Last week, Jennie and I took a trip to Pittsburgh, PA. Telling people you’re going to Pittsburgh in the middle of January elicits a lot of “what for?” reactions. Well, the “what for” was a good one, thank you very much. It was the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a museum I’ve long wanted to visit, and it far exceeded my expectations. It was the best dinosaur hall I’ve ever visited, and though I had done a bit of research before the visit, it held a fair number of surprises.
We spent a whole day wandering the Museum of Natural History, which shares a building with the Museum of Art (one admission price, too). I’ll focus on the paleontology halls, especially the Mesozoic, since that’s our focus here at LITC, but really the entire place is pretty marvelous.
After entering through the gift shop, the Carnegie offers halls dedicated to geology, including a vast, serpentine collection of gems, minerals, and crystals. There’s a whirlwind tour through the Paleozoic (including Fedexia and a super cool eurypterid trackway), and then we come to the Dinosaurs in their Time exhibit. The entry foyer contains the “Paleolab,” giving visitors a look behind the scenes at fossil preparation, a feature I’m well familiar with from the Field and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. There’s even a (credited, happily) Jaime Headden skeletal diagram on display to help visitors make sense of a jumble of plesiosaur bits.
Somewhat humbly standing on its own is an original Anchiornis fossil (I almost missed it in the crowd). Rescued from a fossil smuggler (I’m assuming Eric Prokopi), it’s on loan to the CMNH as a gesture of gratitude from the Chinese government.
Dinosaurs in their Time takes visitors from the Triassic through the Cretaceous, ending with a beautifully lit selection of mounts from the Western Interior Seaway. We’ll tackle these in order, with some highlights along the way. Like the Field Museum, we’re ushered into the Mesozoic by Herrerasaurus.
Dinosaurs in their Time boasts of its attention to paleoenvironmental detail, with each display assembling animals that lived in the same place and time. The first example of this is the enormous phytosaur Redondasaurus, mounted in front of a mural of the Triassic Chinle paleoenvironment by Walters and Kissinger. These murals provide vivid settings throughout the halls, and they’re a nice echo of Dinosaur National Monument, which has long-standing ties with the Carnegie.
The showier mounts for each era are accompanied by display cases of relevant fossils, highlighting contemporaneous flora and fauna and important fossil localities. In the Triassic, some of these treats are a beautiful Lystrosaurus skull accompanied by Mesosaurus and a drepanosaur tail. Where relevant, labels additionally crow about holotype fossils in the CMNH collections.
We get our feet wet before entering the Jurassic, with displays showing off Lyme Regis and Holzmaden Fossils.
We next meet a dynamic mount of Dryosaurus and Ceratosaurus before being awed by a predation scene of an entirely different scale: Allosaurus stalking a juvenile Apatosaurus louisae who hides under an adult.
Diplodocus carnegii is so iconic that the Carnegie literally made it their logo a few years ago, and alongside that adult Apatosaurus, it dominates the Jurassic hall. I loved having the opportunity to see these two sauropods side by side: you can really see just how much beefier Apatosaurus was, with that famous thick neck and overall wider form. If you climb up to the balcony overlook, you’ll even get a chance to inspect models of the gallodactylid pterosaur Cycnorhamphus, gliding above the scene.
Flanking the giants are Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus. Ol’ plate-back gets some love, of course, but Camptosaurus seems to be pretty overlooked by the crowds. Not her fault, of course. I suppose the father who instantly lost interest in Allosaurus for the crime of not being T. rex isn’t too far outside the norm. But I really enjoyed seeing this ornithopod mounted; she seems to be reacting with alarm after stumbling upon the dramatic scene before her.
Models of Archaeopteryx, Pterodactylus, and Rhamphorynchus accompany the Camptosaurus mount, gliding overhead or clutching a tree trunk (apologies for the lack of images – delicate forms plus museum lighting thwarted my attempts to get good photos). One thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a museum is a comparison between bird and pterosaur anatomy. Judging by the interpretations of parents as I stood there gazing at the display, such a demonstration would be useful (if it was read at all, of course). It’s not immediately obvious what exactly the diminutive models held aloft on wires are, if you only know “pterodactyls” as big leathery dragons with the ability to hoist human beings aloft with their feet.
I’ll stop here fore now, and save the Cretaceous and Cenozoic dinosaurs for my next post. See you in a few days! (Several weeks, as it turns out: here’s part two).