Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Pandemic Days ~ Missing the Wonders of Fossils in Natural History Museums

The medical doctor and science essayist Lewis Thomas was once asked to be part of a gathering to create a list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  He declined the invitation given his time constraints, but continued to mull over what he’d choose as the seven and, finally, penned an essay on the topic.  He began by considering the surprising richness and complexity of what we mean by wonder:
Wonder is a word to wonder about.  It contains a mixture of messages:  something marvelous and miraculous, surprising, raising unanswerable questions about itself, making the observer wonder, even raising skeptical questions like, “I wonder about that.”  Miraculous and marvelous are clues, both words come from an ancient Indo-European root meaning simply to smile or to laugh.  Anything wonderful is something to smile in the presence of, in admiration (which, by the way, comes from the same root, along with, of all telling words, “mirror”).  (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, 1983, p. 55-56.)
While sheltering-in-place, I have gone in search of wonders not of the modern world, but of deep time, that is, I've gone looking for fossils, which are among the objects that make me wonder and smile.  I tried to do this by using online virtual tours to explore the holdings of natural history museums, here in the United States and elsewhere in the world.  Though there are tours to be had in some natural history museums, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of those in this country appear to offer none.  The same seems to apply to these museums worldwide.  I wonder if the experience of this pandemic will change that reality when these institutions are once again unshuttered.

At some point, many of those that do feature virtual tours partnered for their creation with the Google Cultural Institute, a non-profit entity founded in 2011.  These tours rely on the use of Street View Trolleys, the same camera technology used on automobiles to create Google Maps and Google Earth.

(This image of a trolley was taken from a YouTube video on the use of trolleys in cultural venues.)

American Museum of Natural History

I first stumbled on this Google project when I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where the “Exploration” page offered a link to a virtual tour of the museum from “Google Arts and Culture” (the tour link is near the bottom of the page).

Here is the opening view of the virtual tour.  In this post, when the word “view” is underlined and highlighted it is an active link which will take you to where in the tour I captured the image.  Please note that most of the images shown in this post will not be precisely the views that will open when the "view" link is clicked.  Apparently any zooming in or out, or rotating that I did fails to fully register with the URLs used to create the links.

This beginning was actually a bit disappointing because the view failed to identify precisely where I was in the museum.

The images at the bottom of the opening shot link to specific areas of the museum that can be toured.  But, again, none of them are identified.  I clicked on the Tyrannosaurus rex image figuring there had to be fossils there.

This is the view that greeted me.

Fossils for sure, but a somewhat bizarre opening shot of this part of the museum’s dinosaur collection.  I was encouraged that the sign could be read ("in person," it is readable).  That had been a major concern going into this and, with care, most signs shown in this museum are readable.

Any view in the tour can be manipulated – zoomed in or out, rotated up, down, right, or left.  Arrows on the floor offer a way to move to another location offering another perspective.  For example, from the opening shot of the T. rex just presented, I zoomed out a bit and rotated up, generating this more impressive view.

I moved to one end of the hall and turned and captured the view below that peers down the length of the hall.  This shot nicely captures the way in which the American Museum of Natural History has chosen to display its dinosaurs – not within their environment or within the context of multidimensional stories, but by taxonomic groupings.

I wandered through the dinosaur holdings at the museum for awhile but, despite some wonderful fossils, I came away disappointed.  While touring, I had little sense of precisely where I was in any hall or, for that matter, in the museum as a whole.  I felt disconnected from the museum and its specimens, very much a stranger remaining at some remove from what was on display.  Symptomatic of this was the very skimpy information that I received when I clicked on the small images that, on occasion, appeared, associated with a specific item in an exhibit.  All rather perfunctory.  Did museum staff actually oversee and direct the creation of the tour?  Doubtful.

A Very Few Natural History Museums in Britain and Europe

The Google Cultural Institute website offers access to a wide array of tours of cultural institutions, including some natural history museum.  Links to 49 “collections” came up when I searched for “natural history” on the Institute’s website, most of which were museums.  Only 27 offered virtual tours.

I will only share a bit of what I experienced when I toured a few of those museums.  I spent most time at just three:  the Natural History Museum, London, Natural History Museum, Berlin, and the Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Yes, there are some fascinating fossils that one can view on these tours, with an emphasis on dinosaurs.  The issues I identified with the virtual tour of the American Museum of Natural History apply to these museums' tours in spades.  Worse, reading signs was difficult; I found most to be unreadable (and not because of any language barrier).  It does seem that signage overall in these institutions is scarce.  Are museum signs with heavy doses of explanatory text mostly an American phenomenon?

As I wandered through these museums, I began to explore the awe inspiring architecture of some of the buildings that house these collection.  Perhaps the architecture alone might the object of a virtual tour.  To wit, consider this view of part of the 19th century home of the Natural History Museum, Vienna.

I suspect that the limitations I’ve highlighted above are true of all virtual tours of natural history museums generated by the Google Cultural Institute’s Street View Trolley.  A far better approach, I would argue, is for museum staff to curate virtual tours actively with a structured message and the desired visitors’ experience in mind.  One museum has taken that approach.

Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History

I admit that I am biased in favor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (I volunteered there for several years and have often extolled its virtues in the pages of this blog).  Of the virtual tours I took for this post, the crown jewel is that offered the the National Museum.

For this post, I limited myself to the recently reopened and thoroughly renovated Fossil Hall – Deep Time, and came away, once again, enraptured by the breadth and depth of what there is to see and learn in that hall, even if one just visits virtually.  As fashioned by the Smithsonian, this tour does not give one full control over where in the hall the cursor finds active links and that, I think, is a good thing.  It’s a healthy function of how much the tour was intentionally planned and designed.  This is a tour de force.  (My apologies, the first thing to go with sustained cabin fever may be the joke filter.)

The museum’s various virtual tours are accessible through a portal page.  Clicking on the Permanent Exhibits icon (a bit down the page) opens up a view of the rotunda on the first floor.  As seen in the image below, a floor diagram floats in the upper right hand corner, identifying the permanent exhibits on this floor.  (The floor plan can be closed but I often kept it open to remind me of where I was.)  In each exhibit, small bubble icons mark where a visitor can go.  If one hovers over an icon, the location is identified.  The Fossil Hall (green on the floor plan) is awash in icons.  Clicking on one places the visitor in the exhibit at that location with a 360 degree view that can be manipulated.  (Be warned that many of the views afforded of different specimens suffer a bit from reflections off the display cases.  Site credit is given as follows:  “Imagery and coding by Loren Ybarrondo.”)

Here are just a very few of my favorite views from the Fossil Hall tour.  None of these subsequent images is accompanied below by a web address because this tour does not associate a unique address with any specific place in the hall.

Of course, the tableau of a Tyrannosaurus rex about to dine on a fallen Triceratops horridus has become this hall’s iconic image:

The completeness and detail of many fossils from the Green River Formation (Eocene, 54 to 48 million years ago) make them quite compelling.  Here is one display of these fossils in the hall.  While on the tour, I could move closer to the exhibit, study some of the specimens, and read explanatory text.

Another of my favorite features of the Fossil Hall is this display of marine fossils from the Late Cretaceous.  This view centers on a large mosasaur, a Tylosaurus, that holds a neat secret.

Moving close to this mosasaur, one discovers that, somewhat obscured by its ribs, is a small clutch of bones mounted on an illustrated stomach.  Apparently, this mosasaur died shortly after making a meal of a plesiosaur which, in turn, had recently eaten a smaller species.  A fossil find that kept on giving.

No point uploading more images, the virtual tour "in person" is well worth taking, feeding that sense of wonder over deep time.

As noted at the outset of this post, Lewis Thomas ultimately did choose his Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  What an eclectic array of object from the natural world he chose.  Not what I would ever have anticipated, but they are objects that generated profound questions for him, offered up mysteries that challenged accepted wisdom, and exhibited complex, surprising, and awe-inspiring behavior.  Wonders.

The seven in the rank order he gave them beginning with his top choice are:  the planet Earth (a "living system, an immense organism, . . . ."); thermophilic bacteria (those that live in environments with extremely high temperatures that heretofore were thought inimicable to life); the Oncideres beetle (whose complex behavior told Thomas how little we know about nature); the scrapie virus (an infectious agent causing brain disease in sheep and goats whose composition and behavior defied explanation); the olfactory receptor cell (a neuron living far from the brain); the termite (the miracle of its collectivity); and a human child (to Thomas, human childhood is essentially for learning language which creates our wondrous collectivity).

These days, it is rather hard to “to smile in the presence of” the full range of the wonders of the natural world, particularly the one that all the world's people are experiencing now, but Thomas, I think, could have managed it.

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