Monthly Archives: December 2017

What determines which objects you see in history museums?

Here’s an interesting piece by Jack Ashby on the human factors that determine what we see—and what we don’t see—in natural history museums.  “Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in,” Ashby notes.  “They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality.”

In other words, the exhibits aren’t pure reflections of the natural world they purport to show us.  They tend to overrepresent megafauna and male specimens, since large animals with impressive headgear pack a bigger visual wallop.  Species from the colonial possessions of an institution’s home country usually get overrepresentation, too.  And you’re far more likely to see taxidermy mounts than specimens preserved in fluids.  As Ashby writes, “I suspect that one reason is that—unlike taxidermy—fluid preservation cannot hide the fact that the animal is obviously dead. It is likely that museums shy away from displaying mammals in jars—which are very common in their storerooms—because visitors find them more disturbing and cruel than the alternatives.”

Buffalo Bill Center of the West. By Paul Hermans (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I read Ashby’s piece, it occurred to me that the same sort of selection bias affects exhibits in history museums.  In the same way that natural history exhibits overrepresent big animals, historical museums tend to showcase larger objects while keeping the majority of their smaller items in storage.  An intact stagecoach or an artillery piece has a wow factor that you’re not necessarily going to get with a ceramic fragment.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, like most museums, only has gallery space for a fraction of what we possess, and much of that space is devoted to big, impressive pieces like firearms, carriages, life-size portraits, and large statuary works. It’s not a cross-section of what we keep in our vaults. Many of the objects we have are small, and while they posses considerable historical value, they’re not the sort of thing that stops a visitor in their tracks: commemorative medallions, books, CDVs, and so on. And some of our most captivating and precious items rarely go on display, simply because they’re in manuscript form and very susceptible to damage by light and exposure.

The nature of an object itself has a big impact on whether or not it’s suitable for incorporation into an exhibit. Maybe this isn’t as big a deal for history museums as it is for natural history institutions.  We don’t purport to show nature in all its variety.  But perhaps history museums should try to find ways to convey a sense of the overall composition of their collections when they plan exhibits.  It might be useful for visitors to learn not only the subject matter, but something about what sort of things constitute museum collections in the first place, and what determines the types of objects they get to see as opposed to those they don’t.

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GDP: An eruption of paleonews

Fossil resources under threat, a volcanic trailer, two new theropods, and a tweeting tyrannosaur.  It’s all in today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. By US Bureau of Land Management (http://mypubliclands.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ITEM THE FIRST: You’ve probably heard about the Trump administration’s move to slash land away from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-National Monument.  What you may not know is that the two sites are paleontological treasure troves.  In fact, their spectacular fossil resources helped get them established as national monuments in the first place.

Trump’s decision puts a lot of scientific data in jeopardy, so the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is taking the administration to court to try and stop it.  SVP President P. David Polly explains why this lawsuit is necessary:

When Grand Staircase-Escalante was set aside, there were very few areas anywhere in the world where we had a mammal fossil record right at the late Cretaceous period, when different mammal groups were diverging. Those fossils really filled a gap in mammal paleontology and put Grand Staircase on the map from a paleontological point of view. We now have the most extraordinary Late Cretaceous ecosystem documented anywhere. After the monument was established, a lot of the dinosaur material was discovered.

In Bears Ears, the very oldest and the very youngest fossils have been excluded, including one area that documents the transition from amphibians to true reptiles. In Grand Staircase, they’ve hacked off most of the very southern edge of the monument and the very eastern edge. That cuts out a really important interval in time, including the world’s greatest mass extinction, and the Triassic period, which is really when life started re-evolving again. Some of the mammal-bearing units I just described are out in their entirety. One of the great ironies is that the original localities where all the great discoveries were made in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the founding of the monument, are now out of the monument.

[But on BLM lands managed for multiple uses,] if there’s another competing use the paleontology does not necessarily hold sway. An extreme example would be mining—if mining wins out, then the fossils can be destroyed. Second, the monument is better staffed, so it’s harder for someone to sneak in illegally and take things, whereas on ordinary BLM land it’s much less well policed.

Third, in national monuments where paleontology is one of the designated resources, there’s a whole special funding stream for research. A lot of the work that has been done at Grand Staircase has essentially been a public-private partnership. The funding through the monument has really made the science there blossom; we would not have seen the level or number of finds there over the last 20 years had that not existed.

ITEM THE SECOND: Now, how ’bout that Fallen Kingdom trailer?

As far as first trailers go, I like this one a lot better than Jurassic World‘s.  JW‘s trailer, I think, gave away a bit too much.  Revealing the helicopter crash in the aviary was especially unfortunate.  It undercut a lot of the shock we should’ve felt at Masrani’s death.

One thing the trailer does reveal is a ginormous volcanic eruption that triggers a dinosaur stampede.  This prehistoric plot trope dates back to the very dawn of dino movies, having been depicted in the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.  But I don’t think it’s ever been done as impressively as this.

The Baryonyx at 00:58 has been generating most of the buzz on the Interwebs, but I’m especially glad to see Carnotaurus finally making its debut in the film series.  Crichton featured this genus in the second novel, so it’s high time it showed up in the movies.

Fans have also been speculating about the identity of that carnivore at 1:51.  It looks a lot like an Allosaurus.  As a longtime allo fan, I’d love to see it in a JP movie, but it does seem a little odd to add such a standard carnosaur to a film franchise that already has quite a few big meat-eaters.  With so many weird theropods out there, you’d think they’d want to showcase some of the more offbeat ones.  Then again, since Allosaurus fossils are plentiful, I suppose it’s as likely to turn up in a dinosaur theme park as any other big predator.

ITEM THE THIRD: Halszkaraptor, the newly christened, semi-aquatic theropod from Mongolia, had a goose’s neck, a raptor’s claws, and a snout full of sensors like a crocodile’s.  Convergent evolution is a heck of a thing.

ITEM THE FOURTH: One of the most famous fossils in Haarlem’s Teylers Museum is getting a new name…again.  In 1970, while examining the museum’s pterosaur collection, John Ostrom determined that its type specimen of Pterodactylus crassipes wasn’t a pterodactyl at all, but an Archaeopteryx.  Now a team of researchers has identified the Teylers fossil as a new genus of dinosaur, which they’ve named Ostromia crassipes.

ITEM THE FIFTH: Chicago magazine caught up with Sue, the Field Museum’s resident T. rex, to talk about social media and how she’ll be spending her downtime as she awaits her move to a new gallery:

There may be some behind-the-scenes hijinks while I’m off display getting ready to be remounted. As a (temporarily) disembodied rage emu, I can roam the halls and maybe check in on the new 122-foot-long sauropod playing door greeter. That is, if it can ever shut up about “going vegan.” WE GET IT YOU EAT KALE [leaf emoji].

Also, did you know less than 1 percent of The Field Museum’s collections are on public display? With some free time on my tiny, but powerful, hands I will finally be able to see EVERY rove beetle we have. And buddy…DEMS A LOT OF ROVE BEETLES.

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Turns out you can home go again

I’m pleased to announce that I’m starting a new gig at an old place—old to me, anyway, since it’s where my career in history started.

I’m once again hanging my hat at Lincoln Memorial University as the director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and instructor of history.  My dream job has always been to work at a small or medium-sized institution where I could combine teaching with some type of museum or public history work.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do so in the region where I grew up, and at the institution where I first fell in love with history as a discipline.

I haven’t abandoned my dissertation, though.  I’ll be writing it while working, with an eye toward moving up from instructor to assistant professor once it’s finished.  So in addition to spending time with my Revolutionary frontiersmen, I’ll be getting re-acquainted with an old friend…

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