Category Archives: science communication

In Defense of New Museums

As a museum* educator, I work with two kinds of experts: researchers who create knowledge and education specialists who disseminate knowledge. Both groups have ostensibly the same mission, which is to effectively communicate credible information about the world around us. Generally, both sides collaborate effectively, due in no small part to a shared enthusiasm for their work. But there is one issue (that has been raging for decades) in which researchers and educators frequently seem to be shouting past each other, complaining about what one another are doing wrong but not making much progress in reconciling their priorities. This issue is, of course, “new museum” exhibit aesthetics, the trend toward replacing traditional academically-oriented displays of specimens with dynamic, interactive leaning experiences that use specimens alongside interactive activities and multimedia to communicate specific educational messages to a broad audience.

*When I say museum, I mean natural history or science museum. Art museums are a completely different beast, and one I won’t pretend to understand.

From the perspective of many researchers and certain sets of museum-goers, these newer exhibits are frivolous lowest-common-denominator attractions better suited to amusement parks than serious institutions. For example, in a recent Tetrapod Zoology review of the London Natural History Museum’s Extinction exhibit, Darren Naish criticizes computer-based interactive exhibits because they “take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile” and “give visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience.” Likewise, an all-encompassing rant about new museums can be found in this (admittedly 6 year old) post by Matt Wedel, which is well worth a read (seriously, read it now and then come back to this).

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1600s: all  of the specimens, not much else.

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1800s: ALL OF THE SPECIMENS.

But in direct contrast to Wedel’s insistence that the intrinsic value of real specimens is all museum-goers want or need, there are editorials like this one by James Durston, which I will charitably describe as provocative. Durston tells us that museums that only display artifacts for their own sake are “classrooms made of cold granite, the only sense of life emerging from the tourists.” He argues that most objects on display in museums don’t matter as much to visitors as museum workers think they do, and pleads for more context and more reason to care.

So what’s the deal? Are modern museums too focused on providing context for their collections, or not focused enough? Let me begin by explaining why modern museum exhibits look the way they do. A century ago, or even 50 years ago, exhibits were arranged and labels were written almost exclusively by expert curators. These exhibits were, by and large, created with an audience of “interested people” in mind, meaning either other experts or clientele with enough leisure time to learn the jargon presented to them. The majority of visitors who came through the door were not directly catered to, because exhibits were considered an afterthought to the real work of the museum: research and collections management.

In the past 30 years, however, the museum field has decided that it can do better. Museums shifted from inwardly focused, primarily academic institutions into focal points for lifelong learning that operate in service to a wide community of visitors. Go to the website of your favorite museum and check out their mission statement (it should be pretty easy to find). I just did, and the mission of the National Museum of Natural History is to “increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture, through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.” Note that the museum doesn’t seek to increase knowledge and inspire learning just for a core audience of studious, well-read people, but for everyone. That means the museum needs to offer content that is interesting to all sorts of people, whether they learn best by reading and absorbing information, by physically doing something, by making choices for themselves or by discussing an issue with others. Preserving  and studying collections is no less important than in museums of yore, but these activities are understood to be in service of providing knowledge to the widest possible audience.

This shift in focus has inspired museum exhibits with more explicit educational goals, as well as attempts to create learning experiences that reach visitors other than those already keyed in to the customary language of academia. Drawing heavily on Gardner’s multiple intelligences, modern exhibits are intended to cater to diverse audiences that learn in a variety of different ways. In particular, hands-on mini experiments and computer-based games have become staples in science exhibits in order to reach visitors who learn better by doing than by observing. These interactive elements (we just call them interactives in the biz) are not appealing to everyone, but museums serve a broad community and have no business being exclusionary in the services they provide.

Beyond any moral or educational imperative, however, modern museums must be accessible because they are nonprofit institutions that rely heavily on public funds. They are funded based on the promise that they will provide educational resources for their communities, and that means serving more than a small subset of the population. Furthermore, ever-tightening budgets mean that museums need to be strictly managed. Educators have no choice but to establish clear standards of success for their exhibits, and to develop means to track attendance and audience engagement. Just to keep our jobs and keep museum doors open, we need to be able to clearly articulate who we are serving, how we are benefiting them and how we know.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $90 million new museum extravaganza.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $50 million new museum extravaganza.

If it was not clear, I absolutely agree with the goals behind new museum design. As  was argued in the American Alliance of Museums’ 1984 “Museums for a New Century” commission report, “if collections are the heart of museums, what we have come to call education – the commitment to presenting objects and ideas an an informative and stimulating way – is the spirit.” General audiences can certainly experience awe and wonder when presented with neat stuff, but museums can and should provide more than that. A hundred birds from around the world look impressive on a shelf, but they are much more interesting when the viewer understands the evolutionary processes and biogeography that produced such diversity. A little bit of context goes a long way to making such an exhibit is accessible and valuable to the widest possible audience.

In practice, however, I will concede that many attempts at broadening the appeal of natural history exhibits are pretty bad. Some modern museum exhibits use technology in terrible ways, and many attempts to increase interactivity are bafflingly pointless or even counterproductive. For instance, a dinosaur exhibit I visited earlier this year includes a green-screen stage where visitors can place themselves in a scene with dinosaurs running around. The result is not only painfully dated, but it has no educational purpose and may well encourage people to think that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed. Likewise, an exhibit on human evolution features a glorified photo booth that makes visitors’ faces look like other hominids. This non-educational attraction is consistently the most popular element of the gallery, distracting visitors from the fantastic displays and specimens all around it. More generally, an increasing number of exhibits are incorporating profoundly pointless touch-screen computers that let visitors browse photos of the specimens on display right in front of them. Just because an exhibit element is hands-on doesn’t mean it is actually helping visitors interact with exhibit content.

One reason lousy interactives keep being designed is that our evaluation procedures* are not always great at separating good exhibits from appealing ones. A good interactive provides informative content in an engaging way, while an appealing one is engaging but lacking in content. Many visitors may speak highly of just-appealing interactives, but that doesn’t mean these belong in museums. The aforementioned budget woes are also a factor here: interactives that draw crowds for any reason are a big help when scrounging for ways to fund research and preservation. There are tough calls to make when deciding between what visitors most want to see and what is actually worthy of an educational institution. There are no easy answers, especially when museums are consistently hurting for funding.

*Do note, however, that actually testing whether exhibits are meeting their educational goals has finally become commonplace…for far too long museum workers just assumed anything they made was good enough.

Nevertheless, when an interactive display works, when visitors’ eyes light up with understanding by working out a scientific problem for themselves, the process is absolutely worthwhile. Earlier this year, I raved about the low-tech brilliance of an activity in the Academy of Natural Sciences that let visitors physically act out the difference in upright and sprawling gaits. And the NMNH Human Origins exhibit features a fantastic computer game where visitors play the part of a future world leader and experience firsthand the challenges and consequences of overpopulation, food shortage and invasive species. Exhibit interactives, both technology-based and otherwise, are difficult to pull off, and many museums have failed at the task. But we owe it to our visitors to try.

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Filed under collections, education, exhibits, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

The Osborn problem

In both paleontology and the museum field, we’ve long contended with what one might call “the Osborn problem.” The legacy of Henry Fairfield Osborn, paleontologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History between 1908 and 1933, is quite important to both fields.  To paleontologists, he is known for accumulating at AMNH one of the largest and most exhaustive fossil collections in the world,  for financing and supporting the careers of legends like Barnum Brown and Charles R. Knight, and of course for naming and describing saurian celebrities like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor.

Osborn is also well-regarded by museum specialists for heightening the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular mounted dinosaur skeletons in order to make science exciting for a wide audience. Osborn’s devotion to storytelling and drama in the exhibits he curated brought millions of visitors to AMNH and quite literally defined public expectations for what museums should offer to this day.

Henry Fairfield Osborn.

Henry Fairfield Osborn.

In recent decades, however, historical interest in Osborn has been mostly focused on his disreputable personal and political beliefs: Osborn was a flagrant racist and anti-Semite,  an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a strong supporter of research in eugenics. Osborn regularly used his clout to bring material harm to the American working class, lobbying for legislation including the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924. For what it’s worth, Osborn was also apparently unbearably arrogant and truly dreadful to work with, going as far as to demand lower-ranked museum employees leave the elevator car when he got on.

All this puts paleontologists and museum specialists in an awkward position. Is it acceptable to admire Osborn’s positive achievements in light of his personal politics? After all, Osborn’s views were not terribly unusual among the aristocratic class of his day. Perhaps we shouldn’t condemn the man entirely for not “rising above his time and place” (as Stephen Ambrose argues regarding coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson the slave owner).

Unfortunately, Osborn’s case is complicated by the fact that his bigotry inspired (or at least contributed to) much of his work at AMNH*. To start, Osborn’s scientific work was based on an inaccurate orthogenetic interpretation of evolution. He professed that an ill-defined guiding force shaped life from lesser to greater forms, the effect of which could be seen by comparing “primitive” and “advanced” species, and of course, “primitive” and “advanced” expressions of humanity. While we cannot conclusively link Osborn’s pseudo-evolutionary ideas with his bigoted social agenda, it is certainly convenient for him that he saw people of “Nordic” descent as biologically superior.

*To clarify, none of the exhibits curated by Osborn remain on display and none of my comments here apply to the present day AMNH.

Critically, Osborn did not keep his ideas of natural hierarchy in the ivory tower. He explicitly intended that the exhibition halls of AMNH educate visitors not just about natural science but about the naturally graded order he believed to be characteristic of life on earth. Osborn thought that collections of biological specimens implicitly revealed an upward ascent of life, and that those on top had earned their place through innate superiority. Osborn pronounced that his exhibits would teach morality to new American immigrants, presumably by putting them in their place with the rather hideous racial hierarchy on display in the Hall of the Age of Man. As Donna Haraway puts it in her classic essay Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Osborn’s exhibits were a “gospel of wealth and privilege” that appropriated natural specimens to affirm the American elite’s place at the top of the pecking order.

Tyrannosaurus and others in AMNH Dinosaur Hall, 1927. Photo courtesy of AMNH Research Library.

Tyrannosaurus and others in AMNH Dinosaur Hall, 1927. Photo courtesy of AMNH Research Library.

Museums are understood to be sources of intellectual authority, and deservedly so. But exhibits have authorship, same as any other written work, and Osborn’s legacy demonstrates that the influence of authors and their worldviews can be a powerful force. For example, Osborn arranged the Hall of the Age of Man in what he saw as ascending order, from the ancient peoples of Africa, to North America, and finally Europe. Placed at the end of an exhibit series that started with Cambrian invertebrate fossils before passing through Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic fossil displays, the Age of Man gallery deliberately implied that European-descended humans were the culmination of the entire history of life on Earth.

Meanwhile, the exhibit on fossil horses curated by Osborn depicted small, multi-toed horses of the Eocene gradually becoming larger, losing toes and becoming better at being modern Equus. This orthegenetic representation runs counter to evolution via natural selection as originally proposed by Darwin, and as understood today. Indeed, other paleontologists, including O.C. Marsh, had established in the 19th century that horse evolution more closely resembled a tangled bush, with many overlapping morphological offshoots adapted to varying environmental circumstances. But Osborn had rejected Darwinian evolution in favor of his presumed hierarchy of life, and ensured that his inaccurate story was what was seen by millions of visitors.

So what does Osborn’s legacy mean to paleontologists and museum specialists today? Do we need to qualify every mention of his name with a denouncement of his worldview? Should we always write out “Tyrannosaurus rex Osborn, 1905″ as “Tyrannosaurus rex Osborn the racist jerk, 1905″? At minimum, Osborn’s exhibits are a sobering reminder to all us involved in science education that our field is not immune to bias. The  subjectivity of cultural and historical museum exhibits has been well-explored by scholars like Ames and Weil, but comparatively little reflection has been done on the authorship of exhibits on science and natural history. We rely on the “naturalness” of the objects we display to speak for itself, and to bear the burden of proof for the statements we make. The world around us is knowable, and science is the best tool to learn about it. But explaining what we have learned in any form (books, technical journals, museum exhibits) is an avenue for personal or cultural bias to slip in, and that is why it remains important to actively and regularly check our assumptions.

References

Ames, M.M. (2004). Museums in the Age of Deconstruction. In Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Brinkman, P.D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Colbert, E.H. (1968). Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc.

Haraway, D. (1984). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2005). Thoughts in Things: Modernity, History and North American Museums. Isis 96:586-601.

Osborn, H.F. (1921). The Hall of the Age of Man in the American Museum. Nature 107:236-240.

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Filed under AMNH, anthropology, history of science, mammals, museums, science communication

The NMNH fossil halls, circa 1963

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A revamp for the dinosaur displays in Hall 2. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Since the NMNH building opened in 1910 as the United States National Museum, the east wing has been home to fossil displays. Although there have been many small adjustments and additions to the exhibits over the years, we can separate the east wing’s layout into three main periods. From 1910 t0 1945, the exhibits were primarily under the stewardship of Charles Gilmore. Called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters”, this iteration was somewhat haphazard in its layout and generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design. Gilmore’s version of the east wing remained in place until 1963, when the space was redesigned as part of the Smithsonian-wide modernization project. In the updated halls, there was a directed effort to compartmentalize exhibits based on the subdivisions of the Museum’s research staff, with each area of the gallery becoming the responsibility of a different curator. A second renovation was carried out in several stages starting in 1980. This version, which was open until 2014, was part of the new museology wave that started in the late 1970s. As such, the exhibits form a more cohesive narrative of the history of life on earth, and much of the signage carries the voice of educators, rather than curators.

Of course, the field of paleontology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the early 1980s, and NMNH staff have made piecemeal updates to the galleries when possible, including restorations of deteriorating mounts, and additional signage that addresses the dinosaurian origin of birds and the importance of the fossil record for understanding climate change. A third renovation is currently underway and will be completed in 2019.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of the NMNH fossil halls as they stood in 1963, after the first major renovation. This iteration of the east wing was long gone before I was born, so this information is pieced together from historic photographs, archived exhibit scripts, and correspondence among the individuals involved in the modernization project (my thanks to the staff of the Smithsonian Institution Archives for their assistance in accessing these materials). Perhaps unsurprisingly, records of the dinosaur gallery are by far the most thorough. Information on the other halls is considerably harder to come by, so if any readers who saw the older exhibits in person remember any details, it would be fantastic if you could share them.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

As mentioned, the Smithsonian underwent a thorough modernization project in the middle of the 20th century. The modernization committee, chaired by Frank Taylor (the eventual director-general of Smithsonian museums), was established in 1948. Under the committee’s guidance, most of the institution’s exhibits were redesigned between 1953 and 1963. Keep in mind that at the time, the United States National Museum was the only Smithsonian museum – it would not be divided into the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) until 1964.

Completed in 1963, the USNM fossil exhibits were among the last to be modernized. Only a small number of specimens were added that had not already been on view in the previous version of the space – in fact, many specimens were removed. The changes primarily focused on the layout of the exhibit, turning what was a loosely organized set of displays into a series of themed galleries. The east wing included four halls in 1963, the layout of which can be seen in the map above. Each hall was the responsibility of a particular curator. Nicholas Hotton oversaw Paleozoic and Mesozoic reptiles in Hall 2. David Dunkle was in charge of fossil fish in Hall 3. Porter Kier oversaw fossil invertebrates and plants in Hall 4. Finally, Charles Gazin, head curator of the Paleontology Division, was responsible for Cenozoic mammals in Hall 5. Each curator had a central role in selecting specimens for display and writing accompanying label copy.

Invertebrates and Fossil Plants

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Echinoderm fossil display in Hall 4. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

It is likely that part of the reason the fossil halls were late on the modernization schedule was that the curators of the Paleontology Division were not terribly interested in exhibits or outreach. There were no staff members in the division exclusively devoted to exhibit work, so the task of designing the new exhibit space was an added burden for the research staff. As invertebrate paleontology curator G. Arthur Cooper put it in a 1950 memo, “all divisions of Geology at present are in an apathetic state toward exhibition.”

Nevertheless, work on the east wing halls had begun by 1957, if not a bit earlier. The first of the new exhibits to be worked on was Hall 4, featuring fossil invertebrates and plants. The long and narrow space was divided into four sections: the first introduced the study of fossils and how they are preserved, the second was devoted to paleobotany, the third contained terrestrial and marine invertebrates, and the forth provided an overview of geological time. Cooper described the new exhibit as a progressive story of the expansion of life, “its stem connecting all life which is now culminating in man.”

Carboniferous coal swamp fossils in Hall 4. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In addition to a variety of fossil specimens, Hall 4 featured a series of dioramas built by George Merchand, an exhibit specialist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Merchand built at least 4 dioramas between 1957 and 1958, each depicting representative invertebrate marine fauna from a different Paleozoic period. Most, if not all, of these dioramas were retained during the 1980s renovation and remained on view through 2014.

Fossil Fishes and Amphibians

Fossil fishes in Hall 3. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Fossil fish and a smattering of amphibians were located in Hall 3, on the far east side of the wing. This space would be converted into “Mammals in the Limelight” in the 1980s. David Dunkle, for whom everyone’s favorite placoderm Dunkleosteus is named, was in charge of this gallery during his tenure at USNM between 1946 and 1968. The specimens on view were arranged temporally, starting with placoderms on the south side and progressing into actinopterygians and basal amphibians on the north end. Among the more prominently displayed specimens were Xiphactinus, Seymouria, and “Buettneria” (=Koskinonodon). The hall also contained a replica of the recently discovered modern coelacanth, and small diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

Dinosaurs and Other Reptiles

Dinosaurs in Hall 2, as seen facing west. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Hall 2, featuring dinosaurs and other reptiles, was the main draw for most visitors. It was not, however, a major priority for the Smithsonian research staff. The museum had not had a dinosaur specialist since Gilmore passed away in 1945 and indeed, dinosaurs were not an especially popular area of study among mid-century paleontologists in general. As such, responsibility for Hall 2 fell to Nicholas Hotton, at the time a brand-new Associate Curator. Later in his career, Hotton would be best known as an opponent to the dinosaur endothermy movement, but in the early 1960s he was most interested in early amniotes and the origin of mammals.

Hotton’s display of South African synapsids and amphibians. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Perhaps due to the general disinterest among USNM curators, changes to the dinosaur exhibits were mostly organizational. Most of the free-standing dinosaur mounts built by Gilmore and his team were collected on a single central pedestal. Preferring not to tackle the massive undertaking of disassembling and remounting the 70-foot Diplodocus skeleton, the exhibit designers left the sauropod in place and clustered the smaller moutns around it. In the new arrangement, the Diplodocus was flanked by the two Camptosaurus and prone Camarasaurus on its right and by Triceratops and Brachyceratops on its left. The Stegosaurus stenops holotype, splayed on its side in a recreation of how it was first discovered, was placed behind the sauropods at the back of the platform.

Close up of Thescelosaurus on the south wall. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

 The north and south walls of Hall 2 were lined with additional specimens. On the south side, Gilmore’s relief mounts of Ceratosaurus and Edmontosaurus (called “Anatosaurus” in this exhibit) were joined by the gallery’s one new dinosaur, a relief mount of Gorgosaurus in a death pose. The north wall featured a long, narrow, glass-enclosed case illustrating the basics of dinosaur classification. In addition to saurischian and ornithischian pelves, the case featured skulls representing most of the major dinosaur groups. Amusingly, all but two of these skulls (Triceratops and Diplodocus) were labeled with names that are no longer considered valid. These skulls included “Antrodemus” (Allosaurus), “Trachodon” (Edmontosaurus) “Procheneosaurus” (probably Corythosaurus)  and “Monoclonius” (Centrosaurus).

In the southwest corner of Hall 2 (where FossiLab is today), visitors could see the Museum’s two free-standing Stegosaurus: the fossil mount constructed by Gilmore in 1913 and the charmingly ugly papier mache version, which had received a fresh coat of paint. Finally, the rear (east) wall of Hall 2 held Gilmore’s relief mounted Tylosaurus.

Mammals

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Brontotherium and Matternes’ Oligocene mural in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Fossil mammals were exhibited in Hall 5, a corridor-like space accessible from the main rotunda and via two doorways on the north side of Hall 2. After 1990, this space would house the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit. Charles Gazin, head curator of the Division of Paleontology, was in charge of this space on paper, but my impression is that his attention was elsewhere during its design and construction. Gazin was apparently approached by the modernization committee several times during the 1950s, but was reluctant to commit his time to a major renovation project. Gazin had been spending a great deal of time at a Pliocene dig site in Panama, and the collection of new fossils proved more interesting than designing displays. As Gazin tersely explained, “It is a little difficult to concentrate objectively on exhibition problems here in the interior of Panama.”

Basilosaurus and Cenozoic reptiles in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Nevertheless, Gazin’s interest in Cenozoic mammals ensured that his gallery was exceptionally thorough. Thanks to Gazin’s own collecting expeditions throughout the 1950s, the new fossil mammals galleries contained representatives of nearly all major mammal groups, from every epoch from the Paleocene through the Pliocene (the Pleistocene was deliberately excluded, as a separate ice age exhibit was also in the works). Classic mounts from the Gilmore era like Basilosaurus and Teleoceras were joined by dozens of less showy specimens like rodents, small perissodactyls, and early primates. The new exhibit also introduced the first wave of Jay Matternes’ much-beloved murals, illustrating the changing flora and fauna in North America over the course of the Cenozoic.

Unveiling and Reactions

The new east wing galleries officially opened on June 25, 1963. According to the press release, “the new exhibit features in colorful and dramatic settings more than 24 skeletons and skulls of the largest land animals the world has ever known.” The exhibits were officially unveiled with a late afternoon ceremony, in which Carol Hotton (Nicholas Hotton’s daughter) cut the ribbon and the lights to Hall 2 were suddenly turned on to dramatic effect.

Unfortunately, the new exhibits were not universally loved by the museum staff. The wing had been planned a set of compartmentalized exhibits, each corresponding to a subdivision of the Division of Paleontology, with a different curator taking responsibility for each hall. While seeming sensible on paper, this plan turned out to be a logistical nightmare, and a common cause for complaint among Division staff for the next decade. In addition, Gazin in particular voiced concerns as early as January 1964 that the design of the new halls was entirely inadequate for preventing accidental or deliberate damage to specimens by visitors. The mounts in Hall 2 were raised only about a foot off the ground, and were not protected by any sort of guard rail or barrier. As a result, within a few months of the exhibit’s unveiling, several ribs and vertebral processes had been broken off or stolen from CamarasaurusGorgosaurus, Ceratosaurus and others.

With the notable caveat that I never saw the 1963 exhibits in person, I would say that this is aesthetically my least favorite iteration of the east wing. The grandiose, institutional Greco-Roman architecture originally displayed in the Hall of Extinct Monsters was replaced with what can only be described as extremely 1960s design. Solid earth-tone colors, wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting gave the halls a much more austere character. While the efforts to categorize specimens into thematic zones was commendable for a museum of that era, the label copy (written by the curators) was still highly pedantic and verbose. As such, the 1963 fossil halls seem to have been very much of their time. While the designers were working to avoid the overt religiosity and grandeur of turn of the century museums, they had not yet reached the point of developing truly audience-centered educational experiences. The result was an exhibit that was humble, yet still largely inacessible. Perhaps for this reason, the 1963 fossil halls were the shortest-lived at NMNH to date, being replaced within 20 years of their debut.

This post was updated and edited on January 8, 2018.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, reptiles, science communication

Another JP4 Feathers Post

Okay, I’ll bite.

A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.

The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.

But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.

As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.

I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.

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Drama and natural history

While running errands this morning a thought came to me: a natural history exhibit in a museum is a lot like a stage performance*. When watching a play, the viewer knows she is seeing a performance, but it willing to suspend disbelief so long as the fantasy is well-created. To varying degrees, most modern natural history exhibits engage in the same theatrical relationship with their audiences. Exhibits re-create reality within the museum environment, and visitors accept the performance as truth.

*Actually, I thought “movie” first, but theater is a better analogy because the actors are real and present.

CMNH zebra diorama. Source: amyboemig on flickr.

A rather poignant picture of the CMNH zebra diorama. Source: amyboemig on flickr.

Habitat dioramas featuring taxidermied animals are the most obvious example. Dioramas like the lovely east African savannah scene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History pictured above are exactingly detailed microcosms modeled after actual environments. The backdrops are typically  based on photographs of real locations. The teams that collected the animal skins would also take samples of leaves and even molds of tree bark, in order to exhibit the ecosystem in toto. And of course, the mannequins on which the animal skins are mounted were sculpted by artists with a strong foundation in anatomical science. And yet, the diorama is clearly not real. Visitors know that they are not looking at an actual game reserve that has been somehow frozen in time. Many viewers might mistake the animals as being “stuffed” (they are in fact sculptures with tanned skins fitted onto them), but  they still recognize some element of artifice.  The animals clearly didn’t end up in the glass-enclosed box on their own accord. And yet, visitors accept the illusion, because they keep coming to museums to learn about the world around us.

The same holds true for most other displays. These dioramas at the New York State Museum are not literally historic Iroquois villages shrunk down to 1/20 scale. The Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops pictured below are not really fighting, nor did they die in a death struggle. Even the Apple Store-eque NMNH Hall of Mammals recreates natural behaviors against a sterile backdrop. Unless the museum is displaying completely decontextualized specimens lying prone on a shelf, there is some degree of theatricality in the exhibit.

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Source.

The theater analogy begins to go astray, however, when we consider that the performances in natural history exhibits are informed by reality. For the most part, exhibit designers do not place specimens in completely fictitious scenarios; the theatrical element serves to illustrate something real. Perhaps exhibits are more akin to a movie “based on a true story.” But like those movies, there is an undeniable selectivity in how museum workers tell their stories.  Why are the zebra in the CMNH diorama chilling amicably with wildebeest? That is certainly something that real zebra have been known to do, but zebra have also been known to drown lions, trample foals and chew on the cars of obnoxious tourists. For that matter, why does this diorama not include any sign of human pastoralists, who have lived in the same environment as these animals for thousands of years?

Exhibits have human authorship, just like any other document. The manner in which any specimen or object is displayed is inherently subjective, and there will always be emphasis and omissions, intentional or otherwise, that change the way the exhibit is interpreted. Before you misjudge me, dear reader, this is not an argument that there is no objective reality. I wouldn’t even say that it is impossible to understand and perceive objective reality. Scientists do it all the time. But when it comes time to communicate that information, we are creating something new, and choosing what we incorporate and how we express it. Getting back to my original point, we’re putting on a representational show. And that means that what we’re creating only works as long as our audience is willing to participate in the performance.

 

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A Visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences

I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, my first visit in at least 10 years, and of course made a point of visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in North America, established “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” Initially formed as a hub for research on the American frontier, the Academy has sponsored scientific expeditions across the world and has amassed a collection of 17 million specimens that is still actively used 200 years after its founding.

In 1868, the Academy museum made a landmark contribution to paleontology by hosting the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever constructed. The mount, the work of paleontologist Joseph Leidy and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, depicted Hadrosaurus foulki, the first dinosaur discovered in North America and at the time the most complete dinosaur ever found. With only two limbs, a section of the spinal column and some other odds and ends to work with, Hawkins invented many of the mounting techniques that are still in use today. For instance, Hawkins created mirrored duplicates of the left limb bones for use on the animal’s right side, and reconstructed best-guess stand-ins for the skull, scapulae and most of the vertebrae using extant animals as reference. By modern standards, the Leidy-Hawkins Hadrosaurus mount wasn’t especially accurate (the sculpted scapulae and vertebrae resemble those of a mammal, not a reptile; the skull, based on that of an iguana, turned out to be completely off the mark; the fully upright, kangaroo-like posture is now known to be anatomically implausible), but it nevertheless presented the first-ever opportunity to stand in the presence of a dinosaur. Extinct animals were already known to the public, and some had even been mounted, but the Hadrosaurus was so bizarre,  so utterly unlike anything alive today, that it really opened people’s eyes to the unexplored depths of the Earth’s primordial history.

Original 1868 Hadrosaurus mount.

Original 1868 Hadrosaurus mount.

The Hadrosaurus display caused public visitation to skyrocket, prompting the Academy to relocate in 1876 to a larger building in central Philadelphia, where it remains today. I haven’t been able to find any photographs or detailed information about it, but for much of the 20th century the Academy had a fossil exhibit with a Corythosaurus mount as its centerpiece. This was replaced in 1986 with an expanded “Discovering Dinosaurs” exhibit, which apparently was among the first to showcase the discoveries of the dinosaur renaissance. This exhibit has just about zero web presence, as well (seriously, any help tracking down details about it would be greatly appreciated). The current version of the Dinosaur Hall opened in 1998, and is what I will discuss below.

This cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus is the centerpiece of the Dinosaur gallery. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

What’s Cool

Although crammed into a fairly small space, the Academy’s two-level Dinosaur Hall is packed with mounts of North American fossil reptiles, including Tyrannosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Deinonychus, Tylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus and many more. Compared to the sterile and coldly scientific displays at larger museums like the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy’s exhibit designers clearly put an emphasis on accessibility, particularly for younger visitors. Signs are attractive, colorful and use simple language, but do not sacrifice scientific accuracy. Although “Do Not Touch” notices abound, guardrails are low and allow visitors to view the mounts up close. Even the fossil prep lab, a staple in paleontology exhibits, is not behind glass but is separated from visitors by a low wall, allowing guests to converse freely with the preparators if they so choose (This might not be so fun for the preparators; I’ve worked in a couple of these labs and I’ll be the first to admit that our conversations are not always for public ears).

The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is also filled with interactive activities. I question the educational value of a green-screen that places visitors into a scene with dinosaurs running around (the last thing we need is to encourage more people to think humans and dinosaurs coexisted), but many of the other interactives are quite inspired. In one corner, children are encouraged to climb inside a Tyrannosaurus skull cast to find evidence for its diet and lifestyle. Crouching between its jaws, kids find partially-erupted teeth, evidence that the predator broke and regrew teeth throughout its life. My favorite interactive, however, featured parallel rows of theropod and crocodile footprints on the floor. Visitors were directed to walk down each trackway, comparing how it felt different to move with an upright or sprawling gait. At the end, a sign explained that it’s harder, and less energy efficient, to move like a crocodile. I loved this activity because it was simple (just images on the floor, no technology required) and yet conveyed a clear explanation of biomechanics. Visitors use their own bodies to reach the conclusion, finding the answer in a tactile and experiential way that is more memorable than just being told that a sprawling posture is inefficient.

Overall, the Dinosaur Hall is a great overview of dinosaur science. It focuses on the biology of dinosaurs, emphasizing their similarity to animals we know today, and how scientists can draw conclusions about past life by studying the modern world. This content is communicated in a way that is clear and engaging for visitors of all ages, making this exhibit a good example of the old adage that all good science can be explained in simple terms. When I visited, there were a couple children using the open exhibits like a playground, but for the most part I think this highly accessible dinosaur exhibit is quite successful.

What’s Not So Cool

The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is 15 years old, and is in some places showing its age. Some of the exhibit content is not entirely up-to-date; for instance, a display on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs leaves the question completely open ended. I also saw at least two invalid names, “Majungatholus” and “Ultrasauros”, used on labels. Probably more obvious to most visitors is the general wear and tear visible in certain parts of the exhibit. Some labels, particularly those facing large windows, are badly faded. The Elasmosaurus mount was moved from the Dinosaur Hall proper to the entrance lobby at some point, but Elasmosaurus signage, now labeling an empty space, is still in place in the exhibit. I got the impression that the Academy, like much of Philadelphia, is hurting for funding.

Corythosaurus and Chasmosaurus mounts. Source: TravelMuse.

The story of Leidy’s Hadrosaurus appears in several places throughout the museum. Casts of the original fossil material are displayed over a silhouette of the dinosaur toward the back of the Dinosaur Hall. Elsewhere , there is a new full casted mount of Hadrosaurus (signs explain that it is filled in with Maiasaura material), and the original tibia is displayed as part of a rather cool 200th Anniversary special exhibit. At the time, I wished that these displays were consolidated in one place, since the Hadrosaurus story is an important chapter in the history of science and of museums that can be seen exclusively at the Academy. I later found out that in 2008, the Academy had a major temporary exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the original Hadrosaurus mount, which featured, among other things, a recreation of the victorian-era exhibit and the workshop of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (great videos and interviews about the exhibit here). I wish I had been able to see that, because it blends the scientific, cultural and historic value of fossil mounts in a way that only this museum can.

The sadly closed Hadrosaurus Anniversary exhibit. Note Hawkins’ original sculpted head on the red pillow. Source: The Art Blog.

The current centerpiece of the Dinosaur Hall is a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. It’s neat, but I imagine most visitors would be more enthused to see the real one just a couple hours down the road. Indeed, most of the dinosaurs on display at the Academy are casts from other institutions. I have no problem with displaying casts, but I can’t help but feel that this generalized dinosaur exhibit is underselling the Academy’s own fossil collections, not to mention its contributions to paleontology. Should the Academy renovate this space again, I’d love to see the institutions’ unique history play a more prominent role, as well as the work that Academy-affiliated researchers are doing today.

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Scientific uses for fossil mounts

I have a question for the paleontological community. I know this blog doesn’t get anywhere near the traffic to expect many answers, if any, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

How do fossil mounts factor into your research? What information can be gained from an assembled and articulated vertebrate skeleton that cannot be determined (or is more difficult to determine) from the study of individual bones? Mounts did have a role in research historically: for instance, Gilmore used the process of creating the Triceratops, Camptosaurus and Diplodocus mounts for the United States National Museum to correct anatomical errors and assumptions previously published by Marsh. But are we still learning from the process of physically assembling skeletons (digital models don’t count)?

I ask because my immediate assumption is that mounts do not benefit research. Fossil mounts clearly have (admittedly difficult to quantify) educational value. They are spectacular, awe-inspiring displays with a physical presence that no book, film or shoddy cable documentary could hope to achieve. For many, including myself, fossil mounts were a first encounter with science in general, inspiring me to ask questions about the natural world and seek ways to answer them. But if we focus entirely on the process of studying and learning from fossils, do mounts have any value?

There is no shortage of reasons why mounts utilizing original fossils are problematic for researchers. Mounted fossils, which are often all-important holotypes, are difficult for researchers to access, and certain parts of the skeleton, like the back of the skull or the vertebral bodies, cannot be reached at all. The mounting process, while better than it was a century ago,  is invasive, destructive and sometimes irreversible.  Mounted fossils in public spaces inevitably suffer damage from fluctuating temperature and humidity (such as pyrite disease), uneven weight distribution and vibration from passing crowds. Many historic mounts used plaster or shellac to seal bones together or to reconstruct broken pieces, which is effectively impossible to remove without damaging the fossils. In the case of the Peabody Museum Apatosaurus, modern researchers do not know how much of certain bones are real and how much was reconstructed.

There is a long, worthwhile discussion to be had on whether the needs of research or the needs of education are more important in this scenario (David Hone and Heinrich Mallison make a case for each side on their respective blogs). But before I get to that point, I’d like to sort out if the distinction is as clear cut as “mounts good for education, mounts bad for research.” Any comments or experience on the matter would be very much appreciated!

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Extinct Monsters: Murals and Dioramas

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Fossils are the hard evidence behind paleontology. They tell us not only that prehistoric organisms existed, but hold clues as to how they lived and behaved. However, it is only through  artwork that extinct animals and ecosystems can be brought back to life. Since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built the first life-sized dinosaur sculptures in 1842, skilled artists have played a critical role in visualizing the results of paleontological research and making that information available to a wider audience.

At the National Museum of Natural History, spectacular works of art have always appeared alongside displays of original fossils, firing up the viewer’s imagination and inviting them to visualize the world of prehistory. Although many of these pieces are now scientifically dated, they were on the cutting edge in their time. These artworks remain exquisite works of craftsmanship, invaluable for their decades of contribution to science education.

The Life-Sized Models

The charmingly ugly Stegosaurus is one of the oldest fixtures of the Smithsonian fossil exhibits. F.A.L. Richardson created this model for the the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair in 1904. Made from papier mâché with a foam skin, the Stegosaurus was based on small sculpture produced by Charles Gilmore. With its sagging belly, sprawling forelimbs, and head held well below the horizontal plane, this Stegosaurus is typical of reconstructions from the early to mid 20th century.

As legend had it, the paper used to fabricate the Stegosaurus was ground-up money from the National Treasury. The model had even earned the nickname “Mr. Moneybags” among some of the museum staff. Curator Emeritus Ray Rye got to the bottom of this in 1981. He contacted the Treasury to find out what was done with worn-out paper money at the turn of the century – apparently it was burned at a plant in Maryland. Nevertheless, at Rye’s request a group of historians from the Treasury took a sample of the Stegosaurus while the hall was closed for construction, and confirmed that it was made from regular paper.

This pudgy papier mache Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904.

This pudgy Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1910, the Stegosaurus was given a spot of honor right in the center of the room. In 1913, a real Stegosaurus skeleton was placed alongside it. Both dinosaurs would remain in place until the exhibit was renovated in 1963. In the reconfigured and renamed Hall of Fossil Reptiles, the model Stegosaurus was relocated to a corner display.  Most recently, the 1981 renovation saw the Stegosaurus model moved to the south side of the gallery, protected by a low plexiglass barrier. This time, it was given a cycad replica for company, and a mural of lush Jurassic jungle behind it. The Stegosaurus remained in this position until the fossil halls closed in 2014.

quetzalcoatlusprogress

The NMNH exhibits team with their nearly-finished Quetzalcoatlus. Image from Thomson 1985.

quetzal2014

The Quetzalcoatlus survived a 2010 earthquake, although the plaster molding above it was damaged. Photo by the author.

The 1981 renovation also saw the introduction of a life-sized model of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus. Having been discovered in 1971, the largest flying animal that ever lived was big news at that time. In-house modelmakers spent two years on the project, first sculpting the animal in clay, then casting it in lightweight fiberglass with a steel armature. Paleontologist Nicholas Hotton served as the scientific consultant. Although he was dubious that pterosaurs had any sort of soft body covering, he okayed the use of deer fur to give the model believable texture. However, Hotton nixed the idea of placing a dangling fish in the mouth of the Quetzalcoatlus. Contemporary wisdom was that even giant pterosaurs were extremely light, weighing as little as 75 pounds, so even a 5-pound fish was thought to be enough to disrupt a Quetzalcoatlus in flight.

The Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus both now reside at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.

The Murals

The first dedicated prehistoric mammal exhibit at NMNH opened in the summer of 1961. Alongside the array of Cenozoic fossil mounts, the exhibit featured four brand new murals created by paleoartist Jay Matternes (he painted two more for the Ice Age hall several years later). Still active today, Matternes is a prolific artist of both modern and prehistoric wildlife. In addition to the NMNH murals, Matternes has contributed to exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine.

c.11

Matternes’ Oligocene mural as first exhibited in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Oligocene and early Miocene murals, as seen in the 1985-2014 iteration of the exhibit, Mammals in the Limelight. Photo by the author.

Each of the murals Matternes contributed to the exhibit depicts North America during an epoch of the Cenozoic, and is displayed behind corresponding fossil mounts. Most of the animals on display coincide with life reconstructions in the murals, so visitors can match the skeletons to images of how they may have looked in life. Matternes’ hyper-detailed style is particularly striking. The environments look nearly photo-real, and not too far removed from the world today. Likewise, the artist’s knowledge of anatomy plainly shows in the utterly lifelike appearances of the animals. I particularly like Matternes’ use of familiar color patterns on the relatives of modern taxa. The Pliocene and Pleistocene murals will be returning in 2019.

Cenozoic

The Cenozoic section of Kish’s 130-foot magnum opus. Source

The “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit debuted in 1990 with a monumental 130-foot mural by Eleanor Kish. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural spans 541 years of deep time. The project took Kish two years to complete and is, simply put, a masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with its strong leftward momentum.

The Dioramas

The dinosaur dioramas were one of my favorite parts of the old NMNH fossil halls. Norman Neal Deaton created three dioramas, representing North America during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The Mesozoic dioramas were commissioned for the 1963 exhibit renovation, and were on display until 2014. Each 1″:1′ scale diorama is set into a recessed space in the wall and is protected by glass.  The scenes are populated by a menagerie of outdated but gorgeously detailed dinosaurs and contemporary reptiles, set among dense forests of ferns and craggy rock formations. The complexity of the dioramas allows viewers to get lost in them as their eye wanders from one static encounter to the next. I’ve been admiring these scenes since literally before I could talk and I still notice minute details I hadn’t seen before.

The diorama project began in 1963 and took four years to complete. The scenes were initially blocked out by Jay Matternes and Nicholas Hotton, the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the time. Matternes and Hotton worked together on anatomical drawings for each of the animals to be reconstructed, and planned the basic layout of the dioramas. Deaton created the final dioramas at his studio in Newton, Iowa. Deaton had been previously employed at the Smithsonian as an exhibits specialist, but had left to found his own studio in the late 1950s, where he continued to work on projects for the Smithsonian as a contractor. In addition to the dinosaur dioramas, Deaton led the creation of the iconic Fénykövi elephant that stands in the NMNH rotunda today, and has created sculptures and dioramas for dozens of other museums. Deaton is still active today, and much of his 2-D and 3-D work can be seen at his website.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton sculpted each of the animals in clay based on the drawings provided by Matternes and Hotton. Nearly every model went through a few incremental adjustments based on notes from Hotton, changing things like the bulk of the muscles or how visible the scapula or pelvis would be under the skin. The soft anatomy was based on modern reptiles, particularly crocodiles, although Deaton found that some of the animals had no obvious analogs. Once the clay models were approved, they were casted in rubber, then painted. Deaton also created the miniature worlds inhabited by the animals, including foliage, muddy riverbanks, and sheer cliffs. The backdrops, however, were painted by Matternes.

The completed dioramas represented the most up-to-date knowledge of the Mesozoic world at that time. Of course, our understanding of dinosaurs has been overhauled significantly since then. Compared to the active, fleet-footed, and often feathered dinosaurs we know today, the inhabitants of the NMNH dioramas at first look a bit ponderous and inert. Inaccuracies are easy to point out: the Ankylosaurus has a weird clubless armadillo tail, the torso of the Diplodocus is much too long, the Cretaceous diorama mixes Hell Creek and Belly River dinosaurs that were separated by at least 20 million years, and there are sprawly tail-draggers aplenty.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Source: flickr.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Photo by the author.

Triassic diorama

Triassic diorama by Norman Deaton. Source

Still, these issues are easy to overlook when one appreciates just how engaging these scenes are. Little details like footprints behind each animal and mud splattered on their feet fill the motionless dioramas with life and the possibility of more adventures in the imagination of the viewer. And several of the models are surprisingly energetic for 60’s dinosaurs. The Ceratosaurus face-biting the Camptosaurus (above) is full of energy, and the Elphrosaurus  is running full-tilt with its tail in the air (and even has propatagia for some reason).

Many of the works of art in the NMNH fossil halls are no longer appropriate as literal representations of prehistoric animals. But that does not mean they are irrelevant relics of mid-century science. Each model and painting is a stunning example of artistry, and more to the point, every inaccuracy is an opportunity to start up a conversation about what we know about prehistory and how we know it. These pieces are time capsules in the history of science, representing different eras of understanding and the researchers that took part in them. I, for one, would hate to see them forgotten.

A big thank you  to Norman Deaton and Raymond Rye for their assistance with this article.

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Filed under dinosaurs, Extinct Monsters, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles, science communication

Beating the orthogenetic horse

According to the rad personalized 2012 review provided by WordPress, the top search engine terms leading people here over the last year were dinosours, horse evolutionary tree, horse evolution tree, horse phylogenetic tree and Daspletosaurus. It’s not too difficult to pick out the pattern there – horse evolution seems to be a major draw, even though I only mentioned it in a single post back in June. I aim to please, so I suppose a more detailed discussion of horse phylogeny is in order. First off, let me recommend Brian Switek’s thorough and thoughtful take on the subject. If you stick around here, you’re going to get more of a tirade.

Most depictions of horse evolution available online, including the one I posted a few months ago that is luring people to this site, are terrible. The typical linear presentation of horses progressively increasing in size from Eohippus to modern Equus, losing toes along the way, misrepresents not only what we know about horses as a group, but how evolution works in general.

This didn’t happen.

Evolution is, of course, neither linear nor progressive: it is primarily the result of populations adapting to thrive in their particular environments. As environments change over time species may evolve or go extinct, but there is no predetermined goal that lineages are reaching for. Modern Equus is not the most “highly evolved” horse – this is, in fact, a misleading if not meaningless concept, because a species’ success is dependent on its ability to thrive in that specific time and place. A modern horse is well adapted for grazing and running fast on open plains, but relocate one to the Eocene cloud forests where Eohippus thrived and it would do very badly.

Furthermore, it has been known for over a century that horses as a group did not consistently grow larger over time or otherwise become more Equus-like. Instead, horses diversified into a variety of forms over the group’s 55 million year existence, each group adapting to different environmental niches across the northern hemisphere. Large and small, forest-dwelling browsers and plains-dwelling grazers, these and all manner of other horses overlapped in time and space over the course of the Cenozoic. As J.W. Gidley of the American Museum of Natural History had worked out as early as 1907, horse evolution was not a linear progression but a tangled bush (just like the evolution of most other clades).

A modern horse phylogeny. From Macfadden 2005, via Laelaps.

A modern horse phylogeny. From MacFadden 2005, via Laelaps.

So where did the orthogenetic depiction of horse evolution come from, and why is it still with us today? The answer highlights the importance of museum exhibits and specimen provenance in the public’s understanding of paleontology, with a dose of jealous personalities for good measure.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he articulated the process of evolution by natural selection virtually exactly as we understand it today. Darwin’s book incited a whirlwind of debate in both scientific and public circles because of its implication that the diversity of life could be attributed to natural forces, rather than an unknowable divine power. Within a decade, however, the vast majority of the scientific community was convinced by the soundness of Darwin’s theory, and to this day billions of individual observations of the natural world tell us that evolution is assuredly true.

One of the many lines of evidence covered in On the Origin of Species is the fossil record, with which we can trace the evolution and extinction of organisms over time, including the ancestors of modern life. However, Chapter 9 of Darwin’s book, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record” (full text pdf) reads like like a lengthy apology for the incomplete nature of fossil preservation. Today, the use of organized, cladistic methodologies allow paleontologists to piece together detailed phylogenies from fossils, but in Darwin’s day, the evidence was patchier, and he opted to de-emphasise the fossil record’s usefulness to avoid such criticism. As Darwin put it, “we have no right to expect to find in our geological formations an infinite number of of those fine transitional forms.” Unfortunately for paleontology specialists, this led other biologists to believe that fossils could not make any independent contribution to the understanding of evolution. Largely shut out of the biggest biological discovery of all time, paleontologists became stewards of a “second-class discipline” (Sepkoski 2012, 9).

Paleontologists in the late 19th century.

Since biologists interested in evolution considered paleontology mostly irrelevant, late 19th-century paleontologists were left with three options. They could support evolution as best they could and accept that other biologists might not take notice, they could ignore theoretical discussion entirely and focus on purely descriptive studies of morphology, or they could be spiteful and seek alternatives to Darwinian evolution. The second course of action was the most popular well into the 20th century. E.D. Cope seems to be  an example of the third approach, favoring an odd sort of neo-Lamarckism in his book The Origin of the Fittest. Such conceptions of directional change, such as Cope’s Law, are counter to evolution as proposed by Darwin and as understood today. However, a handful of paleontologists stuck with it and endeavored to provide meaningful fossil evidence for evolutionary theory.

Throughout the 1860’s, paleontologist O.C. Marsh amassed an impressive array of fossil horses from Wyoming and elsewhere in the American west. Horse fossils had been found in Europe much earlier, but Marsh’s horse collection was much more complete, and was probably the best fossil record compiled for any vertebrate group at the time. In 1870, the influential British naturalist Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley visited Marsh in New Haven and was suitably impressed: Marsh’s fossils ranged from the Eocene up until the Pleistocene, providing a clear picture of how the horse family had evolved over time. While Darwin had been hesitant to make too big a deal about the fossil record as evidence for evolution, the horse fossils were blatant examples of animals changing over time.

During the same visit, Huxley gave a lecture in New York in which he cited the horse fossils as a fantastic new line of evidence in support of evolution. Unfortunately, Huxley’s lecture (while admittedly aimed at a general audience) tread into some severely teleologic territory. As quoted in The Gilded Dinosaur (Jaffe 2000, 162), Huxley told his audience that “the horse is in many ways a most remarkable animal in as much as it presents us with an example of one the most perfect pieces of machinery in the animal kingdom.” He went on to explain how horse ancestors, from the little four-toed Hyracotherium in the Eocene to increasingly large horses like Merychippus and Pliohippus, gradually perfected the design of the modern horse. According to Huxley, over the course of the Cenozoic horses got bigger, faster, leggier, and generally better at being horses as we know them today. Problematically, this essentialist narrative rather misses the point of evolution as described by Darwin. 

Marsh, like Huxley, was an early advocate of evolution,  but his narrative of horse evolution was more on the mark. Marsh concluded that the smaller early horses with brachydont teeth were well suited for life in the rainforests that covered the western United States 50 million years ago. Horses like we know them today emerged as a direct result of the Earth getting cooler and drier over the course of the Cenozoic, and by the end of the Pleistocene the lineages of forest horses were completely extinct. Equus is with us today not because it is the best horse for any circumstance, but because it was most successful during the ice ages that shaped the modern flora and fauna (it also helped that humans figured out that horses are useful and ensured their survival through domestication).

Unfortunately, Marsh was never enthusiastic about public education, and so the progressive view of horse evolution was the one that made it into the public sphere. The history of horses remained a popular example of evidence for evolution, trotted out over the years by prominent biologists like George Simpson and Stephen Gould. Indeed, it was the first good evolutionary story known from fossils, although by no means the last or the best. In the earliest 1900s, Henry Osborn had a major role in solidifying the orthogenetic horse evolution story in the public eye when he curated the exhibit on the subject at the American Museum of Natural History. It is on the basic premise of this exhibit that the textbook, museum, and web descriptions of linear horse evolution that persist to this day are based.

Photo by the author.

The fossil horses of AMNH. Photo by the author.

After the modern biological synthesis, paleontologists realigned with the rest of biology, and the odd pseudo-evolutionary ideas that persisted in paleontological circles began to fall by the wayside. However, orthogenetic ideas remain common in natural history exhibits on horse evolution to this day (in about 62% of them, according to MacFadden et al. 2012). The reason these exhibits have stuck around isn’t entirely clear. MacFadden and colleagues suggest suggest a lack of inertia or funding for the renovation of exhibits is a factor, but they also point out that even some newer exhibits fall back on linear horse evolution.

The biggest problem is that orthogenetic evolution makes more intuitive sense to non-specialists. We often use the word “evolution” to imply improvement, so it would follow that horses should get bigger and better over time. This is an important misconception to overcome, because, as if we need a reminder, only 15% of Americans believe humans evolved from other animals via strictly natural processes, and an even smaller number can correctly articulate how evolution works. Evolution is the fundamental principle underlying everything we see in the natural world, and it is imperative that a correct understanding of how it works is the basis of any biology education. With the proper background, the real story of horse evolution is a great example of how changing climates effect organisms and ecosystems over time. This is helpful for interpreting the ever-important subject of climate change, but it won’t click until the linear horse evolution story is trampled out for good.

References

Jaffe, M. 2000. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

MacFadden, B.J., Oviedo, L.H., Seymour, G.M. and Ellis, S. 2012. “Fossil Horses, Orthogenesis and Communicating Evolution in Museums.” Evolution, Education and Outreach 5:29-37.

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

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Filed under AMNH, history of science, mammals, museums, science communication, systematics

Fossil mounts: specimens, showpieces, art and more

A few days ago, Andy Farke posed the following question on twitter:

If fossils are part of our planet’s heritage, and belong to all of us, are museum restrictions on photos ethical?

Farke clarified that he was referring specifically to fossils held in collections, especially those collected on federal land and/or with public funding. Following the same sound logic that makes open access scientific publication a necessity, any scientific work using public resources should be accessible to everyone, including objects in collections.* The question had arisen because some museums bar researchers utilizing collections from using photographs in their published articles (or charge a fee for the privilege). This is a valid concern, but I don’t have enough experience with scientific publishing to explore it properly. Instead, I’d like to hijack the question in order to discuss the murky identity of fossil mounts.

*I’m going to disregard for-profit museums for the time being, suffice it to say such collections exist and can be useful for research as well.

A sampling of fossil collections and curators at the National Museum of Natural History. Source: http://paleobiology.si.edu.

As was already pointed out in response to Farke’s initial question, the public’s right to access photographs of some fossil collections should not necessarily extend to museum exhibits. Any modern museum exhibit worth its salt is far more than specimens on shelves. Exhibits are immersive experiences that use specimens to illustrate a story. A great deal of creative work goes into designing and fabricating an exhibit, and it is not unreasonable for museums to claim ownership of any reproductions, including photographs, if they so choose.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mounts in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Fossil mounts, however, are a different beast. These structures are difficult to categorize because they are intended both to educate and to entertain. They may incorporate real fossils, or casts taken directly from them, but I would argue that fossil mounts are primarily constructed pieces. With the exception of some more recently extinct mammal taxa, most mounts are composites of casts, sculpted elements and original fossils collected in different places at different times. Steel armatures are custom-made not only to support the specimens but to appropriately fill the exhibit space. Mounts like the striking Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter in the Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH (above) are designed to make an aesthetic impression as well as to inform. Overall, mounts require a substantial investment of time, labor, money and artistic skill to create and maintain. Experienced researchers typically guide the construction process and the contributions of knowledgeable scientists cannot be overstated, but fossil specimens certainly do not come out of the ground mount-ready. There is a great deal more to making a good mount than stringing vertebrae together in the right order.

A direct comparison can be made between fossil mounts and the taxidermied animals that are also a staple at natural history museums. A taxidermy mount also incorporates a scientific specimen, the animal’s skin, which if collected using public resources should be accessible to all. Like fossil mounts, however, taxidermy pieces require extensive artistic and technical skill to create, from the steel or wood armature to the clay model that build’s out the animal’s musculature to the eyes and mouth, which are typically sculpted from scratch. It is worth quoting Rachel Poliquin’s excellent The Breathless Zoo at length:

As dead and mounted animals, [taxidermy mounts] are thoroughly cultural objects; yet as pieces of nature, [they] are thoroughly beyond culture. Animal or object? Animal and object? This is the irresolvable tension that defines all taxidermy. (Poliquin 2012, 5-6)

I firmly believe that the results of scientific inquiry belong in the public domain, and it follows that restrictions on the photographic reproduction of collections specimens are inappropriate. Nevertheless, fossil mounts and taxidermied animals are the products of artisans as much as of researchers, and the right to credit and control over this work ought to be respected. This middle ground is awkward to negotiate, and as Poliquin puts it, a means to please all parties might be “irresolvable.”

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH's taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH’s taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

To make a non-committal final point, I’d like to mention that it is tempting to be too uptight about copyright, particularly in a museum setting. This past October, I had the pleasure to give a presentation with Alexis Fekete at the Kansas Museum Association’s annual conference. The most interesting part of our session (which was about how web 2.0 tools can help museums) was when audience members, mostly representing small history museums, voiced concerns over making their photography collections available online. There was apprehension about making it too easy for people to copy and sell pictures without permission, which I assume is the primary reasoning behind other museums’ policies prohibiting the publication of fossil images. I’m skeptical, however, that this is the most pressing concern. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have no problem with getting information disseminated to genuinely interested people. Creating awareness and enthusiasm for content is part of the general mission of museums, and I’d hate to see overzealous copyright barriers get in the way of that.

References

Poliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, science communication