In June 2019 the National Museum of Natural History, where I volunteer at the visitor information desk, reopened its Fossil Hall after a floor-to-ceiling renovation. The hall, one of the largest in the museum, had been closed for five years. The dinosaur and ice age mammal skeletons, some of which had been on display since the museum opened in 1910, were carefully disassembled, shipped to specialists in Canada, and reassembled using state-of-the-art mounting techniques. A brand new exhibition was designed and built around these prehistoric treasures. New ones were added from the collections. The exhibition hall was completely renovated and returned to its original architectural grandeur.
The exhibition itself—all the words and images and displays that provide context for these museum artifacts—is called Deep Time. At least that’s what the curators and exhibit developers call it. Most visitors just ask where the dinosaur hall is.
There are many spectacular prehistoric exhibitions in other museums, but this one has some unusual aspects worth noting. Deep TIme is more than just a collection of mounted skeletons of extinct animals. In fact, you may even be disappointed with how little information it provides about some specific creatures. The focus of the exhibition is on tracing the story of the evolution of life on Earth from its beginnings billions of years ago to the start of the human era.
The emphasis on evolution is anything but subtle. If you don’t believe in evolution, you may leave the museum composing in your head an irate letter to your congressperson. Good luck with that. Note that the full name of the hall/exhibition is “The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time,” in recognition of the conservative political activist and philanthropist who helped fund the exhibition. (He had no say in its content or approach.)
There is also a heavy emphasis on climate change, which has been an important factor in evolution. The exhibition is organized into time periods divided from one another by the occurrence of mass extinctions, the most recent and best known being the one that did in the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. Most paleontologists think that an asteroid striking the Earth was the main cause. It wasn’t the impact itself that killed all the dinosaurs, but the environmental changes resulting from it.
The exhibition also has a thing or two to say about the present era of human-influenced mass extinction, which is going on as you read this, and about the human-influenced climate changes that have been taking place since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Another interesting aspect of Deep Time is that the curators chose to remount those fossil skeletons in nontraditional ways. Each animal is posed as though it is doing something it might have done when it was alive. The saber-toothed cat is slinking along as if preparing to pounce. The ground sloth is eating from a tree. The giant deer is sitting, legs folded beneath it, on the ground. The tyrannosaurus—a newly added specimen and one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found—is eating a fallen triceratops.
Complete fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs are rare. Therefore, many of the skeletons in the hall consist partly or completely of casts—exact replicas of bones. Casts are also used if specimens are too fragile to put on display. In this exhibition, the casts match the actual fossil bones so well that you can’t tell them apart. An illustration near each skeleton tries to show (the illustration is too small) which bones are real and which are casts.
But what did these animals and the places they lived actually look like? The exhibition planners came up with an interesting way to show this. At several places throughout the exhibition, you can examine miniature see-through dioramas, almost literally windows into the past, that you can view from two sides. You can see several of the oval-shaped structures that house the dioramas in some of the photos above.
The dioramas are astonishingly detailed, right down to the piles of dinosaur poop lying around. They help you imagine what the extinct creatures in this exhibition hall actually looked like in their prehistoric environments. These are among my favorite things in this new hall. The more you look at them, the more interesting and intricate details you discover.
One of the benefits of being a volunteer here is being able to explore the museum before it opens to the public. Every other Saturday morning, I arrive early for my volunteer shift at one of the museum’s information desks. The grand museum rotunda, one of the great public spaces in Washington, is empty and quiet, as are all the exhibition halls.
Before the doors open to visitors, I spend half an hour or so browsing through a single exhibition, taking it in just a bit at a time, reading the labels (all the words in the exhibition) and examining the displays more carefully than I ever did a visitor. I do this both for my own enjoyment and to make me more informed and better equipped to help museum visitors. I spent months worth of Saturday mornings just going through the mind-boggling Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. Since Deep Time opened, I’ve been slowly working my way through that.
So if you love fossils of all kinds and want to find out what the fossil record tells us about how life on Earth evolved, stop by and spend some Deep Time here. If you don’t believe in climate change or evolution, well, you’ve been warned. Come on down anyhow. You might learn something.
David Romanowski, 2020