2017 EDIT: Full disclosure, I wrote this about six months before I started working there. Still love the place. And if you’re ever in Philly, you should come and say hi.
So I was down in Philadelphia earlier this month for this year’s Paleopalooza – probably the largest museum-based paleontology festival in the tri-state area. I’ve become exceedingly familiar with its host location, the Academy of Natural Sciences, to the point where visiting might seem to be a lackluster experience. But it never is, because there are always new surprises to be found, and I can’t help but love the place.
Natural history museums have always been a source of fascination for me. Obviously, they’re excellent resources for bringing science to the public eye, and they curate and conserve all manner of wonderful specimens for future generations. But they also act as a window looking into the process of science – how it’s changed over time, and the people behind those changes. We can look at the work of scientists over the past couple hundred years and see how their work influenced our culture or our everyday world, and vice versa. And I would argue that the Academy is one of the most influential and historically significant natural history museums to ever exist, and continues to be so today.
From diatoms to dinosaurs
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was founded in 1812, making it the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere. It quickly became a hub for naturalists and other scientists across the then-young United States and attracted members from all around the world. There are now a whopping eighteen million specimens in the Academy’s collection, which is especially impressive for a fairly small museum compared to figurative and literal giants such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. Thanks to individuals such as the pioneer ecologist Ruth Patrick, the Academy has become a leader in environmental studies within the past century, and continues to conduct influential research around the planet. (Fun fact #1: the Academy possesses the second-largest diatom collection in the world.)
The Academy’s collections are full of stories, and the paleontology collection is no exception. In 1868, the museum made headlines when a mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus went on display – the first-ever dinosaur mount in the nation. Hadrosaurus was first described by Joseph Leidy ten years earlier, and he enlisted the help of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to restore the specimen and mount it in a lifelike position. Today, Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus looks hilarious in a pitiful sort of way. Its proportions are almost alien-esque, its tail is painfully contorted in order to rest on the ground, and its skull is pretty much that of an iguana supersized to fit the rest of the mount. But at the time, it was state of the art. Even discounting the extensive restoration that Hawkins had to apply to the specimen, it was the most complete dinosaur skeleton found so far in the entire world. And there was enough original fossil material to determine that the dinosaur’s front legs were noticeably shorter than its hind legs. At a time when history’s terrible lizards were all depicted as quadrupedal, that was big news.
And when Hadrosaurus went on display at the Academy, attendance skyrocketed. People were fascinated by the form of this strange beast, and the museum had to move to a bigger location just to handle all the crowds. Leidy’s dinosaur would ultimately help him become known as the “father” of vertebrate paleontology in North America, and it heralded the beginning of a new era of prolific dinosaur discoveries.
In fact, Leidy’s student Edward Drinker Cope was one of those prolific scientists. The Academy was his home turf, and Cope wrote some 1400 papers based on his discoveries. Most people today remember him as a paleontologist, and rightfully so – a lot of his conclusions don’t hold up to scrutiny these days, but he was still a highly influential figure and gave us some very well-known dinosaurs (Allosaurus, anyone?). But Cope was also a talented herpetologist and ichthyologist, and described a number of living species that remain valid today. He was also, of course, a combatant in the infamous Bone Wars…but that’s a post for another day.
In more recent years, the Academy is still conducting valuable paleontological research. They were part of the team that helped to excavate the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea at the turn of the century, and rumor has it they will soon be returning to the original site in order to recover additional fossils (more on that later). The Academy made headlines again in 2006 when curator Ted Daeschler, along with Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago and Farish Jenkins from Harvard, first debuted Tiktaalik the “fishapod”, now often regarded as an evolutionary icon on par with Archaeopteryx and Lucy the Australopithecus.
In 2011, the Academy was acquired by Drexel University, and its new official name is the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. When I head to Drexel in the fall I will have the excellent opportunity to volunteer here, and I couldn’t be happier to do so. But more on that when the time comes…
The Dinosaur Hall (and other fossils)
The fossils on public display at the Academy are in a couple different places, but it makes sense to start at the very beginning. When you first walk through the main entrance, you come face-to-face with a skeleton of Elasmosaurus suspended in the air.
Elasmosaurus is somewhat of a special beast to the Academy. It was described by Cope in 1868 and the type specimen remains in the museum today. Cope also famously stuck its head on the wrong end, and was swiftly corrected by his peers in one of the first shots in the Bone Wars.
However, the Elasmosaurus is actually a relative newcomer to the room. I have fond and distinct memories from my childhood years of a much bigger monster:
You may recognize that hulk of a skeleton as Giganotosaurus carolinii, occasionally considered the largest theropod dinosaur to ever exist. At the time, there were only two mounts on display in North America (both casts) – the other remains at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Georgia. I might just be a little bit biased, but I’ve seen pictures, and the Academy’s mount was far superior. I can understand why they took it down: Elasmosaurus is far more significant to the museum’s history, and shouldn’t be overshadowed by a stinkin’ upstart theropod. I’m still a tiny bit peeved, though.
There is a small display case detailing the discovery of Tiktaalik further inside the museum, and a skull of the “Irish elk” Megaloceros mounted on the wall, but the main event is the Academy’s Dinosaur Hall (I have heard no other official name for it, although it might have one).
Opened in the 1990s, the current Dinosaur Hall is split into two levels, and aims to showcase the discoveries of the Dinosaur Renaissance of the late 20th century. The ground level is home to most of the fossil mounts, and most noticeable among these is Tyrannosaurus. It’s only a cast of the T. rex in New York (Fun Fact #2: it has no name per se like a lot of other famous T. rex, and is known only by its specimen number AMNH 5027), and so isn’t that unusual. Most natural history museums worth their salt seem to have a T. rex these days anyway. But you can get a good look at the entire thing from close up, and there’s a selection of other theropod skulls mounted nearby for comparison.
In fact, the majority of fossils on display at the Academy are casts – which is fine in many ways. Real bones are expensive to mount and maintain, and more often than not have to be supplemented with casts anyway in order to get a complete skeleton. Yet with the original fossils, there’s a certain kind of magic in their own authenticity. It’s difficult to accurately describe but Heinrich Mallison makes some excellent points on his own blog. And the Academy has some wonderful, genuine treasures hidden away in their collections.
There are a couple other miscellaneous dinosaurs standing proud, and one wall is dedicated to Cretaceous sea creatures. In the back of the hall there’s a room where you can walk in front of a green screen and see yourself transported into a generic prehistoric jungle among unmistakably 90s dinosaurs and other creatures. Admittedly, it was probably a fun gimmick back when it was first introduced, but I don’t care for it much. Maybe if it was updated for the 21st century I might appreciate it more.
However, if you go through a door just beside the green screen setup, you head right into the Academy’s fossil prep lab. For a number of years, they were working almost exclusively on the bones of Dreadnoughtus (then-unnamed) that were shipped in from Patagonia – and I do mean years. With that gargantuan task over they’ve moved on to some of the finds of the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project. The prep lab itself is a very nice place. When I visited the Smithsonian before their renovation started, their prep lab seemed very cold and sterile (and suspiciously clean), completely enclosed by a wall of glass. Not the case here. The glass wall is much lower, which means you can talk to the preparators and ask them plenty of questions. And its small size means you can get a very close look at the fossils being cleaned up.
The mezzanine level mostly focuses on dinosaur biology. There are several examples of dinosaur eggs, a section that emphasizes the Mesozoic origin of birds, and a really cool model of Stegosaurus with its organs showing. One particularly novel interactive exhibit is a mechanical Deinonychus skeleton. Visitors can walk on a treadmill-like contraption that powers the skeleton and allows you to see how the creature may have moved in life. In my experience it’s a bit difficult to get working properly, but it’s still a really neat feature. There’s also a mock fossil excavation site where kids can dig with hammers and chisels to find giant saurian “bones”.
As I said before, the Academy is fairly small compared to other museums of a similar caliber, and so is its dinosaur hall. But it packs a lot of punch into a small space, and is accessible to pretty much everyone. If you’re ever in Philadelphia and have a craving for dinosaurs, it’s completely worth the stop.
Paleopalooza is a festival that, in the Academy’s words, “celebrates all things prehistoric” over the course of a weekend each year (usually it’s in mid-February – not sure why they pushed it back this time). I’ve been going for five or six years now, and it’s been a pleasure every time.
I always look forward to the presentations, and this year we had two of them. Dr. Phil Manning of the University of Manchester delivered the first talk on dinosaur combat. As far as I’m aware this was his first time speaking at the Academy since 2011, so it was nice to see him back. And at the time I completely forgot to bring a book for him to sign, so of course I had that immediately rectified.
I especially enjoy Manning’s talks because not only is he a fabulous presenter, but he also likes to throw in juicy paleontological secrets that haven’t yet been publicized…
- There’s a Tyrannosaurus femur being described that preserves damage from a Triceratops horn that skewered it. The paper will (hopefully) be out soon.
- The famous (or perhaps infamous?) “Dueling Dinosaurs” of Montana have officially found a home in a respectable natural history museum – although he’s not allowed to say which one. Very exciting news.
The second talk was given by Jason Schein of the New Jersey State Museum. Along with Academy preparator Jason Poole, he’s a co-leader of the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project that I mentioned earlier. He had plenty to say about what they were up to in the field and what lay in store for the future. It turns out that the BLM contacted them to take a look at the Suuwassea site nearby – after a partial skeleton was collected, the place was left alone for over twenty years. It turns out there’s a lot more still hidden in the ground, and the team will be coming back to collect there over the next few expeditions.
A lot more went on over the course of the day – so here’s a few pictures that I took of the displays to finish off the post.
All pictures in this post were taken by me unless otherwise noted.