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Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Lynett Gillette:
Point Person for Tough Decisions, Photo by Francois Gohier
Photo by Francois Gohier

Lynett Gillette:
Point Person for Tough Decisions

By Kerri De Rosier

This is the final article in a four-part series about the
FOSSIL MYSTERIES exhibition, which opened July 1, 2006.

Faced with a huge collection and finite exhibition space, the FOSSIL MYSTERIES team had to make tough decisions about what to display. Ask any team member about the decision-making process, and one of the first names out of their mouths is Content Specialist Lynett Gillette. Described by Exhibit Designer Michael Field as a “bridge between the Paleontology Department and the Exhibits Department,” Gillette was the point person for many tough decisions.

“That’s a fair description,” said Gillette, when asked about Field’s portrayal. Gillette, who has a background in geology, also draws from a degree in journalism to write books for young people about fossils and paleontology. “Over the years, I’ve tried to bring geology and paleontology into comprehensible forms,” said Gillette.

When asked how she went about deciding what to put in the exhibition, Gillette said, “You start with the connections. All of us on the project have connections with our own area of expertise, but also with people around the world who are doing similar work. Tom (Démeré, curator) is a member of a scientific community, as am I, and we have a different kind of perspective that balances the perspective of someone like Nancy (Owens Renner, exhibit developer), who is interested in how people see things and how they learn. When you put it all together, you come up with new connections.”

It’s those connections that helped the team choose some of the significant objects in the exhibition. Gillette shared the story of how the albertosaur ultimately ended up in the exhibition.


“Early in the project, after looking at what we had in the way of dinosaurs in California, the list was somewhat dismal,” she said, laughing. ”It was enhanced by considering the southern part of our region, Baja California. There have been some really fascinating dinosaur discoveries over the years in Baja California.” Gillette’s search through the scientific literature led her to Mexico City and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. She found that there simply wasn’t enough material to build a dinosaur—but that there were good fossil teeth identified as belonging to an albertosaur from Baja California.

“Eventually, after looking all around the United States for a good albertosaur skeleton that we could copy, we ended up having to go to Canada,” said Gillette. Luckily, the Royal Ontario Museum had an Albertosaurus libratus that had previously been molded to make casts for other museums.

That solution worked since similar Late Cretaceous dinosaurs are known from high latitudes in the Arctic and many other sites much further south. When the San Diego Natural History Museum ordered an albertosaur cast, they added a unique twist by having dinosaur skin sculpted over one side of the cast. One side gives the skeletal view; the other is life-like.

“We had to do a similar search around the world for each fossil that we wanted to exhibit,” said Gillette. “If we don’t have the perfect complete skeleton, how are we going to get it? How are we going to make it, or do we want to just build a model based on what we know?” Gillette and the other exhibit designers had to repeat that process for each time period, looking at all the material in the collection and seeing what might be available in the rest of the world to supplement or augment.

Gillette explained that they would have loved to have had enough perfect skeletons to put on exhibit. But the nature of the Museum’s collections is that there are a lot of fossils that have come from salvage. They are often damaged—complete specimens are very rare. “We’re showing off our best of the real stuff and supplementing with casts and models,” she said.

When asked if it was a difficult decision to put rare pieces on display, and whether those decisions resulted in conflicts between the Museum’s research goals and its mission to educate, Gillette said, “No, actually I don’t think there’s any conflict at all between the research goal and our public face. Tom is eager to have the best of our material on exhibit. After his concerns for safety and security are addressed, Tom is actually very excited to see the material on exhibit. The problem—if you can call it a problem—is that fossils are often incomplete.

“This tooth, for example” she said, handing me a tooth. “It’s a fantastic tooth. It’s enough to let us know it’s tyrannosaurid (in the same family as a tyrannosaur), but it’s only half here—the other half ’s gone. So the challenge is, do we build that other half for the public, or do we leave it broken? Would there be another scientist who might want to come here three years from now and see this broken edge, and could that scientist learn something from that? Would we lose that information if we filled this in and permanently attached a remodel to it?” Those kinds of issues had to be negotiated and worked out so that no scientific evidence was destroyed. Gillette explained that the goal in a modern natural history museum is finding non-destructive ways to preserve and exhibit specimens. Sometimes, in the past, museums have done things that they didn’t know were harmful. For example, 70 years ago, using shellac was seen as a great idea. However, it turns out that when bones are preserved with shellac, the material eventually breaks down and turns into an acid that eats the bone. Scientists learn as they go and try to do minimal damage with the techniques that are available today.

“There are many ‘nitty gritty’ things that our team had to discuss, such as: do we want to rebuild this fossil jaw? We were just talking about an animal that lived here 40 million years ago this morning,” said Gillette. “We have this beautiful jaw that’s 14 inches long, with huge canine teeth, and we want to make a bronze of it, but there are big cracks running through the jaw, and it’s twisted. It was twisted as it was compacted in burial. Should we try to straighten it, fill in the cracks and rebuild the little back process on the jaw before we cast it in bronze, or should we just cast it as it is?” Those are questions that have to be asked and answered with each specimen. It’s about determining what’s best for the specimen—that always comes first. Exhibit designers must also determine how to make the specimen interesting for the public. They ask themselves, how much does the public need to see to understand the material? “We feel that once people are given a bit of context, once they’re provided with all kinds of information—whether a piece is broken and fragmented or whole and perfect—every specimen is nevertheless mind-boggling,” said Gillette.

Gillette wants visitors to keep the context in mind if they decide to do their own exploring. When asked why the exhibition is important for the Museum and its visitors, she responded, “I’ve been in this area now for nine years, and my observation is that there is a real lack of public awareness that there is anything at all interesting about this place, paleontologically or geologically. So the role of the Museum is to bring the amazing possibilities for discovery and learning into the public eye. Once the public clues into that, we may start finding more things. There’s nothing like a bunch of young people out there on their hands and knees in their backyards, on vacation out in the desert, wherever they go in the State—there are still new things to be found. We want to encourage that curiosity in a responsible way and let people know that the rocks matter just as much as the bones and that the context that the bones come in is just as important.”

Dinosaur SKIN?

Gillette showed me a cast of nubbly skin from a lambeosaur obtained from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

“Dinosaur skin? How do you get the skin?” I asked. Gillette explained, “If you have careful people in the field excavating, they don’t just rip the bones out of the ground. First, you take field notes of all the relationships of the bones that lay there, and you don’t dig too close to the bone until you’ve outlined the area where it is. You start carefully moving in toward the bone, looking for anything that’s different than the dirt. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and really careful, there’s a lot of other information that’s pretty precious. Skin patterns are often preserved, especially for the duckbilled dinosaurs. It doesn’t mean that the dinosaur wasn’t old, it’s just that the environment that it was preserved in had exactly the right chemistry so that 75 million years ago, the skin could be replaced molecule by molecule with the mineral elements that were in the water.”

A blending of art and science

FOSSIL MYSTERIES is a blending of connections between art and science, a subject that has interested Gillette for many years.

“Years ago, I taught a geology course with the Nevada artist Rita Deanin Abbey, who co-authored a book called Art in Geology,” she explained. “She uses photography and sculpture and photos of landscapes in the Southwest to show how the artistic and scientific ways of seeing the world are not antagonistic, but that they enhance each other. I found that to be a really refreshing perspective, because so often to the public, science is against art, or artistic people can’t be scientific. I think this exhibition is a nice example of what can happen when you put the two together.”

Mural detail by William Stout

Art enhances every aspect of the exhibition, and for FOSSIL MYSTERIES, the stunning artwork that enhances the science and history was truly a team effort. Staff Artist Jim Melli painted diorama backgrounds, created many original illustrations, and many primary illustrations for the other artists. He also made all preliminary scale models for the sculptures. Tim Gunther produced many of the graphic panel illustrations. Paleontology artists Doug Henderson and Raul Martin added dinosaurs and asteroids to the visitor’s experience. Seventy-two original sculptures of fossil animals and plants enrich the exhibit halls. FOSSIL MYSTERIES also prominently features plein-air style murals by William Stout, who has exhibited his paintings at over 80 museums worldwide. Stout unveiled seven new murals at the San Diego Natural History Museum at the opening of FOSSIL MYSTERIES; five more will be completed in the future.

“Our Pleistocene murals have the look of a 1920s landscape painting, except there is an American lion, a sloth, and a dire wolf set into it,” said Michael Field, exhibit designer. “But also in the paintings are skunks and coyotes and rabbits—animals that are out there still today.”