Is the National Fossil Hall Heading in the Right Direction?

Hey there every peoples!

Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick! It has truly been forever. Well it’s that I have been so busy with WAVP, a trip to Florida, field work in New Mexico, Live Oak, and the one or two gigs I have managed to land. Plus my proof reader is busy overseeing an overhaul to his collections space. But I have some things I want to write about. And what shall it be?

I know, we can talk about that hubub that came out a month ago about T. rex having scales! Except what is there to talk about? The feather people trotted out their same talking points and said the study doesn’t change anything. Huh. I thought it was pretty cool that we now have hard evidence of integument in advanced tyrannosaurs and these people treat it like evidence of nothing. Well at least there was one leveled headed and reasonable reaction. So what do we talk about now? Well I guess there is this concept art of the new fossil hall the Smithsonian is putting together. Sure let’s do that.

I absolutely love concept art. Not just for the obvious juxtaposition it provides in comparing the initial idea to the finished product. I love it because even thought it employs many different styles and tools concept art feels like a style all its own. The renderings for the new “national fossil hall” are wonderful examples. They feel especially bright and lively. But what do they reveal about the new hall? What can we expect? What is the goal behind the design?

The bulk of the information comes from the blog Extinct Monsters. According to them, the new fossil will be arranged chronologically be progress backwards: starting from the relatively recent past and traveling back in time to eventually end when life first emerged. Climate change will play a central role in the narrative (this exhibit is funded by the Koch Bros. Coincidence? Let’s hope so). Sounds legit. But greater consideration reveals some troubling choices. The first is the overall design themselves:

Concept art of the Mesozoic section

Concept art of the Paleogene and Neogene section

Concept art of the Quaternary section

The museum seems to be taking that apparently popular ultra modernist approach. I have talked at length before how much I don’t like this aesthetic. It just feels like an update to the cabinet of curiosities where a bland and sterile setting makes it appear like these are just specimens to be gawked at. There are a few flourishes, like the T. rex eating a triceratops and some real cheap looking fake plants. Dioramas aren’t the only way to create an immersive environment. Lighting, color, architecture, ambiance, sound, and photos/murals can all help to bring the space to life. It appears the exhibit will have some mini dioramas in some weirdly designed cases (seriously, one paleontologist I showed these renderings to asked “What are those, washing machines?”).

Furthermore, they seem to be going with the usual focus on whole skeletons. This is another trend I rather dislike. Sure they are impressive and draw the crowds, but they can hinder an exhibit if relied too heavily on. For starters, it limits space. More importantly, it sends the wrong message to the visitors. Complete skeletons are pretty rare in the fossil record. Most fossils consist of isolated elements and fragments. This reality is lost on the public because so many exhibits only display whole skeletons.

This approach also fails to properly convey the diversity (in terms of species, forms, and types of life) of past life as not everything is preserved as well as others. T. rex is known from whole skeletons, but Pachycephalosaurus is only known from a few skulls. A museum may have a huge and diverse collection that is crucial to scientific research but people will never know that if only the most picturesque of specimens are displayed. Some isolated or fragmentary fossils could be much more important than the beautiful complete skeleton. And using the full range of the fossil record allows you to much better tell whatever story you are trying to tell. Be it response to change, evolutionary trends, pathologies, extinctions, or whatever, you can create much more informative and comprehensive displays if you go beyond just mounted skeletons.

The most perplexing decision is how they are executing their plan. According to Extinct monsters:

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster.

I have two problems with this. The first is the whole “less is more” idea. Most museums use these types of renovations to expand the displays, to bring more of the collections into the public view. Museum collections are not static. They are constantly being added to as new specimens are discovered. This usually allows them to really flesh out their displays and do things they weren’t able to do before. The Smithsonian seems to be going in the opposite direction. Now “less is more” can work but only if it’s done right. Otherwise it’s a step down and can leave many gaps in the narrative you are trying to tell.

The other problem is just how much is being removed and being brought back. I did a crude survey of how much was on display before the halls were closed and what will be on display in the new one. I did this using old photographs and memory as well as the Smithsonian’s online collections database (you can actually get the list of what they intend to put on display using the search term “deep time”). Now I only did this with the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic eras. Life for most of the Paleozoic was small, with even the most advance forms at the end being considerably smaller than a lot of the animals that came after. This means their displays can be expanded without taking up too much extra space. The numbers for the other two eras are interesting and even disappointing.

Best I can figure, the old Mesozoic hall featured 38 vertebrate specimens. Twelve of these appear to not be returning. Twenty six are set to return. Overall, the new Mesozoic section will have 124 specimens of vertebrates and plants (with invertebrates likely adding many more). That translates to at least 98 new specimens. It looks like the Mesozoic is getting a total overhaul, with something vastly improved over the old incarnation.

Contrast this with the Cenozoic. Near as I can determine, the old hall displayed 137 specimens of all types (vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant). The new one will only have 107. The Mesozoic gets increased while the Cenozoic gets downsized. But it’s worse than that. The majority of new specimens will be plants and invertebrates. Most of the vertebrates (45 of the total 107) will be specimens from the old hall with a significant number being taken off view. This is like the new Cenozoic hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of the skeletal mounts were just recycled from the old hall. This made the new hall feel like just an updated version of the old one. The dinosaur hall felt new because while we saw a lot of species from the old one, most of them were represented by new specimens. The same appears to be happening with the Smithsonian (as many of the Mesozoic mounts are new specimens that weren’t seen in the old hall).

When we look at the overall floor plan, this gutting of the Cenozoic reveals a problem:

Concept art of the main section of the new fossil hall

The Mesozoic seems to take up most of the large space while the Cenozoic gets only about a third. Now people will predictably argue that dinosaurs need more space because they are bigger. Yes they are, and this reveals another problem with focusing so heavily on complete skeletons. But consider they story they are trying to tell: life adapting to a changing climate. Each period of the Mesozoic gets a sizable section. The Cenozoic appears to be divided into two sections: One for the Paleogene and Neogene as well as one for the Quaternary (with consists mostly of the Pleistocene epoch). But what about climate in those periods.

Dinosaurs had it easy. With a few exceptions here and there, the Mesozoic was warm and humid for its entire history. The Cenozoic, on the other hand, was a very turbulent time in terms of climate change. There is a reason the periods of the Cenozoic are divided into epochs which are usually focused on on their own (as opposed to just the three overarching periods). That is because life changed so much during this time because climate changed so much. It went from: sub tropical swamps and rain forests to a period of intense heat and dryness (the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), back to sub tropical rain forests, to sub tropical hard wood forests, to warm deciduous forests, to open grasslands, and finally to ice ages.

The Quaternary section seems to be as big as the space occupied by the preceding periods of the Cenozoic. That is bad. The so much happened during that time. There is more change in the ecosystems during just the Miocene than in the whole of the Mesozoic. Are they really trying to cram 64 million years of climatic, environmental, and evolutionary change into that one space? Fail. Of course this problem could be avoided if you focused more on individual specimens instead of just skeletons. So many more specimens, able to tell the story much better and in more detail, can fit into the room taken up by just a few whole skeletons. This also clashes with the “less is more” approach. The diversity of forms seen in life in response to the constantly changing world of the Cenozoic is staggering. That diversity can’t be represented by just a few skeletons of the most commonly found animals. How can you claim to tell a complex story when you are unnecessarily abridging so much of it? Extinct Monsters, can you make any sense of this?

Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers.

The second is understandable. But that is what casts are for. And with laser scanning and 3d printing, you can do it with specimens too fragile to cast the traditional way.

The third one isn’t as big an issue as it might seem. Museums like San Bernardino County (before it was destroyed), San Diego, and Los Angeles have found ways to display specimens while still leaving them accessible to researchers. Many of them feature cases and support armature that are easy to remove. Access to research is a legitimate concern but not one that can’t be overcome. If a specimen can’t be on display because it can’t be accessed by scientists then that is just bad exhibit design on your part.

The first one is just ridiculous. Why? Because like the access issue it’s only a problem if you design your exhibit poorly. For example, the old hall featured skeletons of the horses: Hyracotherium, Mesohippus, Parahippus, and Equus simplicidens. The new hall will have: Parahippus and Equss occidentalis. Yeah that shows the classic and extraordinary evolution of the horse. In response to changing environments caused by shifting climates no less (you know, the whole point of your exhibit). Why such the extreme culling?

Probably because of the focus on complete skeletons. You don’t need skeletons of every major step in horse evolution to tell the story effectively. It can be done with just their skulls and feet. That’s what most museums do. In fact that’s what the old hall did:

Exhibit of horse evolution (and even some other stuff) displayed in the old halls. From the website’s virtual tour (before the old halls closed)

Horses are one of the penultimate examples of change in response to climate. Truncating it to just a couple examples is like trying to convey the transition from sea to land with just a fully aquatic fish and a fully terrestrial reptile or with just Tiktaalik and an early amphibian. Again, the whole issue of redundancy and space can be solved if you went with more individual specimens instead of skeletons.

A good example of how the Smithsonian is shortchanging prehistory and themselves is the axing of the three Hagerman horses:

A trio of Hagerman horses in the old fossil halls

Ok three of the same animal is excessive (unless it was part of a specific scene being reconstructed). But the horses come from the Hagerman Fossil beds. In the old hall, a small section was dedicated to this well known locality. It had the horses, the skeletons of two peccaries, a skull of a giant river otter, and a muskrat jaw. All of it now gone. I mean, the Hagerman fossil Beds aren’t that important. It’s only billed as one of the best Pliocene sites in the world. “No other fossil beds preserve such varied land and aquatic species from the time period called the Pliocene Epoch”, according to the park map. The Smithsonian has the principle collection from this unique locality. Only makes sense to not feature it. Especially in an exhibit about changing climate and life adapting to it.

Another concerns fossil marine mammals. The Smithsonian claims to have the largest collection of fossil marine mammals in the world. Marine life in the Cenozoic has as much of a diverse and fascinating history as that of land animals. A great deal of museums don’t have them because they are found mostly on the coasts. With such a huge collection, the Smithsonian can put together a display like no other. Except they won’t. Just a seal and a penguin are coming back. The Los Angeles Museum says it has the largest collection of fossil marine mammals outside the Smithsonian. At least they actually made use of that fact when they did redid their Cenozoic hall. It’s actually kind of funny. The museum with the smaller collection has the larger, more in depth display. Good job Smithsonian!

And then there is this explanation for why the Stegomastodon is leaving:

First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires.

Well then here is a novel idea: keep the Stegomastodon and lose the mastodon. Just about every museum has a skeleton of the American mastodon. Not many have a Stegomastodon, let alone a skeleton of one. If you had to go solely on museum displays, you would think elephant evolution consisted of Gomphotherium, mammoths, and mastodons. And two of those are from the same time and place! If you wanted to compare mammoth and mastodons, do what everyone else does: have a case with tusks, teeth, and maybe a limb bone from each. You don’t need two skeletons. And wouldn’t two large elephant skeletons occupying the same space right next to each other be redundant? At least the Stegomastodon would be separated by time. And it’s from Arizona, not the usual Nebraska or Alaska as most major museum elephants. Yeah you also said so it can be accessible to researchers but we already discussed that (besides, just make a cast of it. That’s what you are doing with the Thescelosaurus). Stegomastodon was one of the truly unique specimens in the old fossil hall. But why try to be unique when you can just do the same.*

*(Hell when Denver Museum of Nature and Science eventually redoes Prehistoric Journey, they’ll have one of the most unique displays in North America. A lot of this is due to the diversity of localities and their associated species inherent in Joe Sertich’s Laramidia Project. And if they ever unleash me on the Cenozoic, they’ll have displays that go far the beyond the standard Wyoming (even that will be vastly different given the all the work they are doing there) and Nebraska.)

Folks, it may sound like I am being unfair to the Smithsonian. And I am for a good reason: it’s the Smithsonian! It’s the national museum! It’s one of the biggest and most prestigious museums in the world! And this is what they come up with? If this was just about any other museum, I would be stoked. That is because for most museums this would be a serious step up. But for the Smithsonian, it is a serious step down. They are the only museum I know of to shrink their display instead of expanding it. Sure it will take up the same space, but there will be less on display than before. You know, the complete opposite of what any other museum would do with a renovation like this.  But hey, “less is more”. And the fact that they are recycling so much from the old hall just adds to the underwhelming feeling this “new” hall is projecting. They are the Smithsonian. They should be able to display things no one else can. And yet they somehow came up with a plan to create an exhibit that actually steps backwards instead of forwards. I was thinking I’d have to try and save my money so I could fly to DC and see the new hall when it opens. But given how uninspired it looks, I think I can take my time and first visit places with much better fossil halls, like the New Burke and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (who will be renovating their Cenozoic display for SVP next year). It is just so disappointing to see a place as esteemed as the Smithsonian create something so lackluster. Of course this is all based on concept art. The new hall doesn’t open until 2019. A lot could change in that time. I hope it does. Because I know they can do far better. They say “less is more”. But often times less just ends up being less.

Till next time!


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