Tag Archives: dinosaurs

The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW IDEAS

June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.

and…

KNOXVILLE UNEARTHED: ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY

September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.

I. GET. TO. WORK. AT. THE. MCCLUNG. MUSEUM.

Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.

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Houdini, Doyle, and dinosaurs

Perhaps you’ve heard of the new TV show Houdini and Doyle, in which history’s most famous magician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve cases that may or may not involve supernatural forces.  The premise might sound outrageous, sort of like a steampunk version of The X-Files, but Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends.  And in true X-Files fashion, one member of the partnership was a skeptic, while the other was a true believer.  Doyle was a committed spiritualist who publicly vouched for the authenticity of mediums and psychics; in one case, he went so far as to pronounce a set of faked photos of fairies to be genuine.  While Houdini found the prospect of communicating with the dead intriguing, his experiences with fraudulent mediums who claimed they could put him in touch with his dead mother left him disillusioned, and he began a one-man crusade against them.

Now, twentieth-century debates over supernatural phenomena fall pretty far outside my historical wheelhouse, and when I go off on tangents like this it’s usually because there’s a dinosaur connection.  And hoo boy—is there ever a dinosaur connection to the story of Houdini and Doyle’s friendship.

It all goes back to a remarkable film Doyle presented at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians at New York’s Hotel McAlpin on June 2, 1922, during an American lecture tour on spiritualism.  After an introduction by Houdini, who was the society’s president, Doyle made a few remarks about his belief in mediums.  A decade’s worth of investigation, he said, had convinced him that one really could communicate with the dead, and he appreciated the efforts of magicians who debunked those fake mediums—”human hyenas,” he called them—that discredited honest spiritualists everywhere.  But “when a conjurer does occasionally attack spiritualism as a whole,” he claimed, “he deals in a subject which he does not understand.”

A front-page story in the next day’s New York Times described what happened next:

The author then asked permission of Mr. Houdini to give his strange exhibition.  He gave no idea in advance as to its character, but said nothing to discredit the suggestion that he considered the coming exhibition to be genuine.

“If I brought here in real existence what I show in these pictures, it would be a great catastrophe,” he said.

“These pictures are not occult,” he continued.  “In the second place, this is psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic.  It is not supernatural.  Nothing is.  It is preternatural in the sense that it isnot [sic] known to our ordinary senses.

…”I would like to add, to save myself from getting up again, that, if permission is granted for me to show this, they will speak for themselves.  I will answer no questions regarding them either for the press or the others present.”

Doyle’s “strange exhibition” turned out to be a reel of motion picture footage.  And while it had nothing to do with spiritualism, it did involve bringing up the dead:

Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures.  Prehistoric brutes that resembled rhinoceroses magnified many times, equipped with enormous horns that pointed forward like those of the unicorn, drove dinosaurs away from feasts on one another.  One monster, like a horned toad of monumental proportions, presented an impenetrable surface of armor plate to attacking reptiles and moved along in safety.

…His monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike.  If fakes, they were masterpieces.

While Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, he did tell the magicians, “It is the effect of the joining on the one hand of imagination and on the other other hand of some power of materialization.  The imagination, I may say, comes to me.  The materializing power comes from elsewhere.”

That “materializing power,” in fact, was stop motion animation.  The footage was a test reel of animator Willis O’Brien’s work for the film adaptation of Doyle’s own 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers find live prehistoric animals atop a South American plateau.  O’Brien had made short films with stop motion dinosaurs before, but the 1925 version of The Lost World was the first feature-length dinosaur movie.  (Incidentally, it was also the first in-flight movie shown to airline passengers, during an Imperial Airways flight out of London.)

Doyle’s 1922 visit to New York marked the dawn of the dinosaur movie craze, but it also marked the end of his relationship with Houdini.  That summer, the two men and their families visited Atlantic City together.  Doyle’s wife, who claimed to be a medium herself, offered Houdini an opportunity to communicate with his dead mother in a private séance.  Houdini accepted, but the results left him as unconvinced as ever.  When Houdini later admitted to Doyle that he did not think his mother had actually contacted him in Atlantic City, Doyle was offended.

A few years later, Houdini was a member of a committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate a medium Doyle had publicly vouched for named Mina Crandon.  When Houdini denounced Crandon as a fraud, it was the last straw; the two men’s already strained relationship ended.  Doyle never convinced Houdini that humans could summon the dead, at least not without the sort of trickery that allowed him to conjure up the terrible lizards that night at the Hotel McAlpin.

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Site B?

What follows might seem like several hundred words of pointless navel-gazing, but I’m in a bit of a quandary, and sometimes it does me good to think out loud.

I have this thing for dinosaurs.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the idea of starting a second blog on which I can expound as I please on my dinosaur obsession—my own personal Site B, if you will.  Actually, I’ve toyed with the notion for some time, but I’ve given it more and more thought over the past few months.

Sometimes I give my inner dino fanboy free reign here at PitP with my periodic Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, but all the social media experts say that bloggers should be focused.  You get and keep an audience by talking about what you know, carving out a niche, and attracting the readership of like-minded individuals.  I’m much less particular about content curation over on my Twitter account, but the longer-form nature of a conventional blog calls for a bit more consistency.

Tossing out too many dinosaur posts alongside the usual historical discussions would give this blog a sort of messy, disjunctive nature that I want to avoid.  As Tertullian might have asked, “What hath Isla Nublar to do with King’s Mountain?”  I mean, they both have visitor centers, but other than that…

jurassicpark.wikia.com

 

tripadvisor.com

Of course, blogs are an extension of a writer’s personality.  They work best when you spice them up with your own interests and quirks, which is one reason blogging differs from many other forms of writing.  Many successful bloggers leaven their sites with opinions on politics, sports, movies, the human condition, and other topics that don’t necessarily relate to the author’s usual subject matter but are nonetheless of general interest to many readers.

For example, most of the folks who read George R.R. Martin’s blog share an interest in fantasy and science fiction (and killing off major characters), but Martin’s a football fan as well as a writer, and he uses his site to ruminate on the sport.  Here in the historical blogosphere, Brooks Simpson also posts about sports from time to time.  And there are a few Springsteen fans in the historical profession who sprinkle their blogs with material about the Boss.  Leavening a history blog with reflections on sports, politics, and pop culture makes sense, because these are things about which many folks—including history aficionados—like to argue.

When it comes to history and dinosaurs, however, we’re talking about two subjects of a more specialized, rather nerdish nature.  Those of us who are nerds will often encounter people who share one of our nerdish proclivities, but it’s rare indeed to find many people whose nerdishness overlaps with one’s own in two or more areas.  I’m sure there are other individuals out there who geek out over both early American history and paleontology as intensely as I do, but I don’t think anybody’s really clamoring for a blog aimed specifically at us.

All of this would indicate that I should keep my dinosaur geekouts to a minimum herein, and concentrate instead on matters relevant to American history, which is what most of you are probably looking for when you stop by.

Just for the heck of it, though, here’s a Kentrosaurus. By LoKiLeCh (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But since the urge to talk about ginormous extinct reptiles is hard for me to resist, I’m increasingly tempted to give myself some space to talk about dinosaurs and fossils on a separate blog.  Indeed, there is a vibrant and active community of paleobloggers whose work I’ve been enjoying, and I’d love to connect with fellow paleophiles in the same way that I’ve been able to share my historical interests with you fine people.

Why not go ahead and take the plunge?  For one thing, a lot of the paleoblogs are run by actual paleontologists, science journalists, or other folks who have some expertise in the field.  Me?  I’m no expert.  I’m just a geek who likes talking and learning about the stuff.  A paleoblog of my own would probably consist mostly of me enthusing, “LOOK AT THIS THING HERE!  ISN’T IT AWESOME?!”  I do a lot of that on Twitter already.  Maybe whatever I’d have to say in longer form wouldn’t really be worth saying.    Some people might be interested in an amateur’s semi-informed reflections on paleo news, dinos in pop culture, dino-related nostalgia, and so forth, but I don’t have the training to weigh in on scientific controversies.

Time is another factor.  As you might’ve noticed, new posts got somewhat sparse around here over the past few months due to my school obligations.

Here’s one other thing that makes me hesitant to start a separate dino blog.  Since a blog should reflect something of the writer’s personality and proclivities, I sort of feel like this blog—which is, after all, one of the ways I present myself to the world—needs at least a little dinosaurian content.  The terrible lizards have been such an important part of my life that I wouldn’t be me without them.  Odd as it may sound, without any mention of dinosaurs, I’d feel like something was missing from this site, like I’d left a fundamental aspect of myself behind somewhere.  Likewise, doing a dinosaur blog free of history posts might feel a bit odd, since I’d be leaving out the stuff I spend most of my time thinking about.

So I don’t know.  Plenty of reasons to take the leap and start up a second Interwebs endeavor, and plenty of reasons not to.  Since you fine folks are the ones subjected to my periodic saurian indulgences, I’d welcome whatever feedback you have.

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The park is open

Abraham Lincoln was such a Shakespeare aficionado that the quality of a production didn’t affect his enjoyment of it.  “It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices,” he reportedly said.

With Jurassic Park films, the thought generally suffices for me, too.  My attitude is that any Jurassic Park film is better than none at all.  I liked The Lost World; I even liked the much-maligned JPIII, although it didn’t “bookend” the franchise in the way that the first films complemented one another in scale and scope.  I just love the franchise and delight in seeing dinosaurs on the big screen.

The question for me going into Jurassic World, then, wasn’t whether I’d enjoy the film.  I was pretty sure I’d get a kick out of it.  The only question is whether the movie would “suffice,” or whether it would be the follow-up we’ve all wanted it to be.

I got my answer Thursday night.  “Awesome” is a word that suffers from overuse, but in this case it’s warranted.  It’s Hammond’s dream realized on a massive scale, followed by a well-oiled thrill ride that bounces along from one high-adrenaline scene to the next, and it comes as close to capturing the original movie’s sense of wonder as any film I’ve seen in the last fifteen or twenty years.  It’s got enough of that sense of nostalgia to gratify longtime fans of the franchise, but it’s not so captive to its own history that it fails to carve out a place of its own.

Indeed, where it harmonizes with the other installments in the series is not in self-conscious references with a wink and a nudge at the audience—although there are a few of those moments, and they work—but in a more general congruence of structure and theme.  The franchise has always been about two things: the paradox of mankind’s powerlessness to cope with the consequences of his own power, and families, whether the creation of surrogate families (as in the first film) or the strengthening and reconstitution of biological ones (as in the second and third installments).  Jurassic World plays on both themes in a way that’s consistent with the other three films, but with enough innovation to put a new spin on things.

Of course, it isn’t the thematic issues that draw most people to these films.  Ask most moviegoers what Jurassic Park is all about, and they’ll tell you that it comes down to the dinosaurs.  Ironically, it’s with regard to the animals that most of my fellow dinosaur buffs have criticized Jurassic World.  Whereas the original film made headlines for tapping into the spirit of the “dinosaur renaissance” that reinterpreted the terrible lizards as active, warm-blooded, and birdlike, the fourth installment is a little behind the times.  We now know that many theropod dinosaurs—including Velociraptor—were feathered, which only underscores how correct many of the interpretations reflected in the first movies really were.  Jurassic World, however, adheres to the franchise’s internal canon rather than the scientific one.  Indeed, with regard to Velociraptor, it represents a step backward, since one of the raptors in JPIII sported a set of quills on its head in a nod to recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs.

Normally I’m a stickler for accuracy in movies, and I would’ve preferred a little fluff on the raptors just for science’s sake.  In fact, the original novel provided the perfect rationale for such an adjustment; Wu points out that his lab produces the dinosaurs in “versions” along the line of new software releases to correct for defects in the cloning process.  Still, I’m not nearly as bothered by Jurassic World‘s leathery raptors as I probably should be.  For one thing, the franchise’s raptors were never accurate to begin with.  Velociraptor was a tiny animal; if you ran into a live one, its head would barely reach your thighs, although those teeth could still deliver a nasty bite.  (The raptors in the movies are closer in size to a close relative named Utahraptor, the largest member of the dromaeosaur family.)  And while I agree that feathery raptors in a major motion picture would’ve made for a good public education opportunity, I suspect that the hubbub over the film’s non-feathered dinos has gotten the word out to many of the people who would’ve been surprised had Jurassic World stuck to the science.

But the main reason I’m willing to give Colin Trevorrow and the other filmmakers a pass is simply because I can overlook a great many historical and scientific inaccuracies if a story is told well, and Jurassic World is a great ride.  It’s not a flawless film; it doesn’t have the same flair for deftly handling the scientific and moral aspects of the story with the same wit as the original.  But it’s a return to the franchise’s glory days—a big, bold, breathless adventure story that made me feel like the kid I was back in 1993.  My absolute favorite moment in the film came near the very end, a moment that rectified what I thought would be my biggest complaint about something that had been lacking, a scene perfectly engineered to have fans of the series leaping out of their seats and shouting for joy.  Up until that moment the film had been a home run, but that scene absolutely knocked it out of the park.  That’s as specific as I can get without giving the whole thing away, so suffice to say that Jurassic World saves the best for last, and when the credits rolled, all I wanted to do was go back and take the whole ride over again.

 

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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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The new Jurassic World trailer is AWESOME, you guys!

Raptors running around and mass pandemonium and ankylosaurs bashing things with their tail clubs and a mosasaur chomping and carnivores grabbing people left and right and explosions and machine guns and pterosaurs snatching tourists right off the ground and whole herds of sauropods and stegosaurs and I think that was the T. rex munching on a goat and HOLY COW I FEEL LIKE I’M TWELVE AGAIN AND IT’S JUST FANTASTIC AND I CAN’T WAIT!

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Brontosaurus is back!

For now, anyway.  Depends on whether the paleontological community gets behind this new study.

Personally, I hope the new classification sticks.  It always seemed like a shame to let an awesome name like “thunder lizard” go to waste.

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