Tag Archives: exhibit reviews

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Habitat Immersion

It’s time to revisit my sporadic series on organizational and interpretive approaches in large-scale paleontology exhibits. Check out the posts below if you’d like to catch up.

Introduction

Walk Through Time

Phylogeny

Phylogeny – Addendum

Today’s topic is immersive exhibits – walk-through artificial environments that realistically simulate the prehistoric world. There are plenty of examples, and notably most have been built in the last 30 years. The Cincinnati Museum Center has a reconstruction of the Ohio Valley during the Pleistocene. The centerpiece at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is an indoor forest presided over by an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. Probably the most dramatic example is the DinoSphere at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Here, a repurposed Imax theater contains a number of dynamically posed dinosaur skeletons standing among rocks and trees. The surround sound system provides a constant soundtrack of animal calls, while the projection screen shows the sky at different times of day on a 22-minute cycle. There are even periodic storms, complete with flashing lights and booming thunder.

Original Bucky skeleton paired with a Stan cast at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Source

Stan and Bucky  harass a Triceratops in the DinoSphere.

Exhibits like the DinoSphere and its kin are frequently derided as sensationalism with little educational value. These multi-million dollar special effects shows (which sometimes do not contain any genuine specimens at all) are plainly inspired by the successes of theme parks, and it’s easy to dismiss them as crass efforts to draw crowds with flashy gimmicks. Surely these exhibits are nothing more than misguided attempts to turn museums into entertainment, learning opportunities be damned?

Well, it depends. The role of spectacle in museums is a complex one, and arguably one that is impossible to decouple from the core identity of these institutions.  Going back to the enlightenment-era cabinets of curiosities from which modern natural history museums emerged, the public side of museums has always been about showing off the biggest, the rarest, or the most expensive. And this sensationalist modus operandi has often been reflected in the spaces where specimens are displayed. The Greco-Roman architecture of classic exhibit halls, for example, is no less artificial than the DinoSphere’s indoor thunderstorms, and serves pretty much the same purpose.

neoclassical

The neoclassical aesthetic of the Field Museum’s great was designed to impress – and is no less of a fabricated experience then the DinoSphere above. Photo by the author.

While spectacle in museums is nothing new, neither is its complicated relationship with education. Arresting displays have long been leveraged to imbue specimens with informative context. Take habitat dioramas populated by taxidermy animals, a longstanding staple of natural history museums. These little worlds behind glass first became popular in the mid 19th century, and were almost immediately controversial among museum workers. Paradoxically, dioramas provided visitors with a fuller appreciation of the ecosystems the animals lived in, but only by wrapping the specimens in a layer of theatrical artifice. The immersive fossil exhibits that have cropped up over the last few decades are essentially habitat dioramas on a larger scale, and exhibit designers are still wresting with the same issues their forebears did a century and a half ago. Which is more important in the context of public exhibits – an informative and meaningful narrative, or authenticity?

For me, spectacle and artifice are fine, even welcome, so long as they serve a purpose. In some cases, the spectacle exists to inform (as in a habitat diorama), in other cases the spectacle itself is the attraction. The robotic T. rex at the Natural History Museum in London and the neanderthal photo booth at the National Museum of Natural History come to mind as examples of the latter – they’re entertaining, but don’t facilitate any further reflection or inquiry. When implemented in a thoughtful and deliberate way, however, spectacle can be a powerful element in a museum educator’s toolkit.

Triassic horsetails

By design, the first big skeleton visitors see in Dinosaurs in Their Time isn’t a dinosaur – it’s the phytosaur Redondasaurus. Photo by the author.

Let’s look at one example of a habitat immersion exhibit that uses showy reconstructed environments to maximize its educational potential. Two years and $36 million in the making, “Dinosaurs in Their Time” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best paleontology exhibits in the world*. Whether you’re considering the scope and quality of the specimens on display, the aesthetics and layout, or the interpretive approach,  Dinosaurs in Their Time is a benchmark in natural history exhibit design. You can follow along with this nifty interactive map.

*To be absolutely fair, Dinosaurs in Their Time is focused exclusively on the Mesozoic, which makes it difficult to compare to larger exhibits that cover the entire history of life on Earth.

What makes Dinosaurs in Their Time so great? Let’s start by considering the layout. The new exhibit more than doubles the square footage of the old Carnegie dinosaur hall, and much of the interior is actually a former courtyard (incidentally, this reuse of an existing space helped the exhibit earn its LEED certification). This makes the gallery spacious and airy, with a high ceiling and  plenty of natural lighting. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, starting in the Triassic and ending in the Cretaceous, but there is plenty of space in which to roam. In fact, the pathway forms a sort of figure eight around the Apatosaurus and Diplodocus in the Jurassic zone and the Tyrannosaurus pair in the Cretaceous. This cyclical organization allows, if not encourages, visitors to view specimens from multiple perspectives, and lets each person traverse the exhibit at their own pace. It’s especially nice that the sauropods have enough room to breathe – too often, these immense skeletons are relegated to cramped quarters where it’s impossible to see them all at once.

jurassic overlook

Visitors can walk all the way around Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, and even view them from above. Photo by the author.

The open spaces and clear sight lines are nicely complemented by the reconstructed rocks and foliage that fill the exhibit, giving it a proper outdoor feel. Importantly, the flora isn’t just for show – it’s a critical component of the interpretation. “We’ve painstaking recreated the worlds of the dinosaurs,” curator Matt Lamanna explains in a Carnegie Magazine interview, “everything that is displayed together actually lived together.” One of the key themes in Dinosaurs in Their Time is that dinosaurs were but one part of rich ecosystems, which were just as complex as those of today. These animals shaped and were shaped by the world around them, and there is far more to paleontology than the pageant show of toothy monsters that many visitors have come to expect. Indeed, it’s more akin to reconstructing entire worlds.

The plurality of “worlds” is important, because Dinosaurs in Their Time also emphasizes the nigh-unfathomable time span of the Mesozoic. Over 185 million years, countless communities of organisms came and went, and once again the immersive aesthetic of the exhibit helps convey this. While the horsetail swamp of the Triassic area almost looks like an alien world, the Cretaceous is populated by flowers and deciduous trees much like those of today. In this exhibit, the fossil specimens aren’t in a neutral environment – the space itself is part of the narrative.

T. rex with flowers and magnolia.

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops mounts stand among flowers and magnolias. Photo by the author.

The habitat immersion approach comes with yet another plus: it encourages exploration. From a tiny swimming Hyphalosaurus under the waterline of an artificial pond to a Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree, visitors are constantly rewarded for looking high and low. As Lamanna explains, “many visitors are repeat visitors, so we wanted to give them something new to discover every time they come back.” This is particularly beneficial for younger visitors. Rather than barreling through the exhibit in minutes, kids are encouraged to look for tiny details and learn things along the way.

Finally, the computer terminals throughout Dinosaurs in Their Time merit some discussion because they embody the same multi-tiered educational approach as the physical space around them. Dinosaurs in Their Time actually tells several stories simultaneously: there’s the ecology story, the deep time story, the history of the specimens on display, and even a meta-story of how the new exhibit was put together. Most visitors won’t be interested in every narrative, nor should they be. Rather than filling the walls with a dizzying array of signage, the exhibit designers consolidated the various narratives into space-efficient interactives. Visitors can choose which information they would like to see, and craft their experience in the exhibit to their tastes. This is technology used intelligently and purposefully, and something I hope to see other exhibits emulate in the future.

look closely

Sharp-eyed visitors are rewarded with hidden specimens, like this Rhamphorhynchus halfway up a tree. Photo by the author.

The purpose of any exhibit structure is to provide meaning and context for objects – to help visitors see them as more than neat things to look at. It’s the museum’s job to give visitors the intellectual tools to contextualize displayed objects in a more sophisticated way. Spectacle is one way to achieve that goal, and Dinosaurs in Their Time is a stellar example.

References

Love, S. (1997). Curators as Agents of Change: An Insect Zoo for the Nineties. Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

McGinnis, H.J. (1982). Carnegie’s Dinosaurs: A Comprehensive Guide to Dinosaur Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh, PA: Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PN: Pennsylvania State University Press

7 Comments

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

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny

This is the third part of an on-again, off-again series about organizational and interpretive approaches in large-scale paleontology exhibits (see the introduction and walk through time entries). This time, I’ll be discussing exhibits arranged according to phylogenetics – that is, the evolutionary relationships among living things. Natural history museums have displayed specimens according to their place on the tree of life since the days of Charles Wilson Peale, and more than any other organizational scheme, phylogeny is the way biologists think about the living world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this arrangement was more common in the past, when exhibits were typically designed by and for experts. Examples of these old-school displays include the fossil mammal gallery at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the paleontology halls at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum (neither has been thoroughly overhauled since the 1950s).

peabody mammals

The jargon-heavy signage in the Peabody Museum’s classic fossil mammal exhibit is probably ignored by most visitors. Photo by the author.

Modern natural history museums rarely attempt phylogenetic exhibits. In vertebrate paleontology, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is fundamental to our science. However, most people simply don’t think about the world in this way. For example, I was halfway through my first semester teaching an undergraduate anatomy course when I realized that most of the class didn’t really understand what a mammal is. The students were familiar with the word “mammal” and could provide some examples, but they couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them. It’s easy to forget that even the most basic elements of evolutionary classification are specialized knowledge, even among biology students.

Describing the history of life on Earth chronologically is relatively easy – museum visitors intuitively understand the forward progression of time. But scientific classification (as opposed to colloquial categorization) requires a lot of explanation up front, and it’s easy to overwhelm an audience with jargon. While not impossible (see Neil Shubin’s masterful Your Inner Fish), it is very difficult to explain phylogeny to a general audience in a relatable and approachable way.

In 1995, the American Museum of Natural History attempted to do just that with the most recent renovation of its historic 4th floor fossil halls. This evolutionary arrangement was a major change for AMNH, since this space had a “walk through time” layout for most of the 20th century. In the accompanying book Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, curators Norell, Gaffney, and Dingus explain that phylogenetics (and the cladistic methodology in particular) is the only way to approach the study of prehistoric life in an objective way. Patterns of evolutionary relationships revealed by cladistic analyses are hard evidence in a field of study traditionally characterized by idle speculation. Norell and colleagues argue that the new exhibit arrangement shows visitors the credibility and scientific rigor behind modern paleontology.

4th floor of AMNH.

Map of the fossil halls on the 4th floor of AMNH. Source

Communicating the rigorous and trustworthy nature of scientific conclusions is a worthy goal, and the choice to ground the AMNH exhibit in this way seems almost prophetic given the litany of speculation-heavy paleontology “documentaries” that have proliferated in the years since it opened. Scientific rigor is definitely a running theme here – sign after sign explains that popularly depicted dinosaur behaviors like parental care and pack-hunting are largely untestable speculation. To a degree, this label copy takes the fun out of an undeniably fun subject, but I can appreciate the effort to legitimize paleontological science in the public eye. Overall, the AMNH exhibits represent an attempt to train visitors to look at fossils the way scientists do, and the phylogenetic layout is central to that goal.

In the exhibit, visitors are meant to walk through a cladogram of chordates. You’ll pass through large halls dedicated to broad groups like saurischian dinosaurs and advanced mammals, while visiting smaller cul-de-sacs that  represent narrower clades like ornithomimids and testudines. A central black path guides you through the evolution of life, and centrally-situated pillars along your route identify major evolutionary innovations, such as jaws or the ability to reproduce on land. The insanely comprehensive vertebrate fossil collections at AMNH make this institution uniquely capable of putting so much diversity on display (although non-tetrapods are woefully underrepresented). Meanwhile, an open floor plan allows you to spend as much or as little time in each area as you wish, and ample natural lighting goes a long way toward making it possible to study specimens in detail.

follow the path for now

Pillars mark major evolutionary milestones in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins. Photo by the author.

path disappears among dinosaurs

The evolutionary pathway becomes considerably less obvious among the dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

Nevertheless, I agree with Brian Switek that the AMNH fossil halls don’t do the best job communicating the story of vertebrate evolution to their core audience. The underlying purpose of any exhibit structure is to provide meaning and context for objects – to help visitors see them as more than neat things to look at. According to visitor surveys, the default mode of understanding for most people passing through a paleontology exhibit is what I’ve been calling “dinosaur pageantry.” After seeing the exhibit, most visitors will recall a list of cool skeletons they saw. A few might consider which ones are meat-eaters and which ones are plant-eaters, but without further prompting that’s all we can usually expect from non-specialists. It’s the museum’s job to give visitors the intellectual tools to contextualize those fossils in a more sophisticated way, but there’s a fine line to walk. Provide too little information and nobody learns anything, but provide too much and the content is ignored. Unfortunately, the AMNH exhibits fall into the “overkill” category.

As discussed, phylogeny is complicated, often counter-intuitive, and largely unfamiliar to many visitors. To overcome this, the AMNH designers rely on a fairly long orientation film, which introduces the concept of categorizing organisms based on shared derived characteristics. There are a few problems with this. First there’s the film itself, which dives right into the traits that characterize different groups – like the stirrup-shaped stapes of derived mammals and the temporal fenestrae of archosaurs – without explaining why these traits are significant. To a layperson, these probably seem like really inconsequential things to hang a whole group on. The video also presents a cladogram of vertebrates without explaining how to read it. As Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, interpreting a phylogenetic tree is a specialized skill that many natural history museum visitors lack. Second, I saw no incentive or instruction to actually start my visit to the 4th floor in the orientation hall. There are no less than four entrances to the fossil exhibits, so many visitors won’t know there is an orientation film (I sure didn’t) until they’re halfway through the galleries. Finally, there’s the reliance on media in general: do we really want visitors to spend even a portion of their time in an exhibit full of real fossils watching a video in a darkened room? Telling visitors what to think in a narrated video is easy, but it’s not nearly as meaningful as showing them the same concept with specimens (or better yet, coaxing them to reach conclusions themselves).

Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Iconic mounts in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs are iconic. Photo by the author.

Within the actual fossil halls, interpretation remains stubbornly unapproachable. For example, the sign introducing proboscidians tells visitors that this group is defined primarily by eye sockets located near the snout. An observant visitor might wonder why scientists rely on such an obscure detail, as opposed to the obvious trunks and tusks. There’s a good teaching moment there concerning why some characteristics might face more selection pressure (and thus change more radically) than others, but instead visitors are only offered esoteric statements. Relatedly, the exhibit does little to prioritize information. Most label text is quite small, and there’s a lot of it. Compare this to Evolving Planet at the Field Museum, where there is a clear hierarchy of headings and sub-headings. Visitors can read the main point of a display without even stopping, and parents can quickly find relevant information to answer their charges’ questions (rather than making something up).

Evolving Planet also compares favorably to the AMNH fossil halls in its informative aesthetics and spatial logic. At FMNH, walls and signs in each section are distinctly color-coded, making transitions obvious and intuitive. Likewise, consistent iconography  – such as the mass extinction zones – helps visitors match recurring themes and topics throughout the exhibit. AMNH, in contrast, has a uniform glass and white-walled Apple Store aesthetic. It’s visually appealing, but doesn’t do much to help visitors navigate the space in a meaningful way.

edentates aren't real

Phylogenetic interpretations change quickly – Edentata is no longer considered a natural group. Photo by the author.

The phylogenetic layout introduces a number of other unique interpretive challenges. Since there is no temporal axis,  it’s often unclear whether the lineage in a particular cul-de-sac cluster went extinct, continued on, or gave rise to another group elsewhere in the exhibit. Visitors that want to know which animals lived contemporaneously are out of luck. Meanwhile, the exhibit sometimes uses modern animal skeletons to fill out displays where fossil examples are limited, such as bats and primates. While these are labeled, the text is too small to be seen from a distance. The evolutionary organization is also burdened by the fact that phylogenetics is a fast-moving and often changing field of study. While the order of geologic time periods will never change, the 20 year-old displays at AMNH are already out of date in several details. For example, there is a cul-de-sac devoted to edentates, which is now considered polyphyletic, and a cladogram in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs incorrectly places tyrannosaurids among the carnosaurs.

Cows and broken videos

Glass architecture lets visitors see through displays and get a sense of what lies beyond. Photo by the author.

Neat comparison of mammal teeth. Too bad there's no obvious label.

This display is a great example of the diversity in mammal teeth, but it’s a confusing centerpiece for the Hall of Primitive Mammals. Photo by the author.

The AMNH fossil exhibits excel in many respects, chiefly in the amazing diversity and quantity of specimens on display. The exhibit throws a lot of good science at visitors, but falters in explaining why it matters. The point of all this is not to nit-pick the design choices at AMNH, but to reiterate that phylogenetically-arranged fossil exhibits are really hard to pull off. This is not the most intuitive way to introduce the history of life, or even the process of evolution. With so much background to cover, perhaps a more structured and linear layout would be better. In fact, a lot of my issues with the AMNH fossil exhibits seem to stem from a disconnect between the phylogenetic interpretive content and the wide-open aesthetics. Open exhibits can be great, but in this case it hinders the learning opportunities for self-guided groups of visitors. It’s difficult to imagine a typical visitor, arriving with their family or another mixed-age group, having the patience to make sense of it all. Regrettably, such visitors default to the dinosaur pageantry level of understanding, making all the work invested in creating a meaningful exhibit space for naught.

References

Norell, M, Gaffney, E, and Dingus, L. (1995). Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Torrens, E. and Barahona, A. (2012). Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted? Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.

14 Comments

Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fish, FMNH, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion, reptiles, reviews, systematics

Exhibit Review: Kenosha Dinosaur Museum

Stan and an eagle.

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

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

Nary an ornithiscian in sight. Photo by the author.

Nary an ornithiscian in sight. Photo by the author.

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

Hererrasaurus

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

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

Torvosaurus scratches its jaw.

Torvosaurus scratches its jaw. Photo by the author.

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

Ceratosaurus sign.

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

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

Acrocanthosaurus.

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

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

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

1 Comment

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

Spinosaurus at the National Geographic Museum

IMG_2341

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

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

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

IMG_2376

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstruction of the holotype

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

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

Spinosaurus!

Spinosaurus in all its glory. Photo by the author.

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

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

IMG_2372

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

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

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

friends

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

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

 

10 Comments

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