Tag Archives: anthropology

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS


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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Envisioning the Ice Age at NMNH

neanderthal diorama

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

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

The Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates


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

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

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

Piano wire barely visible. Photo from Marsh 2014.

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

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

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

A New Vision

Chimera mammoth

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

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

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

arch section

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy of the Exhibit

Eremotherium today. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

La brea mounts. Photo by the author.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1

Much of what I write for this site starts with an attempt to find one reference or another, only to discover that it does not exist online. This time, I was curious how many times the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls had been renovated, but I quickly found that there was no simple answer.  Unlike the fossil exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, which have occupied the same large hall since the building opened, the AMNH counterparts have been moving and growing for more than 120 years. The museum expanded organically, eventually encompassing 27 interconnected buildings. And as its footprint grew, the paleontology exhibits grew with it.

The following is my attempt to make sense of the fourth floor exhibit halls’ convoluted history. I’ve divided it into six phases, although this should only be considered a rudimentary outline. Many specimens were added and removed during each phase, particularly during the period of frantic expansion in the early 20th century. At the very least, however, this should be enough to contextualize most of the historic photos made available by the AMNH Research Library. As with my NMNH posts, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or scientific discoveries by museum staff, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere. My focus here is solely on the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.

Phase I: 1874 – 1904


AMNH was founded in 1869, although the first buildings in Manhattan Square did not begin construction until 1874. The original structure was designed by architect Calvert Vaux. Since electric lights were not yet available, Vaux created exhibit spaces that maximized the impact of natural lighting. Large windows were divided into slits that paralleled rows of glass display cabinets. The sun would shine through the windows and directly into the cabinets, illuminating the specimens within. When the museum first opened, the single exhibit hall on the fourth floor was dedicated to geology specimens. While this space mostly housed rocks, minerals, and small fossils, a handful of mounted skeletons stood among the cabinets. Early acquisitions included a moa and the Pleistocene deer Megaloceros, shown below.

geology hall with moa

Geology Hall, before 1887. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Things changed radically shortly after Henry Osborn was hired in 1891. As a paleontologist, Osborn emerged from Princeton riding the crest of a wave of goodwill his discipline had enjoyed for most of the 19th century. Paleontology was the darling of American science, and one man in particular, O.C. Marsh of Yale, received generous federal funding to find and describe new fossils from the western interior. In the 1880s, however, an economy-minded Congress pulled that funding. Meanwhile, the rise of experimental biology led to the marginalization of descriptive natural history, including paleontology. The next generation of paleontologists needed a new home for their work, and they found it in museums. AMNH was one of several new museums backed by wealthy benefactors with an interest in public education. These benefactors gravitated toward paleontology because, as Ronald Rainger put it, fossils are “rare, valuable, and visible.” The skeletons of extinct monsters were huge and sensational, and naturally complimented the grandiose neoclassical halls of the nascent museums. But while the paleontology programs at institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum were quite respectable, they all were overshadowed by Osborn’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH.  Osborn’s goal was to make AMNH the center of American vertebrate paleontology in the post-Marsh world, and by most any measure he succeeded.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906.

Hall of Fossil Mammals, around 1906. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The next Phase I exhibit was the Hall of Fossil Mammals, which opened to the public in 1895. Osborn’s research was focused on Cenozoic mammals, especially brontotheres, and he tasked his department with assembling a suitably impressive collection. Some of the fossils on display were acquired in an 1897 purchase of Edward Cope’s personal collection. Many others were collected by AMNH staff in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. Among these in-house finds was the famous (and famously misleading) series of fossil horses, most of which were found and prepared by William Matthew. The largest and most captivating mounted skeleton on view was the Warren mastodon. Discovered in 1845 in a bog near Newburgh, New York, this specimen was the first complete mastodon ever found. It was initially described and displayed by Boston-based anatomist John Warren, but Osborn convinced J.P. Morgan to buy it for AMNH in 1906.

Aside from a few shuffled mounts (including the aforementioned mastodon, which seems to have been in nearly every room on the fourth floor), the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained mostly intact for the duration of the 20th century. Shortly after it was completed, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology shifted its focus to dinosaurs. The mammals were only the star attractions for a few short years, but this display would nevertheless endure in its original form for generations.

Age of Man

Hall of the Age of Man, around 1915. Photo from Dingus 1996.

At this point, it is crucial to mention that Osborn was an objectively lousy scientist, and that much of his work was motivated by a bigoted personal agenda.  He subscribed to an inaccurate orthogenetic (or as he called it, “aristogenetic”) interpretation of evolution, professing that all life forms had their place in a natural hierarchy. According to Osborn, people of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestry were the pinnacle of existence, and he endeavored to turn his flagrantly racist beliefs into public knowledge by way of his exhibits. Nowhere is this clearer than the Hall of the Age of Man, which opened around 1900. This hall included a range of extinct animals that coexisted with early humans, but the central cases were dedicated to Osborn’s unorthodox narrative of human evolution. Hominid fossils were co-opted to illustrate Osborn’s unfounded view that modern human races were evolutionarily distinct, and to communicate his support for eugenics and racial purity. Osborn’s agenda was supported by many of the aristocratic elite that funded the museum, but apparently few of the AMNH research staff endorsed it. Margaret Mead in particular was highly critical of Osborn’s views, and especially his influence over public-facing interpretation.

Phase II: 1905 – 1920


Edit: The map above should read “Invertebrate Fossils and Minerals.” 

For all of Osborn’s bigotry and bad science, it’s difficult to imagine the modern museum field without his influence. He was very good at marketing himself and his paleontology program, and he knew how to put on a show that would attract visitors in droves. Osborn heightened the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular fossil mounts 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 defined public expectations for what museums should offer.

In 1906, Osborn became the fourth president of AMNH, and he oversaw its most rapid period of expansion. As president, he tripled municipal funding for the museum from New York City, and gained plenty more through his connections with wealthy potential donors. Much of this income was funneled into the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology’s famous dinosaur collecting expeditions, in which fossil hunters like Barnum Brown and Walter Granger earned fame and notoriety. However, the pioneering work on fossil preparation and mounting at AMNH was also significant. While many peer institutions were assembling and exhibiting new dinosaur mounts during this period, none matched the output or ambition of AMNH. With the sheer quantity of fossils coming in and institutional pressure to mount them for display as quickly as possible, chief preparator Adam Hermann had no choice but to modernize and professionalize his craft. Hermann developed a sophisticated prep lab with overhead tracks for hoisting heavy fossils, as well as electric and pnuematic hook-ups for power tools. Techniques like sand-blasting, acid preparation, and on-site metalworking developed by Hermann are still standard practice today.

trachodon crowded reptile hall

“Trachodon” pair in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Dinosaurs take up a lot of space, and to accommodate them, a new gallery was opened on the far end of the Hall of Fossil Mammals. This Hall of Fossil Reptiles debuted in 1905 with “Brontosaurus” – the first mounted sauropod ever built – as its centerpiece. Actually a composite of four individuals and many sculpted elements (including the way-off-the-mark head), the “Brontosaurus” took Hermann’s team the better part of six years to construct. After that, the Hall of Fossil Reptiles filled with new dinosaur mounts very quickly, cementing the repuation of AMNH as the place to see dinosaurs. In 1906, Hermann added the “Trachodon” pair. The standing individual came from the Cope collection, but the crouching specimen was excavated that very year by Barnum Brown. The Allosaurus was also a Cope specimen, but apparently the 19th century paleontologist had never unpacked or inspected it. Several years passed before Hermann’s team discovered that the skeleton was remarkably complete, although it was missing a skull. The Allosaurus fossils were mounted in 1908, posed as though feeding on a set of Apatosaurus vertebrae.

crowded reptile hall

Tyrannosaurus stands with Allosaurus and “Brontosaurus” in the increasingly crowded Hall of Fossil Reptiles. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Arguably the most important mount added during the early 20th century mounting spree was the Tyrannosaurus rex. This specimen is no less than an icon, and has been a destination attraction in New York for longer than the Empire State Building. When the Tyrannosaurus was unveiled in 1915, it was a sensation, akin to mythical dragon made real. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could stand in the presence of a T. rex, and to this day the image of the classic mount is quintessential to both paleontology and museums in general. For example, you may recognize it from the cover of a certain Michael Crichton novel.

Phase III: 1921 – 1939


In 1922, the 9th building in the AMNH complex was completed, and the paleontology exhibits expanded into what Osborn called the “Great Hall of Dinosaurs.” The largest dinosaur mounts – including Tyrannosaurus, “Brontosaurus”, “Trachodon”, and Allosaurus – were moved from the comparatively cramped Hall of Fossil Reptiles into this new space. The extra breathing room allowed for the mounts to be clustered into Jurassic and Cretaceous areas on opposite sides of the room. There were also a few new skeletons, including Leptoceratops, Thescelosaurus, and most significantly, Triceratops.

brontosaurus in great dinosaur hall

“Brontosaurus” in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, AMNH fossil collecting efforts had moved from the American West to Mongolia. The primary goal of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions was to find evidence for Osborn’s pseudoscientific ideas about human ancestry, but no such remains were found. Instead, the expedition returned a wealth of new dinosaur fossils, including the first dinosaur nests ever found. Dispatches from the field also drummed up considerable publicity for the New York museum.

great dinosaur hall

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Great Dinosaur Hall, around 1927. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Osborn’s iron-fisted reign over American paleontology lasted until his death in 1933. Unfortunately for the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, Osborn’s activities depended heavily on personal relationships with private donors. With Osborn out of the picture (and the Great Depression at its bottom), those donations dried up. Meanwhile, Osborn’s good standing in the scientific community had begun to wane, and his unorthodox anthropological ideas became something of a joke. The results of internal investigations into Osborn’s less-than-legitimate use of funds and favors during his time as president did not help matters. In 1942 the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work was folded into the Department of Geology with a much smaller budget and fewer staff. The Osborn-era fossil displays at AMNH remained largely unaltered in the years that followed, but only because of the lack of staff time, money, and interest.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this timeline, passing through the era of Edwin Colbert and into the present day. Stay tuned!


Brinkman, P.D. (2009). Dinosaurs, Museums, and the Modernization of American Fossil Preparation at the Turn of the 20th Century. Fossil Preparation: Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium 21-34.

Brinkman, P.D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Hermann, A. (1909). Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 56:283-331.

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

Rainger, R. (1991). An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.


Filed under AMNH, anthropology, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, reptiles

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’s 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 insect 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. Do not misunderstand, I don’t mean to support the nonsensical view that objective truth does not exist. 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.


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


Over the past couple months, as I have hoped in vain that the folks at SV-POW will post cool stuff about sauropods again, I’ve learned a great deal about open-access publishing and the Research Works Act. Kudos to them for creating awareness. The sinister implications of the RWA are well documented around the web, so I’ll just provide the short version.

At present, taxpayer funded research institutions in the U.S., namely the NIH, require that research results must be freely accessible online. This is a reasonable requirement that is hard to argue against: if the public pays for science, the public should be able to see the results. However, this open-access policy gets in the way of the profits of the academic publishing industry. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer have astonishingly high profit margins of 36% or more, dwarfing even those of Apple, and they aim to keep them that way. Academic publishers have a pretty sweet scam going, in which (largely publicly funded) researchers supply the papers and the peer review for free, while the publishers take the full copyright, and charge $30-$50 to view a single article. All the publisher does is format the manuscripts into a physical volume, which is irrelevant since most people now access papers online. Enter RWA, an effort by publishers to push back against increasing awareness of their unnecessary and monopolistic role as gatekeepers of knowledge.

Until this point, the voices of dissent from the academic community seemed to paint a fairly straightforward picture. Researchers, who know the academic publishing industry well, are more-or-less unanimously opposed to the unbridled corporate greed represented by the RWA. But then this business happened (.pdf link). The American Anthropological Association, with which I’ve taken issue before, has thrown in its lot on the side of the publishers. The previously linked AAA statement was a response to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy’s ongoing Request for Information (check out all the responses to date here). The AAA claims that there is currently no problem with the accessibility of research, and that it is unfair to undermine the right of publishers to sell their property at market value. Here are the choice quotes:

We write today to make the case that while we share the mutual objective of enhancing the public understanding of scientific enterprise and support the wide dissemination of materials that can reach those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge (consistent with our association’s mission), broad public access to information currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.

Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limits constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation. In our view, such a practice cannot and will not withstand judicial review.

Both of these arguments are nonsense. If the AAA believes that “those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge” currently have appropriate access to research, then their definition of the public must end at researchers at large institutions. As articulated at Neuroanthropology, this insular view is unhelpful and unacceptable, and it is particularly surprising that it is coming from a group of anthropologists. Do the non-profit groups anthropologists work with in developing countries not require access to papers? What about the people the research is about? Interested lay-people? Under the current system, and to an even greater extent should the RWA pass, anybody not affiliated with an institution with a well-funded library* has to pay exorbitant prices out of pocket to view research. As a result, the research remains largely in the academic sphere. Given the political nature of anthropologists in general, it is shocking that the AAA deems this acceptable.

*Side note: Even as a grad student, getting access to papers can be a real problem. Even large universities sometimes only provide access to volumes of journals within a certain date range, and when I’m doing field work or an internship, I can no longer get access.

The second quote is bunk because, as explained previously, the services provided by academic publishers are minimal, if not counterproductive to the dissemination of knowledge, and do not constitute anything that researchers could not do themselves in this information age.

As they did a year ago when they removed the reference to science from their mission statement, the AAA has demonstrated that their interests are not in sync with researchers. Honestly, I don’t know who they are trying to represent. They are working against the interests of serious researchers, advocacy groups who help the people anthropologists work with, and the dissemination of knowledge in general. AAA, please stop.

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More on #AAAfail

The AAA’s removal of science from the rhetoric of its statement of purpose has made the internet angry. For a bunch of links to smart people’s discussion of the issue, please see this post at Neuroanthropology. If you want to know what I think, read on!

Old Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

New Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

Above is the old statement of purpose followed by the new. Having ruminated on the issue a bit, what most troubles me is that the new statement seems calibrated to make a divided field even more divided. As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a long-standing gap between the methodologies of biological and archaeological anthropologists and social anthropologists. However, there aren’t many of the former camp that don’t recognize the value of relativism and reflexivity, just as few of the latter camp who outright dismiss statistics and hard data. However, instead of encouraging communication across this shared ground, the new statement divvies up the classic four fields approach (archaeology, biology, ethnography and linguistics) used in the original statement into ten categories. The implication is that Anthropologists should continue to narrow their focus rather than collaborate.

If the discipline is to have any meaning in the future, collaboration will be the key. At present, the lack of intra-disciplinary understanding of very basic concepts is, frankly, appalling. Even at my superhappyinterdisciplinaryliberalarts school, most many students specializing in social anthropology had little grasp of the fundamentals of evolution, and more than once I found myself debating with people who thought that biological evolution was, by definition, linear and progressive. Rest assured, I probably annoyed my share of social anthropologists by misunderstanding their field, as well.

Before I ride off into the sunset on my horse of academic harmony, let me reiterate that I think the new AAA statement is inexcusably dismissive of biological and archaeological Anthropologists. Tellingly, six of the seven new categories are aspects of social anthropology/ethnography, with no like divisions of archaeology, biology and linguistics. Certainly the distinctions between primatology, hominid paleoecology and skeletal pathology are just as meaningful as the divisions between political, historical and economic social anthropology? Furthermore, it must be reiterated that abandoning scientific analysis will only hurt the perceived legitimacy of anthropology in both the academic and public spheres.

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