Monday, September 30, 2013

An overview of dinosaur exhibits, part 1: The 19th century universities

Since age 4, I’ve been a museum fanatic. I still have dreams about museums that exist only in my mind. Of course, the best museums are the natural history museums and their highlights are always the dinosaur exhibits. Dinosaurs are big business for these museums, so every natural history museum has a fossil exhibit of some sort. However, there’s more than one way to make a fossil exhibit, and not only does the format depend on the fossils involved,  but the artistic style, the fashion of the period, and the overall scheme of the curators.

I never go on vacation without seeing a dinosaur-if there is a museum, I will visit it. Some vacations I’ve based solely on museums. Still, I haven’t seen some in years, such as the Los Angeles Museum or Royal Ontario Museum, and since they have since been renovated I will omit them from the list. The following are a list of museums I’ve visited and the structure of their dinosaur exhibits, in the order of the age of the institution.

The oldest of these is Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Science. This museum was the base of the legendary paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope, Joseph Leidy, and Richard Harlan, and some of their specimens are still there. The museum itself is fairly small, with the dinosaur hall making up the largest portion. The fossils look a little bit cramped, but this is necessary considering the amount of mounts and specimens in the limited space.
There is a dinosaur outside-a sculpture group of Deinonychus decorates the facade. There is one fossil outside the hall itself-a cast mount of Giganotosaurus. Considering how many casts there are of Tyrannosaurus (including one in the hall itself), seeing another large predator was a welcome relief. The mount is positioned to stare right at the visitors, and the ticket booth is positioned underneath the massive cast. It’s a nice touch
The hall itself is well lit, but the mounts are arranged in no particular order. A Brachiosaur leg is just across from a mount of Tenontosaurus being attacked by Deinonychus. Avaceratops, Corythosaurus, Chamosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus round out the cast .By the windows, there is a mount of Xiphactinus pursued by Tylosaurus. A fossil lab can be accessed-when I visited, a South American Titanosaur was undergoing work.
Tenontosaurus vs Deinonychus

The animals themselves are in lifelike poses-the Corythosaurus looks up to sniff the wind or reach for a branch, the Tenontosaurus struggles to fend off the ravages of a Deinonychus, the Xiphactinus swims for its life against the larger, more formidable predator, and the Tyrannosaurus lowers its head as it moves forward with a roar.. A painting of the Deinonychus-Tenontosaurus battle puts flesh on the bones in front of it, and there is a small gallery of paintings and sculptures by the wall, featuring the art of Charles Knight, who made reconstructions for Leidy and Cope before he ever did his murals for New York or Chicago.  The art is not only helpful but necessary-Leidy’s original Hadrosaurus is not represented by a full mount but by the bones on an outline and next to photos and text describing the significance and history of this specimen.
Tylosaurus vs Xiphactinus
Overall, the fossils have a North American Cretaceous origin, and that’s usual in American Museums. There is no particular narrative to be had-just representatives of different groups of dinosaurs that can be viewed from any angle. This characteristic of the displays is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that there is nothing really being taught other than dinosaur diversity and anatomy. The strength is that the museumgoer can observe the mounts from various angles; there’s even a balcony to view the fossils from above (as well as a Pachycephalosaurus mount and a Triceratops skull). Another strength is that you can start with any specimen you like, and go in any order. It’s very freeform. Philadelphia came to represent freedom in the minds of many, and this museum can embody that idea.
Tyrannosaurus (and me)

You can explore their website here:

Another old, revered institution is Harvard University in Cambridge. While Harvard students tend towards law and business, it has been home to many palaeontologists and their specimens in the past two centuries. The museum is a union between the departments of botany, zoology, and geology to create the prototypical natural history museum. In a way, this is the first museum in the United States outside Washington.  The paleontology collection is from the mind (and purse) of Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss naturalist. It is this magnificent collection of living and extinct animals from which  Steven Jay Gould formulated his innovative theories on evolution and Alfred Romer created dinosaur taxonomy.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History on campus

There is no dinosaur hall here. Instead, except for a dire wolf and northern sabertooth at the entrance, the fossils are on the second floor in a gallery. It’s a bit cramped, and like the Philadelphia there is a jumble of different places and periods represented. However, there are two differences-first, that there is some chronology to the scheme. The Palaeozoic makes up part of the gallery, and the Mesozoic the other. Finally, mammals have their own rooms exiting from the dinosaur section and leading into their collection of modern mammals.

Dinosaur skulls in their display case

The lighting is medium-not bright, but there are enough bulbs to get a good look at everything. The extinct mammal room is darker and seems to be older and shabbier, but still lit enough for a good view. The wall has specimens of various genera mingling in the same cases. Corythosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Camptosaurus and Protoceratops skulls make up part of one case, while another has a Pteranodon, Dicynodont, and various early mammals. The Permian specimens-Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Eryops, and Diadectes- have their own little corner. Mystriosaurus, Icthyosaurus and other marine specimens have their own little case. There is a freestanding case around a Triceratops skull, the only specimen (outside a nearby Stupendemys carapace) that can be viewed from more than one angle. A Plateosaurus lurks in the corner.
Triceratops and me

 The centerpiece of the all, however, is the Kronosaurus. This mount is the only freestanding one of Kronosaurus, but it suffers from serious anatomical problems. In the past 54 years after the mount was erected, its weaknesses have become apparent. Most of it is plaster-the skull is the wrong shape (curved and ridged rather than smooth and streamlined), and there are too many vertebrae. The mount (called Plasterosaurus by Brian Switek among others) is a terrifying 42 feet long, but Colin McHenry has compared it to later Kronosaurus finds in Australia and reveals that it was “only” 30 feet long  

Myself with the Harvard Kronosaurus

The room of Mammals is more cramped-it’s smaller in size but still has to make room for a series of hefty mounts. An American Mastodon, Moropus, Toxodon, Glyptodon, and Lestodon (the last three bought from Argentina) share the darker room. The only grouping here is the three South Americans, sharing the same display case.
Lestodon, you can see Glyptodon and Toxodon to the left

The mounts are static; their purpose is not to speculate on behavior, but to create distinct silhouettes of anatomy. There’s no need to show both sides because vertebrates are symmetrical. A skeletal mount isn’t just showing the size and shape, but the anatomical makeup. Romer and his allies displayed them in the same way as their living animals. They are to be understood in a taxonomic and anatomical context, not an ecological one.  

Pteranodon and other Mesozoic reptiles

Unlike the Philadelphia exhibit, dinosaurs are not alone. They are placed nonchalantly with the other prehistoric animals. In fact, the featured mount is not the Triceratops skull or Plateosaurus, but the nondinosaurian Kronosaurus. Dinosaurs are but one group of living things, and the museum puts them in that broad context. The weakness is that there still is no distinct order-the mid-Cretaceous Kronosaurus is right next to the late Triassic Plateosaurus, and the late Cretaceous Triceratops is a few steps from the early Permian Dimetrodon. The museum is very much firmly in the style of the early 20th century; specimen cases on blank backgrounds and small text giving very little identification. Thus, it acts as a time capsule back to the 1940s and 50s, where dinosaurs were not the complete rulers of public space, and where scientific description is held over imagination (there is no conflict or action in the mounts, and there are no paintings to illustrate the animals while alive)

The exhibit website is here:

AMNH Triceratops in Foreground, Cliff in background, tail of Tyrannosaurus model

Boston’s museum of Science does not feature the dinosaurs. While the museum is large, physical science and technology are the main focuses, and natural history has to share space. Palaeontology is represented only by assorted fossils mixed with other animal specimens, a room on Human evolution, and a room on Dinosaurs. The dinosaur room, like most of the museum, is not well lit-the lights are widely spaced and use brightness to overcome it. The centerpiece of the room is not a skeleton at all, but a full sized model of Tyrannosaurus. Tyrannosaurus is the iconic dinosaur, and no doubt acts as a flag attracting people to the room. There are two large mounts, but both are of the same genus. One is a cast from the American Museum’s Triceratops, and the other is a new specimen of Triceratops. This other specimen, named Cliff after my favorite Cheers character, has its history and significance well explained. I would wonder why it isn’t the centerpiece of the room, but Triceratops will always be third or second in the public eye compared to the Tyrannosaurus.
Tyrannosaurus model

A painting showing Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and the late Cretaceous forest situates the two skeletons and model into a specific context, but the room isn’t entirely devoted to the aesthetic. There is a gallery of fossil replicas and models of birdlike dinosaurs, and the wall has a taxonomic chart explaining dinosaur evolution next to the skulls of Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus. The public is always more willing to learn if there are giant carnivores involved, especially when they can be compared in killing power. This idea of using dinosaurs to teach scientific principles and thinking is an excellent one, and one I’ll cover more in future posts.

Giganotosaurus skull

The Boston museum’s dinosaur room is unlike the other museums, but it fits in context of the museum. Each room talks about a different aspect of science or technology, with a variety of specimens and artifacts demonstrating a principle or field of science. This is not a dedicated natural history museum, but one teaching and popularizing science to the public.

Here's their website
Torosaurus sculpture at Yale Peabody

The counterpart to Philadelphia’s museum is not in Boston, however, but in New Haven. While Cope had his base in Philly, his rival Marsh set up shop at Yale University, both school and student funded by his uncle George Peabody. It later became the alma mater of great palaeontologists Richard Lull, Elwyn  Simons, John Ostrom, and Robert Bakker. Most of the bones are from Marsh’s expeditions, but Lull, Simons, and Ostrom have their own finds exhibited there as well.

South American Mammals

The exhibit is made of two large halls, but there is also a forechamber leading to the main hall. When I visited, there was an exhibit on prehistoric South America-a Rudolph Zallinger painting hung over specimens of Thylacosmilus, Macrauchenia, Toxodon, and Glyptodon.  This is the antechamber to the main hall, the heart and soul of the museum

Main hall with the original "Brontosaurus"

The hall is long and well lit, and made of several components. On the walls and on the sides are smaller fossils and specimens of marine life, ranging from Tylosaurus and Archelon to crinoids and trilobites to the dinosaurs Coelurus and Claosaurus. On one wall, the great mural the Age of Reptiles by Rudolph Zallinger decorates the hall, spanning 400 to 65 million years ago on the North American continent and is one of the largest paintings in the world.
Jurassic dinosaurs with Age of Reptiles in the Background

The next component is Marsh’s Morrison dinosaurs on their platform. Stegosaurus, Camarosaurus, Apatosaurus and Camptosaurus march resolutely toward the entrance, stately and dignified. Like the painting, the dinosaurs are not lifelike or in conflict-they are marching to display their majesty in solemn procession. Interestingly enough, three of those genera are featured in the Jurassic section of the mural. Allosaurus is featured on the mural and the holotype is part of the Yale collection, but the bones are displayed on the walls rather than with its prey.
Marsh's Edmontosaurus, Brown's Centrosaurus, and Ostrom's Deinonychus

The third section is at the back of the hall. These are the more recent discoveries, not Marsh’s dinosaurs. This works well-these animals are also Cretaceous, and so would have come after the Jurassic group. Ceratopsian skulls sit next to a half-mount/half model of Centrosaurus, and a pack of model and skeletal Deinonychus sits nearby. The Deinonychus are the most dynamic of the mounts, as expected; a model and a mount rush forward snarling and another mount leaps in the air. This is appropriate-Ostrom’s Deinonychus discovery changed our view of dinosaurs forever to active, warm-blooded, birdlike animals. The models and dynamic poses bring flesh and blood to the bones-these aren’t a stately gallery of behemoths, but a presentation of living, active, vivacious animals.

The mammal hall is much less impressive. Instead of a wide, tall, brightly lit hall, it is dark, cramped, and unimpressive. The mammals are not grouped together, but have their own small display cases, more like the Harvard exhibit for prehistoric mammals. The Mammals have their own magnificent painting, but it’s much smaller and never quite as famous (more on this at a later posting). Megaloceras, Megacerops, Moropus and the mastodon are classic prehistoric mammals, but they aren’t presented with the same type of grandeur. This is fairly typical (with a few exceptions), but the contrast is very startling.


UPDATE:  Their halls will be renovated  sometime in the near future, but they don't have the money right now, so please donate at

The next era of museums will be covered in my entry in this series. I’ll be covering New York, Chicago, Pittsburg, Milwaukee and Denver and the great dinosaur finds of the early 20th century.  Next week, however, I’ll be starting another feature: species that don’t get enough publicity. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Impressive collection. Took my son to the palaeontology museum here in Munich which has some impressive exhibits, but nothing like this.