Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dinosaurs: Surprising Candor at Discovery

In which the blogger discovers that the Discovery Communications Corporation exhibits surprising candor about its dinosaurs, despite what one might expect given much of the TV programming on its myriad networks.
These days, a visitor in search of mounted dinosaur skeletons will come away disappointed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  As I’ve noted previously, the Fossil Hall is closed for renovation and the interim display, The Last American Dinosaurs display, which will feature a few dinosaur skeletons, wont be unveiled until this November 25th.  For dinosaur lovers, the couple of dinosaur skulls one can find in public nooks and crannies of the museum really don’t count or satisfy.  So, what’s a person in the D.C. area to do?

Well, if you define “nearby” relatively broadly, there are a number of great sites nearby to satisfy that dinosaur itch.  One might start with the places identified by Joe Bruns in an article in the Washington Post.  (Joe Bruns, You Don’t Have to Roam For More Dinosaurs, Washington Post, April 19, 2014.)  His list includes the following:

I have a quibble with Bruns’ list because he clearly assumes that, in the quest for these beasts, all roads lead north from D.C., which is wrong.  For example, one can head south to the Virginia Museum of Natural History (in Martinsville, Virginia) which offers dinosaurs in its Hall of Ancient Life.

Also, more recently, a Spinosaurus skeleton mount went on display in the National Geographic’s Museum in D.C.  According to the review Ben posted on his blog, this is a worthwhile exhibit describing the historical context for the dinosaur and explaining quite frankly the nature of the skeleton on display (a cast of bones from several individuals).

If an isolated, fossil skeleton mount of a dinosaur does the trick, then there’s the lobby of the Discovery Communications’ world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Perhaps it’s not surprising or illogical for Discovery Communications to have dinosaurs in the lobby.  After all, this global, pay-television-programming behemoth claims to be guided by “passionate curiosity.”  (2013 Annual Report.)  Of its extensive TV programming, Discovery avers:
Our content spans genres including science, exploration, survival, natural history, technology, docu-series, anthropology, heroes, paleontology, history, space, archeology, heath and wellness, engineering, adventure, lifestyles, crime and investigation, civilizations, current events and kids.
That does give me pause, though.  What a curiously constructed list of “genres.”  It’s a hopeless mélange of fields of science and elements of pop culture.  Frankly, that list isn’t surprising if one considers the programming that the Discovery Communication’s various networks spew forth.  A reasonable conclusion is that, for Discovery, “passionate curiosity” is joined (or perhaps displaced) by a passionate search for ratings and earnings.

Among the many, many programs broadcast by Discovery’s various networks are numerous so-called “reality TV” shows, including such gems as Naked and Afraid in which, for each episode, two stark naked strangers (a male and a female, of course) are dropped into some wild area with minimal equipment and followed as they try to survive for 21 days, or Amish Mafia which features the doings of a handful of Amish who purport to be the local enforcers in the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not opposed to reality TV per se.  I’ve been known to watch a few reality TV shows, such as Top Chef and Storage Wars (neither of which is part of the Discovery family).)

Discovery Communications’ programs have often taken their lumps from the critics.  Though the premises may be laughable or cringe-worthy, it’s Discovery’s lack of candor about the reality of reality TV that troubles me the most.  For instance, the New York Times reviewer of the Amish Mafia when it debuted, observed, “An early credit warns of ‘select re-enactments,’ and since we’re never later told whether we’re watching staged scenes, it’s fairly safe to assume that everything is staged. (A closing credit clarifies that ‘re-creations are based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.’)”  (Mike Hale, The Dirty Work for the Clean, New York Times, December 11, 2012.)

And, hey, when Discovery’s annual TV feast known as Shark Week can be taken to task for lying to its audience by Wil Wheaton (yes, that Wil Wheaton of Wesley Crusher fame), among others, one has to believe ratings may not have just displaced passionate curiosity, but honesty as well.  Here’s Wheaton on the opening episode of Shark Week in 2013:
Discovery Channel started Shark Week with a completely fake, completely made-up, completely bullshit “documentary” and they lied to their audience about it.  They presented it as real.  (Wil Wheaton dot Net, August 5, 2013.)
Joining in, science writer George Johnson dismissed the “science” content on the Discovery Channel as not even “good fiction.”  (Not Just Sharks – The Junk That Passes For Science on the Discovery Channel, Fire in the Mind blog on Discover Magazine’s website, August 6, 2013.)

So, with that as context, it wasn't unreasonable to be curious about how Discovery would present the dinosaurs housed in the lobby of its world headquarters.  First things first:  the hours that it's open to the public aren't obviously displayed anywhere.  I gained admission during the work week, after having failed on a Saturday afternoon.

Once inside the lobby, I found it hard to draw myself away from the fascinating piece of kinetic artwork by George Rhoads which greeted me (it was operating when I entered).  But, yes, there are dinosaurs in the lobby:  a mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, a very small mounted Bambiraptor (the creature was small in life; indeed, the holotype is probably a juvenile), and a Triceratops skull.

I was surprised and impressed that, for the most part, the signs for each are richly detailed and informative.  In general, they describe with refreshing candor what is being shown to visitors, including background information on how these display specimens came to be.

For example, though its wording is convoluted and unfortunately conflates casts and molds, the display sign for the T. rex makes it clear that the visitor is not seeing fossil bones:
Discovery Rex is not an actual skeleton. . . . What you see here is a mold of the bones, captured in painstaking detail by a process called casting. . . . Institutions are using a variety of silicon rubber products to produce scientifically accurate molds that can capture such minute detail as the serration in a T. rex tooth.
The sign also notes that the actual fossil skeleton is nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer and that it resides at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

Hmmm, that means that this Stan has a twin that will grace the Last American Dinosaur exhibit which will open shortly at the Natural History Museum.  Perhaps it was just the lighting, but I found the Discovery cast of Stan to be more impressive than the Smithsonian’s cast of Stan, at least as it was displayed for years in the Fossil Hall.  Somehow Smithsonian Stan is no longer so special.

The Triceratops skull is very nice and open to close inspection.  It was found on a private ranch in North Dakota in 1994, and, if I interpret the sign correctly, what is on display is some 85 percent fossil bone.  The cast material appears pretty obvious on the skull.

The Triceratops sign notes that Geolinea Paleontological Laboratories handled the prep of the remainder of the skeleton.

Well, the mention of Geolinea undoes a bit of the good vibe I had from this dinosaur display.  Geolinea, now known as Geoworld, was the source for the fossils that were auctioned off in August, 1999, through a collaboration between Discovery Communications and Amazon.  (Judith Graham, Scientists Harden Position on Selling Fossils, Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1999; Keay Davidson, Online Fossil Sales Worry Scientists, San Francisco Examiner, October 4, 1999.)  The whole thing greatly stirred up the paleontological world, prompting the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to pass a resolution in October, 1999, expressing alarm about the auction:
We are deeply concerned by the on-line, auction sale of vertebrate fossils, as the nature of the process cannot assure that scientifically significant fossils are deposited into not-for-profit scientific and educational institutions.
 I don’t know how this specific story played out in the intervening 15 years with these players.  A brief search didn’t turn up anything.  But, getting into bed with Amazon to auction off fossils doesn’t seem out of character for Discovery Communications (however scary it seems to me).  And, even if the Geolinea reference hadn’t been enough to remind me of the nature of the corporation in question, what appears in a corner of the lobby, behind Stan, would have.  There they are:  real (I assume) motorcycles and cardboard cutouts of stars of the now defunct Discovery Channel’s reality TV show, American Chopper.

Apart from the dinosaurs, I was quite taken with the mammoth material that is also on display in the lobby – real teeth and hair, a model of a baby, and a quite beautiful, very real tusk with blue-green stains from the cobalt and copper in the soil which held it all these years.  Some 15,000 to 18,000 years old, it was found in Alaska in 1996.

There are, I think, at least two kinds of truth one might look for in fossil skeleton displays.  One, and perhaps the more important, is whether aspects of the complex reality of where, when, and how that ancient life existed are represented, based on current scientific understanding.  Mounted skeletons in isolation like those on display at Discovery Communications don’t demonstrate that truth, nor do they seek to.

Another truth comes from the disclosure of whether what’s on display is fossil bone, a cast, some combination of the two, and whether this display comes from a single specimen or is some amalgam of pieces from different individuals.  Discovery Communications' lobby display seems to me to handle that truth quite well.  It’s a matter of candor.

One final note (and a segue from the Discovery mammoth material), the Natural History Museum is apparently just learning the truth about the mammoth skeleton that had been on display in its now-closed Fossil Hall.  As the skeleton is being “deconstructed” by a team of experts, we are now coming to understand that this skeleton is a composite of skeletal pieces from perhaps as many as 70 individuals and not necessarily all from the same species of mammoth.  (A Mammoth, But Careful Restoration At Smithsonian, Associated Press, Washington Post, October 21, 2014.)  No, it’s apparently not what would be done today - one Smithsonian scientist is quoted as saying, “Mixing species is a strange thing to do in a modern exhibit.”  Well, if such a skeleton mount were to be on display today, one hopes for some candor.
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