Tag Archives: science communication

Here Comes Jurassic World

Gyrosphere scene. Source

A bucolic scene at the dinosaur zoo. Source

I was planning to be bitter and jaded about “Jurassic World”, but my excitement has gotten the better of me. I like much of what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film next week. Moreover, the cultural endurance of the original “Jurassic Park”, now 22 years old, is incredible. When leading tours, I am regularly asked about the (largely fanciful) ground-penetrating radar shown in the movie. The word “dromaeosaur” results in blank faces, but if I call it a “raptor-type dinosaur, like in Jurassic Park,” I get knowing nods. These movies are the frame of reference for the public’s understanding of paleontology – not just how dinosaurs looked and behaved, but how scientists learn about them.

An important digression: we can’t give sole credit for Jurassic Park’s outsized role in popular culture to its dinosaurs and visual effects. I doubt the film would have the same lasting power without its memorable story and characters. Jurassic Park turned the classic lost world fantasy on its head, mixing it with a modern, tech-infused setting and a believable – albeit impossible – method for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film raises concerns about the corporate commodification of GMOs that (whether reasonable or not) are at least as relevant today as they were in 1993. The entertaining and relatable way in which Jurassic Park broaches complex topics has not gone unnoticed by teachers. More than two decades later, the film is still being used to introduce subjects ranging from bioethics to complex mathematics.

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park features some of the most true-to-life scientist characters I’ve ever seen in a popular film (a very low bar, to be fair). Alan Grant has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that reminds me of a number of colleagues and acquaintances. He usually thinks before he speaks or acts, but he also has a playful side that demonstrates the absolute joy he takes in discovering things about the world around him. Ian Malcolm, on the other hand, is what is known as an academic asshole. Like certain celebrity scientists, he’s a self-righteous jerk who may have some wisdom to impart, but chooses to do so in an insufferably arrogant and aggressive way. Scientists are as complex as anyone else, and it’s nice to be able to point to a movie that goes beyond the usual nerds in lab coats. Some more diversity among the principal cast would be better, but Jurassic Park is a move in the right direction.

A very reasonable reaction to encountering a living Triceratops.

A very reasonable reaction upon encountering a living Triceratops. Source

Back to my main point, the Jurassic Park films have had a meaningful and substantial impact on popular impressions of dinosaur science, and in this respect they should be taken seriously. A substantial amount of ink and pixels has been spilled regarding the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for precisely this reason. Since the first Jurassic World trailer was released last fall, much of this conversation has revolved around the retrograde appearance of the new film’s saurian stars – rather than taking advantage of two decades of new science, the filmmakers stuck with the early 1990s designs. Experts have called this choice “lazy,” “a missed opportunity,” and “unbearably stupid in every conceivable way.” In response, die-hard Jurassic Park fans are rushing to the film’s defense. Many have explained away any deviations from real dinosaurs by pointing out that the cloned animals are genetic aberrations to some degree. Maddeningly, others have taken to questioning what experts truly know about extinct animals.

Misguided appeals to ignorance can be dismissed out of hand, but the “cloned aberrations” argument deserves attention, if only because it completely misses the point. The Jurassic Park series has always been viewed (and marketed) as credible science fiction. The filmmakers hired Jack Horner, probably the world’s best-known paleontologist, to vouch for the dinosaur designs of all four films. By the time the third movie came out, special effects genius Stan Winston (rest in peace) was claiming that they had “blurred the theatricality of movies with museum-type education,” and that “there’s something to be learned from watching these movies” (quotes from DVD featurette “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III”). Given statements like these, it’s important that anyone with a vested interest in natural history education be aware of the films’ content, and be prepared to call out inaccuracies as necessary.

Something is awry. Source

Pictured: inaccuracy. Source

Nevertheless, I’d also like to direct some finger-wagging at those who seem excessively eager to tear down the Jurassic Park films in the name of education. Many otherwise reasonable adults care a great deal about these movies, and “classic” dinosaur depictions in general. Perhaps this is due to an association with childhood, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of “awesomebro” culture. Either way, my job and my passion is to communicate the amazing discoveries scientists are making about our world, but I also know that telling people the things they like are stupid and wrong isn’t a great way to win over hearts and minds. Rather than alienating and antagonizing potential learners, I’d prefer to make use of what the audience is bringing to the conversation. Jurassic Park is a wide-reaching frame of reference and a helpful starting point for conversations about what we know about past life and how we know it. As I’ve argued before, the ideal approach is to acknowledge the relevance of pop-cultural dinosaurs, while working to separate them in our audience’s minds from the real dinosaurs that we learn about by studying fossils.

As an educator, what I want out of Jurassic World is a good movie, full stop. A good movie is a memorable movie, one that inspires people to visit parks and museums and to read up on paleontology. In more substantive terms, the original Jurassic Park also brought forth a great deal of funding for new research and museum exhibits, simply by creating awareness that dinosaur science has popular appeal. So to director Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World, I say bring it on. We’re ready for your inaccuracies, and we’re ready to turn them into great discussions.

PS: Please consider participating in the Jurassic World Challenge – match your movie ticket price with a donation to help fund paleontology research and outreach. 

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Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication

Fossil sandboxes are terrible

Are these kids learning yet?

Are these kids learning yet? Source

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edentates aren't real

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

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

Cows and broken videos

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

Framing Fossil Exhibits: A Walk Through Time

Half a year ago, I promised a series of posts comparing the common strategies for framing the history of life in museum exhibits. This post is the first step toward making good on that goal. Historically, fossil displays at major natural history museums amounted to little more than dinosaur pageant shows, and even today this is all many visitors want or expect. The challenge for exhibit creators is to contextualize the fossils as part of a greater narrative without being alienating, overwhelming, or perhaps worst of all, condescending. A large, permanent exhibit is an enormously time-consuming and expensive undertaking. The opportunity to build or thoroughly renovate an exhibition might occur only once in a generation, so there is exceptional pressure to produce something that succeeds and endures. Exhibits tend to be products of their time, however, and are strongly influenced both by contemporary scholarship and trends in museum theory.

One of the most enduring formats for exploring the fossil record is the “walk through time.” A chronological portrayal of the history of life is an obvious solution, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Audiences are predisposed to understand the forward progression of time, so little up-front explanation is needed. It also helps that the geological timescale compartmentalizes the history of Earth into tidy units. Each Era, Period, or Epoch has a unique cast of characters and a few defining events that make it easy to sum up. There are plenty of examples of chronological fossil exhibits, including Prehistoric Journey at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, The Third Planet at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and even traveling exhibits like Ultimate Dinosaurs. For this post, though, I’ll be using the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet” as my primary case study, since it so thoroughly embraces the “walk through time” format (and I have a good set of photos on hand to jog my memory).

Map of Evolving Planet. Source

Map of the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet galleries. Source

Evolving Planet is a 27,000 sq. ft. journey through the evolution of life. It opened in 2006, although it is notable that Evolving Planet relies heavily on the structure of the previous paleontology exhibit, “Life Over Time.” Major set pieces like the replicated Carboniferous coal swamp and the Apatosaurus mount remained in place while exhibit designers overhauled the aesthetics and narrative. The most important change is the explicit focus on evolution. Although evolution is key to all biological sciences and the evidence for it is overwhelming, many schools in the United States fail to teach evolution properly and at least a third of the population rejects it outright. As destinations for life-long learning, museums are well-poised to address this deficit in evolutionary understanding, and the Field Museum has enthusiastically risen to the occasion. Evolving Earth 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.

eg

The thesis of Evolving Planet cannot be missed. Photo by the author.

This pedagogical approach defines a trend in exhibit design that began in earnest in the 1950s. Early natural history exhibits were designed by and for experts, combining expansive collections of carefully arranged specimens with a few “iconic” displays, such as dinosaur skeletons or taxidermy mounts. By the mid-20th century, however, visitor-centric ideas had begun to take root. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider what they would look at first when entering a room, and why. Soon hierarchical signage (main ideas in big text, working down to sub-topics and specimen labels) became the norm. Exhibits were enriched with interpretive displays, like dioramas, and scholarly labels were replaced by conversational text and even multimedia. By the 1970s, most of the exhibit responsibilities once held by curators were now handled by exhibit designers and developers. No longer places to explore a collection and view objects at will, exhibits now had carefully structured narratives built around explicit educational goals. In the 80s and 90s, the very floorplans of new exhibits came to reflect this identity, as open halls were replaced with carefully directed switch-backing corridors.

Each geological time period in Evolving Planet is color-coded. Photo by the author.

Each geological time period in Evolving Planet is color-coded. Photo by the author.

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

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

Evolving Planet is, for better or worse, thoroughly rooted in the late 20th century tradition of exhibit design. As the map above shows, once visitors enter Evolving Planet, they are committed to a lengthy trek along a predetermined route. There are no shortcuts to the dinosaurs – you must traverse the entire history of life, starting with its origins in the Precambrian. Along the way, you’ll become familiar with the exhibit’s iconography. Every time you enter a new geologic period, you are greeted by a “Timeline Moment.” These include a chapter heading, a back-lit illustration, an update of where you are on the timeline, and a summation of the key evolutionary innovations and environmental changes of that age. All the walls and graphics in each section are also color-coded, making your progression to each new period very distinct. Finally, the path is occasionally interrupted by unmissable black and red area indicating that a mass extinction has occurred. The resulting experience feels like walking through a book. Information is relayed in a specific order, and visitors are expected to recall concepts that were introduced in previous sections.

A panoramic CGI recreation of the Burgess Shale fauna brings small, easily overlooked fossils to life.

A panoramic CGI recreation of the Burgess Shale fauna brings small, easily overlooked fossils to life. Photo by the author.

One challenge inherent to a chronological narrative of the history of life is that the physical evidence for early organisms simply isn’t very interesting to look at (for non-specialists, anyway). Large mounted skeletons of fossil vertebrates have a lot of presence, but they same can’t be said for stromatolites and wiggly-worm impressions. The designers of Evolving Planet address this problem in two ways. First, they built iconic contextual displays to stand in for fossils that aren’t suitably monumental on their own. The Cambrian section features a panoramic animated recreation of the Burgess Shale environment. Actual fossils are available, but the video is what makes visitors stop and take note. Likewise, the Carboniferous section is dominated by a walk-through diorama of a coal swamp, complete with life-sized giant millipedes and dragonflies. Like the predetermined pathway, these landmark displays are very much in keeping with late 20th century trends in exhibit design. It’s a conceptually odd but admittedly effective reversal of the classic museum: fabricated displays are supported by genuine specimens, instead of the other way around.

evolving earth

Mass extinction markers tell visitors to expect something different up ahead. Photo by the author.

The second strategy concerns the layout of Evolving Planet, which was inherited from the previous exhibit, Life Over Time. The space is shaped like a U, with switch-backing corridors flanking a more open dinosaur section in the middle. Curator Eric Gyllenhaal explained that “the heavy content, on the stuff that people were not familiar with, was the stuff that came first and came afterward, and that’s where we really got into the details of the evolutionary process” (quoted in Asma, pp. 226-227). Visitors are more focused and more inclined to read signs carefully early in the exhibit, so the developers used the introductory rooms to cover challenging concepts like the origins of life and the mechanisms of speciation. This is the “homework” part of the exhibit, and the narrow corridors and limited sightlines keep visitors engaged with the content, without being tempted to run ahead. Once visitors reach the Mesozoic and the dinosaurs, however, the space opens up. Among the dinosaur mounts, visitors are can choose what they wish to view, and in what order. This serves as a reward for putting up with the challenging material up front. The path tightens up again on the way out, but it’s not as pedagogically rigorous as the beginning of the exhibit. Some sections, like the human evolution displays, are actually cul-du-sacs that can be bypassed by visitors anxious to leave.

struggling to contain the dinosaurs

Although the dinosaurs get a third of the exhibit to themselves, the hall still struggles to contain them. Photo by the author.

The story of human evolution is relegated to a cul-de-sac late in the exhibit. Photo by the author.

The story of human evolution is relegated to a cul-de-sac late in the exhibit. Photo by the author.

Evolving Planet’s chronological narrative and linear structure complement each other nicely. The sequential path gives the exhibit designers significant control over the visitor’s learning experience, and when dealing with widely misunderstood concepts like evolution, the benefits are clear. The exhibit establishes clear learning goals, and designers can be reasonably confident that these goals are being met. Based on the other new permanent exhibitions at the Field Museum, I get the impression that the design team strongly favors linear exhibits. 2008’s “Ancient Americas”, for instance, closely mirrors Evolving Planet’s structure: a set path through a series of themed spaces, unified by consistent iconography. The designers are to be commended for absolutely owning this concept, and realizing it to its full potential.

Exhibit designers deliberately made the path to the exit much more obvious in the second half of Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

Exhibit designers deliberately made the path to the exit much more obvious in the final stretch of Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

The problem with a linear design, of course, is that it’s constraining.  All visitors enter with prior knowledge and a certain worldview or perspective, and are inclined to be more interested in some displays than others. Linear exhibits largely suppress this by forcing everyone through the same tube. Ironically, the strong emphasis on the sequence of geological time periods may also overstate their importance. While these divisions are defined based on real events like extinctions and faunal turnover, they are still human constructs with often messy borders. Relying too heavily on them understates the importance of long-term, short-term, and localized evolutionary events.

Museums should be educational, and exhibits should challenge visitors, particularly regarding the mechanisms of evolution and the scope and complexity of deep time. Still, there’s something to be said for free choice in elective education. Evolving Planet, and “walk through time” exhibits in general, skews more toward the former. It’s an effective option, but also a safe one. Next time, we’ll take a look at exhibits that frame paleontological science in less intuitive ways.

References

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

Diamond, J. and Evans, E.M. 2007. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Society for the Study of Evolution 61:6:1500-1506.

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 education, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, museums, reviews, science communication

The Last American Dinosaurs Has Arrived!

Hatcher greets visitors

Hatcher the Triceratops greets visitors at the entrance to The Last American Dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are once again on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Opening just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, “The Last American Dinosaurs” provides a much-needed dose of paleontology while the main fossil hall is being renovated. I was fortunate enough to take part in a preview tour for social media users – you can check out the storified version, or read on for photos and my initial thoughts on the new exhibit.

Stan is cool

Stan the T. rex is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Babies

Triceratops growth series reveals how much we’ve learned about the lives of dinosaurs over the last 25 years.

As promised, there are plenty of dinosaurs on view. Specifically, these are the dinosaurs of Maastrichtian North America, the last of these animals to grace this continent before the extinction event 66 million years ago. In addition to the mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus discussed in the previous post, be on the lookout for a hatchling and juvenile Triceratops, an Edmontosaurus, and bits and pieces from dromaeosaurs and pachycephalosaurs.

However, the dinosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg. As lead curator Hans-Dieter Sues explained within the first few minutes of the tour, the central message of this exhibit is that dinosaurs were only one part of a complex ecosystem. To that end, the dinosaurs of The Last American Dinosaurs are outnumbered by a menagerie of of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and plants that shared their world, most of which are on display for the first time. These specimens come from a variety of sources. Some, including turtles and fossil leaves, were collected by NMNH paleontologists in North Dakota specifically for this exhibit. Others, like the lizard Polyglyphanodon, have been in the museum’s collection since the 1930s but have never before been put on display. I also spotted a few casts sourced from Triebold Paleontology, including the mammal Didelphodon and the alligator-like Stangerochampsa

Gilmore specimen

This Polyglyphanodon was collected by Charles Gilmore in the 1930s.

crocs

Stangerochampsa and Champsosaurus are examples of animals that survived the K/T extinction.

Much like the Human Origins exhibit, The Last American Dinosaurs incorporates the faces of Smithsonian researchers and staff throughout the displays. There are large photos showing the museum’s scientists at work in the field, and the popular windowed FossiLab has found a new home in this exhibit. In addition, a large area is deservedly devoted to scientific illustrator Mary Parrish, chronicling the methods she uses to turn fossil data into gorgeously detailed renderings of prehistoric animals and environments. Videos of Parrish and others at work can be seen here.

I’m definitely a fan of this personalized approach to science communication. In-house scientists are museums’ most important and unique resources, and placing them front-and-center reminds visitors that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relateable to visitors.

new stuff

Handwritten labels on these fresh from the field fossils provide a personal touch.

The phenomenon of extinction is another important theme in The Last American Dinosaurs. The exhibit details how an asteroid impact combined with several other factors to radically alter the environment worldwide, causing 70% of species to die out (fun fact: ambient temperatures in North America directly after the impact were comparable to the inside of a brick pizza oven). However, the exhibit goes on to make direct comparisons between the K/Pg extinction event and the anthropogenic extinctions of today. Habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and climate change caused by burning fossil fuels are instigators of environmental upheaval as powerful as any space rock.

extinction

This moa and dodo remind visitors that extinction isn’t limited to the distant past.

In this way, The Last American Dinosaurs is a warm-up for the key messages of the new fossil hall. The overarching theme of the planned exhibit is that “Earth’s distant past is connected to the present and shapes our future.” It will showcase how living things and their environments are interdependent, and change over time. Crucially, it will also demonstrate how our understanding of how life has changed over time is important for understanding and mitigating our impact on present-day ecosystems. The Last American Dinosaurs is evidently a testing ground for how these ideas will resonate with audiences.

paleoart

Historic models of Agathaumas and Triceratops by Charles Knight and Charles Gilmore.

In designing modern paleontology exhibits, museum workers have tried many approaches to squelch the idea of the dinosaur pageant show and instead convey how the science of paleontology is relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Back in 1995, the American Museum of Natural History tried a cladistic arrangement with a focus on biodiversity. More recently, the Field Museum used the process of evolution to frame the history of life on Earth. While there are certainly overlaps with what has come before, the “modern implications of environmental change over deep time” approach under development at NMNH is fairly novel, and also quite timely. Some of the displays in The Last American Dinosaurs hit pretty close to home, and I’m eager to find out how visitors respond.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, reptiles, reviews, science communication, theropods

Framing Fossil Exhibits, Part 1

This post started out as a review of “Evolving Planet”, the expansive paleontology exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The short version is that it’s very good exhibit constrained by a somewhat frustrating layout. We’ll get back to that eventually, but first it’s worth considering the purpose of large-scale fossil exhibits in a more general sense.

Fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century. In the early days, public exhibits were afterthoughts to the primary work of the museum (research and curation of collections), and if there was any logic behind their layout, it was an aesthetic logic. Typically posed in neutral, trophy-like stances on centrally-situated pedestals, mounted skeletons were the highlights of a natural history display for most visitors. For anyone not trained in comparative anatomy, however, these exhibits ultimately amounted to prehistoric pageantry. People could marvel at the great size of the animals, but there was very little to be learned besides the names of the species in question.

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

A typically random assortment of fossil specimens at the Field Colombian Museum, ca. 1898. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

These days, we try to do better. Exhibits are designed with a clear narrative structure, as well as specific learning goals for the audience. The focus of the narrative varies depending on the exhibit and the team behind it, but most modern natural history exhibits are explicitly designed to answer “how” as well as “what.” For paleontology displays, this means telling the story of life on Earth while also communicating how scientists collect and interpret evidence to put that story together. Crafting an exhibit has been compared to writing a popular nonfiction book, except designers are using the three-dimensional space of the exhibition hall as their medium. In this way, modern exhibits are more about ideas than specimens, or at least, the specimens are present primarily to illustrate the major scientific principles being communicated.

That’s how it works on paper, anyway. Despite this focus on education (and institutional mandates to provide learning opportunities for the widest possible audience), visitor surveys show that dinosaur pageantry is still the default mode of understanding for the majority of people passing through paleontology exhibits. No matter how carefully we craft our stories, most visitors still leave these displays recalling little more than a list of cool specimens they saw. Dinosaur pageantry has its place and can be employed for good. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are undeniably impressive and spectacular, and it is absolutely worth taking advantage of that fact. We want people to pay attention to science, and in that respect mounted skeletons of favorite dinosaurs are great ambassadors to the world of research and discovery. The challenge is getting past the attention-grabbing stage. Prior experience has led visitors to expect that dinosaur pageantry is all paleontology has to offer, and many seem unprepared or unwilling to commit to a deeper understanding.

peabody mammals

The great hall at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of the last unmodified early 20th century fossil displays in the US. Photo by the author.

So are these people just hopeless rubes? Should exhibits be tailored only to visitors that care enough to put in the effort to understand? It should go without saying that this condescending attitude is completely wrongheaded and goes against the very spirit of museums. Education is half about knowing your content and half about knowing your audience. If visitors are not picking up on the content as desired, then a reassessment of who those visitors are is in order. Many museum exhibits still seem to be pitched at interested adults traveling alone with all the time in the world. This is a good description of many of my museum visits, but I’m also part of an increasingly small fraction of museum visitors. Most people who come to natural history museums come in groups of friends or family, and these groups often represent a range of ages. What’s more, most visitor interactions while in the museum will not be with the exhibits, but with each other. For the typical visitor, the museum experience is primarily a social one.

With this demographic in mind, a textbook on the wall (or a long video lecture*) is the last thing natural history museum audiences need. Visitors are absorbing exhibit content while simultaneously navigating a complicated, unfamiliar space. In the case of parents, they are also monitoring the attention span, hunger, and bathroom needs of their charges. Caught up in this whirlwind of information, visitors frequently fall back on what they already know. In the case of paleontology exhibits, this often means identifying familiar dinosaurs and ignoring the more intellectually challenging contextual information.

*It’s worth pointing out that a long video is NOT an improvement over a long label. Transferring label copy to a video or computer terminal does not inherently make the exhibit more interactive or more interesting. In fact, when the disruptive noise and need to wait for the next showing are taken into account, poorly implemented multimedia is probably less useful than traditional text labels.

The challenge for exhibit design, then, is dealing with the fact that visitors are not passively ingesting information. Visitors passing through an exhibit pull out relevant pieces of information and filter them through the lens of their existing worldview. Exhibit designers want visitors to also learn new information and challenge their preconceptions, but it’s easy to go too far. Survey after survey has shown that visitors do not appreciate exhibits that force them to move (or think) on rails. For practical reasons noted above, few visitors are able to look at every display, watch every orientation video, and work through every interactive in the prescribed order. Visitors need flexibility in order to make the exhibit experience their own. Finding the balance between providing informative context and providing a customizable experience is quite challenging, and not every exhibit succeeds.

struggling to contain the dinosaurs

The dinosaur hall in “Evolving Planet” at the Field Museum. Photo by the author.

On top of that, paleontology exhibits are particularly difficult to design because of problems with relatability. The story of life on Earth is immense, complex, and frequently counter-intuitive. It’s not enough to just explain what happened, we have to explain the history and methodologies of the half-dozen scientific disciplines that have contributed to to our understanding of that narrative. Even something so basic as the numerical age of a given fossil taxon requires a deluge of explanation to convey how we know. And all of this needs to be conveyed concisely, without being alienating, overwhelming, or condescending. Most importantly, it has to be made relevant to what audiences already know and understand.

Over the years, major natural history museums have attempted a variety of organizational strategies for their fossil exhibits. Each of these has been an attempt to break the dinosaur pageantry barrier and to portray the true complexity and relevance of paleontological science. Some arrangements, like taxonomical organization, have generally fallen out of favor. Others, like chronological presentations of life through time, are reliable mainstays that have been re-imagined in varied ways at different institutions. Still others, including cross-sections of specific extinct ecosystems, biogeography, and environmental change over time are relatively new and untested.

Keeping everything in this meandering introduction in mind, the upcoming series of posts will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each approach from the perspectives of science communication, aesthetics, and for lack of a better term, hospitality for non-expert audiences. Stay tuned!

References

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

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. 1992. The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.

Wands, S., Donnis, E. and Wilkening, S. 2010. “Do Guided Tours and Technology Drive Visitors Away?” History News 93:8:21-23.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 3

Subtlety is unnessesary when T. rex is involved.

Who needs subtlety when you have a T. rex?

Start with Displaying the Tyrant King Part 1 and Part 2.

Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real – a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.

The other dinosaur of the decade was Sue, who scarcely requires introduction. First and foremost, Sue is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 80% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 28 years old at the time of her death, Sue is also the eldest T. rex known, as well as one of the largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about the lifestyle of meat-eating dinosaurs. In particular, Sue’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infection that together paint a dramatic picture of the rough-and-tumble world of the late Cretaceous.

From South Dakota to Chicago

Sue at Disney World

Cast of Sue at Walt Disney World, Orlando. Source

It was the events of Sue’s second life, however, that made her the fossil the world knows by name. Sue was discovered in the late summer of 1990 by avocational fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute, a commercial outfit that specializes in excavating, preparing, and exhibiting fossils, initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City, but soon became embroiled in an ugly four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton. Williams soon announced that he would put Sue on the auction block, and 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 in 1997 when Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History won Sue with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

FMNH and its corporate partners did not pay seven figures for Sue solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  Sue’s remarkable completeness would be a boon to scientists, but her star power was at least as important for the Museum. Sue was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and her name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As FMNH President John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). Particularly in the late 1990s, with Jurassic Park still fresh in people’s minds, a Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn fund less sensational but equally important research, like ichthyology and entomology.

Still, some worried that McCarter, whose background was in business, not science, was exploiting an important specimen as a marketing gimmick at the expense of the Museum’s educational mission. This echoed similar concerns voiced 80 years earlier, when the original mounted Tyrannosaurus was introduced at the American Museum of Natural History. As president of AMNH, Henry Osborn oversaw the creation of grandiose and dramatic exhibits, with the intent to draw crowds and justify private and municipal financial support. When the Museum unveiled the Tyrannosaurus mount, Osborn held a lavish publicity gala for the New York elite and members of the press. The buzz generated by Osborn’s promotion resulted in lines around the block and front page headlines, but the attention was focused on the spectacle of the dinosaur rather than the science behind it. Many academics derided this as lowest common denominator pandering, while others, like anthropologist Franz Boas, grudgingly accepted that “it is a fond delusion of many museum officers that the attitude of the public is a more serious one, but the majority do not want anything beyond entertainment.”

Original skull of Sue the T. rex, displayed on the upper mezzanine. Photo by the author.

FMNH was under similar scrutiny as museum staff revealed their plans for Sue. The role of the corporate sponsors that paid for the fossils was a particular cause for concern, and the marketing team knew it. Although the idea of T. rex-themed Happy Meals was briefly on the table, McDonald’s and Disney wisely opted to present themselves only as patrons of science. McDonald’s got its name on the new fossil preparation lab at FMNH and Disney got a mounted cast of Sue to display at Walt Disney World, but the principal benefit to the two companies was high-profile exposure in association with youth science education. The Museum retained control over the message, highlighting Sue’s importance to paleontology and only coyly admitting her role as a promotional tool. Likewise, FMNH is the sole profiteer from the litany of shirts, hats, toys, mugs, and assorted trinkets bearing the Sue name and logo that are continually sold at the Museum and around Chicago.

You May Approach Her Majesty

Once Sue arrived at FMNH, the Museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of Sue’s teeth went on display days after the auction, which expanded organically into the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. Meanwhile, McDonald’s prepared an educational packet on Sue that was distributed to 60,000 elementary schools.

The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Much of Sue’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted. In addition, two complete Sue casts had to be fabricated: one for Disney World and one for a McDonald’s-sponsored traveling exhibit. The casts were produced by Research Casting International, the Toronto-based company that recently built the mounted menagerie for “Ultimate Dinosaurs“. Phil Fraley Productions, the same exhibit company that rebuilt the American Museum and Carnegie Museum T. rex mounts, was tapped to mount Sue’s original skeleton.

The mounted skeleton of Sue in the Stanley Field Hall. Photo by the author.

Unlike every other Tyrannosaurus mount before or since, Sue can hardly be called a composite. With the exception of a missing arm, left foot, a couple ribs, and small number of other odds and ends, the mounted Sue skeleton is composed of real fossils from a single individual. FMNH public relations latched onto this fact, emphasizing in press releases that while “many museums are displaying replicas of dinosaur skeletons, the Field Museum has strengthened its commitment to authenticity. This is Sue.” Just as they did with the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils incur only minimal damage for the sake of the exhibit. Despite these improvements over historic mount-making techniques, however, the Sue mount does have some inexplicable anatomical errors. The coracoids should be almost touching in the middle of the chest, but the shoulder girdles are mounted so high on the rib cage that there is a substantial space between them. Consequently, the furcula (wishbone) is also positioned incorrectly.

After a private event not unlike the one held by Osborn in 1915, 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: FMNH attendance soared that year from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. 14 years later, Sue the Tyrannosaurus is still known by name, and is even used as the voice of FMNH on twitter. Interestingly, Sue’s new identity as a Chicago landmark seems to have all but eclipsed the legal dispute that was her original source of fame. A recent RedEye cover story goes so far as to proclaim this South Dakotan skeleton as “pure Chicago.”

 The Nation’s T. rex

This customized truck transported the Nation’s T. rex from Montana to Washington, DC.

This year, another Tyrannosaurus specimen has rocketed to Sue-like levels of notoriety. MOR 555, also known as “Wankel Rex”, is being transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it will eventually be mounted for long-term display. Now dubbed “the Nation’s T. rex“, the promotion of this specimen has mirrored that of Sue in many ways. Front-page media coverage, first-person tweets from the dinosaur and even an official song and dance contest herald the arrival of the fossils from their previous repository, the Museum of the Rockies in Montana. Much like the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, the process of unpacking the unarticulated bones will soon be on view in a temporary display called “The Rex Room.” Meanwhile, the very name “Nation’s T. rex” is a provocative invented identity akin to Sue’s new status as a Chicagoan.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex does not quite live up to Sue’s mystique. This Tyrannosaurus is neither as large nor as complete as Sue, and there was no prolonged legal battle or frantic auction in its past. The 60% complete skeleton was found in 1988 by Montana rancher Kathy Wankel, on land owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The fossils are now on a 50 year loan from from the Corps to the Smithsonian, (presumably) a straightforward transfer between federal agencies. In addition, MOR 555 is by no means a new specimen. Several casts of the skeleton are already on display, including exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of the Rockies, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and even the Google campus. In fact, a cast of the MOR 555 skull has been on display at NMNH for years.

NMNH Director Kirk Johnson, fossil hunter Kathy Wankel, her husband Bob Wankel, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick preside over the arrival of the Nation’s T. rex at the Smithsonian. Source

With that in mind, the hype around the Nation’s T. rex might seem like much ado about nothing. As this series has demonstrated, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. A quarter century ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide, most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens. Acquiring and displaying a T. rex is neither risky nor ambitious for a natural history museum. No audience research or focus groups are needed to know that the tyrant king will be a hit. And yet, excessive duplication of a sure thing might eventually lead to monotony and over-saturation.

So far, such fears appear to be unfounded. A specimen like Sue or the Nation’s T. rex is ideal for museums because it is at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

The Nation’s T. rex in its final pose at the Research Casting International workshop.

This week, NMNH will be celebrating all things Tyrannosaurus, starting with a live webcast of arrival of the Nation’s T. rex on Tuesday morning. Stay tuned to this blog for further coverage of the events!

References

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

Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.

Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.

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.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex: The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1980-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Switek, B. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Filed under dinosaurs, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, NMNH, reptiles, science communication, theropods

What’s the deal with Astrodon?

In Laurel, Maryland, a trail of banners depicting a herd of the sauropod dinosaur Astrodon johnstoni leads the way to Dinosaur Park, the site of a historically significant fossil deposit. At the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, a life-sized Astrodon sculpture towers over the “Dinosaur Mysteries” exhibit. And since 1998, Astrodon has been the official state dinosaur of Maryland, joining other state symbols like the black-eyed susan and Baltimore oriole. In short, Astrodon is a sort of mascot for mid-Atlantic paleontology. Named in 1858 for fossils found in a Prince George’s County iron mine, the appeal of Astrodon for Marylanders is obvious: it’s a home-grown dinosaur in a region that is not widely recognized for its fossil resources, and the story of its discovery also calls attention to the state’s industrial heritage.

But what sort of animal was Astrodon, and how much do paleontologists truly know about it? Compared to many other extinct animals found around the world, the fossil record for Astrodon is and always has been fairly poor. The name Astrodon was first bestowed upon nothing more than isolated teeth, and although other fragmentary remains attributed to Astrodon have been uncovered over the past 150 years, reconstructions of the Maryland sauropod are mostly derived from the fossils of relatives found elsewhere. What’s more, the name Astrodon has a convoluted history, having been applied haphazardly to fossils found across the country and even around the world. For these reasons, some paleontologists would prefer that the name Astrodon not be used at all.

Lacking a scientific consensus on what sort of animal the Maryland sauropod was or even what it should be called, I find myself in a difficult position as an educator. How can the messy and contentious taxonomy of Astrodon be condensed into something teachable? Is simplifying or downplaying this controversy doing our audience a disservice, and to what degree?

The taxonomic history of Astrodon

The first scientifically recognized North American dinosaur fossils were found in the Mid-Atlantic region, a scant 17 years after dinosaurs were first recognized as a biological group in 1842. Joseph Leidy’s Hadrosaurus from the New Jersey coast is credited as the first American dinosaur to be described, but Astrodon was a close second. During the mid-19th century, iron mining was big business in central Maryland. Miners extracted large boulders of siderite, or iron ore, from open pit mines throughout Prince George’s County, and these miners were the first in the region to discover dinosaur bones and teeth. The siderite was being mined from clay deposits now known as the Arundel Formation, part of the larger Potomac Group that extends throughout Maryland (the Potomac Group was laid down during the Early Cretaceous period, between 125 and 113 million years ago). Members of the Maryland Academy of Sciences recognized the fossils from the Arundel clay as similar to the English fossil reptiles that Richard Owen had recently unified as Dinosauria. In 1858, academy member Christopher Johnston published a description of a set of teeth from the iron mines in the American Journal of Dental Science, which he named “Astrodon” (Joseph Leidy turned this informal name into a proper binomial, Astrodon johnstoni, in his 1865 review of North American fossil reptiles).

Today, most paleontologists consider it poor judgment to name a new taxon based only on teeth. When scientists describe a newly discovered organism, they designate a type specimen, which is used to define that taxon in perpetuity. But when the type specimen is especially fragmentary, or only consists of a small part of the organism, it poses a problem for future researchers. In the case of Astrodon, no newly discovered fossils other than teeth can be confidently referred to the same species. In 1858, however, paleontological norms were very different. All dinosaur fossils known at the time were exceedingly incomplete: scientists knew that dinosaurs were reptiles and that they were very big and not much else. Any new fossils, even teeth, represented a major addition to our understanding of the life appearance and diversity of these extinct animals. For modern paleontologists, Johnston’s published description of the Astrodon teeth is vague and uninformative, but in his day, these fossils were distinct from anything else yet known.

Astrodon teeth lower left.

Astrodon teeth are on the lower left.

In December of 1887, famed paleontologist Othneil Charles Marsh sent his best fossil hunter, John Bell Hatcher, to search the area in Prince George’s County where Astrodon was discovered. Judging from Hatcher’s journal entries, he didn’t have a great time. It rained and snowed almost constantly, and on several days his team didn’t bother to show up for work. Although Hatcher managed to find numerous dinosaur, crocodile and turtle fossils, these finds did not match the quality of the fossils Hatcher had been finding in the western states, and no return trips were made. Nevertheless, Marsh saw fit to name two new dinosaur species from the material Hatcher collected: Pluerocoelus altus and Pluerocoelus nanus. Neither taxon was named for material that would be considered diagnostic if found today: P. altus was based on a tibia and fibula, while P. nanus was based on four nonadjacent vertebrae.

By this time, more complete dinosaur fossils from the American west were beginning to reveal a clearer picture of dinosaur diversity. Based on the shape and size of the fossils collected by Hatcher, Marsh determined that they belonged to sauropods, the group of long-necked herbivores that includes Diplodocus and Apatosaurus. More specifically, Marsh recognized that the Arundel sauropods were similar to “Morosaurus” (now called Camarasaurus) from Colorado. Today, the lineage of stocky, broad-nosed sauropods that includes Camarasaurus and its closest relatives are called macronarians. Unfortunately, by modern standards Marsh’s descriptions of P. altus and P. nanus are rudimentary in nature, and no distinguishing characteristics not common to all macronarian sauropods were offered.

Pleurocoelus elements. Image from NMNH Backyard Dinosaurs.

Pleurocoelus (or Astrodon?) fossils collected by Hatcher. Image from NMNH online exhibit Backyard Dinosaurs.

Contra Marsh, Hatcher suspected that there was only one sauropod in the Arundel Formation. P. altus and P. nanus were probably growth stages of one species, and the Astrodon teeth, now recognized as typical of macronarians, probably came from the same animal, as well. Since the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature decrees that the first published name given to a taxon has priority, Astrodon would take precedence over Pluerocoelus. Later, Charles Gilmore published a review of the Arundel fossils, in which he concurred with Hatcher that P. altus was a junior synonym of Astrodon, but retained P. nanus as a separate species.  

Then things started getting really complicated. While paleontologists were still debating how many sauropod species existed in the Arundel clay, Marsh and others had started naming lots of new species of Pluerocoelus. Fossils found in Texas, Oklahoma and even the U.K. were all thrown into the Pluerocoelus bucket, including P. montanusP. valdensisP. becklesii and P. suffosus. For much of the 20th century, Pluerocoelus was a classic wastebasket taxon, into which any and all sauropod fossils from early Cretaceous strata were casually thrown. Since the Pluerocoelus type specimens designated by Marsh were insufficient to define the taxon based on morphology, the name became little more than a temporal marker. Adding to the confusion, researchers continued to disagree over whether all these new Pluerocoelus species should be sunk into the earlier genus Astrodon.

In recent years, some progress has been made toward untangling this mess of early Cretaceous sauropods. There is a general consensus that fossils not found in Maryland’s Potomac Group differ substantially from the Arundel sauropods and should never have been referred to Pluerocoelus or Astrodon. New names have been proposed for the midwestern sauropods, including Astrophocaudia and Paluxysaurus. However, removing the non-Maryland fossils from the discussion merely returns us to the original set of problems: how many sauropods are represented in the Arundel clay, what were they like in life, and what should we call them?

Creating a coherent picture of Astrodon

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions depend on who you ask. The most thorough review of Arundel sauropods from the last decade was published by Kenneth Carpenter and Virginia Tidwell in 2005. Carpenter and Tidwell reaffirmed Hatcher’s conclusion that Pluerocoelus is synonymous with Astrodon, and that as the earliest published name, Astrodon has priority. This decision is apparently based only on the fact that the fossils came from the same stratum, however, since the Astrodon holotype cannot be compared to anything besides other teeth. For this reason, Michael D’Emic proposed in 2012 that the names Astrodon and Pluerocoelus are nomen dubia and should both be dropped entirely. Ultimately, neither solution is practical for identifying the sauropod fossils that continue to be collected from the Arundel Formation. Either we blindly refer any and all sauropod fossils to Astrodon, even though we lack a usable holotype, or we have no label available at all.  One solution would be to establish a new type specimen (called a neotype) for Astrodon, but this has yet to be done.

Both camarasaur and brachiosaur shaped Astrodon reconstructions are equally reasonable.

Both camarasaur and brachiosaur-shaped Astrodon reconstructions are reasonable. Artwork by Dmitry Bogdanov, via Wikipedia.

While many more sauropod fossils have been found in the Arundel clay since Hatcher’s 1887 expedition, we do not have enough material to fully elucidate what these animals looked like. Size estimates have varied enormously, from as little as 30 feet to as much as 80 feet in length. The assortment of fossil bones and teeth that have been found tell us we have a macronarian sauropod, and we can reconstruct its general shape based on more completely known relatives. However, macronarians were a fairly diverse bunch, ranging from the comparatively stocky camarasaurs to high-shouldered, elongate brachiosaurs. Carpenter and Tidwell describe the Arundel sauropod fossils, particularly the limb bones, as being fairly slender, but still more robust than those of Brachiosaurus. They do recognize, however, that nearly all known Arundel sauropod fossils come from juveniles, which may vary proportionally from adults. Because the precise affinities of Astrodon are unclear, artistic reconstructions vary substantially. The National Museum of Natural History’s Backyard Dinosaurs exhibit and website shows a camarasaur-shaped sauropod, while the life-sized sculpture at the Maryland Science Center is based on the brachiosaur Giraffatitan. At Dinosaur Park in Laurel, meanwhile, both versions are on display. More fossils, ideally cervical vertebrae or more complete adult material, are needed to clarify what the Arundel sauropod looked really like.

Teaching Astrodon

When I show people the teeth and partial bones attributed to Astrodon during public programs, I am almost always asked, “if that’s all you’ve found, how do you know what the whole animal looked like?”  As demonstrated by this post, it takes 1,700 words and counting to give a proper answer, which is too much for all but the most dedicated audiences. Nevertheless, to do anything less is to skip crucial caveats and information. Scientists are choosy about the words they use, filling explanations with “probablys” and “almost certainlys”, but they do so with good reason: when one’s job is to create and communicate knowledge, there is no room for ambiguity about what is and is not known. It is therefore just a bit dishonest to say that a large sauropod called Astrodon that was related to Brachiosaurus lived in Maryland, and yet I do so every week. How can I possibly sleep at night?

I’ll admit it can be difficult, but I get by because using one proviso-free name for the Maryland sauropod seems to be  informative and helpful to my audience. I only have people’s attention for so long, and I’d rather not spend that time on tangents about how Astrodon should really be called Pluerocoelus or why my use of either name is imprecise and problematic. I want visitors to walk away understanding how paleontologists assemble clues from sedimentary structures and anatomical comparisons to reconstruct ancient environments and their inhabitants. I’d like for visitors to practice making observations and drawing conclusions, and understand how paleontology is a meticulous science that can be relevant to their lives. “Paleontologists are weirdly obsessed with changing names” is not one of the most important things to know about paleontology.

Taxonomy, the science of naming and identifying living things, is unquestionably valuable. Biologists would be lost without the ability to differentiate among taxa. From my perspective, however, the public face of paleontology tends to overemphasize taxonomic debates in lieu of more informative discussions. There will always be somebody willing to argue whether Tarbosaurus bataar should be sunk into Tyrannosaurus, or to give incorrect explanations for why we lost “Brontosaurus.” In the end, though, these debates have more to do with people’s preferences than the actual biology of these animals. Astrodon may not be a diagnostic taxon in the strictest sense, but we need to call our fossils something, and taxonomic labels exist to be informative and useful. If asked, I’m always happy to provide the full story. But for the time being, Astrodon seems to be working just fine.

References

Carpenter, K. and Tidwell, V. 2005. Reassessment of the Early Cretaceous sauropod Astrodon johnstoni Leidy 1865 (Titanosauriformes). In Carpenter and Tidwell (eds.), Thunder-Lizards: The Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Bloomington, IA: Indiana University Press.

D’Emic M.D. 2012. Revision of the sauropod dinosaurs of the Lower Cretaceous Trinity Group, southern USA, with the description of a new genus. Journal of Systematic Paleontology, iFirst 2012, 1-20.

Gilmore, C.W. 1921. The fauna of the Arundel Formation of Maryland. Proceedings of the United States National Museum. 59: 581-594.

Kranz, P.M. Dinosaurs in Maryland. 1989. Published by Maryland Geological Survey, Department of Natural Resources, Educational Series No. 6.

Marsh, O.C. 1888. Notice of a New Genus of Sauropoda and Other New Dinosaurs from the Potomac Formation.

Please note that the usual disclaimer applies: views or opinions expressed here are mine, and do not reflect any institution with which I am affiliated.

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The self indulgent year-in-review post

Happy 2014!

Not unlike a 20th century museum, this blog is beholden to no one. I post what I want to post, and I alone decide what readers ought to find interesting. And yet, even the most visitor-centric modern museums with the most thorough evaluation procedures would no doubt do anything to get the fine-grained audience statistics that WordPress provides freely to bloggers. With that in mind, it’s time to jump squarely onto the bandwagon and share some of the highlights of the past year’s metrics.

With just shy of 10,000 viewers, 2013 was my best year by far in terms of visitation since I started blogging three years ago. The overwhelming majority of visitors hailed from the US, but there were plenty of visitors from Canada and the UK as well. More than half of visitors came via search engine, but there was also a significant number of visitors coming through social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. The good folks at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs added me to their blog roll earlier this year, so that has been big driver of traffic as well.

The most popular post was the Murals and Dioramas entry in my Extinct Monsters series. My post on Henry Osborn’s notorious bigotry and how he continues to influence museums today was a close second, and my review of medullary bone in dinosaurs from last year was third. I’m glad the Osborn post found an audience, because I definitely consider it one of the more “important” posts I’ve done. Expect more about Osborn’s legacy in the coming year. The Murals and Dioramas post was made possible by a lovely chat I had with Norman Deaton earlier this year when I was working on my master’s thesis. I’m happy to see that his gorgeous and historically important dioramas are of interest to others. Be aware, the NMNH paleontology halls are closing for renovation this Spring, and the dioramas will not be included when the exhibit reopens in five years. The dioramas will definitely be preserved, but this is the last opportunity to see them in their intended context.

Beyond the blog, my big accomplishments this year were finishing my MA and scoring a job that lets me do precisely what I love: sharing information about paleontology with enthusiastic people. Meanwhile, my attempt to turn my thesis into something publishable has expanded into a monster with an absurd page count and no end in sight. Perhaps there will be news on that front in the coming year, but in the meantime thanks to all who have made this possible. And of course, thanks to all the readers who have dropped by (even all of you who only wanted that stolen horse evolution image that I only posted as a bad example), everyone who took the time to comment, and especially everyone who permitted me to tell the stories of their fascinating work.

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