Tag Archives: fossils

Jurassic Museum

Teaser image for Jurassic Park 5, via Colin Trevorrow/Universal.

Well, this is a doozy. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow tweeted the above image this afternoon, which is a teaser for the upcoming “Jurassic World 2” (Jurassic Park 5?). The film doesn’t have an official title yet, but apparently they started shooting on February 23rd and are aiming for a June 2018 release.

The Victorian-style museum gallery piqued my interest immediately. Since this is the first promotional image they put out, it stands to reason that natural history exhibits might play a significant role in the film. Is this a flashback to a formative experience for a main character? Or is it a brief moment of quiet before Chris Pratt smashes through the wall riding a mutant cyborg T. rex? Both are probably equally likely at this point, but there are still a few things worth noting.

First, this scene is plainly referencing the century-old association in the public consciousness between museums and dinosaurs. When we think of museums, we think of dinosaurs, and vice versa. This is no accident – as I’ve discussed here on many occasions, dinosaurs (and their mounted skeletons in particular) played a central role in defining the modern museum at the start of the 20th century. The first Jurassic Park film played with this iconography in its classic finale, when the flesh-and-blood Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor literally obliterate a pair of skeletal mounts. In that case, the implication was clear: the living, cloned dinosaurs represent new technology and scientific progress smashing the old and obsolete incarnations of paleontology to bits.

Y’know, this scene. (Universal).

Is “Jurassic World 2” pushing a similar message, casting the iconography of a museum hall as a past doomed to extinction? Maybe. The Victorian design elements – wood paneled walls, skeletons on open pedestals in orderly rows – distinctly evoke museums of the past. You’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit that looks like that today. Perhaps the filmmakers are using the Victorian iconography to enhance the impression of dusty obsolescence. Or maybe the baby boomer producers are recreating the sort of museum they remember from their childhood. The primary counterpoint is that the mise en scène on display here is stately and impressive. That dramatically-lit ceratopsian skull looks formidable, not at all like something shrinking back into history.

Let’s talk about that ceratopsian skull for a hot sec. The other skeletons are (perhaps incredibly) reasonably accurate representations of identifiable dinosaurs. We’ve got a tyrannosaur, a hadrosaur, and a dromaeosaur on the left, and what looks like Euoplocephalus, Kosmoceratops, and Protoceratops on the right. The skull in the center stands out as the sole fanciful element in the scene. It looks like an oversized, exaggerated Triceratops, with extra-long, tapering brow horns and a frill studded with spikes. Jurassic World established fantasy dinosaurs as being part of the Jurassic Park universe, so it’s possible this represents some kind of new, fictitious hybrid.

Charles Knight’s 1897 Agathaumas painting. Source

However, I was immediately reminded of Charles Knight’s classic take on Agathaumas. E.D. Cope named Agathaumas sylvestris in 1872, based on a pelvis and a number of vertebrae discovered in southwest Wyoming. It was technically the first ceratopsian dinosaur to be named and described, but without a skull, Cope had little idea of what the animal looked like (today, it’s considered a synonym of Triceratops).  Charles Knight depicted imagined the animal as a sort of spiny uber-Triceratops. His striking reconstruction was copied almost exactly for the Agathaumas that appeared in 1925’s The Lost World.

Triceratops and Agathaumas models, sculpted by Marcel Delgado and animated by Willis O’Brien. Source

It would be beyond awesome if the dramatic ceratopsian skull was meant to be a throwback or nod to the mythic Agathaumas. Or perhaps I’m reading too much in to it.

1 Comment

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, movies

Dispatch from SEAVP2016

Wow, it’s been awhile. The real world has been keeping me busy, but I’ve been researching a couple new museum  history stories that I will write up with all haste. In the meantime, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the Southeast Association of Vertebrate Paleontology conference at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which I attended earlier this week. SEAVP has a reputation for being fairly laid back, even as gatherings of paleontologists go. No frantic networking or jostling to introduce oneself to celebrity researchers, just a bunch of enthusiastic people excited to share their work.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

With 50-some attendees, nearly everyone was either speaking or presenting a poster. Miranda Armour-Chelu took on the challenge of reconstructing the taphonomic circumstances surrounding historically collected dugong fossils. Marcelo Kramer shared his adventures prospecting for Quaternary fossils in unexplored caves in northern Brazil. Julie Rej explained the difficulty of identifying Australian agamid fossils when most modern comparative collections in museums consist of pickled lizards, rather than bones. My own talk was a show-and-tell session of some of the cool new fossils discovered by visitors to Maryland’s Dinosaur Park. If I had to pick a standout session, it would be C.T. Griffin’s fascinating research comparing the growth trajectories of early dinosaurs to modern birds and crocodillians. Not as straightforward as one might expect.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

tanywhatsit

Max’s tanywhatsit fossil.

The following day, we visited the famed Solite Fossil Site, one of the most fossiliferous terrestrial Triassic localities in the world. These shales are best known for preserving an abundance of unique insects, but vertebrates and diagnostic plant fossils are also known. In particular, the site has produced hundreds of the tiny long-necked reptile Tanytrachelos. It only took 20 minutes for my colleague Max Bovis to find a “tany”, and an hour later he reportedly found a fossil fish. Both will be entered into the VMNH collection. We also visited Virginia Tech, where Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbit provided a tour of the paleobiology department facilities. We saw unique fossils from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico and the extant comparative specimen lab, but I was most envious of their 3-D printing set-up!

An immersive

An immersive habitat diorama featuring the Ice Age beaver Castoroides.

What of the exhibits at VMNH? They’re fantastic. Despite the museum’s small size, the production quality on all the displays is really top notch. The Uncovering Virginia hall highlights several fossil sites around the state, including the Ice Age mammals from Saltville, the coal seams of Grundy, and the aforementioned Solite quarry. In addition to original specimens and reconstructions of the excavations, there are a number of inspired hands-on activities. Visitors can put a whale jaw back together and articulate a femur with a pelvis, mirroring challenges actually faced by fossil preparators (nary a sandbox dig in sight!). I also liked a multimedia display where pressing a button (labeled “press here to go back in time”) pulls back an image of the Grundy coal mine and reveals a moving diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

The central Hall of Ancient Life features local whale and Ice Age fossils, as well as some visiting dignitaries like a cast of Big Al the Allosaurus. Don’t forget to check out the second floor balcony, which contains Morrison Formation dinosaur bones and a secret Tenontosaurus mount.

aww

Group photo courtesy of Alex Hastings, VMNH.

All in all, an excellent conference – hats off to Alex Hatings, Christina Byrd, and everyone else involved in arranging it. I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting, which will be hosted by the Gray Fossil Site Museum in Tennessee!

3 Comments

Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reptiles, reviews

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!

Leave a comment

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 often 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. 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. 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. 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 animals 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. 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.

17 Comments

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

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 1

The Field Museum of Natural History (variously known as the Field Colombian Museum and the Chicago Museum of Natural History) was founded by wealthy philanthropists in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It has since expanded into one of the largest natural history museums in the world, a destination attraction and a hub for ongoing research. What follows is a summary of the historic paleontology exhibits at the Field Museum – when and how they expanded and changed, when major specimens were added, and who spearheaded these efforts.

As with my previous overviews of fossil exhibits at AMNH and NMNH, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or research by museum staff in any detail, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere (see Paul Brinkman’s extensive work, for starters). My primary interest here is in the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.

Phase I: The Field Columbian Museum

The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, principally as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Lasting six months and attended by 27 million people, the Exposition was monumental in size and scope. Years before it even opened, there was talk about using the Exposition displays to seed a new museum, which would rival the great natural history museums in New York and Washington, DC. Eager to establish an enduring cultural attraction in their city, a group of wealthy Chicagoans – including Marshall Field, who donated an unprecedented $1 million – contributed the necessary funds to buy up many of the Exposition’s exhibits and found the Field Columbian Museum.

As the largest and most elegant of the 200 temporary buildings constructed for the Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts became the Field Museum’s home. Frederick Skiff served as the first director, acting as an intermediary between the board of trustees and the new curatorial staff, who would manage the collections and assemble the exhibits. Skiff hired geologist Oliver Farrington to curate the earth science collections, a diverse mix of minerals, gems, meteorites, fossils, and fabricated displays purchased from the Henry Ward Natural Sciences Establishment. With thousands of specimens to catalog, Farrington was soon overwhelmed. He repeatedly asked Skiff to hire a paleontology specialist to support him, but the board (composed of the businessmen who founded the museum) was uninterested in paying more salaries or acquiring new specimens.

fossils

The model icthyosaur and thousands of fossils in cases were among the specimens purchased from the Ward Natural Sciences Establishment after the World’s Columbian Exposition. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

When the Field Columbian Museum opened on June 2nd, 1894, most the 5,000-piece fossil collection was on public display. In addition to the cases of as-yet unlabled invertebrates, plants, and other small fossils, the exhibit included several large reconstructions of prehistoric animals. As of opening day, a life reconstruction of a mammoth stood in the west court, while skeletons of MegalocerosScistopleurum, MegatheriumHadrosaurus, and a uintathere stood in halls 35 and 36. With the exception of the Megaloceros, these were all replicas of mounts from other institutions. The Hadrosaurus in particular was woefully outdated, considered by contemporary scholars to have “long since ceased to have any value except as a historic attempt” (Beecher 1901).

After completing his catalog of the earth science collections in 1896, Farrington continued to lobby for a dedicated staff paleontologist. The board paid no attention until 1897, when the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History announced ambitious plans to scour the western interior for fossils. So began what Brinkman calls the second Jurassic dinosaur rush – a frenzied race among leading American museums to be the first to collect and mount a sauropod dinosaur. Not wanting to be left behind by peer institutions, the trustees approved the conditional hiring of Elmer Riggs to collect dinosaurs for the Field Museum.

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

Hadrosaurus stands among other fossil casts in the Field Columbian Museum. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Riggs and his classmate Barnum Brown cut their teeth in paleontology while studying under Samuel Wendell Williston at the University of Kansas. The two young men took part in an AMNH collecting expedition in 1896. Brown, who had quit his studies to work for the museum, quickly became a favorite at AMNH. Concerned about his own future, Riggs sent an unsolicited letter to Frederick Skiff, offering his skills as a fossil collector and preparator. The letter crossed Skiff’s desk at an opportune time, and in the summer of 1898 Riggs was paid a small stipend for a trial collecting trip with Farrington. The expedition was a success, and Riggs was hired as an Assistant Curator before the end of the year.

Riggs’ first three collecting seasons with the Field Museum were enormously successful. In addition to the holotype of Brachiosaurus, at the time the largest known dinosaur, Riggs collected a very-well-preserved back end of an Apatosaurus near Fruita, Colorado. Nevertheless, AMNH won the sauropod race when they completed their composite “Brontosaurus” mount in 1905. The Carnegie Museum had a Diplodocus on display in 1907, and was busy cranking out casts for European heads of state. While Riggs’ Apatosaurus was more complete than any single specimen the other museums had recovered, it was still only half a dinosaur. Riggs and Farrington repeatedly lobbied the board for funding to find more sauropod material with which to complete the skeleton, but the trustees had moved on to other things.

Riggs' Apatosaurus mount stood unfinished from 1908-1958. Photo from the Field Museum Library.

Riggs’ Apatosaurus mount stood unfinished from 1908-1958. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Plans were afoot to move the Field Museum to a new lakefront campus. However, when legal issues halted progress on the new building, Riggs was granted permission to mount the partial Apatosaurus in hall 35. The plaster casts previously displayed in this space were discarded, and unfortunately are now lost to history. A gas furnace was installed on the museum grounds, which Riggs and his small team used to shape massive steel I-beams for use in the armature. The teetering sauropod hindquarters was unveiled in 1908, but if Riggs hoped that the museum administrators would want to complete the mount once they saw how absurd the incomplete skeleton looked, he was out of luck.

Indeed, the years that followed were among the most frustrating of Riggs’ career. He received no funding to collect fossils after 1910, and could only look on enviously at the thriving paleontology research and exhibit programs at AMNH and the Carnegie Museum. The institutions in New York and Pittsburgh were headed by paleontologists, and bankrolled by wealthy fossil enthusiasts like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. By comparison, the Field Museum was controlled by trustees with seemingly little interest in paleontology. Already paid less than the museum’s other curators, Farrington and Riggs were left with meager resources and little to do until the 1920s.

Phase II: Halls 37 and 38

The Palace of Fine Arts was intended to last six months, and after ten years it was in dire shape. The roof leaked constantly, putting exhibits and collections in danger, and fences had to be placed around the perimeter to protect visitors from falling brick. Before his death in 1906, Marshall Field worked with architect Daniel Burnham to design a new home for the museum. It took years to settle disputes over where to place the building, but ground was eventually broken off Lake Shore Drive in 1915. Completed in 1920, the new Field Museum of Natural History was a gleaming marble fortress, decorated inside and out with intricate neoclassical reliefs and statuary.

hall 37

In the spirit of a classic cabinet of curiosity, some of the cases in Hall 37 contained over a thousand specimens apiece. Source

Exhibits and collections were transported by rail car, often without being removed from their display cases. Earth science exhibits found a new home on the west side of the upper level. Hall 37, an east-west facing gallery accessible directly off the west mezzanine, housed invertebrate and plant fossils. Hall 38, running north to south against the far west side of the building, contained vertebrate fossils. Although it was colloquially known as the “dinosaur hall”, this space never contained many dinosaurs. In the 1920s, the only dinosaurs to be found were the half-Apatosaurus, a Triceratops skull, an articulated “Morosaurus” (Camarasaurus) limb, and parts of Brachiosaurus. The bulk of the specimens on display were Cenozoic mammals, including horses, rhinos, camelids, and a mammoth and mastodon. There was also a life-sized “coal swamp” diorama behind a glass barrier, with large model insects suspended in flight.

This comparatively modest exhibit was expanded significantly between 1922 and 1927, when Elmer Riggs was once again able to collect fossils in the field. Thanks to a bequest from Marshall Field’s grandson, Riggs traveled to Alberta, Argentina, and Bolivia, securing many unique specimens along the way. These included several new species, like the marsupial cat Thylacosmilus and the predatory bird Andalgalornis. A colossal Megatherium Riggs recovered in Argentina was immediately mounted for display, and became one of the most memorable elements of Hall 38.

hall 38

A postcard of the partial Apatosaurus at the south end of Hall 38. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

A postcard of the north end of Hall 38, featuring a South American giant sloth and other Cenozoic mammals.

Megatherium at the north end of Hall 38. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Hall 38 also boasted a spectacular set of murals by Charles Knight. The undisputed master of paleontological reconstructions and wildlife art, Knight had a long working relationship with Henry Osborn, president of AMNH. Osborn had commissioned Knight to create many large and small paintings for his museum’s fossil exhibits, but the two frequently argued over Knight’s remuneration. For years, Osborn and Knight discussed a series of immense wall canvases illustrating the entire history of life. Osborn could never get the money together, however, and Knight refused to produce any concept sketches for fear that they would be turned over to a less-skilled artist. In 1926, the Field Museum’s board of trustees asked for a meeting with Knight about an identical project for their new fossil hall. The initial discussion did not go well, and Knight walked out when the trustees started making “suggestions” about the content, color, and composition of the proposed artwork. Knight was very talented, but also very particular. He gladly accepted anatomical expertise from scientists but would not suffer meddling with the artistic aspects of his work. Fortunately for both parties, Knight’s daughter/manager Lucy intervened, securing her father the biggest commission of his career.

Knight completed 28 murals for the Field Museum, the largest of them measuring 25 feet long and nine feet high. Subjects ranged from the Proterozoic primordial soup to an iconic standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. These images were not only painstakingly researched reconstructions based on the latest fossil evidence, they were (and still are) gorgeous works of art in their own right. With Knight’s murals in place, the Field Museum finally had a world-class paleontology exhibit.

hall 38 mastodon

The mastodon in Hall 38, with fossil horses visible beyond. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

Gorgo in Stanley Field Hall. Photo courtesy of Field Museum Photo Archives.

Gorgosaurus” in the Stanley Field Hall. Photo courtesy of Field Museum Photo Archives.

Riggs retired in 1942, leaving paleontology at the Field Museum to the next generation, among them Eugene Richardson, Brian Patterson, and Orville Gilpin. In 1951, Richardson oversaw a thorough modernization of Hall 37. The number of specimens on display was drastically reduced, making room for more accessible explanations of the fossils and ten new dioramas of Paleozoic marine life. The resulting exhibit was one of the most comprehensive displays of fossil invertebrates in the world.

Although virtually no dinosaur research was done at the Field Museum between 1910 and the late 1990s, the 1950s saw the acquisition of two significant specimens for the benefit of the visiting public. In 1956, preparator Orville Gilpin assembled a Daspletosaurus (then called Gorgosaurus) for the central Stanley Field Hall. The skeleton was a surplus specimen from Barnum Brown’s years collecting along Alberta’s Red Deer River, and trustee Louis Ware spearheaded the effort to buy it from AMNH. Since the Daspletosaurus was acquired explicitly for display, Gilpin opted to skewer and otherwise permanently damage many of bones for the sake of an unobstructed, free-standing mount. In the mid 20th century, dinosaur fossils were thought of as display pieces first, and irreplaceable specimens second.

apatosaurus revised

The newly-finished Apatosaurus serves as a backdrop for an educational video shoot. Source

Two years after installing the Daspletosaurus, Gilpin finally completed Riggs’ partial Apatosaurus in Hall 38. When Edward Holt announced that he had discovered the front half of a sauropod near Green River, Utah, the Field Museum purchased the rights to excavate and display the find. Gilpin added the new fossils to the existing mount without dismantling Riggs’ heavy-duty armature. Relabeled “Brontosaurus” and erroneously given a casted Camarasaurus skull, the refreshed sauropod debuted in April 1958 – half a century after Riggs started the project.

The next three decades saw occasional piecemeal additions to the fossil halls. For example, the University of Chicago donated its entire geology collection to the Field Museum in 1965. This included a unique assortment of Permian amphibians and synapsids from the red beds of central Texas, many of them holotypes. Field Museum preparators remounted several of these specimens and integrated them into the exhibits. Nevertheless, Hall 38 never received a complete overhaul, and by the late 1980s it was quite dated. Not only were the fossil mounts in stiff, tail-dragging poses, but the stilted label copy written by curators past did not meet modern expectations for natural history exhibits. Even the vibrant Charles Knight murals looked tired behind years of accumulated dust and dirt. In short, the Field Museum was long overdue for a total re-imaging of its paleontology displays.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Field Museum’s fossil exhibits from the 1990s onward. Stay tuned!

References

Beecher, C.E. 1901. The reconstruction of a Cretaceous dinosaur, Claosaurus annectens Marsh. Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. 11: 311-324.

Brinkman, P.D. 2000. Establishing Vertebrate Paleontology at Chicago’s Field Colombian Museum: 1893-1898. Archives of Natural History 27: 1: 81-114.

Brinkman, P.D. 2o10. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. (March 1956). 27: 3.

Gilpin, O.L. 1959. A Freestanding Mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator 2: 2: 162-168.

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

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.

Williams, P.M. 1968. The Burham Plan and the Field Museum. Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 39: 5: 8-12.

1 Comment

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles, sauropods

Fossil sandboxes are terrible

Are these kids learning yet?

Are these kids learning yet? Source

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

6 Comments

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

History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 2

Start with History of the AMNH Fossil Halls – Part 1.

During his leadership of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and later, the museum at large, Henry Osborn oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the institution’s paleontology exhibits. As fossils poured in from the Department’s international collecting expeditions, these displays expanded into five separate galleries on the museum’s fourth floor. During the first two decades of the 20th century, AMNH staff was installing newly prepared and mounted specimens every single year, and AMNH was the undisputed center of American vertebrate paleontology. The increasingly marginal role of descriptive natural history in the greater field of biology at this time made the scale of Osborn’s program all the more impressive.

Nevertheless, this golden age of fossil exhibits would not last forever. Osborn supported the expensive expeditions and monumental displays through his personal connections with wealthy benefactors. The combination of the Great Depression and Osborn’s death in 1933 all but eliminated this source of income, and the museum had to scale back its activities considerably. In 1942, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work continued under the Department of Geology, but with only a fraction of its former staff and budget.

Phase IV: 1940 – 1955

amnhmap_1939

In the post-Osborn era, responsibility for the fourth floor exhibits deservedly transferred to Barnum Brown. Indeed, Brown’s adventures as a swashbuckling fossil hunter not only brought him personal fame, but made the museum’s world-class paleontology exhibits what they were. Of the 36 dinosaurs on display by 1939, no less than 27 had been discovered by Brown. Most of these iconic finds were made in his 20s and 30s, but Brown nevertheless remained at AMNH for most of his life. Even after officially retiring in 1943, Brown still frequented the museum, often giving spontaneous personal tours of the exhibits.

brown's jurassic hall

Brown’s Jurassic Hall, around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

In 1932, the architectural firm Trowbridge and Livingston completed the 13th building in the AMNH complex. This meant that for the first time, the paleontology exhibits formed a complete circuit, an arrangement that persists to this day. Brown opted to spread the dinosaurs into two halls, making the new space the Jurassic Hall and converting the Osborn-era Great Hall of Dinosaurs into the Cretaceous Hall. Several existing fossil mounts had to be moved as a result, including the massive “Brontosaurus.”  Eyeballing the widths of the doorways and corridors separating the present day Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs (formerly the Jurassic Hall) and Hall of Ornithiscian Dinosaurs (formerly the Cretaceous Hall and Great Hall of Dinosaurs), it’s difficult to imagine how museum staff could have moved the 66-foot sauropod in one piece. This photograph suggests that the skeleton was divided into several sections, which then had to be brought down the freight elevator on one side of museum and carted around to an elevator on the other side. This would be the third and final position for the “Brontosaurus” – even when the mount was updated  in 1995, preparators left the torso and legs in place.

brown's cretaceous hall

Brown’s Cretaceous Hall, around 1939. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1930s and 40s saw a number of new dinosaur mounts added to the displays, nearly all of which were discovered by Brown. The new Jurassic Hall gained a Stegosaurus and Tenontosaurus (oddly, not a Jurassic dinosaur), and the Cretaceous Hall gained Brown’s astonishingly intact Centrosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Styracosaurus from Alberta.

Phase V: 1956 – 1990

amnhmap_1956

Edwin Colbert joined AMNH in 1930 as Osborn’s assistant (he called this “a time of experiences and incidents,” whatever that means). Eventually rising to Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Colbert was one of only a handful of mid-century researchers studying dinosaurs. He is also notable for his public outreach — in collaboration with his partner, Margaret Colbert, he wrote more than 20 popular books about paleontology.

In 1953, Colbert worked with exhibit specialist Katharine Beneker to redesign the Jurassic and Cretaceous Halls. The Jurassic Hall received the most dramatic aesthetic makeover — windows were covered up to create a “black box” effect, while the dinosaur mounts were illuminated dramatically from above and below. The most significant addition to this space wasn’t a standing mount, but a trace fossil. Exhibit developers incorporated several slabs of sauropod tracks (collected at the Paluxy River in Texas by Roland T. Bird) into the central pedestal, as though left behind by the “Brontosaurus.” Cemented together, the slabs weighed 22 tons — apparently nobody expected that they would ever need to be moved. The fossil fish alcove, formerly part of the 1905 Hall of Fossil Reptiles, also found a home in this space.

In stark contrast to the Charles Knight oil and watercolor murals commissioned by Osborn, Colbert elected to decorate the Jurassic Hall with a series of understated chalk drawings. Joseph Guerry created the illustrations, which was then projected onto the walls and traced in chalk. The initial plan was to paint over the chalk outlines, but Colbert enjoyed the blackboard-like look and left them as they were. The exhibit team didn’t even add fixative, since it would have turned the lines an unpleasant yellow.

Jurassic hall colbert. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The Jurassic —or Brontosaur— Hall opened in 1953. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Architectural modifications to the Cretaceous Hall were minimal, although the standing dinosaur mounts were all clustered onto a single platform. Interestingly, both the National Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Natural History would arrange their dinosaurs in precisely the same way within the decade. While it’s possible that these museums were copying AMNH, this similarity is probably a reflection of the transition to more holistic natural history displays that was occurring in museums nationwide. Rather than displaying specimens individually, exhibit designers in the 1950s and 60s began to arrange them in meaningful ways — for example, grouping animals with a shared habitat. The Cretaceous Hall also gained some new specimens, including an array of Protoceratops skulls recovered during the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Signs and labels were updated with more approachable language, once again reflecting contemporary museum theory.

The Cretaceous —or Tyrannosaur— Hall opened in 1954. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Meanwhile, some of the oldest AMNH fossil exhibits were retired and replaced during this period. In 1961, the classic geology hall — the oldest exhibit on the fourth floor — became the research library and was closed to regular museum visitors. Its spiritual successor was the new Earth History exhibit, which replaced Osborn’s Hall of the Age of Man. Around the same time, George Gaylord Simpson curated what was colloquially known as the “Sloth Hall.” Occupying the space that was once the Hall of Fossil Reptiles, this exhibit featured ground sloths and glyptodonts, plus a sizable display demonstrating how fossils are collected and prepared. Only the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained ostensibly untouched during this wave of modernization.

The Hall of Advanced Mammals in 1982. Some sections were boarded up but remaining exhibits were virtually unchanged from the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The 1950s and 60s iterations of the AMNH fossil halls endured for 30 years, making them the longest-lasting versions to date. Displays like the “Brontosaurus” and Tyrannosaurus became immutable symbols for the institution, visited again and again by generations of museum-goers. However, time gradually took its toll. A large section of the Hall of Fossil Mammals was boarded up, since museum staff had removed so many specimens for study or conservation. Railings were eventually added to the Jurassic Hall, because it was too tempting for visitors to join the dinosaurs on the platform, Ke$ha-style.

The Brontosaur Hall in 1988. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Most importantly, the exhibit content became increasingly out-of-date with each passing year. This obsolescence permeated nearly every aspect of the exhibits, from the discussion of the dinosaurs’ extinction to the drab, earth-tone aesthetics. However, the most visibly antiquated elements were the fossil mounts themselves. A new wave of dinosaur research demonstrated that these animals had been active and socially sophisticated, a far cry from the the coldblooded tail-draggers that populated the galleries. AMNH had once been the center of American paleontology, but by the late 1980s its dated displays were lagging far behind newer museums.

Phase VI: 1995 – Present

amnhmap_1995

Between 1987 and 1995, Lowell Dingus coordinated a comprehensive, $44 million renovation of the AMNH fossil exhibits (previously discussed here and here). The original plan was to renovate only the Hall of Fossil Mammals, since it had remained largely unaltered since 1895. Within a year, however, the project had expanded to encompass all six halls on the fourth floor, telling the entire story of vertebrate evolution. Two primary goals originated very early in the planning process. First, the “walk through time” layout would be replaced with one rooted in phylogenetic classification. The cladistic methodology for tracing organisms’ evolutionary history became the central theme that unified the new exhibits. This required a fairly substantial reorganization of existing specimens. The mammals could remain in the same two halls, but the denizens of the Jurassic and Cretaceous halls had to be rearranged to feature Saurischian and Ornithiscian dinosaurs, respectively. Meanwhile, the research library moved to a new location to make way for the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

Advanced Mammals

The Hall of Advanced Mammals was the first renovated exhibit opened to the public. Photo by the author.

The second major goal was to restore the original architecture in each hall, ensuring that both the historic specimens and the spaces they occupied would come “as close to their original grandeur as possible” (Dingus 2006). In many cases original architecture elements — such as the molded ceilings — were still intact behind panels that had been installed over them. These features were painstakingly restored, or when necessary, recreated. Classic decorative elements, from the colonnades to the elegant chandeliers, were reintroduced.

Apatosaurus remount

The updated Apatosaurus in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

The vast majority of the fossil mounts in the renovated exhibits had already been on display for years. Among the classic mounts, only the two most iconic displays were completely overhauled. The restoration of Apatosaurus (formerly “Brontosaurus“) took more than a year. A conservation team led by Jeanne Kelly worked from a temporary wooden scaffold, filling cracks in the aging fossils with epoxy and securing loose joints on the armature. The mount’s torso and legs remained in place throughout the process, but the neck and tail were dismantled and remounted by Phil Fraley’s exhibit company. In addition to a new head, the revised Apatosaurus gained several caudal and cervical vertebrae, extending its total length to 88 feet. Remounting the Tyrannosaurus rex was even more difficult, because the fossils were so fragile. Once again, Phil Fraley was responsible for disassembling and reposing the skeleton. The T. rex now sports a more accurate horizontal posture, and its weight is supported by steel cables extending from the ceiling.

The new fossil mounts are easily recognized by their dynamic poses. In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, the amphibian “Buettneria” (now Koskinonodon) assumes a diving pose, while a Prestosuchus charges with its tail aloft. Among the dinosaurs, a new Deinonychus mount (assembled in part from previously-unidentified historic material) is posed in mid-leap. Finally, the dog-like Amphicyon chases the tiny antelope Ramoceros in the Hall of Advanced Mammals.

hall of ver

In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, a new Koskinodon mount represents the vertebrates’ critical transition to terrestrial life. Photo by the author.

The AMNH fossil halls represent one of the most exhaustively complete fossil collections in the world, but these exhibits ultimately tell two stories. On one hand, we have the story represented by the fossils themselves. The exhibit is an extended genealogy, tracing our origins across 500 million years of deep time. On the other hand, we have the museum’s history, which highlights both the praiseworthy and the ugly sides of 20th century science. It reminds us where our society has been and where it needs to go. Both stories are relevant to each and every person passing through these halls, and laudably, the latest renovation highlights both.

References

Colbert, E.H. (1958). Chalk Murals. Curator 4:10-16.

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

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

5 Comments

Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny – An Addendum

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Age of Man

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

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

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

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

ponies

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

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

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

Reference

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

5 Comments

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

The Carnegie Quarry Diaspora

About 150 million years ago, a severe drought ravaged the western interior of North America. In eastern Utah, malnourished dinosaurs gathered near a dwindling river. Unwilling or unable to leave the water source, they eventually died of thirst or disease. When rain finally returned to the region, three or four successive flash floods washed dozens of animal carcasses into a relatively small depositional area to the southeast. Today, this site is known as the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, and it is one of the most incredible fossil sites in the world.

Dinosaur National Monument interns collect data on the quarry wall.

Dinosaur National Monument interns collect data on the quarry wall. Source

Today, a structure encompassing a 180-foot section of the deposit (less than half its total length) allows visitors to view nearly 1400 dinosaur bones in situ. However, the fossils on display at Dinosaur National Monument represent only a portion of the material found at the Carnegie Quarry. Between the site’s discovery in 1908 and the establishment of the quarry wall exhibit, more than 20 reasonably complete dinosaur skeletons and dozens more incomplete specimens were excavated and distributed to museums in the US and Canada. No less than eleven mounted skeletons have been created from this material, and they are all still on display today. Although they are thousands of miles from their place of discovery and exhibited in four different cities, these mounts all represent individuals that lived and died in the same environment. They may have even encountered each other in life!

The Discovery

Earl Douglass was already an established fossil hunter when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History hired him in 1902. Late in the 1909 field season, Douglass was prospecting near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers when he spotted a series of sauropod vertebrae eroding out of the rocks. Once Douglass and his crew began excavating the fossils, it became apparent that they had not just one remarkably complete dinosaur, but several. Douglass called it a “beautiful sight,” and CMNH director William Holland could barely contain his glee in his reports back to the Pittsburgh museum. Under Douglass’s management, CMNH crews worked at what became known as the Carnegie Quarry for 13 years. The dinosaur fossils were jumbled and often overlaid one another, so the excavators had to work on multiple skeletons simultaneously. The especially hard sandstone also slowed their work, and the team regularly resorted to huge horse-drawn plows and even dynamite to reach the fossils. Eventually railway tracks were installed to help transport blocks of sandstone out of the quarry.

In 1915, Holland successfully petitioned Woodrow Wilson to preserve the site as a national monument. CMNH crews continued to excavate until early 1923. At that point, their primary benefactor Andrew Carnegie had died, and funding for field work was dwindling. Other museums collected from the quarry periodically in the years that followed, but Douglass’s idea to contain the remaining fossils in an on-site museum was not realized until 1958.

The Mounts

CMNH

CMNH Apatosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo source.

Apatosaurus louisae – CM 3018

The CMNH Apatosaurus was the first dinosaur discovered at the Carnegie Quarry. After Douglass first spotted the articulated caudal vertebrae in August of 1909, his crew spent several months extracting the rest of the skeleton from the rocks. The excavation continued into early 1910, and by the time they were finished they had the most complete Apatosaurus ever found – a title the specimen holds to this day. Holland mounted the 77-foot skeleton alongside the museum’s Diplodocus in just three years, at the time a record for a sauropod mount.

Holland famously left his Apatosaurus headless for decades due to a disagreement with Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History. Douglass recovered a skull that almost certainly belonged to the Apatosaurus, but Holland opted not to use it because it contradicted the sculpted head already in place on the AMNH Apatosaurus mount. After Holland’s death in 1932, museum staff quietly added a casted Camarasaurus skull as a placeholder. This was finally replaced with a proper Apatosaurus skull in 1979. More recently, the team at Phil Fraley Productions disassembled and restored the Apatosaurus, along with the rest of the classic CMNH dinosaurs. Since 2007, this specimen has been back on display in a more graceful modern pose.

Fancy fisheye photo.

AMNH Barosaurus. Source

Barosaurus lentus – AMNH 6341

When the CMNH team discovered this skeleton in 1912, they assumed it was yet another specimen of the well-known Diplodocus. It was harvested for parts, with portions sent to CMNH, the United States National Museum, and the University of Utah to supplement their displays. When the specimen turned out to be the more obscure sauropod Barosaurus, it languished in pieces for many years. Barnum Brown of AMNH was making a circuit of the fossil collections at various natural history museums when he rediscovered this specimen. Through a series of purchases and trades, the Barosaurus was reunited at AMNH in 1929.

Nevertheless, AMNH quickly abandoned plans to mount the Barosaurus – the museum already had a sauropod on display, and there wasn’t enough floor space for another one. It wouldn’t go on display until 1991, when Lowell Dingus conceived of the idea to mount the Barosaurus in a spectacular rearing pose as part of the renovation of the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. Peter May took on the project – one of the first mounts produced by his company Research Casting International. The resulting display, actually a cast, is the tallest free-standing dinosaur mount in the world.

ROM Barosaurus.

ROM Barosaurus. Source

Barosaurus lentus – ROM 3670

Douglass recovered a second partial Barosaurus skeleton in 1912, which consisted of a mostly complete torso and parts of each leg. It stayed in the CMNH collections for many years, until they traded it to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1962. ROM staff intended to mount the skeleton, but once again this was cancelled due to a lack of space. David Evans was developing a new ROM paleontology exhibit in 2007 when he learned that the museum had most of a Barosaurus sitting in its collections. With only weeks remaining before the exhibit’s opening, Evans tapped Research Casting International to mount the sauropod, supplemented with a replica neck and tail from the AMNH version.

Allosaurus fragilis – CM 11844

Several Allosaurus specimens are known from the Carnegie Quarry, but the one on display at CMNH is one of the largest. Douglass and his team excavated this 35-foot skeleton between 1913 and 1915. The mount was built in 1938. Although the specimen included a partial skull, the exhibit team swapped it with a cast of a more complete skull (also found in the Carnegie Quarry) from the collections of the University of Utah. This mount also includes casts of the arms of USNM 4734, an Allosaurus collected for O.C. Marsh.

Stegosaurus ungulatus – CM 11341

The CMNH Stegosaurus is a composite of several individuals excavated from the Carnegie Quarry between 1920 and 1922. Museum staff completed the 21 foot-long mount in 1940, using a skull cast from USNM 8612. Casts of this skeleton were distributed to several other museums at some point, one of which is on display at the University of Nebraska State Museum. Phil Fraley’s company remounted the CMNH original in 2007.

Carnegie Camarasaurus.

Carnegie Camarasaurus. Source

Camarasaurus lentus – CM 11338

This juvenile Camarasaurus is the most complete sauropod ever found. It is displayed as a relief mount almost exactly as it was discovered, with two exceptions. The left leg was swapped with a more complete one from another individual, and the tail was re-positioned to create a more aesthetically pleasing mount. Casts of this skeleton are displayed at museums throughout the United States, including Dinosaur National Monument, but the original is at CMNH. This specimen is also notable because its left scapula is preserved in its life position, making it a helpful model for skeletal reconstructions and exhibit mounts.

NMNH Camarasaurus. Photo by the author.

NMNH Camarasaurus. Photo by the author.

Camarasaurus lentus – USNM 13786

The second best Camarasaurus also comes from Carnegie Quarry, but it is a considerably larger individual. Only the tail and a few odds and ends were missing. CMNH kept the specimen for several years before trading it to USNM in 1933 for a set of Pliocene horse skeletons. Norman Boss prepared the specimen in full view of the public during the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition – one of the first known examples of such an exhibit. The completed mount appeared at USNM in the 1950s, sporting the tail of another Camarasaurus. At over 30 feet long, this skeleton is one of the largest dinosaurs on display at the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the death pose somewhat limits the effect. The Camarasaurus was taken off exhibit in late 2014 for conservation and remounting. When it returns, it will be standing on its feet for the first time in 150 million years, taking its rightful place as one of the museum’s most impressive dinosaurs.

DMNH Diplodocus. Source

DMNH Diplodocus. Source

Diplodocus longus – DMNH 1494

Since this Dipldodocus was found somewhat disarticulated, Douglass suggested that the carcass may have been twisted apart while rolling downstream. AMNH held on to this skeleton for some time before trading it to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 1936 for two mammoth skeletons. Preparator Phillip Reinheimer mounted the skeleton with the help of 40 workers assigned to the museum through the Works Progress Administration. Additional Diplodocus fossils collected by William DeWeese (actually the first dinosaur specimens acquired by the museum) were also used to complete the mount. The Diplodocus remained on view until 1989, when Ken Carpenter and others restored and remounted the sauropod, elevating its tail and making its neck sweep gracefully to the left. The improved mount has been on display since 1995.

CMNH Camptosaurus.

CMNH Camptosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo source.

Camptosaurus aphanoecetes – CM 11337

Douglass found this controversial small ornithopod in 1922, and correctly matched it with an isolated leg several feet away. It was first identified as Camptosaurus medius, but in 2008 Ken Carpenter reassigned it to the new species C. aphanoecetes. A 2011 phylogenic study by Andrew McDonald moved this specimen to a new genus, Uteodon. Carpenter, however, asserts that McDonald’s analysis was based on an incorrectly associated Dryosaurus braincase.

CMNH staff assembled the fossils into a relief mount in 1940. The skull, hindfeet, and tail were all sculpted. During the 2007 renovation, the Phil Fraley Productions team extracted the fossils from the plaster slab, even managing to preserve the delicate ossified dorsal tendons. They then created a new, three-dimensional mount, which features a revised replica skull.

Modern photo by the author.

CMNH Dryosaurus. Historic photo from McGinnis 1982; modern photo by the author.

Dryosaurus altus – CM 3392

This Dryosaurus skeleton is the most complete of several collected at Dinosaur National Monument. The tail is missing, and given the completeness of the rest of the skeleton it may well have been destroyed when Douglass’s crew was blasting through rock to get to the bone layer. The Dryosaurus entered the CMNH collections in 1922, and was assembled as a 9 foot-long relief mount in 1940. In 2007, Fraley’s team removed the fossils from the plaster matrix, and just as they did with the Camptosaurus, constructed a standing mount. To date, this is the only mounted Dryosaurus specimen in the world. It is displayed alongside a juvenile Ceratosaurus cast acquired from Western Paleontological Laboratories.

National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

NMNH Diplodocus. Photo by the author.

Diplodocus sp. – USNM 10865

The National Museum of Natural History’s Diplodocus was one of the last articulated skeletons removed from the Carnegie Quarry. When the CMNH crew closed up shop, Charles Gilmore of the Smithsonian moved in to recover one of the sauropod skeletons Douglass left behind. In 1923, Gilmore’s team excavated a partial Diplodocus, and also cherry-picked a few extra bones from an adjacent specimen. The process of mounting the skeleton at USNM took six years of continuous work, and Gilmore would later describe it as the most ambitious undertaking his department hadever attempted. The 70-foot Diplodocus mount was completed in 1931, and remained unchanged for more than 80 years. It was finally taken down in December 2014, and will return in a new pose in 2019.

Addendum: Mike Taylor recently called attention to a gorgeous map of the entire deposit prepared by Ken Carpenter, which was what prompted this post. Check it out here.

References

Carpenter, K. (2013). History, Sedimentology, and Taphonomy of the Carnegie Quarry, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 81:3:153-232.

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

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 90.

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

15 Comments

Filed under AMNH, CMNH, collections, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Phylogeny

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

peabody mammals

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

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

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

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

4th floor of AMNH.

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

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

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

follow the path for now

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

path disappears among dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edentates aren't real

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

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

Cows and broken videos

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

14 Comments

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