It is so quiet on the shore of this motionless lake
you can hear the slow recessional of extinct animals
as they leave through a door at the back of the world,
disappearing like the verbs of a dead language . . . .
~ from Endangered by poet Billy Collins
I think Collins' simile has it right. More on that at the end.
The National Fossil Hall of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is going the way that most of the denizens it has housed for a century went – into extinction. Its several rooms currently (well, for the next few days) offer the visitor a path that begins with the first glimmers of life captured by fossils in the waters of the early Paleozoic, winds its way past the thundering reptilian beasts of the Mesozoic, and ends in the Cenozoic, filled with mammals, some of mega size. All of this will be closed after April 27, 2014 (the Ancient Seas exhibit is already shuttered), and many of the fossil skeletons will be retired, not to be a part of the new Deep Time Hall slated to open in 2019.
In 1911, a year after opening to the public, the Smithsonian’s New National Museum (now called The National Museum of Natural History) first introduced visitors to a hall dedicated to the display of mounted fossils of ancient animals. This was the wonderfully named Hall of Extinct Monsters. The picture below shows the hall at some point after 1932.
Dating photographs in the Smithsonian’s Archives is a challenge and, on this one, I've followed the lead of Ellis L. Yochelson in his The National Museum of Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building (1985). As Yochelson noted, few of the images from prior to 1975 bear a date and captions are rarer still. The Diplodocus skeleton standing in the middle of the picture facing the bottom is a clue – this mounted skeleton was only completed in 1931. I downloaded the photograph from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives.
This is a revealing image. The original Hall of Extinct Monsters was not a dinosaur hall. Yes, it featured dinosaurs such as the Diplodocus, and the iconic Triceratops (more on it below), standing toward the back of the hall, facing a side wall and resisting the flow of the room. But other kinds of monsters populated the hall. For instance, on the right, there appears to be a mosasaur, a marine reptile, swimming toward the bottom of the picture, and I think that may be a mammoth with its swooping tusks, on the left.
Today’s Fossil Hall exhibits, unlike the Hall of Extinct Monsters, kept the dinosaurs together. The panoramic view (below) shows many of the dinosaurs as they are on display . . . for the moment.
The picture (which is nicer if clicked and opened) starts on the far left with an apparent confrontation between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Triceratops.
The fate of these casts?
Last week, Washington, D.C., was abuzz with talk of dinosaurs, prompted by the arrival by truck from Montana of the T. rex specimen that will be a star of the Deep Time exhibit. This specimen, known to many as the Wankel T. rex after rancher Kathy Wankel who discovered it, is some 80 to 85 percent complete, a remarkable percentage for a dinosaur skeleton. Sadly, with the appearance of this new T. rex, now labeled The Nation’s T. rex by the Smithsonian powers-that-be (not very catchy, I’m afraid), Stan, the king, is dead (well, retired to I’m not sure where). Long live the king.
This fall, Hatcher will become a star of The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World, the temporary exhibit about the world as it was at the very end of the Cretaceous (and beyond) and how we learn about it. It’s an exhibit that has the unenviable task of trying to satisfy visitors’ appetite for dinosaurs during the interregnum while Deep Time is being created.
If you look closely at the picture above of the Hall of Extinct Monsters that opens this post, you can almost make out the mural that covers the back wall of the hall. That mural, titled Diana of the Tides, is a reminder that, at one point, early in its existence, the New National Museum displayed a portion of the Smithsonian’s art collection. Here’s a closer view.
This image of the mural was taken from a 1910 article in Art and Progress (Sylvester Baxter, “Diana of the Tides”: A Notable Gift to the Nation, Volume 1, Number 7).
Painted by John Elliott, the mural depicts the goddess Diana controlling the tides with a team of charging horses. Regardless of its artistic merits, the work is awkwardly large, and, apparently as a result, wasn’t removed when the Smithsonian’s artwork went elsewhere. Rather, during one renovation in the 1960s of the “dinosaur hall,” the mural was covered by a fake wall where it still remains.
An interesting decision will have to be made about Diana’s fate as the current National Fossil Hall is taken back to the studs. (Amy Ballard provides a great deal more detail on Diana of the Tides and her century at the museum in a post on the National Museum of Natural History’s Unearthed blog – Diana of the Tides: A Sensation of Her Time, January 25, 2011. Be warned, the link to the blog often fails to connect and times out - it's a Smithsonian problem. Ballard’s post features the mural in color.)
At the outset, I described the renovation of the National Fossil Hall as an extinction. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. My sense is that the remaking of the current hall is intended to be so thorough and the result so different from what we have today that, for all intents and purposes, today’s Fossil Hall will be extinct. Deep Time, when it opens in five years, will offer the visitor a space of great openness and light (so welcome after today’s mostly dark and crowded rooms), and displays that will capture the complex interplay of ancient animals, plants, and environment, processes as relevant today as they were in deep time. The science of paleontology will be alive here. The strictly chronological flow that marks the rooms of the current National Fossil Hall will be gone.
(A nice overview of the Deep Time project can be found in Vicky Gan’s piece for Smithsonian Magazine titled About Deep Time: A Preview of the Natural History Museum’s Fossil Hall Renovation, October 29, 2013.)
And, finally, whatever the poet intended (and I don't think he intended the meaning I ascribe to it), Billy Collins’ simile comparing extinct animals to the verbs of a dead language captures fully what Deep Time, as I understand it, will be about. The past isn’t composed of disconnected alien worlds, and a dead language isn’t a disconnected, forgotten one. The worlds of the past connect to us, just as do the words of ancient languages. They have shaped us. Paleontologist Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish series, now showing on PBS, offers a wonderful way to experience that connectedness with deep time. The series is as thoroughly entertaining and informative as his book of the same title.