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Visitor well-being and NHM’s dinosaur exhibit

Dinosaurs at the London Natural History Museum, ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The photo to the left shows the dinosaur exhibition at the London Natural History Museum (NHM) around 1970. It was, by all appearances, a classic dinosaur exhibit, with several large skeletons (Diplodocus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and Iguanodon, just out of view) arranged in a fairly open gallery. It was replaced in the mid-1990s by a very different dinosaur exhibit, which remains on display today with some minor modifications. The 1990s exhibit (I hesitate to call it “new” since it is nearly 30 years old) differs from the midcentury version in nearly every way. It’s vibrant, colorful, and sometimes cheesy, with cartoons and animatronic dinosaurs intermixed with the traditional skeletons and fossil specimens.

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition between these two exhibits not only because they are quite different, but because they are different in a way that defies conventional wisdom about how museums have changed in the last half-century.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that I’ve never been to NHM (or to the UK, for that matter). My knowledge of these exhibits comes from photos and anecdotes, as well as this excellent walkthrough video (dinosaur hall starts at 52:25). These are no substitute for exploring an exhibit in person, so my critiques here may be completely unwarranted—please comment if so! In fact, my criticism is about a particular era of exhibit development, not any particular group of people. I’ll add that NHM’s newer paleontology efforts, including the traveling Dippy exhibit, are very impressive.

A representative view of the NHM dinosaur gallery today.

One often hears that natural history museums of the past were stodgy, but reliably educational and authentic. Traditional museum exhibits stuck close to their cabinet of curiosity roots, showcasing the breadth of their collections without excessive pomp. But sometime in the late 20th century, the story goes, museums became overly focused on “edutainment.” Collections-based exhibits were sidelined in favor of theme park-inspired, attention-grabbing gimmicks. The NHM dinosaur exhibit would easily fit into this narrative: the grand hall of skeletons wasn’t flashy enough for modern audiences, so it was replaced by an exhibit full of cheeky pop culture references and roaring animatronics.

I don’t much like this narrative for several reasons, not least of all because attention-grabbing gimmicks have been a part of museums’ DNA since their inception. In the case of the NHM dinosaur exhibits, I suspect the conventional narrative is completely backward: the creators of the 1990s exhibit had educational goals front-of-mind, but the midcentury exhibit was probably more appealing to the museum’s audience.

The animatronic Tyrannosaurus, widely regarded the exhibit’s highlight. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad, CC SA.

Judging by online reviews and the comments I received when I previewed the photos in this post on Twitter, a plurality of actual, flesh-and-blood visitors find the current NHM dinosaur exhibit disappointing. It’s dark and cramped—so much so that the single path through the exhibit essentially becomes a queue on crowded days. The real and replicated specimens on display are underwhelming compared to peer institutions. And the dinosaur skeletons—all casts of medium-sized taxa—are mounted on overhead scaffolding and are hard to see (there used to be a walkway for viewing these at eye level, but it’s been closed for years).

What I find striking looking at photos and videos is how the exhibit’s design doesn’t emphasize the fossils or even the replications, but the graphic panels containing text and images. There are a LOT of panels in this exhibit, and they are the best-lit, most colorful, and most eye-catching part of the experience. I don’t know what the exhibit team was thinking 30 years ago, but I suspect that the way this exhibit turned out is the inevitable result of using learning goals as a primary measure of success.

Brightly-colored panels overshadow the fossils. Photo by Paul Hammond.

Museum leaders continuously struggle for funding and support, and have tried all sorts of metrics to quantify success and prove their institutions’ worth. Attendance, donations, and community reach all have their uses, but don’t capture the qualitative value of a place where people go to learn. Measuring learning is tricky (see standardized tests), but many museums have tried. Typically, this is done by developing an exhibit project around a set of defined learning goals—visitors should leave the exhibit understanding A, B, and C—and using exit surveys to test whether visitors learned what they were supposed to.

The problem with using learning goals to measure success is twofold. For one thing, you may well end up with a product like the NHM dinosaur exhibit. If visitors gaining and retaining specific concepts is your primary concern, it makes sense to focus on presenting ideas via words and graphics. Words are a more direct way to relay information than specimens, so the fossils end up in the dark or even out of visitors’ primary line of sight. And to make absolutely sure visitors are getting the intended message, they’re put on a narrow path that controls what they see and in what order. Unfortunately, reading text and viewing images is something accomplished far more easily (and comfortably) at home than in an exhibit.

The second problem is that learning goals don’t align well with the reasons visitors actually go to museums. James Burns directed me to longtime museum commentator John Falk’s newest book, The Value of Museums, which masterfully articulates this problem. “Virtually all efforts,” Falk argues, “have begun from an ‘insider’ definition of the importance and value of museums and the experiences they create.” From the inside, it makes sense that our institutions are repositories of information, and the purpose of exhibits and other outreach efforts is to share that information with the world. Learning goals follow as a sensible way to measure success. But visitors, by and large, are after something else, which Falk calls “well-being.” They seek out museums as places to activate wonder and excitement, to facilitate understanding about their world, and to provide opportunities to gather and share experiences with friends and family. Learning new information contributes to the well-being provided by museums, but it’s part of a larger set of experiences.

This half-mount Baryonyx cast was a new creation for the 1990s exhibit. Photo by Ripton Scott, CC SA.

With visitor well-being in mind, the choices made in creating the NHM dinosaur exhibit seem misguided. The emphasis is on reading panels, which is generally a solitary activity. Rather than encouraging groups to gather around displays that excite them, the layout necessitates a single-file trudge. With the exception of the animatronic T. rex, few of the objects call attention to themselves (and the coolest and most unique elements, like the Baryonyx and Scolosaurus, are in cramped, dark spaces).

Take a moment to scroll back up to the photo of the dinosaur hall in 1970. There is undoubtably less information in that exhibit, and learning outcomes may well be all over the place. But those four giant skeletons in that open, sun-lit room likely provided a much more memorable experience for the generation of visitors that saw them. And I might go as far as to say that the old exhibit was surely more successful, in the long run, at generating enthusiasm and lasting interest in life on Earth.


Falk, J. 2021. The Value of Museums: Enhancing Social Well-Being. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N., and Smith, N. 1996. Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39: 4: 262-279.

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing US Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press.


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Cross-post: Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus

Daspletosaurus in Evolving Planet at the Field Museum of Natural History.

I’ve written an article for the Field Museum website about Gorgeous George, the Daspletosaurus that’s been on display since 1956. Take a look if you’d like to learn more about this historic mounted skeleton!


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Ten years

I started this blog in December 2010, and if any occasion called for a bit of reflection on why I started writing here and how it turned out, it would be this. Unfortunately, this year has been so overwhelming on so many fronts that I don’t have a long yarn in me, so I’ll be brief.

If you go back to my earliest posts—and I strongly discourage you from doing so—you’ll see that I didn’t start with much of a plan. I was inspired by the science communication work of folks like Riley Black, Lisa Buckley, Darren Naish, and Mike Taylor, and wanted to give it a try. However, it wasn’t long before I started poking at one subject in particular: the history of paleontology exhibits in museums. 

I had been reading reflexive discussions about how art and ethnographic objects were displayed in museums, and saw parallels with the sorts of exhibits I was more familiar with—dinosaurs, mostly. But with the notable exceptions of Paul Brinkman and Rachel Poliquin, few authors were exploring the subject (happily there are several new books on the cultural history of natural history exhibits, including works by Ilja Nieuwland, Lukas Rieppel, and Karen Rader and Victoria Cain). Meanwhile, I found photos like the one below intriguing on a personal level. I recognized the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur skeletons, but the arrangement and context were totally unfamiliar. We think of these specimens as unchanging data points in our understanding of past life, but in fact they have transformed repeatedly—they’ve been moved, reposed, and reinterpreted based on changing attitudes in scientific discourse, and sometimes, in response to political and cultural shifts in the world at large. These skeletons have been seen by tens of millions of people, but depending on which decade they visited in, the experience may have been entirely different. 

The National Museum of Natural History’s fossil gallery, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

I soon discovered that information about how these exhibits had changed over time was not easy to come by. The stories were hidden away in out-of-print books, old scholarly articles, physical archives, and people’s memories. As I began researching the changing states of American fossil exhibits, it seemed worthwhile to use the platform I had created—this blog—to document the basics. And here we are, ten years later. I am enormously grateful to the archivists, scientists, historians, artists, and others who have shared their expertise and helped me along the way. It is my hope that the 50,000 or so people who stumble upon this site each year find it useful, informative, and (dare I say) eye-opening. 

One of the biggest changes from where I was ten years ago is that I’m now on the inside, as it were. Now that I’m creating exhibits, I think my perspective has evolved a bit. In earlier posts, I was quick to criticize exhibits that glossed over certain details, or seemed to cater to the least-interested of visitors. These days, I’m more intrigued by the unique experiences that exhibits can create, and I’m convinced that it’s more important for exhibits to create enthusiasm than knowledge. I may even have to take another look at fossil sandboxes one day.

Some nerd with a really big toy—the life-sized model we created for SUE: The T. rex Experience. Photo by Katie Arnold.

Extinct Monsters isn’t going anywhere. I realize that personal blogs have been passé for ages, but I like the format and am sticking with it. There are plenty more stories to explore, so here’s to the next ten years.

To mark the occasion, here are ten articles that—typos aside—I’m still mostly pleased with.

Painting the Ancient Seas

Displaying the Tyrant King

The Epistemological Challenge of Model Whales

See the Elephant

The Great Mammoth of Lincoln

A 21st Century Hall of Mammals

The Carnegie Quarry Diaspora

The Diplodocus Seen ‘Round the World

Installation Art in the Service of Science

Bully for Camarasaurus


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Black Lives Matter

Over the last several years, we’ve been bombarded with one example after another of Black Americans killed by out-of-control police propped up by seemingly boundless corruption. I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes been tempted to think that the problem is not about me, and that I can’t do anything about it. But ignoring the problem is a privilege that many people do not have. Black Americans and other BIPOC have to live with the reality of state-sponsored racism and violence every day. As a white American, it is wrong to say that I have no role in this moment. Many of the privileges I enjoy come at the expense of others, and the least (and I do mean least) I can do is use the platform I have to acknowledge it.

It’s impossible to be apolitical. Institutional racism runs too wide and too deep (take a look at the lack of diversity in geosciences, for example). Even the subjects of this blog—museums and dinosaurs—are never more than a few degrees of separation away from hideous examples of racism and colonialism.

Please do what you can. Donate to organizations that are working to bring about change. If people around you are wrong or misinformed, have the courage to tell them so.

Black lives matter.

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Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

A grand view upon entering the new CMC dinosaur hall.

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is an incredible building. This colossal art deco structure is a sight to behold inside and out, and the muraled semi-dome in its central rotunda is among the largest of its kind in the world. Built in 1933 as a train station (and functioning as one today, after a mid-century hiatus), Union Terminal is also home to the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), which relocated here from a downtown location in the early 1990s.

I visited CMC once before in 2013, to see the traveling Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit. I also saw the permanent natural history exhibits that were in place at the time, which included some very elaborate walk-through reconstructions of a Pleistocene forest and a modern cave. These exhibits were constructed in the 90s, and had a lot of the hallmarks of museum design in that era. For example, the ice age galleries were framed around visitors “examining evidence like scientists,” which in practice involved binary question-and-answer stations and interactives where the action performed didn’t really connect with the concept meant to be communicated. Nevertheless, the actual fossil collection on display—mostly from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky—was impressive, as were the ambitious, large-scale dioramas.

The 1990s-era ice age gallery.

This huge diorama featured life-sized wolves, a ground sloth, and a mastodon mired in mud.

Since then, Union Terminal and CMC have undergone a sweeping transformation. In 2014, the National Trust named the building—which had never been completely renovated in its 80 year history—one of the country’s most endangered historic places. Happily, the county took action, and raised funds to restore and modernize Union Terminal. In the process, most of the existing museum galleries were completely demolished, and the spaces they occupied were restored to match the building’s original architecture.

This strikes me as a bold move. Typically, legacy museums will gradually update or replace old exhibits as funding allows. In contrast, the CMC renovation started with a total teardown, and new exhibits are now being added in phases. As of this writing, the natural history and science side of the building includes a brand-new dinosaur gallery (discussed here), the aforementioned walk-through cave, a partial exhibit on the moon landing, and an assortment of temporary-looking exhibits. A new ice age gallery, the rest of the space exhibit, and immersive exhibits about Cincinnati history are slated to open later this year, and it appears fundraising is underway for future projects, including a Paleozoic fossil hall.

The hall’s only ornithischian Othnielosaurus follows in the footsteps of Galaemopus and Diplodocus.

To cut to the chase, the dinosaur hall is excellent. Developed by senior project manager Sarah Lima and curator Glenn Storrs, this is effectively a brand-new exhibit, since the old dinosaur gallery was quite limited. When the original CMC exhibits were built, the strengths of the vertebrate paleontology collections were primarily in Quaternary mammals and Paleozoic invertebrates. Over the last 20 years, however, the museum has been focused on the Jurassic. In particular, regular field work at the Mother’s Day Quarry in Montana has yielded a trove of Jurassic fossils, including some very unique sauropod specimens. The gallery includes an 80% complete Galaemopus, a composite juvenile Diplodocus, sauropod skin impressions, and a one-of-a-kind juvenile Diplodocus skull. In spite of the unspoken adage, the Morrison fauna is not resolved, and new secrets of this ecosystem are still being recovered.

Torvosaurus towers over a composite Allosaurus assembled from Cleveland-Lloyd fossils.

Other key specimens in the new exhibit were purchased from commercial fossil collectors. Jason Cooper, a Cincinnati native, discovered the Torvosaurus, which is the only real specimen of its kind on display anywhere. Along with his father Dan and brother Ben, Cooper excavated the 50% complete skeleton from a private Colorado ranch and prepared and mounted it for display. The museum purchased the Daspletosaurus from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Center. Anthony Maltese and colleagues excavated the skeleton in 2006 and prepared it over the course of several years.

Nicknamed “Pete III,” the Daspletosaurus shares its platform with two Dromaeosaurus casts and a cast skull of the Nation’s T. rex.

Like many newer fossil exhibits, the gallery is well-lit and spacious. The art deco design of Union Terminal informs the look of the hall: large windows fill the space with natural light, and the larger specimens are arranged on minimalist platforms that can be viewed from many angles, including from above. I found it noteworthy how close visitors can get to the mounted skeletons. Although the platforms are fairly high up, there are no glass barriers. I found that I could get within a few inches of the Galaemopus feet without much effort. I’m sure a slightly taller or more determined person could manage to touch the fossils.

Hopefully, they’ll be distracted by the many exhibit elements that are meant to be touched. In contrast to the 1990s exhibits, CMC has mostly done away with physical interactives, instead emphasizing touchable models and digital touchscreens. One particularly impressive inclusion are the digital video cameras (in robust cylindrical housing) connected to large monitors. Visitors can use these to get real-time magnified views of certain fossils, including a chunk of Tyrannosaurus medullary bone. This set-up couldn’t have been cheap! I also had fun with a set of telescopes aimed at certain parts of the dinosaur skeletons, such as a series of fused vertebrae in the Galaemopus tail. These are outfitted with targeting lasers (!) to help pinpoint the key features.

Each “closer look” station includes a telescope (with targeting laser!) aimed at an important skeletal feature, plus a bronze cast of that same element.

This bronze miniature Allosaurus is one of four similar models.

Not every visitor can see the fossil mounts, so CMC worked with David Grimes of the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to help people with low vision experience the exhibit. Braille is incorporated into many of the displays, and the hall is full of touchable bronze models, ranging from individual bones (like the aforementioned Galaemopus vertebrae) to fleshed-out reconstructions (such as Confuciusornis). Four of the dinosaur mounts are recreated as bronze miniatures. Structures like ribs and vertebral processes are quite thin at this scale and susceptible to bending or breaking, so the exhibit team went with a half-fleshed look to make the models more durable. The Field Museum landed on the same solution with the touchable miniature SUE, but credit is due to the CMC team for getting their models to stand up, rather than being presented in relief.

A real Apatosaurus skull, one of many treasures hidden away in smaller cases throughout the hall.

If I were to critique one element of the hall, it would be that some of the labels, graphics, and interactives are spatially disconnected from the fossils they relate to. For example, a digital touchscreen where visitors can manipulate a 3D scan of an Apatosaurus skull is nowhere near the real skull displayed elsewhere in the exhibit, and the only label for Othnielosaurus is on the opposite side of the platform from the mounted skeleton. This is, of course, a minor concern, and I can only imagine the difficulty of arranging an exhibit with as much verticality as this one.

Overall, the new CMC dinosaur hall is fantastic, whether one is considering the specimens on display, the story being told, or the aesthetics of the space. The collection of real, new-to-science specimens makes this exhibit stand out among other paleontology halls, but I’m curious how the museum’s general audience will respond. A once-expansive museum closed for two years, and opened with an excellent exhibit that nevertheless is much smaller than what was once on display. Will visitors be satisfied with quality over quantity? And will they keep returning as new CMC exhibits are completed over the coming years? Time will tell.



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