Tag Archives: Extinct Monsters

Painting the Ancient Seas

During a 1958 benchmarking trip to a number of North American natural history museums, Smithsonian exhibits specialist Ann Karras wrote to Assistant Secretary Remington Kellogg about the state of artwork in paleontology displays. She noted with some frustration that since the paleontological community’s early 20th century love affair with Charles Knight, very little had been accomplished in this field. Everywhere she went, Karras saw reproductions of the same decades-old Knight paintings, supplemented by only the most tentative attempts at original artwork. As Karras postulated, “reverence for [Knight’s] work on the part of paleontologists may have thwarted any ambitions in that area of illustration for some years.” The sole outlier was the Peabody Museum of Natural History, home of the 1947 Age of Reptiles mural by Rudolph Zallinger. Impressed by the scale and quality of this 110-foot fresco, Karras suggested that the Smithsonian  invest in a similarly monumental piece of up-to-date paleoart at some point in the future.

Karras’s wish was finally realized in 1990, with the debut of Eleanor Kish’s epic Life in the Ancient Seas mural in the exhibit of the same name. Sixteen feet high and 130 feet long (with a sixteen by twenty foot supplement on the opposite wall), this mural is even larger than Zallinger’s better-known magnum opus. It also covers more of Earth’s history, spanning 541 years of deep time across the entire Phanerozoic Eon. But while The Age of Reptiles charts the progression of life on land, Life in the Ancient Seas follows the denizens of the undersea realm. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural demonstrates that the history of life is most thoroughly documented by marine fossils.

Dunkleosteus. Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

Close-up of Dunkleosteus and eurypterids. Art by Eleanor Kish. Source

The idea to include a mural in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit came relatively late. There was no mention of the artwork in the 1987 briefing document for potential donors, and as late as June of that year curator Nicholas Hotton was writing in hopeful terms about the inclusion of a full-color illustration of Dolichorhynchops. Eventually, however, the exhibit team got the go-ahead to start looking for an artist. Content Specialist Linda Deck started by assembling a list of three dozen prominent paleoartists. She sent each of them a letter of invitation, describing the project and emphasizing the immense scale of the desired product. Half of the artists responded with resumes and portfolio samples, and from these the exhibit team narrowed the field to six candidates*.

The short-list candidates were then given a $1000 stipend to paint a small sample piece. Each artist was provided with the scenario (a group of ammonites releasing a cloud of ink upon being attacked by a mosasaur), an assortment of fossil reference photos, and encouragement to get in touch with NMNH curators as needed. Of the five artists who completed this challenge, the exhibit team agreed unanimously that Kish’s work was the best fit for the project. Not only did she demonstrate the ability to accurately render the animals with anatomical precision, her bold color palate would work well as the backdrop for the entire exhibit.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The mosasaur section of the mural, presumably not far off from Kish’s original concept piece. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Eleanor (or Ely) Kish was born in 1924 to a family of artists. Growing up in New Jersey, she became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1972. While Kish was a professional artist for most of her adult life, her career in paleontological illustration kicked off in the 1970s, at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature. It was there that she worked with paleontologist Dale Russell on some of the earliest Renaissance-era dinosaur reconstructions (an assortment of paintings from Russel’s An Odessey of Time: The Dinosaurs of North America can be seen here). Tales of dinosaur art from this era often focus on Gregory Paul, John Sibbick, and their imitators, but Kish’s work was similarly prominent in books and magazines of the day.

Kish’s art is instantly recognizable for its portrayal of active, highly expressive dinosaurs in breathtakingly realized landscapes. The worlds she created – particularly the skies – have an almost poetic beauty, while the plants and animals that inhabit them drip with dew and pulsate with life. Kish’s work is often overlooked today because her dinosaurs are shrink-wrapped in the extreme, sometimes appearing emaciated or even ghoulish. The skeletal look is very much out of vogue (modern paleontologists prefer their dinosaurs appropriately bulked out with muscle, fat, and feathers), but as Christian Kammerer pointed out on twitter, it’s important to consider Kish’s art in context. Her carefully-researched work was a powerful counterpoint to the rotund, shapeless dinosaurs that had dominated paleoart in preceding decades, and a critical step on the road to the reconstructions we know today.

Kish with pencil sketch, color comprehensive, and models.

The artist with her models, pencil sketch, and color comprehensive. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

kish pretends to paint

Kish pretends to size up her canvas during a video shoot. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Once she received her work visa in May 1988, Kish moved to the Washington, DC area to begin Life in the Ancient Seas. She began by constructing small models of the most prominent animals that would appear in the mural. Working primarily with Sculptey, she built the animals’ skeletons first, using fossil photos as reference. Once these were approved, Kish sculpted the animals’ musculature and outer surfaces. She then used her models to paint a 16-foot small scale (1.5 inch to 1 foot) pencil sketch of the mural. This enabled her to work out the poses and behaviors of the animals, as well as the overall composition of the artwork. The next step was to produce the “color comprehensive”: a miniature painting with all the detail of the final piece. Since it would be impossible to photograph the entire mural within the narrow confines of Hall 5, this is the version that was reproduced for books, magazines, and postcards.

After fourteen months of preliminary work, Kish applied the first brushstrokes to the wall in the Spring of 1989. The museum’s graphics shop had prepared the surface well in advance, laying overlapping sheets of canvas onto drywall and carefully buffing out wrinkles and tears. Kish painted 130 feet of ocean backdrop for the main mural first, which took nearly two months. Next, Kish completed the smaller Cretaceous mural on the south side of the gallery, then moved on to the daunting task of filling in the large mural. She populated the scene chronologically, starting with the Paleozoic on the far left and moving forward through time. The exhibits department coordinated closely with Kish, so that the rest of the exhibit could be installed in her wake as each section of the mural was finished. The project took a total of two years to complete.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The “small” 20-foot Mesozoic mural, which appeared on the south wall of Hall 5. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas is an absolute masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms. The three biggest animals – Dunkleosteus, Tylosaurus, and Basilosaurus – anchor the action and provide a focal point for the viewer. From there, dynamic schools of fish draw the eye back and forth across the canvas. The longer one looks at this vibrant and colorful seascape, the more details emerge.

Of course, the primary function of the mural is to bring the static fossils on display to life, and Kish does not disappoint. The canvas is filled with hundreds of animals in perpetual motion. Streams of bubbles erupting from the creatures’ mouths imbue them with breath and energy. Although plenty of animals are being eaten, Life in the Ancient Seas is not a savage struggle of life and death. In one area, an inquisitive shark gets a face full of ink from a cephalopod that has no time for its antics. In another, a school of fish is sent careening in different directions by the powerfully swishing tail of the Tylosaurus. Instead of focusing on the macabre, Kish brilliantly incorporates whimsical humor into her work without plunging into the realm of cartoonishness. It is a feat that other paleoartists might do well to emulate. Meanwhile, Kish cleverly grounds some of the stranger extinct animals by juxtaposing them with their more familiar brethren. For example, the association of Basilosaurus, which resembles a fanciful sea dragon, with comparably mundane dugongs and dolphins makes this serpentine ancestral whale seem more plausible.

Art by Eleanor Kish. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.

The back lit cove where Miocene sea lions and penguins frolic is easily the most beautiful part of the mural. Art by Eleanor Kish. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Life in the Ancient Seas was the largest project Kish ever took on. As she stated in multiple interviews, the Smithsonian commission made her career. The money she earned allowed her to buy a rural home in Ontario and convert it into a studio, which allowed her to produce more work more quickly. “I always wanted a studio,” she told the Ottawa Star,  “but I never had the money. The Smithsonian gave me that chunk of cash.”

Ely Kish passed away on October 12, 2014 at the age of 90. Those who knew her are quick to mention her kindness and generosity, particularly toward young artists. Past colleagues also fondly recall her impressive bouts of swearing, which would occasionally punctuate her normally soft-spoken demeanor. For the rest of us, we have Kish’s amazing artwork to remember her by. Kish created worlds we could otherwise never see, and she did it on a breathtaking scale. Although hers was a visual medium, she made the past into something we could feel and even experience. She and her talents will be missed.

Many thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff for providing access to the materials used in writing this article. 

References

Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.

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

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles

Revisting the Ancient Seas

Between 1981 and 1990, the National Museum of Natural History carried out its second major overhaul of the east wing paleontology exhibits. Entitled “Fossils: The History of Life”, the new exhibit complex represented a significant departure from earlier iterations of this space. While the previous renovation arranged specimens according to taxonomy and curatorial specialties, “The History of Life” followed the evolutionary progression of fossil plants and animals through time. The new exhibits also differed from prior efforts in that they were not put together exclusively by curators. Instead, the design process was led by educators and exhibits specialists, who sought curatorial input at all stages. The result was a (comparably) more relatable and approachable paleontology exhibit, created with the museum’s core audience of laypeople in mind.

By 1987, four sections were completed: The Earliest Traces of Life, Conquest of the Land, Reptiles: Masters of the Land, and Mammals in the Limelight. Occupying halls 2, 3, and 4, these exhibits (along with the older Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man in Hall 6) told the complete story of the terrestrial fossil record. However, Hall 5 (the narrow space running parallel to the central dinosaur exhibit on its north side) was still vacant.

1987 map

1987 map of planned additions to the “History of Life” exhibit complex, including the never-realized Changing Earth. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Going back to the 1977 theme statement that kicked off the History of Life renovations, the intent was always for Hall 5 to feature two exhibits: one on prehistoric sea life and another on the geological context for the fossil record. These ideas were fleshed out in a 1987 briefing packet that was distributed to potential donors. As the document explained, “it is in the undersea realm that the history of life is most abundantly documented,” and coverage of fossil marine life is therefore “critical” to visitors’ understanding of evolution through deep time. From the beginning, the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit promised to feature a life-sized diorama of a Permian reef community, mounted skeletons suspended in life-like swimming poses, and an immersive underwater ambiance. Meanwhile, the proposed “Changing Earth” exhibit would “illuminate the entire story [told in the fossil halls] by looking at the ways geological processes have affected the course of evolution over millions of years.” A key feature was a “video disc time machine”, which was essentially a computer terminal where artwork reconstructing different time periods could be viewed.

Changing Earth was ultimately never built. Instead, the allocated space became a windowed fossil preparation lab, which would prove to be one of the most popular exhibits in the History of Life complex. Nevertheless, many of the ideas planned for Changing Earth would be revisited in the Geology, Gems, and Minerals hall, which opened in 1997. Life in the Ancient Seas did get funding, however, and with a budget of approximately $4 million, production of the exhibit was underway by early 1988.

concept 1

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

concept 2

Life in the Ancient Seas concept art. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As with any large exhibit, Life in the Ancient Seas was made possible through the combined efforts of dozens of talented scientists, artists, and technicians. Like the rest of the History of Life complex, the Department of Exhibits generally initiated and produced the content, which the Department of Paleobiology then revised or approved. Linda Deck was the content specialist, steering the ship throughout the planning and production process. She selected specimens, chose the major storylines, and acted as a bridge between the curators and exhibits staff. Li Bailey and Steve Makovenyi were the designers, overseeing the exhibit’s aesthetics and making sure it functioned as a cohesive whole. Sue Voss was the lead writer of label copy.

The hall’s design revolved around two main ideas, one aesthetic and one pedagogical. Visually, the exhibit needed to “simulate the perspective of a scuba diver” (Deck 1992). Makovenyi and Bailey gave the hall a blue-green color palate, with a low, black-tiled ceiling. Shimmering lights projected on the floor contributed to the illusion of traveling through the underwater world. Meanwhile, the layout of the hall adhered strictly to the chronology of geologic time. As visitors traversed the space, archways and glass barriers emphasized the conceptual divisions between the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.

Tylosaurus photo by the author

Tylosaurus and Hesperornis are classic NMNH mounts. Photo by the author.

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Life in the Ancient Seas featured over 1,000 specimens, most of which were invertebrates like trilobites, brachiopods, ammonites, and bivalves. Early lists of vertebrates earmarked for display were (as is typical) much longer than the final selection of twelve mounted skeletons – a walrus and a baleen whale were among the casualties. A few of the mounts, like the  ancestral whale Basilosaurus (USNM V 4675) and the sea lizard Tylosaurus (USNM V 8898), had already been on display for decades and needed only modest touch-ups for the new exhibit. Most of the vertebrate skeletons, however, were brand new. The Dolichorhynchops (USNM PAL 419645) was collected in Montana in 1977, and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared and assembled the mount in 1987. A Eurhinodelphis dolphin (USNM PAL 24477) from Maryland was mounted by contractor Constance Barut Rankin. Her work was so impressive that she earned a full-time position for her trouble. The sea cow Metaxytherium (USNM PAL 244477) was a very late addition, having been excavated in Florida during the 1988 field season.

miocene

Miocene dolphin and sea cow. Photo by the author.

A variety of created objects joined the real specimens in telling the story of marine life through time. Model Hybodus sharks swam near the ceiling, and a realistic papier-mâché seabed extended the length of the exhibit beneath the mounted skeletons (little did visitors know this “seabed” was fragile enough to be punched through if it was ever stepped on). The exhibit team decided early on that Life in the Ancient Seas would include an 11-foot high, life-sized diorama of a Permian reef, based on the Glass Mountains deposits in Texas. Smithsonian paleontologist G. Arthur Cooper spent years collecting and publishing on the immaculate fossils found in this region, so a reconstruction of the Permian near-shore ecosystem was an obvious choice. What’s more, there was already a man lined up for the job. Terry Chase of Missouri-based Chase Studios (who would later go on to create Phoenix the whale) had already built a Permian reef for the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, and most of the same molds and designs could be re-used. Still, the NMNH diorama was a massive undertaking, featuring 100,000 unique models – some hand-sculpted and some cast in translucent resin or wax.

Phillip Anderson experimented with a variety of materials to create the shimmering of sunlight shining through water that appeared in the diorama and at the exhibit’s two main entrances. As it turns out, nothing looks as good as actual light penetrating actual water. To accomplish the effect, Anderson rigged a piston cylinder to continuously produce waves in a shoebox-sized plexiglass container of water. A quartz light shone through the container and projected the pattern onto the floors and walls.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version.

The Permian reef at the Midland Petroleum Museum. I stupidly never took a picture of the NMNH version. Source

Life in the Ancient Seas opened in May 1990. In a Washington Post review, Hank Burchard raved about the ocean-themed design and especially Voss’s text, stating that “every museum text writer in town should study her style.” For the next 23 years, Life in the Ancient seas stood out as the gem among the east wing fossil exhibits. It was more colorful, easier to navigate, and generally more inviting than the other History of Life galleries. The theatrical label copy was arguably over the top (“Act One had been a bottom-dweller’s ballet, Act Two would be a swimmer’s spectacle”), but the exhibit as a whole plainly succeeded in presenting the story of evolution, adaptation, and extinction in an appealing and attractive way. Over the years, there were a few changes: the shimmering lights were shut off, a charming clay-mation video about the end-Cretaceous food chain collapse was removed, and the Dunkleosteus skull and Basilosaurus skeleton were relocated to the Ocean Hall (the latter was replaced with a cast of the related whale Zygorhiza). Indeed, the opening of the similarly-themed but far larger Ocean Hall in 2008 overshadowed Life in the Ancient Seas, and made many of its displays redundant. Although it was the best part of the History of Life complex, Life in the Ancient Seas was also the shortest lived. It was the last section to open, and in 2013, it was the first section to close.

Those familiar with the exhibit will have surely noticed that I have yet to discuss the beautiful 122-foot mural painted by Ely Kish. Running the entire length of the exhibit, this amazing artwork outclasses even the famous “Age of Reptiles” at the Yale Peabody Museum in terms of scale and number of subjects depicted. This monumental accomplishment will be the subject of the next post – stay tuned!

References

Burchard, H. 1990. Fossils Fuel Sea Journey. The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/05/25/fossils-fuel-sea-journey/d582f067-0745-44a0-90c8-248c1328962a/

Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.

Telfer, A. 2013. Goodbye to Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit. Digging the Fossil Record: Paleobiology at the Smithsonianhttp://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2013/11/ancient-seas.html

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fish, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, reptiles

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

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

Extinct Monsters: The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part III

allosaurus

A close-up of Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

Some time ago, I wrote about the O.C. Marsh dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History. These are the mounted skeletons made from the enormous collection of fossils Marsh accumulated while working for the United States Geological Survey – if you’d like, you can catch up with Part 1 (on Edmontosaurus and Triceratops) and Part 2 (on Camptosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Stegosaurus). Looking back, I noticed that I never actually finished, so here are the two Marsh dinosaurs with as-yet untold stories.

The Thescelosaurus

The name Thescelosaurus neglectus means “neglected wonderful lizard”, because Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Gilmore found the original specimen at the bottom of a crate, more than 10 years after it arrived at NMNH. Still buried its its field jacket, this skeleton had been long overlooked by both Marsh and the museum staff. Nevertheless, Gilmore found that it was remarkably complete and that it represented a taxon new to science.

Gilmore's illustration

An illustration of the Thescelosaurus holotype prior to reconstruction. Source

Thescelosaurus at USNM.

Thescelosaurus as displayed after 1981. Photo by Chip Clark.

The specimen that would become the Thescelosaurus holotype (USNM 7757) was excavated by John Bell Hatcher and William Utterback in July of 1891, while they were collecting for Marsh in Niobrara County, Wyoming. 20 years later, Gilmore discovered that the skeleton was articulated and intact, save for the head, neck, and parts of the shoulder. He even found small patches of preserved skin on the tail and legs. According to Gilmore, the animal had been buried rapidly after death, since it showed no signs of dismemberment by scavengers.

After describing the fossils, Gilmore mounted the Thesclosaurus in relief on its left side. Other than the reconstructed skull (modeled after Hypsilophodon), the specimen was displayed almost exactly as it was found. This was important to Gilmore, because as he wrote in his published description, “I am…of the opinion that specimens so exhibited hold the attention of the average museum visitor far longer and arouse a keener interest in the genuineness of the specimen than does a skeleton that has been freed from the rock and mounted in an upright, lifelike posture.” Today at least, I suspect that the opposite is true –  visitors are generally more impressed by dynamic standing mounts than by reliefs that preserve death poses. Still, it’s fascinating to gain a small amount of insight into the motivations of a pioneering mount-maker.

Although it was first displayed in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, the Thescelosaurus was most prominently exhibited in the 1963 version of the NMNH fossil halls. Here, it joined the Edmontosaurus, Gorgosaurus, and partial Corythosaurus relief mounts along the south wall. In life, these animals were vastly removed from one another in time and space, but displayed together they almost appeared to be parts of a single quarry face. The Thescelosaurus moved to the north wall in 1981, unfortunately placed rather high and out of most visitors’ line of sight.

thescrci

Thescelosaurus cast in the RCI workshop. Source

thescrci2

Close-up of the new Thescelosaurus skull. Source

When the new National Fossil Hall opens in 2019, USNM 7757 will be replaced with a duplicate cast. The original bones will be moved to the collections, where they can be properly studied for the first time in a century. Already, technicians at Research Casting International have freed the skeleton’s left side, which had never been fully prepared. The exhibit replica assembled by RCI is beautiful, retaining the ossified tendons and cartilage impressions of the original. Mounted in a running pose, the new cast also features an updated head, based on Clint Boyd’s recent description of Thescelosaurus cranial anatomy.

The Allosaurus

Built in 1981, the Allosaurus fragilis (USNM 4734) was the last Marsh Collection dinosaur to be mounted, although bits and pieces have been on display at NMNH since 1920. There has been considerable interest in this individual recently, in part because Kenneth Carpenter and Gregory Paul proposed in 2010 that it become the neotype for Allosaurus – more on that in a moment. Others are interested in this specimen because of its unique pathologies. In addition to several broken and healed bones, the Allosaurus has a massive puncture wound on its left scapula, which nicely matches the diameter of a Stegosaurus tail spike.

Benjamin Mudge collected this specimen in 1877 near Cañon City, Colorado. Known as the Garden Park quarry, this site also produced the Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Ceratosaurus on display at NMNH. Although the Smithsonian obtained the Allosaurus with the rest of the Marsh Collection around 1900, Gilmore did not look at it (or any of the theropod material) until at least 1911. All told, USNM 4734 consists of a partial skull and jaw, a complete set of presacral and sacral vertebrae, a few ribs, a pelvis, and virtually complete arms and legs. It would have had a tail as well, but Mudge’s crew accidentally threw the articulated tail over a cliff while excavating the skeleton. Norman Boss assembled a reconstructed skull, which was displayed through the 1970s. The articulated legs and feet were exhibited in a free-standing case until the late 1950s.

Reconstructed skull

Allosaurus skull  as reconstructed by Norman Boss. Image from Gilmore 1920.

This specimen’s taxonomic history merits some discussion. The holotype Marsh selected when naming Allosaurus (YPM 1930) is notoriously poor, consisting of a single phalanx, two dorsal centra, and a tooth. Dozens of very complete skeletons attributed to Allosaurus are now known, and most specialists basically agree on what an Allosaurus is, but the lack of a usable type with which to define the taxon has been an ongoing problem.

The far more complete USNM 4734 was recovered from the same quarry as the Allosaurus holotype, during the same 1877 field season. Marsh himself actually used this specimen, rather than his designated type, to illustrate subsequent publications on Allosaurus. In 1920, Gilmore flirted with the idea of nominating USNM 4734 as a neotype for Allosaurus, but for reasons that I find difficult to follow, he decided to lump both specimens into the older name Antrodemus valens. Joseph Leidy coined Antrodemus in 1870 based on a single caudal vertebra with no geologic provenance, so this move did little to fix the underlying issue. Nevertheless, Antrodemus remained a popular synonym for Allosaurus in some circles for several decades.

allosaurusskullprep

Arnold Lewis rebuilds the Allosaurus skull in 1979. Image from Thomson 1985.

When the NMNH fossil halls were renovated in 1981, the designers noticed that the exhibit badly needed a large theropod mount. Arnold Lewis was tapped to design and construct a complete mounted version of USNM 4734, with some assistance from Ken Carpenter. The tail was cast from a Brigham Young University specimen, but Lewis sculpted the belly ribs and sternum using an alligator skeleton as reference. The completed Allosaurus measures 17 feet from its grinning jaws to the tip of its tail, and a form-hugging armature makes it look particularly dynamic. This mount has been a favorite among visitors for more than 30 years, although the 2001 addition of a Stan the Tyrannosaurus cast has somewhat overshadowed the smaller theropod.

Allosaurus

The complete Allosaurus skeleton was finally exhibited in 1981. Photo by the author.

Technicians from Research Casting International took down the Allosaurus in the summer of 2014 as part of the current round of renovations. You can watch a video of the de-installation here. The skeleton will be remounted in a few years (crouching beside a nest mound), but Smithsonian researchers want to get a good look at it before that happens. In particular, curator Matt Carrano has been wondering for some time whether a partial jaw Marsh named “Labrosaurus ferox” actually belongs to this specimen. The “Labrosaurus” jaw, which has an unusual pathology caused by a bite or twisting force, came from the same quarry as USNM 4734, and appears to be the same portion of jaw that the more complete skeleton is missing. Time will tell whether Carrano’s hunch is correct. Meanwhile, Carpenter and Paul’s petition to replace the Allosaurus type with this more complete specimen from the same locality is still pending. We should expect to hear more about that soon, as well.

References

Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H., and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossil Vertebrate Skeletons. Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques. 285-322.

Gilmore, C. M. (1915). Osteology of Thescelosaurus, an ornithopodus dinosaur from the Lance Formation of Wyoming. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 49:2127:591–616.

Gilmore, C.M. (1920). Osteology of the Carnivorous Dinosauria in the United States National Museum with Special Reference to the Genera Antrodemus (Allosaurus) and CeratosaurusUnited States National Museum Bulletin 110:1-154.

Lee, J.J. (2014). The Smithsonian Disassembles its Dinosaurs. National Geographic Online.  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140731-dinosaur-hall-smithsonian-renovation-culture-science/

Paul, G.S. and Carpenter, K. (2010). Allosaurus Marsh, 1877 (Dinosauria, Theropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of a neotype for its type species Allosaurus fragilis Marsh, 1877. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 67:1:53-56.

Thomson, P. (1985). Auks, Rocks, and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, theropods

Extinct Monsters: Basilosaurus

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

The National Museum of Natural History houses the world’s most complete assemblage of fossil marine mammals. The crown jewel of this collection is assuredly the historic mounted Basilosaurus, the only mount of its kind composed of original fossils. Since 2008, this ancestral whale has been suspended from the ceiling of the expansive Sant Ocean Hall, but these fossils have actually been on near-continuous display for 119 years and counting. Technically this wasn’t the first time Basilosaurus fossils were used in a mounted skeleton (Albert Koch’s absurd chimera “Hydrarchos the sea serpent” preceded it by 60 years), but it was the first time this species was mounted accurately and under scientific supervision.

Note basilo

Basilosaurus cast in the original USNM, now called the Arts and Industries Building. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Basilosaurus was named by anatomist Richard Harlan in 1834. The name means “king lizard”, since he erroneously thought the bones belonged to a giant sea-going reptile. Richard Owen later re-identified the bones as those of a whale, and coined the new name “Zueglodon” (yoke tooth). While the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature decrees that the first published name must be used, late 19th century paleontologists apparently preferred to use Owen’s junior synonym. As such, in 1884 Charles Schuchert, an Assistant Curator at the United States National Museum, went to Clarke County, Alabama in search of “Zueglodon” remains. Decades earlier, Koch came to the same region to collect the fossils he used to assemble Hydrarchos, and local people had been familiar with the whale bones long before that. Nevertheless, Schuchert’s trip is notable because it was the very first fossil-hunting expedition ever mounted by the Smithsonian.

Schuchert did not find the complete Basilosaurus skeleton he was looking for, but he did recover a reasonably complete, albeit fragmented, skull and jaw. He returned to Alabama in 1886 and collected an articulated vertebral column, a pelvis, and enough other elements to assemble a composite skeleton. Technicians used the fossils to produce plaster casts, and combined them with sculpted bones to construct a replica “Zueglodon.” The whale was first unveiled at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, before finding a home in the original United States National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building). The 40-foot skeleton hung from the ceiling of the southwest court, with the original fossils laid out in a long case beneath it.

The mounted Basilosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, circa 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The mounted Basilosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, sometime before 1929. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, the USNM relocated to a larger building on the north side of the national mall, which is the current home of the National Museum of Natural History.  The east wing of the new museum became the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and has been the home of fossil displays at the Smithsonian ever since. The Basilosaurus was selected as the centerpiece of the new display, as its great length and toothy appearance made it popular with visitors. In honor of the occasion, preparator James Gidley reworked the old plaster mount to incorporate Schuchert’s original fossils. A series of caudal vertebrae from a third Basilosaurus specimen was also used. Still labeled “Zueglodon”, the mount was completed in 1912, about a year after the Hall of Extinct Monsters first opened to the public. As Curator of Geology George Merrill explained, the wide-open floor plan of the new hall allowed visitors to walk all the way around the mount, and inspect its every aspect up close.

The Basilosaurus was in the Ancient Seas gallery from 1989 to 2008.

The Basilosaurus was in the Ancient Seas gallery from 1989 to 2008. Photo by Chip Clark.

In 1931, the Basilosaurus was upstaged by a new centerpiece: the mounted Diplodocus that took Charles Gilmore and his team more than a decade to assemble. The Diplodocus took the front-and-center position (where it remains to this day), while the Basilosaurus was relocated to the south side of the hall. The Great Depression and World War II ensured that the east wing exhibits remained largely unchanged for nearly three decades after that, but the space was eventually renovated in the early 1960s as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization campaign. In its new incarnation, the east wing’s open spaces were carved into smaller galleries dedicated to different groups of ancient life. With the central Hall 2 occupied by dinosaurs and fossil reptiles, the Basilosaurus joined the other Cenozoic mammals in Hall 5. This gallery became “Life in the Ancient Seas” in 1989, but the Basilosaurus remained in place.

Life in the Ancient Seas was a very different setting for the Basilosaurus than the Hall of Extinct Monsters, reflecting the significant changes in museum interpretation that occurred during the 20th century. The historic exhibit showcased the breadth of the museum’s fossil collection in a fairly neutral environment. Interpretation was minimal, and generally intended for a scholarly audience. In contrast, Life in the Ancient Seas was an immersive educational experience (no pun intended). The Basilosaurus and other marine mammal skeletons were posed over a papier-mâché ocean bottom, while a blue and turquoise color palate and even shimmering lights contributed to the illusion of traveling through an underwater world. Combined with text panels written with a jovial, inviting tone, the net effect was an exhibit pitched to a general audience at home with multimedia.

The historic Basilosaurus

The historic Basilosaurus, remounted for display in the Ocean Hall. Photo by the author.

The Basilosaurus was moved once more in 2008, when it was incorporated in the enormous new Ocean Hall. In its 5th position in a little over a century, the skeleton now hangs from the ceiling as part of an exhibit on whale evolution. Moving the historic skeleton for the first time in decades was not an easy task, and took about six months of work. NMNH staff collaborated with Research Casting International to disassemble the skeleton, consolidate and conserve each bone, and finally remount the Basilosaurus on a new armature. In the new mount, each bone rests in a custom cradle with felt padding, to prevent vibration damage caused by the crowds passing beneath it. Smithsonian paleontologists also reunited the whale with its hind legs, which Schuchert found alongside the articulated vertebral column in Alabama but were, until recently, thought to belong to a bird.

This latest setting for Basilosaurus is a happy medium between museums past and present. The historic gallery occupied by the Ocean Hall has been restored to its original neoclassical glory, and much like the original Hall of Extinct Monsters visitors have clear sight lines across the space. Rather than being led on rails through a scripted exhibit experience, visitors can move freely through the gallery, bouncing among the objects they find compelling. At the same time, however, the Basilosaurus is explicitly contextualized as an example of the transformative power of evolution. Presented alongside casted skeletons of Maiacetus and Dorudon, this display makes whales’ evolutionary link to terrestrial mammals crystal clear.

References

Gilmore, C.W.  (1941). A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 90.

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

Meet Basilosaurus, an Ancient Whale (2008). Smithsonian Institution. http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/ocean_hall/meet_basilosaurus.html

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

Extinct Monsters: Brachyceratops

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) represent taxa that are well-known to casual paleontology enthusiasts. But nestled amongst household names like Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Diplodocus is an easily-overlooked horned dinosaur that was historically called Brachyceratops montanensis (it’s currently labeled Styracosaurus sp). Tucked away in a glass case behind the giant Triceratops, this pocket-sized ceratopsian may not be the most spectacular display in the exhibit, but it is nevertheless an important one for the Museum. Discovered in 1913 by the Smithsonian’s own Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, Brachyceratops represents one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. It is therefore unfortunate that modern researchers have banished the name Brachyceratops to the realm of taxonomic obscurity. What’s more, the days of the Brachyceratops mount, on exhibit since 1922, are numbered: when the NMNH paleontology halls closed for renovation in April 2014, this specimen was be retired to the collections, and is not planned for inclusion when the exhibit reopens in 2019.

The Brachyceratops mount today. Photo by the author.

The Brachyceratops mount today. Photo by the author.

During his tenure at NMNH, Gilmore was an inexhaustibly productive writer, publishing at least 170 scientific articles, including numerous important descriptions and reassessments of fossils discovered by O.C. Marsh’s teams in the 19th century. However, Gilmore was much happier studying fossils in his lab than excavating new finds in the field, taking part in a scant 16 NMNH-sponsored field expeditions over the course of his career. A 1913 trip to the Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation in Northeast Montana was therefore unusual for Gilmore. He was following in the footsteps of Eugene Stebinger of the US Geological Survey, who had reported the previous year that the region was only minimally explored but clearly awash in vertebrate fossils.

On this inaugural fossil prospecting trip, Gilmore’s team located abundant remains of fish, small reptiles and dinosaurs, especially hadrosaurs and ankylosaurs. The most notable find, however, was a small bone bed (about six feet square) of ceratopsian fossils, representing at least five individuals. Gilmore described this find in a 1917 monograph, naming the dinosaur Brachyceratops montanensis. Today we know that ceratopsians were quite diverse, particularly during the Campanian, but in the early 20th century the true extent of the group was only just being revealed. Still, it was clear to Gilmore that at an estimated six feet in length, Brachyceratops was an unusually small ceratopsian. He proposed that it may have fed on different plants or occupied a different niche than larger contemporaries like Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus.

pretty art

Reconstruction of Brachyceratops holotype skull. Plate from Gilmore 1917.

In 1917, most of the dinosaur mounts on display at NMNH came from fossils collected by Marsh for the US Geological Survey, and many represented species also on display in New York, Pittsburgh and New Haven. Accordingly, Gilmore was doubtlessly enthused by the prospect of displaying a dinosaur exclusive to Smithsonian. He awarded the task of creating a Brachyceratops mount to preparator Norman Boss, who would spend 345 working days on the project. Of the five individuals found in Montana, USNM 7953 was selected as the basis for the mount because it was the most complete, with the sacrum, pelvis, femora and complete set of caudal vertebrae found articulated in situ. Helpfully, Gilmore published a list of precisely which parts of the mount came from which individual specimen (see below). This was a marked contrast from some of his contemporaries at other museums, who would not bother to record such information, or even actively obscure how many disparate specimens they were using to build their mounts.

Gilmore's helpful list

A helpful breakdown of the Brachyceratops mount from Gilmore 1922.

Boss based his restoration of Brachyceratops closely on the complete, articulated Monoclonius (=Centrosaurus) specimen (AMNH 5351) discovered by Barnum Brown in 1914. In particular, Boss replicated the angle of the scapulae and the number of vertebrae (22) on the American Museum of Natural History skeleton. Missing bones and portions thereof were sculpted in plaster, easily recognized by their solid color and smooth texture. Just as Gilmore and Boss had done with their 1905 Triceratops mount, the Brachyceratops was given strongly flexed elbows. According to Gilmore, a very large olecranon process on the ulna would have forced all ceratopsians into this somewhat awkward stance. Of particular note is the restoration of the skull, which was found shattered into dozens of pieces, many smaller than one inch. A close look at the specimen reveals how Boss painstakingly reassembled these fragments. Unfortunately, this is difficult in the exhibit hall because the mount is posed with the side of the skull that is mostly plaster facing visitors.

Norman Boss Brachyceratops courtesy Smithsonian archives

Norman Boss puts the finishing touches on the Brachyceratops mount. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives.

The completed Brachyceratops mount was placed on exhibit in 1922, on the same pedestal in the Hall of Extinct Monsters as the Triceratops. The substrate beneath the mount was colored and textured to match the Two Medicine Formation sandstone in which the fossils were found. Gilmore also prepared one of his charming models of Brachyceratops, mirroring the pose of the mount, but it is unclear whether it was ever exhibited.

woo triceratops

Brachyceratops on exhibit with Triceratops. Plate from Gilmore 1922.

The Brachyceratops has remained on view through each subsequent renovation of the fossil halls, always placed close to Triceratops. This close association has prompted many visitors to mistake the diminutive Brachyceratops for a baby Triceratops, and in fact these visitors are on the right track. While Gilmore always described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed in 1997 that all five specimens were juveniles. A century’s worth of new fossil discoveries has provided modern paleontologists with a thorough understanding of ceratopsian ontogeny, and characteristics like the unfused nasal horn clearly mark the mounted Brachyceratops as a young animal. Unfortunately, Gilmore’s Brachyceratops specimens lack any good diagnostic features that could link it to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus ovatus, which was, incidentally, discovered by Gilmore on a 1922 repeat trip to the Two Medicine site. Nevertheless, without the ability to recognize other growth stages of the same species, the name Brachyceratops is unusable and is generally regarded as a nomen dubium.

It is not difficult to surmise why the Brachyceratops would end up near the bottom of the list of mounts to include in a renovated gallery. It is not especially large or impressive, it doesn’t have a recognizable name (or any proper name at all, really) and it doesn’t tell a critical story about evolution or deep time. With limited space available and new specimens being prepped for display, little Brachyceratops will have to go. It’s not all bad, though. Taking these fossils off exhibit will make them more accessible to researchers, and allow them to be closely examined in all aspects for the first time in decades. Perhaps one day soon we will have a clearer idea of the identity of one of Gilmore’s great finds.

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1917). Brachyceratops, a Ceratopsian Dinosaur from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana, with Notes on Associated Fossil Reptiles. Washington, DC: US Geological Survey.

Gilmore, C.W. (1922). The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, Brachyceratops. Proceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

Gilmore, C.W. (1930). On Dinosaurian Reptiles from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana. Proceedings of the US National Museum 77:2839.

McDonald, A.T. (2011). A Subadult Specimen of Rubeosaurus ovatus (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae), with Observations on other Ceratopsids from the Two Medicine Formation. PLoS ONE 6:8.

Sampson, S.D., Ryan, M.J. and Tanke, D.H. (1997). Craniofacial Ontogeny in Centrosaurine Dinosaurs: Taxonomic and Behavioral Implications. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 12:1:293-337.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, reptiles