The Digitization of Fossil Halls

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

A screenshot of the Paleontology on Vancouver Island exhibit from Digital Museums Canada, picturing an unidentified flower fossil.
An unidentified fossil on display in the digital “Paleontology on Vancouver Island” exhibit. Source

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”.

Screenshot of Images on Stone, a digital exhibition by the Musée de la civilisation.
“Images on Stone” covers the history of rock art, including cave paintings by prehistoric humans in Lascaux. Source

“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

Digital model of Allosaurus fragilis skeletal mount from the Natural History  Museum Vienna, shown in a screenshot with other 3D models of displays.
A skeletal cast mount of Allosaurus, presented in the virtual realm by the Natural History Museum Vienna. Source

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

Screenshot of a virtual tour of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History's exhibit "Tiny Titans", featuring a Heyuannia in the foreground.
In this enhanced tour of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, each dot presents additional information and media to visitors. Source

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

Digital skeletons of Dorudon, Maiacetus, and a pygmy right whale in "Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea" from the University of Michigan.
The virtual skeletons of Dorudon, Maiacetus, and a pygmy right whale in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s virtual whale evolution exhibit.

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.

References

Digital Museums Canada. (n.d.). Our mission. Digital Museums Canada. https://www.digitalmuseums.ca/about/mission/

Digital Museums Canada. (n.d.). Paleontology on Vancouver Island. https://www.digitalmuseums.ca/funded-projects/paleontology-on-vancouver-island/

Hawkins, S. & Dick, L. (2021, April 6). New 3D exhibit by U-M Museum of Natural History offers up-close encounters with prehistoric whales. University of Michigan News. https://news.umich.edu/new-3d-exhibit-by-u-m-museum-of-natural-history-offers-up-close-encounters-with-prehistoric-whales/

Musée de la civilisation. (n.d.). Homepage – Des images dans la pierre. https://imagesdanslapierre.mcq.org/en/

Natural History Museum Vienna. (n.d.). 3D Museum. https://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/museum_online/3D

New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. (n.d.). Virtual Tour-Tiny Titans. https://nmnaturalhistory.org/exhibits/online-exhibits/virtual-tour-tiny-titans

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