Exhibit Review: Dinosaur Mysteries at the Maryland Science Center

First, let me assure you that the posts on major fossil exhibits and Triceratops mounts I’ve promised are definitely in the works, and I should be finishing them soon(ish). In the meantime, here’s a quick write-up of my recent trek to the distant land of Baltimore’s inner harbor, home of the Maryland Science Center and the “Dinosaur Mysteries” exhibit. In all seriousness, this exhibit has been open since 2004 and is less than 40 miles from me, so this visit was long overdue. What’s more, now that the Smithsonian’s fossil hall is closed for renovation, this is the largest dinosaur exhibit in the region, and will be the spot to see mounted dinosaur skeletons near Washington, D.C. for the next five years. Is it up to the task? Let’s find out.

Dinosaur Mysteries from the second floor. Photo by the author.

Dinosaur Mysteries from the second floor. Photo by the author.

At 15,000 square feet, Dinosaur Mysteries isn’t a huge exhibit, but it’s pretty dense with content. There are a lot of displays and interactives crammed into into the space, including no less than 12 free-standing mounts and life-sized sculptures of Astrodon* and Acrocanthosaurus. This venue is a science center, not a natural history museum, so the exhibit is mostly aimed at kids and families. That said, there’s still plenty for adult visitors to enjoy (the rest of the museum is purely for kids, though…if you don’t have any, I’d recommend taking advantage of the half-priced Friday evenings).

*Alright, it’s really a sculpture of Giraffatitan standing in for the poorly known Astrodon.

Among the mounted skeletons (all casts), expect to see Tyrannosaurus (Peck’s Rex, to be specific), Tarbosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Compsognathus, Herrerasaurus, Protoceratops, what used to be called “Dilophosaurus sinensis”, and plenty of others. The offerings are a little theropod heavy (and a little tyrannosaur heavy, in point of fact), but they certainly don’t fail to impress. Sadly overlooked by most visitors are some lovely genuine Maryland fossils, including an Astrodon femur that is the largest dinosaur bone found east of the Mississippi River.

Full skeleton cast of Peck's Rex, accompanied by skull cast of the Nation's T. rex. Photo by the author.

Full skeleton cast of Peck’s Rex, accompanied by skull cast of the Nation’s T. rex/Wankel Rex. Photo by the author.

Thematically, Dinosaur Mysteries is all about answering questions through observation and deduction. The press release asserts that there are over two dozen interactives available, and indeed, visitors are invited throughout the exhibit to compare, contrast, and even measure fossils in order to draw conclusions about dinosaurs’ lives. Most of the “mysteries” are of the safe variety, tackling issues that are either soundly resolved or were never really issues to begin with (think “are birds dinosaurs” or “was Tyrannosaurus a scavenger or a predator”). Experts might be a bit blasé about these questions, but they nevertheless serve to get visitors thinking about how scientists draw conclusions. I go back and forth on this, but generally I find it helpful to embrace what visitors are already familiar with, at least as a starting point, rather than shutting out their frame of reference entirely.

Birds are dinosaurs, did you know?

This may come as a shock, but birds are dinosaurs. Photo by the author.

Other interactive components include a cool champsosaur skeleton puzzle, and a tabletop sandbox to dig in. I would have liked to see more interactivity with the dinosaur mounts themselves, since they’re the most visually impressive part of the exhibit. For example, there are no less than three Tyrannosaurus skulls on display, all from different specimens. That’s a great opportunity to compare the eccentricities of each individual, perhaps considering age differences, sexual dimorphism, pathology, or even erroneous reconstruction (looking at you, Wankel Rex rostrum). With some guidance, I reckon most visitors would do well with that, and it would push them closer to how paleontologists actually study fossils.

Astrodon and Acrocanthosaurus sculptures with Bored Dad #2. Photo by the author.

Astrodon and Acrocanthosaurus sculptures, with a Bored Dad. Photo by the author.

Apparently included in those two dozen interactives are a number of video terminals. As I’ve ranted before, videos are not interactive, even if you get to press a button to start it. That said, I’m actually of two minds about these. The videos, which are mostly interviews with paleontologists like Tom Holtz, Kristina Curry-Rogers, and Chris Morrow, were fascinating. I enjoyed hearing about the presumed purpose of Tyrannosaurus gastralia, what can and cannot  be presumed from dinosaur trackways, and especially the decision-making process behind posing a T. rex mount. However, these videos are also quite long, and rather unedited. The speakers ramble, repeat themselves, and generally er and um through their spiels. It’s quite a bit like chatting with a scientist about their work in person, actually, and I’m always in favor of giving science a human face. On the other hand, the exhibit team probably could have tightened these up.

What used to be called "Dilophosaurus sinensis" and friends. Photo by the author.

What used to be called “Dilophosaurus sinensis” and friends. Photo by the author.

Overall, I was pretty pleased with Dinosaur Mysteries. It’s not a large-scale fossil hall at a major research museum, but it’s still cool to experience and the science being taught is generally very good. If you’ve got kids who are bummed that the Smithsonian fossil hall is closed (don’t forget that The Last American Dinosaurs is opening this fall, though), this is definitely a worthy substitute. For adults,  keep in mind that you aren’t the Maryland Science Center’s target audience, but if you appreciate the artistry of a well-made dinosaur exhibit, Dinosaur Mysteries is still worth checking out.

PS: There are a few additional photos on my tumblr page.

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Museums and the Triceratops Posture Problem – Part 1

The Triceratops in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, circa 1911. Photo from NMNH on flickr.

The world’s first Triceratops mount at the United States National Museum, built in 1905. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

We know more about dinosaurs today than previous generations of researchers would have ever thought possible. Who would have guessed that in the 21st century, we would have direct evidence for the color of some species, or a detailed understanding of the life history and ontogeny of others? Modern paleontologists can delve deeper into the biology and ecology of extinct animals than ever before, so it comes as a surprise when a very basic question about dinosaur physiology has gone without a definitive answer for well over a century.

For 125 years, paleontogists have struggled to understand how large ceratopsids like Triceratops held their forelimbs. Usually, someone with a good understanding of anatomy can assemble a tetrapod skeleton without much difficulty. Vertebrates are all built along the same basic body plan, and bones fit together in the same general way. However, the forelimb bones of Triceratops and its relatives are quite perplexing. The head of the humerus, which articulates with the scapula, is off-center and extends backward from the shaft. Meanwhile, the lesser tubercle, a tiny nubbin on a human humerus, is enormous and boxy. Taken together, these two traits make it so that if Triceratops held its arm erect and under its body, like most dinosaurs did, the humerus would either puncture the rib cage or be completely dislocated from the shoulder. The simplest way to solve this is to orient the humerus so that the arms project at right angles from the torso, like the sprawling limbs of a lizard. But this just looks wrong. First, ceratopsid hindlimbs are plainly meant to stand straight up. Sprawling forelimbs make Triceratops look mismatched, like the front end a tortoise sewn was to the back end of a rhino. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a sprawling posture would drastically inhibit speed and maneuverability in what is otherwise a very powerfully-built animal. The posture of Triceratops and its kin would ultimately have had a dramatic impact on the animal’s behavior, lifestyle, and ecological role.

Paleontologists haven’t spent the last century just scratching their heads over this problem. Ceratopsid forelimbs have inspired a considerable amount of research over the years, as scientists continue to develop new methods and new tools to explore the biomechanics of prehistoric animals. New technologies have been developed and refined specifically to help determine how Triceratops and its relatives walked and stood. Nevertheless, my intent with this post is not to thoroughly recount the history of ceratopsid forelimb research (if you’re interested, most of the articles referenced below are freely available online). Instead, I’d like to explore the central role museum displays have played in this debate. An artist drawing a two-dimensional image of Triceratops can fudge the orientation of the limbs (and many have), but the team building a mounted skeleton needs to know exactly how to articulate the bones. The ceratopsid posture question first arose in the process of building a mounted Triceratops skeleton for display, and museum mounts continue to be referenced by researchers looking to “ground truth” their ideas. While museum mounts usually exist primarily for education and display, in the case of the ceratopsid forelimb question these exhibits have long been central to the process of studying fossil evidence and creating knowledge.

Early Reconstructions

Marsh's 1891 restoration of Triceratops.

Marsh’s 1888 restoration of Triceratops.

O.C. Marsh published the first illustrated reconstruction of a Triceratops skeleton in 1888. Marsh was legendary in his attention to detail, and the restoration holds up reasonably well today – better, in fact, than his illustrations of Stegosaurus and “Brontosaurus.” Contemporary scientists had no complaints, even though Marsh had given the Triceratops vertical forelimbs. Other dinosaurs had erect limbs, as does the superficially similar modern rhino, so why shouldn’t Triceratops? Marsh’s reconstruction was brought to three-dimensional life in 1901, when the Smithsonian Institution commissioned a life-sized papier mache replica of a Triceratops skeleton for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Since the model was hand-sculpted, not casted from original fossils, artist F.A. Lucas had no trouble making Triceratops stand up straight, exactly as portrayed by Marsh. The model appeared again at a Smithsonian exhibit in St. Louis, but was apparently lost or destroyed shortly afterwards. In its place, newly hired United States National Museum preparator Charles Gilmore began work on a mounted Triceratops skeleton composed of original fossils.

St. Louis Expo

Straight-legged Triceratops model at the Pan American Expo in St. Louis. Source

Gilmore’s 1905 Triceratops mount was the first real skeleton of a ceratopsid ever assembled for display (first image). Like virtually all dinosaur mounts of the era, the skeleton was a composite of several specimens and a few sculpted pieces. All the Triceratops fossils at Gilmore’s disposal were collected by John Bell Hatcher in the late 19th century, and inherited by the Smithsonian as part of the Marsh collection. USNM 4842, a partial skeleton consisting mostly of a torso and pelvis, formed the basis for the mount, but at least six other individuals were also incorporated. Gilmore selected the skull because it was more complete and less distorted than the other Triceratops skulls available, but it was also on the small side compared to the body. Likewise, the left humerus was about 40% smaller than the right, and conspicuously three-toed Edmontosaurus hindfeet were used (no Triceratops feet had been found at the time). In the process of building his Triceratops, Gilmore had to make several changes to the idealized Triceratops envisioned by Marsh, most notably the orientation of the forelimbs. Not only was it apparently impossible to articulate the humerus in an upright position, but as Gilmore explained it, “a straightened form of leg would so elevate the anterior portion of the body as to have made it a physical impossibility for the animal to reach the ground with its head.”

The American Museum of Natural History produced their own Triceratops mount in 1923. Like its USNM predecessor, the AMNH Triceratops was a composite of several specimens. AMNH 5033, discovered by Barnum Brown in Montana and consisting of most of the dorsal vertebral column, ribs, and pelvic girdle, made up the largest portion of the mount. The skull was recovered by Charles Sternberg in Wyoming, and many of the appendicular bones were sculpted or cast from Smithsonian specimens. Preparator Charles Lang spent over 263 working days on the project, and much of that time was reportedly spent puzzling over the forelimbs. Lang studied living and preserved specimens of a variety of tetrapods, including rhinos, lizards, crocodiles, and tortoises, trying to find a living analogue for the strangely shaped ceratopsid bones. He ended up articulating the forelimbs so that they were even more widely splayed than Gilmore’s reconstruction, to the point that the back of the Triceratops slopes dramatically forward, and the head is almost dragging along the ground. In an accompanying paper, Henry Osborn asserted that “nothing short of a horizontal humerus and completely everted elbow would permit proper articulation of the facets.” By way of explanation, Osborn offered that this posture might have been helpful in withstanding a frontal impact.

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American Museum of Natural History Triceratops mount, circa 1959. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Together, the Washington and New York Triceratops mounts, with their mismatched tortoise-in-the-front, rhino-in-the-back posture, would come to define both popular and scientific conceptions of ceratopsids for the better part of a century. Other museums followed Gilmore and Lang’s lead and built sprawling ceratopsids of their own, including Richard Lull’s 1929 Centrosaurus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and Kenneth Carpenter’s 1986 Chasmosaurus at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Even as recently as 1995, AMNH curators chose not to change a single bone on the historic Triceratops mount while modernizing their exhibit.

Voices of Dissent

Robert Bakker was one of the first to challenge the ceratopsid forelimb orthodoxy. In 1986, Bakker criticized Gilmore and Lull’s museum mounts and resurrected Marsh’s original interpretation of a straight-legged Triceratops. His reasoning was that the ceratopsid glenoid fossa (the concavity on the scapula that holds the head of the humerus) was more like the narrow cup of a horse or rhino than the wide trough of a lizard. Bakker went as far as to suggest that Triceratops and its kin might have been able to run or even gallop. Gregory Paul and others piled on, arguing that earlier researchers had run into trouble articulating Triceratops forelimbs because they had made the ribcage too broad. If the ribs were articulated so that the animal had flat flanks, the elbow apparently wouldn’t get in the way. Additional evidence for an upright stance came from a set of ceratopsid trackways described by Martin Lockley and Adrian Hunt. The trackways showed forefeet in line with the hindfeet, suggesting that front and back legs were not mismatched, after all.

This cast of the AMNH Triceratops at the Field Museum replicates the sprawling posture. Photo by the author.

This cast of the AMNH Triceratops at the Field Museum replicates the sprawling posture of the original. Photo by the author.

However, paleontologists like Peter Dodson were unmoved by these new arguments. Dodson proposed that the trackways had been misinterpreted: since ceratopsids are wider at the hips than at the shoulders, evenly spaced front and back prints should imply that the animal was holding its forelimbs out farther than its hindlimbs. Dodson was concerned that the rhino analogy was being taken too far: Triceratops looked like a rhino, so reasearchers were trying their hardest to make it move and behave like a rhino.

As Kenneth Carpenter explained in a comment last year, dinosaurs can do anything on paper, but physically assembling a skeleton forces you to confront the reality of what the bones can and cannot do. In the last decade, two new Triceratops mounts provided paleontologists the opportunity to re-explore this process, with more complete specimens and modern technology at their disposal. Next time, we’ll take a look at what the new Triceratops displays at the National Museum of Natural History and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum can tell us about ceratopsid posture and lifestyle.

References

Bakker, R.T. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Dodson, P. 1996. The Horned Dinosaurs: A Natural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fujiwara, S. 2009. A Reevaluation of the Manus Structure in Triceratops (Ceratopsia: Ceratopsidae). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:4:1136-1147.

Fujiwara, S. and Hutchinson, J.R. 2012. Elbow Joint Adductor Movement Arm as an Indicator of Forelimb Posture in Extinct Quadrupedal Tetrapods. Proceedings of the Royal Society 279: 2561-2570.

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

Makovicky, P. 2012. Marginocephalia. The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd Edition. Eds. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Osborn, H.F. 1933. Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops elatus. American Museum Novitates 654:1-14.

Paul, G.S. and Christiansen, P. 2000. Forelimb Posture in Neoceratopsian Dinosaurs: Implications for Gait and Locomotion. Paleobiology 26:3:450-465.

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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, museums, science communication, history of science, fossil mounts, exhibits

Extinct Monsters Updated

artists conception

This early artist’s conception of the new NMNH fossil hall was on display on closing day.

Way back in 2012, I wrote a series of posts on the history of fossil displays at the National Museum of Natural History. Now that the old exhibit is closed for five years of renovation, it seemed like a good idea to go back and revise the old articles. That, and it can be very painful to read things I wrote over a year ago. Each of the seven posts, plus the launch page, have been substantially updated with new information, new images, and less abuse of the passive voice. You can check out the new articles via the Extinct Monsters link at the top of the page, or by clicking here.

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Mount Making at MMFC14

This past week, I had the fantastic opportunity to be a part of the Mid-Mesozoic Field Conference. I can’t possibly offer enough praise to conference leaders ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Jim Kirkland, and John Foster for pulling off this amazingly informative journey across the Colorado plateau. Unfortunately, since we live in a world where it’s a bad idea to post images of fossil localities, and it’s downright toolish to share details about unpublished research, I won’t be posting a ton about the conference right now.

What I can share, however, are two stops we made that are especially relevant to this blog. The first is the Gaston Design workshop in Fruita, Colorado. Rob Gaston and his team specialize in casting and sculpting fossil replicas, and their mounted skeletons are on display all over North America, but especially at younger museums in the western interior. Gaston showed us how they mold, cast, and sculpt fossil replicas, a process that relies a great deal more on artistic and technical skill than fancy equipment.

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This second set of photos is from the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah. Ken Carpenter, the museum’s new director, has taken on the task of completely remounting the menagerie of Morrison dinosaurs in the center of the paleontology wing (some photos of the old mounts here). The original AllosaurusCamptosaurus and Stegosaurus mounts from the late 1980s suffered from an unfortunate case of the tail-drags, and the Camarasaurus had previously been relegated to a death pose. Carpenter’s new mounts, which combine original fossils with new and old reconstructed bones, are much livelier. The stated goal of the project is to encourage visitors to imagine what it would be like to encounter these animals in life. What’s really awesome, though, is that the mounts are being built right in the exhibit, so that visitors can see the progress and the tools and techniques used to build these displays. At present, Allosaurus and Camptosaurus are finished, work on Stegosaurus is underway, and the Camarasaurus skeleton is laid out in pieces.

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Sorry to post such a short tease of the awesome stuff we saw at the conference. My head is absolutely packed with information and ideas, so hopefully there will be opportunities to share more soon!

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Fossil Mount FAQs

 

Parasaurolophus

Parasaurolophus at the Field Museum of Natural History. Source

I’ve added a Fossil Mount FAQs document to the top of the page. As the name suggests, this is meant to answer some of the questions about mounted fossil skeletons that I am regularly asked during outreach programs. Right now, the document mostly covers how mounts are created and how they can be interpreted, but I plan to expand the list of questions as needed. Please leave a comment if there is something you think should be included.

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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 River 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 and CEO John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). Particularly in the late 1990s, with Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World 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 majority of the public is a more serious one, but the majority do not want anything beyond entertainment.”

Cast of sue from traveling exhibit

Cast from the McDonald’s-sponsored traveling exhibit, “A T. rex Named Sue.”

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.

final sue mount

Original Sue skeleton mounted at the Field Museum of Natural History. Source

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

Bronze cast of MOR

Bronze cast of MOR 555 outside the Museum of the Rockies. Source

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 University of California Museum of Paleontology, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of the Rockies. In fact, a cast of the MOR 555 skull has been on display at NMNH for years on the balcony in the east wing fossil hall.

special fedex truck

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

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.

MOR 55

MOR 555 cast at the Royal Ontario Museum. Source

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, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, science communication