Episode 66

66. From ‘Extinct Monsters’ to ‘Deep Time’: A History of the Smithsonian Fossil Hall

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About this Episode

The most-visited room in the most-visited science museum in the world reopened last week after a massive, five year renovation. Deep Time, as the new gallery is colloquially known, is the latest iteration of the Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

It might not seem like much in geologic time, but the Smithsonian Fossil Hall has been welcoming visitors for more than 100 years. Over those years, the dinosaur bones and other fossils—even some individual specimens—have remained at the center, even as the museum presentation around them has changed dramatically. You can measure the change by the different names of the hall through time. What is today Deep Time first opened in 1911 with a different name: The Hall of Extinct Monsters.

In this episode, we’re going back in time through the iterations of the Fossil Hall with Ben Miller, an exhibitions developer at the Field Museum in Chicago. From its opening as The Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1911, to renovations in the 1960s and 1980s, to the forceful climate crisis message of 2019’s Deep Time gallery, the Smithsonian Fossil Hall has answered life’s biggest questions. This is the story of how museum workers shrugged off their “cabinet of curiosity” roots and embraced education-oriented exhibits like what we see in the gallery today.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 66. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

[Audio of Deep Time gallery]

This is the most visited room in the most visited science museum in the world — the east wing of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. It’s the Fossil Hall, known simply as “the place with the dinosaurs.”

Today is just a few days after its 2019 grand-reopening. For the past five years, this room was closed to visitors, undergoing a massive renovation.

The new gallery is called Deep Time after the concept of geologic time. Deep Time reflects our current best understanding of life on earth. The dinosaurs in the hall are presented as part of the larger story of evolution: the gallery is punctured by prominent black pillars marking extinction events like the End-Permian Extinction, the End-Cretaceous Extinction that killed all non-avian dinosaurs, and our devastation of life today.

It might not seem like much in geologic time, but this room has been welcoming visitors as a museum gallery for over 100 years. Over those years, the dinosaur bones and other fossils have remained at the center as the museum presentation around them has changed dramatically to keep with our understanding of the world. You can measure the change by the different names of the hall through time. What is today Deep Time first opened in 1911 with a different name: The Hall of Extinct Monsters.

Ben Miller: It was this great big, open neoclassical space with a skylight three stories up. There was a handful of mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other animals on pedestals in the middle of the floor, some smaller fossil cases lining the walls. It was very reflective of paleontology in museums at the time, in that paleontologists were concerned with taxonomy and with classifying known forms of life, but they weren’t really concerned about, say, the behavior of those animals, or the ecosystems they fit into.

From its opening as the Hall of Extinct Monsters in 1911, to renovations in the 1960s and 1980s, to the new Deep Time gallery today, the Smithsonian Fossil Hall has answered life’s biggest questions. This story is not just a story of life on this planet but also the story of our changing understanding of how we fit into it. Today we’re going back in time through the iterations of the fossil hall with exhibitions developer Ben Miller.

Ben Miller: Hello my name is Ben Miller and I’m an exhibitions developer at the Field Museum in Chicago. Before that, I worked for the park commission in Maryland. I was putting together Dinosaur Park. That’s largely my career at this point.

Miller writes a blog about the history and artistry of paleontology exhibits in museums called, fittingly, Extinct Monsters dot net.

When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1911, the building that is now the National Museum of Natural History was called the United States National Museum. The hall, with various fossils scattered around the room, generally resembled a classic “cabinet of curiosity” approach to exhibit design.

Ben Miller: “Certainly museum workers of the time, particularly at the Smithsonian, they were considering exhibitions as showrooms for the collections, rather than having any particular public educational function.”

In other words, there was no overarching story — the exhibit wasn’t telling the story of life, it was just saying, ‘here are some cool fossils.”

Ben Miller: That’s always the first thing that is conceived of when one’s putting together an exhibition today is what the story is. At the time, this was a showroom for the collections. There wasn’t any kind of narrative that was considered. They were certainly adding new specimens over the course of the first half of the 20th century, including the biggest thing in there, the Diplodocus, the big, long-necked dinosaur went in in the early thirties. But, the basic architecture of that space remained pretty much the same. It just got more and more crowded.

Diplodocus remains in the hall to this day, forming an impressive set-piece in Deep Time. The Hall of Extinct Monsters persisted largely unchanged until 1962, when it was finally renovated as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization project.

Ben Miller: In the 50s and the early ‘60s, the Smithsonian went through this modernization project. The US National Museum and all the other components of the Smithsonian, they were looking at overhauling all these older exhibits and bringing in more a visitor-centric focus to those spaces. The Dinosaur Hall and the adjacent halls got renovated. This was a project led primarily by Ann Karras, who was the exhibit designer at the time. She had a hand at rewriting some of the labels, re-organizing the different fossils that were on display, to put them into a story that the general public would be able to follow moving through that space. They also changed the aesthetics quite a bit, which to me, it was a bit of a downgrade. They got rid of all this gorgeous neoclassical design, the big skylight on the ceiling. They boarded up all the windows, put in dingy brown, wall-to-wall carpeting. Yeah, that’s what the exhibition looked like.

The most polite way to describe the dingy brown carpeting would be, “earth tone”. When doing the renovation, workers realized that the largest mount, Diplodocus, was too difficult to disassemble and move, so the new exhibit was designed around it. Still, the exhibit was evolving.

Ben Miller: It was partially still based on taxonomy. There was a room for reptiles, a room for mammals, a room for fishes. But, they were bringing in the story of life over time and the evolution of life over time, so, which organisms came first, which came later. There was definitely a tone of progress, that was more in vogue at that time, than you would really see in a modern take on the history of life.

The next set of renovations took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Those renovations, known as “The History of Life” followed the evolutionary progression of fossils, plants and animals through time.

Ben Miller: I think the turning point was in 1974, when they did the Hall of Ice Age Mammals and the Rise of Man. That exhibit was, rather than being based on taxonomy or the structure of the collections, it was this integrated story that drew on paleontology and anthropology and climatology and geology, bringing in different curators and different experts, as well as exhibit designers, to tell this cohesive, collaborative story about what the Ice Ages were like. That dovetailed a bit with the reorganization of the paleontologists at the museum at the time into what’s now known as the Department of Paleobiology. They were more interested in the life and evolution of these animals. I think everyone knew at the time that that was going to be the future, this integrative approach, telling a story about a particular point in time or bringing together a particular narrative was going to be what exhibitions were going to be in the future. That was what drove the renovations throughout the whole east wing for the rest of the century. They continued on to the spaces where the dinosaurs were and around them and eventually finished in 1991 with the Ancient Seas Gallery. It wasn’t always easy. There were some points of tension between this old guard of curators and the new professionalism and greater voices of authority in the project that the exhibitions department was having. But, ultimately, people were seeing these exhibits as something that existed more for the public, rather than being a showroom for the collections.

It’s also the version of the exhibit that Miller remembers visiting as a youngster growing up in the DC area.

Ben Miller: I’m not sure when I started going, probably around 1990, and there were still a few changes after that.I was maybe two or three years old, so I don’t really know how deeply I was thinking about it. This was probably the first dinosaur exhibit I went to, so it was just the place to see dinosaurs, I didn’t really have a point of comparison, and got to know all of those specimens very well, going to see them year after year after year. What I think was always very clear is that space was at the mercy of its history, and that this had been a series of partial renovations over the course of decades and decades. There were some tight corridors. There were a lot of false walls boxing people in, leading to dead ends and cul-de-sacs. That was just the result of continuing to add new things and new partial renovations to a space that wasn’t really built for that. They added the cast of T. rex around 2000. But, that version of the exhibit, it stuck around for quite some time.

The gallery was restricted in part by the story it was telling, guiding visitors through time in a maze-like fashion, making it difficult from a visitor flow perspective to go backwards, particularly with the visitor numbers as high as they were. This is also the version of the gallery that Miller studied when, later, he worked as an intern at the Smithsonian.

Ben Miller: I was working with the Paleobiology Department and, later, with the Education Departments, and one of the things I was doing was visitor research, interviews with visitors there about: how they understood the history of life on earth, how they conceived of the great expanses of time, what they thought about the presentation of evolution in the gallery, and that sort of thing. I hope that that little contribution I made was helpful in eventually conceiving the hall as they did.

This series of renovations from the 70s and 80s lasted all the way to 2014 — when the hall was closed for the renovations that ultimately became Deep Time. What makes Deep Time so exciting was that it was by far the most complete renovation since the hall first opened in 1911. And that meant the possibility to completely rethink fundamental assumptions about the way the story of life on earth was presented. That meant stripping the entire gallery of the “earth-tone” carpet, and clearing away all the false walls and cul-due sacks that had made the renovations in the 1980s so claustrophobic.

Ben Miller: They had this opportunity to take everything out and start over from the beginning, which I’m very jealous of as a museum professional. Usually, you’re just building on decades and decades of what already exists and trying to fit your new story in. They wanted to bring back that historic architecture. I imagine that also has something to do with the visitorship that the Smithsonian gets. That’s one of the most highly visited museums in the world. They get 8 million people every year. When they plan exhibitions, they really have to think about getting those crowds through the space. I imagine that to that end is part of why it’s such an open exhibit, that you can explore at your own pace and go in different ways instead of going along a predetermined route.

Deep Time presents the story of life on earth and that includes drastic changes in climate. The gallery does a good job of presenting anthropogenic climate change against the backdrop of previous, much slower changes. The people who made the exhibit have made it hard to visit the museum without contemplating the climate crisis and our role in creating it. Project manager for Deep Time, Siobhan Starrs, says that while people come for the dinosaurs, “they’re get get a lot more than dinosaurs.”

Ben Miller: They were able to really start from square one, what do we want people to think about when they think about the history of life on earth? What they landed on was they really wanted to bring the human story into that, to show that we, as people today, were part of the evolution of life. We’re not separate from it, and everything we see in the world today is something that has a story and has roots in the long history in deep time, as the exhibit is called. I think orienting the exhibition around the extinctions seems like a really good move, as you said, because it connects to the modern story about humans causing extinction today, and, also, because, these extinctions are checkpoints in the history of life where everything changed

One of the exhibits that helps visitors think on a deep time scale is an animated interactive media piece called “Your Body Through Time,” which illustrates early instances of characteristics found in our bodies like bilateral symmetry and lungs, and how they evolved in our ancestors. And the presentation of the fossils themselves is dynamic—very much a departure from the taxonomical presentation when the room was simply “the hall of extinct monsters.”

Ben Miller: I know something that was important to the curators was to show the skeletons as animals. They went through the process of disarticulating all of their mounted skeletons, conserving them, and putting them back together in poses that show different kinds of behavior, not just eating and killing each other, as you see in a lot of newer exhibits. But, they’re doing things like sleeping and guarding eggs. There’s even a mammoth in there, that’s using its tusks to clear snow off the grass. All sorts of really interesting behaviors that bring new life to these creatures and really show them as living, thinking beings that once existed.

The re-imagined exhibit is also arranged in reverse chronological order: visitors start among mammoths and ground sloths of more recent history and move backward in time through increasingly alien-looking versions of North America, until ultimately encountering the earliest life. This reorientation also means visitors enter the gallery in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction event already in progress — the same way we enter any place on earth.

Ben Miller: I think it’s a very novel approach to start in the present day and move back. I think most exhibitions, they have started with the origins of life and moved forward. It will be really interesting to see how folks react to going back in time. Certainly from an aesthetic perspective, I think it’s very clever, because you can put your big, impressive ground sloths and mastodons at the front and really show people something really cool.

Ben Miller: Whereas if you start with the origins of life, you’re starting in a room full of really old stromatolites and rocks and hell scenes of what the earth looked like then. You’re kind of hiding what the big show is, which is going to be your skeletons of dinosaurs and so forth. It will be interesting to see how people respond to that.