Better Know a Museum: Lawrence Hall of Science

Hey there every peoples!

I meant to write this post back in November! Sheesh, how did all that time get away from me? Whatever the reasons may be, let’s talk about Berkeley’s public display!

Last summer on our trip to San Francisco (the deepest circle of hell for conservatives) we visited the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. It’s a small museum meant to create a public display for the people of the bay area and abroad. The museum was created in 1968 after the death of Ernest Orlando Lawrence in memory of his contributions to science. Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device that paved the way for atomic energy. He later won the Nobel prize for physics in 1939 for his work on the cyclotron and it’s applications. So how does the museum fair today?

Well it’s not terribly big but it did have some interesting science exhibits. They had a sheet of cloth hanging from the ceiling of the entrance foyer that i thought was just for decoration. Well on the floor about 15 feet from it was a large hollow tube with a piece of rubber pulled taut over one end. There was a mallet tied to it and in the spirit of just messing around i banged the rubber like a drum. Well a second after i did that the sheet hanging from the ceiling waved like it was hit with a gust of wind. Turns out the drum was a cannon meant to illustrate air displacement or something like that. Whatever it was, it was pretty interesting and cool (i must played with it for 5 minutes!).

They had a special exhibit on the science of amusement park rides, particularly the physics of roller coasters. It was decent, obviously meant to cater to younger visitors. Outside was a set of displays about the formation of San Francisco bay as well as some hands on water activities. It was a nice sunny day so this is where i spent a lot of time. I messed around with an artificial creek meant to illustrate the flow of water and how human activity influences it. Also present was an erosion table which i also spent a good deal of time messing round with. All this took me back to when i was a kid and would go to the children’s museum here in SLO. But it’s time get to the meat of the matter: what kind of fossil displays did this place have? The University of California Museum of Paleontology brags that it has the largest fossil collection of any university in the world. When i heard they had a public display, i was stoked! God knows what they would have!


My dad (an engineer) having fun tinkering with water flow

Their paleontology display was… pathetic. Seriously? This was the best they could come up with? I know it’s a small museum but when it’s Berkeley, your expectations are through the roof. Basically the fossils occupied a small section of space on the lower level. The highlights were a gomphothere skeleton and a recreated field tent. The tent wasn’t bad, looking like the ones we see in old photos. There was a triceratops skull and a badly preserved sauropod femur (and some unprepared specimen tucked under the stairs). Easily the best part IMHO was the gomphothere skeleton. The skeleton is a composite cast of gomphothere fossils found at the Blackhawk Ranch Quarry in nearby Contra Costa County, which dates to around 10 million years ago. Seeing this local fossil on display is great, but i feel like it’s only there because they made the cast for a temporary exhibit a few years back and didn’t know what to do with it afterward. Finally there was a T. rex skull cast but it was nothing special. Everything in the tent was unlabeled, the stuff about the T. rex skull was standard, and only the gomphothere had any real description (again, probably because it was left over). While the rest of the Lawrence Hall of Science was a good way to spend the day, the paleontology section was utterly pitiful.

You should be a highlight, not the whole exhibit!

This is perhaps one of my biggest beefs with Berkeley. As noted above they claim to have the largest paleontology collection of any university in the world. And yet they have no real public museum. I went by UCMP while up in San Francisco in 2007 to check it out. All i found were a couple Triceratops skull casts, a T. rex cast, and a Pteranodon cast. In a wall case were also casts of a baby Maiasaura, Heterodontosaurus, and a Parasaurolophus skull. You know, stuff I’ve seen plenty of times before, and will see in  a much better presentation when LA opens it’s new dinosaur hall this summer. I have read that they have little temporary displays now and then, and they sometimes loan stuff to other museums (probably half the specimens on display at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument have “UCMP” in their collection number) but no substantial displays of their own. Combined, the displays in the life science building and the Lawrence Hall of Science looked like something a museum with little knowledge or funding would throw together.

“But Doug,” you say, “You can’t be too harsh on them. Sure they don’t have anything substantial in the way of public display, but they do loads of important research and have some decent public programs. So why the hate?” Well, for starters, the fact that they have the largest collection and have no significant museum. Just from the stuff i have found in their online collections database, plus their renowned research, they could put on one hell of a museum. I mean, exhibit A:

The UCMP collection includes vertebrate fossils from the Devonian to the Recent and from localities around the globe. Unique aspects of the collection are holdings of Triassic vertebrates from western North America, Cretaceous dinosaurs and mammals from Montana and Wyoming, Paleocene through Pleistocene mammals from the western US, the original material from the Rancho La Brea tar pits, Tertiary Australian marsupials, Miocene faunas of Colombia, and Pleistocene cave faunas of South Africa.
– from UCMP’s vertebrate paleontology collection page

Does that not sound like a recipe for the greatest museum in the west? Why haven’t they ever pursued something like that? Miocene faunas of Columbia? That would be frickin awesome! South America has such a weird and wonderful Cenozoic record and they have a piece of the pie? That combined with Miocene material from the States would make an excellent display on biogeography and convergent evolution! same goes for the Pleistocene faunas from Australia and South Africa. Ready for more? Exhibit B:

A decade later, in 1899, John C. Merriam proposed the first University of California expedition. Collections of the John Day fossils graced the major Eastern universities and had found their way abroad, yet aside from some of Condon’s specimens in Eugene, none existed in museums of the West. The administration at Berkeley agreed that a collection was needed, and Merriam’s expedition was launched.
-from “Finding Fossils on the Frontier”, a flier i got at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Yeah you got your collection, too bad it would remain out of sight, save for the stuff you loaned the Monument for it’s displays. The John Day Fossil Beds are perhaps the greatest sequence of Cenozoic fossil bearing rocks in the world. It’s an incredible story. And right now, so far as i know, the only place you can hear that story is at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, the Monument’s on site museum. Also a small display exists at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Nature and Science), but it can’t compare to the Monument’s displays. This is one of the reasons i want to build my own collection of fossils from the John Day Beds: because so few make this fascinating place known.

But perhaps the biggest cause of my resentment stems from the fact that a significant collection of fossils from the Central Coast is locked up there. I have a printed list of specimens i have found in their online database and there are quite a few. But i know there’s more there, based on a couple sources citing fossils i have not found in the database. I have no cultural heritage: I’m a random mix of Portuguese, German, Welsh, English, and Swedish. I was born and raised in California and lets face it American “culture” is nothing to be proud of. These fossils represent my heritage. They are part of the Central Coast, the place that has been my home all my life and what i hope will be my home until the end of my days. I can’t help but feel like a piece of myself, as well as the people of the Central Coast, is hidden away where we can never know what else called this wonderful place home. It is one of the major components fueling my mental illness.

This has also caused me to do something that i am definitely not proud of. I have heard paleontologists say that a fossil going to a museum means it is entering the public trust. But i have also heard people question the public trust argument. And to be honest… i kinda sympathize with them. It’s a little hard to swallow when your local fossils are in the public trust of a museum that’s far from home, lost within the vast collections where no one would ever see them. Because it’s not just Berkeley: La is guilty of it too. Granted, LA has some of their Central Coast fossils on display, but it’s only because it can be related to LA’s story. Furthermore, since only a small amount of fossils can be on display, god knows what else is locked away. But what’s the point? These museums were established long ago. They got to the fossils first, plain and simple. Why should they care about what one community college level pissant thinks? And as i read about now and then these large museums still go out and find the fossils that compose my heritage. They have the knowledge, the interest, and the funding to do so. I can’t help but feel cheated a bit because there is nothing i can do about it. I can never win against these places. All i  have is the interest; the knowledge and funding is squarely theirs. And if i ever get my museum off the ground, their continued efforts in the field would mean that i have to compete with them, and for the reason stated prior, i simply could not. Considering this is a significant part of my depression, i may have to live with this burden for the rest of my life.

Well what was supposed to be a simple review of a small museum turned into a long windless rant. But what can i do other than let it out? Because i obviously can’t do anything else despite my best efforts. Anyway, if you’re ever in the bay area, i would recommend a visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science to check out some interesting science exhibits. I just wish i could recommend it to see some of Berkeley’s fabulous fossils.

Till next time!


Adendum: i have written a follow up post

Central Coast Critters: Gomphotherium

Hey there every peoples!

What do you say we follow up my last post with something a little more positive, eh?

Paleontology is full of familiar faces. Dinosaurs have what I call the “Main Four”: Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), and Triceratops. I call them such because they are the four most recognized and well known dinosaurs to the world. And there are still a few very well known dinosaurs, like Allosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Velociraptor, and Brachiosaurus. Mammals have a few too, namely the woolly mammoth, the saber-tooth cat, and the cave bear. But to paleontologists there are many more animals with which they easily recognize and are very familiar with. One such animal is Gomphotherium.

Skeleton of Gomphotherium at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (from flickr user LLudo)

Gomphotherium has been known to the paleontological community for over 170 years and has been found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is perhaps the best known of the shovel-tuskers, an extinct but diverse group who added many branches to the proboscidean family tree (Proboscideans are elephants and their extinct relatives). Gomphotherium evolved in the proboscidean homeland of Africa and then spread throughout the world. It first entered North America 15 million years ago where it ranged from California and Oregon to Florida and Maryland.

Gomphotherium’s long lower jaw has puzzled scientists since the first one was found. What was it used for? How did a trunk fit over it? Originally it was thought that such jaws were used to dig up roots. Other interpretations said that the jaw was used to dredge water plants. Still some others think it was for stripping bark from trees. For all we know, it could have been all three. Modern elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes. One population in Africa actually goes into underground caves and mines for salt, using their tusks as picks. The shovel-tusker jaw may have been a Swiss army knife, useful for a variety of purposes depending on the situation. And as for the trunk? That’s a little harder to pin down. Soft tissue is very rarely fossilized. But by looking at the bones of the skull we might be able to get an idea. Considering that this animal was a browser and likely doing all kinds of scooping type actions with its jaw, a long trunk is unlikely as it could have gotten in the way.

fleshed-out reconstruction of Gomphotherium (from the book Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids)

And as luck would have it, this marvelous beast roamed the Central Coast. It is known from at least the middle Miocene Caliente formation, which is 14 to 12 million years old. According to a few entries in UCMP’s online collections database, a dentary (lower jaw), astragalus (ankle bone), and a partial humerous (upper armbone) are know from the Caliente. I don’t know if there are more specimens from this formation or others, but the few above are good enough for me. As with many Central Coast fossils, they are hidden away in UCMP’s vast collections. I would love to be able to secure them for our museum so that they may help tell the story of the Central Coast, but Berkeley is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Why would they let go (even if it’s a simple loan) some of their legendary collections for a little guy like me? I had written a few letters to them in years past about some ice age fossils on behalf of a couple local museums. They never wrote back. Besides, you don’t get to brag that you have the largest fossil collection of any university in the world by loaning or selling or donating any of your specimens.

Jaw of Gomphotherium from the Mascal formation of Oregon

Sorry for the tangent. There are some complex feelings stirring there. But I hope I have illuminated a little more of the blogosphere by talking about another home of one of the most familiar faces in paleontology. Gomphotherium, I salute thee!

Till next time!