Did I hit the special dino exhibit at the McClung Museum on opening day? You better believe I did.
Our knowledge of dinos has increased almost exponentially in the past decade or two, partly because there are more people engaged in the business than ever before, but also because of new specimens and new techniques for studying them. New knowledge and new techniques are what the exhibition Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas is all about. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it offers a look at some of the things scientists have learned in the past decade or so, and explains how they’ve learned it. If you developed an interest in dinosaurs back in the heyday of the nineties but fell out of the loop later, or if you were a dino-obsessed kid who hasn’t picked up a paleo book in decades, this exhibit will give you a taste of what’s been going on lately in the world of terrible lizards.
Take computer modeling, for example. Dino bones tend to be big, heavy, and fragile, which puts limits on the things you can do with them in a lab. Researchers can manipulate a virtual skeleton in ways that would be impossible with the genuine article, so they can study, say, the neck vertebrae of a sauropod to get a sense of what the living animal’s posture might have been like. You know those pictures of long-necked herbivores with their heads held erect like enormous giraffes? Turns out sauropods might not have been browsing up in the treetops after all.
Here’s a Mesozoic arsenal: stegosaur plates and a spike, and an ankylosaur tail club. Or were some of these things intended to win over mates rather than fend off carnivores?
We’ve all seen images of Triceratops facing off against T. rex. But as formidable as those horns and that bony frill look…
…the headgear isn’t as impressive on smaller relatives, such as Protoceratops. That suggests ceratopsians were using their cranial adornment for something besides dueling with predators.
And speaking of T. rex, one of the most interesting paleontological debates involves whether the tyrant lizard king was a fast runner. (I think it’s interesting, anyway, and in the event you ever find yourself in the presence of a tyrannosaur, I dare say you’ll take an intense and sudden interest in it, too.) How do you gauge the top speed of an animal that died tens of millions of years ago? This exhibit will let you see how scientists crunch the numbers, and where the numbers themselves come from. And the news is surprisingly not that bad for those of you in the habit of driving jeeps around island theme parks during power outages.
Some of the most fascinating dino discoveries of the past couple decades have come from the early Cretaceous deposits of Liaoning Province in northeastern China. Animals and plants either died in or washed into still lakes before volcanic ash buried them, creating a low-oxygen environment that kept the remains intact and preserved the fossils in exquisite detail. Because of these ideal conditions, we know that some dinosaurs from Liaoning—such as Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Sinornithosaurus—had a feathery covering. These Chinese finds have shed quite a bit of light on the relationship between birds and extinct dinosaurs and the evolution of flight.
Dinosaur Discoveries will be at the McClung until August 28. I definitely recommend a visit for those of you in the Knoxville area. It’s not an assemblage of original specimens, but the casts and models are lovely, and there are plenty of interactive elements. I love the idea of an exhibit geared toward teaching not just what scientists know, but how they know it and how much remains to be determined. It underscores the idea of science as a process—as a set of questions and contested answers—rather than an inert body of facts that just appears out of nowhere in the pages of textbooks and on Wikipedia.
History, too, is a process of inquiry. And I think we should more fully exploit this same approach when it comes to history exhibits and other historical media aimed at the public. One of the big problems historians face when it comes to advocating for the discipline is the fact that so many people don’t really understand what we do or how we go about doing it. Since exhibits are one of our primary means of communicating with the public, we should be using them not just to convey information about our subject matter, but to give people a sense of how historians go about their work, what constitutes historical thinking, and what the possibilities and limitations of historical investigation are. We should be using exhibits to convey information, but we should also use them to demonstrate that this information is the result of historians asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and throwing those answers into competition with one another.