Tag Archives: Diplodocus

GDP: The Smithsonian fossils are back, and better than ever

One of the perks of my job is an annual trip to DC for the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on the National Mall.  Every year, I make a point to visit the National Museum of Natural History.

It was the first big natural history museum I ever visited as a child, and may very well be the place that first turned me into a museum junkie.  But it’s been years since I was able to see my favorite part of the NMNH—the dinosaur hall on the first floor.  The fossil exhibits have been closed for renovation since 2014.

Last week marked the first time I’ve been to DC since it reopened.  I was both excited and nervous.  As I’ve said before, the idea of this renovation was a bittersweet thing for me.  I was thrilled at the thought of an updated exhibit, but I was also afraid I’d miss the old mounts.  And I was especially worried I’d miss the dinosaur dioramas at the back of the hall.

I shouldn’t have worried.  The new exhibit Deep Time is nothing short of magnificent.  It combines everything that was great about the old hall with beautifully updated mounts, the latest science, and the finest in both modern and old-fashioned exhibitry.

Chronologically, Deep Time is about as comprehensive as it gets, from the emergence of life all the way up to the first human migrations and the extinction of the Ice Age megafauna, with hundreds of specimens along the way.

But let’s start with that T. rex.  Hoo boy!

My tastes tend to be pretty conventional when it comes to T. rex mounts.  I usually prefer your standard pose, with the animal in a simple striding position, head raised up to show off its height.  When I heard about the plan for the Nation’s T. rex—one foot planted on a Triceratops carcass, the neck and skull craning down to wrench its prey’s head off by the frill—I had my doubts.

But as soon as I stood in front of it, the NMNH’s mount instantly became my favorite T. rex display anywhere.

I don’t know why, but the whole creature just seems a lot more massive and powerful when you see it in this position.  Maybe it’s because the skull is closer to eye level.  Come to think of it, when Henry Fairfield Osborn planned the first-ever full T.rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History more than a century ago, he initially wanted to have two of them crouched over a carcass, with those big skull and hip bones down where visitors could get a good look at them.

This pose also allows you to examine the head from different angles.  You can really see the cranium shape that is so characteristic of tyrannosaurs—wider at the back, and then narrowing toward the snout.

I was under the impression that NMNH was going to attach the original skull to the mount, but a docent informed me that this is a copy.  Still looks pretty awesome.  And a lot of the bones in the photo below are the genuine article.

Diplodocus is still there, although no longer the centerpiece of the hall as it once was.  The new layout is a tremendous improvement.  You can get much closer to a lot of the big specimens now than you could in the old hall.

Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurs are back, too.  Now they’re engaged in combat, and it looks like the carnivore’s getting the worst of it.  Check out that patch of  armor on the stego’s throat.

Allosaurus, by contrast, is taking some down time.

And those dioramas from the old hall I was afraid I’d miss?  The new exhibit features a whole series of new ones, as exquisitely detailed as the masterpieces from the former exhibit.

Take this scene from the Cretaceous, for example.  If these little hadrosaurs know what’s good for them, they’ll put some serious distance between themselves and this creek bed…

…because somebody on the other side of it is about to wake up.

A much more recent scene, as a mastodon finds itself mired down at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky.

Yes, mammals are here, too—from the armored Glyptodon

…to the “Irish elk” Megaloceras.

And here’s everybody’s favorite sail-backed distant cousin, Dimetrodon.

Moving on from the terrestrial to the marine, here’s a mosasaur…

…and a mosasaur meal.

And we haven’t even gotten to the fish, invertebrates, or plants yet.  You could easily spend three or four hours wandering through the hall without taking it all in.

In fact, if there’s anything to criticize, it’s this: Deep Time perhaps tries to do too much from an interpretive standpoint.  The main theme is the extent to which changes in climate impacted environments and drove evolution, and how humans are accelerating these changes at a dangerous rate.  But the exhibit also delves into convergent evolution, migrations, predator-prey relationships, and taphonomy.

But having a lot to chew on is a great problem to have when you’re a museum visitor.  This is definitely an experience that will reward repeat visits.  And since I plan on repeating my visit annually, I’m totally okay with that.

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Carnegie’s transatlantic dinosaur just got an eviction notice

Here’s a news item that’s gotten plenty of us dinophiles riled up.  After decades of faithful service, Dippy the Diplodocus is moving out of the central hall of the Natural History Museum, London.  A blue whale skeleton will take his place in 2017.

I, Drow male [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The NHM has been reminding everybody that their Diplodocus is a plaster copy of a skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, whereas the blue whale’s bones are the real deal.  That’s true, but Dippy isn’t just any any other display cast.  This dinosaur has got quite a backstory, one that links a multimillionaire, a monarch, and two continents.

Andrew Carnegie was a man who liked to give away money, and some of that money funded dinosaur collecting.  His philanthropic activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with a period of fierce competition among America’s natural history museums, each institution sending teams of collectors into the great fossil graveyards of the West to find the biggest and most complete specimens for exhibition and trying to woo successful field men away from their rivals.  The three-way rivalry among Carnegie’s Pittsburgh museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum in Chicago was particularly intense.

The biggest game of all were Jurassic sauropods, those massive dinosaurs with long necks, whiplike tails, and legs like Doric columns.  Carnegie wanted something big for Pittsburgh, and he got it in 1899; the Diplodocus his collectors unearthed in southeastern Wyoming that year was the largest dinosaur ever found at the time.  It was an important moment in the Carnegie Museum’s history, establishing it as the premier institution for the collection and exhibition of Jurassic sauropods.

Diplodocus bones had been found before, but this specimen was remarkably complete and the holotype of a new species, which John Bell Hatcher named D. carnegii in honor of the man who signed the checks.  Carnegie was so proud of his namesake dinosaur that when Hatcher published a reconstruction of its skeleton in 1901, the steel magnate had the image framed on the wall of Skibo Castle, his Scotland retreat.  In 1902 King Edward VII paid Carnegie a visit at Skibo, spotted the picture, and decided that the British Museum needed a Diplodocus of its own.

Carnegie was happy to oblige.  His technicians cast the dinosaur’s bones in plaster, along with pieces from other sauropod specimens to fill in what was missing from the 1899 find.  The Diplodocus made its British Museum debut in the Gallery of Reptiles on May 12, 1905.  Carnegie’s remarks for the occasion pitched the dinosaur as a transatlantic link between two countries, emphasizing the connection between the up-and-coming science museums of America and the more established institutions in Britain:

It is doubly pleasing that this should come from the youngest of our museums on the other side to yours, the parent institution of all, for certainly all those in America may be justly considered in one sense your offspring; we have followed you, inspired by your example.…Thus you, Trustees of the old museum, and we, Trustees of the new, are jointly weaving a tie, another link binding in closer embrace the mother and child lands, which never should have been estranged, and which, as I see with the eye of faith which knows no doubt, are some day—some day—again to be reunited.

The skeleton was a sensation, and it wasn’t long before other museums wanted their own Diplodocus copies.  Plaster sauropods became something of a cottage industry in Pittsburgh.  Within a few years, duplicates of Carnegie’s dinosaur stood in Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and the museums of other great cities.  (For more on the backstory of Carnegie’s dinosaur, check out Tom Rea’s fascinating account, from which I pulled the above quote.)

The original specimen went on display back in Pittsburgh, while the London copy moved a couple of times before taking up its current quarters in the central hall in 1979.  That’s where it was in the late eighties, when I saw it as a kid on my first trip overseas.  My parents both taught high school, and used to take their students on field trips to Europe during the summer.  Maybe they decided this would be a good opportunity to give me a learning experience, or maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter willing to put up with me while they went galavanting off to England for ten days.  Either way, I managed to get a trip to the natural history museum out of the deal.  Young dinosaur nut that I was, I got a bigger kick out of Carnegie’s plaster Diplodocus than I did out of the Tower of London or any of the other things I saw.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of irony in my personal connection to Dippy.  After dinosaurs, whales were my second biggest obsession as a young kid.  Along with the Diplodocus, one of my most vivid memories from that trip to England is seeing the whale exhibit in the Large Mammals Hall, including the blue whale skeleton that’s taking Dippy’s place in 2017.  Normally I’d be thrilled to see a new whale mount going up in a museum, but when the whale is knocking a dinosaur off its pedestal I can’t help but be a little miffed.

According to statements released by the NHM, the blue whale will remind visitors of the fragility of life on earth, since even this huge creature is vulnerable to extinction.  I can understand that, but my sentiments are still with those who want to leave Dippy in place.  One of the reasons the dinosaur’s pending relocation has stirred up such strong feelings is the fact that we all have such strong emotional attachments to those places where our earliest moments of discovery happened.

The NHM is thinking about creating a new cast of Dippy for the museum’s grounds, or taking the skeleton on tour.  Those aren’t bad ideas, but I can’t imagine anything more fitting to be the centerpiece of the main hall than a dinosaur.  I’m extremely partial to dinosaurs—as partial as they come—but you don’t have to be a hardcore dino aficionado to realize that there’s just something uniquely transcendent about them.  As paleontologist Robert Bakker has said, dinosaurs “take your mind and they stop it.”  The only response to one of those massive skeletons, whether it’s a plaster cast or not, is to just stop and stare up in awe with our mouths agape and our eyes wide, everything giving way to simple, unfeigned, unmixed, undeniable awe at the notion that such things were real, that they walked the same planet we do now.  For centuries, we’d been telling ourselves stories about dragons and monsters, and then when mankind had finally outgrown these stories, when we’d begun to master time and space and assumed that we’d peeked in all the world’s dark corners and reassured ourselves that there were no dragons lurking there, we started digging in the ground and found out that the dragons had always been there after all, waiting for us.

A whale skeleton might indeed remind NHM visitors that the world needs good stewardship, but if you want an invitation to wonder and curiosity, to the sort of attitude that museums work so hard to cultivate, you just can’t top a dinosaur.  Carnegie and Edward VII knew that, and I hope the folks at the NHM keep it in mind.

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