Tag Archives: fossil mounts

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

In April 2014, the paleontology exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History closed for a wall-to-wall renovation. The re-imagined National Fossil Hall will reopen in 2019. We are now approaching the halfway point of this journey, which seems like a fine time to say farewell to some of the more charismatic specimens that are being rotated off display.

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster. Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers. Retired specimens are of course not going far – they have been relocated to the collections where students and scientists can study them as needed.

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon is the largest single specimen that is being retired from the NMNH fossil halls. James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona, during the same 1921 collecting trip that produced the museum’s Glyptotherium (which will be returning). While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

There are at least two reasons the Stegomastodon will not be returning in 2019. First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires. More importantly, the Stegomastodon is a holotype specimen, and the exhibit team elected to remove most of these important specimens from the public halls. This is both to keep them safe from the damaging effects of vibration, humidity, and fluctuating temperature, as well as to make them more accessible to researchers.

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

During the 1960s, Assistant Curator Clayton Ray oversaw the construction of the short-lived Quaternary Hall, which was reworked into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals. This meant creating a number of brand-new mounts, including several animals from the Rancho La Brea Formation in Los Angeles County. La Brea fossils are not found articulated, but as a jumble of individual elements preserved in asphalt. The Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided NMNH with an assortment of these bones, which preparator Leroy Glenn assembled into two dire wolves, a saber-toothed cat, and the sheep cow-sized sloth Paramylodon.

Paramylodon is another cut for the sake of eliminating redundancy: the two colossal Eremotherium completely overshadow this more-modestly sized sloth. This mount also needed some TLC. For aesthetic reasons, the Paramylodon was given an internal armature, which involves drilling holes through each of the bones. Last year, preparator Alan Zdinak took on the task of disassembling and conserving these damaged fossils with assistance from Michelle Pinsdorf.

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)

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Zygorhiza cast in the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery. Source

When the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery opened in 1990, it featured a historic Basilosaurus skeleton that had been on display since the 1890s. This ancestral whale was relocated to the Ocean Hall in 2008, and a cast of the smaller whale Zygorhiza took its place in Life in the Ancient Seas. Since there is now an extensive whale evolution exhibit in Ocean Hall, this subject will not be a major part of the new paleontology exhibit. Both Zygorhiza and the dolphin Eurhinodelphis will have to go.

After the old fossil halls closed, Smithsonian affiliate Mark Uhen managed to acquire the retired Zygorhiza mount for George Mason University, where he is a professor. The whale is now on display in the Exploratory Hall atrium, suspended 30 feet in the air.

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

The tapir Hyrachyus and the mini-horse Orohippus. Photo by the author.

The last two major renovations of the NMNH fossil exhibits occurred when mammal specialists were in charge of the Paleobiology Department, and as a result the halls ended up with a lot of Cenozoic mammal mounts (at least 50, by my count). Virtually every major group was covered, often several times over. This menagerie has been culled for the new hall, which will focus on specimens that best tell the story of Earth’s changing climate during the past 66 million years. Casualties include the trio of Hagerman’s horses, the smaller horse Orohippus, the tapirs Hyrachyus and Helaletes, the ruminant Hypertragulus, and the oreodont Merycoidodon. Interestingly, the classic hall’s three large rhinos are sticking around, and will in fact be joined by at least one more.

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus

Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The pocket-sized ceratopsian historically called Brachyceratops has been on display at NMNH since 1922. Discovered in 1913 by Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, this animal is one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described, and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. Assembled by Norman Boss, the mount is actually a composite of five individuals Gilmore found together in northeast Montana.

Gilmore described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, but in 1997 Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed that all five specimens were juveniles. Unfortunately, the fossils lack many diagnostic features that could link them to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus. 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 specimens for the new exhibit. 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.

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

Corythosaurus as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History launched the first of several expeditions to the Red Deer River region of Alberta. Seeing Brown’s success and under pressure to prevent the Americans from hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian Geological Survey assembled their own team of fossil collectors in 1912. This group was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who was accompanied by his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. Having secured several articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons, Brown’s team moved on five years later. The Sternbergs, however, remained at the Red Deer River, and continued to collect specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In 1933, Levi discovered a well-preserved back end of a Corythosaurus, complete with impressions of its pebbly skin. The Smithsonian purchased this specimen in 1937 for use at the Texas Centennial Exposition. It eventually found its way into the permanent paleontology exhibit at NMNH. Unfortunately, the half-Corythosaurus ended up crowded behind more eye-catching displays and was often overlooked by visitors. In the new exhibit, it will have to move aside to make room for new Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

Original skull of Hatcher the Triceratops, one of many dinosaur skulls coming off exhibit. Photo by the author.

In addition to complete dinosaur mounts, the old NMNH fossil halls included several dinosaur skulls, ranging from the giant cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus to the miniscule Bagaceratops. Most of these standalone skulls have been cut, although a few (Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Centrosaurus) are sticking around, to say nothing of new specimens being added. Other retirees in this category include the original skulls of Nedoceratops (labeled Diceratops), TriceratopsEdmontosaurus, and Corythosaurus, as well as casts of Protoceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegoceras, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae.

As usual, the reasons these specimens are coming off exhibit are varied. The Nedoceratops skull is a one-of-a-kind holotype that has been the subject of a great deal of conflicting research over its identity and relevance to Maastrichtian ceratopsian diversity. Putting this specimen back in the hands of scientists should help clarify what this bizarre creature actually is. Meanwhile, many of the other skulls (e.g. Protoceratops, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae) come from Asian taxa. In the new fossil hall, the Mesozoic displays will primarily focus on a few well-known ecosystems in North America.

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

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

Dolichorhynchops in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The NMNH Dolichorhynchops is a relatively new mount. It was collected in Montana in 1977 and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared it for display in 1987. 24 years later, “Dolly” is being retired to the collections. This is not due to anything wrong with the specimen, but to make way for a bigger, cooler short-necked plesiosaur. NMNH purchased a cast of Rhomaleosaurus from the Henry Ward Natural Science Establishment in the 1890s, but it has not been on exhibit since at least 1910. This cast, which is based on an original at the National Museum of Ireland (and which is identical to the cast at the London Natural History Museum) will make its first public appearance in over a century in the new National Fossil Hall. Sorry, Dolichorhynchops.

This has hardly been a comprehensive list – just a few examples that illustrate the decisions that are made when planning a large-scale exhibit. If you are curious about other favorites from the old halls, you can check on their fate by searching the Department of Paleobiology’s online database. Just go to Search by Field and enter “Deep Time” under Collection Name to see most of the specimens earmarked for the new exhibit.

References

Gidley, J.W. 1925. Fossil Proboscidea and Edentata of the San Pedro Valley, Arizona. Shorter Contributions to General Geology (USGS). Professional Paper 140-B, pp. 83-95.

Gilmore, C.W. 1922. The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, BrachyceratopsProceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

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 Vol. 90.

Gilmore, C.W. 1946. Notes on Recently Mounted Reptile Fossil Skeletons in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 96 No. 3196.

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 collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods

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

Meeting the Titanosaur

It be big

The titanosaur doesn’t photograph well. It must be experienced. Photo by the author.

On January 15, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first new fossil mount to be added to their paleontology halls in 20 years. It is the reconstructed skeleton of an as-yet-unnamed titanosaur, an immense sauropod dinosaur that lived in Argentina during the mid-Cretaceous. The titanosaur is probably the most hyped-up fossil mount since Sue, at least in the United States (Sophie the Stegosaurus in the U.K. and Tristan the Tyrannosaurus in Germany received similar attention). This merits some discussion. The AMNH public relations staff pulled no punches in selling the titanosaur as a must-see exhibit. Huge advertisements appeared on buses and buildings around New York, including in Times Square. The legendary David Attenborough hosted a television special on the discovery of the fossils. Countless local and national news outlets were invited to the titanosaur’s unveiling earlier this year. But is this dinosaur really the find of the century?

Titanosaur was even advertised in times square. Source

One of the many titanosaur ads that showed up around New York City this past winter. Source

It depends. The titanosaur represents a species new to science, but it has not yet been formally published. The fossils were recovered in 2014 by José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol, paleontologists with the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (the AMNH connection is that Pol was a doctoral student of Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell). Bones from at least six individuals of the same species were found, together representing 70% of the skeleton. However, AMNH staff have mostly avoided calling this animal the biggest dinosaur ever.

Indeed, declaring any dinosaur species to be the largest is a fool’s errand. We’ve known for some time that South American titanosaurs, as a group, are probably the biggest land animals that ever lived. Unfortunately, these giants are typically represented by only a few isolated bones. For an animal to become fossilized, it needs to be buried shortly after death. But it takes a lot more dirt to cover a large animal than a small one. A flood or landslide big enough to completely cover a sauropod over a hundred feet long would be an exceedingly rare event. More often, these animals were picked apart by scavengers for some time before a few of the more durable bones were buried and fossilized. For example, Argentinosaurus is known from about ten percent of the skeleton, and Puertasaurus is known from just four vertebrae. Paleontologists can use better-known relatives to produce reasonable reconstructions from even these limited remains, but any length estimate is a ballpark figure. Even among related animals, proportions can vary significantly. Consider, for example, the very long tail of a green iguana as compared to the stubby tail of a Galapagos land iguana. Carballido and Pol’s find stands out among other titanosaurs because two-thirds of the skeleton is known. hen the description is published, it will undoubtedly shed new light on the skeletal anatomy of this group. Still, the missing parts mostly come from the neck and tail, which will probably preclude a precise estimate of the animal’s total length.

*This level of completeness is not entirely unprecedented. Dreadnoughtus, described in 2014, is also about 70% complete.

he peekin

The titanosaur’s head and neck extend out of the room and into the corridor. Photo by the author.

We can’t say the AMNH titanosaur is absolutely the biggest known dinosaur, but what about the mount? At 122 feet, the reconstructed skeleton prepared by Research Casting International dwarfs AMNH’s resident sauropod, the 82-foot apatosaurine. It’s also a fair bit longer than the museum’s brain-breakingly huge blue whale model. AMNH is not the first museum to display a titanosaur, however. The Royal Ontario Museum has a 110-foot Futalognkosaurus, which the AMNH mount handily beats. But the new titanosaur is essentially the same size as the 123-foot Argentinosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (duplicates also exist in Europe and South America). The difference, as mentioned, is that not a lot about Argentinosaurus is actually known, and the mount is almost entirely a sculpted reconstruction. By comparison, the AMNH titanosaur is largely composed of 3-D printed components based on scans of original fossils. “The biggest reconstructed skeleton of a reasonably well-known dinosaur” isn’t the catchiest headline, though.

Suffice it so say that on paper, the AMNH titanosaur isn’t a revolution for dinosaur science. When I went to see it last weekend, I expected to see a typical example of a well-studied group of dinosaurs. I was not prepared.

the bastard

The closest I can find to a full-body photo of the titanosaur. Source

This bastard is BIG. I could go through a whole series of superlatives, but it’s impossible to describe the experience of sharing space with this magnificent skeleton. You cannot comprehend what a 122-foot dinosaur really is until you’ve experienced it. It helps that the titanosaur occupies a smallish, low-ceilinged room (a century ago, this was the infamous Hall of the Age of Man). It also helps that there are no long lines of sight into this space. You turn a corner and you are quite abruptly in the titanosaur’s presence. Regardless, the marketing line that was ubiquitous earlier this year – “everything else got a whole lot smaller” – rings unsettlingly true. Compared to the titanosaur, the mammoth and mastodon across the hall look like pipsqueaks. Even the AMNH blue whale, which usually requires a double-take, became a little easier to take in.

I’m no stranger to sauropods. I teach people about them at work all the time. But seeing the titanosaur in person was a revelation, and something I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the natural world. The titanosaur may not be the most important dinosaur discovery of our generation, but by giving it corporeal presence, AMNH created an incredible symbol. This is life at its limits, an embodiment of the incredible things the tetrapod body plan can do.

P.S.: If you’re concerned about the fate of the juvenile Barosaurus model that used to occupy this space, worry not. It now lives at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and will be on display at least through October of this year.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, sauropods

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 2

Start with History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 1.

Where we left off, the fossil exhibits in Halls 37 and 38 at the Field Museum of Natural History had gone for decades without more than piecemeal improvements. In the meantime, the field of paleontology – and our understanding of dinosaurs in particular – had progressed by leaps and bounds. What’s more, standards for natural history exhibits had changed. Cases of specimens with esoteric labels written by curators past were no longer enough. Visitors expected exhibits that were relatable and accessible for children as well as interested adults, and multimedia and interactive elements had become standard. This combined with ever-growing public interest in all things prehistoric gave Field Museum staff serious incentive to start with a clean slate.

Phase III: Life Over Time

The end of the old fossil halls came not with a bang but with a whimper. In 1990, specimens started disappearing and areas were roped off without warning. Hundreds of specimens were relocated to Halls 25, 26, and 29 on the other side of the second floor, where they would be part of the exhaustive new exhibit “Life Over Time.” Meanwhile, Halls 37 and 38 became the home of the pacific islands exhibit and Ruatepupuke II, the Maori Meeting House.

life over time albertosaurus remount

Remounted Daspletosaurus in Life Over Time, then labeled Albertosaurus. Photo courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

As the name suggests, Life Over Time was a chronological journey through the history of life, from its origins around four billion years ago up to the last ice ages. Paleobotanist Peter Crane chaired the Geology Department during the development period, and geologist and children’s education specialist Eric Gyllenhaall oversaw the contractors and in-house staff that created the the exhibit itself. In total, the project took five years and cost $7 million.

Gyllenhaal and the rest of the team conceived of Life Over Time as a directed experience. The space was shaped like a U, with switch-backing corridors flanking a more open dinosaur section in the middle. With the exception of a shortcut between the Carboniferous and the Mesozoic, visitors had no choice but to walk through the exhibit chronologically, viewing the displays in the order the designers mandated. Since visitors tend to be more focused and more likely to read signs early in the exhibit, the designers deliberately used the introductory rooms to cover the most unfamiliar concepts. Displays on the origins of life and the evolution of aerobic respiration made up the “homework” part of the exhibit. After that, visitors were set free in the Mesozoic section, where open sight lines allowed people to choose what they wished to view, and in what order. This served as a reward for putting up with the more challenging material early on. Ultimately, what set Life Over Time apart from its predecessors was the focus on ideas rather than specimens. The fossils were meant to illustrate broader concepts like adaptation, extinction, and biogeography, and were in some ways subordinate to the hands-on activities and multimedia displays.

new triceratops

This cast of the AMNH Triceratops was a new addition to Life Over Time. Photo by Gary Todd.

Apatosaurus

In Life Over Time, visitors circled the dinosaurs on an elevated ramp before visiting them at ground level. Photo by Erik Peterson.

The process of developing Life Over Time was an occasionally tense give-and-take between the research staff (who traditionally had the last word on exhibit content) and the administrators, exhibit specialists, and educators (who had greater influence this time around). Looking back, it would seem that the curators lost more of these fights than they won. Life Over Time ended up with a decidedly kitschy tone, and was full of overtly silly elements. Near the front of the exhibit, a mannequin dressed as a game show host invited visitors to spin the “Wheel of Adaptation.” There were Dial-A-Dinosaur phones, which visitors could pick up and listen to first-person accounts of life as a dinosaur. An animatronic puppet show explained the switch from aerobic to anaerobic life. Video “weather reports” with CBS anchor Bill Kurtis updated visitors on climate change over time. There was even a ridable trilobite on a spring.

This carnival-like atmosphere is particularly distinctive when compared to the present fossil halls at the American Museum of Natural History, which were developed at the same time. AMNH project director Lowell Dingus rejected contemporary trends in exhibit design, which, in his view, were pitched to “the lowest common denominator of visitor intellect.” Wishing to challenge audiences to think about fossils the way scientists do, Dingus created a phylogeny-based exhibit that emphasized empiricism and rigorous anatomical analysis over idle speculation. While it was certainly not devoid of informative content, Life Over Time was designed for a much younger audience, with particular attention paid to the under-five set. This marked contrast between the New York and Chicago exhibits speaks volumes about the differing influence of the scientific staff at the two museums, as well as the institutions’ overall priorities at the time.

Permian cluster

Postcard of the pelycosaur cluster in Life Over Time. These specimens were donated by the University of Chicago in the 1960s.

Happily, the Field Museum didn’t opt to replace its authentic mounted fossil skeletons with the roaring robots that were in vogue at the time. The classic fossil mounts were restored and rebuilt by Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc., a Canadian company headed by Gilles Danis. A biologist by training and a veteran of the Royal Tyrell Museum, Danis led the process of disassembling, cleaning, and remaking the most significant mounts. The ApatosaurusDaspletosaurus, and Megathierum were all given more accurate and active poses: the Daspletosaurus now crouched over its Lambeosaurus prey with its tail held aloft, while the giant sloth stretched to its full height against a replica tree. Although it was completely rebuilt, the Apatosaurus retained its dragging tail in the new exhibit – an unusual choice for a 1990s reconstruction. I’ve asked a number of people at the Field Museum, but nobody has been able to confirm how or why this decision was made.

In addition to the classic mounts, Life Over Time featured a partial Parasaurolophus and a new cast of the AMNH Triceratops. The most substantial addition was a complete Brachiosaurus reconstruction. This 40 foot tall mount combined casts taken from the material Elmer Riggs collected at the turn of the century with sculpted elements prepared by Stephen Godfry.  Far too large for the second floor exhibit halls, the Brachiosaurus earned a place of honor in the central Stanley Field Hall. In order to comply with the fire code while allowing visitors to walk under the towering sauropod,  the torso was extended by adding two extra dorsal vertebrae (for a total of twelve). In an amusing twist, newer research shows that this vertebrae count – and the mount’s stretch limo proportions – is probably correct.

main hall brachiosaurus

The Brachiosaurus skeleton was tall enough to look over the second floor mezzanine. Source

Life Over Time opened to the public in June 1994 (the Brachiosaurus had been on display for a year prior). Nevertheless, it was the shortest-lived iteration of the Field Museum’s fossil displays, closing down after only ten years. Why didn’t it last? For one thing, the numerous interactive elements suffered more wear and tear than expected, and they broke frequently. Meanwhile, in-house evaluations showed that the exhibit’s intended messages were not coming across to most visitors. For example, Asma recalls a child frantically spinning the Wheel of Adaptation with all his might, completely oblivious to the information the display was meant to convey. Unfortunately, an interactive exhibit is not necessarily an educational one, and it can be very difficult to create a learning experience that accomplishes both goals.

Phase IV: Evolving Planet

There was one more reason the Field Museum needed to revisit its fossil displays: the sudden acquisition of Sue the Tyrannosaurus in 1997. The story of the four-way legal battle that preceded this has been told often (although not always fairly), so suffice it to say that few came out of that fight unscathed. The Field Museum entered the picture when landowner Maurice Williams, to whom the courts had awarded ownership of Sue, announced that the fossils would be placed on the auction block. Paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest when the Field Museum won Sue with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

susan

Some obscure theropod. Photo by the author.

The Field Museum committed to a summer 2000 unveiling of Sue’s mounted skeleton. However, most of the bones was still buried in rock and plaster. The fossils had to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they had to be studied before they could be mounted. Most of this work was done on-site, in view of the public. The armature itself was created by Phil Fraley Productions, the same exhibit company that rebuilt the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. Field Museum administrators decided that Sue would replace the Brachiosaurus in the Stanley Field Hall, even though the sauropod had only been on display for seven years. According to Exhibit Project Manager Janet Hong, Sue was such a monumental exhibit that she really deserved pride of place. Meanwhile, the Brachiosaurus was relocated to O’Hare International Airport, while a weather-proof duplicate was placed outside the museum.

Sue was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the literal raising of a curtain. A week-long series of celebrations and press junkets introduced Sue to Chicago, and she has been one of the city’s biggest attractions every since. All the publicity paid off, at least in the short term: Field Museum attendance soared that year from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. 16 years later, Sue’s new identity as a Chicago landmark seems to have all but eclipsed the legal dispute that was her original source of fame. Hong likens Sue to Chicago’s David, and even former Field Museum President John McCarter feels that he underestimated what a force Sue would be for the city.

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

The acquisition of Sue created a strong public association between the Field Museum and dinosaur research. This was ironic, because while the museum had hosted a talented array of paleontologists over the years, it had never employed a dinosaur specialist. Even Elmer Riggs, who collected the museum’s iconic sauropods at the turn of the century, was more interested in mammal evolution. In 2001, the Field Museum began a concerted effort to expand its vertebrate paleontology program, and make a name for itself as a hub for dinosaur science. Among the new hires were fossil preparator Akiko Shinya and paleontologist Peter Makovicky, who immediately began organizing expeditions to grow the museum’s collection.

The new emphasis on paleontology research brought greater expectations for the Field Museum’s interpretive efforts, and Life Over Time wasn’t doing the job. The initial plan was to merely refresh the decade-old exhibits, but ambitions grew and the renovation snowballed into something much more substantial. Project Manager Todd Tubutis and Content Specialist Richard Kissel spent five years overseeing the development of Life Over Time’s replacement, eventually titled “Evolving Planet.”

Once we reach the Permian, the fossils can start to speak for themselves. Photo by the author.

Each section of Evolving Planet is differentiated by its own color palate and ambient audio. In the Permian, olive green walls and signs are accompanied by the sounds of a windswept desert. Photo by the author.

w

Yes, of course this series needs another picture of the Apatosaurus. Photo by the author.

While the new exhibit uses the same space and directed, U-shaped layout as its predecessor, the end result is virtually unrecognizable. The hokey parts of Life Over Time are gone, replaced by all-new signs, labels, and interactives. New specimens include original Parasaurolophus, Rapetosaurus, and Arctodus mounts, plus casts of Stegosaurus and Deinonychus, all prepared by Research Casting International. An entire room is dedicated to fossils from Utah’s Green River Formation, acquired on a recent Field Museum collecting expedition. Phlesh Bubble Studios provided a panoramic CGI reconstruction of the Burgess Shale Fauna, while Karen Carr produced 150 original paintings to supplement the classic Charles Knight murals. These, in turn, were restored by Parma Conservation and are contextualized as the historic masterpieces they are. Nevertheless, Evolving Planet has a few holdovers from Life Over Time. The existing dinosaur mounts were not moved or changed, and major set pieces like the walk-through Carboniferous swamp diorama remain in place.

Timeline moments and consistent iconography

Repeating iconography keeps visitors engaged in story of life on Earth. Photo by the author.

Karen Carr art fills in gaps in classic Knight pieces

New artwork by Karen Carr fills gaps left by the classic Charles Knight murals. Photo by the author.

The interpretation in Evolving Planet arose from three main objectives. First, the exhibit needed to highlight the Field Museum’s own collections and the work of its in-house research staff. Second, it had to contextualize Sue and the environment she lived in. Finally, it had to effectively explain the process of evolution, and the evidence for it. Life Over Time had faltered here, and with the influence of the anti-science lobby increasing, it was crucial to get it right. Tubutis and Kissel accomplished this in part by facilitating closer collaboration between the exhibit designers and research staff. Evolving Planet weaves the evidence for evolution into all aspects of the displays. The first thing visitors see is the thesis of the exhibit – “everything that has ever lived is connected through and is the result of evolution” – printed on an otherwise blank wall. Moving forward, visitors learn how evolution via natural selection works, and how we know. Along the way, common misconceptions, such as the idea that lineages improve over time, or that evolution is “just a theory”, are proactively addressed and corrected.

The visual design of Evolving Planet deserves particular mention. The new exhibit subtly but effectively uses repeating iconography to guide visitors through the story being told. Every geological period is associated with a specific color scheme and soundscape, making visitors’ progression from one stage to another obvious and distinct. “Timeline Moments” at the beginning of each section update visitors on their progress, and ensure that they expect to see something new and different up ahead. Special symbols remind visitors of recurring themes, such as mass extinctions (or even the repeated evolution of saber-teeth). Lastly, variations in font and text size are cleverly employed to call attention to key words and phrases.

old riggs mounts, new sloth, charles knight

A new pose and context for Megatherium, along with historic Riggs mounts and Knight artwork. Photo by the author.

Evolving Planet opened on March 10, 2006. A decade later, this award-winning exhibition remains a favorite with scientists and educators alike. As Cleveland Museum of Natural History Educator Ashley Hall explains:

Evolving Planet is my all-time favorite museum exhibit. It is not only rich with some of the world’s best known fossil specimens, but provides label copy for visitors of all learning levels. You can visit multiple times and still learn something new. Museums provide visitors with unique settings for learning, and it is a museum’s job not to short-change, dumb down, or simplify information. Evolving Planet hits the nail on the head.

From its clear-as-day thesis to its poignant finish (a counter showing the number of species going extinct daily), Evolving Planet is ambitious but uncommonly relatable. It places familiar dinosaurs and mammoths in a broader evolutionary context, introducing visitors to the true breadth of deep time. And yet, the exhibit is also remarkable for its restraint. It doesn’t overwhelm casual visitors with specimens and facts, but instead sticks to a handful of broadly-applicable themes.

The Field Museum’s paleontology program spent its early years playing catch-up to peer institutions. While other American natural history museums were conducting yearly fossil-collecting expeditions and building collections of one-of-a-kind specimens, the Field Museum’s founding paleontologists struggled for basic resources and recognition within their institution. Today, the department’s public showroom is what Kissell describes as “one of, if not the, most comprehensive explanations of the history of life on Earth in any museum.” It would seem that the Field Museum has found its voice in the pantheon of great natural history museums.

Many thanks to Ashley Hall, Oliver Rieppel, Bill Simpson, and Devin Myers for sharing their time, expertise, and experiences when I was writing this post. Any factual errors are, of course, my own.

References

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

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

Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Glut, D.F. 2001. Remembering the Field Museum’s Hall 38. Jurassic Classics: A Collection of Saurian Essays and Mesozoic Musings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.

Lelièvre, M A. 2006. Evolving Planet: Constructing the Culture of Science at Chicago’s Field Museum. Anthropologica 48: 2: 293-296.

Milner, R. 2012. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York, NY: Abrams.

Tubitis, T.J. 2005. Revitalizing Life Over Time: A New Look for a Very Old Topic. In the Field 76: 2: 18.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, paleoart

AMNH dinosaurs in vintage cartoons

Today I happened upon a pair of wonderful vintage cartoons that simply must be shared. I found them in Edwin Colbert’s The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, digitized here. The cartoons originally appeared in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, respectively.

original caption

Original caption: “And here is my first dinosaur – makes me feel like a kid again every time I look at it.”

The cartoons plainly depict the “Brontosaurus” and “Trachodon” (now labeled Apatosaurus and Anatotitan) skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History, and as representations of these mounts, they aren’t bad. At the time of the cartoons’ initial publications in 1939 and 1940, these and dozens of other fossil mounts had been on display at AMNH for over 30 years. They were iconic New York attractions, and the museum had rightly earned itself a reputation as the place to see dinosaurs.

original caption

Original caption: “I don’t mind you boosting your home state, Conroy, but stop telling the children that’s a California jack rabbit!”

Perhaps it’s unwise to interpret these images too literally, but I can’t help but wonder which version of the AMNH fossil halls the cartoonists intended to depict. Since 1922, the famous mounts had been housed in Henry Osborn’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, but during the 1930s the dinosaur exhibits underwent a significant expansion. The dinosaurs were reshuffled into two halls, one representing the Jurassic and one the Cretaceous.

osborn era

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs as it appeared in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

brown's jurassic hall

The new Jurassic Hall opened around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The inclusion of a Stegosaurus with “Brontosaurus” and the ceratopsian skulls behind the “Trachodon” lead me to believe these are illustrations of the renovated halls, which would have been brand new at the time. But again, it’s just as likely that the cartoonists only intended to capture the general feel of these famous exhibits.

References

Colbert, E.H. 1945. The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The American Museum of Natural History/McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

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

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, ornithopods, paleoart, sauropods

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: PMNS

Life Then and Now

Life Then and Now at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

In a recent interview at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, artist Brian Engh provided one of the best definitions of paleontology I’ve ever seen:

Paleontology is really just animals and plants doing animal and plant stuff, then dying and getting buried and all that stuff stacking up for unfathomable expanses of time.

This is how paleontology is portrayed in Life Then and Now, the fossil hall at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibit clearly and cohesively portrays the world of the past as a collection of living ecosystems, and highlights both the fossil evidence and the means by which scientists interpret it. This is in stark contrast to the Morian Hall of Paleontology in Houston, which I found to emphasize style over substance. In the last post, I critiqued the Morian Hall’s art gallery format, arguing that it discouraged understanding and ultimately diminished the meaning and reality of the specimens on display. I was pleased that this discussion sparked lively conversations here and on twitter, but now it’s only fair that I follow up with an example of what I actually like to see in a natural history exhibit.

mosasaur and texas ornithiscians

The mid-Cretaceous, by land and by sea. Photo by the author.

The purpose of any exhibit structure is to provide meaning and context for objects – to help visitors see them as more than neat things to look at. It’s the museum’s job to give visitors the intellectual tools to contextualize displayed objects in a more sophisticated way. In terms of aesthetics and overall layout, this is clearly what the designers of Life Then and Now had in mind. The exhibit occupies a large, open, and well-lit space, with long sight lines around the room. There is a set of clear, over-arching themes, with individual stories playing back into the primary learning goals. Vignettes have large, informative headings that can be seen and understood on the move, but there is also plenty of detailed content for visitors who care to look more closely. Multimedia and interactives are deployed intelligently – they don’t exist for their own sake but cover content in novel and interesting ways.

All this serves to make the exhibit useful for visitors of a variety of ages and interest levels. For one thing, visitors are encouraged to engage with content at their own pace. They can see what the exhibit has to offer as soon as they enter the space, they can view specimens in whatever order interests them, and they always have a good idea of how much they’ve seen and how much there is left. Nevertheless, the core messages are never lost, even for fly-by visitors.  Most every display refers back to the exhibit’s key themes, and the main idea behind every vignette is visible from a distance. Meanwhile, the needs of advanced visitors are not forgotten. Specimens are not in cramped corners or obscured by dramatic lighting, but out in the open and visible from numerous angles.

benifet

One benefit of an open layout is that it encourages comparison. For example, why are these two megaherbivores shaped so differently? Photo by the author.

More specifically, the primary theme of Life Then and Now is that life of the past was not a pageant show of monsters but a set of living communities that operated under the same constraints that drive the evolution of plants and animals today. This is communicated by pairing fossil specimens with modern counterparts. Below, Pachyrhinosaurus and an extant moose both sport elaborate headgear used for competition and display. Elsewhere, extinct and extant animals illustrate intercontinental migration, herd living, adaptations for harsh climates, predator-and-prey arms races, and niche partitioning. Along the way, the process and mechanisms for evolution are brought up again and again. This hammers home the point that life is never static and always responding to environmental pressures, while simultaneously demonstrating that there is evidence for evolution everywhere you look. This is quite different from the Morian Hall, where I felt that the role of evolution in producing the variety of life on display was not made especially clear. The only thing missing from this presentation is a time axis. I wish the exhibit put more emphasis on the enormous expanses of time between the various fossil specimens on display, but I suppose it can be difficult to cover every angle.

vigniette

Visitors can see the main message of this vignette from a distance, or look more closely to find out more. Photo by the author.

Many, if not most of the vignettes also include the names and faces of the scientists involved in the discovery and interpretation of the specimens on display. This personalized approach matters for several reasons. It reminds visitors that science is a process, not a set of facts. It illustrates that there is more to a museum than its exhibits, and that the institution’s most important and unique resource is the in-house research staff who use the collections to create new knowledge. Finally, since the Perot Museum is generally pitched for younger visitors, it’s critical to show that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats or pith helmets. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relatable (and for kids, something to aspire to).

Other important stories are told around the perimeter of the exhibit space. Near the entrance, a remarkably concise display covers the definition of a fossil and brings order to the diversity of life on Earth. This is accomplished with a series of stacked boxes printed on the wall. The largest boxes are labeled Trace Fossils and Body Fossils. Within Body Fossils, there are Plants, Invertebrates, and Vertebrates. Within Vertebrates, there are Fish and Amniotes, and within Amniotes there are Synapsids and Reptiles. So it continues, eventually illustrating that dinosaur bones are only a small part of the huge range of living things that are found as fossils. Since visitor research has shown that cladograms are often counter-intuitive to non-specialists, it’s nice to see an attractive and accessible alternative.

layered boxes instead of cladogram

Colorful, stacked boxes offer a more accessible alternative to a cladogram. Photo by the author.

In another corner, there is a small display devoted to dinosaurs in popular culture. While some might call this a waste of space, I think it’s helpful to draw contrasts between popular images of dinosaurs and the real animals that were part of the history of life on our planet. This display acknowledges the relevance of roadside statues and Jurassic Park while plainly separating them from the rest of the science-driven exhibit.

Quite possibly the best part of Life Then and Now (well, aside from the Alamosaurus – sauropods upstage everything) is the Rose Hall of Birds on the mezzanine level. It’s remarkable enough that the bird displays merge seamlessly with (and are in fact a part of) the dinosaur exhibit. But the Hall of Birds goes further, covering flight adaptations like unidirectional airflow and pneumatic bones, and how they first evolved for different reasons in dinosaurs. This is content that I wasn’t introduced to until grad school, but it’s all explained succinctly here, in language that is probably accessible to interested elementary school students. For some reason, this exhibit also includes digitized versions of bird-related literature dating back to the middle ages. It’s wonderful to see historic natural history acknowledged and celebrated in this context!

bird evolution!

Bird evolution explained. Photo by the author.

While Life Then and Now is barely half the size of the Morian Hall, I think it provides a much richer educational experience. While the exhibit certainly doesn’t reject what visitors expect to see (fighting dinosaurs!), it uses preconceptions and existing knowledge to make a series of important points about biology and evolution. As such, it’s an ideal blend of fun and science, visually attractive but built from the ground up on solid evidence. I can’t recommend it enough.

If any readers have visited the Perot Museum and/or HMNS, what did you think? Please don’t hesitate to weigh in!

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, opinion, reviews, science communication

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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