(So much more than dinosaurs)
As part of the DC science writers group, last Friday I got a sneak peek of the revamped Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Visitors have had to live without the most popular exhibit, their “hall of prehistoric monsters,” for about five years. But (I’d argue) it was worth the wait.
Fossils are meant to bring us face to face with the evidence of evolution. Ammonites and dinosaurs are part of a larger, way more awesome story of how the living, breathing, Earth has changed over eons. Obviously, it’s not easy to get that point across—the time scale is BILLIONs of years. That’s why it’s called “deep time.”
The Smithsonian’s Deep Time exhibit has done a fantastic job of setting up Earth’s history in a three dimensional space. Walking in, you may first notice the treasured giants, such as the large extinct mammals, sea creatures, and dinosaurs, including a T-rex munching on a triceratops. Then you may notice that there are smaller fossils all around the giants, representing plants and small animals that coexisted and served as food and other aspects of life. You may also notice discussion of the climate, because climate dictates the adaptations needed for survival. Together, the elements of each display work to describe the ecosystems in our distant past.
The hall is organized by time, and after entering, you move backwards through millions of years. But along a part of the hall, there is a whole section about the present. Humans are making a huge impact on the earth now (through climate, among other things) and it can be hard to appreciate big-picture changes on a scale we can understand. That’s why deep time is the perfect context to set up the explanation.
So, of all of the awesomeness I saw in the exhibit, these 7 things were my favorite.
1 – Fossil skeletons are arranged as looking-at-you-hungrily, frozen-in-time monsters.
These aren’t some lifeless dinosaur bones. In one case, not shown because a hundred other articles have shared photos of it already, there is a display of the “nation’s T-rex” eating a triceratops.
2 – The displays include beautiful plant fossils, for context (i.e., ecosystems).
The displays talk about the animals along with the plants, along with the climate, and how it fits together.
3 – It really goes into deep time, including the evolution of eukaryotic cells!
At what feels like the “end” of the exhibit, there is discussion of the evolution of cells and the first life on earth. This image is from an animation. I’m a cell biologist, so—meet me in this section.
4 – There are stromatolites! And a giant millipede.
Stromatolites are stone structures made by ancient cyanobacteria, which are believed to have played a major role in putting oxygen in our atmosphere. So, KIND OF a big deal.
And, I love telling people about the giant insects of the carboniferous – a period when there was more oxygen in the air, which allowed insects to grow huge. The oxygen was higher because of high rates of photosynthesis.
5 – It addresses the big questions and misconceptions of climate change.
In the discussion of climate, people sometimes bring up the major climate changes in the past and how that implies that global warming is a natural process. Well first of all, extinctions are “normal” too, then. But second of all, read all about what we know and why it matters in the exhibit.
6 – The section on human impacts has positive, actionable messaging.
This interactive display lets you chose how you can help, by doing what you already enjoy. Then it tells you how many other people chose it, too. Very inspiring. I chose trees, and it told me to plant some more. This is just an example of the positive and hopeful messages.
7 – Parts of the overall exhibit design made me into a giddy little girl.
Not only was the content really good, but the exhibit is just so fun. There are some sweet diaramas; some rousing quotes; a striking wall of asteroid doom; and clever ways to get people thinking about evolution.
The hall is now open, starting today! I’d definitely suggest coming to see it, but probably in the winter, on a weekday, when you can avoid the crowds and enjoy it like I did.