Mark Carnall, The Other 97%

My presentation at the workshop, titled The Other 97%: Making the most of the underwhelming fossils in museums (video here) was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek examination of some of the difficulties of popularising palaeontology, especially in museums but also further afield. As Mark Witton has already touched on in his blog post and as evidenced by a number of (excellent) talks during the Popularising Palaeontology workshop, popularising palaeontology is almost always synonymous with talking about dinosaurs. Occasionally, mammoths will sneak in there and every now and then there’s a focus on human evolution but from paleontological exhibitions, permanent museum displays, young adult popular science books and palaeontology in the mainstream press there’s a disproportionate focus on dinosaurs.

With the explosion of social media and many palaeontologists writing their own blogs there’s more accessible paleontological content out there than ever before, however, when it comes to the wider public, museums still remain as the places where most people come face to face with palaeontology and as evidenced by the queues for the dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum London during the holidays and from the photos from museum visitors on social media, dinosaurs remain a firm favourite. In fact, in museums dinosaurs are synonymous with the whole of natural history- the ‘one with the dinosaurs in it’ is a common way to differentiate between the different museums in South Kensington (and at Oxford University museums).

However, a focus on dinosaurs in museums is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, for museums wanting to educate but also needing to attract visitors, dinosaurs are somewhat expected and more likely to draw the crowds. There’s a reason that the Natural History Museum London’s touring exhibitions are so dinosaur centric (four out of ten at the time of writing). Are some museums trapped into popularising dinosaurs?

Secondly, most museums lack the resources to keep their displays and exhibitions up to date with current dinosaur palaeontology. This was highlighted recently with the release of Jurassic World as vertebrate palaeontologists took to social media to point out the myriad of scientific inaccuracies in the blockbuster film, many of our natural history museums still have displays and artwork woefully out of date or inaccurate. It’s no wonder that so much of the reaction to popularising palaeontology is correcting inaccurate preconceptions (non-feathered dinosaurs, tail dragging, dinosaurs as birds) when many of the star attractions in museums are 19th Century articulated casts and skeletons in need of an expensive rearticulation or reinterpretation.


Figure 1:  Isitinterestingtous notjet theoretical animal made up of less interesting fossil organisms into the shape of one that people may recognise. Image collage sources for images. Acanthodes: J. Arthur Thomson, M.A., LL.D. Outlines of Zoology(New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1916), Monoplacophoran: Paul Bunje, UCMP. Monoplacophoran anatomy by Ivy Livingstone, © BIODIDA Trochocystites: and rudists: Schumann & Steuber 1997; Kleine Senckenbergreihe 24: 117-122


Lastly, and the thrust of my presentation is that, obviously, non-avian dinosaurs are just one part of palaeontology; taxonomically, temporally and professionally. When it comes to the physical material held by museums, it’s also a tiny percentage of the paleontological material held. Other large fossil vertebrates can be just as awe-inspiring as the models, casts and skeletons of dinosaurs yet don’t tend to have entire galleries dedicated to them. Where invertebrate palaeontological displays exist they tend to be either arranged taxonomically or chronologically, with the best looking of a representative sample labelled little more than a scientific name and horizon.

What I would like to see is an injection of creativity and diversity around ‘the rest’ of palaeontology when it comes to museum display sand exhibitions to make more use of the 97% of collections and to try to break away from re-treading the tropes of dinosaur palaeontology on display. We have already developed a lot of these tools for supplementing museum material and making engaging exhibitions and displays that can be turned to popularising the rest of palaeontology:- virtual reality, animatronics, models, 3D reconstructions and cinematics.

Imagine walking into a palaeontological gallery to be faced with the large crushing jaws of Cameroceras or a herd of ‘taxidermy’ Synthetoceras next to original fossils and casts. Imagine a line-up of Leedsichthyis, Andrewsarchus, Shonisaurus and Prionosuchus next to the usual sauropods and cetaceans. Imagine dioramas of Tanystropheus, Helicoprion and Arthropleura. Of course, these examples are just the bombastic end of the diversity we find in the palaentological record- the biggest, weirdest and err wonderfullest for starters. 

I’d also like to see a diversity in modes of interpreting fossils in museums. Outside of dinosaur displays, taxonomy and chronology are still dominant modes of display that can be traced back to 19th Century arrangements of specimens, parodying the ‘comprehensive displays’ that would only be visited by learned gentlemen. How about displays on soft tissue anatomy, ecosystems, lansdcapes convergent evolution? I can imagine exhibitions called Butts, Flightless and When Continents Collide which would be unlike anything we’ve seen so far. Or alternatively, letting go a bit of dry interpretation and rigid adherence to evidence with content around speculative palaeontology (All Yesterdays: the exhibition) or embracing humour and popular culture as in my attempt to popularise the other 97% with the blog series underwhelming fossil fish of the month, making interest out of the fact that some species of extinct organisms will never be interesting to most people (or even palaeontologists).

Of course, this isn’t completely unexplored territory, many natural history museums are already experimenting with new modes of popularising palaeontology. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences had a display of theoreticaldescendant animals; including ‘taxidermy’ specimens of the tapir-like rodent Cortichaeris gouldi, marsupial Trichopteryx dixoni and a model of arthropod Helicopodus biryani. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, models of theoretical ancestors concestor and shrewdinger are the focus of touchable displays on evolution (naming shrewdinger itself was an exercise in popularising palaeontology by the American Museum of Natural History).


Figure 2:  Speculative palaeontology from the future with Cortichaeris gouldi and the past with Concestor and Shrewdinger. With a nice Diictodon model thrown in for good measure. Images courtesy of the respective institutions.


This is not to say that dinosaurs should be blacklisted as gateways into an interest or inspiration into natural history but with today’s technology and modes of communication, there’s an opportunity to break the mould of what has been a long dominant way of popularising palaeontology through displays and exhibitions. Arguably, its static museum displays and the tropes of interpretation which perpetuate those unshakable misconceptions we all have to work so hard at addressing before we can engage with ‘new content’. Reinforcing long outdated ideas and underselling the broader picture of what makes palaeontology such an interesting area beyond what one group was up to in the Mesozoic.