Tag Archives: Smithsonian

The Nation’s T. rex Revealed

The Nation's T. rex was temporarily assembled in the RCI workshop for inspection by Smithsonian staff. Source

The Nation’s T. rex was temporarily assembled in the RCI workshop for inspection by Smithsonian staff. Source

Yesterday, a press embargo lifted and the world got it’s first look at the pose the Nation’s T. rex will assume in the new fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History. I don’t have much to add to the solid coverage at The Washington Post, NPR, and Smithsonian Magazine except holy crap, that’s awesome.

The photo above (by Nikki Kahn of The Washington Post) was taken when Smithsonian staff visited the Research Casting International workshop to inspect the mount’s progress. Located outside of Toronto, RCI is the industry leader in the art of creating mounted fossil skeletons, and their work is on display in museums all over the world. The Nation’s T. rex is one of 52 mounts the company will create for NMNH over the next three years.

Dr. Carrano gestures toward the awesomeness behind him.

Dr. Carrano gestures toward the awesomeness behind him. Source

The Nation’s T. rex (also known as Wankel Rex) is new to NMNH, but it is not a new specimen. It was discovered by Montana rancher Kathy Wankel in 1988 on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The skeleton, which was for a time the most complete Tyrannosaurus known, was held in trust at the Museum of the Rockies until last April, when the Corps loaned the specimen to the Smithsonian for the next 50 years. This is the first time the original fossils have been displayed in a standing mount, but RCI has been producing casts of the specimen for years. Examples can be seen at the Great North Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and even the Google Campus.

The Smithsonian team inspecting every inch of the 2,000 pound mount included Curator of Dinosauria Matt Carrano, Exhibit Project Manager Siobhan Starrs, and Preparator Steve Jabo. The violent scene, with the Tyrannosaurus preparing to decapitate its Triceratops prey, was first suggested by Carrano over two years ago. The inspiration came from research by Denver Fowler and colleagues, which proposed that Tyrannosaurus regularly dismembered Triceratops by pulling the head off by the frill. The dynamic pose sets the Nation’s T. rex apart from the more “regal” stances other museums have chosen for their Tyrannosaurus mounts, and also reminds visitors that this animal was a living, acting being within its environment.

A 3-D printed model of the skeleton was used to plan the pose. Source

The exhibit team used a 3-D printed model of the skeleton to plan the pose. Source

The tyrant king’s prey is none other than a cast of Hatcher, NMNH’s resident Triceratops. This composite skeleton was the first mounted Triceratops ever exhibited, and it has been on display in one form or another since 1905. An updated reproduction of Hatcher can be seen right now in The Last American Dinosaurs, but apparently this will be its last hurrah. As Carrano put it, “Hatcher’s done its duty.” Even relegated to the role of food, however, Hatcher is still an impressive beast. The skeleton is nearly as long as the Nation’s T. rex, and noticeably bigger than the Triceratops mounts at other major U.S. museums.

Hatcher Photo by the author.

Poor Hatcher knows nothing of his imminent demise at the claws of a 38-foot murderbird. Photo by the author.

The NMNH team had a few notes for RCI, both for the sake of accuracy and the sake of the exhibit. Carrano requested that the fibula be rotated slightly, while Starrs emphasized that the tail should be at least 10 feet off the ground, to prevent over-enthusiastic visitors from grabbing at it. The workshop visit was also an opportunity to explore how the mount would look among the other denizens of the National Fossil Hall. Hatcher and the Nation’s T. rex will be sharing space on the Creataceous platform with Edmontosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and the crocodile relative Champsosaurus, among others. Working out dynamic poses that also keep key lines of sight open is no easy task, and the gallery space needs to be planned down to the inch.

As is now industry standard, RCI’s armature is made up of intricate steel cradles that are custom fitted to hold each of the 150 real fossils in place. Unlike many historic mounts, no holes have been drilled in the bones and none of the delicate fossils are supporting the structure’s weight. Most bones can be removed individually, and with the right equipment, the entire mount can be assembled in just a few hours. As such, we can rest assured that this display will not only be incredibly cool, but the authentic 66 million-year-old fossils will be as safe as they could possibly be while on view for 7 million visitors per year.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, theropods

See the Elephant

Fenykovi elephant at the National Museum of Natural History, September 2014. Photo by the author.

National Museum of Natural History rotunda, September 2014. Photo by the author.

The iconic Fénykövi elephant, the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History rotunda since 1959, received an update last week in the form of a new interpretive platform. Like the Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History and Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum, this African bush elephant is the first object most NMNH visitors see upon entering. With its ears forward and its trunk raised, the elephant stands over 13 feet tall—larger than any elephant known to be living today. But in spite of its inspiring presence as the symbol of the museum, this elephant has a problematic history that NMNH has long struggled to interpret.

Hungarian-born Josef J. Fénykövi shot the elephant in Angola in 1955. Fénykövi owned a ranch in the west African nation (at the time a Portuguese colony), where he spent several months each year hunting wildlife. After discovering the existence of an unusually large bull elephant in 1954, Fénykövi returned the following year equipped to track and kill what was thought to be the biggest land animal on the planet. Fénykövi and his team of guides located the giant elephant on November 13th, and eventually downed it after a full-day chase*. A truck filled with salt was required to keep the hide fresh during the hundred-mile journey from the kill site to the nearest train station in Kuito. Rather than keep the trophy for himself, Fénykövi decided to donate the animal to a museum. He offered it to the London Natural History Museum first, but the process was taking too long for his taste so he gave the elephant to the Smithsonian, instead. Later, an old-fashioned slug from a flintlock pistol found embedded in the elephant’s leg provided reason to believe the animal had been nearly 100 years old when Fénykövi killed it.

*Fénykövi’s account gives the impression that the guides did most of the work. They tracked the elephant’s prints and spoor on foot while Fénykövi followed in a jeep, and a man named Mario fired the shots that actually finished off the animal. 

The acquisition and subsequent exhibition of the Fénykövi elephant at NMNH gives us a great deal to unpack. The collection of animals for public display has fallen sharply out of favor over the past century. In the late 1800s, little worlds behind glass populated by taxidermy animals provided the increasingly urban public a window into the natural world they felt they had left behind. But even in Fénykövi’s day, popular opinion was beginning to turn against the practice. For most, this aversion to taxidermy begins and ends with the unpleasantness of being confronted with a dead animal. Some scholars rightly call attention to the imperialism and exoticism inherent in collecting animals from far-flung lands. This criticism is especially apt for Fénykövihis story contains more than a whiff of imperialist entitlement.

Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Fénykövi Elephant in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The fact that the elephant was killed as a trophy complicates matters still further. It’s one thing for a museum to display an animal that was sacrificed for science—to better understand its biology or to contribute to a record of biodiversity. Displaying a trophy is quite another. While a typical museum taxidermy display represents the life of an animal, a trophy mount celebrates that animal’s death. As Poliquin explains, “trophies arouse negative reactions not simply because they are evidence that a human killed an animal…they are evidence of a human’s desire to kill an animal” (Poliquin 2010, 152). Indeed, it is arguably impossible to fully separate a trophy mount from the narrative of the creature’s demise.

For Fénykövi, the meaning of the elephant is obvious. It represented a specific, triumphant event in his life, an attempt to communicate something about himself through the death of animal. NMNH staff have faced the much greater challenge of interpreting  Fénykövi’s trophy for the millions of visitors that enter the rotunda every year. For 56 years, they have struggled to present this animal, selfishly killed by a wealthy colonial, in a way that matched the museum’s conservation-oriented mission.

The elephant’s original context unfortunately left something to be desired. The traditional, circular pedestal in the center of the NMNH rotunda did not effectively distance the specimen from it’s origin as a trophy, and the museum was occasionally criticized for complicity with big-game hunting and the colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the elephant did eventually earn an identity as a symbol for the museum, largely separate from the man who killed it. Credit for this accomplishment goes to William Brown and Norman Deaton, who prepared and mounted the hide over sixteen months. Brown and Deaton managed to imbue this dead skin over a wood-and-plaster frame with an astonishing amount of life and character. The elephant holds court in the four-story rotunda, exuding confidence and power over its domain. It’s an unforgettable sight, and it almost makes one forget that this animal is only there because it lost a fight.

Words Source

The 1999 habitat diorama platform—my favorite iteration. Source

Still, it was clear by the 1990s that while the elephant was there to stay, it needed to be more thoughtfully contextualized. In 1999, NMNH replaced the old pedestal with a large, open diorama of the Angolan savanna, which brought the elephant three feet higher off the ground. The project was completed entirely by in-house staff, and was funded in part by a donation from Kenneth Behring (a big-game hunter, among other things). In the revised display, the elephant was the focal point of a story that encompassed every department at the museum. A jackal and an assortment of birds (a lilac-breasted roller, a carmine bee eater, and a white-backed vulture) joined the elephant on the platform, while Angolan grasses and trees completed the scene. Ants, flies, and dung beetles (pushing dung balls cast from examples collected at the National Zoo) abounded. A tin can implied to have been tied to a tree by a local herder represented Anthropology, and bones of the extinct proboscidian Palaeoloxodon recki covered Paleobiology. In short, this display elegantly introduced visitors to everything the museum has to offer, while reinforcing the breadth and significance of natural history collections.

The elephant’s platform has now been rebuilt once again. The elephant stands at the same height and at the same angle, but the footprint of the base has been cut back significantly. The savanna diorama is gone, replaced with a straight-edged marble pedestal. Light and dark marble stripes reflect the rotunda’s classic architecture, particularly the columns in front of each of the main halls. The compass rose on the rotunda floor, hidden since the elephant was first installed in 1959, is visible once again. It grounds the elephant display nicely, especially when viewed from the second floor. Finally, the new elephant platform now includes an information desk. It seems sensible to incorporate a bit of functionality into the display, and fortunately this addition does not noticeably detract from exhibit’s overall aesthetics.

Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The Fénykövi elephant from above. Photo by the author.

The interdisciplinary interpretation has been removed*, replaced by displays that focus  on elephant behavior and the omnipresent threat of poaching. In fact, the only objects on display besides the elephant itself are three ivory sculptures that were seized by customs. The inclusion of these sculptures is a little strange, since it reinforces that ivory products are actually very pretty. Hopefully the adjacent message that elephant poaching has tripled since 1998—and that an elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes—will be enough to convince visitors that it isn’t worth it.

*The one exception is a graphic that places modern elephants in their evolutionary and temporal context, featuring nearly photo-real artwork by Mauricio Anton. 

To its credit, the new display banishes Fénykövi from the elephant’s story—I didn’t see his name mentioned once. While I don’t think it’s possible (or more to the point, appropriate) to completely erase this specimen’s problematic history, it’s encouraging that it has taken on a second life as a cherished ambassador for its threatened species. I can think of no better outcome for an animal that was killed as a trophy.

What do you think of the new display? Which version do you like best?

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Love, S. (1997). Curators as Agents of Change: An Insect Zoo for the Nineties. Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Poliquin, R. (2010). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smithsonian Institution. (2010). Explore Our Collections: Fénykövi Elephant. http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

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Filed under exhibits, mammals, museums, NMNH, reviews

The Pan-American Expo Triceratops Lives On UPDATE: Or does it?

Triceratops at the Natural History Museum, London.

Triceratops at the Natural History Museum, London. Source

Don’t you hate it when you miss something glaringly obvious? I’ve never seen the Triceratops skeleton at London’s Natural History Museum in person, but I’ve seen enough pictures to know that it’s a little weird. Inaccuracies like the columnar feet, dragging tail, and vertical forelimbs can be attributed the display’s age, but the head doesn’t really look like any other Triceratops skull that’s ever been found. I had assumed that the funky frill and extremely long nasal horn were sculpted flourishes, but it turns out that no part of this Triceratops is real. It’s not a heavily-reconstructed original skeleton or even a cast – it’s a papier mâché model. And not just any model, but one that I’ve already written about in a different context.

Pan American exhibition

The Lucas Triceratops model at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition. Source

Frederic Lucas, an Assistant Curator at the United States National Museum, created this Triceratops in 1900 for the Smithsonian display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. A mix of corporate and government displays based around the themes of peace, prosperity, and technology, the Pan-American Exhibition lasted from May to November 1901 (it was cut short when President William McKinley was shot on the fairgrounds). The Smithsonian’s 7,500 square foot exhibit took nearly a year to prepare, and showcased specimens from all departments of the nascent institution. Indeed, the Smithsonian’s participation in this and other fairs around the turn of the century is significant because these attractions were the basis for the some of the first exhibits at the USNM. Displays initially created for fairs often found a home in the museum’s permanent galleries, and the fair exhibitions were generally used as a template for the first generation of Smithsonian exhibits.

The Triceratops model was meant to represent the glut of fossils from the western United States that the Smithsonian had recently acquired from O.C. Marsh. Perhaps because most of those specimens were still unpacked and unprepared (the USNM didn’t hire a dedicated fossil preparator until 1903), Lucas sculpted the skeleton freehand based on one of Marsh’s published illustrations. It’s noteworthy that Lucas was not a paleontologist – he was brought on board at the age of 21 with no formal training because of his talent for constructing taxidermy displays. At any rate, Lucas followed Marsh’s reconstruction – at the time the only Triceratops reconstruction available – religiously when constructing his full-sized model.

St. Louis Expo

The Lucas Triceratops at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Source

After the Pan-American Exhibition, Lucas’s Triceratops made a second appearance at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. It was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when Charles Gilmore assembled the world’s first real Triceratops skeleton at the USNM. As I’ve covered before, the act of physically manipulating the Triceratops fossils into a standing mount showed Gilmore that Marsh’s straight-legged reconstruction was a physical impossibility.

My understanding was that the Lucas model was lost or destroyed shortly after Gilmore’s real Triceratops went on display in 1905. I should have been more skeptical, however, because exhibits like this are almost never wasted. For example, Gilmore reported in 1943 that the Hadrosaurus cast displayed at the USNM before his arrival had been discarded due to wear and tear, but the mount had actually been given to the Field Museum in the 1890s. A couple months ago, I found out that Albert Koch’s chimeric mastodon (what he called “Missourium”) was purchased by Richard Owen on behalf of the British Museum and remounted. And just this year, the Smithsonian’s 112 year-old Stegosaurus model began a new life at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.

tweet

Hey, that looks familiar! Source

The above tweet from the London Natural History Museum finally clued me in that the Lucas Triceratops had been hiding in plain sight for more than a century. The NHM (then the British Museum) received their Triceratops from the Smithsonian in 1907 (confirmed in the July 1907 issue of The Museums Journal), just when the Smithsonian had an extra Triceratops on hand. The London model is plainly not a cast of Gilmore’s 1905 mount, but it does resemble the Lucas model in most every detail, from the way the legs are posed to the exaggerated horns and frill. The only clear difference I can see is in the position of the head, which is much more elevated in the photos from the Buffalo and St. Louis expositions. However, I imagine the model would have been partially disassembled for transport. Perhaps when it was rebuilt in London the head ended up lower, whether by accident or design.

Unless there’s reason to think there were two copies of the Lucas Triceratops, I’d say the most parsimonious conclusion is that the London Triceratops is the very same model that was first displayed at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901. Much like it’s long-time companion Dippy the Diplodocus, this Triceratops model is a century-old historic icon, one that has introduced generations upon generations of visitors to the enormity of deep time and the wonders of our prehistoric past. Inaccurate sculpture or not, it’s definitely something to preserve and to celebrate.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, @NHM_London responded to my inquiry with the following:

Hmm

Did I speak too soon? Source

I’m dubious that the NHM Triceratops is a copy of Gilmore’s 1905 version, but hey, it *is* their museum. I’ll leave this post up for now and follow up when I find out more. I love a good museum mystery!

References

Gilmore C.W. (1905).The Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops prorsus. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 29:1426:433-435.

Gilmore, C.W. (1941). A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 90.

Howarth, E., Rowley, F.R., Ruskin Butterfield, W., and Madeley, C. (1908). The Museums Journal, Volume 7. Museums Association.

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Filed under dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, marginocephalians, museums, NHM, NMNH

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While 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, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.

Reich

The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.

References

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

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication

A Trio of Tyrants

The frentic search for North American dinosaur fossils in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be divided into three phases. First came O.C. Marsh and E.D Cope, whose infamous rivalry resulted in literal trainloads of fossil material and laid the groundwork for our present understanding of dinosaur diversity. Next, teams sponsored by the newly-formed American, Carnegie, and Field museums returned to the same hunting grounds in the western interior to secure display-worthy specimens for their great halls of exhibition. The final phase was smaller in scale but yielded dinosaur specimens so spectacularly complete that most have gone unmatched to this day.

This third fossil rush occurred not in the United States but in Canada, along the cliff-like banks of Alberta’s Red Deer River. Fossil hunting in this region was pioneered in the late 1800s by George Dawson, Joseph Tyrell, and Lawrence Lambe, all working for the Canadian Geological Survey. This success did not go unnoticed by the the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1910, the museum mounted an expedition led by Barnum Brown to the Red Deer River. Rather ingeniously, Brown’s team acquired a pair of 30-foot floating barges, which were used as mobile platforms from which they could excavate the steep river banks. The barges also served as floating campsites and a handy means of transportation in a region without reliable roads.The adventurous Brown was already a media favorite, and the publicity surrounding his Alberta expeditions only increased when the team started bringing back fully articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons (including several with skin impressions).

Under pressure from constituents concerned that the Americans were hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian government formed its own team of fossil collectors in 1912. The new Canadian Geological Survey team was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg (a veteran collector who had once worked for Cope) and his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. The Canadian and American teams worked in the same region for the next five field seasons. Their rivalry was usually good-natured, but on more than one occasion Brown saw fit to grumble about the Sternbergs’ ethics (never mind that he was the one permanently removing fossils from their country of origin).

Gorgosaurus at AMNH

Three tyrannosaurs mounted in relief at AMNH. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

All of this is so much preamble for the actual topic of this post – three remarkable Gorgosaurus skeletons* collected near the Red Deer River during the Canadian fossil rush. All three were eventually mounted in relief by AMNH preparator Peter Kaisen, and for a time they were displayed together in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. These specimens are on the short list of most complete large theropod dinosaurs ever discovered, and in their day they provided researchers an unprecedented look at the physiology of these amazing animals. Nearly a century later, the three mounts are virtually unchanged. Locked behind glass for decades and largely inaccessible to researchers, the mounts themselves are now relics of a fascinating transitional period in the history of dinosaur studies.

*AMNH also recovered a fourth tyrannosaur during this period – Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus.

As usual, a brief explanation of nomenclature is required. William Matthew and Barnum Brown originally described these specimens as Gorgosaurus, a genus that Dale Russell sank into Albertosaurus in 1970. Most specialists no longer support this synonymization, but the specimens at AMNH are still labeled as Albertosaurus.

Gorgosaurus libratus – USNM 12814

gorgo

A recent photo of USNM 12812 from the ongoing renovation of the national fossil hall. Source

USNM 12814 (originally designated AMNH 5248) was excavated by Brown’s company in 1913 and prepared for display in 1918. Kaisen elected to recreate the death pose in which the Gorgosaurus was found, with its head swept backward over its body. All told, the finished mount included a skull, a complete set of cervical and dorsal vertebrae, complete forelimbs, and a single femur – the pelvis and the rest of the hindlimbs were filled in with casts from other specimens. Since the skeleton was mounted in relief, Kaisen simply painted the tail onto the backdrop.

After at least a dozen years on display at AMNH, the Gorgosaurus was traded to the National Museum of Natural History as part of a complicated deal between the two museums. While surveying fossil collections throughout the United States, Brown realized that a single Barosaurus skeleton from Dinosaur National Monument had been divided among three different institutions. NMNH had the neck and part of one forelimb, the Carnegie Museum had the tail, and the University of Utah had the rest. Between 1929 and 1933, Brown arranged a series of trades in order to unify the Barosaurus at AMNH. The Smithsonian in particular drove a hard bargain – the museum had already invested $3400 in preparing their Barosaurus section, and paleontology staff wanted a good return for their investment. Brown’s initial offer was the fully prepared and mounted Gorgosaurus. Although AMNH valued the field and prep time spent on the fossils at $4573, it was at that point a duplicate specimen taking up valuable space in their increasingly crowded exhibit hall.

NMNH dinosaur specialist Charles Gilmore confided in Brown that he was okay with this trade, but fellow Smithsonian paleontologist Alexander Wetmore wasn’t sold. For years, NMNH staff had been trying to acquire one of the many Moropus specimens AMNH had collected at the Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska. NMNH had offered a variety of specimens to trade, even sending AMNH a set of brontothere skulls at one point, but AMNH was adamant the Moropus fossils could only be exchanged for cash. Brown really wanted that Barosaurus neck, so in January of 1933, he finally relented and offered the Smithsonian a largely complete Moropus in addition to the Gorgosaurus. Not long after, the Gorgosaurus relief mount found its way into the Hall of Extinct Monsters at NMNH.

Gorgosaurus sp. – AMNH 5458

albertosaurus

A technician (probably Kaisen) adjusts the steel strap holding the femur in place. Source

Brown’s team found their second Gorgosaurus near Steveville, Alberta in 1914. Complete save for the left leg, right arm, and parts of the rib cage and tail, the mount was ready for display in May of 1921. At 24 feet long and 14 feet high, this was by far the largest relief mount at the museum. In fact, it was too big to fit through the workshop doorway in one piece, so Kaisen constructed it in eight sections that were sealed together in the exhibit hall. Each section had its own wooden frame for support, and the bones themselves were held in place with steel straps. The skull, jaw, and left forearm could be removed for individual study. This was unusual for the period (most contemporary fossil mounts were designed to be permanent) and speaks volumes about this specimen’s unique scientific value.

This mount is particularly notable for its awkward running pose. Directly contradicting many narratives of early 20th century paleontology, Matthew and Brown envisioned Gorgosaurus as an animal that “walked and ran much like a gigantic bird.” The AMNH team posed this mount after studying photos of bipedally running lizards, particularly the western tiger lizard*. However, Matthew and Brown noted that the dinosaur’s  limb proportions and range of motion more closely resemble a bird than a lizard, and adjusted the pose accordingly. They also advised a more conservative stride length to compensate for the animal’s considerable weight.

*Matthew and Brown do not provide a scientific name, and the common name “western tiger lizard” doesn’t seem to be used any more. Anyone know what it’s called today?

The final pose was a compromise between the elevated torso of a running lizard and the comparatively tight gait of a bird. It looks more than a little strange, but AMNH 5458 is certainly closer to our present understanding of theropod posture than most mounts of the era. Matthew and Brown’s interpretation of Gorgosaurus turned out to be ahead of its time. Some contemporary researchers, including Lawrence Lambe, declared the running pose to be highly improbable, and virtually all theropod mounts constructed over the next 60 years returned to the tail-dragging posture of the 1915 AMNH Tyrannosaurus.

Gorgosaurus sternbergi” – AMNH 5664

gorgo sternbergi

Gorgosaurus “sternbergi” as it was discovered and originally mounted. Source

The most complete tyrannosaur from the Red Deer River was not collected by the AMNH party, but by the Sternbergs. The elder Charles Sternberg discovered the specimen in 1917, entirely intact save for the left arm and the very end of the tail. In fact, this was the most complete large theropod ever found in North America until it was surpassed by yet another Gorgosaurus, TCM 2001.89.1. Sternberg first attempted to sell the specimen to the British Museum. They weren’t interested, but AMNH was. In 1918, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology bought the skeleton for $2000, thus completing the tyrannosaur trio.

Matthew and Brown described AMNH 5664 as a new species – Gorgosaurus sternbergi. In their 1921 publication, they describe the skull as longer and shallower than other Gorgosaurus specimens, with rounder orbits. However, Brown and Matthew recognized that these could be juvenile characteristics, noting as well that the unfused pelvic bones were an indication of immaturity. As early as 1970, this specimen was suspected to be a juvenile Gorgosaurus (or Albertosaurus) libratus.

Kaisen prepared the relief mount in 1921, this time assisted by Carl Sorenson. The photo above shows the original version of this mount, with the tail projecting straight back from the body. This was how Sternberg discovered the skeleton, and Kaisen wanted to keep the death pose intact. In the 1950s, the tail was “corrected” to make it drag on the ground. Although the display has not been altered since, the revised tail posture is now considered inaccurate. Indeed, the vertebrae apparently had to be angled unnaturally to make the dragging tail work at all.

AMNH 5027 was restored and remounted in 1995.

The Gorgosaurus plaque mounts hide behind Tyrannosaurus rex at AMNH. Photo by the author.

All three Gorgosaurus specimens were first displayed in the cramped quarters of the Hall of Fossil Reptiles (now the Hall of Primitive Mammals) with the rest of the growing AMNH dinosaur collection (USNM 12814 and the tail of AMNH 5664 are barely visible in this photo). 5458 and 5664 moved to the newly opened Great Hall of Dinosaurs in 1922. They flanked the gallery’s rear doorway for 70 years before being moved to the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs in 1994. Meanwhile, the Gorgosaurus transferred to the Smithsonian first appeared in the Hall of Extinct Monsters in the 1940s, displayed behind glass on the north wall. It switched to the south side in 1962, and moved about 30 feet up the wall in 1981, where it could only be properly seen from the mezzanine ramp.

Aside from the aforementioned alternation to AMNH 5664’s tail, the Red Deer River Gorgosaurus trio has not been modified since they were first built. This may well change in the not-to-distant future. The NMNH crew is hard at work on a thorough renovation of the national fossil hall, dismantling and restoring all of the classic dinosaur mounts. Meanwhile, the current AMNH paleontology exhibits are now 20 years old, and will soon be due for a similar overhaul. Both institutions will need to decide whether or not to free the Gorgosaurus specimens from their plaster substrate. This would be an extremely difficult process, but not impossible – Phil Fraley Productions recently rebuilt the Carnegie Museum’s Corythosaurus, Dryosaurus, and Camptosaurus as free-standing mounts. Dismantling the relief mounts would give a new generation of scientists access to these important specimens, and it would allow for the skeletons to be given more accurate poses. In addition, a standing Gorgosaurus mount alongside either museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex would be both informative and awesome.

Nevertheless, remaking these mounts would also destroy significant historical context. The carefully restored death pose of USNM 12812 seems like something worth preserving, and the AMNH specimens represent an important transitional period in the history of dinosaur science. In the past, museums have often taken a “science marches on” approach when updating aging displays, but in these mounts might be unique enough in their current form to be left as-is. What do you think?

References

Carr, T.D. (1999). Craniofacial Ontogeny in Tyrannosauridae (Dinosauria, Coelurosauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19: 497-520.

Colbert, E.H. (1968). Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

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

The Long Road to a Fossil Swap. Digging the Fossil Record, March 19, 2015. http://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2015/03/gorgosaurus-and-moropus.html

Matthew, W.D. and Brown, B. (1923). Preliminary Notices of Skeletons and Skulls of Deinodontidae from the Cretaceous of Alberta. American Museum Noviates 89: 1-10.

Russell, D. (1970). Tyrannosaurs from the Late Cretaceous of western Canada. National Museum of Natural Science Publications in Palaeontology 1: 1–34.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, reptiles, theropods

Extinct Monsters: The Marsh Dinosaurs, Part III

allosaurus

A close-up of Allosaurus. Photo by the author.

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

Some time ago, I wrote about the O.C. Marsh dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History. These are the mounted skeletons made from the enormous collection of fossils Marsh accumulated while working for the United States Geological Survey – if you’d like, you can catch up with Part 1 (on Edmontosaurus and Triceratops) and Part 2 (on Camptosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Stegosaurus). Looking back, I noticed that I never actually finished, so here are the two Marsh dinosaurs with as-yet untold stories.

The Thescelosaurus

The name Thescelosaurus neglectus means “neglected wonderful lizard”, because Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Gilmore found the original specimen at the bottom of a crate, more than 10 years after it arrived at NMNH. Still buried its its field jacket, this skeleton had been long overlooked by both Marsh and the museum staff. Nevertheless, Gilmore found that it was remarkably complete and that it represented a taxon new to science.

Gilmore's illustration

An illustration of the Thescelosaurus holotype prior to reconstruction. Source

Thescelosaurus at USNM.

Thescelosaurus as displayed after 1981. Photo by Chip Clark.

The specimen that would become the Thescelosaurus holotype (USNM 7757) was excavated by John Bell Hatcher and William Utterback in July of 1891, while they were collecting for Marsh in Niobrara County, Wyoming. 20 years later, Gilmore discovered that the skeleton was articulated and intact, save for the head, neck, and parts of the shoulder. He even found small patches of preserved skin on the tail and legs. According to Gilmore, the animal had been buried rapidly after death, since it showed no signs of dismemberment by scavengers.

After describing the fossils, Gilmore mounted the Thesclosaurus in relief on its left side. Other than the reconstructed skull (modeled after Hypsilophodon), the specimen was displayed almost exactly as it was found. This was important to Gilmore, because as he wrote in his published description, “I am…of the opinion that specimens so exhibited hold the attention of the average museum visitor far longer and arouse a keener interest in the genuineness of the specimen than does a skeleton that has been freed from the rock and mounted in an upright, lifelike posture.” Today at least, I suspect that the opposite is true –  visitors are generally more impressed by dynamic standing mounts than by reliefs that preserve death poses. Still, it’s fascinating to gain a small amount of insight into the motivations of a pioneering mount-maker.

Although it was first displayed in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, the Thescelosaurus was most prominently exhibited in the 1963 version of the NMNH fossil halls. Here, it joined the Edmontosaurus, Gorgosaurus, and partial Corythosaurus relief mounts along the south wall. In life, these animals were vastly removed from one another in time and space, but displayed together they almost appeared to be parts of a single quarry face. The Thescelosaurus moved to the north wall in 1981, unfortunately placed rather high and out of most visitors’ line of sight.

thescrci

Thescelosaurus cast in the RCI workshop. Source

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Close-up of the new Thescelosaurus skull. Source

When the new National Fossil Hall opens in 2019, USNM 7757 will be replaced with a duplicate cast. The original bones will be moved to the collections, where they can be properly studied for the first time in a century. Already, technicians at Research Casting International have freed the skeleton’s left side, which had never been fully prepared. The exhibit replica assembled by RCI is beautiful, retaining the ossified tendons and cartilage impressions of the original. Mounted in a running pose, the new cast also features an updated head, based on Clint Boyd’s recent description of Thescelosaurus cranial anatomy.

The Allosaurus

Built in 1981, the Allosaurus fragilis (USNM 4734) was the last Marsh Collection dinosaur to be mounted, although bits and pieces have been on display at NMNH since 1920. There has been considerable interest in this individual recently, in part because Kenneth Carpenter and Gregory Paul proposed in 2010 that it become the neotype for Allosaurus – more on that in a moment. Others are interested in this specimen because of its unique pathologies. In addition to several broken and healed bones, the Allosaurus has a massive puncture wound on its left scapula, which nicely matches the diameter of a Stegosaurus tail spike.

Benjamin Mudge collected this specimen in 1877 near Cañon City, Colorado. Known as the Garden Park quarry, this site also produced the Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Ceratosaurus on display at NMNH. Although the Smithsonian obtained the Allosaurus with the rest of the Marsh Collection around 1900, Gilmore did not look at it (or any of the theropod material) until at least 1911. All told, USNM 4734 consists of a partial skull and jaw, a complete set of presacral and sacral vertebrae, a few ribs, a pelvis, and virtually complete arms and legs. It would have had a tail as well, but Mudge’s crew accidentally threw the articulated tail over a cliff while excavating the skeleton. Norman Boss assembled a reconstructed skull, which was displayed through the 1970s. The articulated legs and feet were exhibited in a free-standing case until the late 1950s.

Reconstructed skull

Allosaurus skull  as reconstructed by Norman Boss. Image from Gilmore 1920.

This specimen’s taxonomic history merits some discussion. The holotype Marsh selected when naming Allosaurus (YPM 1930) is notoriously poor, consisting of a single phalanx, two dorsal centra, and a tooth. Dozens of very complete skeletons attributed to Allosaurus are now known, and most specialists basically agree on what an Allosaurus is, but the lack of a usable type with which to define the taxon has been an ongoing problem.

The far more complete USNM 4734 was recovered from the same quarry as the Allosaurus holotype, during the same 1877 field season. Marsh himself actually used this specimen, rather than his designated type, to illustrate subsequent publications on Allosaurus. In 1920, Gilmore flirted with the idea of nominating USNM 4734 as a neotype for Allosaurus, but for reasons that I find difficult to follow, he decided to lump both specimens into the older name Antrodemus valens. Joseph Leidy coined Antrodemus in 1870 based on a single caudal vertebra with no geologic provenance, so this move did little to fix the underlying issue. Nevertheless, Antrodemus remained a popular synonym for Allosaurus in some circles for several decades.

allosaurusskullprep

Arnold Lewis rebuilds the Allosaurus skull in 1979. Image from Thomson 1985.

When the NMNH fossil halls were renovated in 1981, the designers noticed that the exhibit badly needed a large theropod mount. Arnold Lewis was tapped to design and construct a complete mounted version of USNM 4734, with some assistance from Ken Carpenter. The tail was cast from a Brigham Young University specimen, but Lewis sculpted the belly ribs and sternum using an alligator skeleton as reference. The completed Allosaurus measures 17 feet from its grinning jaws to the tip of its tail, and a form-hugging armature makes it look particularly dynamic. This mount has been a favorite among visitors for more than 30 years, although the 2001 addition of a Stan the Tyrannosaurus cast has somewhat overshadowed the smaller theropod.

Allosaurus

The complete Allosaurus skeleton was finally exhibited in 1981. Photo by the author.

Technicians from Research Casting International took down the Allosaurus in the summer of 2014 as part of the current round of renovations. You can watch a video of the de-installation here. The skeleton will be remounted in a few years (crouching beside a nest mound), but Smithsonian researchers want to get a good look at it before that happens. In particular, curator Matt Carrano has been wondering for some time whether a partial jaw Marsh named “Labrosaurus ferox” actually belongs to this specimen. The “Labrosaurus” jaw, which has an unusual pathology caused by a bite or twisting force, came from the same quarry as USNM 4734, and appears to be the same portion of jaw that the more complete skeleton is missing. Time will tell whether Carrano’s hunch is correct. Meanwhile, Carpenter and Paul’s petition to replace the Allosaurus type with this more complete specimen from the same locality is still pending. We should expect to hear more about that soon, as well.

References

Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H., and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossil Vertebrate Skeletons. Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques. 285-322.

Gilmore, C. M. (1915). Osteology of Thescelosaurus, an ornithopodus dinosaur from the Lance Formation of Wyoming. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 49:2127:591–616.

Gilmore, C.M. (1920). Osteology of the Carnivorous Dinosauria in the United States National Museum with Special Reference to the Genera Antrodemus (Allosaurus) and CeratosaurusUnited States National Museum Bulletin 110:1-154.

Lee, J.J. (2014). The Smithsonian Disassembles its Dinosaurs. National Geographic Online.  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140731-dinosaur-hall-smithsonian-renovation-culture-science/

Paul, G.S. and Carpenter, K. (2010). Allosaurus Marsh, 1877 (Dinosauria, Theropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of a neotype for its type species Allosaurus fragilis Marsh, 1877. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 67:1:53-56.

Thomson, P. (1985). Auks, Rocks, and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, theropods

Permo-Triassic Synapsids at NMNH

Click here to start the NMNH series from the beginning.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, museum theory and paleontological science were undergoing complementary revolutions. Museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced visitor-centric, education-oriented exhibits. Designers began to envision the routes visitors would travel through an exhibit space, and consider how objects on display could contribute to holistic stories. Meanwhile, paleontologists like Stephen J. Gould and David Raup moved their field away from purely descriptive natural history, exploring instead how the fossil record could inform our understanding of evolution and ecology. The common thread between both transitions was a focus on connections – bringing new meaning and relevance to disparate parts by placing them in a common narrative.

Between 1953 and 1963, the Smithsonian implemented an institution-wide modernization program, transforming virtually every exhibit in the museum complex. The National Museum of Natural History began renovations to its classic fossil halls in 1959, and the new exhibits were emblematic of contemporary trends in both museum design and paleontology. The plan, as devised by exhibit designer Ann Karras, was to do away with the loose arrangement of specimens and turn the east wing into a guided narrative of the biological and geological history of Earth. Responsibility for selecting specimens and writing label copy in each of the four halls fell to a different curator. In Hall 2, which housed dinosaurs and fossil reptiles, that curator was Nicholas Hotton.

Layout of the USNM east wing, circa 1963.

Layout of the NMNH east wing as of 1963.

Hotton joined NMNH in 1959 as an Associate Curator of Paleontology. Entirely onboard with Karras’s vision and the paleobiology movement as a whole, Hotton described the old exhibits as “crowded” and “unorganized.” He thought NMNH had plenty of dinosaurs, but “mammal-like reptiles”* were sorely needed if Hall 2 was to tell the complete story of amniote evolution. Following that, Hotton’s mission over the next several years was to assemble a respectable collection of synapsid specimens for NMNH, and to incorporate them into a well-illustrated exhibit on the origins of mammals. This post highlights just a few of the specimens featured in Hotton’s version of Hall 2.

*In Hotton’s day, early mammalian relatives were usually called “mammal-like reptiles”, hence their inclusion in the fossil reptile exhibit. Today, most specialists prefer a more precise definition of reptiles that excludes synapsid (mammal-line) animals. In this post, I will be using the modern classification wherever possible. 

The Dimetrodon

Prior to 1960, the non-mammalian synapsid collections at NMNH were mostly limited to early Permian pelycosaurs. The most impressive of these was a Dimetrodon gigas collected in 1917 by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg. One of the best collectors of his day, Sternberg worked intermittently for E.D. Cope, O.C. Marsh, and various North American museums. In the summer of 1917, however, Sternberg was on a personal collecting trip with his son Levi. Their target was the Craddock Ranch bone bed of Baylor County, Texas, which was first explored in 1909 by a University of Chicago team. Sternberg was already quite familiar with this part of western Texas, having made some of the first thorough surveys of the Permian “red beds” in the 1880s, but the site itself was new to him. Nevertheless, Sternberg was extraordinarily successful that summer, collecting hundreds of fossils from a wide range of animals. He offered this bounty to the Smithsonian, and they purchased it from him immediately.

The Craddock Ranch fossils were particularly appealing because of their unique preservation. Buried in soft clay at the bottom of a shallow pond, the fossils could be removed from the ground with relative ease, and were largely free of encrusting matrix. Although few of the bones were articulated, many were identifiable. All told, the Sternberg collection included at least 35 skulls and partial skeletons from amphibians like Cardiocephalus, Diplocaulus, and Seymouria, plus hundreds of individual Dimetrodon bones, and a single articulated Dimetrodon specimen.

Note short tail

An early photograph of the Dimetrodon mount. Image from Gilmore 1919.

Dimetrodon first displaed on north wall

The Dimetrodon was first displayed on the north wall of the Hall of Extinct Monsters. Source

That Dimetrodon (USNM 8635) was the basis for a mount constructed by T.J. Horne. The articulated skeleton included a complete series of presacral vertebrae, the shoulder girdles, most of the forelimbs, and the left femur and tibia. The skull and jaw bones were found disarticulated, but bound together in the same mass of matrix as the skeleton. Horne added the pelvic bones and sacrum from smaller Dimetrodon specimens, and sculpted the rest of the missing material in plaster to complete the mount. Notably, his reconstructed tail was extremely short and stubby. Although the American Museum and Field Museum already had Dimetrodon mounts on display, the NMNH version stood out because of its open jaws, which Charles Gilmore said “gives the animal an appearance of angrily defying one who has suddenly blocked his path.”

Gilmore added the Dimetrodon to the Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1918. Like the other standing mounts constructed under Gilmore’s supervision, the skeleton was placed on a base textured and painted to resemble the rocks in which it was found. At this point in time, the NMNH fossil halls lacked any overarching organizational scheme, and interpretive content was minimal. Nevertheless, Gilmore displayed the Dimetrodon mount with both a small model and a 15-foot oil painting by Garnet Jex, which provided general audiences a better understanding of the animal’s life appearance.

dimetrodon

Dimetrodon in the 1963 fossil reptiles exhibit. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dimetrodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

Dimetrodon after the 1981 renovation. Photo by the author.

During the 1962 renovation, Hotton re-contextualized the classic Dimetrodon mount as a mammal ancestor. Unmissable orange arrows pointed to the specific anatomical traits that signify the animal’s kinship with mammals, including heterodont teeth and a single temporal fenestra. By design, visitors would pass Dimetrodon before visiting the true mammals in the adjacent hall.

The Dimetrodon skeleton itself was altered during the next renovation in 1981, when it was placed on a new, untextured base and given a longer replica tail. Contemporary staff also repainted the plaster sections to more closely resemble the original fossils – a surprising reversal of Gilmore and Horne’s original intention to make the reconstructed bones obvious to viewers.

The Thrinaxodon

Pelycosaurs like Dimetrodon represent the first major synapsid radiation, but by the middle Permian they were almost entirely replaced by therapsids. A more derived group which includes modern mammals, therapsids spread across the globe and became increasingly diverse as the Permian progressed. From weasel-sized burrowers to multi-ton herbivores, non-mammalian therapsids were among the first animal groups to conquer a wide range of terrestrial niches. Hotton wanted to tell this story in the modernized fossil exhibit, but there were hardly any non-mammalian therapsids in the NMNH collections. To correct this problem, Hotton took to the field for several months in 1960, and again in 1961. He joined James Kitching in exploring the Beafort Group rocks of South Africa, which were known to produce plentiful Permian and Triassic vertebrate fossils. Hotton returned to the museum with over 200 new specimens, the best of which were used in the renovated exhibit.

Hotton’s display of South African synapsids and amphibians. Note “Baby Doll” on the far left. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Thrinraxodon with Cynognathus skull

Thrinaxodon paired with Cynognathus skull. Photo by the author.

Hotton’s most prized find from South Africa was a gorgeously preserved and nearly complete Thrinaxodon liorhinus (USNM 22812). Hotton called this specimen “Baby Doll”, and while it was not prepared in time for Hall 2’s 1963 opening, it would later earn a spot of honor in the exhibit. Before that happened, though, Baby Doll was actually stolen by an over-enthusiastic volunteer. The FBI located and returned the fossil a year and a half later.

Since the 1980s, the Thrinaxodon has been displayed alongside the skull of Cynognathus crateronotus (USNM 22813), which Hotton collected on the same expedition. Both are members of the cynodont clade, which includes some of the closest relatives of modern mammals.

 The Daptocephalus

Less than a month after hall 2 reopened, Nicholas Hotton returned to South Africa. This time, he was accompanied by his spouse Ruth Hotton and their three young children. For seven months, the Hottons traveled among fossil sites on different ranches, camping most nights. They collected some 300 specimens for the Smithsonian, and Hotton’s biostratigraphic mapping of the Beaufort Group brought a measure of clarity to this region’s historically convoluted geology.

Ruth Hotton made one of the trip’s most impressive finds while prospecting in a dry riverbed with her daughter, Carol (who is now a paleobotanist at NMNH). Turning a corner, she stumbled upon a dicynodont skeleton, completely exposed and lying in the middle of the channel. One can only imagine the surprise and delight of finding an articulated fossil skeleton completely uncovered. If the Hottons had been there one season earlier or one season later, the river would have undoubtedly destroyed the fossils.

Daptocephalus on display. Photo by James Di Loreto, National Museum of Natural History.

Back at the museum, Nicholas Hotton prepared the specimen (USNM 299746) and determined it to be Daplocephalus leoniceps, one of the plethora of dicynodonts known from the Beaufort Group. Based on this classification, he reconstructed the damaged skull to resemble more complete Daplocephalus specimens, and added casts of Daplocephalus limbs.

The specimen was restored in 2019 and is now labeled Platypodosaurus. Photo by the author.

As it turns out, however, USNM 299749 is not a Daplocephalus—it is a somewhat distantly related dicynodont currently called Platypodosaurus. To varying degrees, fossil mounts are hypotheses made of bone and plaster. They are based on the best information available at the time, but sometimes they need to be corrected. The NMNH “Daplocephalus” had been mislabeled and erroneously reconstructed for many years, but the 2014 renovation of the NMNH fossil halls now presented an opportunity to deconstruct the specimen and study it up close. As of 2019, Platypodosaurus was back on display with a newly reconstructed skull and limbs.

Thanks to Christian Kammerer for kindly sharing images and insight on “Daptocephalus”!

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1919). A Mounted Skeleton of Dimetrodon gigas in the United States National Museum, with Notes on the Skeletal Anatomy. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 56:2300:525-539.

Kammerer, C. (2015). Personal communication.

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

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

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

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