June 22, 2012
There has never been a better time for dinosaurs. Skeleton by skeleton, museum by museum, the reconstructed frames of the prehistoric creatures are being updated and repositioned in shiny displays garnished with interactive screens and smartphone tours. The last of the tail-dragging holdouts – leftovers from before the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 70s and 80s changed our perspective of how a dinosaur should look – are being disassembled and reconstructed in more active, agile positions. Among the latest museums to revamp their dinosaur exhibits is California’s Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
The museum’s new dinosaur hall opened last July. I spent a day among the new exhibits a few months later. On the September day I visited, the windows encircling the hall let incoming sunlight wash over the skeletons and cast their shadows over the floor. This was quite different to the dark, dusty displays I encountered as a child, and more akin to the open, bright aesthetic New York’s American Museum of Natural History developed when they renovated their dinosaur halls in the late 90s.
Unlike the AMNH displays, which were arranged as an evolutionary tree of dinosaurs, the Los Angeles museum doesn’t seem to have any discernible floorplan. An elegant, ostrich-like Struthiomimus skeleton greets visitors to the lower gallery, while, just behind the mount, an Allosaurus harasses a Stegosaurus. The exhibit’s centerpiece – a three-part Tyrannosaurus growth series, from juvenile to young adult – looms nearby. From there the lower gallery displays continue on, past the shovel-beaked Edmontosaurus skull I recently wrote about and the resurrected frame of a stalking Carnotsaurus, before taking a turn into a larger room where models of the small, bristle-tailed dinosaur Fruitadens mingle with the skeletons of Mamenchisaurus and Triceratops. With the exception of a small subsection devoted to marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, the displays are not organized according to chronology, ecology, or evolution. Each is a little island to itself.
Upstairs is a different story. While the lower gallery is full of skulls and reconstructed skeletons, the exhibit’s upper floor is not as densely-populated by fossils. That’s a good thing. Downstairs visitors get to see the products of paleontology – genuine specimens and reconstructed hypotheses of what dinosaurs were like – but the top floor takes greater care to explain the science of what we know. The interactive displays explore the basics of fieldwork – with an amusing tabletop game that asks you to make decisions about how to spend a day in the badlands – and various aspects of dinosaur biology, including pathologies and senses. And, in a nice touch, the upper gallery empties out into a small alcove where a few of California’s local dinosaurs are displayed. Almost every dinosaur exhibit makes room for Tyrannosaurus, but I think it’s especially important to show off local prehistoric notables to help local visitors understand just how much their home state has changed through the course of time.
Paleontologist Andrew Farke published a review of the same exhibits in the latest Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology issue. Farke was just as impressed as I was by the stunning visual displays, but came away with the same concern:
The exhibits make abundantly clear that dinosaurs and their aquatic counterparts were living, breathing animals, but in what context? Many of the most eye-catching sections in the Hall of Dinosaurs feel as if they’ve been yanked out of space and time, with little sense for how the organisms fit within their ancient ecosystems or the tree of life.
Dinosaurs are not only wonderful creatures to gawk at. Any dinosaur skeleton is a snapshot of evolution, ecology, and extinction – a thread we can follow back through time to understand the world as it once was. The NHMLA deserves credit for creating beautiful displays and showcasing a few of the ways we can extract delicate details from ancient bones, but, without their essential evolutionary context, the hall’s dinosaurs can easily be cast as prehistoric monsters that have no relevance to the modern world. We know that isn’t the case. Our mammalian ancestors and cousins evolved alongside dinosaurs, and, as one small display points out, dinosaurs live among us today as birds. The “Age of Dinosaurs” and “Age of Mammals” have always been the same – the earliest mammaliformes evolved around the same time as the first dinosaurs, and dinosaurs, in avian garb, are a beautiful part of our modern world. If we don’t highlight our connection to dinosaurs through time and evolution, we may let the magnificent creatures slowly slip away from us and turn into irrelevant, hoary monsters.
Post-Script: Paleontologist Jack Horner just happened to be visiting the same day I wandered the museum galleries. The museum’s fuzzy Tyrannosaurus puppet came out to greet Horner, and the paleontologist shook hands with the tiny tyrant. [Horner is the man in green in the video below]
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