“Better Know a Museum” Month Part 4: Return to the Age of Mammals

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to the finale of “Better Know a Museum” Month. What a ride, huh? Yeah it’s two weeks late. But i had finals last week and typing this out has just been so tedious. I really need to invest in some voice recognition software. Anyway, everything good must eventually come to an (or continue to live on in a despoiled state. I’m looking at you Star Wars!). And for the final installment of this special series i have decided to revisit a previous review.

In the summer of 2010, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County unveiled the first phase of its “Next” Project in the form of an expanded and updated Cenozoic hall. Called the Age of Mammals, the new hall sought to tell the story of how mammals adapted to climate change over the eons as well as reveal how science works. The bottom floor is dedicated to the evolution of mammals. The narrative is told in a brightly lit, open space chock full of skeletons of ancient mammals from the Eocene to the Pleistocene. One stretch of the hall chronicles human evolution and the last section features mounts of modern mammals. The mezzanine above features a spectacular skeleton of a Miocene desmostylian. One side details the science of fossil mammals, showing how we know what we know. Lastly the other side explains the fossil history of Los Angeles. It’s certainly the biggest Cenozoic hall in the western US and has many exemplary specimens on display. In my initial review, I was pretty positive with what the LA Museum had created. But after a couple years of visiting it, and comparing to the dinosaur halls, I think the initial wow factor has worn off. These days I find myself describing the hall as somewhat… disappointing.

But how can such a diverse and expansive hall, built by one of the biggest museums in America, be anything less than epic? Well I have a few qualms with the new hall, likely to forever be brushed off as the nitpickings of an obsessive nerd. But nothing is ever perfect and I feel my gripes do have merit. One is the narrative, or rather, how it’s told. The layout of the bottom floor is obviously designed to be open for free exploration, instead of forcing guests through a narrow timeline like old museums did. This was to be a hall for the 21st century, casting off traditional notions of exhibit design. But the way the hall is organized, that narrative of evolution in response to climate change gets lost in transition. Sure, it’s easy enough to follow along if you know what to look for, but like I said, this open space is meant to be non-restrictive. So in the wanderings of the average museum goer, that narrative may get thrown out of order. With the current layout, modern mammals are right after the Oligocene mounts. Across the hall are a couple more Oligocene mammals and a mélange of early and late Miocene mammals. The ice age mammals were all together, on their own. But because they are under the folds of the mezzanine, they feel cramped and it’s difficult to truly appreciate to appreciate them when they look like they are competing for space. You don’t have to sacrifice order for freedom of movement. Take “Fossil Mysteries” as the San Diego Natural History Museum for example. The exhibit follows the traditional chronological layout. It’s a timeline alright, but one that is easy to follow and non restrictive. You can easily go from the Cretaceous to the Oligocene if you don’t feel like winding around the Eocene. You can start in the Cretaceous and go forward or you can start in the Pleistocene and go backwards. The exhibits are spacious for their size and are lit with plenty of natural light (not exactly the cramp, dark exhibits of old the museum was trying leave behind). The Raymond Alf Museum also uses the timeline approach and isn’t very restrictive either. That probably has more to do with its size and shape but still. The LA Museum’s layout has the spirit of a story through time but it doesn’t feel like one. The ordering of specimens in the hall may be a little nitpicky but I’m just getting started.

I’m sure some of you are thinking that the layout of San Diego exhibit is a lot LA’s. Yes, they are somewhat similar, but the San Diego exhibit has something else helping its narrative. They succeed in making it look like an exhibit of the 21st century and for me, that’s a minus. Museums have always strived to bring the past to life, trying to recreate the environments we think have come and gone. They put skeletons and even models in dioramas or some other kind of setting, trying to bring their specimens to life. Large museums have abandoned this approach, claiming they want to move away from the “cabinet of curiosities” and create a very modern aesthetic. If that’s what they want to do, who am I to question it? But I feel like they are simply upgrading their cabinet of curiosity. These modern looking halls simply put their skeletons on display in barren tombs behind panes of glass. Most of the time they are just mounted in standing positions, like prehistoric animals were always posing for pictures. When the new hall was planned, the LA Museum said they were going to mount their skeletons in new, life-like poses. Ah, if only. Some of them were, notably the dire wolf and pronghorn skeletons (who were in running positions, locked in an endless, silent chase). The same goes for a cast skeleton of Epicyon chasing a three-toed horse. Finally the La Brea horse was in its old rearing position. Aside from that, most of the other mounts are in the same old static poses. That may be because most of them are from the old hall and that makes them look tired and familiar, but more on that later. Point is, little in the new hall make me think of them as living animals. Dioramas are the obvious solution but not the only one. Simple color schemes or even just lighting can create an ambient environment. Sound can also be used to turn a simple display into a more immersive experience. I again direct you to the Raymond Alf Museum. Each section features a sweeping mural and the bases of the displays are modeled after rock strata. The Precambrian alcove has the sound of a storm, invoking the sense of a violent and unstable world where the first life emerged. Even when there wasn’t a mural, photos of dig sites and geologic formations helped to turn the hall into more than just plain space.

This particularly bugged me when the dinosaur halls opened. At least 4 large murals depicted dinosaurs and other animals in full detail. And they weren’t the stereotypical murals where they tried to cram in as many species as possible. They showed one, maybe two species going about their daily lives. They have similar style murals in the lower level of the mammal hall. Except they are not quite to the scale of the dinosaur halls:

Yep, they are just in small spaces under signs and behind the specimens. Practically the bare minimum and hardly sufficient to convey the changing world mammals lived in. And the murals up in the section on LA through the ages were hardly any better. They were indeed the stereotypical murals trying to cram as many animals into the landscape. Not only that, but they were in a monochrome penciled style. They almost look like they were lifted from some stuffy old textbook. Look at the mural from the Hall of Geological Wonders:

Now that’s how you do a mural!

They wanted it to look like life back then. Contrary to what we see in typical murals, animals didn’t all gather in one spot and act their best. Usually you would expect to see one species in a large swath of landscape. The Hall of Geological Wonders captures then. If you were to go back to the Santa Ana in the Pleistocene, you would maybe see 2 or 3 species of herbivores gathering at the local water source (like we see in animals today). Now this could still work with the tar pit mural given the suspected taphonomic scenario. But the other murals are just the same tired by-the-numbers murals that add no real life to the displays (and according to a certain marine mammal guru, the dolphins in the middle Miocene mural leave something to be desired. Plus I have my own words about the Sespe mural). The displays do use colors relevant to the climate and environment, but they end up clashing with and drowning out the murals. Sad part is, this is my favorite part of the whole hall. Not even the story of their own city (even here they cheated, as only two of the localities are in or were near Los Angeles) got anything to bring lost worlds alive. I mean, they couldn’t have a branch with a primate model on it or a patch of grass with the Miocene fossils, nothing to aid the narrative. And many times it doesn’t even need to be the environment itself. The visitor center at John Day Fossils Beds National Monument has their fossils set in reconstructions of the rocks they were found in. The visitor center at Red Rock Canyon takes a similar approach, displaying their specimens against a backdrop of faux Dove Spring formation mudstone. Andrew Farke (curator at the Raymond Alf Museum and yet another nice guy willing to put with me) said in a review of the dinosaur halls:. Environment can be used to put things in context and this is especially true of mammals. Whether it’s a diorama or a full mural or even subtle set pieces, visual cues are powerful tools to express the shifting climates and morphing ecosystems. Considering that the story of mammals is adaptation to an ever changing world, recreating past environments is the greatest way to tell that story. Even small additions can help. But the static poses and lack of environment are small potatoes next to what I felt was the greatest disappointment of all.

Remember what I said about the postures looking tired and familiar, because I had seen them so many times in the old hall? Well that’s because most of the mounts were from the old hall. I can understand using them because you have them, but these were the exact same way they were in the old hall, with only a few changed into new positions. Often times old specimens can feel new when placed into a totally new setting. Like this mastodon jaw:

Practically looks like a different fossil, all thanks to lighting and an updated display case. So let’s compare this with the LA Museum’s hall:

A skeleton of Menoceras, from the early Miocene of Nebraska.

So why does this new home, bathed in natural light and decked out in modern splendor, feel like a disappointment? We’ve established that so many of the unchanged mounts play a part. Well it’s the main part. Allow me to explain. This is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the largest museum in the west, with over 35 million specimens in their collections. They should be able to display things no one else can. And yet most of mounts are left over from the old hall. Sure, most of the stuff on the mezzanine is new, but it’s hard to appreciate when half the hall consists of rehashed material. Through random google searches and the like, I have learned of some really unique and awesome specimens. Like Capricamelus, a camel who thought he was a goat (an excellent example of convergent evolution); Or Gomphotaria, a ginormous walrus from Orange County (not only with a complete skeleton, but a pathology as well); And the San Pedro gray whale, the only fossil gray whale known (at  least according to them). Not to mention fossils from southern California and beyond. And what did they opt for? The same old Oligocene and Miocene stuff that every other major museum (and some minor ones) has.

Unfortunately big museums like LA need to draw in the crowds and that means throwing out as many impressive eye-catching specimens as possible. And I guess only those clichéd (I can’t believe I just applied that word to fossils. Excuse me while I go atone for my folly with a claw hammer) skeletons from the Midwest are the only way to achieve that. These not-even-rehashed mounts from the old Cenozoic hall contrasted sharply with the dinosaur hall. Hardly any of the old mounts came back (probably because there weren’t many) and even then they looked new. For example, the cast of Mamenchisaurus had a new skull and the marine reptiles were in updated swimming positions. After that, so many of the skeletons had never been seen before in the exhibits of old. Plus all the singular specimens looked and felt new. This is probably because the majority of material in the dinosaur halls was found in the last decade or so. According to a video made shortly after the old Cenozoic hall was closed, a lot of the material was bought in the 60s and 70s from museums in the midwest. Plus another good chunk of their collection was absorbed from Cal Tech when they no longer wanted to continue with a paleontology program. So it’s not like they worked particularly hard for their older collections; given that so much of the specimens in the new hall are derived from such, it kills the wonder for someone like me. The upper mezzanine is better, as most of the material is original and comes from lesser known parts of the fossil realm, such as Mexico, Sharktooth Hill, and California’s southern coast. But just like downstairs, there is an abundance of mundane material. That Material comes from Rancho La Brea. The tar pits have their own material and even then, most museums have casts or traded specimens from Rancho La Brea. I can see I being applicable in the “Fossil History of LA” section, but elsewhere it’s just cliché (looks like I need another minute with the hammer).

Overall, this hall feels phoned in compared to the Dinosaur Halls. With the Dinosaur Halls, everything felt new and innovative. They obviously put a lot of thought and effort into it. The labels include detailed specimen information: species name, location, acquisition (ie. Holland Dinosaur Expedition, 2004), specimen number, and a skeletal diagram showing what parts of the skeleton are real. The Cenozoic Hall just has the basics: specimen number, general location, age, and a blank skeletal diagram. And as I detailed earlier, at least half the specimens are rehashed from the old hall in a bland uninspired setting.

This pretty much lays out why I like the smaller museums more. They feature specimens from the lesser know places, the ones you don’t hear about all the time. They showcase the stuff that doesn’t get showcased elsewhere because it’s not considered impressive enough. Thus it’s relegated to the collections where their story cannot be heard. And for the umpteenth time, that’s why I want to start a museum here on the Central Coast. The fossils from here are sutured away in the collections of these big museums, glossed over in favor of the run-of-the-mill material (hello hammer, my old friend). Sure the Cenozoic Hall had some stuff on display from the Sespe formation as well as the Mastodon from Simi Valley (who presence feels very forced, considering there was nowhere near enough to mount a full skeleton), but that get them a couple brownie points at most (since the Sespe stuff is just there because it kinda relates to LA). I would say that California fossils might get a second chance with the museum’s third new hall, but that hope is dashed. The new hall was going to be about California, but they changed it to LA. If they do have a display about fossils, it will probably include material from Rancho La Brea, making the stuff in the Cenozoic Hall all the more redundant (*sigh* hammer time…). Plus they are just thrown out on display. Not lighting, no models, no prehistoric landscaping to create an immersive environment; it’s just a cabinet of curiosities with a section on science. This is a problem with all the big museums: LA, American, Field, Smithsonian, Royal Ontario, etc. Because they are so big and well known and draw in so many people through sheer word of mouth, they can get away with just having stuff on display. Because smaller museums like San Bernardino or San Diego are smaller, they have to be creative and innovative with their displays. The payoff is a richer and more constructive representation of the ancient world that people can feel more immersed in. And of course, they show us the local stuff, and if it isn’t local, many times it’s from places not so well known. That’s why I love the Alf Museum and the San Bernardino County Museum. For example, they show off stuff (or in the case of SBCM, will show off. Eventually…) from Barstow. Barstow is hailed as this Miocene gold mine, the type locality of the Barstovian North American Land Mammal Age. The American Museum has the largest collection, and surely Smithsonian, Berkeley, and LA have collections from there as well. Well so what? I only know the American Museum has the biggest collection because Eric Scott told me. And to me, the collections of Alf and SBCM are more impressive. They didn’t swoop in and plunder an untapped Barstow formation while paleontology was still in its golden age. They’ve had to collect from an intensely searched, heavily picked over (I’m still trying to get over this “picked over” mentality, but it’s really hard) locality. And yet they have managed to build a collection with some truly impressive specimens. And those two museums are doing what they can to tell the tale of Barstow 15 million years ago.

Plain and simple, while the new Cenozoic Hall is the biggest in the west, given who created it the place just felt like a disappointment. Save for most of the original material, the hall is a modern rehashing if the same thing people saw years ago. I’ll probably be getting hate mail from museum staff, volunteers, and fans for this (or at least a hundred stink eyes at the next Red Rock Canyon trip). But I stand by it. I’m tired of the big joints with the big collections getting by with the bare minimum. It takes more than just big complete skeletons to make a great exhibit. You need the original fossils and an immersive environment to do the beasts of old justice. Well that wraps it up for “Better Know a Museum Month”. Thanks for sticking with me. Now I’m gonna take a break and try to save up enough money for some voice recognition software.

Till next time!

2 thoughts on ““Better Know a Museum” Month Part 4: Return to the Age of Mammals

  1. Hey Doug,

    I finally made it to LACM in January, and I must say that I was rather disappointed with the mammal hall. The Dinosaur hall was totally awesome! And at least the terrestrial mammals had a decent showing. LACM is probably most notable for its extensive collection of marine mammal fossils – and there is certainly a large number of holotype specimens there, and many other important fossils that are articulated and well-preserved. However, there’s really not much out on display at all – there’s the Allodesmus, an Aulophyseter skeleton, two Dusisiren skeletons, and the Paleoparadoxia – and a smattering of other skulls. There are large blank spaces on the walls that are twenty feet long on the upper floor, and then a bunch of random La Brea stuff thrown in between the marine mammals – for someone with my interests, it was very disappointing and struck me as poorly thought-out. There was zero narrative with the marine mammal displays – probably because there are A) not enough fossils, B) not enough information (only a sentence or three for each fossil), and they are C) mixed in with La Brea stuff as an afterthought.

    The other thing that pisses me off is that the holotype of Allodesmus kelloggi is now out suspended over the room – they stuck the real holotype skeleton out there. Granted, the skull and jaws are in collections still – but if someone wants to go to LACM and look at its postcrania- they can’t, and instead have to rely on Mitchell’s published figures (which are fortunately good).

    • “And at least the terrestrial mammals had a decent showing.”

      I guess we both have different definitions of decent, lol!

      But i do agree with you. I spent a good part of my post ranting about how the really cool and unique stuff (which includes a lot of marine mammals) isn’t on display. I still don’t get why they used so much La Brea material. La Brea has its own museum and LACM has so much stuff other than La Brea. I don’t think i mentioned this in my post, but the whole Age of Mammals hall feels like an after thought compared to the dinosaur hall.

      Don’t worry Bobby, if i ever get my museum off the ground i’ll give mammals their dues.

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