Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An overview of dinosaur exhibits, part 2: American Museum of Natural History, New York

I haven’t seen every dinosaur museum in the country. I haven’t seen every dinosaur museum in the world. I’ve only seen a dozen or so. Still, I would still argue that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sets the standard. New York has always been about bigger, better, shinier and more expensive in everything, and the museum is no exception.  New York is full of beautiful attractions: Central Park, the Met, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Bronx zoo, and so on, but the one I insisted on seeing when I was in the area was the American Museum.

The museum is fairly distinctive-part brick, part glass, part neoclassical, with a statue of Theodore Roosevelt adorning one entrance. The interior is well lit and absolutely huge. There are 4 levels, not counting the basement with a parking lot and food court. The top floor is the one we’re looking at today-yes, the entire floor is dedicated to over a century of fossil finding. Since New York has always been a playground for the rich, the museum has been able to afford many an expedition, and many of the world’s top paleontologists. 

Unfortunately, this is where we run into my first problem with the museum-the layout. There is no particular order to the galleries, which I guess makes things easier, but the galleries are arranged taxonomically. One gallery is dedicated to Saurichian dinosaurs-sauropods and theropods. Another has Ornithischian dinosaurs- ornithopods, ceratopsians, and the rest. Mammals have their own hall-separated into rooms of “Advanced” and “primitive” mammals (leading to the bizarre arrangement of giant sloths being a few feet away from Dimetrodon). Finally, there is the Hall of Vertebrate Origins-basically placing fossils of anything that isn’t a dinosaur or mammal into one area.
To be fair, there does seem to be some pattern-taking the west staircase, enter the Wallach Orientation Center (A darkly lit room with monitors explaining simple concepts of evolution and deep time), go through the Hall of Miscellaneous Vertebrates, then to the Hall of Distantly Related Dinosaur Groups, then the Hall of Every Dinosaur That’s Less Popular Than the Sauropods and Theropods, then the Hall of the Odd-Looking Mammals, then finally the Hall of Familiar-Looking Mammals.
I suppose we should start with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins. The first section is fish, arranged in chronological order. We start with placoderms (represented by Dunkelosteus), early sharks (represented by Cladoselache) and lobefin fishes (represented by Eustenopteron), then move on to ray finned fishes (represented by Xiphactinus). Of course, the jaws of Carcharocles hang from the ceiling menacingly. 

There’s a small section with amphibians, featuring a glass case of a swimming Koskinonodon and a small sculpture of a Mastodonsaurus. We quickly move on to marine reptiles- Placodus and Cryptocleidus in their cases and Thallassomedon overhead.  On the other end, there are a number of extant groups represented by extinct species-Tylosaurus, Meilonia, Testudo atlas and Sebecus.  The impressive mount of Prestosuchus represents Rauisuchids, and may be the best known thanks to this museum. Finally, there are the pterosaurs; an old Pteranodon in a slab, a newer Tupuxura overhead, and the arm of a Quetzalcoatlus.

The next hall is that of the Saurischians, with several panels and displays explaining dinosaur taxonomy. Instead of by their time, the specimens are divided by taxonomy again. One side has sauropods, the other has theropods.  The star of the sauropods is their Apatosaurus excelsus, positioned in front of a sauropod  trackway from Texas. Apatosaurus actually takes up so much space that there are very few other sauropods. A small Plateosaurus manages to squeeze in, as do a few Camarosaurus and Diplodocus skulls.  It’s the Theropods that are the stars here, though. Not only do we have Henry Osborn’s classic Tyrannosaurus rex mount and skull, but an Allosaurus in the same pose it has been in since it was first mounted, a replica of the arms of Deinocheirus, cases of Deinonychus displaying bird evolution, Coelophysis, and Citipati, skulls of Velociraptor, Dilophosaurus, and Ceratosaurus, and wall mounts of Ornitholestes, Ornithomimus, and two specimens of Gorgosaurus. It’s a theropod potpourri, even a small section of fossil birds like Hesperonis and Gastornis.

The hall is arranged so that the museumgoers go through the hall in the middle aisle, so in order to enjoy both sides, you have to go down the hall at least twice.  The Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus have always been the stars of the museum, so they are clearly the stars of the hall. There are no paintings on the walls, but there are small Charles Knight paintings and drawings over a century old near the animals depicted.  All of the halls are long and well lit, with a single passageway through the exhibit with small alcoves of glass cases by the walls with the large mounts near the center.

Next over is the Hall of Ornithiscians, aka all the other dinosaurs. There’s no symmetrical displays or central aisle, however, and while dinosaurs are grouped by their classification, there is no linear progression.  The centerpiece are Cope’s original Anatosaurus/Edmontosaurus/Anatotian. The website calls them Anatotitan, but most paleontologists would classify them under Edmontosaurus. I’m tempted to split the difference and just call it Anatosaurus. The sheer size of the animals makes them stand out, and they’ve remained in that same lifelike pose for a century.  In fact, by the feet of the mounts, there is a Charles Knight painting illustrating the animals in the same position. Nearby is the first dinosaur mummy ever found; it’s of a different species of Edmontosaurus and one of the most dramatic finds ever.

The other featured mount is Triceratops, the classic three-horned dinosaur and Anatosaurus’ partner at the end of the Cretaceous, garnished by an array of ceratopsian skulls. There is a third open-air mount, Stegosaurus, but it’s positioned off to the side.  The ceratopsians include a Protoceratops growth series, a Centrosaurus, and a Styracosaurus. Anatosaurus is joined by a Corythosaurus and Saurolophus. Ankylosaurs include Euoplocephalus, Edmontonia, and Sauropelta. All of these dinosaurs, as are all displayed fossils, are amazingly complete and beautiful to behold.

The hall of Primitive Mammals, aka miscellaneous synapsids, is not a hall per se, but a huge room. The centerpiece is a display centered on the high-hanging cast skull of Indricotherium with an outline placed around it to illustrate the animal’s dimensions. Below, there is line of different synapsids-Dimetrodon, Equus, Lestodon, Gomphotherium, Smilodon, Castorides-exploring mammalian diversity and adaptations. Around the room marsupials (such as Diprotodon), pelycosaurs (Dimetrodon) and Xenarthrans (glyptodonts and ground sloths) are scattered, purportedly “primitive” mammals.  This is where the whole classification scheme is at its worst. How is a sloth closer to a kangaroo than to an elephant? Why are “advanced mammals” in this room, especially since they’re casts of specimens in the next room over? The whole thing is a big mess.

The Hall of Advanced Mammals is a big improvement. Unlike the drab walls of the other halls, these are lined with Charles Knight’s magnificent murals.  Mammuthus, Mammut, and Gomphotherium form a majestic triad at one end of the hall, while a rearing Ursus spelaeus and an Amphicyon chasing a Ramoceras at the other. Animals like Megacerops, Moropus, Andrewsarchus, Moeritherium, Palaeoparadoxia, Eurhinodelphis, prehistoric horses, and an extant guar fill the rest of the hall. Like the other halls, the fossils are breathtaking, and the well-lit hall allows for a very good if a bit sterile look at the fossils. Like the dinosaur hall, there is a detailed explanation on the taxonomy and groupings and some clarification on times and places.

 By the way, the Amphicyon mount is my favorite mount in the fossil halls for two reasons. The first reason is that Amphicyon is a relative unknown to the public, especially since prehistoric mammals outside mammoths, mastodons, and Smilodon are nonexistent in pop culture. Second is that it’s a dynamic scene, showing the animals interacting with each other in a tense chase while all the other fossil positions are fairly static. The only other poses I can think of are the Anatosaurus bending down to graze while the other rears up curiously, and the Allosaurus scavenging on a sauropod.  

There are more fossils in the museum, too, so I’ll deal with them quickly.  At the Roosevelt Rotunda on the south side of the first floor, there’s a spectacular mount that’s one of the best in the world. A Barosaurus rears on her hind limbs to tower fifty feet into the sky, her offspring hiding behind her. Confronting her is an Allosaurus, snarling while in action. It’s speculation, but it’s a great tableau and far superior to most mounts in most museums. The mounts, of course, are fiberglass since Barosaurus, as I’ve said before, has not been found complete and the missing portions are based on Apatosaurus and Diplodocus. The Allosaurus, by the way, is a cast of the complete specimen in the Saurischian hall.

The other fossils, although they’re mostly replicas and models, are in the Hall of Human Evolution. Unlike the other fossil halls, it’s dimly lit, not in any order, and featured replica fossils, tools, and dioramas. It’s an interesting change from the other fossil halls, and an excellent idea to illustrate human evolution. I wish, like the Field Museum, that it had integrated the human evolution into the greater story of the evolution of life overall, but I suppose there were space constraints. To be fair, there are several of Charles Knight’s murals of prehistoric people on the stairways from the fourth floor, and I think there might be a plaque explaining it, especially since the Advanced Mammals hall has a small primate section.

So yeah, it’s one of the best museums in the world. It has the best collection, and dedicated an entire floor to the fossils. I vowed to return, and I could visit it over and over. While the presentation is lacking, a century of dedicated work has paid dividends and is still growing and developing. Mark Norell is responsible for the current taxonomic arrangement, but I won’t hold it against him. Every fan of dinosaurs and prehistory, or anyone interested in natural science or anthropology for that matter, owes it to themselves to go the American Museum.

Here's their website on their exhibits http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/fossil-halls

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