Saturday, September 18, 2010

Intolerance

The problem with having a spectacular collection of fossils is that when it comes time to build your exhibit, there are some hard decisions to be made about what to leave in and what to take out. By the end of our planning process for the Cenozoic Hall, we had several hundred specimens in addition to those that are already in the gallery. Clearly something has to give.

One of the wonders of living in a digital world is the ability to explore whether or not things will fit into a space without actually having to do it in the real world. This is what my colleague, Laura Friedman, has been doing over the past few weeks, generating an entire portfolio of floor-plans. She's quick to point out that these are not actually designs for the gallery; we haven't reached that point yet. This is just an exercise in space planning.

Once we started to look at the floor-plans, it became very apparent that our new hall was in danger of getting crowded. As I've discussed in previous posts, there are some very large specimens that need to be included. We'd like to remove these from behind glass, which means that we have to allow sufficient around the specimen so that little Billy (or, more likely, little Billy's idiot father) can't lean over and touch\grab\pull it. We have to arrange the layout of the gallery so that there are no cul-de-sacs to trap the Billy family. And there has to be enough room to accommodate not just individual visitors and families, but also student groups, classes, and functions.

To make the optimum floor layout work, it was clear that we'd need to remove at least one big mount. Some, like the brontothere and mastodon, are too critical to the design of the hall to be removed. Others, such as the sabertooth cat and the giant ground sloth (complete with skin and hair!) are too cool. But I'd already picked my target and was prepared to argue forcefully for its removal. It was the giant deer.

The giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) may be better known to you as the Irish elk, one of those typical paleontological misnomers, since it is neither an elk, nor unique to Ireland. The Finish paleomammalogist Björn Kurtén tried to get around this by referring to the giant deer as "shelk" (if you're interested in the reasoning behind this, which has more than a whiff of cryptozoology about it, you can read more here) but this has never really caught on. It lived in Eurasia during the Pleistocene and the last ones died out around 8,000 years ago.

So, what's so special about the giant deer? Well... er.... it's a really big deer. It stood a little under 7 feet tall at the shoulder. It's not actually the biggest deer that ever lived; there are modern Alaskan moose that reach that size. But - and this is what rings most people's bell, as far Megaloceros is concerned - it had super-sized antlers. They can span up to 12 feet from tip to tip and weigh over 80lbs. The Peabody's specimen is a bit smaller than this, more like 9 feet across, but it's still very striking.

As anyone who's ever visited a Scottish Highlands hotel (or, for that matter, a bar in backwoods Montana) will know, people do love a big rack. Of antlers. OK, that was a cheap double entendre but, honestly, I find it very difficult to get excited by Megaloceros. Even when people make up interesting stories about it - they died out because their big antlers got caught in trees! there are references to them in the Song of the Nibelungen! - they almost invariably turn out to be wrong. The coolest thing I ever read about them was that those big antlers sucked so much calcium out of the deer's body when growing that their skeletons developed osteoporosis, and I'm sure someone will come along and prove that to be false as well. Basically giant deer are not interesting.

Also, they are as common as cow poop in Texas. During the 19th Century, when peat was a popular fuel in the more potato-friendly parts of Europe, giant deer skeletons were turned up by the cart load in the bogs. There are very few natural history museums that don't have at least one skull with antlers. They show up in local history societies, rural life museums, and on the walls of baronial halls. The giant deer at the Warwick Museum (UK) even has its own Twitter account; if that isn't proof of mundanity, I don't know what is.

Unfortunately, I seem to be in a minority of two (my fellow mammalogist Eric Sargis agrees with me, God bless him) as far as our project committee is concerned. My suggestion that we removed the head from the skeleton and hang it on the wall was received with the sort of shocked silence I'd get if I said O.C. Marsh was an over-rated bald blow-hard (and of course I don't believe that, readers!). After trying to argue my case it was suggested to me, in a pitying tone of voice, that I was developing a "thing" about the giant deer.

In the end, we decided that we would survey visitors to see what specimens they liked. So if you happen to be visiting the Peabody in the next few weeks and someone asks you what your favorite specimen is, be sure and answer loud and clear "the giant deer!" Or don't. I really don't care.

3 comments:

  1. Get an online poll, feed the answers from another poll about the Pope, and get it Pharyngulated. You'll be rid of the deer in no time.

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  2. The giant deer!

    Can we see Laura Friedman's plans? Can we? That's be fascinating. Like concept art for a museum.

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  3. @ Glendon - thanks for the comment. We're not really in a position to share plans yet, but at some point we may pull together a selection to show the evolution of the galleries. If we do, readers of this blog will be the first to know!

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