Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Apology?

The regular reader of this blog will recall that, at regular intervals, I have got myself quite upset over the writings of Thomas H. Benton, a self-described expert on natural history museums who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Benton's pooterish diatribes on the decline of the natural history museum seemed to me to be little more than an unwarranted assault on modern exhibit design, the principles of which had completely eluded the author.

Or so I thought.

A couple of weeks ago, I paid my first visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Yes, I know, this is quite unforgiveable for one who has lived in the Northeast for years, but honestly, I'm quite a busy person. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural history museum in the Americas, a storied research institution with a noble history and a long tradition of public exhibits and educational programs for both schools and the general public.

It is also very dear to Thomas H. Benton's heart; it was a visit to the Academy that sparked the first of his polemics. There have been several since then, but the one that offended me most was his assertion that museums that display casts of fossil specimens are engaging in fraudulent behavior at the expense of their visitors. I took issue with this on a number of grounds, one of which is that reputable museums have a series of safeguards that ensure that the visitor is always aware what is real and what is a cast. So I have to say that I was a little shocked when I took a walk around the fossil gallery in Philadelphia.

As you can see from the photo above, it is packed full of skeletons. Almost all of these are casts. Virtually none of them are labelled as such. There's no information on where the original specimen actually came from - for example, I was pretty sure that their Tylosaurus skeleton was a cast of a specimen from western Kansas, the original of which is in the collections of the University of Kansas, but there's no way of telling that from the exhibit label. This information may seem geeky, but it's actually very important because it links the reproduction to the actual specimen, which is a real occurence of the animal in time and space. Without that data, you might as well just buy a model.

To be fair, some of this information is available on the Academy's website (for an example, see http://www.ansp.org/museum/dinohall/tylosaurus.php), but there's a bigger issue here. The Academy is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology, the home institution of Joseph Leidy, with a collection of over 22,000 specimens that includes the first remains of a dinosaur (beyond isolated teeth) from North America. Very little of this is on display. One or two casts would be fine, but is a whole army of reproductions justifiable in a museum that has an actual VP collection (and a very good one) and which continues to do high quality paleontological research? Surely more of this should be accessible to visitors through the displays?

I still believe that my original anti-Bentonian argument holds true - casts have a role to play, not least by generating an appropriate sense of awe in visitors, especially smaller ones. But I can't help thinking that the Academy's fossil gallery has crossed a line.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for reading my columns on natural history museums.

    A few quick reactions: I've never presented myself as an "expert" on natural history museums. I'm just someone who likes museums and has a perspective that may represent a segment of the general public.

    I am glad you might now see some merit in my original observations about casts and the lack of respect for institutional history, mainly as an unfortunate response to economic pressures. I've found allies on those concerns at several museums and universities in the U.S. and Europe, and I've learned a lot from those conversations and visits.

    Anyway, as an amateur, I've made some errors--particularly in the first column--when I had trouble getting information from the museum involved. More recently, most people I meet in the museum community--in the course of correcting my errors and professional outsider's ignorance--find that we have essentially similar concerns. Or at least those concerns have converged with more communication about them.

    I saw a great example of respecting the line between actual fossils and casts at the American Museum in NYC two days ago. They also do a great job including the cultural history of the museum: they present the excavations of Barnum Brown, et al, and they've kept the wonderful paintings of Charles Knight.

    The good news is that the Academy is under new leadership now, significant changes have been made, and major changes are planned for the years after the museum's 200th anniversary in 2012.

    Please pardon my "pooterishness," if that's what it is. Sometimes writers are moved to wade into waters that are over their heads. But I am happy to have made so many friends in the process.

    I'll be visiting the Academy at the end of June and would be delighted to visit it with you.

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  2. My understanding was that the Academy intended to remedy the situation and draw more appropriately on its own collection. That was certainly the thrust of the comments by Barbara Ceiga, the Academy's VP for Public Relations, in Benton's Chronicle article of 8/1/2010. Though money may be the stumbling block to redoing the displays, signage is cheap and should make it clear what's being exhibited. You might be interested in the exchange I had with Benton last year on my blog, Fossils and Other Living Things, over a posting on the subject of "fakes" on display (http://fossilsandotherlivingthings.blogspot.com/2010/11/very-real-multidimensional-hadrosaurus.html).

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  4. @ Thomas - I'd be delighted to visit the Academy with you and I'm wondering whether we could do some sort of dialogue post? Let's see if we can coordinate this. Rest assured that while I may disagree with some of what you write, that fact that you care enough to write it is a very encouraging for our profession. We should talk more. Sincerely, Chris

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  5. I appreciate Thomas H. Benton's kind words about the fossil displays at AMNH. I am an education volunteer in the 4th floor fossil halls. The most common question from visitors is "Are these real?". I am always happy to be able to respond that most of them are and those exhibits that have no actual fossil material are clearly identified as such by the word "(cast)" on the label. Lowell Dingus, who oversaw the mid 90's renovations of the halls and insisted on exhibiting the originals, has made the point that few would travel to the Louvre to see a digital reproduction of the Mona Lisa, no matter how accurate. Carl Mehling, the present Director of the Fossil Collections, has asked whether people would go to the Smithsonian to see a plastic reproduction of the Hope Diamond?
    It may be unfortunate that people set such store by authenticity, since the scientific information in a natural history museum is not compromised by the use of reproductions. Nonetheless, the comprehension of that information by viewers is greatly increased by the display of the actual specimens.
    Of course, such queries are a great opportunity to point out that most fossils are themselves natural casts of the original bones.

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