Posts Tagged 'museums'

Pteranodon flying low

There are far too few good pterosaur mounts in museums around the world, but admittedly with generally good reason. They are hard to model, there are few casts around, the interesting ones like Pteranodon are really quite big, and really you want them flying. That means mounting stuff on the ceiling which is difficult and even dangerous (well, public safety at least becomes an issue). And of course, much as I might loathe to admit it, they are just not as popular as dinosaurs. Still, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of mounts like these turning up which is a good thing.

This particular one is in Eichstaett, and lovely it is too (thought the black Quetzalcoatlus above it is not half as nice). The mount is actually not far off the ground which make it easy to get a good look at it (I have seen an Anhanguera mounted about 5m off the ground in Frankfurt and you can barely see what is obviously a nice model) but the downside to this is that it’s very hard to get far enough away to get the whole thing in frame, as the last photo shows.

A lovely Pterodactylus

The vagaries of preservation in fossils means that different specimens provide different things. Some have exceptional bones, some have bits or even lots of soft tissue, some preserve unusual features or things seen in odd angles, or just have parts that are often missing like gastralia. Taken in combination of course there is often a lot of information available and far more can be said about a set of fossils than from a single specimen. Ultimately some however just look really nice.

This I think is a near perfect example. It’s actually a privately owned specimen of Pterodactylus, but it is on public display in the Solnhofen Museum. There are better specimens for some details of the skeleton, certainly there are those which show off more unusual angles, and many have soft tissue where this has none. But it is a striking example of a fossil pterosaur with every bone well preserved and in about as ‘natural’ and undisturbed position as you can hope to see.

As long as this remains privately owned and not formally owned by a museum, no one is ever going to describe this (or they shouldn’t really). But that’s perhaps not much of an issue. Obviously as a researcher, I want every specimen in a museum, but at least in this case Pterodactylus is so studied and well known from lots of excellent specimens that, excellent example though this is, little to no scientific knowledge is actually being lost or skipped in this one specimen. Still, if the owner would like to give it to the museum, or me for that matter, I’d not be complaining. As this is a private specimen and not in the literature I rather assume that few readers have seen it and so it seemed too good not to show it off here.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 12: specimen preparation planning

Update December 1-3. Often overlooked, specimen preparation involves varying degrees of advance planning, or, in the case of this Gorgosaurus, revised planning. Some specimens are simply reprepared because they were damaged in a specimen drawer or were badly prepared in the first place. Several factors drive what specimens are prepared and which ones are not. Some are simply done “because they are there” and represent the general backlog of specimens found at museums worldwide. These specimens are of lesser importance (but still have some, or else they never would have been collected) and have slipped through the cracks and missed out on getting worked on. Often these are just a single bone that requires only a few hours or a couple days to finish, and are often perfect training projects for new, inexperienced staff or volunteers.
At our museum we have numerous specimens like these that go back to the mid 1960’s; these are slowly being worked on now making them available to current and future researchers. Other museums have material from Alberta collected around WWI! The main things that drives what gets priority and what does not often revolves around research projects by Tyrrell staff or students/professional colleagues working on Albertan material for their thesis projects or other research. Another consideration is public display. If a new theropod gallery is planned, a search of catalogue records or unprepared field jackets might reveal something new and exciting to work on. Presently at Tyrrell, there is a move to get all skulls or specimens with skulls prepared. I’d have to say that over the past 2-3 years we are preparing specimens faster than we are collecting them- a turnaround position for most museums who often steadily fill their unprepared specimen storage areas.

Preparation projects often involve ongoing or revised planning and the Gorgosaurus is no exception. It was originally planned to prepare the specimen showing one side only as it was unclear how much (or how little) of the skeleton was there. However, with all the preparation we have witnessed on this blog and the Royal Tyrrell Museums Facebook page, those plans have now changed. We now know much of the skeleton is present. Given the small size of the skull (about 50 cm long), several researchers have expressed their desire to have the skull removed and fully prepared. There is also an interest to see what was preserved on the other side as it was not fully uncovered in the field owing to preservational issues (shattered rock) – issues best dealt with in a controlled laboratory setting where there is no exposure to the weather and no time pressure commitments which often frustrate a field worker. In about 1.5 weeks there will be a meeting among Tyrrell Museum senior staff and others to decide the future of the preparation phase of the Gorgosaurus. It seems likely it will be flipped over and worked from the other side. If that is the case, then I can make plans towards that eventuality and prepare/not prepare certain areas. All or some of the specimen seen in the pictures here may be moulded first. Some of the better preserved parts may be removed permanently. Or none of this may happen. A future update will detail these revised plans.

The pictures today were taken on December 3rd. The Gorgosaurus underwent an extensive cleaning. As all pieces visible and their surrounding rock are now glued and stabilized, it is OK to carefully vacuum up all the rock chips and dust. Once that was done the pictures were taken from a raised platform and a ladder which gave a vantage point about 2 metres above the specimen.

Dave adds: Here I’m first reposting a couple of the early photographs to show the contrast and just how far Darren’s work has come in just a few weeks. For drama, the new images are below the fold. As ever, all photos here and in the series are owned by Darren Tanke and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. These should not be reproduced or embedded without permission.

Inside the jacket

And now the progress:

Continue reading ‘Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 12: specimen preparation planning’

More on Megalosaurus

The other day I put up a little post on the Megalosaurus holotype. This is on display at the Museum in Oxford (yes another one) and is part of, I think, a growing trend of important specimens being on display. Berlin now has its Archaeopteryx out on display, the IVPP regularly put out holotypes of newly described specimens in the museum and these are not the only ones. There have always been major specimens on display around the world but to my eye, ever more, and more important / valuable specimens are coming out of the curatorial collections and into the display cabinets.

I feel rather ambivalent about this, on the one hand it is great to have scientifically interesting and important specimens out there and for people to see them and (hopefully) get excited by them. Having the real, actual specimen there makes something more tangible – it is better than a cast or a model. On the other hand though, while this will be appealing to the public, I suspect that it is only appealing to a very small minority: the average museum visitor will probably not notice, or care, if what they are looking at is a cast or an original or a holotype.

In that case is it really worth the risk of putting something this valuable out on display. They need to be protected from theft and accidental damage, can be vulnerable to humidity and temperature changes or even the light from the sun or camera flashes. None of this is easy or cheap, or even always feasible.

The trade off then is providing public excitement for perhaps only a limited part of the audience, against increased risk of the specimen. Obviously there are lots of things to take into account – if the museum is well stocked with impressive specimens then there is perhaps no great need to leave out something exceptional, whereas one can sympathise that a small museum with a lone ‘star’ specimen might want it out on display. One has to make individual assessments based on individual cases, but I am a little concerned about more and more specimens going on display. I am about as interested as one could be (on average) about nice fossils in museums and I’m generally more than satisfied seeing a good cast, why risk something as critical as an important holotype?

An inordinate fondness….

The great biologist J.B.S. Haldane gave the world some memorable quotes on diversity and evolution but rabbits aside, it is his quote about beetles that must have lived longest. For those who don’t know, he was fielding a question about what biology could tell us about a Creator and replied that he must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Which leads me to this little exhibit from the Oxford museum which I found quite charming. I do so like clever little displays that can say much in minimal space.

In a space not much bigger than a piece of A4 paper this posits a famous quote by a famous biologist (a nice bit of history there), explains the reasoning behind it (namely the colossal diversity of beetles and their incredibly varied ecology and lifestyles) and provides a huge mess of specimens to demonstrate that diversity in colour, shape, size etc. This gives a huge opportunity for people to really compare and contrast much about related forms (even with this level of diversity) and to get across a much under appreciated point. Simple but brilliant.

Big cats in China

We are now a few months in the Chinese Year of the Tiger, but the IVPP has only just opened it’s themed exhibit to tie in with this. The tiger is a very symbolic animal in Chinese culture and the exhibit reflects this, but I was only really interested in the skulls of various extant cats and recent fossil animals. So don’t expect too much calligraphy and art here, (or archosaurs of course) though I have included a very nice bronze sabre-toothed cat that caught my eye.

It is also nice to see the IVPP put up a much nicer temporary exhibit than they usually manage with lots of well preserved and well presented specimens with lots of detailed signs. Sadly too many museums in China seem to start off looking fantastic but are then neglected to the point that they look less than great even just a few years down the line. Dust builds up, minor repairs are not completed, light bulbs go and so on and they rapidly look run-down even when in truth they are not. A little care can go a long way.

Continue reading ‘Big cats in China’

Dealing with breaks – best practice

Something a bit more practical this time out, what to do when you break a bone. Breakages are pretty much a matter of course – no matter how careful you are and how robust the bone, things will break. I don’t know of a single professional who has not broken something, and while I’m not exactly proud of the record, I can think of perhaps a dozen specimens that have breaks in them now that didn’t before I was working on them. You will also come across specimens that are broken too, either where old glue has lost its bonding powers or the specimen has simply broken under its own weight (or of course where someone else broke it and didn’t realise or didn’t tell you). Still, for all the frequency that this happens, I’ve yet to see anyone lay out what you should do afterwards so here’s my attempt.

First off, don’t just reach for the glue to fix it as many will be tempted to do. Try not to move or disturb things – there are often small bits that have hung on and will break or come off if you touch them. So be careful and put the thing down as best you can to avoid making anything worse.

If there are a number of larger pieces, try and lay them out such that it’s clear how the thing should be put back together. This will make life a lot easier for whoever has to repair the specimen. If there are any very small pieces, try and collect them – don’t let any bits go to waste (even if these can’t be glue back, they could be used later for SEM work or isotope analysis, and it will save people having to take a sample if there are broken bits already available).

Next, take some photos and notes on the specimens. Write down what broke, where and how and do a little sketch if necessary. Again, this will really help make sure the repairs are done correctly. Photographs are especially important as often for the integrity of the whole piece the specimen will be glued back together so this is perhaps the one and only opportunity to get good images of the internal structure of the bones or see the cross-sectional shape of the broken part. Include a scale bar and try to take good photos, you may want to publish these later.

Obviously you should tell the curator what has happened and let them decide how to proceed. They may want to repair the specimen immediately, or it might be better to wait until all your work is done, but it’s their specimen so they should decide how to proceed. If it’s your specimen, or you are asked to do the repair work yourself, take time to assess it. Pick a good glue – preferably a commercially available one that is easily soluble so it can be taken off later if necessary. Try to be consistent as well such that the glues used on the specimen are all of one type (if they are mixed, then using one type of solvent might free one glue but cause a bad reaction with another). Any pieces that cannot be fitted should be put in a box with the original specimen with the specimen number on it and note as to where they came from.

In addition to taking notes for yourself, write a short note to go with the specimen itself. Put the date, your name, the specimen number / bone on it and then just a few words to explain what broke where and how it was repaired (a print out with photos is even better). That way, anyone coming to the specimen in future will therefore know that the specimen has a weak point to watch out for, how it was glued back, and that there are notes and photos available from you if necessary.

That should cover it and give you more than a few pointers on the way forward. Hopefully this will help keep our specimens in the best condition possible for as long as possible. Accidents will happen, but we can intervene to make them as painless as possible, both to the specimens and the curators who look after them and the researchers that follow us into the collections.

Not there

Having touched on mounts for dinosaur skeletons before, it’s about time I dragged out these images from my first visit to China back in 2006. First off here’s a bare metal frame set to have a sauropod skeleton mounted on it. This was obviously custom made for the skeleton / casts to be attached, though I forget which taxon it was now. Each bone had it’s own little cradle that then bolts or crews into the main frame and thus the whole thing can be assembled and taken apart to move it as necessary.

The second photo is of me with a half finished mount of Mamenchisaurus. As you can see some, but far from all, of the bones have been bolted onto some of the frame. Naturally this takes quite a while and on something this scale, getting all of the neck vertebrae and especially the skull in place can be pretty tricky.

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Having already covered the BSPG in a fair bit of depth, it seemed about time I got round to the IVPP (the Insitutute for Vertebrate Palaeontology & Palaeoanthropology if you didn’t know) since I’ve been here over two years now. As a research institute for vertebrates (and especially dinosaurs) it’s got to be one of the most famous going, but being in Beijing and one of only four museums in the city with dinosaurs on display, it’s no great surprise that it doesn’t get too many visitors.

While I have posted a great many pictures on here at various times from the IVPP these have all been of individual specimens rather than the galleries or exhibits which is the intention here. Like the BSPG in fact the exhibition arm of the institute is slightly separate and actually goes under the name of the Palaeozoological Museum of China.

Continue reading ‘The IVPP’


I have noticed that reviews of museums seem to go down well and since I have spent the last 3 years or so in two famous, but rarely visited institutes, it seemed sensible for me to write a bit about Munich and Beijing. The latter will follow tomorrow but we’ll start with the BSPG.

Continue reading ‘The BSPG’


I’ve been brushing up on a few museum and zoo reviews for posting and it occurs to me that often my biggest complaint with an exhibition is a lack of good signs. I’m not talking here about absolute basics (“This is a Brachiosaurus” – though even some places seem to eschew this minimalist approach) but pretty much anything more detailed than that – be it the age and geographical origin of the organism or a complete display about the phylogeny of the clade and it’s more interesting anatomical features.

A great many places of supposed public interest and education seem to rather lack that second aspect because of a lack of signs. Sure it’s educational to stand in front of a hall of bones or a paddock full of antelope, but signs add so much more. It is, let’s face it, uneconomical to have people standing around answering questions and interfering with people’s days (and indeed these can be intrusive and annoying) and a good sign can communicate lots of information without being dull or taking up a lot of space.

The obvious point to make might be that not many people *want* to read the signs, but this is misleading. I can’t imagine anyone buys a newspaper and reads it cover to cover – some people want the sport, some the stock indexes, other the comments, or the lifestyle section and so on. Everyone will likely get something different from the paper in differing combinations and amounts. If you don’t *want* to read a sign, then fine, don’t. But even if it’s a minority, I’m sure that lots of people *do* want to learn more about what they are looking at.

At the very least it’s almost criminal in a zoo or museum not to tell you the name of the species you are looking at. The one thing you hear more than anything else in these places is a kid asking a parent “What’s that?” and without a sign to hand often there’s no obvious answer forthcoming (or a wrong one – I one, honestly and truly, saw someone call a giraffe a ‘zebra’ once). Kids who get their questions answered are going to learn something and might keep up that interest / trait to ask questions. Those that don’t, will not. Even if they don’t take much in at the time, the name will likely be remembered and can be looked up later. And this hardly takes into account adults – plenty of people do read signs and want to learn more and that’s tricky without the information being provided.

There are of course some truly great signs out there, original, inventive, informative and exciting (like this dinosaur tree I have been meaning to show off – a complete dinosaur phylogeny with little models to represent the various clades). But signs need not be huge or dramatic or expensive to be informative. Something simple to say the same of a species, which family or higher group it belongs to, how big it got, when and where it lived and what it ate need not take up more than 6 inches of wall or display space and actually tells you quite a bit.

I really think there is almost no excuse for this kind of sign not appearing next to pretty much every single display – it’s simple and informative and unambiguous and is hardly likely to go out of date (unlike say the average sign of dinosaur behaviour, or the names of all the meerkats in the enclosure) making it cheap and easy to install. These should be used in conjunction with bigger displays and signs with greater depth, but something small and unobtrusive that will both no-one while informing many, and is quick to scan and digest should surely be essential for just about anywhere that wants to inform its audience.

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Szechuanosaurus strikes!

szechwanosaurs-feedingA photo from the Zigong Dinosaur Museum, this time of the excellent mount of a Szechuanosaurus with a small ornithopod its victim. I don’t normally go in for such combined mounts of specimens, but this is a great one, and with a nice balcony that overlooks it to allow you to see them form above and appreciate the set-up, something more museums could definitely benefit from. Yes you get a real appreciation for the size of a sauropod when stood next to its feet looking up, but you get a much better appreciation for the animal as a whole when you can stand above or level with it.

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