Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Cleveland Museum of Natural History - The Great Lakes region - Part One

On a wet April morning we drove up to the Cleveland Natural History Museum (CMNH), and what a drive it was. The main road passes under majestic bridges and what seems to be a parkland lined with monuments to numerous nations across the globe. The museum itself is not near the centre of the city but about 8km outside the city centre in a complex filled with schools and medical institutions.

What we could see of the entire precinct, it looks fantastic (it really was raining hard when we were there). There are great gardens to walk around and many items to investigate (such as a life-size stegosaurus), so please ensure you allocate some time to check the outside as well as the inside.
Entering the museum from the car-park, you pass through an atrium filled with fantastic NASA images from the Hubble space telescope. I could have just stood there for hours and peered into these, but onward we marched.
In 2015 the CMNH announced a major upgrade, with several phases of construction updating the displays and increasing the floor space of the building. This work also included a connecting car-park – and some of this work has been completed. This mean there is a real old vs new feel to the CMNH – now as you will see this is not a complaint, just an observation. What has been completed so far is great and so I will be very interested to see what else they have planned (actually you can see some concept art here https://www.cmnh.org/centennialhome/project-update/exhibit-update).
Approaching its centenary, the CMNH was planned to be an institution that concentrated on not just the education side of the natural sciences, but to research and develop collections in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, botany, geology, palaeontology and zoology, and this it seems to have done very well as the museum is consistently ranked in the top ten natural history museums in the USA – and that’s saying a lot as this place has a lot of natural history museums.
 To me there are clear delineations in the galleries of this museum, with each carrying a distinctive feel, almost a separate personality to the rest that I will separate them here – something I never really have done before.

Kirtland Hall of Prehistoric Life

This feels like the oldest part of the museum, with some of the exhibits clearly of an older style. It is an enormous space, and lining most of the walls are small displays containing specimens from various times of Earth’s past. Though these are of an older style, they are filled with some amazing specimens. There are plenty of Miocene and Oligocene fossils, with skulls from Platybelodon, sabretooth cats, horses and a great entelodont skull.

The star of this little section though is Diatryma, a giant bird unearthed in Wyoming. There are also a number of small mural/paintings in these displays, though I could not see the artists name (to be fair, I may have just missed it so if the artists is out there, please let me know and I’ll happily re-edit this).
A large central island is behind you at this point containing those most iconic of dinosaurs, a triceratops and a T. rex (the Wankle Rex I do believe). Behind the tail of this full-sized replica is also the skull of the highly controversial Nanotyrannus. The skull (CMNH 7541) was first found in 1942 by David Hosbrook Dunkle and described four years later by Charles W. Gilmore as Gorgosaurus lancensis. This was later reinterpreted by Robert T. Bakker, Phil Currie, and Michael Williams as a new, midget tyrannosaur species as features of this small skull indicate it was from an adult – thus Nanotyrannus. Trust me, we will come back to this conversation later.

These cabinets line bookend an enormous wall where numerous fossils hang. Many of these are skulls, topping the silhouetted shape of the animal they represent. Here there is also a great mosasaur on display and I really like the way it was mounted as you get a great look inside its mouth at the palate teeth (a feature you often cannot see with museum mounts).

Out of the far corner juts another of these ‘islands’, and here you can see a real treasure. Happy the Haplocanthosaurus was a Jurassic sauropod, and at 66ft was one of the smallest found in the Morrison formation.
There are a few things to note –

1. No skull was found so this one is just a sculpted head indicating what it might have looked like.
2. This is the only mount of this species anywhere in the world.
3. It is one of the most primitive sauropods known and exactly what it was related too is still being discussed.
4. There is no getting around it...the tail.
Happy has been on display since 1963, when our view of dinosaurs was drastically different than today. The preparators placed happy in the stance of the day, with its tail dragging on the ground, and today this stance is still presence. It’s an amazing site to see, - you case how the tail would be dislocated in two places if this was how the tail was while the animal was alive.
As Pointed out earlier though, there are changes coming to the museum and I assume the specimen will surely get a modern remounting – and I am not sure how I feel about that. I understand a museum will always want to place the most scientifically accurate information in front of a visitor – but – having been a museum educator for several decades in museums across the globe, I love the story a tour guide gets to present with such a feature. This is a physical opportunity to explain how science adapts to new information, technology and ideas. In a very real way it will be a lost opportunity when (if) this mount gets changed.
Next to Happy is also a mounted Allosaurus, and the way these two species are presented are great. Unearthed in the local Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry (along with 44 other specimens), Alice the Allosaurus has been mounted running along the side of its far larger victim which it seems to be preparing to attack. Originally Alice had also been built with her tail dragging on the ground – and in 2008 the fossil (which is around 50% real) was remounted with a modern stance.
The rest of the room is made up of more cabinets containing older species – such as one of the most complete Coelophysis mounted skeletons on display (sorry no image) and then a lot of Triassic and Permian species such as Dimetrodon. A great little touch is, if you look closely, it is here you will see the modern Tuatara – making the link between this living fossil and the time.
Being that this is Cleveland, there is an extensive display of Devonian fossils, especially sharks and the famous armoured-head placoderm fish like Dunkleosteus
As the region is known for such fossils there are numerous species and growth sizes -as well as a life-size model swimming above your head.  
Between this gallery and the next is a wide corridor filled with various displays, including a nice time line of all the different ages of the earth and the numerous fossils you can find in rocks from these times. I love it when museums organise displays that people can touch. Behind this is a physical family tree of how all the various species that have populated the world are related to each other.
It is here that you find another dinosaur specimen the museum is famous for, and this brings me to one of the real treats of my visit. The Staff at the CMNH are fantastic, warm, friendly and knowledge and they were happy to chat and show me some of the treasures they have sitting in their backrooms. 
A huge shout out to Ashley Hall (Adult Programs Coordinator) and Lee Hall (Fossil Preparator and Lab Manager) who were most fantastic hosts and later (when we bumped into the Curator and Head of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology for the museum) Dr. Michael Ryan. You guys are the best and what a happy and fun environment to be working in. You can always get a sense of an institution by the people who work there, and thanks to you guys, as Drew Carey once noted, CLEVELAND ROCKS!
During the tour out in the storage rooms the guys explained how they run some of their education programs and what they are planning for the future I got to see a number of amazing things.
As mentioned, thanks to the Cleveland Shale, the CMNH has an extensive collection of Devonian fossils, especially from enormous predatory fish like Dunkleosteus. The museum has numerous remains from these fish in storage, and work on them is ongoing. Watch this space as one of these specimens seems to be from an enormous, fanged or sabre-toothed placoderm that could have been even more impressive than the species already described.

One of the great things I got to see was the original skull of Nanotyrannus. The fossil is a thing of beauty, the colour alone makes it one of the better-looking fossils I have seen, which brings me back to the argument about it being a valid species or just a juvenile T.rex. The dinosaur sitting in the foyer is a cast of Jane, the juvenile T.rex. Its discovery was used as proof that the museums original skull was also a juvenile and that was apparently that. Recently though there have been some scientists holding onto the idea the Cleveland skull is a separate species, and its labelling remains true to the original name.
Having bid a fond farewell to my guides Ashley and Lee, it was back to exploring.

Reinberger Hall of Astronomy and Wade Gallery of Gems & Jewels

Here is where the museum takes a series turn with its exhibits. By the feel these are new and well though out. As many of you in the industry are aware, the geology side of a display is often the least visited – sure people love the jewels and some of the more spectacular minerals, but they generally don’t spend a lot of time here.
These displays are fantastic. Not only are there numerous interactives and media displays, with great looking murals clearly and simply explaining how the planet was formed, what you would expect to see on other planets, how erosion works, how soil is formed and how you can tell the difference between various dirt, why rocks and fossils are important in this modern world, mineral properties and how mines operate.

You pass through cave systems, reconstructed mines and what looks to be the set from a Star Trek episode for the astronomy section, with space-age shaped window displays, scrolling futuristic video screens and wall to roof mounted Hubble images. These walls are colour coded, with a deep ochre for geology and a cool blue for space.
These galleries lead you to the temporary exhibit display, where the CMNH is currently housing a touring pterosaur display. I will cover this later in its own page.
Set a course for adventure in this Museum-created exhibit celebrating the fabled voyage of the Blossom. Explore tales of mutiny, adventure and discovery as you experience the expedition that built the Museum’s collections nearly a century ago.”  That’s how the museums website describe another exhibit focusing on the history of not just the collection, but how it was collected. There are numerous historical items, including journals, tools, maps and artworks from the CMNH’s voyage of exploration in the 1920s.

Sears Hall of Human Ecology

Wow. For many museums the issue is often how do you create space to display all the items you have in storage that visitors might wish to see? Well the CMNH has come up with a novel way of achieving this, double-stacking.
Though this room is not the largest, it has a high ceiling, and so it seems the exhibits designers hit on the novel idea of just stacking one exhibit on top of another. This is a unique approach, and yes there are other museums that have done something similar, none have taken it to this extent. I personally loved it, it was almost like looking at a children’s popup book, with each angle creating a new way to see the items displayed.
The display cleverly uses animals in dynamic poses, cultural backgrounds, and recreated environments – placed within the continents or surroundings where they live. This sort of display also creates something new, a two tier visit dynamic. While some are busy looking at the items on display within the lower cabinets, others move into the middle of the room so they can see what is above better. 
Apparently these displays date back several decades and have not been upgraded, they were just so well done the first time around that they have been kept. This is a surprise to me as they really did feel new and cutting edge.
At various times there were also staff members walking around with live animals that visitors could interact with. This included a snapping turtle and a skunk that comes out at set times throughout the day. 

Ohio Archaeology and Human Origins Gallery

A small display of local archaeological items leads you towards the end of your visit inside with a visit to the museums new Human Origins gallery. The CMNH has a long history of anthropology and primatology and its collection is vast. The Human Origins Gallery is one of those that has recently been upgraded, and focuses on Lucy, that tiny little Australopithecus that had been unearthed by the museum’s curator, Donald Johanson, and his team in 1874 while they were exploring Ethiopia. This was arguably the world’s most famous anthropology discovery and a real feather in the museum’s cap – so its no wonder this display was one of the first to get an upgrade.
As with most African fossils of this sort, the originals are stored in Ethiopia, but a displayed replica skeleton cast from the original bones is on display, standing alongside a lifelike sculpture created by renowned paleoartist, John Gurche.

And that was about it for our visit. There are many other places to explore in the museum, such as a walk through the Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center & Woods Garden (which I missed due to the rain).
Overall, the museum deserves its place in the top ten US natural history museums and I encourage you all to visit and say hi.

Other items either soon to be placed on display or I missed due to time.

  •          BALTO - The hero dog of Nome, Alaska, who in 1925 helped led a team of sled dogs through the snow to this distant outpost, carrying much needed medical supplies.
  •          The Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium & Ralph Mueller Observatory. Here you can learn about astronomy and on certain nights visit the observatory to peer at the universe (check their website for opening times). 
  •       On the way back into the city there is a fantastic whale mural that covers a large building, so keep an eye out for that. 

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