Friday, February 21, 2014

An Overview of Dinosaur Exhibits Part Three: The Field Museum

I think everyone has their favorite place in the world, a place that just restores their life, a place tied up with countless memories. It can be a house or a park, or a stadium, or a school.  For me it was the Field Museum of Natural History on the East Side of Chicago near Grant Park. I can’t remember when I first went. It might have been in 1991, or even as a baby.  You see, when I lived in Chicago, you could go to the library and get passes for the Field Museum, Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium or the Adler Planetarium. My mother didn’t have a job at the time, so she would take me, my mother, and our two cousins to the museums and zoos of Chicago. 

Like any kid, I loved the colorful native American costumes, horses and buffalo. I was engrossed by the realistic taxidermy dioramas. I was absolutely terrified of the Northwest indian and Melanesian statues, relics, totems and masks as they loomed with their ancient power out of the gloom.  I marveled at the precious minerals and gems gleaming in the dark.  I was haunted by the Egyptian tomb exhibit, dark and cramped and mysterious. And, of course, I loved the great fossil hall.
The Field Museum’s fossil displays have changed a lot over the years.  At the beginning, there was a long low hall and some filled with fossil cabinets and a few mounts. A look at the Field Museum archive photos shows Megaloceras, Megatherium, and the rear half of an Apatosaurus.  The museum accumulated fossils between 1930 and 1960, and by the 60s they had completely renovated Halls 37 and 38.  Invertebrate fossils and dioramas of Paleozoic sea life led up to a series of cases into the main hall. I was only a toddler when I saw it, but I do remember it. The centerpiece was the finished Apatosaurus, a composite mount given a Camarosaurus skull based on the Yale Peabody’s reconstruction.  It took until the 80s for them to place the correct skull on the specimen.  

The exhibit was laid out with a central series of huge mounts of Apatosaurus, Triceratops, Megatherium, Megaloceras, Mammut and Mammuthus (not necessarily in that order and I may have forgotten the others) in the center aisle with the other fossils and mounts placed in cases to the sides.  The walls were lined with the magnificent murals of Charles R Knight, painted for the museum in 1933. 28 paintings depicted scenes from the history of life on earth from the fire and steam of the Hadean Eon to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene.   The Mastodon and Wooly Mammoth stood back to back facing the climax of the exhibit. On the last wall, Charles Knight’s epic mural of Wooly Mammoths and rhinoceros marching across the tundra was flanked by two smaller paintings showing Cave Bears and Giant deer. Below were Phillip Blaschke’s three dioramas: one showing Merychippus galloping away, another showing a family of brontotheres, and a third showing a group of Neanderthals. 

However, things changed in 1992 when the Field Museum acquired the Maori meeting house (Wharenui) Ruatepupuke II. They moved the building into Hall 38 as an adjunct to a new exhibit on the Pacific islands, while moving their fossils to the opposite side of the second floor. The new exhibit was brightly lit, had more displays, and was very child-friendly with some colorful robots explaining the formation of life, dioramas, a pack of model Herrerasaurus, small toy dioramas showing the Mesozoic era, and the best part being Bill Curtis and the CBS news making periodic reports on Earth’s environment.  Highlights included a room of human origins, Blaschke’s brontotheres brought out to confront the audience, a video presentation, a walk-in replica of the Mammoth House of Mezhirich,  a video presentation on the Fossil Lake site, a prehistoric horse race, and new mounts of Parasaurolophus, Triceratops, and the moving of the Albertosaurus (now reclassified as Gorgosaurus) and Lambeosaurus to the main hall. It was brightly lit and colorful, and very kid friendly. 

In 2004, however, they renovated again.  This time, the focus is not on amusing kids with games and toys, but educating both young and old alike. More Charles Knight paintings were brought from storage, more fossils; many from Madagascar and South America, sea animals are given space, and finally cartoon videos explaining scientific concepts like abiogenesis, sex, natural selection, and the principles of evolution.  

Each room represents a period of time, and is marked by a panel showing the geologic time scale and art depicting the era by Karen Carr.  She also illustrates the panels labeling and describing each animal (replacing the beautiful but outdated panels by John Conrad Hansen).  The first two rooms have no specimens or displays, but have a video, a Charles Knight mural, and panels explaining abiogenesis and the evolution of life. We get our first animals with a small diorama depicting the Edicaran fauna at the end of the Precambrian eon, but the first real fossils come in the first Paleozoic room

This room, covering the is distinct for the central display of trilobites, the three-paneled CGI animation of the Cambrian fauna, a ring of fossils of the Cambrian animals, and the old  Nautiloid model restored over a display of Ordovician fossils.  The next room picks up with a display of early plants under the Charles Knight painting depicting the Devonian landscape, leading to another room featuring prehistoric fish, organized by taxonomy. Not only are whole fish displayed, but is also a display of shark teeth from later periods join them.  The room also contains both the specimen and reconstruction of the “missing link” between fish and amphbians, Tiktaalik, and the old Silurian Diorama.

The next room has always been part of the exhibit- the Carboniferous forest.  An artificial forest is infested with insects, amphibians, and featuring the giant arthropod Arthropleura and the Griffinfly Meganuera. Fossils of the animals are scattered around the room, which is make to look bigger by carefully placed windows. There is a wall of plant fossils and a display on the enigmatic state fossil of Illinois, the small, bizarre invertebrate Tullimonstrum. 

This leads to the Permian room, featuring two large glass cases with early tetrapod skeletons, one stretching along the entire length of the room. Above the case is Charles Knight’s beautiful mural showing Dimetrodon, Diplocaulus, Edaphosaurus and Casea in the early Permian reed beds of Texas. Not only are those species shown, but a huge variety of Permian Texan creatures with the most significant being the iconic Dimetrodon. However, there is also a small display of Late Permian animals from South Africa.  The room ends with a discussion of the Permian extinction. 

The Triassic room is actually pretty big-Charles Knight’s mural of Cynognathus attacking a Kannemeyeria representing the therapsids of Triassic South Africa is placed over a display of Lystrosaurus, skulls of big temnospondyl amphibians and phytosaur reptiles add flavor, there’s a display on the origin of true mammals, and finally there’s the centerpiece of Herrerosaurus skeleton and model side by side. The other models have been removed, but the existing one fits fine as a sculptural reconstruction. 

The centerpiece of any paleontology exhibit, indeed, of any natural history museum, is the dinosaurs, and this remade dinosaur hall is fantastic. It’s back to the dimness of the 60-93 hall, which preserves the paintings and also gives the skeletons a more atmospheric look. Apatosaurus and the accompanying Charles Knight mural are still there, but it is joined by the original type specimen of Brachiosaurus, a Stegosaurus mount and Edmontonia skull, both cast from the American Museum’s specimens, and juvenile Rapetosaurus. Rapetosaurus is a late Cretaceous Titanosaur from Madagascar, and indeed Madagascar’s rich late Cretaceous fauna is a big part of the exhibit.

 Theropods are represented by an Allosaurus cast skull, the holotype of Crylophosaurus, the skulls of the Madagascar theropods Masaikosaurus and Majungasaurus, the Daspletosaurus (as it is now identified) in its Life Over Time pose, and a small display on Bird evolution.  This display is excellent, with text boxes explaining the dinosaur-bird connection, Charles Knight’s mural of Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, and Rhamphorhynchus overhead, and Buitreraptor with casts of Deinonychus, Archaeopteryx, and Sinornis making up the fossils. 

Protoceratops and Triceratops are back, joined by the frill of Anchiceratops as well as Knight’s Protoceratops painting. Both the tyrannosaur and Triceratops are directly parallel to Knight’s most magnificent painting and my favorite painting in all the world-Tyrannosaurus vs Triceratops. Nearby, his Hadrosaur mural is placed next to Parasaurolophus and a cast Maiasaura. There is a niche for other reptiles-the exotic crocodiles of Madagascar, the turtles and snake of the Mesozoic, and an array of Pterosaur fossils and casts represent their groups, and finally a Steneosaurus, a marine crocodile, provides a handy transition to the marine life.

On the far end of the hall, flanked by Charles Knight’s murals of sea reptiles, is a grand display of Mesozoic sea life. Giant ammonites and corals, the skulls of Mosasaurs and Icthyosaurs, and two overhanging  slates of the mosasaur Platecarpus and fish Xiphactinus create a new presence of marine life. In the previous dinosaur halls, the dinosaurs shown were fairly limited (no discussion of bird-dinosaur evolution), with one representative of each major group and the armored dinosaurs being left completely out.  There was only a very small display of marine life based around the Steneosaurus, and it was in an out-of-the-way niche, and Pteranodon was the only other reptile in evidence.  This new fossil hall isn’t as bright or kid friendly as Life Over Time, or as stately and majestic as the old fossil hall, but a major improvement in terms of education, depth, and breadth.

As in Life Over Time, there is a video screen talking about the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) extinction. But instead of being followed by a movie theater presentation of the Fossil Lake (Early Eocene, Green River formation, Wyoming), the lake’s amazing diversity of specimens have their own room-reptiles, fish, arthropods and plants are wonderfully preserved. However, as before, there are no mammals. The mammals of the Paleocene and Eocene instead have a small room, with the mounts of the primate Nortarctus and odd herbivore Barylambda, along with skulls of representatives of mammal groups below Knight’s mural of Uintatherium. 

As in Life over Time, the Oligocene and Miocene have their own very small room, and while it comes off as cramped, there’s an excellent variety of fossil horses, rhinos, camels, extinct groups like entelodonts, chalicotheres, nimravids, hyenodonts, and finally some more strange South American animals. Knight’s mural of the Agate Springs fauna returns, but his Brontothere mural, as well as Blaschke’s models, are replaced by his Gomphothere mural showing the later Miocene. It’s great to see more South American animals like the big herbivore Homaldotherium and the big predator bird Andalagornis, but behind the scenes glimpses reveal many more excellent South American fossils couldn’t be fit in due to space concerns like the tail of the giant glyptodont Doedicurus or the full mount of the bizarre herbivore Astrapotherium. Perhaps someday they will be unveiled.  Fortunately, there is a video accompanying the specimens explaining parallel evolution and the significance of South American creatures

There are two smaller sections of the main mammal room-a display on the evolution of whales (the cast skulls of Rhodocetus, Basilosaurus, and Cetotherium below Charles Knight’s mural of Basilosaurus), and a small space discussing ape evolution. It’s slightly smaller than the old room in Life over Time, but it’s crammed with replica skeletons and skulls of Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and even a life-sized reconstruction of Lucy the Australopithecus (I have seen at least four).  It effectively communicates the evolution of humans from the other apes, but it does seem brief and superficial. Again, room is an issue, and of course most of the material is at the American Museum, Natural History Museum London, or the various museums in Africa, so it’s a very brief look but an admirable attempt.  Adjacent to the Miocene room, the South American mammals return. Charles Knight’s painting of prehistoric Xenarthrans hangs over a giant Megatherium while Glyptodon, Nothrotheriops, and a South American horse are underfoot.  

As before, the climax of the exhibit is the Pleistocene room. It is almost wallpapered with Knight’s amazing murals of the northern sabertooth, giant deer, cave bear, wooly mammoth, and mastodon (the Moa painting and cast from Life Over Time, however, is a no-show). Mammoth, Mastodon, Megaloceras, horse, bison, giant beaver, and cave bear return, as does the classic mount of Smilodon standing over the carcass of Paramylodon stuck in tar. They are joined by a small display of a Mammut specimen discovered nearby and a rearing short-faced bear in an intimidating pose. The Ice Ages are explained by a small display and video. 

The exhibit, before recessing into the requisite store of paleontology books, models, toys, films and other paraphernalia, has a poignant last room. One last display explains the unsettling fact that there is a mass extinction going on right now. Opposite, a wall showing the great diversity of extant life poses a question-aren't we the only species that can change the destiny of all the others?

It’s not nearly as rich in fossils as the American Museum, and it’s a lot smaller. The breaking up of the Paleozoic and Cenozoic into rooms compared to the dinosaur hall is telling of where the focus is, as well as the sheer size of the dinosaurs compared to the other fossils. However, it is much more effectively presented, with a continuous narrative through prehistory rather than a muddled mess of taxonomy.  Again, it’s my favorite place in the world, and I strongly recommend it.

A coda-The main hall of the museum has always had a three highlights: Two Haida totem poles, Carl Akeley’s magnificent taxidermy of two dueling elephant bulls, and a dinosaur. From 1960 to 1993, the dinosaur was Daspletosaurus (identified as first Albertosaurus and then Gorgosaurus), standing bipedal over the corpse of Lambeosaurus in a dramatic show. In 1993, they moved it upstairs. Instead, a full mount of Brachiosaurus (based on the Humboldt museums’ awesome Giraffititan) took the main hall. However, in 1997 the museum acquired the famous (and infamous) Tyrannosaurus specimen Sue. In 2000, they finally finished erecting the skeleton (the head being a cast, the original head placed on the upper floor). A small display on Sue existed from 2000-2004 before being replaced by the entry to Evolving Planet. The skull is the centerpiece of the second-floor exhibit based on Sue.  The Brachiosaurus, by the way, has been moved to O’Hare Airport’s Concourse B of the American Airlines terminal. A metal cast stands outside the museum, however, for anyone to come and see.


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