A Visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences
I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, my first visit in at least 10 years, and of course made a point of visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in North America, founded ”for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” Initially formed as a hub for research on the American frontier, the Academy has sponsored scientific expeditions across the world and has amassed a collection of 17 million specimens that is still actively used 200 years after its founding.
In 1868, the Academy museum made a landmark contribution to paleontology by hosting the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever constructed. The mount, the work of paleontologist Joseph Leidy and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, depicted Hadrosaurus foulki, the first dinosaur discovered in North America and at the time the most complete dinosaur ever found. With only two limbs, a section of the spinal column and some other odds and ends to work with, Hawkins invented many of the mounting techniques that are still in use today. For instance, Hawkins created mirrored duplicates of the left limb bones for use on the animal’s right side, and reconstructed best-guess stand-ins for the skull, scapulae and most of the vertebrae using extant animals as reference. By modern standards, the Leidy-Hawkins Hadrosaurus mount wasn’t especially accurate (the sculpted scapulae and vertebrae resemble those of a mammal, not a reptile; the skull, based on that of an iguana, turned out to be completely off the mark; the fully upright, kangaroo-like posture is now known to be anatomically implausible), but it nevertheless presented the first-ever opportunity to stand in the presence of a dinosaur. Extinct animals were already known to the public, and some had even been mounted, but the Hadrosaurus was so bizarre, so utterly unlike anything alive today, that it really opened people’s eyes to the unexplored depths of the Earth’s primordial history.
The Hadrosaurus display caused public visitation to skyrocket, prompting the Academy to relocate in 1876 to a larger building in central Philadelphia, where it remains today. I haven’t been able to find any photographs or detailed information about it, but for much of the 20th century the Academy had a fossil exhibit with a Corythosaurus mount as its centerpiece. This was replaced in 1986 with an expanded “Discovering Dinosaurs” exhibit, which apparently was among the first to showcase the discoveries of the dinosaur renaissance. This exhibit has just about zero web presence, as well (seriously, any help tracking down details about it would be greatly appreciated). The current version of the Dinosaur Hall opened in 1998, and is what I will discuss below.
Although crammed into a fairly small space, the Academy’s two-level Dinosaur Hall is packed with mounts of North American fossil reptiles, including Tyrannosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Deinonychus, Tylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus and many more. Compared to the sterile and coldly scientific displays at larger museums like the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy’s exhibit designers clearly put an emphasis on accessibility, particularly for younger visitors. Signs are attractive, colorful and use simple language, but do not sacrifice scientific accuracy. Although “Do Not Touch” notices abound, guardrails are low and allow visitors to view the mounts up close. Even the fossil prep lab, a staple in paleontology exhibits, is not behind glass but is separated from visitors by a low wall, allowing guests to converse freely with the preparators if they so choose (This might not be so fun for the preparators; I’ve worked in a couple of these labs and I’ll be the first to admit that our conversations are not always for public ears).
The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is also filled with interactive activities. I question the educational value of a green-screen that places visitors into a scene with dinosaurs running around (the last thing we need is to encourage more people to think humans and dinosaurs coexisted), but many of the other interactives are quite inspired. In one corner, children are encouraged to climb inside a Tyrannosaurus skull cast to find evidence for its diet and lifestyle. Crouching between its jaws, kids find partially-erupted teeth, evidence that the predator broke and regrew teeth throughout its life. My favorite interactive, however, featured parallel rows of theropod and crocodile footprints on the floor. Visitors were directed to walk down each trackway, comparing how it felt different to move with an upright or sprawling gait. At the end, a sign explained that it’s harder, and less energy efficient, to move like a crocodile. I loved this activity because it was simple (just images on the floor, no technology required) and yet conveyed a clear explanation of biomechanics. Visitors use their own bodies to reach the conclusion, finding the answer in a tactile and experiential way that is more memorable than just being told that a sprawling posture is inefficient.
Overall, the Dinosaur Hall is a great overview of dinosaur science. It focuses on the biology of dinosaurs, emphasizing their similarity to animals we know today, and how scientists can draw conclusions about past life by studying the modern world. This content is communicated in a way that is clear and engaging for visitors of all ages, making this exhibit a good example of the old adage that all good science can be explained in simple terms. When I visited, there were a couple children using the open exhibits like a playground, but for the most part I think this highly accessible dinosaur exhibit is quite successful.
What’s Not So Cool
The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is 15 years old, and is in some places showing its age. Some of the exhibit content is not entirely up-to-date; for instance, a display on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs leaves the question completely open ended. I also saw at least two invalid names, “Majungatholus” and “Ultrasauros”, used on labels. Probably more obvious to most visitors is the general wear and tear visible in certain parts of the exhibit. Some labels, particularly those facing large windows, are badly faded. The Elasmosaurus mount was moved from the Dinosaur Hall proper to the entrance lobby at some point, but Elasmosaurus signage, now labeling an empty space, is still in place in the exhibit. I got the impression that the Academy, like much of Philadelphia, is hurting for funding.
The story of Leidy’s Hadrosaurus appears in several places throughout the museum. Casts of the original fossil material are displayed over a silhouette of the dinosaur toward the back of the Dinosaur Hall. Elsewhere , there is a new full casted mount of Hadrosaurus (signs explain that it is filled in with Maiasaura material), and the original tibia is displayed as part of a rather cool 200th Anniversary special exhibit. At the time, I wished that these displays were consolidated in one place, since the Hadrosaurus story is an important chapter in the history of science and of museums that can be seen exclusively at the Academy. I later found out that in 2008, the Academy had a major temporary exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the original Hadrosaurus mount, which featured, among other things, a recreation of the victorian-era exhibit and the workshop of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (great videos and interviews about the exhibit here). I wish I had been able to see that, because it blends the scientific, cultural and historic value of fossil mounts in a way that only this museum can.
The current centerpiece of the Dinosaur Hall is a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. It’s neat, but I imagine most visitors would be more enthused to see the real one just a couple hours down the road. Indeed, most of the dinosaurs on display at the Academy are casts from other institutions. I have no problem with displaying casts, but I can’t help but feel that this generalized dinosaur exhibit is underselling the Academy’s own fossil collections, not to mention its contributions to paleontology. Should the Academy renovate this space again, I’d love to see the institutions’ unique history play a more prominent role, as well as the work that Academy-affiliated researchers are doing today.