When you think of timeless fossil museums in the USA, you usually think of places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. You think of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Drexel. You think of places where they’re found like in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. When you think of the city of Pittsburgh, you think the highlands of western Pennsylvania as the Appalachians cut through the state towards New York. You think of the steel and the coal and the massive factories and sweating immigrants. You would never connect Pittsburgh with a fossil museum.
So in 1895 he built a massive building on the east side, using it as a base for a library and museum. Contemporary American art and literature was stored to enrich the people of Pittsburgh, and the animals and plants of the area were collected as specimens. He was aware of the vast fossil collections at Yale University and the Philadelphia Academy, and decided to continue their work, hiring Marsh’s finest collectors John Bell Hatcher and William Harlow Reed, and Cope’s scientist Jacob L Wartman to build a core of paleontologists and specimens.
Now, this museum hosts one of the finest collection of dinosaur fossils in the entire country, and presents them well. I’ll go room by room, hall by hall through the paleontological collections of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The main hall alongside the exhibit halls has a little preview of what lies inside: Jane, the juvenile tyrannosaur. It’s a cast of the Burpee mount, of course, but considering the Type specimen of Tyrannosaurus is one of the centerpieces of the museum, it’s a good representation of the dinosaurs inside.
The first room is an excellent overview of fossils, geological principles, and the Paleozoic period. Several displays show animals found in Western Pennsylvania, such as the recently discovered amphibian Fedexiam, and the Holotype of the Eurypterid ichnotaxon Palichnium, along with the Cretaceous mammal of Madagascar, Vintana. Like every good museum, there are dioramas of the animals from the area-in this case, like the Field Museum, they are of a Devonian reef and Carboniferous forest.
The room empties into a foyer connecting to the fossil lab, the mineral display, and the dinosaur hall. It has its own displays-currently an authentic Edaphosaurus long ago shares the area with casts of more recent discoveries like Anchiornis, Herrerasaurus, and Sarmientosaurus. This room assures the visitors that the museum is still working hard and contributing to science.
The Triassic room is based on the full sized mount of Redondasaurus bermani, but it’s filled out with fossils such as the type specimens of Redondasaurus and Dolabrasaurus, and the background is the first of three lush paintings by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger depicting the vibrant life of the Chinle formation. A nearby panel features finds from the Newark Supergroup. I would certainly call it more effective at displaying fossil finds than the Triassic Room at the Field Museum, although lacking the focus on evolutionary trends.
A Lyme Regis fossil display and a Camarosaurus juvenile bracket the path to the Jurassic, the centerpiece of the entire museum. A taste of Jurassic dinosaurs is given by mounts of a small Ceratosaurus attacking Dryosaurus, but they are mice compared to the titans in the next room.
On either side of the main path are Diplodocus and Apatosaurus, products of the Dinosaur Monument quarry that is now a national park on the Utah-Colorado border. This Diplodocus is the heart of the Carnegie. John Bell Hatcher found this specimen of the species he had previously excavated for Marsh in 1900, and Andrew Carnegie used the spectacle to form the museum around that specimen. Named Dippy, this specimen has been cast dozens of times and the casts sent all around the world. It became a symbol of Carnegie’s wealth and generosity, and it became an icon of the Carnegie Museum.
On the other side of the path is Apatosaurus louisae, a new species found by the Carnegie Museum’s great scientist William Holland. Holland named it after Carnegie’s wife Louise, and it’s been side by side with Dippy for a century. It’s huge in its own right, the largest known species of Apatosaurus, and not only a counterpart to Diplodocus but a symbol of the museum continuing Marsh’s study.
Next to Apatosaurus is a Stegosaurus, and right behind it Allosaurus. Once again, Kissinger and Walters show a sweeping panorama of the Morrison formation. In the corner stands a small Camptosaurus alongside flying animals from Solhofen Lagoon. The adjacent wall displays casts and fossils of Solhofen’s amazing fossil fauna, and transitions to the two adjacent rooms: Cretaceous land and Cretaceous sea.
The path to the Cretaceous room is flanked by cast fossils and life size sculptures of the fauna of the Yixian formation. Mammals, Psittaccosaurus, and feathered coelurosaurs lead up to Protoceratops and Corythosaurus, in turn transitioning the path to the main Cretaceous room.
You see, when Henry Osborn was building the AMNH fossil hall, he realized he had two specimens of Tyrannosaurus thanks to Barnum Brown. He planned to display them in mortal combat, fighting over prey:
"It is early morning along the shore of a Cretaceous lake four [we now know to be sixty five] million years ago. A herbivorous dinosaur Trachodon venturing from the water for a breakfast of succulent vegetation has been caught and partly devoured by a giant flesh eating Tyrannosaurus. As this monster crouches over the carcass, busy dismembering it, another Tyrannosaurus is attracted to the scene. Approaching, it rises nearly to its full height to grapple the more fortunate hunter and dispute the prey. The crouching figure reluctantly stops eating and accepts the challenge, partly rising to spring on its adversary. The psychological moment of tense inertia before the combat was chosen to best show positions of the limbs and bodies, as well as to picture an incident in the life history of these giant reptiles."[
He made models and sketches of the diorama, but the bones were just too heavy. Instead, he had to resort to posing one of them in a static upright walk; imposing, but not dynamic at all. When World War 2 reached America, there was concern that New York city would be attacked by German raiders (indeed, at the time there was a desperate fight off Maine and Nova Scotia between Canadian and American supply ships and German u-boats). The American Museum decided to sell one of their skeletons, and the Carnegie Museum bought it. Turns out this skeleton was the holotype, found by Barnum Brown in 1902.
For decades, the Tyrannosaurus was posed in front of a dramatic painting of a Tyrannosaur reared up Godzillalike in front of a stormy sky. The visitor would walk down the hall, past Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Corythosaurus, and then between the sauropods before confronting Tyrannosaurus. In 2007, the museum finally renovated the hall, and brought Osborn’s vision to life.
As Osborn had wished, the type specimen of Tyrannosaurus bares its fangs in a roar of defiance. Opposing it is a cast of Peck’s Rex, a specimen found by the Museum of the Rockies in 1997. The dinosaurs roar at each other, ready for a titanic battle. Below them is a hadrosaur carcass, the prize to be fought over. Above them soars Quetzalcoatlus, the gigantic pterosaur overshadowing the fight. Behind the Tyrannosaurs are the other animals of their time: a niche is dedicated to the mounted skulls of ceratopsians, and the adjacent corner features Pachycephalosaurus. Didelphodon’s type specimen and a reconstructed skeleton lead to Triceratops, and then the other corner features the amazing new oviraptorid Anzu. If you look carefully you can find the holotype of the giant alligator Deinosuchus-turns out the giant AMNH skull wasn’t the first specimen, but instead some vertebrae and osteoderms.
Next to the tyrannosaur room is the Niobrara room, separated from the Jurassic by a display of a pack of fearsome Pachyrhizodus being attacked by the even more horrific fish Xiphactinus. It’s right next to the Solhofen wall so you can just skip the Yixian animals if you’re more interested in sea life.
The room is dimly it in stark contrast to the bright dinosaur rooms, but it has a kind of aquarium atmosphere that I for one love. A huge Tylosaurus hovers above the room, and the centerpiece is the swift, gator-jawed plesiosaur Dolichorhynchops pursuing the penguinlike toothy-beaked bird Hesperornis. This dramatic scene is flanked by Clidastes, Xiphactinus and Protostega.
As usual, the mammals get the short shrift; a gallery of Eocene, Oligocene and Miocene mammals is poorly labeled and awkwardly placed in a smaller gallery. To make matters worse, a children’s digging pit is placed in the gallery, making things even more cramped. The mammal specimens, mostly from Nebraska, are amazing, and the gallery is headed by a half-life, half-skeletal model of Moropus (where is the original specimen? Not enough room!).
The half-life, half-skeletal model design is also used for the classic La Brea Dire Wolf-Northern Sabertooth confrontation in the adjacent room, where Pleistocene animals are featured. The same model design is finally used to a bison, while other classic Pleistocene animals like the giant Moa, Columbian Mammoth, the giant deer, and Harlan’s Ground Sloth are freestanding mounts. No paintings, no CGI displays, but the text is far more informative than the other mammal room.
All in all, the Carnegie Museum is one of the greatest paleontology museums in the country. While animals other than dinosaurs aren’t as well presented, but they are still magnificent specimens put on display. It’s certainly the place for paleontology between Chicago and the Atlantic coast. The collection is ever growing, and already it’s a landmark in terms of American paleontology. The rooms are spectacular, and the presentation is excellent. While it doesn’t go into taxonomy like the AMNH or try to tell the history of life like the FMNH and DMNS, it does show magnificent specimens in lifelike poses, contemporary animals forming vast tableaus of a scene in geologic time.
The art by Walters and Kissinger is a worthy successor to Charles R Knight, and the dinosaurs are supplemented by interactive displays showing more information, highlighting of type specimens, and panels of contemporary sea life. Again, the Paleozoic (not a single Dimetrodon, by the way), and the Cenozoic (the mammals aren’t even in any sort of order) are given short shrift, but the dinosaurs are far more spectacular than the Field or Denver, and much better presented than the American.
I recommend the museum for anyone who loves dinosaurs and fossils, and is supplemented by great wildlife dioramas, two very good galleries on ancient Egypt and the American First Nations, and an impressive art museum. I think Andrew Carnegie would be proud of what his institutions look like now, and would boast that few other business moguls have left anything close to his legacy. Carnegie’s legacy is the heart of Pittsburgh, and the finest place between the Atlantic coast with its old American cities and their magnificent museums and the Great Lakes, and the American West heartland where the fossils were found in the first place.