On a Prehistoric Journey in Colorado

Hey there every peoples!

Its been a long time since I last posted here. That’s because I was out living the dream. I spent over a month and a half out in Utah with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. That could be a lengthy post in and of itself. But I can’t really share pictures or too many details about what we found. Suffice to say it was a very productive experience where I got to live my passion, learn a lot, and work with some great people.

Afterwards, I went on up to Denver so I could finally see the museum. I had known of it for a long time but I never visited it, as I never made it that far east (save for SVP last year). So I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. On a nice day in November, I visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and it’s vast paleontology exhibit, for the first time. And I was not disappointed (for the most part).

The wildlife dioramas were spectacular. Not only were they well done, but their subject matter went far beyond the standard format for museums. Most major museums feature halls of North American and African wildlife. So did the Denver Museum. And that’s where the similarity ends. So many staples of wildlife halls, like cougars, deer, and bison, were instead featured in a hall called Edge of the Wild. This hall showed the animals in scenes from Colorado, putting a local spin on this museum mainstay. It also used this opportunity to discuss issues concerning how wildlife is coping with an ever growing human population. But even this cannot showcase Colorado’s diverse landscape. So a separate hall, called Explore Colorado, takes visitors on a tour of the state’s ecosystems from marshes and desert to alpine tundra.

Pronghorn running through Pawnee National Grassland

Pronghorn running through Pawnee National Grassland in Edge of the Wild

Bighorn Sheep set against the Mount of the Holy Cross in Edge of the Wild

Bighorn Sheep set against the Mount of the Holy Cross in Edge of the Wild

 

Summer in a riparian woodland along the South Platte River, Explore Colorado

Summer in a riparian woodland along the South Platte River, Explore Colorado

Fall and Winter in the desert at Mesa Verde National Park, Explore Colorado

Fall and Winter in the desert at Mesa Verde National Park, Explore Colorado

Summer up in alpine tundra in Loveland Pass, Explore Colorado

Summer up in alpine tundra in Loveland Pass, Explore Colorado

One hall was devoted to bears and sea mammals (pinnipeds in this case). Normally these would be lumped in with the North American mammals hall. But giving them a separate space helps break up the monotony of having to explore just one big hall. Birds got two halls of their own. Most bird exhibits just exhibit stuffed specimens in a generic hall of birds. The Denver museum instead displays them in traditional dioramas, which does much to remind people that birds are just as much a part of their world as everything else. Birds of the Americas displayed scenes from parts of the New World never seen in museums. Same with Rare Birds, but with an even broader scope.

But the greatest parts, the ones which set this museum apart from all others that I know of, are the dioramas from South America, the Pacific, and Australia. These exotic locales are never seen in museums because they always focus on North America and Africa. These places have much unique and fascinating wildlife to offer spanning habitats found nowhere else on earth. I have seen most of these animals in zoos, but never have I seen them presented in anything resembling their natural habitat. In a world dominated by dioramas of the same two places, of the same two faunas, these wildlife dioramas were a welcome (and engrossing) breath of fresh air.

A pair of cassowaries wander through an Australian rainforest

A pair of cassowaries wander through an Australian rainforest

Elephant seals haul out on an island in the South Pacific

Elephant seals haul out on an island in the South Pacific

A diorama of the world famous Galapagos Islands

A diorama of the world famous Galapagos Islands

Giant anteaters forage for food in South America

Giant anteaters forage for food in South America

Wait a minute! Aren’t I supposed to be talking about the paleontology exhibit? What’s with this modern animal crap? We’re here to talk about fossils! And you would be right. Now if I’m that enamored with their modern wildlife displays, then the fossil hall must be through the roof!

Prehistoric Journey, as it is called, is really quite… meh. Seriously, it is rather par for the course with most major museum displays. We have a fixation on mounted skeletons just thrown on display with no attempt to create an immersive environment. The Paleozoic section was decent, as was the Cenozoic. The Mesozoic, however, was seriously lacking. Yeah, we actually have a museum where the mammal section is actually better than the dinosaur hall. Well only because there was more to it. In design they are pretty much the same.

The bland setting really brings out it's grandeur!

The bland setting really brings out it’s grandeur!

The blank wall and boring railing makes it feel all the more alive!

The blank wall and boring railing makes it feel all the more alive!

The hall is stocked with the usual suspects: Jurassic Utah, Cetaceous Montana, Eocene Wyoming, Oligocene White River Group, and Miocene Nebraska. On its face there is nothing wrong with this but it reveals the real weakness of focusing so much on just skeletons. It forces the museum to display only what is most common, which means every museum displays the exact same animals. This leads to a lack of diversity between museums, leading to a “seen one, seen them all” feeling. And it leads to a lack of creativity in museum displays because you are trying to cram as many of those charismatic, crowd pleasing skeletons as possible.

.
It also means the full extent of the fossil’s story can’t be told. Whole skeletons are the most pleasing to look at, but they represent only a fraction of the fossil record. A single specimen could be much more important scientifically than the most pristine skeleton. The fixation on only what can be displayed as a whole skeleton betrays the true diversity of ancient life. This is nowhere more apparent than in the White River Group, which the Denver Museum falls into as well. The White River Group is actually sequential, spanning the latest Eocene through the late Oligocene. It is a story of change, with species coming and going as the climate and environment change. Yet for most of paleontology’s history these animals have just been lumped together in one “Oligocene” display. And always as just the next step in the evolution of the Cenozoic. Never are we told of the detailed picture of a critical point in earth’s history that these fossils reveal. Thus visitors have gotten a very skewed and narrow view of these very important fossil deposits. Denver Museum is behind the curve in this regard, if only because of how they are still all grouped together like they are.

The magnificent beasts of the White River Badlands, and their fascinating history, once again find themselves pigeonholed.

The magnificent beasts of the White River Badlands, and their fascinating history, once again find themselves pigeonholed.

The whole of the Mesozoic fits into one large room with little distinction between the time periods. The Triassic is represented by a couple Coelophysis skeletons while the Cretaceous has an Edmontosaurus skeleton as well as a Triceratops skull and a few casts. The Jurassic fares the best with an Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, eggs, and a cast of Gargoylosaurus. The marine Mesozoic has what I assume are casts of common animals from the Late Cretaceous of Kansas. Well I assume they were casts because the labels never said whether they were real fossil or not (like they did in the rest of the exhibit) and they were plaque mounts (which usually end up being casts these days. But they very well could be real. It’s an old museum and plaque mounts were the popular way to display fossils in the old days, especially stuff from marine shales).

The Edmontosaurus made famous by the healed bite marks of a T. rex on it's tail

The Edmontosaurus made famous by the healed bite marks of a T. rex on it’s tail

And the one diorama for the Mesozoic was at the beginning of the section. This is a little confusing seeing as it’s a depiction of the latest Cretaceous, so you would think it would be at the end. The Paleozoic and Cenozoic dioramas were much better placed and kept with the times. Perhaps the problem here arose because the dinosaur hall is so short and not as detailed as the others. I have ranted before how much I hate it when museums over emphasize dinosaurs with little thought to everything else. So you think I would be jumping with joy I finally found a museum where the opposite is true. Nope! Everything deserves equal attention. And that goes for dinosaurs too. As long as one doesn’t over shadow the others, then I’m fine.

However, the Paleozoic and Cenozoic weren’t without their flaws either. The Permian, with the most advanced life of the Paleozoic and the most catastrophic extinction in earth’s history, was barely there. Just a Dimetrodon going after an Eryops. Seriously, you couldn’t get some casts of the other multitude of critters running around at that time? And the Cambrian seemed strangely absent too. Even just a mural would have helped to portray hands down the weirdest animals to ever inhabit this planet (seriously, look at the Cambrian fauna and try to come up with something weirder. It’s like Mother Nature was on acid when she came up with it!)

In the Cenozoic, the Paleocene gets a token mention in the middle of the Eocene. Wouldn’t it have been better served before? Perhaps as a contrast with the Cretaceous, to better illustrate plant and animal life before and after the K/Pg extinction? And the Pleistocene… is just a mammoth skull. Ok, it used to be, before they set up a little display about Snowmass Village. Such wonderful specimens from throughout the section and it ends on a whimper. Tsk tsk.

I'm the Pleistocene!

I’m the Pleistocene!

Another problem I spotted was this rhino:

A half skeleton- half flesh reconstruction of Menoceras

A half skeleton- half flesh reconstruction of Menoceras

It’s one of those half model/half skeleton jobs which are always an interesting display technique. Except there is one flaw: it’s up against a wall! You have a wonderfully sculpted rhino and you hide it? This type of display only works when the visitor can see both sides! I did manage to see a little bit of that beautiful reconstruction. From a balcony. And with a telephoto lens:

A half skeleton- half flesh reconstruction of Menoceras

A half skeleton- half flesh reconstruction of Menoceras

There was also this Bison latifrons sculpture at the end of the exhibit:

A wonderfully made sculpture of Bison latifrons.

A wonderfully made sculpture of Bison latifrons.

I have discussed before how one scientist made a pretty good case that Bison latifrons did not just look like a modern bison with longer horns. He argued based on the size and shape of the horns, and trends seen in other bison, that it didn’t have a ruff. And it was more robust in it’s body plan. This was published back in the 1980s and seemed to have gone unnoticed by everyone. Perhaps the museum could rectify this if they ever make a diorama based on Snowmass. Yeah they would probably put a mastodon in there (because it was the most common animal from the site), but it would be so cool if they did a B. latifrons. No one I know of has ever done a life size reconstruction of this animal, so it would be most unique. It would be even more unique if they eschewed the cookie-cutter approach everyone else uses and base it on the actual scientific observations. Anyway, this sculpture was made by an artist to commemorate the discovery of Snowmass so he couldn’t have known. This is just a personal gripe.

By far the greatest strength of the exhibit is the dioramas . Not just because they are detailed and well put together. But because they are based on certain places. These aren’t generic “life in this time” displays. They are reconstructions of specific locations that the museum has collections from. And each diorama told you how much time had passed since the last one (a nice little detail to help visitors keep track of time and see how much has changed). The Cretaceous diorama was particularly cool:

Life and death play out in a Cretaceous creekbed near Marmarth, North Dakota, at the end of the Cretaceous

Life and death play out in a Cretaceous creekbed near Marmarth, North Dakota, at the end of the Cretaceous

I like this reconstruction in particular because it’s actually based on what the plant fossils tell us. It isn’t just another copy of a cypress swamp, which seems to be what everyone thinks the late Cretaceous looked like. I’d say the only weak link among them was the “Between Two Worlds” diorama (based on fossils from the Devonian site of Beartooth Butte, Wyoming):

Life finds itself "between two worlds" at Beartooth Butte, Wyoming, 390 mya

Life finds itself “between two worlds” at Beartooth Butte, Wyoming, 390 mya

It just doesn’t feel as complete as the others. It’s like they were making it and halfway through got distracted and forgot about it. It is stuffed into a little cramped spaced and doesn’t feel as detailed as the others. It feels like models in a case which would be bad on its own. But it is clearly supposed to be a reconstruction of a past world. and when the case makes up the environment, it just doesn’t have the same effect as the other ones. Compare that to the Ordovician and Eocene dioramas:

Life in Racine, Wisconsin during the Ordovician period, 425 mya

Life in Racine, Wisconsin during the Ordovician period, 425 mya

Primitive primates traverse the canopy of a tropical rain forest at Lost Cabin, Wyoming, 50 mya

Primitive primates traverse the canopy of a tropical rain forest at Lost Cabin, Wyoming, 50 mya

So like I said, Prehistoric Journey is pretty average. Like most large museum displays, it has impressive collections but doesn’t do anything to really pull the visitor in and remind them that these were once living animals. It’s one saving grace is the dioramas. But during my time with the Denver folks last fall, I learned there is potential for something much greater. I heard the curator wants to make Denver the place for paleontology in the West. Very ambitious. Just like me! I tried hard to impress upon him that I could help make that happen. I told him about my paleontology hotspots and found out they are already working in three of them: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, San Juan Basin, and Bighorn Basin. It’s like we’re on the same page or something. At one point he mentioned the museum has enough in their collections to redo Prehistoric Journey. But I say with all the stuff they are finding now, with the stuff I could be finding them… they would be able to possibly double it.

All in all, I’d still recommend checking this out. If you’re not a stickler like I am and just want to see lots of fossils, then you’ll enjoy Prehistoric Journey. The lack of immersion and environment is at least compensated for by the quality and quantity of material on display. And especially those kickass dioramas! But who knows. Maybe one day this exhibit could realize it’s true potential.

Till next time!

Advertisements

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