Tag Archives: mammals

Envisioning the Ice Age at NMNH

neanderthal diorama

The neanderthal burial diorama. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man, 1974.

On September 13, 1974, the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man opened in Hall 6 at the National Museum of Natural History. Part of the “third wave” of NMNH exhibits, the Ice Age Hall was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration and a new drive to create more accessible, visitor-centric museum experiences. Specifically, the exhibit was a response to increasing pressure for museums to become destination attractions, valuing visitors’ desire to be entertained above anything else. The Ice Age Hall was meant to prove that good science and the intrinsic value of specimens could, in fact, be applied in a way that would appeal to contemporary audiences. The curators, designers, educators, and artists involved with the project saw it as an important departure from old methodologies, and expected it to be a template for future exhibits. This transition did not necessarily come easily, but for 40 years the results spoke for themselves.

The Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates

wegegeg

Large fossil mounts in the short-lived Pleistocene Hall. Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Despite the fanfare accompanying the Ice Age Hall’s opening, NMNH regulars would be forgiven for noticing that much of the exhibit looked familiar. Just four years earlier, this same space saw the opening of the brand-new Hall of Quaternary Vertebrates. This was the fifth and final phase of a thorough re-imagining of the museum’s fossil displays that began in 1959. Under the guidance of exhibit designer Ann Karras, the loose arrangement of specimens that had characterized the east wing for half a century was replaced with a directed narrative of the biological and geological history of the Earth.

This new direction was motivated by complementary revolutions in the museum field and in paleontology. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. At NMNH, this change in ideology inspired paleontologists to break away from the Geology Department and form their own Department of Paleobiology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Piano wire barely visible. Photo from Marsh 2014.

Two dire wolves posed over a horse. This display didn’t make it into the Ice Age Hall. Source

As Curator of Paleontology, C.L. Gazin oversaw most of the east wing modernization and designed the Tertiary Mammals exhibit in Hall 4 himself. Gazin retired in 1970, however, so responsibility for the unfinished Quaternary exhibit in Hall 6 went to new hire Clayton Ray, the Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals. To fill out the Quaternary Hall, Ray arranged a number of trades with other museums. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County provided a saber toothed cat, two dire wolves, and the sheep-sized sloth Paramylodon (USNM 15164) from the La Brea tar pits, while the American Museum of Natural History was able to spare a bison “mummy” (USNM 26387) and a taxidermied musk ox. Ray also selected a complete set of mammoth bones from the AMNH collections, which were found during a gold mining operation near Fairbanks, Alaska. The bones were collected individually and belonged to an unknown number of individuals (they may well represent multiple species), but they were sufficient for preparator Leroy Glenn to construct a complete mounted skeleton.

Ray placed the new mammoth (USNM 23792) alongside the Michigan mastodon (USNM 8204), which had been on display since 1904. The mammoth was so tall that it had less than an inch of clearance with the ceiling. The other big draw in  the Quaternary Hall was a pair of never-before-exhibited giant sloths (USNM 20867 and USNM 20872) assembled from material Gazin collected in Panama. Referred to as “megatheres” at the time, these sloths are actually Eremotherium, and they are composites of at least eight individuals. The giant sloths were positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. All four giant mammal skeletons were supplemented with 1/5th scale life restorations created by staff artist Vernon Rickman. Exhibits specialist Lucius Lomax came up with the idea to display the fossil mounts behind piano wire, stretched from the floor to the ceiling and arranged in rows. The Eremotherium platform alone required 500 strands – or about 6000 feet – of wire.

A New Vision

Chimera mammoth

The composite mammoth looms over other specimens along the right wall of the Ice Age Hall. Photo by the author.

Neither NMNH staff nor museum visitors were overjoyed with the Quaternary Hall as it stood in 1970. The piano wire Lomax had installed was a frequent cause for complaint: visitors would constantly pluck at the strings and occasionally break them. The wires also ruined photos. Automatic lenses would focus on the wire, so when visitors got their vacation pictures developed they would end up with a bunch of images of vertical strands with darkness beyond them. Nevertheless, the piano wire was really just a scapegoat for deep-seated disagreements over content between paleontology curators and exhibit designers. This apparently unsolvable clash of personalities contributed to the hall being closed indefinitely after just a couple years.

Paleontologist Porter Kier became Director of NMNH in 1973, and one of his first moves was to assemble a new team to reinvent the Quaternary Hall. Paleobotanist Leo Hickey, geologists Robert Emery and Thomas Simkin, and anthropologist William Fitzhugh conceived of an interdisciplinary exhibit that would explore the ice ages from multiple perspectives. Continental glaciation, the evolution and extinction of large mammals, and the rise of humans would all be presented in a single, holistic story. In what was at the time a novel development, the curators worked with Elaine Anderson and other “conceptualizers/writers” from the Office of Exhibits. The scientists conceived of the main ideas and ensured factual accuracy, but the Office of Exhibits ultimately wrote the label copy and oversaw the construction of the exhibition.

arch section

A statue of an archaeologist at work was a popular part of the exhibit. Image from Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974.

To accommodate new content, the existing Quaternary Hall layout had to be completely gutted and replaced. Although Clayton Ray was conspicuously absent from the exhibit team, most of the modern and fossil animal specimens he had gathered were reused in different locations. The center of the exhibit became an enclosed theater with a video presentation about the advance and retreat of North American glaciers. The north end of the hall was overtaken by human evolution displays. Replica skulls and full-body illustrations showed the progression of hominids from australopithicines to modern humans, amusingly represented by a hippie. Vernon Rickman returned to create a life-sized diorama depicting a neanderthal burial ceremony. While directly based on excavations at Regourdou Cave in France, the scene was also inspired by the much-publicized Shanidar Cave site in Iraq, where neanderthals allegedly laid their dead to rest on a bed of freshly picked flowers. Finally, a cast of an engraved mammoth tusk, based on a 25,000 year old original from the Czech Republic, was added to the south entrance. This piece was meant to tie the exhibit’s narrative together, symbolizing “man’s emergence in the ice age as a dominant influence on other animals and his environment” (Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man, 1974).

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution archives.

Vernon Rickman works on neanderthal models in 1973. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Ice Age Hall was completed remarkably quickly. Kier pulled the team together in early 1974 and the new displays were designed, written, and fabricated by September. At least internally, a great deal of excitement accompanied the reopening of Hall 6. The Ice Age Hall was a serious departure from how exhibit work had traditionally been done at NMNH, but it also represented an attempt by the museum to stand its ground in the face of pressure to delve into “edutainment.” This was a trial run at developing a visitor-focused but science-driven exhibit, and everyone involved was anxious to see how the public would react.

Legacy of the Exhibit

Eremotherium today. Photo by the author.

Few visitors can help but stop in their tracks at the sight of the Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

In 1978, Robert Wolf and Barbara Tymitz published a “naturalistic/responsive” evaluation of the Ice Age Hall. Their groundbreaking and oft-cited methodology involved interviewing visitors and surreptitiously tracking them through the gallery space, seeking to understand how museumgoers were using and interpreting the “complex set of stimuli” presented by the exhibit. This document, and especially the taxonomy of visitor types it describes, may well have influenced the museum field more than the Ice Age Hall itself.

According to Wolf and Tymitz, the Ice Age Hall was largely successful. Visitors generally remembered the major topics under discussion, and frequently left more curious about natural history than when they entered. They also noticed the difference in layout from the rest of the museum, describing it as easier to navigate and understand. Not surprisingly, the mammoth, mastodon, Eremotherium, and neanderthal burial were the most popular and most photographed objects. In comparison, the carved mammoth tusk at the front of the hall recieved surprisingly little attention. This object was intended to be tie the entire exhibit together, but most people ignored it entirely. Likewise, the separation of North and South American animals via an architectural “land bridge” was completely lost on visitors. Wolf and Tymitz observed that visitors entering from the south paid more attention to the fossil mounts, while visitors entering from the north were drawn to the glacier theater. A lesson about the importance of sight lines and traffic flow lies therein.

La brea mounts. Photo by the author.

Paramylodon and Smilodon from the La Brea tar pits. Take a good look at the sloth, because it won’t be returning in 2019. Photo by the author.

After 40 years, not every element of the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man aged gracefully. Most obviously, the androcentric title and frequent use of the word “man” to describe humans throughout the label copy comes across as painfully dated. Displays that warned of another period of global cooling were removed (or at least stopped being lit) when anthropogenic warming emerged as a crucial public policy concern. The multimedia demonstration of continental glaciation was shut down by the early 2000s, and the human evolution corner was boarded up once the Hall of Human Origins opened in 2010. While the neanderthal diorama remained on display, recent research has shown that the affectionate burial it depicts is probably a misinterpretation. Ironically, the gradual removal of geology and anthropology components effectively turned the Ice Age Hall into the straightforward menagerie of Pleistocene animals that Ray initially envisioned.

The Ice Age Hall closed along with the rest of the NMNH fossil displays in April 2014. When the east wing reopens, many of the specimens will return restored and remounted, but in a different location. Since the new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order, Hall 8 itself will house displays on the origins of life and an expanded FossiLab. Still, the Ice Age Hall experiment continues to leave its mark on the museum. The collaborative workflow and sharing of responsibilities between curators, educators, and exhibit specialists pioneered in the development of this exhibit remains standard practice today. The result has been ever more effective displays, providing solid scientific content to the widest possible audience.

References

Eschelman, R.E., Emry, R.J., Domning, D.P. and Bohaska, D.J. (2002). Biography and Bibliography of Clayton Edward Ray. Cenozoic Mammals of Land and Sea: Tributes to the Career of Clayon E. Ray. Emry, R.J., ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology.

Lay, M. (2013). Major Activities of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology During the 1960s. http://paleobiology.si.edu/history/lay1960s.html

Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (1974). Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man. Washington, DC: Elephant Press.

Wolf, R.L. and Tymitz, B.L. (1978). Whatever Happened to the Giant Wombat: An Investigation of the Impact of the Ice Age Mammals and the Emergence of Man Exhibit. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Yochelson, E. (1985). The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edentates aren't real

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

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

Cows and broken videos

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Extinct Monsters: Basilosaurus

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

The National Museum of Natural History houses the world’s most complete assemblage of fossil marine mammals. The crown jewel of this collection is assuredly the historic mounted Basilosaurus, which was until recently the only mount of its kind composed of original fossils. Since 2008, this ancestral whale has been suspended from the ceiling of the Sant Ocean Hall, but these fossils have actually been on near-continuous display for 120 years and counting. Technically this wasn’t the first time Basilosaurus fossils were used in a mounted skeleton (Albert Koch’s absurd chimera “Hydrarchos the sea serpent” preceded it by 60 years), but it was the first time this species was mounted accurately and under scientific supervision.

Basilosaurus was named by anatomist Richard Harlan in 1834. The name means “king lizard”, since he erroneously thought the bones belonged to a giant sea-going reptile. Richard Owen later re-identified the bones as those of a whale, and coined the new name “Zueglodon” (yoke tooth). While the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature decrees that the first published name must be used, late 19th century paleontologists apparently preferred to use Owen’s junior synonym.

Note basilo

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

In 1884 Charles Schuchert, an Assistant Curator at the United States National Museum, went to Clarke County, Alabama in search of “Zueglodon” remains. This would be the very first fossil-hunting expedition ever mounted by the Smithsonian. Decades earlier, Koch came to the same region to collect the fossils he used to assemble Hydrarchos, and local people had been familiar with the whale bones long before that.

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

Basilosaurus as the centerpiece of the Hall of Extinct Monsters sometime before 1930. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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

During the 1960s and 70s, Basilosaurus occupied a case in the fossil mammal exhibit in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1931, the Basilosaurus was upstaged by a new centerpiece: the mounted Diplodocus that took Charles Gilmore and his team more than a decade to assemble. The Diplodocus took the front-and-center position (where it remained until 2014), while the Basilosaurus was relocated to the south side of the hall. The Great Depression and World War II ensured that the east wing exhibits remained largely unchanged for nearly three decades after that, but the space was eventually renovated in the early 1960s as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization campaign. In its new incarnation, the east wing’s open spaces were carved into smaller galleries dedicated to different groups of ancient life. With the central Hall 2 occupied by dinosaurs and fossil reptiles, the Basilosaurus joined the other Cenozoic mammals in Hall 5. This gallery became “Life in the Ancient Seas” in 1989, but the Basilosaurus remained in place.

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

For the Ancient Seas gallery, Basilosaurus was remounted with an arched tail. Photo by Chip Clark.

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

The historic Basilosaurus

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

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

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

This post was last updated on 1/8/2018.

References

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

Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

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

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

The Chimeric Missourium and Hydrarchos

In 1802, naturalist and painter John Peale unveiled the first mounted fossil skeleton ever put on display in the United States. The mount, a mastodon (Mammut americanum) collected on a farm near Newburgh, New York, immediately captured public attention and inspired a wave of interest in anything old and big. Although Peale charged admission to view the mastodon and somewhat dramatized its importance as “the first of American animals” and “the largest of terrestrial beings”, his primary intent was to educate the public about the natural world. Nevertheless, many American capitalists saw the crowds of people lining up to see Peale’s mastodon and concluded that there was a profit to be made in exhibiting fossils. The best known of these 19th century fossil showmen was surely Albert Koch. Having immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1835, Koch was a contemporary of P.T. Barnum, and like Barnum, he made a career out of exhibiting “curiosities”, some real and some fraudulent or exaggerated. At “Dr. Koch’s” (he never actually earned a doctorate) exhibition hall in St. Louis, Missouri, visitors paying the 50 cent admission fee could view wax sculptures, exotic animals, artifacts from distant countries, extensive miniature dioramas, and alleged freaks of nature. Koch also had a live grizzly bear and several alligators – sources differ on whether or not they were forced to fight for entertainment.

Missourium

In 1840, Koch received word of something much bigger. A Missouri farmer had discovered large fossil bones, and Koch quickly arranged to purchase the find along with the rights to search the farmer’s land for more. Within four months, Koch had assembled a complete mastodon skeleton. More than complete, actually: Koch’s mount included numerous extra vertebrae and ribs from one or more additional mastodon individuals. Like Peale before him, Koch placed blocks of wood between the vertebrae to further exaggerate the animal’s length. The result was a 32-foot mount, nearly twice as long as a typical mastodon. As a final flourish, Koch positioned the mastodon’s tusks pointing upwards, to make the beast look more fearsome. In order to differentiate his creation from Peale’s earlier exhibit, Koch called the creature “Missourium”, although there was no scientific reason to distinguish it from other mastodon finds. Missourium went on display at Koch’s St. Louis establishment later that same year, and proved to be an instant success. In fact, Koch decided that the composite mastodon mount was worth more than then every other display combined. In 1841, he sold the exhibit hall and took Missourium on tour, traveling to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and several other American cities.

Illustration of Missourium. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

Contemporary academics, including the British naturalist Richard Owen, pointed out that Koch’s mount was clearly an incorrectly assembled composite, and expressed disapproval for Koch’s sensationalized treatment of important fossil specimens. Just like famous P.T. Barnum frauds like Joice Heth and the Feejee mermaid, however, the controversy surrounding Missourium’s legitimacy only increased the enthusiasm of the paying public.  As an interesting side note, Koch claimed to have found stone tools and other human artifacts alongside the Missourium fossils. He included a pamphlet with his traveling exhibit which explained that these tools demonstrated that human populations in North America extended much further back in time than had been previously assumed. Koch may well have been telling the truth about where he found the artifacts and would eventually turn out to be correct about the antiquity of American humans. Nevertheless, because of the obviously fraudulent nature of Missourium, scientists of the day saw fit to ignore Koke’s suggestions entirely.

Hydrarchos

Koch sold Missourium to the British Museum in 1843, but he was soon at it again in 1845, when he began scouring Alabama for new display-worthy fossils. This time, Koch was after the bones of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus cetoides. The Philadelphia-based naturalist and physician Richard Harlan had first described and named Basilosaurus in 1835 (he erroneously thought it was a reptile, hence the name meaning “king lizard”), but its fossils had been well known in the American south for decades before that. Enslaved men and women often ran into the bones while plowing fields, and these fossils were sometimes used as furniture or foundation posts for houses. Between January and April of 1845, Koch traveled across Clarke, Choctaw, and Washington counties, retrieving Basilosaurus remains. His best find was an articulated partial skeleton, including much of the skull, which he unearthed near the Tombigbee River.

After accumulating parts of at least six Basilosaurus individuals, Koch combined the fossils into a 114-foot mount (he would claim that it was 140 feet). Just as he had with Missourium, Koch strung together the vertebrae of multiple animals, extending his creation’s length to an absurd degree. This time, Koch did not even limit himself to whale fossils: as naturalist Jeffries Wyman would point out, many of the elements in Koch’s chimeric creation were actually ammonite shells. Billed as a sea serpent called “Hydrargos sillimani” (named after Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, who was not involved in the project and immediately requested that the reference be removed), the mount was first exhibited at the Apollo Saloon in New York City. Hydrargos, eventually renamed Hyrarchos, proved to be even more popular and profitable than Missourium. Cleverly, Koch had constructed the skeleton not as a single structure but as several modular components secured to wooden boards. This made it easy for the showman to disassemble, transport, and reassemble the display, which he toured throughout the United States and Europe.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York’s Apollo Saloon.

As they had with Missourium, scientists confronted Koch over his inaccurate and sensationalized displays. Undaunted, Koch eventually sold the Hydrarchos mount to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who exhibited it in Berlin’s Royal Anatomical Museum despite the insistence by the museum’s experts that the mount was a fraudulent reconstruction. Koch was still not finished, however. In 1848 he completed a second Basilosaurus composite, this one 96 feet long, and again took it on tour. The Mark II Hydrarchos would eventually be sold to Colonel Wood’s Museum in Chicago. E.L. Wood’s “museum” was yet another exhibition of mostly-bogus oddities, like Koch’s original operation in St. Louis. Still, the Basilosaurus mount’s final home can be credited for correctly identifying it as a prehistoric whale. The composite mount was labeled as “Zeuglodon”, a junior synonym coined by Richard Owen when he determined that the Alabama fossils belonged to marine mammals, not reptiles. Properly identified or not, the mount was destroyed along with the rest of Wood’s Museum during the great Chicago fire in 1871. Most of the original Hydrarchos was lost during World War II, although some parts remain at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.

Modern Influences

Koch’s fossil mounts were frustrating to 19th century paleontologists because they cast unnecessary doubt on their young discipline. The actual bones that made up Missourium and Hydrarchos were genuine, Koch had merely assembled them incorrectly to enhance the appeal and profitability of his displays. To the scientists’ chagrin, when they criticized Koch’s displays, the popular press and the public often misinterpreted their statements and became skeptical of fossil finds in general. During the 19th century, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s spurious commodification of hard evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously in the public sphere.

In fact, modern paleontologists still have to do damage control when the occasional forgery turns up. In 1999, the discovery of “Archaeoraptor” was widely publicized in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere as a feathered dinosaur that provided important evidence for the dinosaurian origin of birds. Archaeoraptor was not the first feathered dinosaur ever found, but it was one of the early ones, back when the concept of dinosaurs with feathers was still news. Unfortunately, it was only after the National Geographic article had gone to press that paleontologists Xu Xing and Phil Curie determined that the Archaeoraptor specimen, which had been smuggled into the United States from China by an unknown dealer, was actually a composite. Someone in China knew that a complete skeleton was worth more than an incomplete one, and cemented together partial skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Microraptor and Yanornis. When National Geographic retracted the story, however, many readers misunderstood the extent of the forgery. They thought that the feathers, the most exciting part of the find, had been faked, when in reality all the parts of Archaeoraptor were quite real, they just belonged to different animals.

This out-of-copyright image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount's wooden armature. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

This image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount’s wooden armature. Incidentally, the above caption is accurate. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

More than ten years later, writers with creationist agendas and a few scientists who ought to know better are still pushing the myth that Archaeoraptor was a deliberate hoax. Literally hundreds of genuine feathered dinosaur specimens found since then contribute to the scientific consensus that birds area incontrovertibly dinosaurs. And yet, paleontologists are still fighting skepticism inspired by the Archaeoraptor mistake.

19th century paleontologists paid for Koch’s displays in much the same way. Editorials denouncing evolution and the fossil record repeatedly referenced Koch’s ridiculous chimeras, as though these showpieces were representative of paleontologists’ work. I suspect that the general animosity paleontologists of the era felt toward fossil mounts came from dealing with Koch’s legacy. O.C. Marsh, for instance, hated the idea of mounting fossils and refused to let any of his finds be displayed in such a way during his lifetime. It would not be until 1868 and the discovery of the first somewhat complete dinosaur remains that paleontologists would again see mounting as a legitimate means for displaying their finds.

References

Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossi Vertebrate Skeletons. In Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D.E. 1998. Doctor Koch and his “Immense Antidiluvian Monsters.” http://www.alabamaheritage.com/vault/monsters.htm

Rogers, M. 2010. Delia’s Tears: Race, Science and Photography in Nineteenth Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Simpson, G.G. 1942. The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 86:1:130-188.

Switek, B. 2008. “Koch’s “Mammoth” and Human Antiquity.” http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/2008/06/18/too-little-too-soon/

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Filed under fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums

Fossil mounts: specimens, showpieces, art and more

A few days ago, Andy Farke posed the following question on twitter:

If fossils are part of our planet’s heritage, and belong to all of us, are museum restrictions on photos ethical?

Farke clarified that he was referring specifically to fossils held in collections, especially those collected on federal land and/or with public funding. Following the same sound logic that makes open access scientific publication a necessity, any scientific work using public resources should be accessible to everyone, including objects in collections.* The question had arisen because some museums bar researchers utilizing collections from using photographs in their published articles (or charge a fee for the privilege). This is a valid concern, but I don’t have enough experience with scientific publishing to explore it properly. Instead, I’d like to hijack the question in order to discuss the murky identity of fossil mounts.

*I’m going to disregard for-profit museums for the time being, suffice it to say such collections exist and can be useful for research as well.

A sampling of fossil collections and curators at the National Museum of Natural History. Source: http://paleobiology.si.edu.

As was already pointed out in response to Farke’s initial question, the public’s right to access photographs of some fossil collections should not necessarily extend to museum exhibits. Any modern museum exhibit worth its salt is far more than specimens on shelves. Exhibits are immersive experiences that use specimens to illustrate a story. A great deal of creative work goes into designing and fabricating an exhibit, and it is not unreasonable for museums to claim ownership of any reproductions, including photographs, if they so choose.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mounts in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Fossil mounts, however, are a different beast. These structures are difficult to categorize because they are intended both to educate and to entertain. They may incorporate real fossils, or casts taken directly from them, but I would argue that fossil mounts are primarily constructed pieces. With the exception of some more recently extinct mammal taxa, most mounts are composites of casts, sculpted elements and original fossils collected in different places at different times. Steel armatures are custom-made not only to support the specimens but to appropriately fill the exhibit space. Mounts like the striking Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter in the Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH (above) are designed to make an aesthetic impression as well as to inform. Overall, mounts require a substantial investment of time, labor, money and artistic skill to create and maintain. Experienced researchers typically guide the construction process and the contributions of knowledgeable scientists cannot be overstated, but fossil specimens certainly do not come out of the ground mount-ready. There is a great deal more to making a good mount than stringing vertebrae together in the right order.

A direct comparison can be made between fossil mounts and the taxidermied animals that are also a staple at natural history museums. A taxidermy mount also incorporates a scientific specimen, the animal’s skin, which if collected using public resources should be accessible to all. Like fossil mounts, however, taxidermy pieces require extensive artistic and technical skill to create, from the steel or wood armature to the clay model that build’s out the animal’s musculature to the eyes and mouth, which are typically sculpted from scratch. It is worth quoting Rachel Poliquin’s excellent The Breathless Zoo at length:

As dead and mounted animals, [taxidermy mounts] are thoroughly cultural objects; yet as pieces of nature, [they] are thoroughly beyond culture. Animal or object? Animal and object? This is the irresolvable tension that defines all taxidermy. (Poliquin 2012, 5-6)

I firmly believe that the results of scientific inquiry belong in the public domain, and it follows that restrictions on the photographic reproduction of collections specimens are inappropriate. Nevertheless, fossil mounts and taxidermied animals are the products of artisans as much as of researchers, and the right to credit and control over this work ought to be respected. This middle ground is awkward to negotiate, and as Poliquin puts it, a means to please all parties might be “irresolvable.”

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH's taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH’s taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

To make a non-committal final point, I’d like to mention that it is tempting to be too uptight about copyright, particularly in a museum setting. This past October, I had the pleasure to give a presentation with Alexis Fekete at the Kansas Museum Association’s annual conference. The most interesting part of our session (which was about how web 2.0 tools can help museums) was when audience members, mostly representing small history museums, voiced concerns over making their photography collections available online. There was apprehension about making it too easy for people to copy and sell pictures without permission, which I assume is the primary reasoning behind other museums’ policies prohibiting the publication of fossil images. I’m skeptical, however, that this is the most pressing concern. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have no problem with getting information disseminated to genuinely interested people. Creating awareness and enthusiasm for content is part of the general mission of museums, and I’d hate to see overzealous copyright barriers get in the way of that.

References

Poliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, science communication

Extinct Monsters: Ice Age Giants

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

While not as immediately eye-catching as the dinosaurs, the fossil mammals on display at the National Museum of Natural History are notable for their sheer diversity. From rabbits to elephants and from bats to whales, virtually every major group of North American mammals, particularly eutherian (placental) mammals, is represented. By my count, there were no less than 48 mounted mammal skeletons on display (not including individual skulls and other parts) in 2014, arranged by time period and distributed across three sizable halls.

The comprehensive nature of these exhibits is largely thanks to C.L. Gazin, head curator of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the 1950s and 60s. During the modernization of the fossil halls in the early 1960s, Gazin focused his efforts on assembling a complete narrative of Cenozoic mammal evolution. The six-part exhibit debuted in 1961 in Hall 5, and was relocated two decades later to Hall 3. Gazin also initiated the construction of the adjacent Ice Age exhibit, although it would not be permanently opened to the public until 1974.

Now that the fossil halls are being renovated, NMNH staff face the enormous task of disassembling and restoring the dozens of historic mammal skeletons. Many will return when the exhibit reopens in 2019, but others may be retired to the collections if they are deemed too fragile for continued display, or if they are not illustrative of the story being told in the new exhibit.

The Megaloceros

This Megaloceros

This Megaloceros has the distinction of being the Smithsonian’s first mounted skeleton composed of original fossils. Photo by the author.

The Smithsonian’s first mounted fossil skeletons went on display in 1871 in the building colloquially called “the castle.” The exhibit included plaster casts of the ground sloth Megatherium, the tortoise Colossochelys and the glyptodont Scistopleurum, all made from originals at the British Museum. The following year saw the addition of the giant deer Megaloceros (USNM V 7051) — the Smithsonian’s first mounted skeleton composed of original fossils. The Smithsonian purchased this complete Megaloceros, which was uncovered in an Irish peat bog, from Philadelphia-based antiques dealer Thomas and Sons. The mount was assembled by none other than Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the sculptor who created the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

Note basilo

Megaloceros in the southeast court of the Arts and Industries building, circa 1896. The British Museum Megatherium cast can be seen on the left. Source

When construction of the original United States National Museum (what is now called the Arts and Industries Building) was completed in 1881, all of the fossil displays were moved to the new setting. Vertebrate fossils found a home in the 80,000 square foot southeast court. Gradually, the Megaloceros and British Museum casts were joined by many more crowd-pleasing skeletons, including a copy of the Philadelphia Hadrosaurus, an Edmontosaurus, a Triceratops, and a mastodon (discussed below). By the time the USNM was preparing to move to yet another new building across the national mall in 1910, the southeast court had become quite crowded. Unfortunately, the Megatherium and Collossochelys never made it to the new location. These casts were discarded due to the damage they had accumulated while on display. Although the glyptodont cast was still on exhibit as of 1940, it too was eventually destroyed. Happily, the Megaloceros survived, and has been included in each subsequent iteration of the fossil exhibits.

Starting in 1974, the Megaloceros was displayed alongside the extinct bird Diornis in the Ice Age hall. It’s weight was partially supported by cables descending from the ceiling, which proved to be a problem when it came time to disassemble it in July 2014. Rather than attempting to lift the delicate skull and heavy antlers off the armature, the exhibit team strapped the skull to a mechanical lift so that it could be slowly and gently lowered to the floor. In the new National Fossil Hall, the Megaloceros will be sitting on the ground. This pose was selected in order to bring the spectacular antlers to visitors’ eye level.

The Mastodon

The Indiana mastodon in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1901, Michigan farmer Levi Wood found a well-preserved, nearly complete Mammut americanum (USNM 2106) in a peat swamp on his land. The USNM purchased the rights to excavate the skeleton from Wood and began work that same year. The specimen turned out to be virtually complete, save for the forelimbs and left hindlimb. Alban Stewart mounted the skeleton, adding a left hindlimb from another mastodon specimen from Missouri, and filling in other missing elements with plaster replicas. The completed mount was first exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.

For a time, there were two mastodon mounts on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

After the Exposition, the Michigan mastodon was added to the fossil displays in the  southeast court of the Arts and Industries Building. It remained there for four years, before joining the rest of the paleontology exhibits and collections in the move to the new USNM building.

In 1915, a second mastodon (USNM V 8204) from Indiana was added to the Hall of Extinct Monsters. The matching set can be seen on the left side of the image above, with the plaster skull of a Deinotherium (USNM V 1917) positioned between them. The larger Indiana mastodon persisted through the 1963 and 1981 renovations, and will return with a more energetic pose in 2019. NMNH loaned the Michigan mastodon to the Oregon Zoo for many years. It has since been returned, dismantled, and retired to the collections.

The Stegomastodon

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon (USNM 10707) was collected by James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona. This 1921 collecting trip also produced the museum’s Glyptotherium. While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

Stegomastodon with

Stegomastodon with its original tusks. Photo from Gidley 1925.

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

The Eremotherium pair

Eremotherium

The unique and impressive Eremotherium pair. Photo by the author.

The immense pair of giant ground sloths (USNM V 20867 and USNM V 20872) are among the most impressive and unique skeletal mounts at NMNH. Many a visitor has ascended the ramp to the Ice Age gallery only to stop and stare at them. Unlike the Megaloceros, mastodon, and many others, these were new additions added during the 1960s modernization. Gazin’s team recovered the fossils in Panama between 1950 and 1951, bringing back over 100 plaster jackets representing at least eight individual sloths of the genus Eremotherium.

sou

John Ott and Gladwyn Sullivan attach the scapula of the standing sloth. Source

Assistant Curator of Cenozoic Mammals Clayton oversaw the assembly of the two Eremotherium mounts in 1969. Both the larger standing sloth and smaller kneeling one are composites of fossils from many individuals (there are also plenty of reconstructed bones, easily spotted by their solid beige coloration). Most of the surplus bones were repatriated to Panama before the mounts went on display. The sloths were originally positioned back-to-back on a central platform, accentuated by an illuminated opening in the ceiling. However, this layout only lasted a few years. In 1974, the Quaternary Hall was completely reorganized into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Age of Man. In the new arrangement, the Eremotherium pair was relocated to a corner at the north end of the gallery. In 2019, only one Eremotherium will be on display.

The Mammoth

Chimera mammoth

This mammoth was assembled from as many as 70 individual specimens. Photo by the author.

Although it was always labeled as a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the Smithsonian’s third proboscidian skeleton (USNM V 23792) is actually a composite of over fifty individual specimens, some of which probably belong to the more southerly Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). Most of these fossils were acquired in a trade with the American Museum of Natural History in the 1960s, specifically to build a mounted skeleton for the Ice Age hall. Perhaps because they were acquired for display, rather than study, the origin of these fossils was not well-recorded. It is only now that the mammoth has been disassembled that collections staff can begin to to learn more about this iconic chimera. Some of the bones are marked with the year and location of their collection, crucial details for piecing together their provenience. Experts can also determine whether this mount is more primigenius or columbi, and decide if a composite like this is even appropriate for continued display.

The mammoth in its new, snow-shoveling pose. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Newsdesk.

In the new fossil hall, the mammoth will be kneeling down, pushing its great tusks across the ground as though it were brushing away snow. In the meantime, the original mount was digitally scanned, and the model is freely available from Smithsonian 3D.

References

Carrano, M. 2018. Pers. comm.

Gazin, C.L. 1956.  Exploration for the remains of giant ground sloths in Panama. Smithsonian report, 341-354.

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

Gilmore, C.W. 1906. Notes on Some Recent Additions to the Exhibition Series of Vertebrate Fossils. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 30.

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

Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

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