October 29, 2013
“Times have changed,” reads a disclaimer at the Natural History Museum, “and so have the dates in many of our fossil displays.” This notice, accompanied by a revised geological timeline, is currently posted throughout the museum’s fossil halls. It’s a stopgap measure to update exhibitions that haven’t changed in 30 years—but it won’t be needed for much longer. The Natural History Museum is about to undergo a gut renovation that will not only update these exhibitions, but also transform their narrative of earth’s fossil record.
The “Deep Time” project is the largest and most complex renovation in the museum’s history. All of the current fossil exhibitions, including Life in the Ancient Seas, Dinosaurs and Ice Ages, will come down to make way for the Deep Time Hall, a thematic, rather than encyclopedic, timeline of life on Earth. This exhibition, slated to open in 2019, will illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.
“We study things like climate change and carbon dioxide in the past, extinction, things that are going on in the world today,” says Matt Carrano, lead curator of the Deep Time initiative. “It’s all of these big systems that work together. . . those are the systems that we are paying attention to in the present.”
The biggest change is chronological: the Deep Time story will run in reverse. Visitors entering the exhibition from the rotunda will start with the most recent past—the Ice Age, during which humans actually lived—and travel backward in time to the primordial Earth. In many museums, Carrano says, the prehistoric world feels like an “alien experience” and visitors “may as well be taking a spaceship to different planets.” Deep Time, on the other hand, will move from the familiar to the abstruse: “You have a house, you’ve taken it down and now you’re looking at the foundation—rather than you have a hole in the ground and you’re trying to tell people that there’ll be a house there later.”
The infrastructure of the gallery space will also receive its first makeover in more than a century. When the Natural History Museum first opened in 1910, the paleobiology wing consisted solely of the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” little more than a trophy gallery for dinosaur fossils. Over the years, more and more exhibitions were tacked onto the space, resulting in the labyrinthine form of the fossil halls today. The renovation will remove the false walls subdividing the space and restore its original Beaux-Arts architecture. The new Deep Time Hall will be one cavernous, continuous gallery, with “display islands” that elaborate on specific themes.
Of course, no paleontology exhibit would be complete without a few dinosaurs, and the revamped space will display them to maximum effect. The fossil halls’ biggest draws, including the giant diplodocus on view and the Wankel T. rex on the way, will be placed in the center of the gallery so that visitors can see them all in one glance.
Other changes will be less noticeable, but more scientifically compelling. Carrano points to the current display of an allosaurus about to attack a stegosaurus: “What’s the point of showing that, besides the entertainment? We could talk about: What is it that predators do? What is it that herbivores do? Is that any different from today? Probably not. As dramatic as those animals are, they’re doing things that you can see happening out your window right now.” In the new exhibition, these creatures might represent predation or the relationship between species form and function. The work of the Deep Time team is as much about storytelling as it is about stage-setting for some of the Smithsonian’s best-loved fossils.
After the current fossil exhibitions go back into storage, a temporary gallery, focusing mainly on dinosaurs, will open on the second floor. Carrano puts it mildly: “We’re very conscious of the fact that you can’t just take the dinosaurs away for five years.”
October 17, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and galleries will open today, following the 16-day government shutdown. The National Zoo will reopen on Friday, October 17 at 10 a.m.; but the Pandacam is expected to go live Thursday afternoon. Regularly scheduled hours—10 to 5:30 for the museums located on the National Mall, and 11:30 to 7 for the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery—are to resume. Programs will also get underway, but officials recommend checking the Institution’s website for updates on rescheduling and reimbursement for previously canceled events.
The Smithsonian’s fall calendar of exhibitions has a number of much anticipated shows in the works including the highly acclaimed “Dancing the Dream” at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sackler Gallery’s much-anticipated “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
As the doors open and the staff welcomes visitors, a number of old favorites await the crowds—the Hope Diamond, the Wright Flyer, Lincoln’s Top Hat, the Ruby Slippers, to name a few of the 137 million artifacts and artworks held in the collections. The Zoo, meanwhile, promises to release an update later today of the panda cub’s growth over the past two weeks.
Five exhibitions you won’t want to miss include:
“You Can, You Will, You Must” Just before the government shutdown, the National Museum of American History installed a stunning billboard from the World War II era. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
“Mud Masons of Mali” On view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, this exhibition profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D.
“The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery” The National Postal Museum’s new 12,000-square-foot addition, which opened last month, features some 20,000 philatelic objects, including America’s most famous stamp, the Inverted Jenny.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry” The how features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds” Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was an early innovator in the science of aviation? Between 1505 and 1506, the legendary polymath created his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” an 18-page notebook containing detailed observations on aerodynamics. A digitized version of the d0cument went to Mars on the Curiosity Rover in 2011. The original codex is at the National Air and Space Museum, but only until October 21, so hurry in.
October 4, 2013
In June, the Natural History Museum announced one of its most significant acquisitions in some time: one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens in existence, a fossil known as “Wankel’s Rex,” on a 50-year loan from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The 38-foot-long, 7-ton skeleton was set to be shipped from Bozeman on October 11 and complete its cross-country trip on October 16, arriving amidst celebrations for National Fossil Day on the National Mall.
Today, after much speculation, the museum officially announced that the T. rex‘s journey will be postponed due to the shutdown of the federal government. New plans call for the specimen to arrive sometime during April. “It’s a major specimen, so we’re being very prudent about how we handle it,” said Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director. ”There’s a lot of uncertainty with the shutdown, and uncertain availability of federal workers to do the work that we need to do.”
The decision to push back the highly anticipated shipment all the way until spring was also influenced by weather concerns. “There’s an early winter storm that’s in the Rockies right now. We’d been hoping to get the thing moved before winter came, so now we’ll have to wait until winter has passed,” Johnson said. “There aren’t too many T. rex skeletons around, so you want to take care of the ones that you have.”
When the specimen was discovered in 1988 by an amateur fossil hunter named Kathy Wankel on the Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana, it was the most complete T. rex in existence—roughly 85 percent intact, in total—and included the first ever T. rex forearm bones ever found. Plans call for the fossil to serve as the centerpiece of the of the museum’s new Dinosaur Hall when it opens in 2019, with a series of temporary exhibits that feature parts of the skeleton and digital renderings on display in the meantime.
Smithsonian researchers will also continue study on the specimen. Staff from the 3D Lab in the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office—who’ve already pioneered the digitization of many scientific specimens, from fossilized whales excavated in Chile to many of the skeletons that currently fill the museum’s Dinosaur Hall—plan to create digital renderings of the T. rex‘s bones, so that researchers can print replicas of the fossil at any scale and study them in a virtual environment.
In due time, Wankel’s Rex will still fuel these research and educational roles—but for now, the shutdown means all plans are on hold. The arrival festivities timed to coincide with National Fossil Day, a celebration organized by the National Park Service, however, will be permanently cancelled, as the event will have to go on without the T. rex. “It would have been nice to deputize those 600 kids on the Mall as junior paleontologists,” Johnson said.
The postponement comes four days into the federal shutdown, which has closed the Natural History Museum, along with all Smithsonian facilities. “As the most visited museum in the U.S., we’re eager to open our doors as soon as possible for all visitors,” said Ryan Lavery, a spokesman for the museum.
Typically, the museum is visited by roughly 7.6 million people per year, or 20,000 per day, free of charge. “The majority of our staff is furloughed right now, so all the work that we do is being postponed as we wait for the government to open,” said Johnson. “We have tens of thousands of visitors every day who want to come to the museum, and right now they aren’t able to access it.”
September 30, 2013
The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”
The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)
Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.
Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.
Djenné building mud is a calcite-rich alluvial mixture, extraordinarily durable but requiring regular reapplication. Most of the masons’ contracts are maintenance jobs on mud homes. Traditionally every family had its own mason who remudded the house year after year. “You were connected to a building,” Arnoldi says. When the mason died, his contracts would pass to an apprentice, thereby keeping clients in the family.
But as the masons explain in a series of short films in the exhibition, the old ways are disappearing. These days, Djenné residents seeking repairs often turn to younger masons rather than masters, bypassing the ancestral system. “If you have a friend with money, they may ask you to build a house,” says Lassina. “That’s how it’s done now.”
The craft itself is also changing. Boubacar is part of a new cohort of masons contracting with international groups on restoration projects, and the young apprentice Almamy goes to engineering school in Bamako, the capital of Mali, hoping to apply his technical education to time-honored masonry practices. “People aren’t against change,” says Arnoldi. “They just are against disrespect for people who hold knowledge. In Malian culture, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.”
In recent years, the city’s architectural fabric has become a battleground in this conflict between tradition and modernity. Many Djenné residents want to expand their homes and put in modern amenities and decorative accents. Photographs in the exhibition reveal satellite dishes, tiles, turquoise frames and steel doors peeking out of the earthen cityscape—but Djenné’s UNESCO World Heritage status forbids any alteration to building exteriors in the historic sector. “There’s a problem of freezing this architecture in time,” says Arnoldi. “People live here. This is their home. You can’t make them a museum.”
Tensions came to a head in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration of Djenné’s Great Mosque, which was built in 1907. Every year the structure is replastered with mud in a celebration that brings out all of the city’s residents. After a century of accumulation, however, these layers of mud had undermined the structure. The Aga Khan project stripped away much of the mud on the surface and suspended the annual remudding.
Many masons objected to this action, citing the spiritual and aesthetic significance of the remudding. The mosque is thinner now, with straight lines and sharper edges erasing the handmade, sculptural quality of the original. Master mason Boubacar says, “If you ask us, we would say that they did it in a European way. It’s no longer the African way.”
Judging by the jubilant crowds that still surround the mosque every year, the “African way” will endure—though it will undoubtedly change. New generations will graft their own skills and experience to the architectural legacy of their ancestors. The young apprentice Almamy, who represents the future of the craft, puts it best: “We’ll work with our own ideas and make our own mark, but we’ll leave the elders to their old ways of working. We want those to remain a reminder of what our parents have done.”
September 17, 2013
The Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall is getting another makeover today, unveiling three new exhibitions to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the hall’s renovation. The 23,000-square-foot space, recognizable for its giant suspended whale replica, now features two temporary exhibitions combining art and science, as well as a revamped permanent gallery exhibition highlighting the intimate connection between humans and the ocean.
According to Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Natural History Museum, the hall was designed to present a “wide-ranging vision of the ocean,” encompassing biology, history and conservation. “One of the primary goals was to strengthen the messages that all humans are connected to the ocean, that everything we do affects the ocean and that the ocean essentially needs our help,” she says.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry,” one of the hall’s two temporary exhibitions, features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments. Five of the photos in the exhibition (including the harp seal image below) were crowd-curated by visitors to Ocean Portal, Smithsonian’s online hub for ocean information.
The other temporary exhibition, “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” represents the collaboration of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh (left) and biological oceanographer Gareth Lawson. “Fragile Beauty” features ethereal, larger-than-life sculptures of ocean pteropods, or “sea butterflies,” which are threatened by ocean acidification. These organisms have extremely delicate shells, which dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic.
The Sant Ocean Hall’s permanent gallery was overhauled to emphasize humans’ ties to the ocean. The new exhibition, “Living on an Ocean Planet,” focuses on the six major threats to marine ecosystems—climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and invasive species—and what societies and individuals can do to address those threats. One section illustrates the concept of “shifting baselines” in ocean conservation: studies show that humans have lost sight of what is “natural” over time, as each successive generation lowers its standards for measuring the health of the world’s oceans. The centerpiece of “Living on an Ocean Planet” is a large-scale sculpture composed of trash collected on a remote Pacific atoll in a matter of hours.
But the narrative is not all negative. For each threat to marine life, the exhibition enumerates specific actions that ordinary people can take to protect and conserve the world’s oceans. ”We’ve learned that doom and gloom doesn’t work very well to motivate people,” says Knowlton. “It’s not hopeless. The whole idea is that we have time to address these problems.”