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.

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