Friday, June 14, 2019

David H. Koch Hall of Fossils - Deep Time
~ Come for the Dinosaurs, Absorb the Lessons

On June 8, 2019, after five years of work, $125 million, and, I’m certain, myriad headaches, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History opened its completely renovated fossil hall, the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time.  This post describes primarily what caught my eye on my first visit to this remarkable hall.  Given that it houses over 700 fossils and presents some 75,000 words on its signage, I clearly missed a great deal and return visits are in order.  At the outset, I would note that, for all intents and purposes, this is a new hall and that’s how I’ll refer to it below.

The prior incarnation of a Smithsonian fossil hall enveloped visitors in darkness that seemed to emanate from the crowded displays, the gloomy worn carpeting, the faint-hearted lighting, and even the outdated science that was referenced in the skeleton poses and the signage.  No natural light, no windows.

This newest hall greets the visitor with grace, space, and, above all (quite literally) light.  (Dear visitors, please embrace these attributes wholeheartedly.)  The picture below – a panorama shot of a  Diplodocus skeleton stretching nearly 90 feet from the tiny tip of its tail (curving off to the left) to its undersized head at the end of a wonderfully long neck – shows some of the new hall in much of its airy glory.

That’s where I have to begin, with the dinosaurs, because that’s where most who come to this hall will naturally first gravitate.  And the child in most of us will find irresistible the tableau in the center of the hall’s long room where a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Triceratops horridus portray a scene that may well mirror many that actually occurred some 66 million or more years ago.

Of note, the skulls of both skeletons shown above are casts because the actual skeletons (housed elsewhere in the museum) would have weighed too much to be posed in such close proximity with each other.  This is described in an article and illustrated map of the new hall that appeared in the Washington Post (Bonnie Berkowitz and Aaron Steckelberg, A New Old Home for the Nation’s Dinosaurs, June 2, 2019).  This is a highly informative piece on the new hall.  Well worth exploring.

Labels throughout the hall clearly identify what’s a cast and what’s not.  Material that fills in incomplete specimens are a different shade allowing the sharp eyed to distinguish real fossil from manufactured material.  I have to say that some of these differences in shading are too subtle for my eyes.

Back to the tableau of a teenage (it is assumed) T. rex beginning to munch on a T. horridus.  It fails to answer a question debated among paleontologists.  Was T. rex a predator or a scavenger?  The display is agnostic on this, though, in all likelihood, T. rex went both ways.  (Hear National Museum of Natural History’s director, Kirk Johnson, discuss this aspect of the T. rex on the NPR show 1A with Joshua Johnson (episode aired on June 11, 2019).  In this episode, Kirk Johnson waxes enthusiastic about many features of the new hall.)

Among other dinosaurs found here is this Camarasaurus skeleton positioned near the Diplodocus.

The Camarasaurus picture highlights one distinguishing feature of the new hall:  there’s no effort to fill spaces with recreated, lifelike foliage from the diverse time periods.  Rather, the vegetation representations are minimalist.  The hall does allow visitors to see the ecosystems of such worlds, depicting them in little “diorama” stands scattered throughout the hall.

Here’s a close-up of the diorama of a grassland scene some 19 million years ago, reconstructed on the basis of fossils found in the Harrison Formation, Nebraska.

How is this new hall organized?  The designers want visitors to enter from the museum's rotunda and, so they are to begin with recent history, not deep time.  Visitors are greeted by bronze statues of a human family being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger.  The former recognizable, the latter striking but still mostly familiar.  Walking from the entrance down the length of the main long gallery, visitors at first move somewhat slowly back in time, only hundreds of thousands of years in those initial steps, but then rather quickly millions of years go by until, angling off to the left from this first gallery, visitors come to the initial emergence of life on the planet.  This organization forces a rethinking of time as, in the process of walking through the exhibits, the familiar or somewhat familiar is replaced by the faintly familiar which in turn is replaced by the truly different, alien even.  Deep time, for sure.

There is a spiral motif that marks some of the hall’s signage which not only represents how Earth’s history reaches far, very far back in time, but also speaks to the connections among all things.  The past is, indeed, prologue.  No “special creations” here.  One such spiral sits high over the entrance to the hall accompanied by a quotation from Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.  That quotation marks one of the recurrent themes that is traced throughout the hall’s displays – the history of life on this planet cannot be understood without a recognition of the fundamental role that evolution played and is still playing.

No shying away in this hall from evolution.  Indeed, a statue of a young Charles Darwin sits near the center of the hall with a Galapagos finch (?) perched on his shoulder.

This message about evolution’s central role in life on Earth is unavoidable as one’s path in the hall moves from the present into deep time.  Among the many exhibits and signage positing and elaborating on this theme, is a large sign featuring Smithsonian paleobiologist Gene Hunt.  An extensive set of quotations from him begins, “Species evolve by natural selection to meet the challenges of the world.”  Accompanying this is a fascinating (at least it was to me) display of two arrays of specimens of the bivalve mollusc Spondylus, commonly, though erroneously, referred to as “spiny oysters.”  The array on the left shows eight Spondylus specimens from a single species that lived in Florida some three million years ago.  Back then specimens of this species exhibited some, relatively marginal variations.  But, as the display notes, “Over time, variations like these can become the building blocks of new species.”  The eight Spondylus specimens on the right are from different species of this genus living in oceans today.

That evolution has had to contend with several major extinction events in deep time is unquestionably also a central element in the hall’s lesson on evolution.  One of the most striking ways this is conveyed comes when one gets back to the end-Permian extinction.  Here is a close-up of the key part of a graphic showing the wealth of diversity among plants and animals that marked the Permian in general (at the left of the event), but which was abruptly curtailed:
Massive volcanic eruptions 252 million years ago released gases that dramatically altered the climate, causing extinctions that rippled through food webs and devastated animal communities.

Emerging from that extinction event, life on Earth was diminished with a tremendous loss of diversity.

Embedded in the text of that sign is another fundamental message of the new hall that is repeated many, many times – Earth’s climate changed frequently in deep time and such changes had fundamental consequences for life on this planet.  Yet, as central as this message is to an understanding of how life as we now know it came to be (yes, the living are all connected in this great spiral of time), what impressed me perhaps most forcefully about the new hall was the way the content of that message is framed for visitors when they begin their journey.  Here is one way that message is delivered early in that journey.

"And humans are the cause."

And another:

One early kiosk loops a video discussing what can be learned about climate change over the past several hundred thousand years by studying ice cores.

Toward the very end of the short video, after it shows the strong correlation discovered between changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide and changes in the Earth’s temperature (more carbon dioxide, higher temperatures), the voice-over narrator says this:
Today CO2 is skyrocketing higher than any time in the past 800,000 years as we burn fossil fuels and cut down forests.  This time, humans are the reason Earth’s temperatures are rising.
Human’s lethal touch on life on Earth is felt in other ways as this display asserts.

To me, that’s the most amazing aspect of the new fossil hall – its robust assertion, clearly backed by science, that today’s climate change has human activities as its root cause and that it poses an existential threat.

Why is this amazing?  Because it shows that a bright line was drawn between David H. Koch, the core financial donor to the remaking of the fossil hall, and the content of the new hall.  David and his brother, Charles, head a multinational corporate empire founded by their father which, among other things, owns oil refineries and pipelines.  Writer Jane Mayer profiled the Koch brothers in a fascinating and detailed article in 2010 that ran in The New Yorker (Covert Operations, August 30, 2010).  In it, Mayer wrote:
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation.
Their attitude toward climate change?  As quoted by Mayer, a 2010 Koch Industries newsletter asserted that "fluctuations in the earth’s climate predate humanity . . . .  Since we can’t control Mother Nature, let’s figure out how to get along with her changes.”

That's why I think it quite striking that the new hall teaches its lesson about today’s climate change so strongly (stridently even), despite the beliefs of that donor.

I fear I've given the richness of the new hall short shrift because all I've highlighted has been the dinosaurs and the interwoven messages that I hope all visitors absorb.  There are hundreds of fossils on display, most much smaller than those awesome Mesozoic creatures.  I will close with a picture of what is one of the jewels of this new hall (I agree with director Kirk Johnson on this).  The piece of matrix pictured below comes from the Green River Formation (Wyoming) and features the 52-million-year-old, intact, incredibly beautiful skeleton of a tiny early horse, Protorohippus venticolum.  This is the most complete skeleton of this early horse species found to date.  The preserved detail is breath taking.  Given the fossil impressions of several fish in this matrix, evidently this horse died at a lake’s edge, floated out on the water for some distance, and then sank to the bottom.

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