Thursday, August 21, 2014

Light and Dark ~ An Idiosyncratic View of the American Museum of Natural History

I loved that damned museum.
         ~ Holden Caulfield in
            J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Light, lights, daylight . . . ah, wonderful illumination.  That’s what I found most to love about the American Museum of Natural History on my first visit to this iconic institution.  A couple of weeks ago, while striding through the halls of the museum’s Koch Dinosaur Wing, I reveled in the lack of dim corners and deep shadows, an absence which did nothing to reduce the drama associated with these creatures.

By placing some dinosaurs in separate “islands” on different levels within a hall, the AMNH allows visitors to draw near to them and see many of them from all sides.  That, too, is to love.

With the closure of the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and its five-year (if all goes well) renovation, I have become sensitive to the ways in which different museums might approach these twin issues of lighting and placement of specimens.  I have to admit that I was not fond of the Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall which I found dark and dreary.  The Dinosaur Wing at the AMNH, though now some 20 years removed from its last major renovation, offers me hope that what will come forth in Washington will be dinosaurs and associated specimens awash in light and very approachable.

That said, the content of the AMNH's Dinosaur Wing failed for me in one incredibly important way.  The “story” it sought to tell fell on my deaf ears.  I didn’t get it until later and, even then, I wonder why this story had to be told in this particular way.  The various vertebrate halls, including those in the Dinosaur Wing, are arranged as an “evolutionary tree of vertebrates,” with closely related taxa placed together.  There is a path that the museum wants visitors to follow to explore this overarching evolutionary theme through these halls, but, I suspect not one in a hundred visitors, if that many, tumbles to this.  As a consequence of the telling of the story this way, the two major lines of dinosaurs can be found in two different halls – one for Ornithischian Dinosaurs, and another for Saurischian Dinosaurs.  I certainly didn’t begin to hear the story being told until I started wondering why the saurischians (the so-called “lizard-hipped” dinosaurs) and ornithischians (the “bird-hipped” dinosaurs) lived separate existences in the AMNH, when, in life, they interacted.  Then I found the small signs that explained it.

As a consequence of this arrangement, what is missing is, in fact, the life that these creatures lived, the environments within which they lived and died, the different flora, and related and unrelated fauna that made up their worlds, and how all of that changed over time (somewhat quickly on occasion).  This story is one with particular salience today and the one I believe will be told and heard at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in the future.  Indeed, the temporary dinosaur exhibit that will be mounted in November of this year at the NMNH embraces that story.  Titled The Last American Dinosaurs:  Discovering a Lost World, it will present a few of the last dinosaurs and the complexity of the ecosystem within which they lived and died.  And Deep Time, the hall that will replace the various fossils exhibits that have been shut down will, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.”  (Vicky Gan, About Deep Time:  A Preview of the Natural History Museum’s Fossil Hall Renovation, October 29, 2013.)

Yes, I admit, this post is a decidedly skewed appraisal of the American Museum of Natural History.  I explored only part of the wonderfully rich array of specimens that the museum has on display.  But, to my disappointment, it was not hard to find places that shared none of the Dinosaur Wing’s love of light.  Many other displays in the museum accentuate darkness, and, it’s in the darkness, that I think Holden Caulfield would find, even today, that which he loved about the “damned” museum.

In the novel, Holden, in search of his sister Phoebe, walks across Central Park to the AMNH, despite the fact that it’s Sunday and Phoebe wont be there.
I knew that whole museum routine like a book.  Phoebe went to the same school I went to when I was a kid, and we used to go there all the time.  We had this teacher, Miss Aigletinger, that took us there damn near every Saturday.  Sometimes we looked at the animals and sometimes we looked at the stuff the Indians had made in ancient times.  Pottery and straw baskets and all stuff like that.  I get very happy when I think about it.
Holden remembers the Indian displays in particular, the long war canoe with Indian figures sitting in it, the glass cases with Indian figures captured at moments in time – the Eskimo fishing through a hole in the ice, the blanket-weaving Indian woman with an exposed breast.  Glass cases.
Boy, that museum was full of glass cases.  There were even more upstairs, with deer inside them drinking at water holes, and birds flying south for the winter.
What resonated the most, what meant the most to Holden was the permanence of the exhibits.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.  Nobody’d move.  You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, . . . .   Nobody’d be different.  The only thing that would be different would be you.  Not that you’d be so much older or anything.  It wouldn’t be that, exactly.  You’d just be different, that’s all.
It was a home to him, where younger brothers don’t die, people don’t change, and moments are captured forever.

Well, Holden, I have to say that, more than half a century later, you might still find some comfort in parts of the museum.  Glass cases with their captured moments abound in the halls with Indian displays or especially those featuring birds.  Is that the same Indian war canoe you saw, the one that seems to go on forever (“about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row”)?  And these halls, in particular, are dark.  As I wandered in them, I was looking through windows into fragmented worlds, shards of action glinting in the lights from within the glass cases.  I found much of this to be an unfortunate throwback to museums as I remember them to be.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Provenance or Provenience? ~ Not a Chance

Oh, the trouble those amateur collectors cause.  For once, I’m not the culprit; rather, it’s someone unknown who once filled a cigar box with projectile points made by early Native Americans (the most likely identity of their makers).

This post, featuring no specific fossils, is about where things start and where they end up.  Specifically, it begins with my in-laws’ house, which dates from the colonial period, digresses a bit, considers the contents of that cigar box, offers a vocabulary lesson that has a paleontological connection, and concludes . . . with many unknowns.

My in-laws’ house in New England, built in 1727, contains many treasures which are slowly coming to light as we work our way through its contents.  One of my earliest memories of this house is the same as one of my most recent – a sore head.  Just the other day I knocked the top of my head on the lintel of a doorway.  The conventional wisdom among family members is that the low doorways in the house reflect the lower average height of people in centuries past.  So, when I read Bill Bryson’s At Home:  A Short History of Private Life (2010), I was particularly intrigued by the following note:
The low doors of so many old European houses, on which those of us who are absentminded tend to crack our heads, are low not because people were shorter and required less headroom in former times, as is commonly supposed.  People in the distant past were not in fact all that small.  Doors were small for the same reason windows were small:  they were expensive.  (This note appears on page 68 of paperback edition.  I assume Bryson would apply his logic to doors in colonial homes in the United States, as well.)
So, apparently, the accepted explanation is wrong and a different reason holds sway.

This is quintessential Bryson – prose written in a fluid and engaging style, prose that is often quite humorous, typically offering up kernels of information intended to startle and challenge the reader.  It’s much like reading a long series of well-written, rather entertaining encyclopedia articles.  The conceit of this book is that he’s explaining the social, cultural, political, and architectural history behind the 150-year-old rectory he owns in England.  By extension, his mission is to explain houses and home life in, well, England, with some reach to the United States and parts of Western Europe during the past century and a half.  But it's largely simply a platform from which Bryson feels free to launch himself into discussions of myriad topics, sometimes only marginally, if, really at all, connected to the topic at hand.  (I can relate.)

On this particular issue of doorway height, I have a quibble with the sentence:  “People in the distant past were not in fact all that small.”  I don’t know quite what he’s asserting.  They weren’t any shorter than people today and so also banged their heads when (if) they forgot to duck?  Or, they weren’t enough shorter to account for lower lintels and, so, may have banged their heads, though perhaps not as often?  Regardless, I’m not so sure Bryson is completely right.  People were somewhat shorter back then.  Recent historical research on average heights in the population in England over the past couple of centuries shows that men were shorter by between 2 to perhaps 3 inches in the very early decades of the 19th century than they are today.  Is that enough to have influenced builders’ standard sizes for doorways and doors?  How much shorter, on average, were doorways and doors a couple of hundred years ago?  (See Table 3 in Height, Weight and Body Mass of the British Population Since 1820, by economic historian Roderick Floud.  He presents data for the mean height of English adult males between 1800-1819 to 1960-1979.  This paper is part of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Working Paper Series on Historical Factors in Long Run Growth.  It is Historical Paper 108, published October 1998.)

There’s another explanation with some currency in the family:  small doors meant less heat loss. This one’s not considered by Bryson.

Setting aside that minor objection about painfully low doorways, I do have a somewhat more substantive issue to raise with Bryson.  Why do “cabinets of curiosity” not make an appearance in the book?  It’s a particularly glaring omission when the springboard for the book is a mid-19th century English rectory.  I have a sense that rectors, with few obligations associated with their position, had plenty of time on their hands and, as a result, were able to be in the vanguard of the mania for natural history exploration and collecting that gripped a large swath of the population on both sides of the Atlantic during this period.  Bryson does acknowledge that there was such an interest among some elements in the population:  “Fieldwork was now all the rage among gentlemen of a scientific bent.  Some went in for geology and the natural sciences.  Others became antiquaries.”  (p. 510.)  But, what of the concomitant drive to display what one found and the effect that had on, at least, the furniture in the house, if not one of its rooms?  A cabinet of curiosities might be just what we’d think it was – a piece of furniture in which to display finds, or it might have been an entire room dedicated to the owner’s collection of objects from the natural world.  (See, “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”:  American Children’s Cabinets of Curiosities by historian Shirley Teresa Wajda which appears in Acts of Possession:  Collecting in America, edited by Leah Dilworth, 2003.)

Of the myriad strange and wonderful things to have emerged from my in-laws’ house, I would consider only the contents of that old cigar box as offering possible candidates for display in a cabinet of curiosities.  As already noted, the box when it came to light in the attic was full of Native American projectile points (with a rock and piece of coral, thrown in).  Noel D. Justice’s description of Native American points offers a thoughtful perspective:  “Being the products of particular cultural traditions from specific time periods, they represent fossilized behavior patterns of their makers.”  (Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States:  A Modern Survey and Reference, 1987, p. 6.)  These are amazing artifacts of cultural history, utilitarian, of course, but also strikingly beautiful.

After agreeing to “curate” these artifacts (foolish of me) for the family, I found myself in new and confusing territory, and remain there, the job undone.  I assumed that most, if not all, of what I had before me were arrowheads or spear points, but that’s just the neophyte’s view.  Justice writes, “Use-wear analysis has shown that these tools were often used as knives, saws, and many other things besides tips for spears and arrows.”  (Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States, p. 1.)  Further, as they wore or broke, they were often refashioned to serve the same or another purpose.  To cover my bases (and my ignorance), I’ve referred to all of the objects from the cigar box as projectile points or points.

So, I started off not knowing what I had and it only got worse.  The individual points came with absolutely no indication of their provenance, with the exception of a very few carrying the penciled notation:  “W. Co.”  One has what I interpret as “Cherike Okla” inked across it.  “Cherike” – Cherokee?

(This point is 2 ¼ inches long.)

At that juncture, the exercise became even more interesting with a paleontology link.  The paleontological dictum I’ve heard and certainly repeated is that a fossil without provenance is of little scientific value.  I thought I knew what was meant by provenance in that context – precise information on where the object was found.  I realized that I really didn’t know the word or how it should be used when I stumbled over the (new-to-me) term provenience in the archaeological literature on points (I assumed initially that some author or editor had failed to adequately proof the copy or had ignored his spellchecker).  I went in search of an explanation.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) defines provenance as:  “The origin, or history of ownership of an archaeological or historical object.”  It defines provenience, in contrast, as:  “The three-dimensional context (including geographical location) of an archaeological find, giving information about its function and date.”

Interestingly enough, art history literature is a useful source for thoughtful discussions of the differences between the two terms because many art historians are concerned about the tendency by some to treat the terms as synonyms.  For art historians, delineating provenance is of importance because it establishes the history of an individual work of art’s possession and ownership (consider, for example, the significance of provenance for art work coming on the market that may have been looted during the Holocaust).  As a consequence, provenance is clearly not provenience which is the findspot, that  “three-dimensional context” of an object’s discovery in the field.  The distinction is summed up very nicely by archaeologist Rosemary A. Joyce, in From Place to Place:  Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology (a chapter in Provenance:  An Alternate History of Art, edited by Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Jackson Reist, 2012):
. . . provenience is a fixed point, while provenance can be considered an itinerary that an object follows as it moves from hand to hand.  (p. 48.)
Conclusion from this excursion into definitions of terms?  That I’m truly lost.  I don’t know either the provenance or the provenience of these points.

As for the use of these terms in a paleontological context, even such an august institution as the American Museum of Natural History appears to blithely confound the two, expanding the definition of provenance to embrace provenience.  Provenance, it asserts, means:  “Information that defines a specimen in terms of the specific geographic point of origin as well as the background and history of ownership.  Also known as provenience.”

So, lacking provenance and provenience for the points, the task of identifying the age or the culture from which any of these points came (other than perhaps the single one pictured above) is beyond me.  Point identification guides (like Justice’s cited above or The Official Overstreet Identification and Price Guide to Indian Arrowheads, 13th edition, 2013) begin the process assuming one already knows at least the broad geographic region of the point’s discovery.  This is critical, in part, because a point typology, specific to a time and culture, may reappear elsewhere at a later date.

I didn’t think it was an option to leave the contents of the cigar box in a hopeless jumble, partly because that risks damage to the points.  As a result, I was delighted to find the undergraduate honors paper by Katelyn Scott titled Native American Projectile Points:  What Stories Can They Tell Us? (Honors Projects, Paper 46, Illinois Wesleyan University, 2013) which offered a way out.  What I most enjoyed and appreciated is a segment of the paper that, for all of its “scientific” trappings (it is a sociology/anthropology honors paper after all), constitutes a charmingly frank and personal essay recounting how Scott struggled to make sense of, and accession, a projectile point collection for the Ames Library at Illinois Wesleyan, a collection that had no provenience and next to no provenance.

Her journey is fun to follow as she delves into the archaeological literature, and then seeks out professional archaeologists with expertise about projectile points.  I particularly enjoyed it when she discovered that the professionals she consulted were so regionally specialized in their knowledge of points that they could classify only some of the points as to type but pleaded ignorance about the majority (suggesting that this was an eclectic aggregation of points from various parts of the country).  And I sense she relished the detective work involved in trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to piece together the provenance of the collection, including pondering what might be learned from the date on the pages from the Christian Science Monitor newspaper in which the points were wrapped.

The organizing principle she selected, with help from the literature and the experts, was generally based on the stems (the area of the point separating the base from the body) – the absence of a stem, the shape of the stem if present, and whether notches separated the base from the body.  These three broad categories (of which there are various subcategories) are illustrated below (based on James. W. Cambron and David C. Hulse, Handbook of Alabama Archaeology:  Part 1 Point, Types, Archaeological Research Association of Alabama, November, 1975, p. xvii).

I followed her lead, but even this broad grouping strategy has often thwarted my best efforts, particularly given different subcategories and the subtle distinctions among them.  For instance, distinguishing stems that expand as they reach the base of the point from points that are notched has been problematic.  Do these characteristics fall on a continuum and only an expert eye can distinguish where stems and notches separate?  Further, some notches are considered side notches while others are corner notches.  The mind reels.

Here are a few of the better points I worked with.  The first is a straight stemmed point (3 3/8th inches long).  The next two are a side-notched point (2 5/16th inches long) and (I think) a corner-notched point (3 5/16th inches long).  Finally, there’s a picture of one grouping of points that, when I put it together, I thought consisted of all corner-notched points, but, as I study the picture, I have my doubts.

In the end, although my vocabulary has been enriched and made a bit more precise, I am left, not only facing a somewhat organized, nicely displayed collection of unknowns, but also balancing on the cusp of a brand new, potentially consuming interest.  Not at all where I want to be.

Nature Blog Network