In many’s eyes, fossil mounts have primarily become display pieces (regardless of whether or not such a perspective is justified). As such, one day, as you wander off to work, you may notice that a mount’s suddenly appeared in a random location, like a piece of abstract sculpture, with no explanation or knowledge of how it got there. The most often-publicized case of this is at the Googleplex, Google’s massive headquarters in Mountain View, California. This mount is the Tyrannosaurus rex misnamed countless times, covered with countless flamingos, and perplexing thousands of office workers each day.
Google’s T. rex appears to be a bronze cast of MOR 555, nicknamed “Wankel Rex”, and, most recently, “The Nation’s T. rex” (the original having gone on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 2019). However, every online source imaginable on this particular mount notes that it’s been named “Stan”, the nickname belonging to the somewhat recently-sold Tyrannosaurus specimen BHI 333. So, either coverage of Google’s T. rex has been perpetuating the same mistake, or Google employees decided to give the same name to their bronze dinosaur as the Black Hills Institute gave to BHI 333. The former seems more likely, but, with each extra news story that calls this T. rex “Stan”, the latter makes more and more sense.
How and Why
Though to most readers of this blog, no justification is needed for the spontaneous appearance of a dinosaur skeleton in the workplace, Google’s “Stan/Wankel” (or “Stankel”) is apparently surprising enough for most of its coverage to have questioned its existence. According to a 2007 piece in The Atlantic, the mount appeared sometime in the early-mid 2000s and was probably a gift from Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. However, a later HuffPost piece states that the skeleton was added by an employee (given the price of a “Wankel Rex” cast, however, this option seems less likely).
As for the purpose of “Stankel” (I deeply apologize for creating this term), some sources say that it was installed at the Googleplex to encourage continuous technological adaptation and ‘evolution’ among employees, less they end up the same as the extinct dinosaur. Given that this particular dinosaur was wiped out by a giant asteroid, it doesn’t seem like the best example of an organism failing to adapt to changing times.
However, no matter how much “Stankel” encourages Google to change and evolve, the one constant in its continued existence is that not a single piece of media will call it by its correct nickname. At this point, it seems more likely for “Stankel” to suddenly reanimate and terrorize the Googleplex than for someone to call this replica “Wankel”.
New York’s American Museum of Natural History has been a hotspot of memorable traveling exhibits. From feathered dinosaurs to sauropod biology (and most recently, the tyrannosaur family), a bounty of rare topics has been given a spotlight in these exhibits. However, after they travel for a while, all special exhibits eventually settle down. And for these exhibits from the AMNH, Ohio is a hotter spot for retirement than Tampa. In Columbus, the state’s capital, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) holds two of AMNH’s former exhibitions, giving them a new role as permanent galleries.
Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries
The older of the two AMNH exhibits recreated in COSI is “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries”. Running from May of 2005 to January of 2006, this gallery originally focused on the effects of new technological advances (for the time) on dinosaur research, as well as an increasing rate of discoveries. A silver model of an Apatosaurus skeleton, casts of Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus, and digital animations took the spotlight in this exhibit, all presented in a relatively futuristic setting.
After leaving the AMNH, “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” seems to have bounced around a bit, like a normal traveling exhibition. It popped up anywhere from Raleigh to Boston before it permanently retired to COSI. In COSI’s Dinosaur Gallery, an essentially unaltered version of this exhibit greets visitors, with the gallery’s replica of the Tyrannosaurus specimen AMNH 5027 as their first sight. Despite this, however, this exhibit doesn’t appear to have completely settled down from a life on the road just yet—it’s shown up in Muncie, Indiana and Springfield, Massachusetts in the past three years.
Dinosaurs Among Us
Any AMNH exhibits that have reached COSI have been promotionally stripped of their names and grouped under the “American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery” title. This appears to have been for the best, since no possible timeline exists in which the original name of AMNH’s feathered dinosaur exhibit, “Dinosaurs Among Us: The Ancestry of Birds”, could have been taken seriously since a certain unnamed video game gained popularity. Opening in March of 2016 and closing in January of the following year at the American Museum, this exhibit revolved around the dinosaur-bird transition, primarily showcasing taxa and specimens from East Asia.
After traveling to several museums in the United States for a short time, “Dinosaurs Among Us” arrived at COSI, along with the much older “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” in November of 2017. Like the earlier exhibit, “Dinosaurs Among Us” stayed largely the same, with a Yutyrannus huali reconstruction as its centerpiece, along with replicas of “Dave” the Sinornithosaurus, the Caudipteryx holotype, among other famous feathered fossils.
These two New Yorkers were brought to COSI through investments from the state of Ohio, part of a collaboration between the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation and the city of Columbus to enhance educational programming in the area. The “American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery” today takes up 22,000 square feet on the center’s floor, occupying two adjacent fossil halls with two markedly different exhibits.
Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur & Exhibition Galleries at COSI. Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. https://www.columbusddc.com/projects/AMNH
In the past couple of years, there’s been a burst of large-scale museum renovations across the country. The Burke Museum and the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History both got new and modern homes. The Smithsonian recreated its fossil halls in the form of “Deep Time”, and Yale’s Peabody Museum is currently undergoing a similar revamp.
One of the largest of these renovations is taking place at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Ohio. A substantial amount of light about the renovation, costing about $150,000,000, has only been shed in the past year, with concept art being unveiled and projects being completed. To celebrate its centennial, the museum is adding a new 50,000-foot exhibit wing and auditorium, along with a host of other changes (altogether titled “Transforming the World of Discovery”) that’ll radically transform the appearance and presentation of the CMNH.
In December of 2020, the CMNH completed its ‘Gateway’ projects, a series of initial renovations that coincided with the museum’s centennial. These consisted of three additions both inside and outside of the museum. The first to be completed was a “Current Science” installation that covers the latest discoveries in the natural sciences. The other two projects were a new auditorium and an Enviornmental Courtyard based on the geology of Ohio.
As one can probably observe from the CMNH’s ‘Gateway’ projects, a major goal of this centennial renovation is to bring the museum into the 21st century. That goal encompasses exhibit design as well. For instance, it seems that the CMNH’s fossil halls are being reworked into a Biological Processes Wing, presented in a continuous “walk through time (or evolution)” format. The wing will also link to the museum’s wildlife center, opened in 2017, to engage visitors with living specimens after walking among long-dead organisms.
New technology is also being used to further engage visitors. One instance of exhibit innovation that the museum has revealed is the use of digital screens that display specimens. Visitors can manipulate the images of specimens to their liking, allowing for a more flexible degree of observation. In the concept art above, a glass screen with the image of a bald eagle may represent one of these new examples of specimen digitization. Additionally, the CMNH is planning on building an education wing that utilizes some of its new technological features, aiming to engage teachers and students specifically. Though programs in the wing itself will be plentiful, the museum also says that new IVC studios will allow virtual programming to take place in the exhibits as well.
The museum broke ground on its non-Gateway expansions earlier this year (in June). As of yet, it doesn’t seem that a date has been projected for when the CMNH’s renovation will finish. However, from the concepts that have already been released, this is one of the most ambitious museum expansions/renovations seen in the country in the past couple of years. So, as time goes on, the details of the CMNH’s centennial makeover should become much clearer.
Across museums in the southern United States, mounted casts of a long-armed tyrannosaur were installed in the last two centuries. In this case, when one says “long-armed”, the arms are nothing like one would expect from any non-tyrannosaur theropod. Instead, these arms were essentially gargantuan, nearly matching the length of the dinosaur’s legs in some displays. This was the situation of Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, a tyrannosaur described in 2005 from the Late Cretaceous of the southeastern United States.
By 2012, it became clear to museums which had installed Appalachiosaurus mounts that the arms were almost certainly inaccurate. According to Julian Gray, the then-curator of the Tellus Science Museum, which had exhibited one of the Appalachiosaurus (as seen above), an unspecified paleontologist misidentified one particularly large bone as one of the theropod’s arm bones, creating the giant arms in the mounted casts. So, the process of replacing arms began at some museums, though others seem to have kept the terrifying limbs.
The first of these Appalachiosaurus mounts is also the most famous. This cast was installed at the McWane Science Center in Alabama, where the theropod was first discovered. It stands in a display of dinosaur mounts from the region, including a nodosaur and a Deinonychus cast intended to represent an ambiguous dromaeosaur. Thismount introduced the inaccurate lengthened arms. However, despite the update in 2012, the skeleton remains unchanged, as of a Facebook video from the museum in 2021.
Two more notable mounts of Appalachiosaurus were installed in the southeastern United States (at museums with oddly similar names) after 2012. In Arkansas’s Museum of Discovery, a long-armed cast of Appalachiosaurus was installed in the lobby as part of the museum’s 2012 renovation. Further north, in Union City, Tennessee, a similarly-posed skeleton was mounted at the newly-opened Discovery Park of America in 2013. In contrast to the Museum of Discovery’s mount, which stands among other miscellaneous scientific displays, including an installation on iron dust, the Discovery Park’s skeleton stands over the corpse of a hadrosaur on an earthy platform. However, this mount adds one more conspicuous inaccuracy to Appalachiosaurus: pronated hands. As of this date, it doesn’t seem like either of these mounts have been updated.
The Arms that Shrunk
So far, the one set of arms that seems to have changed is at Georgia’s Tellus Science Museum (the previous, long-armed version can be seen near the top of this article). In 2012, after realizing the error made in the limbs, the museum ordered shorter, two-fingered arms from the same company that made the original cast of Appalachiosaurus. Uniquely, the museum decided to put the spotlight on this error and its update, holding a lunch program on a winter Friday. During this session, which also featured David Schwimmer, a paleontologist who helped to describe A. montgomeriensis, the arms were replaced in front of the public.
In the near-decade that’s passed since that event, new research calls the arms of Appalachiosaurus into question once again. Considering the close relationship recovered between it and the tyrannosaur Dryptosaurus in studies like Brusatte & Carr (2016) and Delcourt & Grillo (2018), its forelimbs may still be significantly larger than the archetypical tyrannosaur. However, the lunch held by the Tellus Science Museum represents a notable circumstance of a museum putting the ever-changing and dubious nature of paleontology on full display to the public, a nature that’ll have to be remembered with dinosaurs like Appalachiosaurus.
Brusatte, S., & Carr, T. D. (2016). The phylogeny and evolutionary history of tyrannosauroid dinosaurs. Nature Scientific Reports, 6(20252). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep20252
Delcourt, R., & Grillo, O. N. (2018). Tyrannosauroids from the Southern Hemisphere: Implications for biogeography, evolution, and taxonomy. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 511, 379-387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.09.003
McWane Science Center. (2021, May 8). Meet the Alabama Dinosaur, the Appalachiosaurus! Did you know that McWane houses the only known Appalachiosaurus skeleton in the world? [Video attached] [Status update]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=541214383541038
As fossil halls around the world have reopened, physical public engagement with exhibits has increasingly returned to normal. However, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, museums still brought visitors into their displays beyond virtual tours and online programming. Digital exhibits of various forms evolved and grew in the past year. They built on precedent, using old exhibits or designing completely new virtual spaces. This digitization of fossil halls has allowed the public to get closer than ever to some museums, without even stepping foot in one.
Before the Pandemic: Digital Museums Canada
The beginnings of digital exhibits appeared as early as 2014, in the form of Digital Museums Canada. This project funds online exhibits by Canadian museums, from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal to the Biophare. Within paleontology, Digital Museums Canada specifically funded projects by the Qualicum Beach Museum and the Musée de la civilisation in 2019. The Qualicum Beach Museum produced “Paleontology on Vancouver Island”, while the Musée de la civilisation produced “Images on Stone”.
“Images on Stone” covered the history of rock art in Canada, specifically regarding the culture of the First Peoples. The exhibition allows visitors to the site to navigate between five major sites: Kejimkujik, Pepeshapissinikan, Qajartalik, Áísínai’pi, and K’aka’win. In one section, it covers global rock art and its prehistoric history, including Lascaux Cave, Rouffignac, and Chaco Canyon. In another section, it shows educators how to present the exhibit and rock art to students.
On a smaller scale, “Paleontology on Vancouver Island” covered exactly what the name implies. The website housing this digital exhibition is more traditional, showcasing collections from the Qualicum Beach Museum. The page begins with basic concepts in paleontology and the history of fossil-finding on Vancouver Island. Then, it displays fossils from the island, including trilobites, giant ammonites, laurels, microfossils, and the walrus specimen “Rosie”. Going into 2020, these ideas from “Paleontology on Vancouver Island” and “Images on Stone” would be taken to an entirely new level.
Modeling the NHM Vienna
Earlier this year, the Natural History Museum Vienna translated the items already displayed in its halls into the digital sphere. As part of the project “MicroMus: Unlocking the Microcosm – Micro-CT Analyzes in Museum Collections”, some of NHM Vienna’s most popular exhibits were three-dimensionally scanned. These included the fossils of mammals (including Prodeinotherium and Eurohippus) and dinosaurs (Allosaurus and Paraphysornis). Other items, such as an antenna sword and meteorite, were scanned as well. Digital models were uploaded to the Internet to be viewed with supplemental information on the NHM Vienna’s website.
Augmenting Tiny Titans
Virtual tours of fossil halls were prevalent before the pandemic, experiencing a significant rise in 2020. At the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, “Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies” was one exhibit that was digitized in this way. However, the NMMNH utilizes this online format to enhance the underlying displays, providing supplemental signage and media. For example, a couple of dots on the museum’s Bistahieversor skull open to reveal a description, photos of preparation, and a digital model of the specimen. These dots continue through the displays, providing online visitors with an experience similar to the physical exhibits.
And Now For Something Completely Different
At the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (UMMNH), exhibit staff decided to create a completely new exhibit in the virtual realm. Working with Saganworks, a software company also in Ann Arbor, the UMMNH designed “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea”. As the name implies, this exhibit covers the evolution of whales through the Cenozoic and the corresponding transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic lifestyle. Three virtual skeletal mounts float in the center of the digital gallery, surrounded by signage on all four sides.
The University of Michigan has a robust history of research in this area, and the displays presented here reflect that. The detailed and concise signage on the walls covers the whale relation to hippos, early relatives like Elomeryx, and famous fossil whales like Basilosaurus. Clicking on the displays, visitors can view more information and media. Meanwhile, skeletal mounts of the early protocetid cetacean Maiacetus, the basilosaurid Dorudon, and the modern pygmy right whale occupy the center, roughly representing the change in whale body plans over time.
However, as museums continue to reopen from the pandemic, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s virtual exhibit doesn’t represent a recreation of the physical museum. The director of the UMMNH, Amy Harris, has already noted that recreation wasn’t a goal in this virtual gallery. Instead, “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea”, along with the exhibits mentioned previously, represent museums taking advantage of the unique capabilities of an online setting. In all of the virtual exhibits from the Natural History Museum Vienna, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, visitors are given experiences that could not be replicated in a physical gallery.
Today, a massive, 122-foot long sauropod occupies the American Museum of Natural History’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center. Before its introduction in 2016, however, an immature, 24-foot long sauropod occupied the center. This sculpture of a juvenile Barosaurus was the modest centerpiece of the Wallach Orientation Center for most of the AMNH’s modern history. Created in 1996, the model stayed in New York for about 18 years until it was dethroned by the titanosaur, shifting it to Cleveland and back out again.
In the AMNH
For nearly a decade before 1995, the American Museum of Natural History’s fossil halls were in the process of a massive renovation. All six halls were renovated, creating a layout rooted in cladistics. One smaller hall (once the Earth History Hall and the highly bigoted Hall of the Age of Man) was recreated as the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center. Named after businessman Ira D. Wallach and his wife, this center covered key paleontological concepts featured in the other five halls. Behind a decently-sized theater, our juvenile Barosaurus was installed in 1996.
The Barosaurus model was plainly colored and posed similarly to the juvenile “Barosaurus” skeleton in the museum’s main rotunda. However, that skeleton is now thought to belong to Kaatedocus, not Barosaurus (making the actual basis of this model ambiguous). The sculpture stands in dry terrain, with footprints trailing behind it. It was relatively small, standing just higher than a person at the shoulder. According to the museum, the model’s purpose was to “suggest central themes of the fossils halls: what science can reveal about long-extinct life forms and what mysteries remain unsolved.”
Make Way for the Titanosaur
In 2016, with the discovery of a new giant titanosaur in Patagonia, it was time for Barosaurus to leave the Orientation Center. To make way for a skeletal cast of what would soon be Patagotitan mayorum, the sculpture was smashed open and sawed apart. The neck and head were severed from the torso, along with the tail. This sectioning allowed it to be easily transported to other institutions. Additionally, the whole Orientation Center was redesigned to accomodate and revolve around its new resident.
Now breaking headlines with the titanosaur, the Wallach Orientation Center was finally in the spotlight. At a length that was nearly six times that of Barosaurus, Patagotitan was too large for the Orientation Center. Its neck and tail extend out of the room, giving the center an immediately imposing presence. Displays are now more focused on the main dinosaur (which seizes attention far easier than the juvenile Barosaurus). However, our Barosaurus would find another museum to be featured in.
Into the Forest City
Our Barosaurus was removed from the American Museum of Natural History at the beginning of 2016. By May, however, the three sections of the sauropod were being reattached in Cleveland, Ohio. In the city’s Museum of Natural History, a somewhat more modest display was being constructed for the sculpture. This temporary display featured the juvenile Barosaurus on a small lime platform, accompanied by simple signage and a mid-sized mural.
The signage for this display focused on the reconstruction of this model, describing a fossilized skin impression at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum that informed the texture of this sculpture. It also covered the reconstruction of incomplete fossil taxa, noting that the skull of this model was inferred from fellow diplodocids. However, by the end of the year, the exhibition concluded, and our juvenile Barosaurus doesn’t seem to have been featured in a museum since.
Just a few years ago, the Field Museum’s grand Stanley Field Hall held two representatives of the Mesozoic. One was the original mount of “SUE” the Tyrannosaurus, imposingly capturing eyes upon entrance. The other soared above, catching glances on the same floor as “SUE”‘s portrait. This was a model of the famous pterosaur Pteranodon longiceps, hanging near a marble muse representing the dissemination of knowledge.
In 2018, however, both the dinosaur and pterosaur were replaced by one dinosaur and eleven pterosaurs. As many already know, “SUE” returned to a personalized display on the second floor. On the other hand, the pterosaur with a 25-foot long wingspan seems to have retired from public life.
A Marker for the Fossil Halls
Before there was any possibility of our Pteranodon model entering the museum, Brachiosaurus held Stanley Field Hall. This replica of one of the Field Museum’s most famous discoveries arrived in 1993, foreshadowing the unveiling of “Life over Time”, the museum’s new fossil exhibit. However, in 1997, two slightly large companies (Disney and McDonalds) helped the Field obtain “SUE” the Tyrannosaurus, and reforms began.
In Stanley Field Hall, Brachiosaurus was replaced (and moved to O’Hare International Airport) by Tyrannosaurus in 2000. To accompany this change, the young exhibit “Life Over Time” was reformed into “Evolving Planet”, a more serious walk through evolution. Guarded by a large globe and two large display cases representing the diversity of life, it sat on the second floor of the museum. Only when “Evolving Planet” was unveiled in 2006 would our Pteranodon model arrive as the second archosaur in Stanley Field Hall.
The pterosaurian subject of this post was built by CM Studio, a model company in southern Illinois. Headed by Charlie McGrady and his nephew Brian Page, the studio had already created several models of extant mammals and extinct Mesozoic animals. With “Evolving Planet” in 2006, Pteranodon longiceps was suspended 30 feet above “SUE”.
With a brownish body, a striped orange crest, and some white undersides, the large pterosaur was a conspicuous sight. Additionally, the specific placement of Pteranodon was chosen to serve “Evolving Planet”. Hanging right in front of the exhibit, the model pinpointed the location of the fossils for any visitor in Stanley Field Hall. During its decade-long tenure, it would also be subject to a common Chicagoan practice.
Elsewhere in the Windy City, the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions can be seen wearing a White Sox cap, a Blackhawks helmet, or, most recently, a mask adorned with the city flag. In Daley Plaza, the Chicago Picasso has donned another Sox cap. Closer to our subject, the Dissemination of Knowledge statue will even toss a jersey onto its baby.
When Pteranodon came to the Field, it was also absorbed into this tradition of costumes. Despite its odd body-plan, jerseys from several of the city’s teams were shimmied onto the pterosaur throughout its tenure (sometimes resulting in the costumeless “SUE” looking like the odd archosaur out). This often made it an even more striking sight, easily catching the attention of visitors from its height. However, this series only tackles retired displays, so next, Pteranodon would be deposed by a much larger pterosaur.
Out of Stanley Field
In 2018, another donation by billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin (who had previously funded “Evolving Planet”) sparked another makeover of the Field Museum, this time in Stanley Field Hall. The most well-known of these changes was the replacement of “SUE” with “Máximo”, a mounted replica of the newly-discovered giant titanosaur Patagotitan. Additionally, 3D-printed hanging gardens were installed on the hall’s North side.
The majority of the organisms added to Stanley Field Hall, however, were pterosaurs. Along with a flock of nine Rhamphorhynchus and a duo of Pteranodon (sternbergi, not longiceps), our lone P. longiceps was replaced by one of two Quetzalcoatlus. Though it doesn’t appear that any costumes have adorned the new azhdarchid, this sculpture of one of the largest flying animals ever certainly marks “Evolving Planet”‘s location better.
Out of the Field Museum’s two costume wearers, one remains. Though the status of Pteranodon longiceps appears unknown, the second replica of Brachiosaurus altithorax stands tall and proud outside of the museum. Like its fellow archosaur, it’s worn oversized jerseys from the Cubs, the Blackhawks, and the Bears. So, the retired pterosaur’s secondary role is fulfilled even after its removal.
As a kid, I once found myself in the previous incarnation of Beijing’s Paleozoological Museum of China (PMC) while on occasional ventures to the home of the Forbidden City. As the exhibit space of the renowned Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), it predictably displayed and still displays some of the most significant paleontological finds from China. The specimen of focus today was the single fossil of a single-crested theropod, stuck halfway in a reddish or orangish (or perhaps even brownish) block. Naturally, after I viewed such an important fossil, the toddler version of me promptly forgot about its existence for around a decade.
Since my toddler days, I’ve obtained the knowledge that the theropod Monolophosaurus jiangi was a thing that existed. A small handful of years ago, I also rediscovered a blurry yet acceptable physical photo of the imprisoned theropod from the IVPP. At the same time, I also came across an extensive redescription of the Monolophosaurus genoholotype (IVPP V84019) by Stephen Brusatte and his colleagues. In particular, two sentences stood out: “The specimen is currently mounted for touring exhibition (Fig. 1). It is embedded in foam that obscures the bones so that they are only visible in right lateral view, and only rarely are portions of the ventral surfaces of the vertebrae exposed.” Finally, it took a delayed glance at Figure 1 itself to realize that the trapped theropod in my shoddy photograph was IVPP V84019.
As implied by the two words and colon in the title of this post, this (hopefully) will serve as the start of an irregular series where I’ll cover any fossils or exhibits that were once on display, but have since been retired. This first topic, as should be obvious at this point, is the Monolophosaurus jiangi holotype that was once on display in the PMC. In 2014, during an extensive renovation of the museum, it (along with many similarly tragic mounts) retreated from public exhibition.
A Traveling History
The M. jiangi holotype was first exposed to human eyes at the dawn of the ’80s in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of China. Xijin Zhao, a paleontologist working for the IVPP, was in the middle of a project with the Xinjiang Petroleum Bureau’s Petroleum Stratigraphic Team. The discovery of this skeleton in the Middle Jurassic Wucaiwan Formation (now considered to be part of the Shishugou Formation) was one major outcome of that project. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party, now led by Deng Xiaoping, was beginning a number of economic reforms that “opened” China up to the West. For paleontology, a major result of this was the creation of the Sino-Canadian Dinosaur Project (CCDP), a collaboration between the IVPP and Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature to provide each other with better opportunities to study the two countries’ dinosaur faunas.
The Monolophosaurus genoholotype, which included a complete skull and partial skeleton, had already been excavated by the IVPP one year before the CCDP’s establishment. The project’s team announced the find in October of 1987, using the informal name “Jiangjunmiaosaurus”. After years of even more prosperous research and excavation by the CCDP, IVPP V84019 was described by Zhao and Philip Currie as the holotype of the new species Monolophosaurus jiangi. The same year, the foundation that had organized the CCDP created a traveling exhibit named “The Greatest Show Unearthed”, among other titles.
“The Greatest Show Unearthed” opened in 1993 inside a tent covering six acres of exhibition space. Though Canadian and Chinese dinosaurs were both featured, the highlight was clearly on the latter. A collection of baby Pinacosaurus and a giant Mamenchisaurus skeleton were just some of the novel specimens displayed in an exhibit that seemed indistinguishable from a modern 21st-century fossil hall. The Monolophosaurus genoholotype was included in this exhibit as well, encased in a large foam block. Only the right side of the skeleton was observable in this hugely frustrating form, which would impede scientific research for years to come. For the time being, however, IVPP V84019 traveled the world, meeting the global eyes of the public.
“The Greatest Show Unearthed” did not travel the world infinitely, so Monolophosaurus was put on not-so-permanent display at the Paleozoological Museum of China. Alongside it were other foam-trapped dinosaur type specimens, including those of Sinraptor and Bellusaurus. Exhibited in a gallery near the entrance, this was when I had my first (and only) encounter with the horrific display.
In 2014, however, the PMC went through a massive renovation, revamping most of their major halls. Additionally, many significant fossils and mounts (including Monolophosaurus) were taken off display. At the renovation’s end, IVPP V84019 had been replaced by either a gift shop, a 4-D theater, or a gallery for temporary exhibitions. Though it was no longer in the public spotlight, the foam remained (and still remains).
With its foam-trapped brethren, Monolophosaurus jiangi was moved to an IVPP satellite facility an hour away from Beijing. Separated into multiple pieces, the specimens continue to reside at this warehouse, presumably being researched (though any work would be impeded by the specimens’ red encasement). The holotype that many once gawked at now lies in a humbly remote building, trapped by the same mechanisms that originally thrust it into the spotlight.
Dong, Z. (1993). The field activities of the Sino-Canadian Dinosaur Project in China, 1987- 1990. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 30(10), 1997-2001. https://doi.org/10.1139/e93-175
Zhao, X., Currie, P. J. (1993). A large crested theropod from the Jurassic of Xinjiang, People’s Republic of China. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 30(10), 2027-2036. https://doi.org/10.1139/e93-178
Zhao, X., Benson, R. B. J., Brusatte, S. L., & Currie, P. J. (2010). The postcranial skeleton of Monolophosaurus jiangi (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Middle Jurassic of Xinjiang, China, and a review of Middle Jurassic Chinese theropods. Geological Magazine, 147(1), 13-27. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0016756809990240
In 1998, Tim Quady and David Leak, two museum workers, met at a museum services company in Minnesota. Soon after, both left to create Blue Rhino Studio, starting (as many great things have) in a garage with the aim of staying in business for at least six months. Their first project was a scaled-down replica of the Split Rock Lighthouse in Lake County. Accelerating, they moved into a much larger space in Bloomington a single month later.
Throughout the 2000s, Blue Rhino Studio worked on sculptures, murals, designs, and more in mini-golf courses, restaurants, and theaters. Early in their history, their first employee, Jim Burt, became Quady’s assistant (eventually becoming Blue Rhino’s lead sculptor). Eventually, they began working on dioramas, sculptures, and exhibits for museums.
Now, Blue Rhino Studio is focused on creating artwork and design for museums, visitor centers, and other educational institutions. Currently, their workspace is a large 16,000 square foot facility in Eagan, Minnesota. Here, they produce some of the most realistic and accurate sculptures, murals, and dioramas to date. This write-up will take a look at a few highlights from their incredible record of projects, starting with the most famous extinct proboscideans.
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age
A decade ago, Chicago’s Field Museum launched “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age”, a new and extraordinary traveling exhibition obviously focusing on mammoths and mastodons. Taking care to explore the lives and environments of these Ice Age taxa, Blue Rhino Studio was hired to create several exquisite sculptures for the exhibit.
The exhibit, which traveled through the proboscidean family tree and included notable fossils such as the mammoth mummy “Lyuba”, featured several busts and sculptures of prehistoric proboscideans along with other Ice Age animals. A partial circle of Phiomia, Platybelodon, Gomphotherium, and Deinotherium heads created by Blue Rhino Studio helped portray proboscidean diversification, while a sculpture of Moeritherium showed the very base of the elephant family tree.
Models of Homotherium and the short-faced bear Arctodus were also created, standing in the same room as a massive Mammuthus columbi (Columbian mammoth). These sculptures were all exceptionally detailed and accurate, truly immersing visitors around the world of extinct proboscideans.
Flying Pterosaurs and Antarctic Dinosaurs
2018 was a stellar year for Blue Rhino Studio and the Field Museum, as they collaborated once more to produce two extraordinary projects. The first of these, ironically opening in the middle of the summer, was “Antarctic Dinosaurs”, a traveling exhibition focusing on the prehistoric life of Antarctica across the Phanerozoic (see my write-up here). It featured peeks into real paleontological work on the continent, a vision into the warmer Early Jurassic climate, and even a look at modern scientific research in Antarctica.
Blue Rhino Studio created detailed sculptures of Cryolophosaurus, Antarctosuchus (pictured above), Glacialisaurus, a penguin, and two new unnamed sauropodomorphs. They also rigorously recreated environmental details, creating especially realistic portrayals of Antarctica’s environment in the Triassic, Early Jurassic, and even in the modern-day.
As part of the same 2018 renovation that shifted “SUE” the Tyrannosaurus into her present exhibit, Blue Rhino Studio assisted the Field Museum in creating a new and magnificent look for their main hall. A collection of life-size pterosaur models was created by the studio, accompanying the already-stunning sight of “Máximo” the Patagotitan. Out in Stanley Field Hall, a massive Quetzalcoatlus replaced an older Pteranodon model, while a flock of much smaller Rhamphorhynchus swoop towards the North Entrance.
In the halls behind the flying Quetzalcoatlus, another standing model of the space species was constructed, dwarfing visitors. Naturally, the size and presence of a seemingly alien creature up close turned it into one of the hottest photo spots in the museum. Flanking this second Quetzalcoatlus were two exquisitely preserved fossil slabs containing Rhamphorhynchus and Pterodactylus skeletons from the Solnhofen Limestone.
In the stairs around the North Entrance, two models of Pteranodon/Geosternbergia also soar above visitors. Like all the models covered previously, Blue Rhino Studio’s work was extremely accurate and finely detailed, creating a freshly stunning experience for the Field once again.
A Mammoth for the Bell
Another major project for Blue Rhino Studio was situated in their home state. The University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus became host to the Bell Museum of Natural History just two years ago, and naturally, needed exhibits. Blue Rhino Studio was hired to create a glacial Ice Age scene with another mammoth (though this time, it was the most famous species). Every hair on the giant was individually attached by the studio, a testament to their incredible scrutiny and accuracy.
Two more furry members of the Ice Age’s megafauna were also featured. Castoroides, the famous giant beaver, received a lifelike sculpture in the shadow of the woolly mammoth. An extant animal, the musk ox, was also positioned in front of Blue Rhino’s striking glacier. Among the Bell Museum’s planetarium, immersive (modern) dioramas, and green roof, the studio’s Ice Age creation still stands out as one of the most stunning sights in the institution.
SUE’s Second Tour
As the Field Museum reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic in August, a sculpture of their most famous attraction was shown on Twitter. This distinctively bulky model of SUE, the FMNH’s star T. rex, is the latest collaboration between Blue Rhino Studio and the museum. Soon, it went on display in Stanley Field Hall, opposite from “Máximo” and the studio’s previous aerial creations. The rotund replication, holding a young Edmontosaurus, also includes pathologies from the SUE specimen, such as a bone infection above its left ankle, indicated by a large scar.
Not long after it arrived in the Field, it was shipped off to Iowa, as part of a new traveling exhibit, titled “SUE: The T. rex Experience”. Along with updated skeletal casts of SUE and a Triceratops, the exhibit revolves around the individual’s Hell Creek environment and the specimen’s discovery. Like many displays that Blue Rhino Studio has collaborated in, “SUE: The T. rex Experience” keeps immersion as one of its main priorities.
In a little over 20 years, Blue Rhino Studio has helped to create some of the most stunning paleontological displays in recent years. Even alongside stunning fossil specimens in some of these exhibits, their models and scenes easily steal the show. With hyperrealistic sculpting and extraordinary attention to scientific detail, Blue Rhino Studio is one of the greatest presences in the modern world of fossil halls.
Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s extreme severity became clear, museums around the world had to close their doors to visitors. Though some, like the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Science in Boston, are now beginning to reopen in safe and socially-distanced environments, museums were some of the hardest-hit institutions during the global crisis.
A survey from the American Alliance of Museums estimated that around a third of U.S. museums will never reopen their doors after the pandemic and that 65% of these institutions had laid off or furloughed over 20% of their workers. However, in these dire situations, a few museums found methods to create significant progress in a newly isolated world. This post will cover a small assortment of these efforts.
In March, museum workers Sacha Coward and Dan Vo started a social media trend, #MuseumFromHome, among museums to share sixty-second videos showcasing their collections. Many institutions participated, engaging and educating visitors even through social distancing. Museums of all kinds shared unique items in their collections, from radios and pianos to photographic rubbings and a coyote skull.
Many natural history museums also engaged in the trend, sharing fossils from their collections and exhibits. These specimens ranged from Abingdon County Hall Museum’s fossil gastropods to the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Champsosaurus mount. Museums also presented more than just fossil specimens, offering various talks, walkthroughs, and livestreams regarding their collections and research.
Virtual tours have also become increasingly helpful for visitors to experience museums from their homes. Opened last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s newly renovated Deep Time fossil hall, along with the museum’s numerous other exhibits, have all become accessible online with vivid 360-degree virtual tours. The American Museum of Natural History has also emphasized a virtual tour of their own, provided by Google Arts and Culture, along with several virtual field trips for educators.
The Natural History Museum in London also launched a spectacular 360-degree virtual tour on May 26 for clients looking to reserve its halls for events. Though the more limited views seem to have all been photographed at night, the NHM’s walkthrough gives the online public a stunning digital experience in its central Hintze Hall. The capability to create a virtual tour has also been obtained by other smaller museums during the COVID-19 crisis. The Burpee Museum of Natural History, which took an especially hard toll during the pandemic (the museum had to lay off 84% of its staff), has received grants to create virtual reality tours similar to the ones already offered by the Smithsonian and the NHM.
Penguins in the Field
Chicago’s Field Museum also took a heavy toll during its closure (it reopened on July 17). In that time, however, FMNH and the neighboring Shedd Aquarium were still able to uniquely engage visitors at home. During critical social-distancing in Chicago, the aquarium posted a series of videos showcasing “field trips” that a bonded pair of Magellanic penguins were taken on.
Though Shedd was the first of Chicago’s major museums to reopen, the series continued in collaboration with FMNH with a visit to their halls, as the penguins ventured around “Máximo” the Patagotitan in the empty Main Hall and explored the relatively new “SUE” exhibit in Evolving Planet.
Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s way of participating in the #MuseumFromHome trend was particularly unique. Having started releasing regular content on the recently popular social network TikTok in January, the museum saw it as a unique opportunity for education during the pandemic. In a less serious setting, Carnegie was able to engage their public with a series of lighthearted videos about their collections, exhibits, and work. The museum reopened in late June, also premiering the new temporary exhibition “Dinosaur Armor”.
Coincidentally, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s temporary exhibition “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” was running at the time as the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit was designed to communicate the risks and origins of epidemics in the modern world, soberingly relevant during the current pandemic.
An additional aspect of the exhibition is becoming increasingly important in places with reopening museums. In 2018, the Smithsonian also released a do-it-yourself version of the exhibit, which would allow institutions around the world to communicate to and engage visitors like the original exhibit has. With this, hospitals, schools, and other museums are all able to further educate their local communities about the origins of epidemics and responses against them.
City Nature Challenge 2020
Since 2016, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, has organized the City Nature Challenge, a competition between cities to document as much urban biodiversity as possible. Since 2018, the event has expanded to the international stage. However, the City Nature Challenge, like everything else, had to adapt to COVID-19.
Interestingly, the NHMLA was able to keep the challenge safely running, even throughout the pandemic. This was achieved by taking away the competitive aspect of the City Nature Challenge, focusing on collaboration across the online community to document biodiversity. From April 24 to April 27, the event was able to engage more communities than ever before, as 244 cities from 40 countries collectively documented 32,600 species. This year’s challenge was a unique demonstration of a museum’s ability to unify the public even while isolated in a pandemic.
The Evolution of Whiteside
The Whiteside Museum of Natural History, a Texas institution much younger than the museums covered so far, also shut down for an enormous duration earlier this year. However, the WMNH’s employees utilized two months of its shutdown to vastly improve their exhibits, offering returning visitors a new and unique experience.
One of the major projects during the museum’s shutdown was the development of a new exhibit, the Science of Skulls. Displaying around 55 skulls, including extant and extinct taxa, the exhibit shows off the huge diversity in animal skull form and function. In particular, the new displays feature a replica of a Sarcosuchus imperator skull, displayed alongside crocodilian skulls that seem tiny in comparison.
Having reopened on June 2, the Whiteside Museum’s incredible renovation during its extended closure is a great example of improvement during extremely difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic’s closure of museums was an ultimate test of their roles as public educators, and, across the globe, many institutions passed. Providing engaging virtual experiences and creating improved in-person exhibits, many museums were able to evolve in increasingly deadly situations.