomas Simkin, and anthropologist William Fitzhugh conceived of an interdisciplinary exhibit that would explore the ice ages from multiple perspectives. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans would all be presented in a single, holistic story. In what was at the time a novel development, the curators worked with Elaine Anderson and other “conceptualizers/writers” from the Office of Exhibits. The scientists conceived of the main ideas and ensured factual accuracy, but the Office of Exhibits ultimately wrote the label copy and oversaw the construction of the exhibition.

arch section

A statue of an archaeologist at work was a popular part of the exhibit. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974.

To accommodate new content, the existing Quaternary Hall layout had to be completely gutted and replaced. Although Clayton Ray was conspicuously absent from the exhibit team, most of the modern and fossil animal specimens he had gathered were reused in different locations. The center of the exhibit became an enclosed theater with a video presentation about the advance and retreat of North American glaciers. The north end of the hall was overtaken by human evolution displays. Replica skulls and full-body illustrations showed the progression of hominids from australopithicines to modern humans, amusingly represented by a hippie. Vernon Rickman returned to create a life-sized diorama depicting a neanderthal burial ceremony. While directly based on excavations at Regourdou Cave in France, the scene was also inspired by the much-publicized Shanidar Cave site in Iraq, where neanderthals allegedly laid their dead to rest on a bed of freshly picked flowers. Finally, a cast of an engraved mammoth tusk, based on a 25,000 year old original from the Czech Republic, was added to the south entrance. This piece was meant to tie the exhibit’s narrative together, symbolizing “man’s emergence in the ice age as a dominant influence on other animals and his environment” (Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974).

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution archives.

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Ice Age Hall was completed remarkably quickly. Kier pulled the team together in early 1974 and the new displays were designed, written, and fabricated by September. At least internally, a great deal of excitement accompanied the reopening of Hall 6. The Ice Age Hall was a serious departure from how exhibit work had traditionally been done at NMNH, but it also represented an attempt by the museum to stand its ground in the face of pressure to delve into “edutainment.” This was a trial run at developing a visitor-focused but science-driven exhibit, and everyone involved was anxious to see how the public would react.

Legacy of the Exhibit

Eremotherium today. Photo by the author.

Few visitors can help but stop in their tracks at the sight of the Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

In 1978, Robert Wolf and Barbara Tymitz published a “naturalistic/responsive” evaluation of the Ice Age Hall. Their groundbreaking and oft-cited methodology involved interviewing visitors and surreptitiously tracking them through the gallery space, seeking to understand how museumgoers were using and interpreting the “complex set of stimuli” presented by the exhibit. This document, and especially the taxonomy of visitor types it describes, may well have influenced the museum field more than the Ice Age Hall itself.

According to Wolf and Tymitz, the Ice Age Hall was largely successful. Visitors generally remembered the major topics under discussion, and frequently left more curious about natural history than when they entered. They also noticed the difference in layout from the rest of the museum, describing it as easier to navigate and understand. Not surprisingly, the mammoth, mastodon, Eremotherium, and neanderthal burial were the most popular and most photographed objects. In comparison, the carved mammoth tusk at the front of the hall recieved surprisingly little attention. This object was intended to be tie the entire exhibit together, but most people ignored it entirely. Likewise, the separation of North and South American animals via an architectural “land bridge” was completely lost on visitors. Wolf and Tymitz observed that visitors entering from the south paid more attention to the fossil mounts, while visitors entering from the north were drawn to the glacier theater. A lesson about the importance of sight lines and traffic flow lies therein.

La brea mounts. Photo by the author.

Paramylodon and Smilodon from the La Brea tar pits. Take a good look at the sloth, because it won’t be returning in 2019. Photo by the author.

After 40 years, not every element of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man aged gracefully. Most obviously, the androcentric title and frequent use of the word “man” to describe humans throughout the label copy comes across as painfully dated. Displays that warned of another period of global cooling were removed (or at least stopped being lit) when anthropogenic warming emerged as a crucial public policy concern. The multimedia demonstration of continental glaciation was shut down by the early 2000s, and the human evolution corner was boarded up once the Hall of Human Origins opened in 2010. While the neanderthal diorama remained on display, recent research has shown that the affectionate burial it depicts is probably a misinterpretation. Ironically, the gradual removal of geology and anthropology components effectively turned the Ice Age Hall into the straightforward menagerie of Pleistocene animals that Ray initially envisioned.

The Ice Age Hall closed along with the rest of the NMNH fossil displays in April 2014. When the east wing reopens, many of the specimens will return restored and remounted, but in a different location. Since the new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order, Hall 8 itself will house displays on the origins of life and an expanded FossiLab. Still, the Ice Age Hall experiment continues to leave its mark on the museum. The collaborative workflow and sharing of responsibilities between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists pioneered in the development of this exhibit remains standard practice today. The result has been ever more effective displays, providing solid scientific content to the widest possible audience.

References

Eschelman, R.E., Emry, R.J., Domning, D.P. and Bohaska, D.J. (2002). Biography and Bibliography of Clayton Edward Ray. Cenozoic Mammals of Land and Sea: Tributes to the Career of Clayon E. Ray. Emry, R.J., ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology.

Lay, M. (2013). Major Activities of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology During the 1960s. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/lay1960s.html

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

Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (1974). Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man. Washington, DC: Elephant Press.

Wolf, R.L. and Tymitz, B.L. (1978). Whatever Happened to the Giant Wombat: An Investigation of the Impact of the Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man Exhibit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Yochelson, E. (1985). The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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Filed under anthropology, education, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.

Reich

The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.

References

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

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Habitat Immersion

It’s time to revisit my sporadic series on organizational and interpretive approaches in large-scale paleontology exhibits. Check out the posts below if you’d like to catch up.

Introduction

Walk Through Time

Phylogeny

Phylogeny – Addendum

Today’s topic is immersive exhibits – walk-through artificial environments that realistically simulate the prehistoric world. There are plenty of examples, and notably most have been built in the last 30 years. The Cincinnati Museum Center has a reconstruction of the Ohio Valley during the Pleistocene. The centerpiece at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is an indoor forest presided over by an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. Probably the most dramatic example is the DinoSphere at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Here, a repurposed Imax theater contains a number of dynamically posed dinosaur skeletons standing among rocks and trees. The surround sound system provides a constant soundtrack of animal calls, while the projection screen shows the sky at different times of day on a 22-minute cycle. There are even periodic storms, complete with flashing lights and booming thunder.

Original Bucky skeleton paired with a Stan cast at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Source

Stan and Bucky  harass a Triceratops in the DinoSphere.

Exhibits like the DinoSphere and its kin are frequently derided as sensationalism with little educational value. These multi-million dollar special effects shows (which sometimes do not contain any genuine specimens at all) are plainly inspired by the successes of theme parks, and it’s easy to dismiss them as crass efforts to draw crowds with flashy gimmicks. Surely these exhibits are nothing more than misguided attempts to turn museums into entertainment, learning opportunities be damned?

Well, it depends. The role of spectacle in museums is a complex one, and arguably one that is impossible to decouple from the core identity of these institutions.  Going back to the enlightenment-era cabinets of curiosities from which modern natural history museums emerged, the public side of museums has always been about showing off the biggest, the rarest, or the most expensive. And this sensationalist modus operandi has often been reflected in the spaces where specimens are displayed. The Greco-Roman architecture of classic exhibit halls, for example, is no less artificial than the DinoSphere’s indoor thunderstorms, and serves pretty much the same purpose.

neoclassical

The neoclassical aesthetic of the Field Museum’s great was designed to impress – and is no less of a fabricated experience then the DinoSphere above. Photo by the author.

While spectacle in museums is nothing new, neither is its complicated relationship with education. Arresting displays have long been leveraged to imbue specimens with informative context. Take habitat dioramas populated by taxidermy animals, a longstanding staple of natural history museums. These little worlds behind glass first became popular in the mid 19th century, and were almost immediately controversial among museum workers. Paradoxically, dioramas provided visitors with a fuller appreciation of the ecosystems the animals lived in, but only by wrapping the specimens in a layer of theatrical artifice. The immersive fossil exhibits that have cropped up over the last few decades are essentially habitat dioramas on a larger scale, and exhibit designers are still wresting with the same issues their forebears did a century and a half ago. Which is more important in the context of public exhibits – an informative and meaningful narrative, or authenticity?

For me, spectacle and artifice are fine, even welcome, so long as they serve a purpose. In some cases, the spectacle exists to inform (as in a habitat diorama), in other cases the spectacle itself is the attraction. The robotic T. rex at the Natural History Museum in London and the neanderthal photo booth at the National Museum of Natural History come to mind as examples of the latter – they’re entertaining, but don’t facilitate any further reflection or inquiry. When implemented in a thoughtful and deliberate way, however, spectacle can be a powerful element in a museum educator’s toolkit.

Triassic horsetails

By design, the first big skeleton visitors see in Dinosaurs in Their Time isn’t a dinosaur – it’s the phytosaur Redondasaurus. Photo by the author.

Let’s look at one example of a habitat immersion exhibit that uses showy reconstructed environments to maximize its educational potential. Two years and $36 million in the making, “Dinosaurs in Their Time” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best paleontology exhibits in the world*. Whether you’re considering the scope and quality of the specimens on display, the aesthetics and layout, or the interpretive approach,  Dinosaurs in Their Time is a benchmark in natural history exhibit design. You can follow along with this nifty interactive map.

*To be absolutely fair, Dinosaurs in Their Time is focused exclusively on the Mesozoic, which makes it difficult to compare to larger exhibits that cover the entire history of life on Earth.

What makes Dinosaurs in Their Time so great? Let’s start by considering the layout. The new exhibit more than doubles the square footage of the old Carnegie dinosaur hall, and much of the interior is actually a former courtyard (incidentally, this reuse of an existing space helped the exhibit earn its LEED certification). This makes the gallery spacious and airy, with a high ceiling and  plenty of natural lighting. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, starting in the Triassic and ending in the Cretaceous, but there is plenty of space in which to roam. In fact, the pathway forms a sort of figure eight around the Apatosaurus and Diplodocus in the Jurassic zone and the Tyrannosaurus pair in the Cretaceous. This cyclical organization allows, if not encourages, visitors to view specimens from multiple perspectives, and lets each person traverse the exhibit at their own pace. It’s especially nice that the sauropods have enough room to breathe – too often, these immense skeletons are relegated to cramped quarters where it’s impossible to see them all at once.

jurassic overlook

Visitors can walk all the way around Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, and even view them from above. Photo by the author.

The open spaces and clear sight lines are nicely complemented by the reconstructed rocks and foliage that fill the exhibit, giving it a proper outdoor feel. Importantly, the flora isn’t just for show – it’s a critical component of the interpretation. “We’ve painstaking recreated the worlds of the dinosaurs,” curator Matt Lamanna explains in a Carnegie Magazine interview, “everything that is displayed together actually lived together.” One of the key themes in Dinosaurs in Their Time is that dinosaurs were but one part of rich ecosystems, which were just as complex as those of today. These animals shaped and were shaped by the world around them, and there is far more to paleontology than the pageant show of toothy monsters that many visitors have come to expect. Indeed, it’s more akin to reconstructing entire worlds.

The plurality of “worlds” is important, because Dinosaurs in Their Time also emphasizes the nigh-unfathomable time span of the Mesozoic. Over 185 million years, countless communities of organisms came and went, and once again the immersive aesthetic of the exhibit helps convey this. While the horsetail swamp of the Triassic area almost looks like an alien world, the Cretaceous is populated by flowers and deciduous trees much like those of today. In this exhibit, the fossil specimens aren’t in a neutral environment – the space itself is part of the narrative.

T. rex with flowers and magnolia.

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops mounts stand among flowers and magnolias. Photo by the author.

The habitat immersion approach comes with yet another plus: it encourages exploration. From a tiny swimming Hyphalosaurus under the waterline of an artificial pond to a Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree, visitors are constantly rewarded for looking high and low. As Lamanna explains, “many visitors are repeat visitors, so we wanted to give them something new to discover every time they come back.” This is particularly beneficial for younger visitors. Rather than barreling through the exhibit in minutes, kids are encouraged to look for tiny details and learn things along the way.

Finally, the computer terminals throughout Dinosaurs in Their Time merit some discussion because they embody the same multi-tiered educational approach as the physical space around them. Dinosaurs in Their Time actually tells several stories simultaneously: there’s the ecology story, the deep time story, the history of the specimens on display, and even a meta-story of how the new exhibit was put together. Most visitors won’t be interested in every narrative, nor should they be. Rather than filling the walls with a dizzying array of signage, the exhibit designers consolidated the various narratives into space-efficient interactives. Visitors can choose which information they would like to see, and craft their experience in the exhibit to their tastes. This is technology used intelligently and purposefully, and something I hope to see other exhibits emulate in the future.

look closely

Sharp-eyed visitors are rewarded with hidden specimens, like this Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree. 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. Spectacle is one way to achieve that goal, and Dinosaurs in Their Time is a stellar example.

References

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

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

Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PN: Pennsylvania State University Press

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Filed under CMNH, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, opinion, science communication

Here Comes Jurassic World

Gyrosphere scene. Source

A bucolic scene at the dinosaur zoo. Source

I was planning to be bitter and jaded about “Jurassic World”, but my excitement has gotten the better of me. I like much of what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film next week. Moreover, the cultural endurance of the original “Jurassic Park”, now 22 years old, is incredible. When leading tours, I am regularly asked about the (largely fanciful) ground-penetrating radar shown in the movie. The word “dromaeosaur” results in blank faces, but if I call it a “raptor-type dinosaur, like in Jurassic Park,” I get knowing nods. These movies are the frame of reference for the public’s understanding of paleontology – not just how dinosaurs looked and behaved, but how scientists learn about them.

An important digression: we can’t give sole credit for Jurassic Park’s outsized role in popular culture to its dinosaurs and visual effects. I doubt the film would have the same lasting power without its memorable story and characters. Jurassic Park turned the classic lost world fantasy on its head, mixing it with a modern, tech-infused setting and a believable – albeit impossible – method for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film raises concerns about the corporate commodification of GMOs that (whether reasonable or not) are at least as relevant today as they were in 1993. The entertaining and relatable way in which Jurassic Park broaches complex topics has not gone unnoticed by teachers. More than two decades later, the film is still being used to introduce subjects ranging from bioethics to complex mathematics.

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park features some of the most true-to-life scientist characters I’ve ever seen in a popular film (a very low bar, to be fair). Alan Grant has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that reminds me of a number of colleagues and acquaintances. He usually thinks before he speaks or acts, but he also has a playful side that demonstrates the absolute joy he takes in discovering things about the world around him. Ian Malcolm, on the other hand, is what is known as an academic asshole. Like certain celebrity scientists, he’s a self-righteous jerk who may have some wisdom to impart, but chooses to do so in an insufferably arrogant and aggressive way. Scientists are as complex as anyone else, and it’s nice to be able to point to a movie that goes beyond the usual nerds in lab coats. Some more diversity among the principal cast would be better, but Jurassic Park is a move in the right direction.

A very reasonable reaction to encountering a living Triceratops.

A very reasonable reaction upon encountering a living Triceratops. Source

Back to my main point, the Jurassic Park films have had a meaningful and substantial impact on popular impressions of dinosaur science, and in this respect they should be taken seriously. A substantial amount of ink and pixels has been spilled regarding the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for precisely this reason. Since the first Jurassic World trailer was released last fall, much of this conversation has revolved around the retrograde appearance of the new film’s saurian stars – rather than taking advantage of two decades of new science, the filmmakers stuck with the early 1990s designs. Experts have called this choice “lazy,” “a missed opportunity,” and “unbearably stupid in every conceivable way.” In response, die-hard Jurassic Park fans are rushing to the film’s defense. Many have explained away any deviations from real dinosaurs by pointing out that the cloned animals are genetic aberrations to some degree. Maddeningly, others have taken to questioning what experts truly know about extinct animals.

Misguided appeals to ignorance can be dismissed out of hand, but the “cloned aberrations” argument deserves attention, if only because it completely misses the point. The Jurassic Park series has always been viewed (and marketed) as credible science fiction. The filmmakers hired Jack Horner, probably the world’s best-known paleontologist, to vouch for the dinosaur designs of all four films. By the time the third movie came out, special effects genius Stan Winston (rest in peace) was claiming that they had “blurred the theatricality of movies with museum-type education,” and that “there’s something to be learned from watching these movies” (quotes from DVD featurette “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III”). Given statements like these, it’s important that anyone with a vested interest in natural history education be aware of the films’ content, and be prepared to call out inaccuracies as necessary.

Something is awry. Source

Pictured: inaccuracy. Source

Nevertheless, I’d also like to direct some finger-wagging at those who seem excessively eager to tear down the Jurassic Park films in the name of education. Many otherwise reasonable adults care a great deal about these movies, and “classic” dinosaur depictions in general. Perhaps this is due to an association with childhood, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of “awesomebro” culture. Either way, my job and my passion is to communicate the amazing discoveries scientists are making about our world, but I also know that telling people the things they like are stupid and wrong isn’t a great way to win over hearts and minds. Rather than alienating and antagonizing potential learners, I’d prefer to make use of what the audience is bringing to the conversation. Jurassic Park is a wide-reaching frame of reference and a helpful starting point for conversations about what we know about past life and how we know it. As I’ve argued before, the ideal approach is to acknowledge the relevance of pop-cultural dinosaurs, while working to separate them in our audience’s minds from the real dinosaurs that we learn about by studying fossils.

As an educator, what I want out of Jurassic World is a good movie, full stop. A good movie is a memorable movie, one that inspires people to visit parks and museums and to read up on paleontology. In more substantive terms, the original Jurassic Park also brought forth a great deal of funding for new research and museum exhibits, simply by creating awareness that dinosaur science has popular appeal. So to director Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World, I say bring it on. We’re ready for your inaccuracies, and we’re ready to turn them into great discussions.

PS: Please consider participating in the Jurassic World Challenge – match your movie ticket price with a donation to help fund paleontology research and outreach. 

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Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication

Fossil sandboxes are terrible

Are these kids learning yet?

Are these kids learning yet? Source

Today, I need to take a moment to rail against one of the most reliably entertaining and beloved of museum attractions – fossil sandboxes. These activities are nearly ubiquitous at paleontology-related parks and museums, and some of them can be quite large and elaborate. There are a few variations, but they generally involve children using simple hand tools to dig through sand or loose gravel to uncover planted fossils (usually replicas, but I’ve seen a few places sacrifice real Pleistocene bones for this activity). Kids and families absolutely adore fossil sandboxes, and they generate all kinds of goodwill for the museums that feature them. In fact, many visitors have come to expect sandbox digs at paleontology exhibits, and become annoyed when one isn’t available.

I understand the appeal of sandboxes. For kids, they’re an opportunity to play pretend, engage in a physical activity after a day of looking at stuff, and generally have fun making a mess. Museum educators, myself included, are all about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences – the idea that different people learn best in different ways. While some easily absorb and retain information by reading or listening quietly, others prefer to solve a problem, talk through a topic with others, or engage in some sort of hands-on activity. That last one is called bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and it is common among athletes and actors, among others. A fossil sandbox allegedly provides an activity for bodily-kinesthetic learners to develop and hone a physical skill related to the topic at hand. Kids get a chance to see and feel what it’s like to be a real paleontologist working in the field.

Except not really. A sandbox focuses kids’ attention, but that’s not the same thing as learning. What they’re doing has virtually nothing to do with actual paleontology. Digging is a comparatively minor part of field work – far more time is spent prospecting for fossils. When a team does start excavating, it’s conducted in a precise and organized manner, so that no taphonomic data is lost. By comparison, the sandbox arrangement conjures ideas of frantic treasure hunting, rather than piecing together and interpreting clues about past life. Furthermore, digging through loose sand is exceedingly rare in the field. If it were so easy to get at fossils, they would either have been found already or would have eroded away to nothing. A simulation is supposed to model a real event, or constrain that event to a limited set of variables. Sandbox digs do neither. Parents and caretakers might appreciate a place where kids can entertain themselves for a while, and educators can pat themselves on the back for providing a physically-involved experience. But there’s no use pretending that anybody is learning in what amounts to a themed playpen.

One alternative to the sandbox concept is provided by Thistle. He describes an activity in which he sets up a series of square meter “dig sites” within a room. Different specimens or artifacts are placed in each square. Participating students are then told that each square represents what was found in a layer of excavation, and are prompted to draw conclusions based on the different objects recovered from different strata. Students consider the spatial relationships among found objects, and discuss the roles of taphonomy and deep time. Unlike a sandbox dig, the results of this activity are comparable to those of a real excavation, and students are asking the same sorts of questions paleontologists would. Granted, Thistle’s activity requires much more guidance than a sandbox, but it’s a good example of something that participants might actually learn from.

The point is, we owe our audiences more than a mindless diversion with no bearing on actual science. And for that matter, we owe the scientists whose work we’re communicating more than a tacky, inaccurate simulation. If our goals are to inspire enthusiasm for science and to encourage young visitors to think scientifically, surely we can do better than a sandbox dig.

References

Thistle, P.C. 2012. Archaeology Excavation Simulation: Correcting the Emphasis. Journal of Museum Education 37:2:65-76.

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Filed under education, exhibits, field work, museums, opinion, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Age of Man

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

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

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

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

ponies

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

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

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

Reference

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

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