Tag Archives: science communication

Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students 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.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.

References

Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

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 education, opinion, science communication, systematics

A Game Changer?

Today, Google and 60 partner museums unveiled the new natural history arm of the Google Cultural Institute. Launched in 2011, the Cultural Institute is an effort to make culturally significant material accessible online. Up until this point, the primary focus has been on art and history. In conjunction with museums and other institutions around the world, Google has been uploading millions of images, archival documents, and virtual walkthroughs of significant places. The natural history project offers more of the same, but with 100% more dinosaurs.

I had no idea this was in the works, nor do I know much beyond what is said in the press release. After spending much of this morning exploring the site, however, you can color me impressed. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming: 300,000 annotated specimen photos, virtual walkthroughs of 50 museums, and 184 multimedia presentations on topics both general (cabinets of curiosities) and esoteric (native plants and fish of Korea). Unfortunately, accessing this content can be a bit of a chore. I was often confused by the user interface, and found many of the most interesting or useful items by accident.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Google Cultural Institute

For me, the museum walkthroughs are the clear highlight. Using Google’s Street View technology, users can explore the included museums and get surprisingly close to individual displays. Some of these “virtual tours” are frustratingly limited to a few corridors between exhibits, but others provide darn near the full experience of actually being there. Of the museum walkthroughs I’ve looked at so far, the National Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde are particular standouts in this regard. A handful of museums have had virtual tours available online since at least the early 2000s, but this is the first time I’ve seen the concept escape the gimmick stage and become something potentially useful.

The quality of the multimedia presentations (“virtual exhibits”, if you must) is a bit mixed. The best ones make specific use of the partner museums’ collections, highlighting the scientific, cultural, or historical significance of particular objects. These presentations provide curatorial expertise and novel insights that are not easily found elsewhere. Other presentations, however, are frustratingly generalized, and don’t include much content that one couldn’t get from skimming a Wikipedia article.

yawn, another cgi sauropod. I'd rather see the mount.

Yet another middling CGI dinosaur. Yay, I guess? Google Cultural Institute

I would include the site’s flagship attractions – narrated 360-degree tours of selected exhibit halls – in the second camp. These three short videos each feature an exhibit that “comes to life” with the help of some acceptable-but-not-spectacular CGI. Take the video about the Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde. It’s awesome to be able to look all around the hall, but most of the video is taken up by an animated version of the dinosaur that doesn’t accomplish anything it’s Jurassic Park counterpart didn’t 23 years ago. The video starts to tell some interesting stories – convergent evolution between sauropods and giraffes, the rate of extinction caused by human activities far outpaces normal background extinction – but the goofy CGI Giraffatitan is very much in the way. Museums have so many strengths, so I’ll never understand the impulse to rely on things like animated dinosaurs that a) their audience can see elsewhere and b) Hollywood will always be able to do better.

A great deal of content to be found by the bold.

A great deal of content can be found by the bold. Google Cultural Institute

All in all, the new natural history project at the Google Cultural Institute is a very impressive starting point. Nevertheless, my optimism is tempered by the fact that the web is littered with apps and mini-websites developed by museums, then almost immediately abandoned. Too often, digital projects are taken on without a clear idea of who will continue to update it, what need is being addressed, or even who the website or app is for. The real test will be whether Google and the partner museums will continue to support the Cultural Institute with new content. This has been a recurring problem with museums’ digital endeavors, but perhaps the collaboration with Google (and its extensive infrastructure) will help.

Moreover, accessibility is an admirable goal, but there is a very wide gap between putting stuff online and creating something that lots of people (teachers, students, people who don’t live near museums) actually want to use. I’m encouraged by the range of material on the Cultural Institute site. Some content is fairly general, perhaps suitable for a 3rd grade science report, while other content is far more in-depth. I will be very curious to see what the public ends up using, and for what purpose. It would also be neat to see if this ended up being the start of a truly global digital collection, useful for educators and researchers alike. We’ll see if the Cultural Institute ends up being the catalyst that finally makes digital museums happen!

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, museums, sauropods, science communication

The Epistemological Challenge of Model Whales

The very nature of whales precludes scientific study of these incredible animals. They are enormous – strong and powerful in life and unwieldy to manipulate in death. They live in the open ocean, where they can only be reached by boat or plane. Living whales fare poorly in captivity, and dead whales rapidly deteriorate into an oily, reeking mess. If there was ever a natural specimen that does not lend itself to display in a museum, it would be a whale.

This is not for lack of trying. Museums have long sought to collect whales, both to complete their records of biodiversity and to show the visiting public the spectacular extremes of animal life. Success in this endeavor has always been mixed. The Natural History Museum of London has one of the best collections of real whales, including dolphins, porpoises, and a humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) fetus pickled in bathtub-sized vats of alcohol. Larger whales*, however, can only be displayed as skeletons, which unfortunately misrepresent the shape of the living animal (and as many museums have learned the hard way, even whale bones stink and drip blubber for years after cleaning). Many taxidermists have attempted to preserve the skins of large whales over the years, but this has typically resulted in grotesque, short-lived failures**.

Casting in newfoundland

A Smithsonian team takes plaster molds from a blue whale caught by whalers in Newfoundland. Source

A museum is a place for real things, but what can museum workers do if a specimen is so irreconcilable with the practicalities of display? Throughout the 20th century, many museums have experimented with life-sized model whales. Vouched by scientists and based on photographs and measurements of actual whales, these models provided (and continue to provide) many visitors with the closest experience they will ever have to seeing a giant whale in person. However, to display a model is to raise key questions about authenticity. Constructed from papier-mâché, plaster, or fiberglass, a model whale lacks the flesh-and-blood reality of a true whale. Its legitimacy comes from a disassociated set of observations, and the perceived authority and expertise of the scientists who made them. This is in itself fair, but the situation is complicated by the fact that we know remarkably little about living whales, and historical scientists knew even less. Model whales have never been intended to deceive audiences, but many could hardly be called accurate reconstructions today.

In the 19th century, the only people who had seen living whales up close were whalers – a group probably more concerned with staying alive than making careful anatomical observations. Scientists had to rely on occasional, all-too-brief surface sightings and the misshapen corpses of beached animals. While the situation has improved, we still know precious little about whales’ lives below the waves. Is it scientifically acceptable, or even ethical, to present a reconstruction of an animal based on such limited information? Let the epistemological nightmare begin!

*By large whales, I am referring primarily to mysticetes and the sperm whale (Physter macrocephalus).

**One notable exception is the juvenile blue whale at the Göteborg Natural History Museum in Sweden. Not only is this the only mounted mysticete in the world, it is the only whale to have an upholstered seating area inside. Once a destination for lovers’ trysts, the whale’s interior now hosts Santa Claus at Christmastime. 

Round 1: 1880 – 1938

First whale

This bisected humpback at the United States National Museum was the first large whale replica displayed at a major museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Spencer Baird, the Smithsonian’s first curator, was a marine biologist with a strong interest in cetaceans. He quickly made the Smithsonian a place for whales, assembling an impressive collection and hiring staff with similar research priorities. It is therefore no surprise that the first full-sized replica of a large whale would be built at the United States National Museum. In 1882, exhibit specialist Joseph Palmer mounted the skeleton of a humpback whale with it’s left side enclosed in a plaster death cast of the same individual. This display lasted until the early 20th century, when it was scrapped during the move from the Arts and Industries Building to what is now the National Museum of Natural History. In 1901, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment provided a similar half-mount of a sperm whale to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

However, museum workers soon set their sights on bigger whales – specifically, the largest animal the Earth has ever known. In 1903, Smithsonian Curator of Mammals Frederick True teamed up with Head of Exhibits Frederick Lucas to create the first scientifically informed life-sized model of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). To accomplish this, the two Fredericks traveled to the Cabot Steam Whaling Company processing station in Newfoundland. At this point in time, whaling had progressed well beyond the rickety wooden ships described by Melville. It was a technologically sophisticated and ruthlessly efficient operation, largely conducted from floating meat factories armed with explosive harpoons. This period of industrialized whaling  drove many whale species to the brink of extinction. For their part, True and Lucas were convinced that they only had a few years left to observe a giant cetacean firsthand.

In the arts and industries building

After debuting at the St. Louis World’s fair, Lucas’s blue  (or “sulphur-bottom”) whale found at home at USNM. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

True and Lucas watched the whalers haul in several smaller blue whales before selecting a 78-foot, 70-ton behemoth as their target. Once the whalers brought the dead animal into shallow water, the museum workers rode out in a dinghy to measure the whale and take plaster molds of it’s flank, flukes, and head. They worked continuously over two days, racing to beat the onset of decomposition. The resulting molds only represented half the animal, and were significantly distorted by the sagging and bloating of the carcass, but Lucas made do.

Following Carl Akeley’s general method for creating life-like taxidermy mounts, Lucas started by blocking out the whale’s basic dimensions with a steel and basswood frame. His team then used wood and wire mesh to further shape the boat-like model, and finished it with an outer layer of papier-mâché. It is unclear if Lucas was able to use any actual casts of the Newfoundland whale, or if he sculpted it freehand using the molds as reference. Most likely, it was a combination of the two. The colossal model was shipped by rail for it’s debut at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (alongside a familiar Stegosaurus and Triceratops). Afterward, Lucas’s whale was displayed in the Arts and Industries Building, and later, in the west wing of the newly completed NMNH.

In 1906, the American Museum of Natural History started work on a blue whale of their own. Rather than measuring their own dead whale, the AMNH exhibits team led by F.C.A. Richardson (who also built the NMNH Stegosaurus) used measurements from True’s monograph, Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic. In fact, the New York model ended up with virtually identical proportions to its Smithsonian predecessor, and was probably styled after the same Newfoundland carcass. Richardson ran into trouble when he couldn’t get his whale’s papier-mâché skin to hold up – it sagged against the wooden frame, making the model look emaciated. Richardson was eventually dismissed from the project, replaced by Roy Chapman Andrews (who would later lead the Central Asiatic Expeditions). At the time, neither Andrews nor anyone else working on the model had ever seen a whale in person. Still, the completed model was, by all contemporary accounts, just as convincing as the Smithsonian version.

source

It seems there is nowhere in the Hall of Mammals where one can see, much less photograph, the entire blue whale. Source

On the other side of the Atlantic, London MNH scientists scoffed at the Americans and their replica whales. Zoological Department head William Calman was particularly contemptuous, opining that natural history museums should only display real specimens. Apparently something changed in the decades that followed, because in 1937 NHM unveiled a wood-and-plaster blue whale model built by Percy Stammwitz. For some reason it is often claimed that the London cetacean was the first life-sized blue whale replica, which is plainly untrue. Nevertheless, at 92 feet and seven tons, it was the largest such exhibit when it debuted. It is also the oldest blue whale replica that is still on display today.

Round 2: 1963 – 1969

underthesea

The Smithsonian’s second blue whale model dominated the Life in the Sea exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Back in America, the NMNH and AMNH blue whales endured for several decades. Eventually, however, new cetacean research and new standards for museum displays made these first generation models obsolete. In the late 1950s, Frank Taylor initiated the Smithsonian-wide modernization program, which was to replace the institution’s aging exhibits. Early on the agenda was an update to the marine life exhibit, home to the 1904 blue whale. Designing the new hall was like pulling teeth, as intransigent curators refused to cooperate or furnish specimens for what they saw as a misguided endeavor*. Still, Taylor was able to commission a new, larger blue whale model to serve as the exhibit’s centerpiece.

The first NMNH whale bore an unfortunate resemblance to a giant grey sausage**. True and Lucas based the proportions on a bloated and decomposing carcass, understandably missing some of the nuances of the animal’s form. Meanwhile, the model’s stiff posture and cylindrical shape were necessary given the structural limitations of the materials used in its construction. The 1963 model corrected both problems. Although photographs of living blue whales underwater were still a decade away, footage of grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) at sea helped the model-makers imbue their creation with life. The model was given a gentle diving pose, and lightweight plastic and fiberglass helped make this more dynamic sculpture possible. With a total length of 94 feet, the new whale was painted a cheery light blue, with pale yellow spots. Two steel beams secured the model’s left side to the north wall of the gallery.

After several false starts, AMNH began serious work on a replacement for their own outdated sausage-whale in 1967. The new blue whale model would be the centerpiece of the long-delayed Hall of Ocean Life, now slated to open for the museum’s centennial in 1969. This firm deadline made an already challenging project even more stressful – by the end Department of Mammology Chair Richard van Gelder had threatened to resign twice, and was nearly fired three times.

installing the amnh whale mk 2

The rig securing this 9-ton blue whale model to the ceiling is an engineering marvel. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

To start, van Gelder was frustrated by the museum administrators’ firm insistence that the new whale not be suspended by wires (which they thought looked tacky). As a tongue-in-cheek counter-proposal, van Gelder suggested the museum construct a dead, beached whale splayed out on the floor. To his chagrin, the administrators loved the idea because it would be much cheaper. Gordon Reekie of the exhibits department began planning an immersive experience with the sounds of gulls and crashing surf. As legend has it, van Gelder successfully sabotaged the dead whale concept when he told a group of donors that the smell of the rotting carcass would also be simulated.

Lyle Barton eventually devised the final plan, in which the steel structure securing the whale to the ceiling would be hidden within the model’s arching back. Once van Gelder deflected a last-minute request to give the whale an open mouth (not only was this inaccurate, but it would tempt people to throw things into it), workers from StructoFab carved the model from huge blocks of polyurethane. Like Andrews before him, van Gelder had never seen a blue whale in person, but did his best to ensure the accuracy of the model – down to the 28 hairs on its chin.

One more headache remained: at nine tons, the completed model was heavier than anticipated. 600 pounds of paint had to be sanded off and reapplied with a lighter touch before the model met the recommendations of two independent teams of engineers. Still, Barton insisted on measuring the distance between the whale’s chin and the floor every day for several months, just in case.

Restoring the squid and the whale Source

“The Squid and the Whale” with its original paint job. Source

In addition to the blue whale, the Hall of Ocean Life debuted with a second model cetacean. This famous diorama depicts the head of a sperm whale as the animal wrestles with a giant squid (Architeuthis dux). When the model was built, nobody had ever seen a live giant squid, much less one battling the world’s largest predator. We know that sperm whales eat squid because squid parts are found in their bellies. Suction-cup scars on whales’ faces tell us the squid do not always do down without a fight. Still, the 1960s modelmakers had to guess at the appearance of the cephalopod. Even the sperm whale proved difficult to recreate: these animals appear light grey underwater but almost black on the surface, and curators argued how to paint the model. This was rendered moot when the diorama was placed in a nearly pitch-black environment, simulating the gloomy depths 23,000 feet under the sea. Barely visible in the darkness, this display is fantastically eerie. The fact that the event it represents has never been (and may never be) witnessed by human eyes makes it all the more unsettling.

*Curators objected to the planned exhibit’s interdisciplinary presentation, which would use specimens to make broader points about ecology, climate, and maritime history. They preferred displays that were divided by sub-discipline and which strictly adhered to taxonomic tradition.

**Counterintuitively, the awkward, stiff shape of the original NMNH blue whale actually made it more believable: many visitors thought they were looking at a real taxidermied whale gone slightly awry. One of the aims when designing a replacement was to reduce confusion by creating an object that was clearly artificial. 

Round 3: 2003 – Present

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

The restored AMNH blue whale in 2015. Photo by the author.

Sadly, not all of the historic cetacean models are still with us. The original NMNH blue whale was discarded in the early 1960s to make way for its replacement. AMNH saved its first whale in storage until 1973, when they offered it free of charge to anyone who could arrange for its removal from the building. When no serious offers were made, this model was also demolished (although the eyeball was sold during a fundraising event). The second NMNH blue whale eventually proved to be somewhat inaccurate: the throat was over-inflated and the coloration was all wrong. It was hidden from view for most of the 1990s, although its back was still visible over the blockade. In 2000, the west wing was converted into the Mammals Hall, and the construction contractor gained ownership of the unwanted whale. He briefly listed the model on eBay, but unfortunately the whale fell apart once it was pulled off the wall.

The International Whaling Commission banned the hunting of blue whales in 1966. Since that time, interest in conservation and improved technology have enhanced our understanding of these marine giants. While few blue whale behaviors have been observed, much less photographed, marine biologists know far more than they did half a century ago. Armed with better knowledge of blue whale anatomy, AMNH exhibits staff made several modifications to the 1969 model. In addition to a resculpted jawline and a relocated blowhole, the whale gained a navel and an anus (both details were overlooked the first time around). Finally, its slate gray skin, based on photographs of beached carcasses, was repainted in the vivid blue of a living whale.

Teh squid

Like the blue whale, the AMNH giant squid was remodeled and repainted in 2003 based on new information about this elusive creature’s shape and color. Photo by the author.

The roster of model cetaceans has seen several additions in recent decades. Among them are a gray whale built for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984, and yet another blue whale displayed outside Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science. One of the newest life-sized whale sculptures to grace museum halls is Phoenix, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) on display at NMNH since 2008. This model is special because it represents a real, individual animal that is alive in the ocean today.

Scientists at the New England Aquarium have tracked the real Phoenix (a.k.a. #1705) since her birth in 1987. She was selected for the NMNH model because her life history is well known, and because the ongoing study of this individual presents an opportunity to show science in action. An interdisciplinary group of researchers including Marilyn Marx, Amy Knowlton, Michael Moore, Jim Mead, and Charles Potter spent two years working out every detail of the model, down to the chin scars Phoenix got in a run-in with a fishing net. Missouri-based Elemoose Studios was commissioned to build the full-sized model. Because the historic space the whale was to be exhibited in could not support the weight of a traditional fiberglass model, modelmaker Terry Chase had to get creative. He designed an ultra-light aluminum frame, with a foam build-up and paper skin. The completed model is 45 feet long but weighs only 2,300 pounds.

fee

Phoenix floats majestically in the NMNH Ocean Hall. Source

A model whale will always be an imperfect substitute for reality. Early attempts were limited as much by available technology and materials as they were by an incomplete understanding of their living counterparts. Lucas and Andrews could scarcely dream of the light but strong urethane foam used to create the Phoenix replica. Nevertheless, model whales have become steadily more accurate with each generation, keeping pace with marine biologists’ improving access to whales in their natural habitat. With considerable effort, it is now even possible to exhibit a convincing duplicate of a living individual.

The advantage of a model whale is that it is much easier to observe than a real whale. Paradoxically, this is also what makes these exhibits so espistemologically challenging. Even for somebody fortunate enough to have seen a whale at sea, a museum model is a much more visceral and relateable encounter. Almost nobody has seen a living blue whale underwater, but millions see the AMNH model every year. For those people, this chunk of polyurethane IS a blue whale. It represents their understanding of the animal, and is how they make sense of any fleeting glimpses of real whales they may have seen. Creating a whale stand-in is therefore not only technically challenging for a museum, it is an immense responsibility.

References

Burnett, D.G. 2012. The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hoare, P. 2010. The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Quinn, S.C. 2006. Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Abrams.

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rossi, M. 2008. Modeling the Unknown: How to Make a Perfect Whale. Endeavour 32: 2: 58-63.

Rossi, M. 2010. Fabricating Authenticity: Modeling a Whale at the American Museum of Natural History, 1906-1974. Isis 101: 2: 338-361.

Smithsonian Institution. 2008. Modeling Phoenix, Our North Atlantic Right Whale. http://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/ocean_hall/whale_model.html

Smithsonian Institution. 2010. A Century of Whales at the Smithsonian Institution. http://naturalhistory.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/Whales_SI.html

Wallace, J.E. 2000. A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

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Filed under AMNH, exhibits, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, NMNH

Book Review: Life on Display

lifeondisplaycoverI’ve never written a book review here before, but Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain’s Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the 20th Century is a fine place to start. Published in 2014, this fascinating and exhaustively researched volume follows the struggle of natural history museum workers to define the purpose of their institutions. Ultimately, are museums places for exhibits, or places for collections? Rader and Cain chart the internal and external perceptions of natural history museums through time, recounting the people and events that made these institutions what they are. If you have a serious interest in science communication or the history and philosophy of science, Life on Display is a must-read.

Many accounts of the history of museum exhibits (including mine) have placed the transition from cases of specimens with minimal interpretation to audience-centered learning experiences in the latter part of the 20th century. However, Rader and Cain convincingly demonstrate that the seeds for this reform, called the “New Museum Idea”, were planted much earlier. Traditional European museums were places for quiet contemplation, designed by and for the scholarly elite. The new crop of American natural history museums that emerged in the late 19th century were physically modeled after their European forebears, but almost from the get-go their missions were distinctly populist. As early as 1910, museum leaders like Oliver Farrington and Frederic Lucas were using the same rhetoric we use today to sell museums as community resources for lifelong learning. Concerned with the state of science literacy and the increasingly urban experiences of most Americans, these reformers argued that museums could reintroduce the public to nature and hone their skills of observation and deduction.

Exhibits like this one at USNM were deemed incomprehensible and inspired early reform

Exhibit halls like this one at the first United States National Museum were incomprehensible to most visitors. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By modern standards, early expressions of the New Museum Idea were modest. Strict taxonomic organization was loosened to accommodate categories that were meaningful to laypeople, such as “game birds.”  Labels that only included the Latin name and date of a specimen’s collection were revised to include information about the behavior and habitat of the organism in question. Illustrations of the life appearance of certain animals and plants were added, and education departments were established to coordinate tours for schoolchildren. However, even these humble reforms could be hotbeds of internal controversy. Some curators insisted that any kind of reproduction – even an illustration – was bound to confuse visitors, and opined that displaying anything less than the complete range of known diversity for a given group was unfathomable.

Contrary to what one might expect, the lines of conflict did not neatly divide curators from administrators and educators. For example, American Museum of Natural History herpetologist Mary Dickerson was a scientist first, but she staunchly advocated for attractive and comprehensible exhibits. Reformers also had differing political agendas. While Dickerson’s camp wanted to use accessible exhibits to inspire young people to appreciate nature and the need for conservation, AMNH director Henry Osborn saw public displays as a way to enforce social order among immigrant populations.

By the 1920s, advocates for audience-centered exhibits seemed to have won. In the public eye, the primary purpose of a museum was not research – it was to create ever more impressive displays. In particular, meticulously crafted habitat dioramas became the centerpieces of natural history museums. Although inherently artificial, these little worlds behind glass showcased the splendor of the natural world in a way that rows of carefully organized specimens never could. Children found dioramas particularly approachable, and the museums’ primary audience shifted from scholars to families. Dioramas were also the sort of capital expenditures that attracted donors, and for a time natural history museums fared well nurturing relationships with wealthy philanthropists.

oceanic birds or whatever. AMNH 1950s

Children study a diorama of Peruvian oceanic birds. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

In the interwar period, ongoing ambitions to improve science literacy among the general public birthed a new kind of museum. Carlos Cummings led the way by transforming the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences into one of the first science museums. Here, galleries were organized based on themes and connections, and specimens were utilized to illustrate general ideas. For example, separate halls of invertebrate zoology, ornithology, and mammology were combined in an exhibit that focused on evolution and ecology. After World War II, the newly established science museums also began to focus on technology and industry. Despite a laudable emphasis on practical science, these exhibits often came with significant bias. Corporate sponsorship of energy and agricultural displays was standard practice, as was outright jingoism in exhibits about aviation and space travel.

As science museums continued to carve out their own audience-centered niche, the legacy natural history museums actually regressed to their pre-New Museum Idea state. To me, this is the most fascinating part of Rader and Cain’s narrative. Curators essentially reclaimed their museums as research institutions, letting exhibits languish as they focused on collections and scholarly publications. Smithsonian entomologist Waldo Schmitt typified the mindset of mid-century curators when he declared exhibits to be nothing more than “show windows for displaying our wares and accomplishments” (quoted in Rader and Cain, pg. 170). To this generation of scientists, “outreach” meant participating in a public “ID day” once a year – anything more was beneath them. Museums compensated by hiring more dedicated exhibit and education staff, but without curatorial support these institutions remained decidedly retrograde.

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Source

Back to basics: a phylogeny-based mollusc exhibit is installed in 1952. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Photo Archives.

Rader and Cain devote an entire chapter to the disruption caused by Manhattan Project physicist-turned-educator Frank Oppenheimer and his San Francisco Exploratorium. A playground-like open space filled with modular interactive activities, the Exploratorium completely upended the public’s understanding of what a museum could be. The exhibits were designed with rigorous adherence to the scientific method in mind, but they were also active, alive, and more than a little chaotic. The Exploratorium resonated with the counter-culture trends of the late 1960s, and natural history museums saw their visitation plummet as families turned to Oppenheimer and his imitators. Legacy museums insisted that these new science centers weren’t real museums (they didn’t have collections!), but now that the public had a choice they were voting with their feet.

Natural history museums admitted that they had taken the public for granted, but during the 80s and 90s they compensated a little too hard. Following the lead of science centers, many natural history museums turned to business and marketing specialists to fill leadership roles. They branded themselves as tourist attractions, added play areas and gimmicky technology, and used relentlessly-marketed blockbuster exhibits to keep people coming back. Robot dinosaurs and flight simulators heralded a sad decline in museum scholarship, and what’s more, the museums all started to look the same. They sourced popular exhibits from the same vendors, showed the same IMAX movies, and stocked their gift shops with the same merchandise. In many ways, the edutainment boom seemed like a race to the lowest common denominator.

ocean hall rulez. Photo by the author.

The wonderful NMNH Ocean Hall combines real specimens and in-house research with lessons in theatricality from the Age of Edutainment. Photo by the author.

Although Rader and Cain stop at the end of the 20th century, they touch on  recent trends that have helped put natural history museums back  on track. Museums are still hurting for funding, and often rely on blockbusters and concessions to keep their doors open. However, in-house researchers are once again taking an active role in the public faces of their institutions. Scientists work with professional designers and educators to create informative displays that also utilize lessons in showmanship learned from blockbuster exhibits. Some museums are working harder to emphasize the importance of their collections, and making them more accessible to the public. Nevertheless, the fact that these collaborations revolve around public interpretation in the first place leads Rader and Cain to conclude that New Museum Idea advocates ultimately won. Exhibits, not collections, are now the heart and soul of natural history museums. Whether or not that is a good thing is, of course, open to debate.

The scope of Rader and Cain’s research is breathtaking – the book includes 164 pages of notes and references. The authors have plumbed the depths of museum archives and despite the breadth of their subject, they have emerged with a clear narrative thread and a convincing conclusion. One thing I found lacking, however, was discussion of the role of paleontology in the history of 20th century museums. Clearly I have a bit of a bias, but Life on Display contains only a few passing references to fossil displays. This seems like a critical omission, both because paleontology is so integral to the public’s understanding of what natural history museums offer and because the basic format of a fossil mount exhibit has remained remarkably consistent since the 19th century. Clearly that is the subject for another book (yes, yes, I’m working on it!).

All in all, Life on Display is an extremely readable and informative account of an oft-overlooked realm of science education. It will be a regular reference for me, and I highly recommend it.

Reference

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under education, exhibits, museums, reviews, science communication

History of the Field Museum Fossil Halls – Part 2

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

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

Phase III: Life Over Time

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

life over time albertosaurus remount

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

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

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

new triceratops

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

Apatosaurus

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

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

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

Permian cluster

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

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

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

main hall brachiosaurus

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

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

Phase IV: Evolving Planet

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

susan

Some obscure theropod. Photo by the author.

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

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

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

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

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

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

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

w

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

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

Timeline moments and consistent iconography

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

Karen Carr art fills in gaps in classic Knight pieces

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

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

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

old riggs mounts, new sloth, charles knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: PMNS

Life Then and Now

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

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

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

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

mosasaur and texas ornithiscians

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

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

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

benifet

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

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

vigniette

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

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

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

layered boxes instead of cladogram

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

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

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

bird evolution!

Bird evolution explained. Photo by the author.

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

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

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

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

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

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

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

white walls and art gallery format

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

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

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

label your damn casts

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

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

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

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

gorgeous but what does it mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

action!

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

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

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

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