Category Archives: 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 creators 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 an enormously time-consuming and expensive undertaking. The opportunity to build or thoroughly renovate an exhibition 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 Third Planet at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 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 developers. 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 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 graphics in each section are also color-coded, making your progression to each new period very distinct. Finally, the path is occasionally interrupted by unmissable black and red area 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.

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 animated recreation of the Burgess Shale environment. 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 developers 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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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

Framing Fossil Exhibits, Part 1

This post started out as a review of “Evolving Planet”, the expansive paleontology exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The short version is that it’s very good exhibit constrained by a somewhat frustrating layout. We’ll get back to that eventually, but first it’s worth considering the purpose of large-scale fossil exhibits in a more general sense.

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. In the early days, public exhibits were afterthoughts to the primary work of the museum (research and curation of collections), and if there was any logic behind their layout, it was an aesthetic logic. Typically posed in neutral, trophy-like stances on centrally-situated pedestals, mounted skeletons were the highlights of a natural history display for most visitors. For anyone not trained in comparative anatomy, however, these exhibits ultimately amounted to prehistoric pageantry. People could marvel at the great size of the animals, but there was very little to be learned besides the names of the species in question.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

A typically random assortment of fossil specimens at the Field Colombian Museum, ca. 1898. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

These days, we try to do better. Exhibits are designed with a clear narrative structure, as well as specific learning goals for the audience. The focus of the narrative varies depending on the exhibit and the team behind it, but most modern natural history exhibits are explicitly designed to answer “how” as well as “what.” For paleontology displays, this means telling the story of life on Earth while also communicating how scientists collect and interpret evidence to put that story together. Crafting an exhibit has been compared to writing a popular nonfiction book, except designers are using the three-dimensional space of the exhibition hall as their medium. In this way, modern exhibits are more about ideas than specimens, or at least, the specimens are present primarily to illustrate the major scientific principles being communicated.

That’s how it works on paper, anyway. Despite this focus on education (and institutional mandates to provide learning opportunities for the widest possible audience), visitor surveys show that dinosaur pageantry is still the default mode of understanding for the majority of people passing through paleontology exhibits. No matter how carefully we craft our stories, most visitors still leave these displays recalling little more than a list of cool specimens they saw. Dinosaur pageantry has its place and can be employed for good. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are undeniably impressive and spectacular, and it is absolutely worth taking advantage of that fact. We want people to pay attention to science, and in that respect mounted skeletons of favorite dinosaurs are great ambassadors to the world of research and discovery. The challenge is getting past the attention-grabbing stage. Prior experience has led visitors to expect that dinosaur pageantry is all paleontology has to offer, and many seem unprepared or unwilling to commit to a deeper understanding.

peabody mammals

The great hall at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of the last unmodified early 20th century fossil displays in the US. Photo by the author.

So are these people just hopeless rubes? Should exhibits be tailored only to visitors that care enough to put in the effort to understand? It should go without saying that this condescending attitude is completely wrongheaded and goes against the very spirit of museums. Education is half about knowing your content and half about knowing your audience. If visitors are not picking up on the content as desired, then a reassessment of who those visitors are is in order. Many museum exhibits still seem to be pitched at interested adults traveling alone with all the time in the world. This is a good description of many of my museum visits, but I’m also part of an increasingly small fraction of museum visitors. Most people who come to natural history museums come in groups of friends or family, and these groups often represent a range of ages. What’s more, most visitor interactions while in the museum will not be with the exhibits, but with each other. For the typical visitor, the museum experience is primarily a social one.

With this demographic in mind, a textbook on the wall (or a long video lecture*) is the last thing natural history museum audiences need. Visitors are absorbing exhibit content while simultaneously navigating a complicated, unfamiliar space. In the case of parents, they are also monitoring the attention span, hunger, and bathroom needs of their charges. Caught up in this whirlwind of information, visitors frequently fall back on what they already know. In the case of paleontology exhibits, this often means identifying familiar dinosaurs and ignoring the more intellectually challenging contextual information.

*It’s worth pointing out that a long video is NOT an improvement over a long label. Transferring label copy to a video or computer terminal does not inherently make the exhibit more interactive or more interesting. In fact, when the disruptive noise and need to wait for the next showing are taken into account, poorly implemented multimedia is probably less useful than traditional text labels.

The challenge for exhibit design, then, is dealing with the fact that visitors are not passively ingesting information. Visitors passing through an exhibit pull out relevant pieces of information and filter them through the lens of their existing worldview. Exhibit designers want visitors to also learn new information and challenge their preconceptions, but it’s easy to go too far. Survey after survey has shown that visitors do not appreciate exhibits that force them to move (or think) on rails. For practical reasons noted above, few visitors are able to look at every display, watch every orientation video, and work through every interactive in the prescribed order. Visitors need flexibility in order to make the exhibit experience their own. Finding the balance between providing informative context and providing a customizable experience is quite challenging, and not every exhibit succeeds.

struggling to contain the dinosaurs

The dinosaur hall in “Evolving Planet” at the Field Museum. Photo by the author.

On top of that, paleontology exhibits are particularly difficult to design because of problems with relatability. The story of life on Earth is immense, complex, and frequently counter-intuitive. It’s not enough to just explain what happened, we have to explain the history and methodologies of the half-dozen scientific disciplines that have contributed to to our understanding of that narrative. Even something so basic as the numerical age of a given fossil taxon requires a deluge of explanation to convey how we know. And all of this needs to be conveyed concisely, without being alienating, overwhelming, or condescending. Most importantly, it has to be made relevant to what audiences already know and understand.

Over the years, major natural history museums have attempted a variety of organizational strategies for their fossil exhibits. Each of these has been an attempt to break the dinosaur pageantry barrier and to portray the true complexity and relevance of paleontological science. Some arrangements, like taxonomical organization, have generally fallen out of favor. Others, like chronological presentations of life through time, are reliable mainstays that have been re-imagined in varied ways at different institutions. Still others, including cross-sections of specific extinct ecosystems, biogeography, and environmental change over time are relatively new and untested.

Keeping everything in this meandering introduction in mind, the upcoming series of posts will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each approach from the perspectives of science communication, aesthetics, and for lack of a better term, hospitality for non-expert audiences. Stay tuned!

References

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

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. 1992. The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.

Wands, S., Donnis, E. and Wilkening, S. 2010. “Do Guided Tours and Technology Drive Visitors Away?” History News 93:8:21-23.

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

Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 3

Subtlety is unnessesary when T. rex is involved.

Who needs subtlety when you have a T. rex?

Start with Displaying the Tyrant King Part 1 and Part 2.

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

The other dinosaur of the decade was Sue, who scarcely requires introduction. First and foremost, Sue is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 80% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 28 years old at the time of her death, Sue is also the eldest T. rex known, as well as one of the largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about the lifestyle of meat-eating dinosaurs. In particular, Sue’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infection that together paint a dramatic picture of the rough-and-tumble world of the late Cretaceous.

From South Dakota to Chicago

Sue at Disney World

Cast of Sue at Walt Disney World, Orlando. Source

It was the events of Sue’s second life, however, that made her the fossil the world knows by name. Sue was discovered in the late summer of 1990 by avocational fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute, a commercial outfit that specializes in excavating, preparing, and exhibiting fossils, initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City, but soon became embroiled in an ugly four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton. Williams soon announced that he would put Sue on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History won Sue with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

FMNH and its corporate partners did not pay seven figures for Sue solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  Sue’s remarkable completeness would be a boon to scientists, but her star power was at least as important for the Museum. Sue was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and her name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As FMNH President John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). Particularly in the late 1990s, with Jurassic Park still fresh in people’s minds, a Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn fund less sensational but equally important research, like ichthyology and entomology.

Still, some worried that McCarter, whose background was in business, not science, was exploiting an important specimen as a marketing gimmick at the expense of the Museum’s educational mission. This echoed similar concerns voiced 80 years earlier, when the original mounted Tyrannosaurus was introduced at the American Museum of Natural History. As president of AMNH, Henry Osborn oversaw the creation of grandiose and dramatic exhibits, with the intent to draw crowds and justify private and municipal financial support. When the Museum unveiled the Tyrannosaurus mount, Osborn held a lavish publicity gala for the New York elite and members of the press. The buzz generated by Osborn’s promotion resulted in lines around the block and front page headlines, but the attention was focused on the spectacle of the dinosaur rather than the science behind it. Many academics derided this as lowest common denominator pandering, while others, like anthropologist Franz Boas, grudgingly accepted that “it is a fond delusion of many museum officers that the attitude of the public is a more serious one, but the majority do not want anything beyond entertainment.”

Original skull of Sue the T. rex, displayed on the upper mezzanine. Photo by the author.

FMNH was under similar scrutiny as museum staff revealed their plans for Sue. The role of the corporate sponsors that paid for the fossils was a particular cause for concern, and the marketing team knew it. Although the idea of T. rex-themed Happy Meals was briefly on the table, McDonald’s and Disney wisely opted to present themselves only as patrons of science. McDonald’s got its name on the new fossil preparation lab at FMNH and Disney got a mounted cast of Sue to display at Walt Disney World, but the principal benefit to the two companies was high-profile exposure in association with youth science education. The Museum retained control over the message, highlighting Sue’s importance to paleontology and only coyly admitting her role as a promotional tool. Likewise, FMNH is the sole profiteer from the litany of shirts, hats, toys, mugs, and assorted trinkets bearing the Sue name and logo that are continually sold at the Museum and around Chicago.

You May Approach Her Majesty

Once Sue arrived at FMNH, the Museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of Sue’s teeth went on display days after the auction, which expanded organically into the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. Meanwhile, McDonald’s prepared an educational packet on Sue that was distributed to 60,000 elementary schools.

The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Much of Sue’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted. In addition, two complete Sue casts had to be fabricated: one for Disney World and one for a McDonald’s-sponsored traveling exhibit. The casts were produced by Research Casting International, the Toronto-based company that recently built the mounted menagerie for “Ultimate Dinosaurs“. Phil Fraley Productions, the same exhibit company that rebuilt the American Museum and Carnegie Museum T. rex mounts, was tapped to mount Sue’s original skeleton.

The mounted skeleton of Sue in the Stanley Field Hall. Photo by the author.

Unlike every other Tyrannosaurus mount before or since, Sue can hardly be called a composite. With the exception of a missing arm, left foot, a couple ribs, and small number of other odds and ends, the mounted Sue skeleton is composed of real fossils from a single individual. FMNH public relations latched onto this fact, emphasizing in press releases that while “many museums are displaying replicas of dinosaur skeletons, the Field Museum has strengthened its commitment to authenticity. This is Sue.” Just as they did with the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils incur only minimal damage for the sake of the exhibit. Despite these improvements over historic mount-making techniques, however, the Sue mount does have some inexplicable anatomical errors. The coracoids should be almost touching in the middle of the chest, but the shoulder girdles are mounted so high on the rib cage that there is a substantial space between them. Consequently, the furcula (wishbone) is also positioned incorrectly.

After a private event not unlike the one held by Osborn in 1915, Sue was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the literal raising of a curtain. A week-long series of celebrations and press junkets introduced Sue to Chicago, and she has been one of the city’s biggest attractions every since. All the publicity paid off, at least in the short term: FMNH attendance soared that year from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. 14 years later, Sue the Tyrannosaurus is still known by name, and is even used as the voice of FMNH on twitter. Interestingly, Sue’s new identity as a Chicago landmark seems to have all but eclipsed the legal dispute that was her original source of fame. A recent RedEye cover story goes so far as to proclaim this South Dakotan skeleton as “pure Chicago.”

 The Nation’s T. rex

This customized truck transported the Nation’s T. rex from Montana to Washington, DC.

This year, another Tyrannosaurus specimen has rocketed to Sue-like levels of notoriety. MOR 555, also known as “Wankel Rex”, is being transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it will eventually be mounted for long-term display. Now dubbed “the Nation’s T. rex“, the promotion of this specimen has mirrored that of Sue in many ways. Front-page media coverage, first-person tweets from the dinosaur and even an official song and dance contest herald the arrival of the fossils from their previous repository, the Museum of the Rockies in Montana. Much like the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, the process of unpacking the unarticulated bones will soon be on view in a temporary display called “The Rex Room.” Meanwhile, the very name “Nation’s T. rex” is a provocative invented identity akin to Sue’s new status as a Chicagoan.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex does not quite live up to Sue’s mystique. This Tyrannosaurus is neither as large nor as complete as Sue, and there was no prolonged legal battle or frantic auction in its past. The 60% complete skeleton was found in 1988 by Montana rancher Kathy Wankel, on land owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The fossils are now on a 50 year loan from from the Corps to the Smithsonian, (presumably) a straightforward transfer between federal agencies. In addition, MOR 555 is by no means a new specimen. Several casts of the skeleton are already on display, including exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of the Rockies, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and even the Google campus. In fact, a cast of the MOR 555 skull has been on display at NMNH for years.

NMNH Director Kirk Johnson, fossil hunter Kathy Wankel, her husband Bob Wankel, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick preside over the arrival of the Nation’s T. rex at the Smithsonian. Source

With that in mind, the hype around the Nation’s T. rex might seem like much ado about nothing. As this series has demonstrated, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. A quarter century ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide, most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens. Acquiring and displaying a T. rex is neither risky nor ambitious for a natural history museum. No audience research or focus groups are needed to know that the tyrant king will be a hit. And yet, excessive duplication of a sure thing might eventually lead to monotony and over-saturation.

So far, such fears appear to be unfounded. A specimen like Sue or the Nation’s T. rex is ideal for museums because it is at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

The Nation’s T. rex in its final pose at the Research Casting International workshop.

This week, NMNH will be celebrating all things Tyrannosaurus, starting with a live webcast of arrival of the Nation’s T. rex on Tuesday morning. Stay tuned to this blog for further coverage of the events!

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1980-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

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

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Filed under dinosaurs, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, NMNH, reptiles, science communication, theropods

The self indulgent year-in-review post

Happy 2014!

Not unlike a 20th century museum, this blog is beholden to no one. I post what I want to post, and I alone decide what readers ought to find interesting. And yet, even the most visitor-centric modern museums with the most thorough evaluation procedures would no doubt do anything to get the fine-grained audience statistics that WordPress provides freely to bloggers. With that in mind, it’s time to jump squarely onto the bandwagon and share some of the highlights of the past year’s metrics.

With just shy of 10,000 viewers, 2013 was my best year by far in terms of visitation since I started blogging three years ago. The overwhelming majority of visitors hailed from the US, but there were plenty of visitors from Canada and the UK as well. More than half of visitors came via search engine, but there was also a significant number of visitors coming through social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. The good folks at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs added me to their blog roll earlier this year, so that has been big driver of traffic as well.

The most popular post was the Murals and Dioramas entry in my Extinct Monsters series. My post on Henry Osborn’s notorious bigotry and how he continues to influence museums today was a close second, and my review of medullary bone in dinosaurs from last year was third. I’m glad the Osborn post found an audience, because I definitely consider it one of the more “important” posts I’ve done. Expect more about Osborn’s legacy in the coming year. The Murals and Dioramas post was made possible by a lovely chat I had with Norman Deaton earlier this year when I was working on my master’s thesis. I’m happy to see that his gorgeous and historically important dioramas are of interest to others. Be aware, the NMNH paleontology halls are closing for renovation this Spring, and the dioramas will not be included when the exhibit reopens in five years. The dioramas will definitely be preserved, but this is the last opportunity to see them in their intended context.

Beyond the blog, my big accomplishments this year were finishing my MA and scoring a job that lets me do precisely what I love: sharing information about paleontology with enthusiastic people. Meanwhile, my attempt to turn my thesis into something publishable has expanded into a monster with an absurd page count and no end in sight. Perhaps there will be news on that front in the coming year, but in the meantime thanks to all who have made this possible. And of course, thanks to all the readers who have dropped by (even all of you who only wanted that stolen horse evolution image that I only posted as a bad example), everyone who took the time to comment, and especially everyone who permitted me to tell the stories of their fascinating work.

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Filed under museums, science communication

The Calvert Marine Museum’s big foam shark

Over Labor Day weekend, I visited the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. The Museum, which features both indoor and outdoor exhibits, covers a wide range of Chesapeake regional history, including Patuxant Indian culture, the War of 1812, the local fishing industry and of course, Miocene marine fossils. The paleontology gallery, called “Treasures from Our Cliffs”, is nicely done and surprisingly high in production value for the museum’s size. Starting with an extensive entry gallery that places Chesapeake area fossils in a global context, the exhibit also includes fossils of seals, whales, invertebrates and assorted terrestrial mammals, plus a neat recreation of a cliff-side excavation.

The Carcharocles megalodon at the Calvert Marine Museum.

The Carcharocles megalodon at the Calvert Marine Museum.

What I want to talk about most, though, is the big foam shark pictured above. This is the exhibit’s centerpiece attraction, a complete replica of the cartilaginous skeleton of the infamous giant extinct shark Carcharocles megalodon. Since shark skeletons are primarily made up of soft cartilage, most of their bodies are very unlikely to fossilize. While teeth and lithified vertebrae of C. megalodon are relatively common, a complete skeleton can only be created as a replica. As such, the Calvert Marine Museum’s display is a scaled-up model of the cartilaginous skeleton of a modern Carcharodon chararias (great white shark), with a few proportional adjustments based on known fossils. The result is undeniably impressive: suspended over an ocean backdrop, the 37-foot model absolutely steals the show in the paleontology exhibit.

Nevertheless, I find it absolutely fascinating that the museum would go to such lengths to create a replica shark, particularly given its substantial collection of original fossils. The foam shark’s existence can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a dramatic rush among large urban museums in the United States to collect and mount the biggest and most spectacular dinosaur skeleton that could be found. This fossil craze was largely motivated by the vanity of the museums’ wealthy benefactors, but proved to be extremely productive for both paleontologists and museums. Mounted dinosaur skeletons sprung up seemingly overnight in cities across the country, making names like “Brontosaurus” and Diplodocus household terms and igniting a wave of interest in museums and natural science.

As a result of this mounting spree, the public conception of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals is to this day irreversibly intertwined with its conception of museums. When we think of fossils, we think of grand museum halls populated by towering skeletons. This connection is so ingrained that mounted skeletons have become, in the public eye, the only proper way to display prehistoric animals. Patrons of paleontology exhibits expect mounts, and museums must deliver, even if it means purchasing a cast from another institution, or in the case of the Calvert Marine Museum, sculpting one outright.

And from the front.

A closer look at C. megalodon.

It is true that very few museum mounts feature the complete skeleton of a single animal – they are typically composites of many specimens, or have missing parts filled in with casts or sculpted elements (see this SVPOW post on Kyle Davies, who sculpts bone replicas for OMNH). Probably the most important function of a mount is to present fossil material in a format that non-specialists can easily understand and appreciate. They show viewers what extinct animals would have been like in life, and let us perceive them in relation to our own human scale. But unlike a mural or life-sized model, which are obviously reproductions, mounts retain the aura of authenticity that comes from displaying known fossils. To display a skeleton is to imply that we are seeing real specimens, or at least replicas standing in for specimens that exist somewhere else. Whether reasonable or not, this is the expectation ingrained by over 150 years of fossil mounts in museums.

This means that the C. megalodon at the Calvert Marine Museum is pushing the concept of a fossil mount to its very limit. While this is without doubt a very reasonable reconstruction of what a C. megalodon skeleton would have looked like, only a minuscule fraction of what is on display represents fossils that have actually been uncovered. The question is then, is a display like this a misrepresentation of scientific knowledge and the fossil record?

How dinosaur fossils are NOT found. From Dinosaurs: A Prunell magic Pop-Up Book, via LITC.

Not how vertebrate fossils are found. From Dinosaurs: A Prunell Magic Pop-Up Book, via LITC.

To the Calvert Marine Museum’s credit, the exhibit signs clearly explain that the C. megalodon skeleton is a replica, and provide a detailed explanation of how and why it was made. What’s more, the shark mount is merely an extreme example of filling in gaps with probable reconstructions, a process needed to make the construction of mounts of most prehistoric animals possible at all. The field of vertebrate paleontology is, in fact, largely based on the premise that incomplete remains can be understood in the context of other, better known relatives. Then again, if I learned anything teaching undergraduate anatomy, it’s that the concept that vertebrates share a body plan inherited through common ancestry is not widely known. This might be worth considering when presenting fossil mounts in general: after all, mounts primarily exist for the public, not for experts (although see Kenneth Carpenter’s comments on an earlier post).

The Calvert Marine Museum’s C. megalodon definitely raises some weighty questions about displays of scientific specimens in museums. In the context of vertebrate fossils, what qualifies as a real specimen, and what is well-supported extrapolation? What role should a museum play when displaying scientific knowledge? Should museums merely serve as repositories for original objects found in nature, or is the goal to provide context and meaning for those objects? Can a boundary between the two be defined at all?

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Filed under exhibits, fish, fossil mounts, museums, science communication