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]
June 18, 2012
On June 23rd, the Royal Ontario Museum is going to open a tribute to some of the largest and strangest dinosaurs ever found, in Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants From Gondwana. The centerpiece of the celebration is a full-size mount of the huge sauropod Futalognkosaurus—a long-necked, 105-foot titan that was described in 2007. And as part of the lead-up to the exhibit’s debut, the Toronto Star is featuring a time-lapse video of how paleontologists put the dinosaur together. After just a few hours, an 87-million-year-old giant stands again.
March 28, 2012
Las Vegas, Nevada, is not a city I immediately associate with dinosaurs. To judge by the billboards along Interstate 15 approaching town, slot machines, strip clubs and performances by has-been comedians is what the town is all about. But, strange as it may seem, Las Vegas has a natural history museum, and the small building is home to some of the worst dinosaurs I have ever seen.
In execution, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum feels less like a true museum and more like a curiosity cabinet cobbled together out of taxidermy mounts and anthropological items. A lion pouncing on a bucking wildebeest greets patrons along the main corridor, and a glass case shows off a collection of African ceremonial masks without providing any cultural context for the items. Splintering whale bones and life-size shark models decorate the nearby marine life gallery, and despite the fact that Las Vegas has no immediate connection to human origins, a gallery downstairs presents a series of disturbingly inaccurate early human mannequins. “Lucy” certainly deserves better. But I wasn’t there for the trophy room of stuffed mammals or the Egyptian tomb exhibit. I had come for the dinosaurs.
The first thing I saw upon walking into the Engelstad Family Prehistoric Life Gallery was an utterly atrocious Deinonychus. Plastered with feathers, the sickle-clawed predator looked as if it had been tarred and feathered for some Early Cretaceous offense. While I have repeatedly griped that there are too many naked dinosaurs in books, movies and museum displays, this poor creature made me reconsider my insistence on this point. No wonder some people feel that feathered dinosaurs look stupid—when restored without careful reference to living birds, some downy deinonychosaurs really do strain our love for dinosaurs.
A few other creatures, such as our sail-backed cousin Dimetrodon and a model of the extinct whale Zygorhiza, inhabit the hall, but the dinosaurs are given top billing. Almost all are sculptures or animatronics. A brown, dopey-looking Herrerasaurus squats in the corner of one exhibit, sharing little resemblance with the actual predatory dinosaur, and visitors can push a button to make a seafoam green Allosaurus bellow ineffectually. Nearby, a small pack of Troodon pose to chase away a nest-raiding mammal, and while I was disappointed that these dinosaurs were not feathery, a look back at the dreadful Deinonychus made me feel that it may have been best to leave these dinosaurs without plumage. The grand centerpiece is a diorama of that most famous face-off: Triceratops versus Tyrannosaurus. The ornery horned dinosaur constantly jerked and snorted, and the Tyrannosaurus—a recent recipient of some mechanical surgery based on the square cut in its right side—was poised to charge.
I couldn’t figure out what the point of the exhibit was. The displays provided a minimum of educational tidbits, such as the difference between “bird-hipped” and “lizard-hipped” dinosaurs, but I did not see any of the visitors look at the other panels. The monstrous dinosaurs seemed to speak for themselves, at least with the help of pushbutton snarls. Fossils were almost absent from the hall. A few isolated dinosaur track slabs were scattered through the hall, and a small glass case contained a single vertebra from Camarasaurus, but that was nearly all. (There is another display about dinosaur eggs, but that part of the room was so dimly lit that I couldn’t read the explanatory panels or see the eggs.) Another exhibit, about Nevada’s changing landscape, noted that the time of the dinosaurs is poorly known in Nevada, and the prehistoric hall is certainly a testament to that.
There’s more than one way to display dinosaurs. Not every museum has to be Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History. There are so many stories to tell about dinosaurs lives—how they grew, ate, fought, reproduced and more—that small, regional museums have ample opportunity to show off aspects of dinosaur biology that might get missed in the famous fossil halls of bigger, older institutions. And local museums can play an important role in displaying pieces of local geologic history that may be hidden in collections elsewhere. But the Las Vegas Natural History Museum’s paleontology hall feels more like a tourist trap, populated by low-grade dinosaurs presented without any unifying story or aim. Dinosaurs have much to tell us about evolution, extinction and past worlds, and it is a shame to see them treated as mere monsters made to roar on command.
May 13, 2011
Hot on the heels of the American Museum of Natural History’s new “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit, London’s Natural History Museum has just launched its own dinosaur spectacular. They call it “Age of the Dinosaur.” A mash-up of fossils and animatronic dinosaurs, the exhibit is meant to showcase dinosaurs as living animals, and seems to be an updated version of similar exhibits that have toured over the years. I doubt that I’ll be able to visit the exhibit anytime soon, but if you have seen it please tell us what you thought in the comments!
May 11, 2011
In 1913, paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History made plans for what would have been a spectacular reconstruction of a prehistoric battle. Too bad that their plans did not come to fruition.
Tyrannosaurus rex—the most celebrated dinosaur of all time—made its debut at the AMNH. The first partial skeletons of this dinosaur were recovered by the museum’s own expert bone-hunter Barnum Brown and described by Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Osborn had big plans for two of the better specimens Brown had recovered. In a short note published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn proposed reconstructing the two dinosaurs in competition over a kill—one Tyrannosaurus crouched low, jaws agape, in an attempt to ward off an equally large interloper.
Creating such a scene would not be easy. “The size and weight of the various parts are enormous,” Osborn wrote, and it was difficult to conceive how the bones could be adequately supported. To come up with a strategy for creating the mounts, Osborn instructed museum artist Erwin Christman to make two models at one-sixth scale under the direction of museum paleontologist William Diller Matthew and Raymond Ditmars of the New York Zoological Park. The scene was meant to show off the size and ferocity of the dinosaurs, meant to show the Tyrannosaurus “just prior to the convulsive single spring and tooth grip which distinguishes the combat of reptile from that of all mammals, according to Mr. Ditmars.”
Sadly, the mount was never made. Only Brown’s second, more-complete Tyrannosaurus went on display at the AMNH (though this skeleton was certainly impressive enough on its own!). The idea of two Tyrannosaurus squabbling over a meal was appealing to other museum curators, though. Variations of this idea have been constructed at other museums, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. During the 1940s, the first, less-complete specimen collected by Brown was sold to the Pittsburgh museum, and when the Carnegie’s dinosaur hall was revamped in 2008, museum curators created a modern version of what Osborn, Matthew, Christman and Ditmars had planned. After almost a century, the fantastic Tyrannosaurus showdown was brought to life.