Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Populating Our Cenozoic

Some weeks ago, I met with two of my colleagues Laura Friedman and Lowell Dingus, to begin work on selecting mammal fossils for the Cenozoic gallery. Like me, Laura and Lowell are both "alumni" ("refugees" or "survivors" would also be good terms) of a certain well known natural history museum in New York City, where Lowell once managed the renovation of the 4th floor fossil galleries and Laura worked as a designer in the exhibit department. All-in-all, just working with them is privilege; the fact that it's also fun is merely the icing on the cake. Despite what you might think, 'fun' can be quite a rare commodity in museum work - you grab it when you can.

Selecting exhibit materials is a bit of balancing act between the planner (Lowell), the designer (Laura), and the curator (me). The observant among you will have noted the small 'c' under curator, which shows that I'm only acting in that capacity for this part of the project. The exhibit has a Curator (Jacques Gauthier) and also a number of contributing Curators (Derek Briggs, Leo Hickey, and Eric Sargis). But, at least for the purposes of these initial material selections, I'm pretending to be Eric. Which is tricky because, frankly, he looks nothing like me (see here for evidence).

The planner is trying to ensure that whatever we pick fits the general vision for the hall. As you will have seen from the last post on this subject, what we are trying to do in the Cenozoic hall is show the transition from a global greenhouse to a global icehouse, so Lowell is looking for fossils that will demonstrate this. As the designer, Laura has to consider how all of these elements are actually going to fit into the cases that are built for them and how the hall will actually look. And I, of course, want to get as many oreodonts as possible on display, while bearing in mind that my Curatorial colleague Eric will have exactly the same wish for isolated teeth from plesiadapiform primates. And because we're talking about wider environmental changes, we can't just stuff the hall with fossil mammals; we also need to reflect the full glories of the Peabody's Cenozoic fossil collections, which include birds, reptiles, amphibia, fish, insects, molluscs, and plants.

Nonetheless, we're starting with mammals, because they are the biggest elements in the room. The very largest ones are, for the most part, the ones that are already on display. As I mentioned in the earlier post, it's likely that the very largest of these, the brontothere Megacerops and the American mastodon Mammut will form the twin poles of the exhibit, anchoring the hothouse and the icehouse respectively. Around these, we have to fit the other large skeletons from the gallery. The first thing that emerged as we looked at this was that as it currentlyy stands most of the big specimens are going to be concentrated in the icehouse - it's here that you'll find the giant camel, the giant deer, and the chalicothere Moropus, to say nothing of our Smilodon, dire wolf, glyptodon carapace, and ground sloth skeleton. Add to this a mounted skeleton of the pot-bellied Miocene rhino Teleoceras that I really want to get out of storage and back on display, and you can see that things from the Miocene to the Pleistocene are going to be a little crowded.

By contrast, the hothouse and the transitional period are looking a little short of big stuff. The brontothere is enormous (surprisingly so - it'sthe size of a small elephant, a fact that is obscurred by the current glass case, which makes it difficult to get up close to it) but most of the other beasties of the Paleocene to Oligocene are a bit on the small side. The only other large-ish skeleton that might fit this area, a uintathere, is actually a life-sized paper mache model and one of the few specimens that we actively want to remove from the gallery (in order to replace it with a fossil skull from the Peabody's exceptional collection of O.C. Marsh-era uintathere skulls).

So one of the first challenges we have to face is whether or not to try and even-up the size distribution across the hall, which from a practical point of view means retiring large specimens from the icehouse. This is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. Setting aside the fact that many of these are charismatic specimens that the public would want to see, there is a very real practical problem of finding space to store large display mounts in the collection. I might want to retire our specimen of giant deer (I've never been able to get very excited over Megaloceros. It's a very big deer with very big antlers. Wow) but if I do then it's me that has to figure out where to put it and deal with hate mail from the 2.5 Megaloceros fans in the world. Also, one could argue that gigantism was very much a feature of the Pleistocene - hey, they don't call it a "megafauna" for nothing.

The flip side of this is that an accurate portrayal of a typical mammal fauna from the hothouse would be dominated by small animals. Our big titanothere is actually quite atypical of most of the mammals from this period, as it comes from a time when the climate was becoming drier and forests began to open out into woodland. If you want modern-day analogues, you'd probably look at the sort of animals that are typical of closed-canopy tropical rainforests - small herbivores like duikers and chevrotains on the forest floor and the canopy dominated by various fruit-eating rodents and primates. And sure enough, when we get into the Peabody collections we discover plenty of fossils of these sorts of mammal from the rainforests of Paleocene and Eocene  North America. However, finding display-worthy specimens is quite another matter.

To complicate things further, when we come to choose the specimens there's another factor that we have to bear in mind - that large mural that hangs over the gallery. As much as possible, we would like the new exhibits in both the Great Hall and the Cenozoic Hall to reflect what is shown in the Zallinger murals, if only to draw attention to some of the advances in our understanding of paleobiology that have occurred over the 50-plus years since the murals were completed. That means that not only do we have to try and find display-worthy material representative of the environment that we are describing - we also have to find display quality material of the species shown in the mural. This is not as easy a task as one might think, as Laura, Lowell, and I discovered when we went into the collections. More on this in the next post on the fossil hall renovations.

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