Category Archives: science communication

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: A Walk Through Time

Half a year ago, I promised a series of posts comparing the common strategies for framing the history of life in museum exhibits. This post is the first step toward making good on that goal. Historically, fossil displays at major natural history museums amounted to little more than dinosaur pageant shows, and even today this is all many visitors want or expect. The challenge for exhibit designers is to contextualize the fossils as part of a greater narrative without being alienating, overwhelming, or perhaps worst of all, condescending. A large, permanent exhibit is a enormously time-consuming and expensive undertaking. The opportunity to build or thoroughly renovate an exhibit might occur only once in a generation, so there is exceptional pressure to produce something that succeeds and endures. Exhibits tend to be products of their time, however, and are strongly influenced both by contemporary scholarship and trends in museum theory.

One of the most enduring formats for exploring the fossil record is the “walk through time.” A chronological portrayal of the history of life is an obvious solution, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Audiences are predisposed to understand the forward progression of time, so little up-front explanation is needed. It also helps that the geological timescale compartmentalizes the history of Earth into tidy units. Each Era, Period, or Epoch has a unique cast of characters and a few defining events that make it easy to sum up. There are plenty of examples of chronological fossil exhibits, including “Prehistoric Journey” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the 1980s iteration of the National Museum of Natural History fossil hall, and even traveling exhibits like Ultimate Dinosaurs. For this post, though, I’ll be using the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet” as my primary case study, since it so thoroughly embraces the “walk through time” format (and I have a good set of photos on hand to jog my memory).

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

Map of the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet galleries. Source

Evolving Planet is a 27,000 sq. ft. journey through the evolution of life. It opened in 2006, although it is notable that Evolving Planet relies heavily on the structure of the previous paleontology exhibit, “Life Over Time.” Major set pieces like the replicated Carboniferous coal swamp and the Apatosaurus mount remained in place while exhibit designers overhauled the aesthetics and narrative. The most important change is the explicit focus on evolution. Although evolution is key to all biological sciences and the evidence for it is overwhelming, many schools in the United States fail to teach evolution properly and at least a third of the population rejects it outright. As destinations for life-long learning, museums are well-poised to address this deficit in evolutionary understanding, and the Field Museum has enthusiastically risen to the occasion. Evolving Earth weaves the evidence for evolution into all aspects of the displays. The first thing visitors see is the thesis of the exhibit – everything that has ever lived is connected through and is the result of evolution – printed on an otherwise blank wall. Moving forward, visitors learn how evolution via natural selection works, and how we know. Along the way, common misconceptions, such as the idea that lineages improve over time, or that evolution is “just a theory”, are proactively addressed and corrected.

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The thesis of Evolving Planet cannot be missed. Photo by the author.

This pedagogical approach defines a trend in exhibit design that began in earnest in the 1950s. Early natural history exhibits were designed by and for experts, combining expansive collections of carefully arranged specimens with a few “iconic” displays, such as dinosaur skeletons or taxidermy mounts. By the mid-20th century, however, visitor-centric ideas had begun to take root. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider what they would look at first when entering a room, and why. Soon hierarchical signage (main ideas in big text, working down to sub-topics and specimen labels) became the norm. Exhibits were enriched with interpretive displays, like dioramas, and scholarly labels were replaced by conversational text and even multimedia. By the 1970s, most of the exhibit responsibilities once held by curators were now handled by exhibit designers and educators. No longer places to explore a collection and view objects at will, exhibits now had carefully structured narratives built around explicit educational goals. In the 80s and 90s, the very floorplans of new exhibits came to reflect this identity, as open halls were replaced with carefully directed switch-backing corridors.

Each geological time period in Evolving Planet is color-coded. Photo by the author.

Each geological time period in Evolving Planet is color-coded. Photo by the author.

Once we reach the Permian, the fossils can start to speak for themselves. Photo by the author.

Once we reach the Permian, the fossils can start to speak for themselves. Photo by the author.

Evolving Planet is, for better or worse, thoroughly rooted in the late 20th century tradition of exhibit design. As the map above shows, once visitors enter Evolving Planet, they are committed to a lengthy trek along a predetermined route. There are no shortcuts to the dinosaurs – you must traverse the entire history of life, starting with its origins in the Precambrian. Along the way, you’ll become familiar with the exhibit’s iconography. Every time you enter a new geologic period, you are greeted by a “Timeline Moment.” These include a chapter heading, a (difficult to photograph) back-lit illustration, an update of where you are on the timeline, and a summation of the key evolutionary innovations and environmental changes of that age. All the walls and signs in each section are also color-coded, making your progression to each new period very distinct. It’s sometimes a little simplistic, but it’s a drastic improvement over the silly weather report-style videos that served the same function in Life Through Time.* Finally, the path is occasionally interrupted by unmissable black and red signage indicating that a mass extinction has occurred. The resulting experience feels like walking through a book. Information is relayed in a specific order, and visitors are expected to recall concepts that were introduced in previous sections.

*1990s exhibits were often characterized by over-the-top silliness. We’ve backpedaled a bit since, having learned that it’s possible to be engaging without bad puns and dated pop culture references.

A panoramic CGI recreation of the Burgess Shale fauna brings small, easily overlooked fossils to life.

A panoramic CGI recreation of the Burgess Shale fauna brings small, easily overlooked fossils to life. Photo by the author.

One challenge inherent to a chronological narrative of the history of life is that the physical evidence for early organisms simply isn’t very interesting to look at (for non-specialists, anyway). Large mounted skeletons of fossil vertebrates have a lot of presence, but they same can’t be said for stromatolites and wiggly-worm impressions. The designers of Evolving Planet address this problem in two ways. First, they built iconic contextual displays to stand in for fossils that aren’t suitably monumental on their own. The Cambrian section features a panoramic video showing the Burgess shale environment recreated in CGI. Actual fossils are available, but the video is what makes visitors stop and take note. Likewise, the Carboniferous section is dominated by a walk-through diorama of a coal swamp, complete with life-sized giant millipedes and dragonflies. Like the predetermined pathway, these landmark displays are very much in keeping with late 20th century trends in exhibit design. It’s a conceptually odd but admittedly effective reversal of the classic museum: fabricated displays are supported by genuine specimens, instead of the other way around.

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Mass extinction markers tell visitors to expect something different up ahead. Photo by the author.

The second strategy concerns the layout of Evolving Planet, which was inherited from the previous exhibit, Life Over Time. The space is shaped like a U, with switch-backing corridors flanking a more open dinosaur section in the middle. Curator Eric Gyllenhaal explained that “the heavy content, on the stuff that people were not familiar with, was the stuff that came first and came afterward, and that’s where we really got into the details of the evolutionary process” (quoted in Asma, pp. 226-227). Visitors are more focused and more inclined to read signs carefully early in the exhibit, so the designers used the introductory rooms to cover challenging concepts like the origins of life and the mechanisms of speciation. This is the “homework” part of the exhibit, and the narrow corridors and limited sightlines keep visitors engaged with the content, without being tempted to run ahead. Once visitors reach the Mesozoic and the dinosaurs, however, the space opens up. Among the dinosaur mounts, visitors are can choose what they wish to view, and in what order. This serves as a reward for putting up with the challenging material up front. The path tightens up again on the way out, but it’s not as pedagogically rigorous as the beginning of the exhibit. Some sections, like the human evolution displays, are actually cul-du-sacs that can be bypassed by visitors anxious to leave.

struggling to contain the dinosaurs

Although the dinosaurs get a third of the exhibit to themselves, the hall still struggles to contain them. Photo by the author.

The story of human evolution is relegated to a cul-de-sac late in the exhibit. Photo by the author.

The story of human evolution is relegated to a cul-de-sac late in the exhibit. Photo by the author.

Evolving Planet’s chronological narrative and linear structure complement each other nicely. The sequential path gives the exhibit designers significant control over the visitor’s learning experience, and when dealing with widely misunderstood concepts like evolution, the benefits are clear. The exhibit establishes clear learning goals, and designers can be reasonably confident that these goals are being met. Based on the other new permanent exhibitions at the Field Museum, I get the impression that the design team strongly favors linear exhibits. 2008’s “Ancient Americas”, for instance, closely mirrors Evolving Planet’s structure: a set path through a series of themed spaces, unified by consistent iconography. The designers are to be commended for absolutely owning this concept, and realizing it to its full potential.

Exhibit designers deliberately made the path to the exit much more obvious in the second half of Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

Exhibit designers deliberately made the path to the exit much more obvious in the final stretch of Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

The problem with a linear design, of course, is that it’s constraining.  All visitors enter with prior knowledge and a certain worldview or perspective, and are inclined to be more interested in some displays than others. Linear exhibits largely suppress this by forcing everyone through the same tube. Ironically, the strong emphasis on the sequence of geological time periods may also overstate their importance. While these divisions are defined based on real events like extinctions and faunal turnover, they are still human constructs with often messy borders. Relying too heavily on them understates the importance of long-term, short-term, and localized evolutionary events.

Museums should be educational, and exhibits should challenge visitors, particularly regarding the mechanisms of evolution and the scope and complexity of deep time. Still, there’s something to be said for free choice in elective education. Evolving Planet, and “walk through time” exhibits in general, skews more toward the former. It’s an effective option, but also a safe one. Next time, we’ll take a look at exhibits that frame paleontological science in less intuitive ways.

References

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

Diamond, J. and Evans, E.M. 2007. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Society for the Study of Evolution 61:6:1500-1506.

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

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Filed under education, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, reviews, science communication

The Last American Dinosaurs Has Arrived!

Hatcher greets visitors

Hatcher the Triceratops greets visitors at the entrance to The Last American Dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are once again on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Opening just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, “The Last American Dinosaurs” provides a much-needed dose of paleontology while the main fossil hall is being renovated. I was fortunate enough to take part in a preview tour for social media users – you can check out the storified version, or read on for photos and my initial thoughts on the new exhibit.

Stan is cool

Stan the T. rex is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Babies

Triceratops growth series reveals how much we’ve learned about the lives of dinosaurs over the last 25 years.

As promised, there are plenty of dinosaurs on view. Specifically, these are the dinosaurs of Maastrichtian North America, the last of these animals to grace this continent before the extinction event 66 million years ago. In addition to the mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus discussed in the previous post, be on the lookout for a hatchling and juvenile Triceratops, an Edmontosaurus, and bits and pieces from dromaeosaurs and pachycephalosaurs.

However, the dinosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg. As lead curator Hans-Dieter Sues explained within the first few minutes of the tour, the central message of this exhibit is that dinosaurs were only one part of a complex ecosystem. To that end, the dinosaurs of The Last American Dinosaurs are outnumbered by a menagerie of of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and plants that shared their world, most of which are on display for the first time. These specimens come from a variety of sources. Some, including turtles and fossil leaves, were collected by NMNH paleontologists in North Dakota specifically for this exhibit. Others, like the lizard Polyglyphanodon, have been in the museum’s collection since the 1930s but have never before been put on display. I also spotted a few casts sourced from Triebold Paleontology, including the mammal Didelphodon and the alligator-like Stangerochampsa

Gilmore specimen

This Polyglyphanodon was collected by Charles Gilmore in the 1930s.

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Stangerochampsa and Champsosaurus are examples of animals that survived the K/T extinction.

Much like the Human Origins exhibit, The Last American Dinosaurs incorporates the faces of Smithsonian researchers and staff throughout the displays. There are large photos showing the museum’s scientists at work in the field, and the popular windowed FossiLab has found a new home in this exhibit. In addition, a large area is deservedly devoted to scientific illustrator Mary Parrish, chronicling the methods she uses to turn fossil data into gorgeously detailed renderings of prehistoric animals and environments. Videos of Parrish and others at work can be seen here.

I’m definitely a fan of this personalized approach to science communication. In-house scientists are museums’ most important and unique resources, and placing them front-and-center reminds visitors that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relateable to visitors.

new stuff

Handwritten labels on these fresh from the field fossils provide a personal touch.

The phenomenon of extinction is another important theme in The Last American Dinosaurs. The exhibit details how an asteroid impact combined with several other factors to radically alter the environment worldwide, causing 70% of species to die out (fun fact: ambient temperatures in North America directly after the impact were comparable to the inside of a brick pizza oven). However, the exhibit goes on to make direct comparisons between the K/Pg extinction event and the anthropogenic extinctions of today. Habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and climate change caused by burning fossil fuels are instigators of environmental upheaval as powerful as any space rock.

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This moa and dodo remind visitors that extinction isn’t limited to the distant past.

In this way, The Last American Dinosaurs is a warm-up for the key messages of the new fossil hall. The overarching theme of the planned exhibit is that “Earth’s distant past is connected to the present and shapes our future.” It will showcase how living things and their environments are interdependent, and change over time. Crucially, it will also demonstrate how our understanding of how life has changed over time is important for understanding and mitigating our impact on present-day ecosystems. The Last American Dinosaurs is evidently a testing ground for how these ideas will resonate with audiences.

paleoart

Historic models of Agathaumas and Triceratops by Charles Knight and Charles Gilmore.

In designing modern paleontology exhibits, museum workers have tried many approaches to squelch the idea of the dinosaur pageant show and instead convey how the science of paleontology is relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Back in 1995, the American Museum of Natural History tried a cladistic arrangement with a focus on biodiversity. More recently, the Field Museum used the process of evolution to frame the history of life on Earth. While there are certainly overlaps with what has come before, the “modern implications of environmental change over deep time” approach under development at NMNH is fairly novel, and also quite timely. Some of the displays in The Last American Dinosaurs hit pretty close to home, and I’m eager to find out how visitors respond.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, reptiles, reviews, science communication, theropods

Exhibit Review: Kenosha Dinosaur Museum

Stan and an eagle.

Stan the Tyrannosaurus with a modern eagle. Photo by the author.

Last week, I had a chance to visit the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I had no idea this place existed until recently, but it’s a short drive north from the Chicago area, and has apparently been open since 2006. The Museum is a joint venture between the municipally funded Kenosha Public Museum system and Carthage College, and is housed in a lovely 1930s post office (on the National Register of Historic Places). As I understand it, the Dinosaur Discovery Museum was initially imagined as a space to host the undergraduate paleontology program at the College, which is led by Dr. Thomas Carr. While the Museum does include a working fossil prep lab and displays of recent finds from Carr’s field expeditions in Montana and South Dakota, the primary draw for most visitors is the permanent exhibit hall. Although less than 100 feet across, this space is packed with more theropod mounts than I have ever seen in one place.

Nary an ornithiscian in sight. Photo by the author.

Nary an ornithiscian in sight. Photo by the author.

Naturally, the theme of this theropod-centric exhibit is bird evolution. Circling the central pedestal counter-clockwise, visitors can see the radiation of theropods from primitive forms like Herrerasaurus to larger ceratosaurs and tetanurans and finally to increasingly bird-like coelurosaurs. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum must have gotten a very generous initial donation, because they seem to have bought out virtually the entire catalog of casts from both the Black Hills Institute and Triebold Paleontology.

Hererrasaurus

A squatting Hererrasaurus is one of many unusually posed mounts at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. Photo by the author.

Many of the casts were familiar to me, including the ubiquitous Stan, the Acrocanthosaurus from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the Anzu from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Nevertheless, it’s extremely cool to see such a complete range of theropod diversity in one place. I could directly compare any bone from a given mount to the same bone on any other, or even to the helpful selection of modern bird skeletons. The only thing that would make this exhibit more complete would be the inclusion of  growth series from the taxa for which this is known, like Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus. And for the record, jaded paleophiles, T. rex looks really impressive alongside this menagerie. Overrated, my eye.

Torvosaurus scratches its jaw.

Torvosaurus scratches its jaw. Photo by the author.

Unlike some exhibits, the Dinosaur Discovery Museum does not shy away from the fact that all the skeletons on display are casts. Most of the mounts are very obviously painted in two colors, showing precisely which bones are based on real finds and which are sculpted reconstructions. Unfortunately, a handful of mounts inexplicably lack this information, which could confuse some visitors. One helpful side effect of displaying casts is that the dinosaurs can be placed in a variety of life-like poses. These theropods are not all staring straight ahead with mouths agape – instead, we are treated to displays like the Torvosaurus above, which is scratching its head with its foot.

Ceratosaurus sign.

Signs like this accompany each dinosaur. Photo by the author.

The signage is of similarly high quality. Each dinosaur is accompanied by an attractive panel that provides expected information like the animal’s diet and time period, as well as a very helpful section identifying the quarry where the fossils were found and in most cases, the repository housing the original specimen. Additional signs on the walls cover the origin and extinction of dinosaurs, as well as the many lines of evidence that birds are surviving dinosaurs. Although they look a bit wordy at a distance, these signs are quite well-written for inclined to peruse them.

Acrocanthosaurus.

Acrocanthosaurus and an Allosaurus at rest. Photo by the author.

Also of note is a children’s room on the lower level, featuring (sigh) a sandbox dig and some very helpful and enthusiastic volunteers. Indeed, children’s activities appear to be the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s strong suit. A look at their website reveals that kid’s programs are scheduled every weekend, and special events like dinosaur ornament making and flashlight tours occur throughout the year.

Clearly, I was impressed by my visit to the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. It’s wonderful that an educational opportunity like this exists in a semi-rural community, something that would have been unheard of not so long ago (did I mention it’s free?). What’s more, the exhibit hall is a great resource for specialists interested in comparing a variety of theropods first-hand. If you ever find yourself in the area, this little museum is definitely worth a visit.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, reptiles, reviews, science communication, theropods

National Fossil Day 2014

Happy National Fossil Day! This will just be a quick photo post covering the events at the National Museum of Natural History today. The National Park Service started the day with a junior paleontologist swearing-in ceremony, where students from a dozen area schools learned about the importance of protecting and preserving public lands and natural resources.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

The main show was in the Q?rius education center, where museum staff and volunteers showed off their latest work and discoveries. Visitors could see tiny mammal bones and teeth plucked from matrix collected in Haitian caves, and work through a particularly inspired activity demonstrating how geologists correlate layers in different parts of the world.

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Photo by the author.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

Resident scientific illustrator Mary Parrish had a particularly fascinating display, showcasing the methods and materials she uses to create accurate paintings of prehistoric environments. Note the aluminum foil leaves used as models to paint from, as well as the hand-made macquettes used to block out scenes and experiment with poses. Also on view was a draft of the giant Hell Creek mural that will be on display in The Last American Dinosaurs, opening in November.

nfd3

Photo by the author.

Out in the lower level lobby, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, National Science Foundation, Calvert Marine Museum, and Maryland Dinosaur Park had activities and displays. Here’s our display of recently discovered fossils from Cretaceous Maryland, slightly overshadowed by the Nation’s T. rex. We talked with visitors about Maryland’s role in the history of dinosaur science, the importance of the early Cretaceous as the origin of the world we know today, and our citizen science programs at the Park in Laurel.

image

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Our Deinonychus replica looks a little small next to the Nation’s T. rex. Photo by the author.

National Fossil Day is all about generating awareness and enthusiasm for fossils and the study of the Earth’s natural history. In that, I think the event was quite successful. We talked to nearly 400 people, all of them enthusiastic and eager to learn about local prehistory and the process of discovering the ancient past. It was also a fun opportunity to catch up with people – the Washington area paleontology scene isn’t very big!

Thank you to the National Park Service for coordinating this event, and to the Smithsonian for hosting it!

 

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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, exhibits, museums, NMNH, paleoart, science communication

Spinosaurus at the National Geographic Museum

IMG_2341

Research Casting International has done it again with a beautiful reconstructed skeleton of a swimming Spinosaurus. Photo by the author.

Yesterday, Nizar Ibrahim and National Geographic made a tremendous splash with their long-awaited announcement of a new Spinosaurus specimen. Spinosaurus is a widely recognized and beloved dinosaur (particularly among what one might call the dinosaur fandom community), but paradoxically it is known from only the scrappiest of fossil remains. What’s more, the holotype specimen is long gone – destroyed in the bombing of Munich during World War II. No doubt the enigmatic nature of Spinosaurus is a major part of its appeal. At any rate, the new paper by Ibrahim and colleagues describes the never-before-seen hindlimbs and pelvis of Spinosaurus, and proposes that the dinosaur’s anatomy – and behavior – were far more extreme than previously assumed. The new specimen reveals that Spinosaurus had narrow hips and legs barely longer than its arms. This was not an animal built for running on land, and a quadrupedal posture is not out of the question. What’s more, Spinosaurus limb bones are surprisingly dense for a theropod, not unlike the heavy bones of seals and early whales. Ibrahim and colleagues paint a picture of Spinosaurus as an animal that was at least as at-home in the water as it was on land.

The news has provoked the usual cycle of rampant speculation among dino fans, dismissal of sensationalism by some professionals, and even well-reasoned, evidence-based criticism. After the fervor dies down, we can assess whether this hypothesis holds water. In the meantime, though, I must applaud the tremendously impressive show National Geographic has put on. As part of the media roll-out that started yesterday afternoon, National Geographic has prepared both a television special and a traveling exhibit revolving around Spinosaurus. Some might scoff at all the hype over a partial skeleton, but I’d call this science outreach at its best, put on by some of the most experienced folks in the business.

IMG_2376

This Spinosaurus sculpture will be a fixture outside the National Geographic Building on 17th street until January. Photo by the author.

“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” opened this morning at the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall in Washington, DC, and in this post I’d like to share my initial impressions. Visitors approaching from M Street are greeted by a life-sized Spinosaurus sculpture, posed over a half-eaten fish. This superb model was produced by the Italian studio GeoModel, and was apparently over a year in the making. Conceptual art and behind-the-scenes photos can be seen here. I’m not sure if the model has quite the extreme proportions that are proposed in the paper, but it’s not like I actually measured it. Regardless, this is a stunning piece  that will be a DC fixture through the end of the year.

The shrine to Ernst Stromer at the exhibit's entrance. Photo by the author.

The shrine to Ernst Stromer at the exhibit’s entrance. Photo by the author.

Once you’ve gone inside and paid your admission (I remember when this museum was free…oh well), you can enter the Spinosaurus exhibit proper. Interestingly, the exhibit is framed not as a science lesson but as a historical account. The first objects on display are documents and other possessions of Ernst Stromer, the German paleontologist who originally described Spinosaurus in 1915. Passing through a narrow corridor, you’ll see a reconstruction of the Spinosaurus holotype as it was displayed at the Bavarian State Collection in Munich, a Moroccan fossil shop, and even a replica of the cave where a Mysterious Bedouin Stranger led Ibrahim to the new find. Each stop is supplemented by a video mixing talking-head interviews with somewhat silly re-enactments of historic events. I particularly liked Stromer being berated by his Nazi boss.

Reconstruction of the holotype

I never dreamed I’d ever see an exact reconstruction of the Spinosaurus holotype, which was destroyed during World War II. Photo by the author.

I thought this method of storytelling was quite clever. By focusing on the role of Spinosaurus in world history, the exhibit can grab the attention of adult visitors that would usually dismiss dinosaurs as kids’ stuff. National Geographic’s shtick has always been presenting stories of intrepid scientists on adventures in distant locales, and there is plenty of that in evidence here. This sort of exoticism is probably a little problematic, but the gorgeous images of the Moroccan desert were clearly having the desired effect on some of my fellow visitors. Usually, I would complain about the over-reliance on long videos, but people seemed to be watching them all the way to the end, so I guess I’ll keep quiet this time.

Spinosaurus!

Spinosaurus in all its glory. Photo by the author.

Once the history lesson is over, the exhibit opens up into a larger display space. This is similar to what was done in “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” – a narrow entry gallery introduces visitors to the topic at hand and the central questions being discussed, then visitors are freed to look at what they find interesting in whatever order they choose. All in all, this layout is a good compromise between the need to convey a specific educational message and the need to let visitors make the exhibit experience their own.

The star of the show is of course the reconstructed skeleton of Spinosaurus, yet another fantastic display piece by Research Casting International. Check out a time-lapse video of the mount being assembled here. What wasn’t clear from the grainy preview images that were flying around the internet a couple months ago is that the Spinosaurus is actually in a swimming pose. Its legs are posed in mid-paddle, and its head is turned to the right to snag a model sawfish. Above all, the mount is big. So big, in fact, that I couldn’t find anywhere in the gallery where I could photograph it all at once. I’d love to see this thing alongside Sue.

IMG_2372

The process of 3D printing digital fossils, explained. Photo by the author.

Happily, the exhibit takes the time to acknowledge that the Spinosaurus mount is not only a cast, but a composite of many fossil specimens. There is even a small display showcasing the process by which fossils are scanned and 3-D printed at a consistent scale. It’s great that the exhibit explains the evidence that led to the aquatic Spinosaurus reconstruction, showcasing the process of making and testing a scientific hypothesis.

Around the perimeter of the Spinosaurus gallery are displays of the other paleofauna of the Kem Kem region in Morocco, which Paul Sereno and company have been assembling for many years. There are models of azdarchid pterosaurs and coelocanth fish, as well as a Deltadromeus skeleton and skulls of  Carcharodontosaurus and Rugops (all heavily-reconstructed casts). All of these displays explore the question of how so many carnivores could co-exist in one environment. The answer provided is that each predator was specialized to hunt a different kind of prey: Spinosaurus chased fish, Carcharodontosaurus ate big herbivorous dinosaurs and (this will undoubtedly annoy some) Rugops is presented as an obligate scavenger.

friends

Some Kem Kem friends: Deltadromeus and Carcharodontosaurus. Photo by the author.

I have virtually nothing negative to say about the Spinosaurus exhibit. This is a great story, well told, and I was thoroughly impressed by nearly every part of it. The only thing that might be a sore point for some is that there are very few authentic fossils on display. A single dorsal spine is the only real bone representing Spinosaurus. Nevertheless, the exhibit team has shown precisely how to dramatize the process of scientific discovery, while still making the process transparent and relateable. Bravo.

 

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, reviews, science communication, theropods

Exhibit Review: Dinosaur Mysteries at the Maryland Science Center

First, let me assure you that the posts on major fossil exhibits and Triceratops mounts I’ve promised are definitely in the works, and I should be finishing them soon(ish). In the meantime, here’s a quick write-up of my recent trek to the distant land of Baltimore’s inner harbor, home of the Maryland Science Center and the “Dinosaur Mysteries” exhibit. In all seriousness, this exhibit has been open since 2004 and is less than 40 miles from me, so this visit was long overdue. What’s more, now that the Smithsonian’s fossil hall is closed for renovation, this is the largest dinosaur exhibit in the region, and will be the spot to see mounted dinosaur skeletons near Washington, D.C. for the next five years. Is it up to the task? Let’s find out.

Dinosaur Mysteries from the second floor. Photo by the author.

Dinosaur Mysteries from the second floor. Photo by the author.

At 15,000 square feet, Dinosaur Mysteries isn’t a huge exhibit, but it’s pretty dense with content. There are a lot of displays and interactives crammed into into the space, including no less than 12 free-standing mounts and life-sized sculptures of Astrodon* and Acrocanthosaurus. This venue is a science center, not a natural history museum, so the exhibit is mostly aimed at kids and families. That said, there’s still plenty for adult visitors to enjoy (the rest of the museum is purely for kids, though…if you don’t have any, I’d recommend taking advantage of the half-priced Friday evenings).

*Alright, it’s really a sculpture of Giraffatitan standing in for the poorly known Astrodon.

Among the mounted skeletons (all casts), expect to see Tyrannosaurus (Peck’s Rex, to be specific), Tarbosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Compsognathus, Herrerasaurus, Protoceratops, what used to be called “Dilophosaurus sinensis”, and plenty of others. The offerings are a little theropod heavy (and a little tyrannosaur heavy, in point of fact), but they certainly don’t fail to impress. Sadly overlooked by most visitors are some lovely genuine Maryland fossils, including an Astrodon femur that is the largest dinosaur bone found east of the Mississippi River.

Full skeleton cast of Peck's Rex, accompanied by skull cast of the Nation's T. rex. Photo by the author.

Full skeleton cast of Peck’s Rex, accompanied by skull cast of the Nation’s T. rex/Wankel Rex. Photo by the author.

Thematically, Dinosaur Mysteries is all about answering questions through observation and deduction. The press release asserts that there are over two dozen interactives available, and indeed, visitors are invited throughout the exhibit to compare, contrast, and even measure fossils in order to draw conclusions about dinosaurs’ lives. Most of the “mysteries” are of the safe variety, tackling issues that are either soundly resolved or were never really issues to begin with (think “are birds dinosaurs” or “was Tyrannosaurus a scavenger or a predator”). Experts might be a bit blasé about these questions, but they nevertheless serve to get visitors thinking about how scientists draw conclusions. I go back and forth on this, but generally I find it helpful to embrace what visitors are already familiar with, at least as a starting point, rather than shutting out their frame of reference entirely.

Birds are dinosaurs, did you know?

This may come as a shock, but birds are dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

Other interactive components include a cool champsosaur skeleton puzzle, and a tabletop sandbox to dig in. I would have liked to see more interactivity with the dinosaur mounts themselves, since they’re the most visually impressive part of the exhibit. For example, there are no less than three Tyrannosaurus skulls on display, all from different specimens. That’s a great opportunity to compare the eccentricities of each individual, perhaps considering age differences, sexual dimorphism, pathology, or even erroneous reconstruction (looking at you, Wankel Rex rostrum). With some guidance, I reckon most visitors would do well with that, and it would push them closer to how paleontologists actually study fossils.

Astrodon and Acrocanthosaurus sculptures with Bored Dad #2. Photo by the author.

Astrodon and Acrocanthosaurus sculptures, with a Bored Dad. Photo by the author.

Apparently included in those two dozen interactives are a number of video terminals. As I’ve ranted before, videos are not interactive, even if you get to press a button to start it. That said, I’m actually of two minds about these. The videos, which are mostly interviews with paleontologists like Tom Holtz, Kristina Curry-Rogers, and Chris Morrow, were fascinating. I enjoyed hearing about the presumed purpose of Tyrannosaurus gastralia, what can and cannot  be presumed from dinosaur trackways, and especially the decision-making process behind posing a T. rex mount. However, these videos are also quite long, and rather unedited. The speakers ramble, repeat themselves, and generally er and um through their spiels. It’s quite a bit like chatting with a scientist about their work in person, actually, and I’m always in favor of giving science a human face. On the other hand, the exhibit team probably could have tightened these up.

What used to be called "Dilophosaurus sinensis" and friends. Photo by the author.

What used to be called “Dilophosaurus sinensis” and friends. Photo by the author.

Overall, I was pretty pleased with Dinosaur Mysteries. It’s not a large-scale fossil hall at a major research museum, but it’s still cool to experience and the science being taught is generally very good. If you’ve got kids who are bummed that the Smithsonian fossil hall is closed (don’t forget that The Last American Dinosaurs is opening this fall, though), this is definitely a worthy substitute. For adults,  keep in mind that you aren’t the Maryland Science Center’s target audience, but if you appreciate the artistry of a well-made dinosaur exhibit, Dinosaur Mysteries is still worth checking out.

PS: There are a few additional photos on my tumblr page.

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