Tag Archives: exhibits

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

wegegeg

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.

References

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.

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

AMNH 5027 at 100

In December 1915, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the very first mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where one could see T. rex in person. Despite the tyrant king’s fame, old books emphasize the rarity of its fossils. The situation is very different today. In the last 30 years, the number of known Tyrannosaurus specimens has exploded. Once elusive, T. rex is now one of the best known meat-eating dinosaurs, and real and replica skeletons can be seen in museums around the world. The AMNH mount is no longer the only T. rex around, nor is it the biggest or most complete. It was, however, the first, and in a few weeks it will mark the 100th anniversary of its second life. Below is a partially recycled recap of this mount’s extraordinary journey.

Photo by the author.

AMNH 5027 in November 2015. Photo by the author.

The mount known as AMNH 5027 is actually a composite of material from two individuals. The first is the Tyrannosaurus rex holotype (originally AMNH 973, now CM 9380), which was discovered by Barnum Brown and Richard Lull during an AMNH expedition to Montana in 1902. The find consisted of little more than the pelvis, a single femur, one arm and shoulder, and fragmentary portions of the jaw and skull. Nevertheless, this was enough for AMNH director Henry Osborn to publish a brief description in 1905, as well as coin the species’ brilliantly evocative name. That same year, Adam Hermann prepared a plaster replica of the animal’s legs and pelvis, using Allosaurus fossils as reference when sculpting the missing lower legs and feet. This partial mount was initially displayed alongside the skeleton of a large ground bird, in order to accentuate the anatomical similarities.

Brown located a better Tyrannosaurus specimen in 1908. Apparently fearing poaching or scooping, Osborn wrote to Brown that he wished to “keep very quiet about this discovery, because I do not want to see a rush into the country where you are working.” After vanquishing many tons of horrific sandstone overburden, Brown returned to New York with what was at the time the most complete theropod specimen ever found. In addition to an “absolutely perfect” skull, the new find included most of the rib cage and spinal column, including the first half of the tail (Osborn 1916). Lowell Dingus would later describe this second specimen (the true AMNH 5027) as “a nasty old codger”, suffering from severe arthritis and possibly bone cancer. These pathologies were undoubtedly painful and probably debilitating.

Model of unrealized T. rex showdown mount from Osborn 1913.

Model of the unrealized T. rex showdown mount from Osborn 1913.

Osborn initially wanted to mount both Tyrannosaurus specimens facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even commissioned E.S. Christman to sculpt wooden models which which to plan the scene (shown above). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve. Instead, the available fossils complemented one another remarkably well in the construction of a single mounted skeleton. Osborn noted this good fortune in 1916, but his statement that the two specimens were “exactly the same size” wasn’t quite accurate. The holotype is actually slightly larger and more robust than the 1908 specimen, and to this day the AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount has oversized legs.

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at AMNH. Note the original 1905 replica legs in the background. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Instead, Hermann’s team prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with the reconstructed pelvis and legs based on the 1905 holotype. When the completed mount was unveiled in 1915, the media briefly lost their minds. In contemporary newspapers, the skeleton was called “the head of animal creation”, “the prize fighter of antiquity”, and “the absolute warlord of the earth”, among similarly hyperbolic proclamations. Even Osborn got in on the game, calling Tyrannosaurus “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata, in which raptorial destructive power and speed are combined.” With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years.

Image courtesy of the AMNH Archives.

T. rex in the Cretaceous Hall, 1960. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The AMNH’s claim to the world’s only mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton ended in 1941, when the holotype was sold to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Pittsburgh museum’s hunch-backed reconstruction of the tyrant king was on display within a year. Although no longer the only T. rex on display, the AMNH mount certainly remained the most viewed as the 20th century progressed. It became an immutable symbol for the institution, visited again and again by generations of museum goers. Its likeness was even used as the iconic cover art of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

By the 1980s, however, a new wave of dinosaur research had conclusively demonstrated that these animals had been active and socially sophisticated. The AMNH fossil galleries had not been updated since the 1960s, and the upright, tail-dragging T. rex in particular was painfully outdated. AMNH had once been the center of American paleontology, but now its displays were lagging far behind newer museums.

finished mount, room under construction

Restoration of AMNH 5027 was completed nearly three years before the hall reopened. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive, $44 million renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits. As part of the project, chief preparator Jeanne Kelly led the restoration and remounting of the most iconic specimens, Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Of the two mounts, the Tyrannosaurus presented the bigger challenge. The fossils were especially fragile, and some elements, specifically the cervical vertebrae, had never been completely freed from the sandstone matrix. It took six people working for two months just to strip away the layers of shellac applied by the original preparators. All told, the team spent a year and a half dismantling, conserving, and rebuilding the T. rex.

Phil Fraley’s exhibit company constructed the new armature, which gave the tyrant king a more accurate horizontal posture. While the original mount was supported by obtrusive rods extending from the floor, the new version is actually suspended from the ceiling by a pair of barely-visible steel cables. Playing with Christman’s original wooden models, curators Gene Gaffney and Mark Norrell settled on a fairly conservative stalking pose, imbuing the mount with a level of dignity befitting this historic specimen. The restored AMNH 5027 was completed in 1992, but would not be unveiled to the public until the rest of the gallery was finished in 1995. Since that time, tens of millions of visitors have flocked to see this new interpretation of Tyrannosaurus. This is the skeleton that showed the world that dragons are real, and it is still holding court today.

References

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

Glut, D.F. 2008. Tyrannosaurus rex: A Century of Celebrity. Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

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

Osborn, H.F. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur: Second Communication. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 22, pp. 281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 32, pp. 9-12.

Osborn, H.F. 1916. Skeletal Adaptations of Ornitholestes, Struthiomimus, and TyrannosaurusBulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol 35, pp. 733-771.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, theropods

See the Elephant

Fenykovi elephant at the National Museum of Natural History, September 2014. Photo by the author.

National Museum of Natural History rotunda, September 2014. Photo by the author.

The iconic Fénykövi elephant, the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History rotunda since 1959, received an update last week in the form of a new interpretive platform. Like the Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History and Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum, this African bush elephant is the first object most NMNH visitors see upon entering. With its ears forward and its trunk raised, the elephant stands over 13 feet tall—larger than any elephant known to be living today. But in spite of its inspiring presence as the symbol of the museum, this elephant has a problematic history that NMNH has long struggled to interpret.

Hungarian-born Josef J. Fénykövi shot the elephant in Angola in 1955. Fénykövi owned a ranch in the west African nation (at the time a Portuguese colony), where he spent several months each year hunting wildlife. After discovering the existence of an unusually large bull elephant in 1954, Fénykövi returned the following year equipped to track and kill what was thought to be the biggest land animal on the planet. Fénykövi and his team of guides located the giant elephant on November 13th, and eventually downed it after a full-day chase*. A truck filled with salt was required to keep the hide fresh during the hundred-mile journey from the kill site to the nearest train station in Kuito. Rather than keep the trophy for himself, Fénykövi decided to donate the animal to a museum. He offered it to the London Natural History Museum first, but the process was taking too long for his taste so he gave the elephant to the Smithsonian, instead. Later, an old-fashioned slug from a flintlock pistol found embedded in the elephant’s leg provided reason to believe the animal had been nearly 100 years old when Fénykövi killed it.

*Fénykövi’s account gives the impression that the guides did most of the work. They tracked the elephant’s prints and spoor on foot while Fénykövi followed in a jeep, and a man named Mario fired the shots that actually finished off the animal. 

The acquisition and subsequent exhibition of the Fénykövi elephant at NMNH gives us a great deal to unpack. The collection of animals for public display has fallen sharply out of favor over the past century. In the late 1800s, little worlds behind glass populated by taxidermy animals provided the increasingly urban public a window into the natural world they felt they had left behind. But even in Fénykövi’s day, popular opinion was beginning to turn against the practice. For most, this aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the unpleasantness of being confronted with a dead animal. Some scholars rightly call attention to the imperialism and exoticism inherent in collecting animals from far-flung lands. This criticism is especially apt for Fénykövihis story contains more than a whiff of imperialist entitlement.

Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The fact that the elephant was killed as a trophy complicates matters still further. It’s one thing for a museum to display an animal that was sacrificed for science—to better understand its biology or to contribute to a record of biodiversity. Displaying a trophy is quite another. While a typical museum taxidermy display represents the life of an animal, a trophy mount celebrates that animal’s death. As Poliquin explains, “trophies arouse negative reactions not simply because they are evidence that a human killed an animal…they are evidence of a human’s desire to kill an animal” (Poliquin 2010, 152). Indeed, it is arguably impossible to fully separate a trophy mount from the narrative of the creature’s demise.

For Fénykövi, the meaning of the elephant is obvious. It represented a specific, triumphant event in his life, an attempt to communicate something about himself through the death of animal. NMNH staff have faced the much greater challenge of interpreting  Fénykövi’s trophy for the millions of visitors that enter the rotunda every year. For 56 years, they have struggled to present this animal, selfishly killed by a wealthy colonial, in a way that matched the museum’s conservation-oriented mission.

The elephant’s original context unfortunately left something to be desired. The traditional, circular pedestal in the center of the NMNH rotunda did not effectively distance the specimen from it’s origin as a trophy, and the museum was occasionally criticized for complicity with big-game hunting and the colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the elephant did eventually earn an identity as a symbol for the museum, largely separate from the man who killed it. Credit for this accomplishment goes to William Brown and Norman Deaton, who prepared and mounted the hide over sixteen months. Brown and Deaton managed to imbue this dead skin over a wood-and-plaster frame with an astonishing amount of life and character. The elephant holds court in the four-story rotunda, exuding confidence and power over its domain. It’s an unforgettable sight, and it almost makes one forget that this animal is only there because it lost a fight.

Words Source

The 1999 habitat diorama platform—my favorite iteration. Source

Still, it was clear by the 1990s that while the elephant was there to stay, it needed to be more thoughtfully contextualized. In 1999, NMNH replaced the old pedestal with a large, open diorama of the Angolan savanna, which brought the elephant three feet higher off the ground. The project was completed entirely by in-house staff, and was funded in part by a donation from Kenneth Behring (a big-game hunter, among other things). In the revised display, the elephant was the focal point of a story that encompassed every department at the museum. A jackal and an assortment of birds (a lilac-breasted roller, a carmine bee eater, and a white-backed vulture) joined the elephant on the platform, while Angolan grasses and trees completed the scene. Ants, flies, and dung beetles (pushing dung balls cast from examples collected at the National Zoo) abounded. A tin can implied to have been tied to a tree by a local herder represented Anthropology, and bones of the extinct proboscidian Palaeoloxodon recki covered Paleobiology. In short, this display elegantly introduced visitors to everything the museum has to offer, while reinforcing the breadth and significance of natural history collections.

The elephant’s platform has now been rebuilt once again. The elephant stands at the same height and at the same angle, but the footprint of the base has been cut back significantly. The savanna diorama is gone, replaced with a straight-edged marble pedestal. Light and dark marble stripes reflect the rotunda’s classic architecture, particularly the columns in front of each of the main halls. The compass rose on the rotunda floor, hidden since the elephant was first installed in 1959, is visible once again. It grounds the elephant display nicely, especially when viewed from the second floor. Finally, the new elephant platform now includes an information desk. It seems sensible to incorporate a bit of functionality into the display, and fortunately this addition does not noticeably detract from exhibit’s overall aesthetics.

Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The interdisciplinary interpretation has been removed*, replaced by displays that focus  on elephant behavior and the omnipresent threat of poaching. In fact, the only objects on display besides the elephant itself are three ivory sculptures that were seized by customs. The inclusion of these sculptures is a little strange, since it reinforces that ivory products are actually very pretty. Hopefully the adjacent message that elephant poaching has tripled since 1998—and that an elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes—will be enough to convince visitors that it isn’t worth it.

*The one exception is a graphic that places modern elephants in their evolutionary and temporal context, featuring nearly photo-real artwork by Mauricio Anton. 

To its credit, the new display banishes Fénykövi from the elephant’s story—I didn’t see his name mentioned once. While I don’t think it’s possible (or more to the point, appropriate) to completely erase this specimen’s problematic history, it’s encouraging that it has taken on a second life as a cherished ambassador for its threatened species. I can think of no better outcome for an animal that was killed as a trophy.

What do you think of the new display? Which version do you like best?

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

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.

Poliquin, R. (2010). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (2010). Explore Our Collections: Fénykövi Elephant. http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH, reviews

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.

Reich

The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.

References

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

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication

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

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

Fossil sandboxes are terrible

Are these kids learning yet?

Are these kids learning yet? Source

Today, I need to take a moment to rail against one of the most reliably entertaining and beloved of museum attractions – fossil sandboxes. These activities are nearly ubiquitous at paleontology-related parks and museums, and some of them can be quite large and elaborate. There are a few variations, but they generally involve children using simple hand tools to dig through sand or loose gravel to uncover planted fossils (usually replicas, but I’ve seen a few places sacrifice real Pleistocene bones for this activity). Kids and families absolutely adore fossil sandboxes, and they generate all kinds of goodwill for the museums that feature them. In fact, many visitors have come to expect sandbox digs at paleontology exhibits, and become annoyed when one isn’t available.

I understand the appeal of sandboxes. For kids, they’re an opportunity to play pretend, engage in a physical activity after a day of looking at stuff, and generally have fun making a mess. Museum educators, myself included, are all about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences – the idea that different people learn best in different ways. While some easily absorb and retain information by reading or listening quietly, others prefer to solve a problem, talk through a topic with others, or engage in some sort of hands-on activity. That last one is called bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and it is common among athletes and actors, among others. A fossil sandbox allegedly provides an activity for bodily-kinesthetic learners to develop and hone a physical skill related to the topic at hand. Kids get a chance to see and feel what it’s like to be a real paleontologist working in the field.

Except not really. A sandbox focuses kids’ attention, but that’s not the same thing as learning. What they’re doing has virtually nothing to do with actual paleontology. Digging is a comparatively minor part of field work – far more time is spent prospecting for fossils. When a team does start excavating, it’s conducted in a precise and organized manner, so that no taphonomic data is lost. By comparison, the sandbox arrangement conjures ideas of frantic treasure hunting, rather than piecing together and interpreting clues about past life. Furthermore, digging through loose sand is exceedingly rare in the field. If it were so easy to get at fossils, they would either have been found already or would have eroded away to nothing. A simulation is supposed to model a real event, or constrain that event to a limited set of variables. Sandbox digs do neither. Parents and caretakers might appreciate a place where kids can entertain themselves for a while, and educators can pat themselves on the back for providing a physically-involved experience. But there’s no use pretending that anybody is learning in what amounts to a themed playpen.

One alternative to the sandbox concept is provided by Thistle. He describes an activity in which he sets up a series of square meter “dig sites” within a room. Different specimens or artifacts are placed in each square. Participating students are then told that each square represents what was found in a layer of excavation, and are prompted to draw conclusions based on the different objects recovered from different strata. Students consider the spatial relationships among found objects, and discuss the roles of taphonomy and deep time. Unlike a sandbox dig, the results of this activity are comparable to those of a real excavation, and students are asking the same sorts of questions paleontologists would. Granted, Thistle’s activity requires much more guidance than a sandbox, but it’s a good example of something that participants might actually learn from.

The point is, we owe our audiences more than a mindless diversion with no bearing on actual science. And for that matter, we owe the scientists whose work we’re communicating more than a tacky, inaccurate simulation. If our goals are to inspire enthusiasm for science and to encourage young visitors to think scientifically, surely we can do better than a sandbox dig.

References

Thistle, P.C. 2012. Archaeology Excavation Simulation: Correcting the Emphasis. Journal of Museum Education 37:2:65-76.

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Filed under education, exhibits, field work, museums, opinion, 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

amnhmap_1891

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.

“Ancestry of Man” case in the Hall of the Age of Man, 1929. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

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

map

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

map

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!

References

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.

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

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

After I posted my slightly critical evaluation of the AMNH fossil halls last month, a reader suggested I take a look at Next of Kin by Lowell Dingus. Dr. Dingus was the project director for the 1995 renovation, and his book chronicles the decade-long process of overhauling these genre-defining exhibits. It also includes plenty of gorgeous photos of the AMNH fossil exhibits past and present. Although out of print, Next of Kin can be found online for next to nothing. If you find anything on this blog interesting, I would call this book required reading. I cannot recommend it enough.

Edwin Colbert designed this version of the Jurassic exhibit in 1956. This space is now the Hall of Saurichian Dinosaurs. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Next of Kin is full of fascinating information about the renovation, and the history of the halls in general. For instance, it was news to me that the original plan in 1987 was to modernize only the two fossil mammal halls. When William Moynihan took over as Director of AMNH the following year, however, he asked in a planning meeting why the dinosaur exhibits weren’t being renovated, and soon the project expanded to include all six halls on the 4th floor. Apparently the approaches to interpretation, aesthetics, and layout that characterize the exhibits today were already fully formed. The concept of a main pathway with branching alcoves representing individual clades was in place, so the exhibit team only needed to set the starting point back a ways to include the dinosaurs and the rest of the vertebrate family tree. Restoring the historic interior architecture, obscured since the 1950s, was also an early priority. Dingus relates how he wanted to eliminate the “black box” look of the midcentury exhibits and let natural light back into the halls. In my opinion, the well-lit, airy aesthetic is one of the standout features of the AMNH fossil halls, and one other museums might do well to emulate.

Dingus also points out a number of clever design choices that I missed during my last visit to the museum. For instance, the primate section was deliberately placed in the center of the mammal hall, to avoid the implications of directed evolution and human superiority that once marked the AMNH exhibits. Another cool feature is the use of minimalist metal armatures to suggest the size and shape of animals for which only limited material is available. This is an artful way to convey the dimensions of these species without resorting to fabricating most of the skeleton. Again, this is something I’d love to see more of at other museums.

Photo by the author.

Minimalist armatures suggest the size and shape of incomplete specimens. Photo by the author.

Still, I was most interested in reading Dingus’s rationale for the design and layout of the AMNH fossil halls. In my previous post, I argued that the phylogenetic arrangement was a worthwhile experiment, but in practice it may not be the most practical way to make the history of life meaningful to the museum’s primary audience. More than any other organizational scheme, phylogeny is the way biologists think about the natural world, and I applaud the effort to encourage visitors to look at fossils the way scientists do. However, even the most basic elements of evolutionary classification are specialized knowledge, and require a daunting amount of up-front explanation (especially when targeting multiple age groups). I don’t think this integrates well with the multi-entrance, non-linear exhibit space at AMNH.

During the initial planning stages of the AMNH renovation, Dingus and other staff toured several large-scale paleontology exhibits in North America and Europe. Dingus clearly did not like what he saw, lamenting that “some institutions rely heavily on easy-to-understand, anecdotal labels and robotic recreations of dinosaurs that appeal to the lowest common denominator of visitor intellect.” He rejected the “prominent contemporary school of exhibit design that advocates only giving the visitor what he or she asks for,” feeling strongly that his institution could do better. Referring to the renovation as a “scientific crusade,” Dingus was inspired to challenge his audience in a way that peer institutions did not. Dingus and his colleagues wanted to show visitors the real science behind paleontological reconstructions. The phylogeny-based arrangement was central to that goal, emphasizing rigorous anatomical analysis and empiricism in a field historically characterized by idle speculation.

Age of Man

The orientation hall is in the oldest of the 4th floor exhibit spaces. Until the 1960s, this space was occupied by the Hall of the Age of Man. Photo from Dingus 1996.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of this. There was a period in the 80s and 90s (I think the worst is behind us) when the trend toward visitor-focused, educational exhibits got mixed up with a push to make museums more competitive with other leisure activities. Customer enjoyment was valued above all else, even if it meant sacrificing the informative content and access to real specimens that made museums worthwhile institutions in the first place. The resulting displays were filled with paltry nonsense like simulators, pointless computer terminals, and the aforementioned robot dinosaurs*. These exhibits imitated amusement parks, but with only a fraction of the budget they quickly fell into disrepair and technological obsolescence. Despite being museums’ most important and unique resources, curators and research staff found themselves increasingly divorced from their institutions’ public faces.

*Fine, I admit robot dinosaurs are cool. But I’d prefer that they weren’t in museums.

Under these circumstances, a backlash is quite understandable. Nevertheless, it is a common mistake (which I am by no means accusing Dingus of making!) that a visitor-centered exhibit is the same as a frivolous one. When educators push for audience-focused exhibits, they have the same goal as curators: to communicate as much content as possible. Audience-focused exhibits aren’t about dumbing down or eliminating content. They’re about presenting content in a way that effectively reaches the museum’s diverse audience. The AMNH fossil halls would work well for an informed adult visitor with ample time to inspect every specimen and read every label. But this is not the typical audience for natural history museums, and unless AMNH is a major outlier, it’s not the core audience for these exhibits. Most visitors come in mixed-aged groups. The trip to the museum is a social experience, and interactions occur among visitors as much as they occur between visitors and the exhibits. The best museums anticipate and meet the needs of these visitors in order to provide a quality learning experience.

ponies

An updated version of the classic (and classically misleading) horse evolution exhibit. Photo by the author.

It’s admittedly fun to share horror stories about dumb comments overheard in museums. Who in this field hasn’t rolled their eyes at the parent who makes up an answer to their child’s question, when the correct information is on the sign right in front of them? And yet, some of the blame for this failed educational encounter should fall on the museum. Why was that parent unable to spot the relevant information with a quick glace? Can we design signage so that the most important information is legible on the move, or from across the room? Can we correct commonly misunderstood concepts in intuitive ways?

As Dingus argues, it’s important to aim high in the amount of information we want to convey. There’s nothing worse than a condescending teacher. But a carefully-honed message in common language will always be more successful than a textbook on the wall. Happily, this is the way the wind is blowing these days. In a strong reversal of the situation a decade ago, curators now work closely with educators on the front lines to produce exhibits that are both accessible and intellectually challenging. It’s been 20 years since AMNH opened the latest version of its fossil exhibits…perhaps a new and even better iteration is already on its way!

Reference

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

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Filed under AMNH, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion, reviews, science communication, systematics

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 Riley Black 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.

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

The Last American Dinosaurs Has Arrived!

Hatcher greets visitors

Hatcher the Triceratops greets visitors at the entrance to The Last American Dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are once again on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Opening just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, “The Last American Dinosaurs” provides a much-needed dose of paleontology while the main fossil hall is being renovated. I was fortunate enough to take part in a preview tour for social media users – you can check out the storified version, or read on for photos and my initial thoughts on the new exhibit.

Stan is cool

Stan the T. rex is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Babies

Triceratops growth series reveals how much we’ve learned about the lives of dinosaurs over the last 25 years.

As promised, there are plenty of dinosaurs on view. Specifically, these are the dinosaurs of Maastrichtian North America, the last of these animals to grace this continent before the extinction event 66 million years ago. In addition to the mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus discussed in the previous post, be on the lookout for a hatchling and juvenile Triceratops, an Edmontosaurus, and bits and pieces from dromaeosaurs and pachycephalosaurs.

However, the dinosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg. As lead curator Hans-Dieter Sues explained within the first few minutes of the tour, the central message of this exhibit is that dinosaurs were only one part of a complex ecosystem. To that end, the dinosaurs of The Last American Dinosaurs are outnumbered by a menagerie of of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and plants that shared their world, most of which are on display for the first time. These specimens come from a variety of sources. Some, including turtles and fossil leaves, were collected by NMNH paleontologists in North Dakota specifically for this exhibit. Others, like the lizard Polyglyphanodon, have been in the museum’s collection since the 1930s but have never before been put on display. I also spotted a few casts sourced from Triebold Paleontology, including the mammal Didelphodon and the alligator-like Stangerochampsa

Gilmore specimen

This Polyglyphanodon was collected by Charles Gilmore in the 1930s.

crocs

Stangerochampsa and Champsosaurus are examples of animals that survived the K/T extinction.

Much like the Human Origins exhibit, The Last American Dinosaurs incorporates the faces of Smithsonian researchers and staff throughout the displays. There are large photos showing the museum’s scientists at work in the field, and the popular windowed FossiLab has found a new home in this exhibit. In addition, a large area is deservedly devoted to scientific illustrator Mary Parrish, chronicling the methods she uses to turn fossil data into gorgeously detailed renderings of prehistoric animals and environments. Videos of Parrish and others at work can be seen here.

I’m definitely a fan of this personalized approach to science communication. In-house scientists are museums’ most important and unique resources, and placing them front-and-center reminds visitors that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relateable to visitors.

new stuff

Handwritten labels on these fresh from the field fossils provide a personal touch.

The phenomenon of extinction is another important theme in The Last American Dinosaurs. The exhibit details how an asteroid impact combined with several other factors to radically alter the environment worldwide, causing 70% of species to die out (fun fact: ambient temperatures in North America directly after the impact were comparable to the inside of a brick pizza oven). However, the exhibit goes on to make direct comparisons between the K/Pg extinction event and the anthropogenic extinctions of today. Habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and climate change caused by burning fossil fuels are instigators of environmental upheaval as powerful as any space rock.

extinction

This moa and dodo remind visitors that extinction isn’t limited to the distant past.

In this way, The Last American Dinosaurs is a warm-up for the key messages of the new fossil hall. The overarching theme of the planned exhibit is that “Earth’s distant past is connected to the present and shapes our future.” It will showcase how living things and their environments are interdependent, and change over time. Crucially, it will also demonstrate how our understanding of how life has changed over time is important for understanding and mitigating our impact on present-day ecosystems. The Last American Dinosaurs is evidently a testing ground for how these ideas will resonate with audiences.

paleoart

Historic models of Agathaumas and Triceratops by Charles Knight and Charles Gilmore.

In designing modern paleontology exhibits, museum workers have tried many approaches to squelch the idea of the dinosaur pageant show and instead convey how the science of paleontology is relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Back in 1995, the American Museum of Natural History tried a cladistic arrangement with a focus on biodiversity. More recently, the Field Museum used the process of evolution to frame the history of life on Earth. While there are certainly overlaps with what has come before, the “modern implications of environmental change over deep time” approach under development at NMNH is fairly novel, and also quite timely. Some of the displays in The Last American Dinosaurs hit pretty close to home, and I’m eager to find out how visitors respond.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, reptiles, reviews, science communication, theropods