Tag Archives: exhibits

Hatcher, Stan, and the Changing Identities of Fossil Mounts

Photo by the author

Hatcher the Triceratops and Stan the T. rex in the NMNH fossil hall, early 2014. Photo by the author.

Although the east wing fossil halls are closed for renovation until 2019, the National Museum of Natural History will not be without a dinosaur display for much longer. An interim exhibit entitled “The Last American Dinosaurs” will open later this month, occupying the space that formally held the “Written in Bone” exhibition. The Last American Dinosaurs will cover a small but important slice of the age of dinosaurs: the final ecosystem to grace North America before the extinction event 66 million years ago. While the new exhibit will feature several show-stealing dinosaurs, the main message is that these animals lived within a complete and complex ecosystem, just like the animals of today. The exhibit will also cover the phenomenon of extinction, and how massive environmental change (whether caused by a giant space rock or by human activity) can drastically alter the course of life on Earth.

What I’d like to discuss in this post are the two dinosaurian centerpieces of the exhibit: Hatcher the Triceratops and Stan the Tyrannosaurus. Both mounts stood in the classic fossil hall for years, and I’ve already written extensively about each of them. Nevertheless, these two dinosaurs nicely encapsulate the history of mounted fossil skeletons, as well as the changing face of museum paleontology. As the ambassadors to the Smithsonian’s dinosaur collection for the next five years, I think it’s worth revisiting their origin stories.

The First Triceratops

Hatcher in Hall of Extinct Monsters

This Triceratops stood in the NMNH fossil hall for nearly 90 years. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Smithsonian Triceratops hails from what we might call the golden age of museum paleontology. Mounted dinosaur skeletons were an integral part of the rise of large urban natural history museums at the turn of the 20th century. The opening of the American western frontier revealed an unprecedented treasure trove of fossils, far greater than what was previously known in Europe. As a result, paleontology became one of the first realms of science in which Americans were leaders, and patriotism was a significant factor in the growing public enthusiasm for extinct monsters. Wealthy benefactors of recently formed institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Columbian Museum envisioned the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs as an opportunity to increase attendance and public interest, and they provided ample funding to find fossils for display. These efforts were not wasted, as the golden age fossil mounts have been enjoyed for generations…and most are still on display today.

It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of this era of discovery and exposition. Golden age fossil mounts were forged into being entirely in-house. At a given museum, the same small group of staff was frequently responsible for finding, preparing, describing, naming and mounting a new dinosaur. As such, fossil mounts were typically exclusives to particular museums, and they garnered significant amounts of institutional and regional pride. New York had “Brontosaurus” and Tyrannosaurus. Pittsburgh had Diplodocus. And for more than 20 years, Washington, DC had the world’s only mounted Triceratops.

Hatcher in Sunday star

A spread in the June 11, 1905 Sunday Star profiled the Smithsonian Triceratops. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Built in 1905 by Charles Gilmore and Norman Boss, the Smithsonian Triceratops has been a Washington, DC attraction for longer than the Lincoln Memorial. Like most turn of the century dinosaur mounts, it is not a single specimen but a composite of several individuals. The fossils were recovered from Wyoming by the prolific fossil hunter John Bell Hatcher, working in the employ of O.C. Marsh and the United States Geological Survey*. USNM 4842, the most complete partial skeleton available, provided the torso and pelvis, while the remains of at least six other Triceratops filled in the rest of the mount.

*Incidentally, this means the Triceratops doesn’t quite fit the story I outlined above. It was not discovered or named by Smithsonian scientists – instead, the Smithsonian inherited the fossils Marsh collected for the federal government when he was through with them.

Even though it was a slightly disproportionate chimera, for experts and laypeople alike the Smithsonian Triceratops mount was Triceratops. Virtually every illustration of the animal for decades after the mount’s debut dutifully copied its every eccentricity, including the slightly undersized head and excessively sprawled forelimbs. If you can strain your eyes to read Sunday Star article above, it’s also interesting to see how the mount was presented to the public. Even in an era when museum displays were unapologetically created by experts for experts, the Triceratops is repeatedly likened to a fantastical monster. Although the creation of the mount was an important anatomical exercise for the small community of professional paleontologists, it seems that for most visitors a display like this primarily served as whimsical entertainment.

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Hatcher was moved to his new home on the second floor at the beginning of the summer. Photo by the author.

After a brief stint in the original United States National Museum (now called the Arts and Industries Building), Gilmore and Boss’s Triceratops was transferred the east wing of the present-day NMNH in 1911. It remained there for 90 years, until the aging and deteriorating fossils were finally disassembled and retired to the collections. In their place, Smithsonian staff created an updated replica skeleton, called “Hatcher”, from digital scans of the original bones. This version is the Triceratops that will be on display in The Last American Dinosaurs.

A Prefab Tyrannosaurus?

Stan. Photo by Chip Clark.

Stan the T. rex, as seen in the classic NMNH fossil hall. Photo by Chip Clark.

Since 2000, Hatcher the Triceratops was in a permanent face-off with another replica mount, Stan the Tyrannosaurus. Unlike Hatcher, Stan is not based on fossils in the Smithsonian collection. This T. rex cast was purchased from the Black Hills Institute, a private company that  produces and sells replica fossil skeletons (as well as original specimens, which is another issue entirely). Discovered by avocational fossil hunter Stan Sacrison in 1987, Stan the dinosaur was excavated and is now owned by BHI. Since 1995, BHI has sold dozens of Stan replicas to museums and other venues. The Smithsonian acquired its version in 1999, in part because of visitor demand for the world’s most famous dinosaur, but also apparently as a consolation prize for missing out on Sue.

Clearly, much has changed in the way museums source their dinosaurs. Rather than creating fossil mounts on-site, museums frequently contract out the production to exhibit fabrication companies like Research Casting International, Gaston Design, and the aforementioned Black Hills Institute. These companies can construct mounts using fossils or casts from a particular museum’s collection, but they also offer catalogs of made-to-order skeletons. Thanks to these exhibit companies, more or less identical copies of certain dinosaurs are now on display all over the world.  In Stan’s case, the Smithsonian version has a twin just seven miles north at the Discovery Communications building in Silver Spring.

Stan can be set up in a under an hour. This version was recently displayed at Farmington Museum.

Stan replicas can be set up in a under an hour. This version was recently displayed at New Mexico’s Farmington Museum. Source

An argument could be made that this degree of replication lessens the impact and cultural value of dinosaur displays. How much allure does a mount have when identical versions can be seen at dozens of other locations, including corporate offices and amusement parks? I would counter that this is a small price to pay when we consider the substantial educational benefits of this unprecedented availability of dinosaur skeletons. Widespread casts like Stan give people all over the world the opportunity to see a T. rex in person, an experience that was until recently limited to those with the means to travel to a handful of large cities. Typically priced in the tens of thousands of dollars, dinosaur casts certainly aren’t cheap, but they are still within the means of many small to mid-sized local museums.

Furthermore, these casts are hardly rolling off of assembly lines. They are exact replicas of real fossils, and require a tremendous amount of experience and skill to produce. Mounts are manufactured as needed, and are customized to meet the needs of the specific museum. Meanwhile, museums still employ scientists who collect new fossils for their collections. The difference is that these collecting trips usually seek to answer specific research questions, rather than going after only the biggest and most impressive display specimens. Finally, museums definitely haven’t outsourced exhibit production entirely. All summer at NMNH, in-house preparators have been working in collaboration with contractors from Research Casting International to dismantle the historic fossil exhibits in preparation for the upcoming renovation.

Reassembling Stan upstairs. Photo by Abby Telfer.

Reassembling Stan for The Last American Dinosaurs. Photo by Abby Telfer.

There’s one more change for the better in modern paleontology exhibits. When the Smithsonian Triceratops was first introduced to the world in 1905, natural history displays tended to focus on the breadth of collections. Curators composed exhibits with other experts in mind, and the non-scholars that actually made up the majority of museum visitors were not directly catered to. Without any context to work with, fossil mounts were little more than toothy spectacles for most visitors. Today, museum staff create exhibits that tell stories. The Last American Dinosaurs has been explicitly designed to contextualize the dinosaurs – to show how they fit into the history of life on Earth, and why their world is meaningful today. How successful will this be? I’ll report back after the exhibit opens on November 25th.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, reptiles, theropods

Spinosaurus at the National Geographic Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstruction of the holotype

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

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

Spinosaurus!

Spinosaurus in all its glory. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

friends

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

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

 

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

Framing Fossil Exhibits, Part 1

This post started out as a review of “Evolving Planet”, the expansive paleontology exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The short version is that it’s very good exhibit constrained by a somewhat frustrating layout. We’ll get back to that eventually, but first it’s worth considering the purpose of large-scale fossil exhibits in a more general sense.

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. In the early days, public exhibits were afterthoughts to the primary work of the museum (research and curation of collections), and if there was any logic behind their layout, it was an aesthetic logic. Typically posed in neutral, trophy-like stances on centrally-situated pedestals, mounted skeletons were the highlights of a natural history display for most visitors. For anyone not trained in comparative anatomy, however, these exhibits ultimately amounted to prehistoric pageantry. People could marvel at the great size of the animals, but there was very little to be learned besides the names of the species in question.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

A typically random assortment of fossil specimens at the Field Colombian Museum, ca. 1898. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

These days, we try to do better. Exhibits are designed with a clear narrative structure, as well as specific learning goals for the audience. The focus of the narrative varies depending on the exhibit and the team behind it, but most modern natural history exhibits are explicitly designed to answer “how” as well as “what.” For paleontology displays, this means telling the story of life on Earth while also communicating how scientists collect and interpret evidence to put that story together. Crafting an exhibit has been compared to writing a popular nonfiction book, except designers are using the three-dimensional space of the exhibition hall as their medium. In this way, modern exhibits are more about ideas than specimens, or at least, the specimens are present primarily to illustrate the major scientific principles being communicated.

That’s how it works on paper, anyway. Despite this focus on education (and institutional mandates to provide learning opportunities for the widest possible audience), visitor surveys show that dinosaur pageantry is still the default mode of understanding for the majority of people passing through paleontology exhibits. No matter how carefully we craft our stories, most visitors still leave these displays recalling little more than a list of cool specimens they saw. Dinosaur pageantry has its place and can be employed for good. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are undeniably impressive and spectacular, and it is absolutely worth taking advantage of that fact. We want people to pay attention to science, and in that respect mounted skeletons of favorite dinosaurs are great ambassadors to the world of research and discovery. The challenge is getting past the attention-grabbing stage. Prior experience has led visitors to expect that dinosaur pageantry is all paleontology has to offer, and many seem unprepared or unwilling to commit to a deeper understanding.

peabody mammals

The great hall at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of the last unmodified early 20th century fossil displays in the US. Photo by the author.

So are these people just hopeless rubes? Should exhibits be tailored only to visitors that care enough to put in the effort to understand? It should go without saying that this condescending attitude is completely wrongheaded and goes against the very spirit of museums. Education is half about knowing your content and half about knowing your audience. If visitors are not picking up on the content as desired, then a reassessment of who those visitors are is in order. Many museum exhibits still seem to be pitched at interested adults traveling alone with all the time in the world. This is a good description of many of my museum visits, but I’m also part of an increasingly small fraction of museum visitors. Most people who come to natural history museums come in groups of friends or family, and these groups often represent a range of ages. What’s more, most visitor interactions while in the museum will not be with the exhibits, but with each other. For the typical visitor, the museum experience is primarily a social one.

With this demographic in mind, a textbook on the wall (or a long video lecture*) is the last thing natural history museum audiences need. Visitors are absorbing exhibit content while simultaneously navigating a complicated, unfamiliar space. In the case of parents, they are also monitoring the attention span, hunger, and bathroom needs of their charges. Caught up in this whirlwind of information, visitors frequently fall back on what they already know. In the case of paleontology exhibits, this often means identifying familiar dinosaurs and ignoring the more intellectually challenging contextual information.

*It’s worth pointing out that a long video is NOT an improvement over a long label. Transferring label copy to a video or computer terminal does not inherently make the exhibit more interactive or more interesting. In fact, when the disruptive noise and need to wait for the next showing are taken into account, poorly implemented multimedia is probably less useful than traditional text labels.

The challenge for exhibit design, then, is dealing with the fact that visitors are not passively ingesting information. Visitors passing through an exhibit pull out relevant pieces of information and filter them through the lens of their existing worldview. Exhibit designers want visitors to also learn new information and challenge their preconceptions, but it’s easy to go too far. Survey after survey has shown that visitors do not appreciate exhibits that force them to move (or think) on rails. For practical reasons noted above, few visitors are able to look at every display, watch every orientation video, and work through every interactive in the prescribed order. Visitors need flexibility in order to make the exhibit experience their own. Finding the balance between providing informative context and providing a customizable experience is quite challenging, and not every exhibit succeeds.

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The dinosaur hall in “Evolving Planet” at the Field Museum. Photo by the author.

On top of that, paleontology exhibits are particularly difficult to design because of problems with relatability. The story of life on Earth is immense, complex, and frequently counter-intuitive. It’s not enough to just explain what happened, we have to explain the history and methodologies of the half-dozen scientific disciplines that have contributed to to our understanding of that narrative. Even something so basic as the numerical age of a given fossil taxon requires a deluge of explanation to convey how we know. And all of this needs to be conveyed concisely, without being alienating, overwhelming, or condescending. Most importantly, it has to be made relevant to what audiences already know and understand.

Over the years, major natural history museums have attempted a variety of organizational strategies for their fossil exhibits. Each of these has been an attempt to break the dinosaur pageantry barrier and to portray the true complexity and relevance of paleontological science. Some arrangements, like taxonomical organization, have generally fallen out of favor. Others, like chronological presentations of life through time, are reliable mainstays that have been re-imagined in varied ways at different institutions. Still others, including cross-sections of specific extinct ecosystems, biogeography, and environmental change over time are relatively new and untested.

Keeping everything in this meandering introduction in mind, the upcoming series of posts will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each approach from the perspectives of science communication, aesthetics, and for lack of a better term, hospitality for non-expert audiences. Stay tuned!

References

Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. 1992. The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.

Wands, S., Donnis, E. and Wilkening, S. 2010. “Do Guided Tours and Technology Drive Visitors Away?” History News 93:8:21-23.

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

Drama and natural history

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

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

CMNH zebra diorama. Source: amyboemig on flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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