Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Had to Tempt Fate.....

"Makes one almost wish for a British big cat sighting...."

Big News

"Molecular biologists discover that Australian marsupials originated in South America." Wow, good job guys! Coming up soon, "molecular biologists discover whales are mammals, not fish." Closely followed by, "molecular biologists prove sea anemone is animal, not plant." Man, summer sucks for news. Makes one almost wish for a British big cat sighting....

[... and for any molecular biologist out there wondering why we paleontologists are all laughing at you, I suggest you go read about the Monito del Monte]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights?

Things in the UK just keep going from bad to worse. Last week, while we were all being stunned into silence by the revelation of David Cameron's Big Society, the head of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, cheerfully announced his contribution to the Government's austerity drive. He was going to get rid of 35% to 50% of his staff. You'll recall that that the UK Treasury had proposed cuts in departmental budgets averaging 25%, but it was clear that with many departmental budgets (e.g. Health) ring-fenced, the cuts would fall more heavily on some departments than others, at levels up to 40%. DCMS was one of the most likely targets for these heavyweight cuts.

According to the Guardian, some departments have failed to meet the Treasury deadline or are refusing to produce 40% cuts, saying it is not realistic to do so, and therefore a waste of time. By contrast, Hunt has been proactive and not only delivered his proposals for savings early, but also at a more sweeping level than asked. There's method in this ministerial hari kiri - ministers who settle early with the Treasury have been told they can then sit on a body set up to arbitrate on departments that refuse to settle until September or October.

Having butchered his own department, Hunt then moved on to the various agencies that come under its aegis, and the news for museums is not great. Today, he announced a proposal to abolish the Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (MLA), by April of next year. To put this in context for American readers, this is the end of the UK equivalent of IMLS. The only unified body dealing with best practices in the museum and library sector is going to be dismembered and some of its responsibilities divided up among other agencies. The other responsibilities will presumably be dropped. Unless, of course, they are picked up and done for free by part of the Big Society.

Responding, MLA issued a press release in which they rather sadly detailed all of the efficiencies they had made or planned to make. Not efficient enough apparently. Hunt, of course, believes that abolishing MLA (along with the UK Film Council and a bunch of other public bodies) will "deliver fantastic culture, media and sport, while ensuring value for money for the public and transparency about where taxpayers' money is spent." In other words, duplicating functions across a bunch of agencies is being touted as more efficient than centralizing them in a single body.

It's not clear yet what this means for initiatives supported by MLA, such as the ground-breaking Renaissance program aimed at transforming England's regional museums. Culture minister Ed Vaizey is quoted by the Guardian as saying "there is now an opportunity to integrate Renaissance.... into the wider cultural framework". Which I think is probably code for "close it down."

Part of the problem is that Hunt has painted himself into a corner by committing to continue publicly-subsidised free entry to national museums, on the basis that it improves tourism and the wider creative economy. This removes one potential source of revenue that could offset public spending. The more alarming prospect is that the cuts in departmental budgets are a pre-emptive measure, aimed at reducing the political blowback from impending deep cuts in arts and media budgets.

Once again, I urge American readers to take notice. There are plenty of deficit hawks in US politics; the news from the UK shows what happens when you vote them into power.

The F-Word

Last week a colleague sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "You might find this interesting," her accompanying email said, teasingly. Like a fool, I clicked on the link. Ugh. It ended up that, with one thing or another, I had a week eaten dealing with various issues surrounding this article, which in the end boiled down to this blog post on the subject of fakes.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall Thomas Benton from a post last year regarding another Chronicle article, in which this professor English from Hope College MI modestly set out to save natural history museums from themselves. As I said at the time, his piece was the typical curate's egg that results when an intelligent, but basically uninformed writer tackles a subject with which they have a passing familiarity - there was much that was good, some that was misguided but interesting, and a fair amount that was downright wrong. I took a few cheap shots at the article and then thought no more of it. Now comes another piece and this one, I'm afraid, demands a more robust response.

The thesis of the lastest article is that natural history museums have got into the business of exhibiting "fakes." Fake, with its implication of conscious decption, is an inflammatory word to direct at any museum display, but especially ones in the sciences where we pride ourselves on adhering to vigorous standards of scientific objectivity. It is also an accusation more likely to be hurled at us by creationists and other people of an anti-evolutionary bent than by the likes of Benton, who professes to like natural history. So what gives?

When Benton refers to fakes, he's actually talking about casts - specifically the cast dinosaur skeletons that many museums exhibit in their galleries. He strongly believes that museums should display "the real thing;" to do less than this is to smash the dreams of the innocent child who asks that most common of museum questions, "is it real?" If you say "yes," you are engaging in deception; if you say "no," the child is disillusioned and an inspirational moment has been lost. To which I say humbug, or words to that effect.

Before delving into why this is a fallacious argument, I think we need to understand why museums display casts. First of all, it's important to realize that complete skeletons of dinosaurs are incredibly rare. In fact, I'm going to hazard a guess and say that there is no 100% intact skeleton of a dinosaur on display anywhere in the world today, by which I mean a skeleton in which there are no bones missing and in which every bone is complete and undamaged.

The process by which a fossil forms is highly susceptible to the vagaries of chance. As the animal's carcass rots, it may fall apart, or be pulled apart by scavengers. It might be swept away by a river or flood, and its bones scattered over a vast area. Only part of it may be buried in mud and preservered; the rest gets broken up and decays. And then, assuming that it is preserved, some of the bones may be exposed and weathered away before the fossil is discovered and excavated. The upshot is that most of the fossil animals in museum collections are far from complete.

How incomplete are they? Well, for illustration let's take a look at that most famous of dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus rex. The picture at the top of the page was produced by a former colleague of mine at AMNH, Benjamin Burger, for a long-departed web page on the history of T. rex. It shows the seven specimens of this dinosaur in the AMNH collections. The bits in the red are the fossil bones, shown on outlines of the skeleton; in other words, the bits that actually exist. Not very much, is it? In fact, of all the specimens of this dinosaur that have been discovered since it was first named in 1905, only three have more than 50% of the bones present, and the most complete (the famous "Sue" at the Field Museum) is still missing around about a quarter of the bones of its skeleton.

By now, those of you who have visited the fourth floor fossil halls at AMNH are digging back in their memories and wondering how it could be that they saw a complete, articulated specimen of T. rex. The answer, of course, is that they didn't. What they saw is a composite skeleton, which contains a mixture of real fossil bones, and resin casts taken from other fossils. The skull of this specimen is too heavy to be displayed on the mount, so it has been replaced by a resin cast. The real skull is on display in a glass case alongside it. All of this is explained in the labels that accompany the skeleton.

This is an important ethical point. Generally speaking, it's considered to be OK to display composites and casts, provided that you make it clear what is fossil bone and what is resin or plaster. Today we do this by a mixture of label copy and by using materials that are a slightly different color and texture to the bone, so that it's obvious to the visitor what is bone and what isn't. We also try to avoid doing things like mixing and matching bones from different individuals, so you don't end up with a left leg from one animal and a right leg from another.

Back in the golden age of paleontology, of course, they were a good deal less fussy. The Peabody Museum's skeleton of Stegosaurus, for example, contains bones from at least five different individuals (which are listed on the label accompanying the skeleton). The bones in our skeleton of Apatosaurus come from a single individual, but are padded out with a large amount of plaster, most of which was colored to blend in with the real bone. As a result we have no idea how much of the skeleton is bone and how much is restoration. One of the interesting things about our proposed overhaul of the fossil galleries is that we are intending to disarticulate and remount the skeleton, at which point we will finally know the answer to this question.

Another famous example of composite skeletons are the various dodos scattered around the world's museums. Not one of these represents a single animal - they were, for the most part, reconstructed from thousands of jumbled bones that were excavated from the Mare aux Songes, a marsh on the island of Mauritius. The closest thing to a complete skeleton from one individual is the head and foot on display in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History - in that case we know that they are part of one animal because it was brought back from Mauritius alive in the 17th Century.

Of course, many museums don't even have partial skeletons of dinosaurs, so they choose to display cast skeletons. Casts are made from the original fossil bones present in museum collections - it's an exacting job which takes highly skilled workers and there are very few companies in the world that can do it. The end result is a precise reproduction of the original specimen - as close to the fossil as its possible to get without actually owning it. Casts are heavily used in paleontology because of the scarcity of fossil specimens - they are exchanged between museums and sent out on loan to researchers. We assign them catalog numbers and treat them in the same way as we would treat any museum specimen.

Casts are real, in the sense that they could not exist if there was not also a real specimen somewhere. Of course, there are anomalies. Modern technology makes it possible, for example, to digitally scan the right femur from a dinosaur, mirror it, and use the data to produce a cast of a left femur that has never actually existed. Is this ethical? I would say yes, provided the process is made clear to the visitor in the exhibit label. As long as you do this, the specimen cannot be labelled as fake.

All of this has demonstrated (I hope) that 1) fossils are incredibly rare, 2) complete fossil skeletons are almost non-existent, 3) to counter this, museums have a long history of reproducing fossils for research and display, and 4) there are a series of ethical safeguards employed to make certain that visitors are aware of this. Complaining about the presence of casts in museum displays is a little like complaining about photographs in a book on the Grand Canyon - yes, they are a poor substitute for actually visiting the Canyon, but if you can't do that then photographs serve an important purpose.

Casts are much more impressive than photos. They convey a sense of the sheer scale of these long-extinct animals in a way that no photograph or film can ever do. I can still remember, as a child, the sense of awe engendered by seeing the massive skeleton of Diplodocus at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. My youthful wonder was not at all diminished by knowing that it was actually a cast of a specimen from the Carnegie Museum. Was it “real?” Absolutely, in the sense that there was once an animal that looked like this, we have the bones to prove it, and this exhibit specimen could not have been made without those bones.

Ultimately what we're trying to do in museums is to generate that feeling of awe; to find the best possible ways to inspire people with a sense of wonder at the natural world and the evolutionary processes that underpin it. To equate this with the antics of P.T Barnum and throw accusations of fakery at us does no-one any favors.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Not So Big Society

On Monday, just when you were thinking that Britain's new government was all about cuts, David Cameron announced the first of the coalition's new ideas. In fact, it may be their only new idea. It's called "The Big Society" and he couldn't wait to tell the people of Britain all about it. Again. It was actually heavily touted in the Tory's election manifesto, but was met with profound disinterest all round. But I'm here to tell you that it's really quite important, especially for museums. And for you American readers, who are just about to go off and look at something more interesting to a US audience (such as New York's Naked Cowboy suing the Naked Cowgirl), I would definitely urge you to hang on, because this is also very relevant to you.

Americans will be aware that in the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson launched a series of domestic programs under the umbrella of "The Great Society," whose aims were the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. The Great Society had its flaws, but it was probably the greatest piece of progressive government by any country in the postwar period, responsible for enshrining civil rights, voting rights, federal funding for education, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowments for Arts and Humanities, PBS, NPR, consumer protection laws, and a whole raft of environmental legislation. Conservatives hated the Great Society, and have been trying to dismantle ever since, with varying degrees of success.

David Cameron's "Big Society," of course, is a much more modest affair, starting with its less-than-inspiring name and going downhill from there. Whereas Johnson's program was all about using government as a tool to tackle the problems of society, the Big Society is all about government telling society to go fix its own problems because the government can't afford to do it themselves. As Cameron puts it, years of top-down government control has turned capable people into "passive recipients of state help", lively communities into "dull soulless clones" and motivated public sector workers into "disillusioned weary puppets of government targets." Yikes. Instead of this, the government will be supporting community-led programs, making heavy use of volunteers.

I noticed with interest that one of the pilot programs mentioned was "efforts to recruit volunteers to keep museums open." The program in question is based in Liverpool and aims to extend the opening hours of the city's museums. Why do they need volunteers to keep the museums open? Well, it may not be completely unconnected to the fact that the museum budget is about to be slashed by 30%. You would have to be extraordinarily naive not to wonder whether the savings are going to be made by replacing paid staff with unpaid staff.

What do the paid staff think about it? Well, here are a few selections taken from an article in today's Independent.

"They are not going to replace people doing the job day in, day out. You can't just replace the depth of knowledge you build up doing that."

"I am one of those people who will most likely be replaced by a volunteer. We have already been told to expect 30 per cent cuts and there is a total freeze on recruitment, so when we heard this there was mixture of disbelief and fatalism"

"If people have a passion for something, they will do it. But even we find that we need a base of twice as many people as you think to get everything done. Most have full-time jobs and will help if they can, but whether you will get people to sit in an art gallery all day for nothing is another matter"

And this one, the real heartbreaker, from a volunteer who had been working on a program that was intended to engage with young people with entrenched problems:

"There was so much going missing we had to get rid of them. We are not social workers so we decided to put an end to it"

Reading this made me both profoundly depressed and extremely angry. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm a passionate defender of the role of volunteers in our museums. Put bluntly, we could not do our jobs without the support of our dedicated corps of volunteer staff, who give generously of their time in support of our various missions and ask (and all too frequently get) very little in return. It's interesting to note that the Friends of National Museum Liverpool was forced to disband two years ago after a falling out with the NML's director, David Flemming, which makes his enthusiastic support for the new volunteer program look a little suspect.

Successful volunteer programs are a partnership, between professional museum staff and the wider community. We don't dump our workload on the volunteers; we like to think that we give them something of ourselves in return, transferring skills and knowledge that we've acquired through formal education and training. Nonetheless, it's not uncommon to encounter colleagues who look upon volunteer programs with deep suspicion. Unions, in particular, are not great fans of volunteers, claiming that they provide a way for employers to get work done without paying for it. Previously I'd always dismissed this as a knee-jerk reaction. But now, looking at Liverpool and wondering about other museums who may be "offered the opportunity" to participate in the Big Society, I wonder if maybe I was wrong.

And this is what makes me especially angry. Volunteer programs are something that we in museums should be proud of. Now, because of their successes in this area, museums like NML are being targeted by this deeply cynical government program that seeks to paper over the yawning cracks caused by spending cuts by dumping its responsibilities onto unpaid staff. And with minimal paid staff to supervise, you can forget any broader goals of education and training.

Why should Americans worry? Well, the USA has a massive and growing deficit. Conservative eyes here are undoubtably looking with interest at the fiscal austerity measures imposed across Europe, including the UK. To the average Republican, the idea that people, not governments, should take responsibility for supporting institutions like museums and galleries must look very attractive. As we seek to build on our successful volunteer programs, I fear we must have at least one eye looking over our shoulder, marshalling arguments for why volunteers can enhance, but not replace professional staff. And the fact that I have to adopt this negative approach is yet another reason for me to dislike the "Big Society."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hot and Cold

As we swelter through another Northeastern summer, and read the media reports about global warming, it's hard to comprehend that the Earth is actually much cooler than it was at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Today, the average global temperature is around 14 Celsius - that's just over 57 Farenheit for those of you (line me) who can't think metrically - which is frankly a little on the cool side. Go back 55 million years ago, to a time with the catchy name of "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum" (or PETM) and the average global temparature was around 28 C, or around 82 F.

Now before you go saying "wow, that's more like it!" and making plans for an Eocene beach holiday, one should look at what this "average global temperature" stuff actually means. It's an average of temperatures from the equator to the poles. At the moment, the gradient between tropical and polar temperatures is a steep one - we have deserts and rainforests around the equator and ice at the poles. The reason that the average temperature was so much higher in the early Cenozoic is that the poles were ice-free.

There are several theories for why this might be, the most likely one being a combination of higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the absence of ice to reflect solar radiation, and the fact that continents were in a different position to where they are today: in the northern hemisphere, this made it easier for warm waters from the equator to reach the Arctic; in the southern,  the close proximity of South America, Australia, and Antarctica meant that there was no deep water current to isolate Antarctica's climate and promote the formation of an ice cap.

How we got from there to our rather chillier world of today is a fascinating story, and if you want to read more about it I highly recommend Don Prothero's book, "Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs." It's a story that we want to tell in our new Cenozoic Hall at the Peabody Museum, for a couple of reasons. First, you can clearly see the effect of the changes in the fossils that we house in our collections - the rainforest-adapted animals and plants of Eocene Wyoming look nothing like the open-woodland species that you find during the Oligocene, or the grassland-adapted species of Miocene.

The second reason is that its vitally important that people understand that the world's climate is a dynamic and ever-changing system. The greenhouse gasses that made Wyoming a jungle 55 million years ago are having the same effect on the climate today. The difference is that it's happening so fast that we can actually see it. Will the world get as hot as it was in the Eocene? Probably not - even the most apocalyptic estimates of global warming only predict an average rise of around 6 C. Will it mean the end of life on Earth? Probably not, although many things that we care about (and a vast number that we don't even know exist) will probably go extinct. Will it mean the end of us? Perhaps - we depend on agriculture, which flourishes in the temperate belts that girdle the planet above and below the equator; if those belts are pushed northwards, into areas with a smaller landmass and a shorter growing season, then a lot of people are going to starve.

So, how do we go about telling this story in a museum display? Well, as I discussed in an earlier post, Zallinger's mural "The Age of Mammals" - a fixture in the Hall - is a great help because it clearly shows the transition in the climate over the Cenozoic. At the beginning, pythons and colugos frolic in a Paleocene jungle; by the Eocene, they have been joined by a bunch of lumpen archaic mammals; in the Oligocene, a rather attractive open woodland environment (it looks like English parkland in the manner of Capability Brown) is populated by camels and protoceratids; then, crossing a lily-strewen river where oreodonts and anthracotheres cavort, we come to the parched brown prairies of the Miocene; and finally, after a blink-and-miss-it transit of the Pliocene, we arrive at the autumnal world of the Pleistocene, all fall foliage and snow-capped mountains, with shaggy mammoths and giant beavers. And why do people always laugh when I say "giant beaver?"

The trick, of course, is to focus the story on the changing environment without falling back into the "walk through time" approach that I discussed in the last post. There are some good practical reasons why we don't want to do this, of which the main one is material. The Peabody VP collections are rich in spectacular specimens from the Eocene and Oligocene, modestly (but still respectably) endowed with Miocene and Pleistocene specimens, and possess little or no display-worthy material from those two red-headed stepchildren of the fossil record, the Paleocene and Pliocene. A hall which followed a geological time layout would begin with a display of multituberculate teeth, turtle scutes, and champsosaur fragments, which is all well and good but unlikely to send you on your way through the Cenozoic with a spring in your step.

In the end, when we looked at the chart of temperature against time, it was clear that the basic story we wanted to tell was "it was hot, it cooled down, and now it's cold." In other words, three periods, which we have loosely termed "hothouse," "icehouse," and "transitional" (yeah, I know - we're still trying to find a catchy name for that third one). If we open up the old doorway to the Hall, which lies under the river in the mural, then you'll enter the Hall between the hot and cold "poles," each of which will contain one huge, anchor specimen  - think of them as fullfilling the same role as, say, Sears and Macy's at the mall. In the hothouse this will be the skeleton of the giant titanothere, Brontops (or, more correctly, Megacerops), whose enormous, low-crowned molars were adapted to feeding on soft, subtropical vegetation. At the cold end, it will be our mastodon skeleton, whose owner browsed in cold spruce forests during the Pleistocene.

And what about the stuff that lies between these two poles - the equivalents of the baseball cap store, Victoria's Secret, and the creepy Thomas Kinkade gallery in our paleontological mall? I'll discuss the process of coming up with a preliminary list of specimens in the next post on the galleries.


For those of you who like to comment on posts (and there are a few of you out there) I'm afraid I've had to enable comment moderation - too much dumb comment-spam. I apologize for the extra step, but I promise that I won't censor you and your comment will appear as soon as I can get to it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Congratulations to my YPM colleague, Nick Longrich, on his discovery of a new genus of ceratopsian dinosaur lurking unrecognized in the basement of the AMNH - you can read the kicks-n-grins version of the story in the New York Times. It's yet more proof (if any were needed) that there are a host of discoveries still waiting to be made right under our noses in the collections.

Congratulations also to another of my colleagues, Marilyn Fox, for taking the call from the Times reporter while I was running out of the door on Friday afternoon, and coming up with a better quote on the uses and abuses of plaster in paleontology collections than I ever could.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

YPM's Fecund Blogosphere

Following on from my previous post extolling the virtues of harnessing social networking technologies to provide a window into museum work, I wanted to give a shout-out for my colleague Jess Utrup, who has just launched a blog called Spineless Wonders, which focuses on the work of the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Paleontology. Never let it be said that invertebrate paleontology is all about quantity over quality! (And no, I have never said that, even though they are rocking over 4 million specimens in comparison to my 75,000).

One of the startling thing about Peabody over the last couple of years is what a fertile environment it's been for new blogs; there have been six so far, covering four of the collections (Historical Scientific Instruments, Invertebrate Paleontology, Vertebrate Paleontology (that would be me), and Vertebrate Zoology), an exhibit (the Point Pelee diorama), and the birds of West Campus. Combine that with our Facebook page and I hope we're giving our audience a whole new set of insights that we weren't doing two years ago. Whether you actually care is another matter, but at least you can't argue that we're not putting it all out there.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Credit Where Due

In the past, when I’ve written critical things about my former employer in NYC, some of my friends there have accused me of being a “hater.” So it’s nice to have an opportunity to commend AMNH for its new series of videos highlighting the extraordinary wealth of its collections. The first of these, which focuses on the Department of Ichthyology, can be seen by clicking on the link above. This is absolutely the sort of thing that museums should be doing – harnessing new (or at least, new-ish) technologies to show people things that they don’t normally get to see. I wholeheartedly applaud this. This is why I can now offer some constructive criticism.

First, 2½ minutes may be the average attention span of a YouTube viewer, but it’s a very short amount of time in which to cover one of the world’s great fish collections. So why waste half that time talking about two specimens (a grouper skeleton and a coelacanth), especially as the topics of the discussion - teleost feeding and lobe fins - are covered in the Museum’s permanent displays on vertebrate evolution? Melanie Stiassny and her colleagues are doing some amazing work, collecting in the Congo Basin and Madagascar among other places, and it would have been interesting to hear about how these sorts of studies of biodiversity rely on museum collections.

Second, it would be nice if once in a while, when the doors of the collections swing open, we could hear from someone other than a curator. Diversity is important and while picking Melanie – one of only eight women out of more than 60 tenured curators and emeriti – was an inspired choice for the first video, there are many people working behind the scenes who have considerable knowledge of the collections, but who approach them from very different perspectives. No doubt AMNH has this angle covered for the later videos, but it’s an important point, which raises some wider issues.

In the last 20 years or so, museums have become a lot more professional in the way that they present themselves to the outside world. AMNH was in the forefront of this movement and by-and-large it has been a good thing. Museums are now taken seriously when they comment on issues of global significance, such as the environment, biodiversity, and evolution (assuming that they choose to comment, which is a whole other issue). Unfortunately, this approach runs the risk of the institution appearing a little monolithic and, dare I say, corporate.

Clearly there are times when institutions need to speak clearly and with one voice. But museums are also diverse communities of individuals, all with their own expertise and their own differing approaches to their work; this is one of the reasons that they are such great places to work. We should be harnessing the potential of social networking technologies – blogging, Facebook, Flickr photostreams, and YouTube channels - to give these people a voice. Isn’t it interesting to find out, for example, how to preserve a fish in alcohol? Or clean an elephant? Or extract fossils from rock? Or repair an African drum? Or simply to have museum staff pick their favorite object from the collections for an exhibit, as my colleagues at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are doing for its 150th anniversary.

Museums should have the courage to embrace diversity of opinion, especially when the opinions are as well-informed as those of its own staff. I’m looking forward to seeing what AMNH does with the rest of its collections videos.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fossil Mammal Hall

When I was a kid, my big brother, Peter, was the proud owner of a set of bound magazines called Knowledge that were published in the early 1960s - the idea was that you collected them and they grew into an encyclopedia of sorts. Nowadays, of course, you can go write your own encyclopedia using Wikipedia, but back then these "part-works" as they were called were hugely popular.

I used to pore over Knowledge whenever Pete wasn't around. One of my favorite entries was the one for fossil mammals. It had a lurid painting, showing a biblical horde of rhinos, chalicotheres, and oreodonts drowing in a sea of mud under a gloomy sky laced with lightning bolts (or was it an erupting volcano? 40 years on, things are a little hazy). The animal's mouths were gaping wide, presumably uttering squeals of primitive ungulate terror, and the whites of their eyes are showing. It made quite an impression on me, and ever since then I've most definitely had a "thing" about Tertiary mammals.

So it's not suprising that in this great Fossil Hall planning exercise, I've ended up dealing with the Cenozoic, which for those of you unfamiliar with the geological record is the 65 million year period between us and the K/T boundary. Yeah, I know, the Great Hall has Apatosaurus, and Archelon, and Stegosaurus, and and a bunch of other -sauruses, but from the moment I walked in the door it was always the fossil mammal gallery that grabbed the attention.

At first sight, it may be difficult to see why. For a start, compared with the Great Hall, the FM gallery seems like a bit of an afterthought. It appears low-ceilinged (although actually it's not), gloomy, and the specimens are enclosed in monstrous floor-to-ceiling cases that take up huge amounts of floorspace and restrict your ability to view things. So one of our major challenges is to liberate the specimens from their cabinets and get them out into the floor. The general gloom is a whole other issue - do we try to find a way to get natural light into the gallery (tricky, but not impossible) or do we use the darkness to accentuate some spectacular lighting of our specimens?

The Peabody's freight elevator opens midway along the North wall, and the "Age of Mammals" mural is so arranged that when you walk into the fossil mammal hall from the Cretaceous end of the Great Hall you find yourself not in the Paleocene (which is where your "walk through time" should go next) but at the end of the Pleistocene, reinforcing the erroneous belief that the period "after the dinosaurs" is all about wooly mammoths and sabertooth cats. So another challenge is how we steer people through the gallery. The good news is that we discovered a blocked-up doorway from the Great Hall that enters the gallery at an earlier point in the Cenozoic. The bad news is that it enters in the Oligocene, which is around the half-way mark.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to my concentrating on the Cenozoic. First, exhibit quality material is not a problem - 60% of the Peabody's VP collection is made up of fossil mammals and, as you'll see over the weeks to come, some of them are just flat-out gorgeous. Next, the environmental change story for the Cenozoic is, at least superficially, a very clear cut one. It starts out hot, ends up cold, and shows some spectacular resulting shifts in fauna and flora along the way. We'll talk a little bit more about that in the next post.

The above image is an extract from Rudolph Zallinger's Age of Mammals mural and is © 1966, 1975, 1989, 1991, 2000 Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA; All rights reserved.

A National Digitization Strategy

In earlier posts (see here and here) I've written about the ongoing efforts to create a programme aimed at mobilizing data across all of the natural history collections in the USA and the potentially enormous benefits for research that will result from doing this. I'm pleased to report that the biological collections community has finalized a strategic plan to digitize and mobilize images and data associated with biological research collections. The proposed ten year national effort is the product of two workshops held at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center this year (one of which I attended), as well as surveys of 291 federal and approximately 600 federally supported collections.

The plan sets out three main objectives: digitize data from all U.S. biological collections and make them available online in a standardized format; develop and make available new web interfaces, visualization and analysis tools, data mining, and georeferencing processes; and prevent future backlogs of digitized collections through the use of tools, training, and infrastructure. To do this, the plan proposes a series collections networks, organized regionally within the US, or by scientific themes, such as clades or particular research questions. Coordinating this effort will be a national digitization hub.

So, will this plan actually amount to anything? In the current economic climate it's hard to say anything for certain, but the noises coming from DC (this is my feeble attempt to suggest that I have my finger on the pulse) are that this effort has built up considerable momentum with the relevant federal agencies that would have to provide funding to make it a reality. If it does happen, it may be on a scale that dwarfs the current sources of collection support. For this reason, I urge anyone with an interest in collections, and especially anyone working in biological collections, to follow this link and look at the strategy. Ultimately, it's your strategy - read it, know it, own it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ass Brain

This clip was brought to my attention by Carl Zimmer over at "The Loom" - if you want to see his original post, you can find it here. I should say in advance that it is littered with seriously foul language and scientific inaccuracies. But it made me laugh like a drain. Paleontological humor - unlikely, but true.