Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Museums Telling a New Natural History Story

My intention to write a post about the blog that the Paleobiology Department in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) launched several months ago was reinforced when I came across Edward Rothstein’s review of the multi-million dollar “transformation” or “refashioning” of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) (Beyond Dioramas:  Nature’s New Story, New York Times, August 3, 2013).  It struck me that both efforts – one a very expensive investment in the remaking of a museum and the other a low-cost digital activity with minimal financial outlay – present (to varying degrees) a critical element of the story that natural history museums are now sharing with their visitors, whether those visitors come to a physical structure or a website.  These museum are telling how scientists in the natural history fields do their work.

Rothstein, cultural critic of the New York Times, asserts that the natural history museum, in general, has been a lumbering beast, resistant to change, that is, until recently.  The beast’s evolution, he posits, is “quickening.”  So, what has changed for the NHM?  The essence of his somewhat rambling review seems to be that NHM chose to go “local” (read, Los Angeles) and focus on the “history of human interaction with nature.”  The tried and true elements of the natural history museum remain in the NHM – the dioramas from the 1920s and 1930s have their place along with the fossils.  But these are just a part of this museum’s landscape which now features local artifacts – to wit, the shoes and clothes Charlie Chaplin wore in City Lights, or a 1902 Tourist, a wooden car – topped off by the exhibit titled Becoming Los Angeles which presents the history of the peopling of the area.  Apparently, where this new approach most reveals its promise is in the Nature Lab in which children (and their parents) learn about the local Los Angeles fauna and are drawn into “citizen science” activities.  Rothstein labels the Nature Lab’s exhibits “among the most successful I have seen for children in a science museum.”

I must admit that I initially thought that the LA museum might have wandered too far afield in its efforts to remake itself (and appeal to a broader audience), but I have to remember the sweeping nature of what’s included in that term natural history.  Wooden cars and movie costumes are not a stretch.

In drawing visitors into a greater understanding of the “history of human interaction with nature,” the NHM appears to have embraced two disparate aspects of that objective.  The first centers on humans reshaping their natural environment (e.g., the Becoming Los Angeles exhibit).  Interesting and important, to be sure.  The second – how we humans learn about nature – is, for me, the more critical element.  This should be part of the heart and soul of the story that natural history museums are telling – how paleontologists, botanists, entomologists, and the other scientists in the natural history fields do their work.

Rothstein writes that the NHM’s Mammal and Dinosaur Halls now “hint” at this.  They seek to present the “interpretations” and “uncertainties” of the work.  Further, and more to the point, in some of these NHM exhibits,
[t]he emphasis is on how paleontologists learn and on how our understanding has changed.  Scientists appears in videos and panels, outlining arguments and demonstrating procedures.
I'll have to see them for myself to know whether hint is the appropriate verb.  Based on the description of the new Dinosaur Hall on the NHM's website, I come away feeling that the NHM is doing more than just hinting.  Of the three questions purportedly addressed by new Dinosaur Hall, one is "How do scientists know what they know?"  Luis Chiappe, Director of the NHM's Dinosaur Institute, is quoted as saying, “The new Dinosaur Hall has the potential of inspiring new generations of scientists, since this exhibition highlights discovery-based fieldwork, the experience of going outdoors and finding treasures, and then understanding how they fit within current scientific record.”

Amen to that.

A less significant but still an important contribution toward this refocusing of the natural history museum and its story is the blog launched by the Paleobiology Department at the Smithsonian's NMNH.  Getting beyond the “punny” title – Digging the Fossil Record:  Paleobiology at the Smithsonian – is well worth the effort because typically the content is very interesting and the blog’s authors successfully explicate the complicated.  (Unfortunately and rather puzzling, the identity of the writers of individual posts isn’t always provided.) The tone is light and engaging.  Altogether, it’s a fun blog to monitor.

In its initial post, the blog sought to entice readers:
If you have ever wondered what paleontologists do in the field or wished you could see Smithsonian fossils that aren’t on display, subscribe to this blog for behind-the-scenes photos, field reports from our scientists, research news, archival images, paleo art, and many other stories about our collection and our work, past and present.
So, far in its brief existence, Digging the Fossil Record has lived up to its own PR, offering a fairly wide mix of content, though, to date, it’s been largely dominated by accounts of Smithsonian scientists doing field work.  Among these posts have been a multipart series about collecting plant fossils at a Permian site in north-central Texas, a two-part series focused on core drilling in Tanzania in order to collect the fossil shells of marine microorganisms, and, most recently, a five-parter on a collecting trip to the North Dakota badlands (more on that one in a moment).

Though other kinds of offerings have been on the menu, they’ve been a bit sparser.  The blog has explored, among other subjects, some of the prep work being done by volunteers in the Museum’s FossiLab on material brought back from the field, the background of the new T. rex skeleton coming to the Smithsonian (just in time for the disruption of the complete remodeling of all of the paleontological offerings at the NMNH, including the Dinosaur Hall), and the life’s work of a premier, though largely forgotten, dinosaur hunter, Charles W. Gilmore, a curator at the NMNH for a couple of decades in the first half of the 20th Century.

The North Dakota badlands series, titled From the Field:  Putting Dinosaurs in Their Place, is a good example of what the blog has to offer (besides titles with puns).  The collecting trip is placed firmly in context.  In preparation for an exhibit opening next year that will “flesh out” the natural environment in which the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex lived, the NMNH team went in search of fossils of “small vertebrates, mollusks, plants, and, of course, dinosaurs . . . ” in the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation.  It was eye opening to this amateur collector that the objective of the trip was that clear cut – gather the material needed for an exhibit on a Late Cretaceous ecosystem.  For me, setting out with such a definitive goal would be a certain recipe for disappointment.  But that’s where experience and expertise enter the equation.  The team included paleobotanist Kirk Johnson (also the Director of the NMNH) who has often collected plants in this area.  He led the team to favorite and productive spots.

Methods employed in the field are on display in these posts.  Small quarries are dug, rocks are moved and split, revealing the impressions of plants within.

(The photo of the multiple leaf impressions was taken by Diana Marsh; that of the palm leaf was taken by Kirk Johnson.  These pictures and one below were downloaded from the blog under the terms of use specified by the Smithsonian.)

Ancient river channels are crawled through in search of tiny fossil teeth and bones lying on the surface.  Matrix is shoveled into bags for more thorough searching back in the Museum’s FossiLab.  GPS devices are used to record precise locations of finds.  Sketches are made of the landscape, attending to the locations of different sedimentary layers.  Layers are measured with a Jacob’s staff (had to look that one up since the post in question offers no explanation).

(I could not find a credit for this photograph.)

One post describes a “bone walk” or biostratigraphic survey in which every visible fossil is collected, with its location noted, from one specific sedimentary layer.

These posts make it abundantly clear that this work, in general, is not one string of wonderful fossil discoveries; they well capture the painstaking nature of the work and the challenge of collecting under the hot North Dakota sun.

Perhaps most important to me is that any attentive reader of this series will learn that the field work is but one step in the process.  These badlands posts repeatedly emphasize that lab work awaits these finds – sifting through matrix for more vertebrate fossils, carefully exposing more of the leaves from the split rocks.  I hope that the blog will follow these fossils from the field through the lab, onto the curation process, and, finally, to display in the new exhibit opening in 2014 (or, if we're being really honest, sometimes to storage in plaster jackets or in drawers in some cabinets).  Now, that would certainly capture some of how the work of natural history is done.

Sadly, the small effort by the National Museum of Natural History’s Digging the Fossil Record blog is blunted because the blog is rather hidden (I originally wrote “buried”) on the Smithsonian’s busy website. Yes, there are some other offerings on the NMNH website that feature the processes of science, but these are too little and too secreted away.

Yet, hope springs eternal.  I look forward to seeing, in several years' time (possibly by 2019), the NMNH's totally remade paleontological offerings fully expressing this new story of natural history.

[Note:  As originally uploaded, this post perpetuated the misconception that the NMNH was renovating just its Dinosaur Hall.  All of its paleontological offerings are being redone as outlined in a Washington Post article from last year.]

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