Extinct Monsters: History of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian

This article is part of a series on the history of the Paleobiology halls at the National Museum of Natural History. This entry provides background on the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum, the Department of Paleontology, and the key players in their story.

Founding of the Smithsonian

Upon his death in 1829, British scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the United States government to found “at Washington…an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Considering that Smithson had never visited the United States, it was an odd bequest, and for several years it was unclear whether it would be honored at all. However, this moment of serendipity turned out to be an invaluable contribution to science and education. After some legal issues were ironed out, Smithson’s estate was used to establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The Washington, DC-based Smithsonian has since expanded into an expansive research institute and museum complex for the sciences and humanities that is recognized the world over. Under the administration of the United States government, the Smithsonian is a publicly funded resource that effectively belongs to the American citizenry.

In 1881, the original Smithsonian museum opened its doors, under the name of the United States National Museum (USNM). This structure is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, and is located on the south side of the national mall. Alongside noteworthy displays of art and historical objects, USNM featured a large exhibition of comparative osteology, including some mounted fossil skeletons like the Basilosaurus and Megaloceros shown below.

A plaster cast of Basilosaurus hangs above the comparative osteology exhibit at the original USNM. Photo from NMNH Centennial – Basilosaurus.

The Department of Vertebrate Fossils was established in 1987. Othneil Charles Marsh (the beardier half of the “bone wars” rivals) was given the title of honorary head curator, although he resided at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He was assisted by 21 year-old Frederic Lucas, an authority on osteology and mounting techniques and eventual director of the American Museum of Natural History. Under contract with the U.S. Geological Survey, Marsh led numerous field expeditions to the American west and supervised the collection of over 80 tons of vertebrate fossils. When Marsh died in 1899 the fossil collected for the government were relocated from Yale to the Smithsonian. The Marsh collection remains the largest collection of dinosaur material at NMNH and includes specimens of CamptosaurusStegosaurus, Triceratops, and Ceratosaurus that are still on exhibit today.

The Rise of Gilmore

At the turn of the 20th century, the rise of large metropolitan museums brought with it renewed interest in paleontology. Wealthy benefactors of the American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and other institutions provided funding to collect fossil skeletons, the bigger the better, for their museums, and paleontologists were happy to oblige. Thus began an immensely productive series of field seasons  which yielded a significant percentage of the dinosaur specimens held at America’s large museums today.

Charles Whitney Gilmore was a student in mine engineering at  the University of Wyoming when he became involved in the Carnegie Museum’s fossil hunting expeditions in 1989. Recognizing the young man’s enthusiasm and talent for paleontology, CMNH curator of paleontology and osteology John Bell Hatcher hired Gilmore immediately after his graduation in 1901. Gilmore worked with Hatcher for several field seasons, but in 1903 he moved to Washington, DC upon being offered a position as full-time preparator at the USNM.

A soul-piercing stare from Charles Gilmore. Also some Diplodocus caudal vertebrae.

In 1908, Gilmore was promoted to Custodian of Fossil Reptiles, and he became the departmental Curator in 1924. Gilmore was primarily interested in dinosaurs, and as Curator he led sixteen fossil hunting expeditions to Utah and Wyoming. Gilmore also studied the backlog of material collected by Marsh, publishing monographs on Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus which remain in use to this day.

Along with preparators Norman Boss and James Gidley, Gilmore is responsible for creating most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that are on display at the Smithsonian. The first dinosaur mount completed by Gilmore and his team was Edmontosaurus, which went on display in the current Arts and Industries Building in 1903.

Across the Mall

With the Arts and Industries Building rapidly running out of space, the Smithsonian acquired funding in 1903 to open a new building on the south side of the mall. The classically designed marble building with its iconic domed rotunda became the new site of the United States National Museum in 1910. Exhibits and collections on art, culture, history and science were all housed at the new site. Among the star attractions at the new museum was the Hall of Extinct Monsters, which gradually grew in scope as Gilmore and his team collected new specimens over the following decades.

The iconic rotunda at NMNH. From Smithsonian NMNH photostream on Flickr.

Gilmore retired in 1945, and vertebrate paleontology research at the Museum, particularly in dinosaurs, quieted in his absence. Charles Gazin, Gilmore’s successor as Curator of Vertebrate Fossils, specialized in mammals, and the Museum remained without a Curator specializing in dinosaurs until Matt Carrano was hired in 2003.

In 1957 the USNM was divided into two subdivisions, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. The Smithsonian’s history collections were moved to a new building next door in 1964, now called the National Museum of American History, and art, portraits and other collections have also expanded into some 18 Smithsonian Museums. The site of the disbanded USNM became  the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in 1967, and remains the home of natural sciences and anthropology at the Smithsonian.

The first major renovation of the Paleobiology halls was supervised by curator Nicholas Hotton. The new exhibit, which opened in 1963, was a dramatic overhaul in layout and interpretation, but no significant new specimens were added. A second renovation of the Paleobiology hall took place in three stages starting in 1979. The dinosaur hall re-opened in 1981, followed a few years later with the fossil mammal and ice age halls. The renovation was completed with the unveiling of Life in the Ancient Seas in 1989.

In the 21st century, the Smithsonian-wide deep time initiative has brought the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology to the center stage. Upcoming renovations to the Paleobiology hall are but one aspect of ongoing goals “to establish the Smithsonian as the world leader in understanding global change over time” and “to encourage society to learn from the past and how humans are changing the future.”

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are mine and mine alone, and do not represent NMNH, the Smithsonian Institution or any of their affiliates.

About these ads

1 Comment

July 11, 2012 · 8:56 am

One response to “Extinct Monsters: History of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian

  1. Pingback: stuff you need to read | dinosaurpalaeo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s