Exploring “Deep Time”

The oval-shaped displays are miniature see-through dioramas.

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.

This was the first stegosaurus to show scientists what the strange plated dinosaur actually looked like. Still used for research, this “type specimen,” is the one against which all other stegosaurus fossils are compared.

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.

As I said, the evolutionary message is not subtle. That’s Charles Darwin in bronze to the right.

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.)

This exhibit explains how an asteroid strike led to the mass extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

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.

Visitors can watch volunteers working on bones and other fossils in the hall’s FossiLab.

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

Heritage Museums and Gardens on Cape Cod

Most who visit Cape Cod blow past the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, on their way to Provincetown or the shore. Their loss.

Sandwich Village, just south of scenic Route 6A, looks like an old colonial town, which it is—the oldest, in fact, on Cape Cod. It has lots of historic buildings, a venerable inn, a cluster of shops and cafes, a restored and working grist mill picturesquely set beside a large pond, and the highly regarded Sandwich Glass Museum.

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The boardwalk to Town Neck Beach.

On the north side of Route 6A is a quarter-mile boardwalk across a marsh to Town Neck Beach, where the placid waters of Cape Cod Bay lap onto the sand. You’ll also find a few waterfront restaurants at the town marina, and nearby is the Cape Cod Canal visitor center and the bike trail that runs alongside the canal.

But Sandwich’s most surprising asset is hidden away just past the village center at the end of a residential road. If you’re looking for diversions beyond the beach, Heritage Museums and Gardens is one of the best on Cape Cod.

Josiah K. Lilly III, of the family that founded and ran the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company, established Heritage Museums and Gardens 50 years ago to showcase some of the Lilly collections. Now encompassing 100 acres, it is the largest public garden in southern New England—and much more. It has three museum buildings devoted to automobiles, art, and Americana, a STEM school for young children, and a restored antique carousel from 1908.

Sue and I visited Sandwich just after Labor Day in perfect weather. While we didn’t go to the Sandwich Glass Museum—we were still glassy-eyed from our visit the day before to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York—the Heritage site was our top priority.

Heritage Map

We walked through garden areas first. Heritage contains a variety of gardens, all interconnected by paved paths, but it is perhaps best known for its hydrangeas and rhododendrons. We visited while the hydrangeas were in bloom, which occurs from early July through late September. We noticed a profusion of rhododendrons throughout the park. The gardens must be spectacular when they are blooming, usually from early May to mid-June.

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The park office building from the North American Hydrangea Test Garden.

Besides the accessible paved pathways, unpaved paths loop through the woods throughout the rolling terrain, so you can walk quite a distance and vary your route. You can also hop on a free tram that stops at several points in the gardens.

Heritage has three museum buildings, and because this was its 50th anniversary, each museum contained exhibitions celebrating that event.

The Automobile Gallery occupies a wood and stone Shaker round barn. The exhibition in this area was called From Carriage to Classic: How Automobiles Transformed America. Most of the 23 vehicles chosen to illustrate this theme dated from the first four decades of the 1900s, all restored to a dazzling shine and many of them drivable. They included a White Steamer from 1909 purchased by President William Howard Taft, the first president to be officially transported in an automobile.

The American Art and Carousel Galley contained a small but diverse selection of artifacts from the Heritage Collection, which numbers more than 12,000 objects, including military miniatures, weapons, models of sailing ships, paintings, and much more. The objects on exhibit were organized around four themes: “Sense of Place,” “Home,” “Work,” and “Conflict of Ideas.” The Hundred Acres School and the 1908 Looff Carousel are in the same building. This is one of only about 10 Looff carousels that you can still ride.

The display in the Special Exhibitions Gallery was called Through Your Eyes: 50 Years of Heritage Memories. It contained a careful chosen selection of works from the collection, many accompanied by people’s photos and memories of their visits to the museum.

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Heritage Gardens’ Old East Mill, typical of wind-powered mills once used on Cape Cod, was built in nearby Orleans in 1800.

Displayed throughout the exhibition galleries and grounds were 50 objects from the collections chosen by museum friends, experts, and local leaders as their favorites—a truly engaging way to celebrate the museum’s first half century.

The park has a small café with decent clam chowder and other food, and a covered outdoor space in which to enjoy it. Or take a break during your Heritage visit as we did and visit one the many local ice cream places. We headed to Shipwreck Ice Cream, where we noticed a line of people the evening before. Interesting flavors, large portions, and reasonable prices were the reasons why.

So next time you visit Cape Cod, take a break from the beach and spend a few hours here. Or spend a whole day and explore the rest of Sandwich too. You won’t be sorry.

David Romanowski, 2019

Summer Sojourns, 2018

As summer nears its end, I am somewhat surprised to find that I have spent a total of 47 days—almost 7 weeks—traveling this year so far. I’ve already written about three of these trips. Here are just a few images from some of the others.

My most recent trip was a 10-day, 1,750-mile drive to explore some coastal areas of New England I wanted to get to know better. I passed through Williamstown in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts; spent a couple days visiting Bristol and Providence, Rhode Island; and went on to visit several towns along the south coast of Massachusetts, Sandwich on Cape Cod, Rockport north of Boston, and various towns on the South Shore below Boston. I also took side trips to eastern New York and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Along the way I reconnected with quite a few people: my oldest friend (from orientation in college) and his wife (a friend from my Michigan days), two of my newest friends (whom I met through my bicycling trips), two good friends I’ve known since my early working years at the Boston Museum of Science, another friend from the Science Museum I hadn’t seen in 35 years, and a friend from the National Air and Space Museum and his wife, who have retired to New Hampshire. These people span almost every period of my adult life.

The weather cooperated beautifully, Siri’s wayfinding proved invaluable, SiriusXM satellite radio relaxed me on the long interstate drives, and I had a great time.

David Romanowski, 2018

Planely Overwhelmed at the U.S. Air Force Museum

When I worked at the National Air and Space Museum, I liked to take guests into the Early Flight gallery to show them a certain historic airplane. Often overlooked by visitors, it hung overhead, dimly lit, its wooden frame painted silver to look like metal, its muslin wings stained with oil. The unrestored biplane looked every bit of its century-plus age.

A19120001000cp04 smThe Wright brothers built the airplane and flew it at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate its capabilities to the U.S. Army. Purchased by the Army, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer became the world’s first military airplane.

Aviation technology soon advanced in leaps and bounds. Within just a few years, armies across the world were using airplanes for observation and reconnaissance, to shoot down other planes, and to drop handheld bombs. Aircraft would play decisive roles in World War II, and today air power is a preeminent part of our national defense.

Merely 80 years separate the 1909 Wright Military Flyer from the B-2 Stealth Bomber, a matte-black flying wing that is nearly invisible to radar and can deliver up to 20 tons of precision weaponry on a single globe-spanning mission.

That full range of aviation history is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, it is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. It houses some 400 aerospace vehicles and missiles, along with thousands of other aviation artifacts, and draws over a million visitors a year. I visited recently with my brother and sister-in-law, who (lucky for them) live not far away.

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The museum consists mainly of a row of four huge interconnected hangars. Each is nearly the size of the aircraft hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. If you visit the Air Force Museum, be sure to wear comfortable shoes; it has over 22 acres of indoor exhibit space to explore.

The main exhibition areas are arranged chronologically. The exhibits in Building 1 cover the early years of military aviation through World War II. Building 2 displays aircraft from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Building 3 covers the Cold War era. Beyond that you enter a round gallery displaying a ring of tall missiles. Finally you enter Building 4, the newest hangar, which opened in 2016. It features sections on space, research and development (including stealth aircraft), airlift and other missions, and the museum’s historic collection of presidential aircraft.

The Presidential Gallery in particular is worth the long trek through the first three hangars. It features 10 aircraft used by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. You can walk through four of the aircraft.

The oldest of the four, a Douglas Skymaster named Sacred Cow, was the first aircraft designed for presidential use. It transported Roosevelt (the first president to fly while in office) and Harry Truman. It has an elevator in the rear that allowed Roosevelt to board easily using his wheelchair. Truman also flew on The Independence, a modified version of a Douglas DC-6 airliner. Dwight Eisenhower traveled on the Columbine III, a modified Lockheed Super Constellation. You can walk through both of these airplanes as well.

The fourth airplane you can board, a modified Boeing 707 airliner, was the first jet aircraft built for presidential use. When the president was on board, it was designated Air Force One. This aircraft carried all eight presidents from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and is the most poignant to visit. You can stand in the aisle at the exact spot where Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office to become president while flying back to Washington, D.C., from Dallas, Texas, after Kennedy was assassinated. A few rows back is where seats were removed to accommodate the casket containing Kennedy’s body.

My favorite section of the museum was the World War II Gallery. Here, the history of this museum and the Smithsonian intersect. After the war, the Army Air Forces set aside a huge collection of Allied and captured Axis aircraft for preservation and exhibition. Much of the cream of that collection was transferred to the Smithsonian to be displayed in a future National Air Museum. President Truman signed the law creating that museum in 1946, and it finally opened as the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.

Meanwhile, the Air Force added the remaining World War II aircraft to its own collection, which dates back to 1923. That collection became the core of the Air Force Museum, which opened at its current location with a single large hangar in 1971. Since then, the museum has more than quadrupled in size.

World War II was my parents’ war, and the war I know most about. It involved the aircraft I’m most familiar with. Here I found examples of airplanes I remember assembling from plastic model kits when I was a kid—a B-24 Liberator, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-29 Superfortress—and many more I recognized. Also here is the museum’s newest major exhibition, which opened this past May. It features the famous B-17F Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions and return stateside. I could have spent hours in this gallery alone.

But there was so much more: cool airplanes to see, cargo planes to board, a B-29 fuselage to duck through. We didn’t even bother with the inevitable flight simulators and IMAX theater, or enter the full-size mockup of a space shuttle. We only glanced at many exhibits over which I did not have the time and mental energy to linger.

I can now empathize with all those visitors to Washington, D.C., who want to take in the entire Smithsonian in a day. It can’t be done. Nor can you experience in one visit all that the National Museum of the United States Air Force has to offer. But if one visit is all you have, it’s worth a gallant try.

David Romanowski, 2018

Car Gazing at the California Automobile Museum

I don’t know much about cars. But do I enjoy looking at vintage automobiles and learning about their history and design. I marvel at the meticulous work that went into restoring them to pristine condition. And let’s face it: Cars from middle decades of the 20th century are way more stylish and interesting to look at than most cars on the road today.

So, when I had part of a day to kill before heading home from California recently, I decided to spend it at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento.

The warehouse-like building was undergoing a roof replacement, so part of the museum was closed to visitors, exhibits were in disarray, and cars had been moved around to accommodate the ongoing work. Still, about two-thirds of the museum’s collection of some 150 vehicles was on display. Each was beautifully restored, and a docent told me that most are in drivable condition.

If you love old cars or simply love looking at them, the California Automobile Museum is for you. The roof work should be done this year, so the museum soon will be back to normal, with even more to see.

A row of beautiful cars from the Roaring ’20s. Love those running boards!

The 1938 Chrysler Imperial Airflow Sedan (left) was an early attempt to improve automobile aerodynamics. The 1950 Ford Station Wagon was one of the last “Woodie” models designed with real maple and mahogany panels.

This 1953 Bel Air was Chevrolet’s luxury liner. Featured in a national ad campaign around this time, popular singer Dinah Shore was encouraging Americans to “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”

Two classics from the 1960s: a 1965 Ford Mustang and a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. The latter was repainted in its original “Corvette bronze” color but is otherwise in its original condition.

Now this is a museum shop! If you want to drive home in a beautifully restored vintage car, here’s your chance!

David Romanowski, 2017