Tag Archives: American Museum of Natural History

Beast in the basement

Whenever I’m down in the McClung Museum’s basement, I stop to pay my respects to an old friend.

img_2073Old, that is, in a relative sense.  This is a cast facsimile of a T. rex skull rather than the real thing.  But this bad boy (girl?) and I go back a long way.  My dad used to indulge my dino obsession by taking me to the McClung Museum on weekends so I could hang out in the old geology and fossil exhibit, where the T. rex skull went on display sometime back in the early or mid-nineties.

That exhibit has now gone the way of the specimens it once showcased.  The McClung’s current geology and fossil gallery opened in 2002 with some new dino skull casts and gorgeous dioramas, but sans tyrant lizard king.  Now the T. rex is enjoying semi-retirement downstairs, although we wheel him out for school tours from time to time.

Those of you who are fellow paleo-nerds may recognize the skull as a copy of one of the most famous dinosaur specimens in the world: AMNH 5027, excavated by the great fossil hunter Barnum Brown in Montana back in 1908.  The original skull is on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York…

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…right in front of the skeleton it was once attached to.  Fossil T. rex skulls are so heavy that it’s hard to mount them at standing height, so most museum specimens have lighter copies stuck on the ends of their necks.

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

AMNH 5027 wasn’t the first T. rex specimen to be described.  But it was the first to be found with an intact cranium, making it a popular choice for replication.  (Check out the wonderful Extinct Monsters blog for the history of T. rex on display and the proliferation of 5027 clones in museums all over the world.)  If you’re at a museum that has a tyrannosaur cast, one easy way to tell if it’s a copy of 5027 is to look at it head-on.  The original looks a bit smashed on the upper left side, as if it’s starting to collapse inward like a rotting pumpkin.  You can see the distortion in this photo of UC-Berkely’s replica:

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One other thing to take note of when you’re looking head-on at a T. rex is the position of the eye sockets.  Although they’re on the sides of the head, they’re oriented so that the eyes themselves would have faced forward, which probably meant good depth perception.  In fact, research by Kent Stevens indicates that T. rex had superb vision.  Combine an eagle’s eyesight, an exceptional sense of smell, and a bone-crushing bite, wrap it all up in a forty-foot package, and you’ve got one of the most remarkable carnivores in the history of life on this planet.  In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you.

Anyway, as awesome as this guy looked in the old exhibit, I’m sort of glad he’s taken up quarters behind the scenes.  As a kid, I used to stand in front of his display case and wonder what it would feel like to run my hands across those bony protrusions and along those fearsome jaws.  Now I don’t have to wonder, and it’s one of many reasons I love my job.

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When scientific specimens become historic artifacts

In the summer of 1909, just after vacating the White House, Theodore Roosevelt killed a lion in Kenya as part of a collecting expedition for the Smithsonian.  Now the mounted cat is going back on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History after spending twenty years in mothballs.  Here’s Sarah Kaplan’s fascinating piece at The Washington Post:

The past century has taken a toll on the majestic creature. The lion’s tawny fur is crushed in places, and his rumpled mane gives him the appearance of having bed head. A portion of his ear is clipped, chunks of fur are missing, and his glass eyes have gone foggy with age.

Conservator Ron Harvey surveyed the mount, assessing the damage, deciding what to repair and what to leave as is.

“I want him to look his best,” he explained. “But it is 100 years old. I want to maintain that sense of history too.”

The job of a natural history conservator goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Harvey must maintain the specimen’s scientific usefulness, ensuring that it can be studied by future generations. He also wants to preserve it as a historical artifact — an object that can tell us about our past and its own. When museum visitors look at this mount in six months, Harvey hopes they’ll get a sense of how it got to the museum, what it meant when they arrived, what it stills mean today.

“What story did this lion and Roosevelt want to tell us?” Harvey wondered. That’s what he aims to conserve.…

After consulting with museum conservation specialist Cathy Hawks, he decided to leave the lion’s glass eyes — which are cloudy and crizzled from a phenomenon called glass disease — as they are. They’re historic artifacts too, after all, and they’re suggestive of the lion’s old age and impressive backstory. On top of which, it would probably cause more damage to try to take them out.

“What we’re trying to do in conservation is preserve and extend the life of . . . this body that has not been sapped of all its knowledge,” Harvey said.

He noted that the specimen has been cited in scientific journal articles as recently as 2010, and that scientists are developing new tools for research all the time. There may be other stories — about lion biology, East African ecosystems, 20th century taxidermy methods — buried inside this specimen, waiting for someone with the right question and the right tools to answer it.

Roosevelt’s lion is a working scientific research specimen, but it’s also a historic artifact.  It reminds us that science is a human process embedded in the time and culture in which it takes place.  The National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the Natural History Museum don’t just preserve the record of life on earth, but also the record of how we’ve come to understand it.

Mounted lions from Roosevelt's Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

Mounted lions from Roosevelt’s Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the things that makes a visit to venerable old natural history museums so special.  As I’ve said before, a stroll through the fossil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History is almost like a tour of milestones in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Seeing any real dinosaur fossil is a treat, but at the AMNH you’re also seeing the life’s work of legendary figures like Barnum Brown, Henry F. Osborn, Charles H. Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews.  You’re standing in the presence of giants in a dual sense, both the remains of long-dead creatures and the ghosts of those who brought them to light.

If you’re planning a trip to the AMNH, I heartily recommend reading Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History before your visit.  It’s an engrossing reminder that natural history and human history are intertwined, and that museums house stories as well as specimens.  Thousands of stories, millions of stories—stories behind every pair of glass eyes, mounted on every metal armature, locked away in every drawer.

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Take the Jurassic World Challenge and support paleontology

A couple of days ago I finished reading An Agenda for Antiquity, Ronald Rainger’s book on the eminent naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn and his career at the American Museum of Natural History.  It was Osborn who turned the AMNH into one of the world’s leading institutions for vertebrate paleontology.

He was never a field man, he delegated much of the nitty-gritty work of research to his subordinates, and many of his ideas about evolution were off the mark.  But as an administrator, a museum showman, and an intellectual who grappled with big questions, he left behind a tremendous legacy, the magnitude of which is apparent when you walk through those magnificent fossil galleries on the AMNH’s fourth floor.  (Incidentally, Osborn was also a master at coming up with awesome dinosaur names; he’s the guy who christened Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, probably the two coolest scientific monikers in the history of zoology.)

Osborn’s background was critical to his success at the AMNH.  He came from a wealthy New York family, and he was connected to some of the richest and most influential Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These connections enabled him to raise the money needed to mount expeditions, prepare specimens, build galleries, and publish research.  In Osborn’s day, vertebrate paleontology depended heavily on private donors.

It’s dependent on them still.  A lot of people assume that paleontology must be a lucrative business, since dinosaurs are so wildly popular.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Compared to scientific fields with more immediately practical applications, paleontological research is woefully underfunded.

That’s one of the reasons why I heartily endorse David Orr’s idea over at the paleoblog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.  Check it out:

I call it the Jurassic World Challenge. If you’re buying a ticket for the movie, it’s a fair bet that you also have that much money to give to the people who bring prehistory to life in the real world. Think of it as a matching fund, crowdsourced. See the movie, do some good. The official rules:

  • Donate the equivalent of your Jurassic World ticket price to paleontological research
    or
  • Spend the equivalent of your ticket price on the wares of an independent paleoartist

Of course, you don’t have to pick one or the other. Buy some art, give some money to a research effort, enjoy the movie. I also put together a graphic to help spread the word, in before and after flavors. You are free to disseminate these far and wide! Take it and post it on your blog or other social media channels.

If you plan on seeing Jurassic World—or if you’re like me and plan on seeing it many, many times—consider a donation to paleontological research and the production of paleoart.  If you’re unsure about exactly where to send your money, Orr’s blog post has a list of some current research projects and independent paleoartists.  You might also check with your local natural history museum or university to see what dino-related things they’ve got going on that could use your support.

The folks who study and reconstruct ancient animals have made my life exponentially more joyful.  If you’re as excited as I am about Jurassic World, they’ve probably made your life more joyful, too.  Let’s show them a little gratitude.

By Ben Townsend from Blacksburg, Virginia (File:Velociraptor Wyoming Dinosaur Center.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Prehistoric interlude

When he delivered his famous funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War, Pericles told the Athenians that “the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us.”

I’m not a city person myself.  I prefer a nice small town within easy driving distance of a city, where you can hop in the car to enjoy urban amenities and then go home for some peace and quiet.  But “all the good things from all over the world” do indeed flow in to big cities, which is why they have the best museums.

And enjoying my favorite museum experience in the entire world is always my first priority on those rare occasions when I get to visit New York.  It’s the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, possibly the greatest assemblage of dinosaur fossils on exhibit anywhere.

That’s New York’s main draw for me—not the theater, the food, the art, or the landmarks.  Not even the historic sites.  As neat as it was to see Washington’s inaugural Bible, I’d rather be in the dinosaur galleries at the AMNH than just about anywhere else.  It’s not just the sheer amount and quality of material in those halls; it’s also the fact that the AMNH collections have such a remarkable history behind them, excavated and studied by some of the most colorful explorers and scientists who ever lived.  A walk through these halls is as much a tour of the history of vertebrate paleontology as a tour of the museum itself.

Time for some prehistoric eye candy.

The Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs

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The first dinosaur specimen ever collected for the AMNH, from the famous dino graveyard at Como Bluff, WY

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A carnivore who needs no introduction, first discovered by the AMNH’s famed dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown and described by Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was largely responsible for building up the museum’s vertebrate fossil collection

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T. rex from the rear

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Allosaurus

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The small, smart, and birdlike carnivore Deinonychus, whose discovery helped start the “dinosaur renaissance” of the 1960’s

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The type specimen of Velociraptor, found in Mongolia during one of the AMNH expeditions to the Gobi desert in 1923

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Hadrosaurs in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs

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The famous “hadrosaur mummy,” found by Charles H. Sternberg and his sons in 1908

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Saurolophus

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Triceratops

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Stegosaurus

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An ankylosaur, sporting a wicked suit of armor

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Pachycephalosaurus

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A rearing Barosaurus in Roosevelt Memorial Hall

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And finally, a historical artifact—the flag carried into the Gobi Desert on the legendary AMNH Mongolian expeditions led by one of my heroes, Roy Chapman Andrews

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