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.

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