27 March 2010

Exhibit Review: San Diego Natural History Museum

I've been thinking for a while that it might be fun to try my hand at reviewing new (or at least relatively new) books, exhibits, papers, and the like from the world of paleontology, and this is my first attempt at doing so. Any thoughts on the format or the utility of this sort of post would be much appreciated.

Museum: San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego, California
Theme: Paleontology
Grade: A+

This exhibit isn't new per se, but it is new to me and it's recent enough that I feel justified in reviewing it. Part of my impression of the San Diego museum may be colored by my time doing research in the collections, and it's worth noting that the facilities there are excellent, from the well-appointed prep lab to the well-organized cabinets of fossils to the offices with views over Balboa Park. That said, the exhibits there are among the best I've seen anywhere. The focus of Fossil Mysteries is deceptively constrained, displaying only fossils from the San Diego area. This is the sort of seemingly narrow focus that could lead to an exhibit consisting primarily of fossils on shelves: interesting, perhaps, to scientists, but with little value for anyone else. However, when put in the correct context, local fossils from sites familiar to museumgoers can be used as springboards to present broader concepts, and Fossil Mysteries does this to great effect. As the name of the exhibit suggests, this is done by presenting visitors with a series of questions. Some of these are rhetorical and answered fairly quickly (e.g. 'How can you tell different groups of carnivorous mammals apart?). Others (e.g. 'Why are there no more mammoths in Southern California?') are intentionally left unanswered, though visitors are provided with evidence they can use to draw their own conclusions. Of course, relying on museumgoers to actually read all an exhibit's signage is a bad bet, and several interactive displays are in place to appeal to younger visitors (my favorite was a series of self-powered displays on animal locomotion, all of which fed into the larger theme of adaptation). Models of some of the more impressive fossils are much in evidence (some of which are half skeletal, half fleshed-out); the full-sized Carcharodon megalodon and a prowling Panthera atrox are particularly impressive. A walk-through diorama of an Eocene jungle serves as an introduction to paleoecology. Many of the displays are augmented by vibrant murals by William Stout, which, taken as a whole, constitute one of the more impressive paleoartistic undertakings since Rudolph Zallinger's Age of Reptiles mural at Yale. One of the only drawbacks to Fossil Mysteries is the placement of these murals directly behind specimens, making them difficult to see and detracting from their full effect.
Many of my paleontological friends are likely reading this and despairing over another fossil exhibit based primarily on interactive displays. I would respond by saying that, first of all, we, as a discipline, should get past the delusion that fossils and fossils alone are enough to draw - and more importantly, to educate - a general audience, and second of all that, at least in this case, there's no cause for concern. One of the great strengths of Fossil Mysteries is its balance of interactive and specimen-based displays, and some of the specimens chosen for exhibit are impressive indeed. There's the San Diego ankylosaur (complete with encrusted oysters), bird tracks from the Oligocene Otay Formation, the Chula Vista walrus, a complete fossil gray whale, and several large mammals from Rancho La Brea, as well as several other smaller fossils too numerous to detail. It's hard to imagine Fossil Mysteries not having some appeal to anyone with even the remotest interest in paleontology or science in general, and because of that it stands head and shoulders above most recent paleo exhibits.

24 March 2010

Notes From a Golden Age

Apologies for the text color issues with this post; Blogger is either acting up today or I'm being an idiot. Either way, as an unredeemable perfectionist, I find it even more annoying than you do.
I spent last week visiting Oregon's southern neighbor, primarily the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, and while native Northwesterners are inherently distrustful of Southern California (LA is the Mordor to the Northwest's Rohan, with the Bay Area playing the role of Gondor in this cumbersome and hopelessly nerdy analogy), speaking purely as a paleontologist, I have to admit it's an exciting place to be right now. In fact, as the collections manager of one of the museums I visited opined, this really could be considered the golden age of Southern California paleontology.
Many people don't appreciate the wealth of the fossil record around LA and San Diego, but it really is remarkable. Everyone is familiar with the carnivores, birds, ground sloths, and ungulates of Rancho La Brea, of course, but it's far from the only Pleistocene site in the region (perhaps even more remarkable are the pygmy mammoths of the Channel Islands, the most unusual members of a unique fauna). Go back to the Pliocene and beyond and you find several remarkable marine mammals, including early baleen whales, walruses, desmostylians, and giant sea cows. Of particular interest to me are the land mammals of the Miocene, which are found in almost unbelievable abundance in the Barstow Basin and in the canyons of the Coast and Peninsular Ranges. San Diego County has its own (though, it must be said, somewhat less spectacular) answer to the Oligocene faunas of Oregon and South Dakota as well as one of the continent's better-preserved Eocene ecosystems. There are even some dinosaurs and Cretaceous marine reptiles, the tip of Baja California's iceberg.
And these fossils have plenty of people around to collect them. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has one of the best vertebrate fossil collections in the country, and the San Diego Natural History Museum, San Bernardino County Museum, and Raymond Alf Museum (associated, unusually, with a high school) are none too shabby either (the San Diego museum has one of the nicest collections facilities I've seen, and I've visited a great many museums over the course of my dissertation research). Remarkably, all four of these museums either have opened or will soon be opening new paleontology exhibits (again, San Diego really excels here; more on this in a later post, if I get around to it). Several universities in the area are among the leaders of North American paleontology; UCLA and USC are probably the most prominent, but several smaller universities in the area have active research programs as well. The only loser in the world of Southern Californian paleontology at the moment is Santa Barbara, who's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis recently lost John Alroy to Australia and who's natural history museum, while housing some excellent Channel Islands specimens, has no active paleontology program of which I'm aware (though it's worth noting that UCSB is one of the regional departments with a paleo program).
I'm not in the habit of heaping praise on Southern California (so much so that I feel compelled to point out that the collections of Berkeley's UC Museum of Paleontology are still the best on the West Coast). That said, this is an economic climate in which science, along with everybody else, has had to make many cutbacks, some of them very regrettable, and to see paleontology not only surviving, but thriving somewhere in the country is encouraging. May we all soon be following their example.