San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[BRCC San Diego Natural History Museum: Research Library]

Birds and Mammals
Marine Invertebrates
Research Library

Readings in Nature
Collections Care and Conservation
Online Databases
Binational Multidisciplinary Expeditions
Scientific Publications
Symposia and Workshops
BRCC Staff Directory

Field Guide


Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

The Dinosaur Question
After learning that the Museum staff faced several challenges in finding dinosaur specimens to display, the question was asked: are dinosaurs absolutely critical in a successful fossil exhibit?
Find out here!
Pteranodon welder Jeff Nelson of Blue Rhino.
Pteranodon welder, Jeff Nelson, of Blue Rhino

Evolution of an Exhibition: Part Two

By Kerri De Rosier

This is the second article in a series of four about the Museum’s
permanent FOSSIL MYSTERIES exhibition, which opened July 1, 2006.

FOSSIL MYSTERIES, a look back in time at our region’s prehistoric era, is the result of the theory that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.

Executive Director Dr. Michael Hager, Ph.D., lauded the collaboration between the paleontology staff, the exhibit would be all fossils and little else—it would miss the mark,” said Hager. “But if there were no direct scientific involvement, it would lack honesty and integrity. I can tell the difference between a museum that does research and one that doesn’t.”

When asked about the conflicting goals of the museum, curator Dr. Tom Deméré said, “It’s been a struggle, actually, but maybe that’s the way it should be—maybe that sort of dynamic interaction is good.

Adjusting the pose of hind limbs of a sea lion.
Adjusting the pose of hind limbs of a sea lion.

“It used to be that exhibits were totally research driven. The curators and scientists were the ones that said, ‘put this on display,’ and they just put it in the case. Some museums are totally the opposite, where the artists in the exhibits department say, ‘from a design standpoint, I want it to look like this, with this color’—which is crazy. So I think we’re kind of in between that. It’s been an interesting battle—or cooperative endeavor,” he said with a laugh.

“I’m intrigued by the old way of doing displays, where you just fill the halls with things—real things,” continued Deméré, who admitted to having an affinity for what he calls “dead things on sticks.” “Going as a kid, you see it in a certain way, and when you go in as an adolescent, you see the same display in a different way. Those exhibits are rich to me. We used to have the Scripps cases of birds of San Diego County, and every common bird was there. If you wanted to identify a bird you saw in your yard, you could actually look at the thing, the colors, what its feet look like, its bill. You could stand there and get close to it and look at it.”

But you couldn’t touch it. “There are a lot of touchable objects in FOSSIL MYSTERIES,” said Michael Field, exhibit designer. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a touchable object is worth ten thousand.”

“A lot of museums have actually abandoned object-based exhibits,” continued Field. “Many exhibits are more theatrical, so that as you walk through, it’s like sets on a stage. The story is presented with fewer objects and more drama. It’s easier to tell a story like that.You can make things up and tailor the exhibit exactly to your story. But to weave your story with the objects, you have a lot of constraints. It’s much more difficult to do.”

Constraints like objects breaking, which is what happened to Deméré’s team when they were trying to mount one of the fossil whales.

“Everything breaks. That’s what glue’s for,” said Deméré. “A lot of fossils, if you look closely, have cracks in them. So we were going around and around: ‘should we make a mold of it and cast it, and put the cast on display?’ We were really leaning towards that, and it’s a really important specimen.

“It was like 2:00 in the morning, and we were thinking, ‘what should we do?’ And I just said, well, let’s put the real thing on. So we’re just going to do it. We’re going to alter the way the specimen is displayed so the fossil can be protected, but we can put the real thing on display.”

Exhibit artist Jim Melli with pteranodon maquette.
Exhibit artist Jim Melli with pteranodon maquette.

But can the modern virtual reality generation appreciate the real stuff? And can the exhibit stand the test of time?

“We deliver our information in many different ways,” said Field. “So for people who aren’t interested in reading, we have tons of illustrations that artists have been drawing nonstop. If they don’t read, they can look at the pictures. Pictures speak a universal language. I have two boys, so when I’m designing, I’ll think, ‘what are my boys going to do?’ And my wife—she doesn’t read labels. She likes museums. She’s been to museums all over the world, but she’s never read a single label. We’re planning to make sure that when you’re standing there as a family or as a diverse group of friends, there’s something for everybody.”

“I don’t think it’s possible to design an exhibit that will still be useful 20 years from now,” said Lynett Gillette, content specialist. “But I would hope that what you can do is build a set of core items that are timeless, and you can update those with new discoveries. One of the reality checks that hit us in our first serious look at budget issues was that technology outdates itself pretty quickly, and we had to be careful about how much the exhibit is anchored in the latest technology… We didn’t want to compete with video games that people can do at home: what we have to offer is a re-creation of the world that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Said Nancy Owens Renner, exhibit developer, “These fossils have stood the test of time—they’ve survived. A lot of the ideas that we’re talking about here have stood the test of time, like plate tectonics and evolution, and really big ideas in science. People who understand evolution recognize that it’s the organizing principle for life sciences. It’s like gravity.”

For more information visit