In my first post on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I covered the Triassic and Jurassic halls of the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit. Sorry for the wait for part two! I didn’t intend to be so long! Now we journey to the Cretaceous and beyond, for as we all know by now: dinosaurs aren’t extinct.
Our first steps into the Cretaceous give us the chance to greet a themed collection of smaller specimens, as models of Psittacosaurus, Caudipteryx, Sinornis, and Sinornithosaurus stand by display cases holding fossil slabs that reveal stunning integumentary detail. It’s a nice contrast, the flattened stone accompanied by “fleshed out” interpretations. Positioned adjacent to a skeletal mount of Protoceratops in a rocky environment, bristle-tailed Psittacosaurus commands attention immediately; the trio of aforementioned theropods are more cryptic in their forested habitat.
The graceful form of Corythosaurus, captured seemingly mid-graze comes next, before the path snakes around to the main Cretaceous tableau of a tyrannosaur pair squabbling over a fallen Edmontosaurus. Yes, only two hadrosaurs and one of them is in pieces on the ground. Making up for this indignity is the paleobotanical detail of the scene. The Cretaceous displays feature ground covered in low-growing forbs, bringing a greater sense of the ecological context of these animals. It’s such a wonderful choice, subtly urging visitors to imagine the living world of Hell Creek.
A mount of Triceratops prorsus stands across from the two rexies, seemingly not bothered by the scene. Seeming to circle above, Quetzalcoatlus waits its turn at the feast. Gosh, I can’t wait to see an azhdarchid mounted on all fours. I need to get to the other CMNH, the one on Lake Erie, for the Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs Exhibition.
Visitors are treated to an assembage of ceratopsid skulls, offering a thumbnail sketch of the staggering diversity of this clade’s headgear. I was thrilled to finally see that gorgeous noggin of Diabloceratops in person, though the signage had been mounted before the taxon was described. It gives those of us in the know a good chance to show off. “Oh that one? That’s – ahem – Diabloceratops eatoni. Cool name, huh?”
I admit that the display I most looked forward to seeing was Anzu wyliei, and it did not disappoint. The reconstructed skeleton strides tall under a blooming magnolia, with a small case displaying the mangled skull bits from the holotype specimen (sorry, my photo was really bad). It’s a glorious mount, and I gawked for a very long time.
The Cretaceous gets another hall of its own, featuring evocatively-lit scenes from the Western Interior Seaway. The centerpiece is Dolichorhynchus in hot pursuit of Hesperornis in front of a bait ball mural, but the Mosasaurus hung above has the effect of enveloping visitors in the scene. Xiphactinus, Protostega, Clidastes are also on hand. It’s a fittingly grand finale for the Mesozoic.
Next comes the Cenozoic, altogether more humbly presented than what came before. The high ceilings lower considerably, the immersive environments are toned down. But there’s only so much space to be had, I suppose. Here, the lone dinosaur is the great Moa. It’s flanked by iconic Ice Age fauna such as the dire wolf, cave bear, and Columbian Mammoth.
While the items that the CMNH focuses on are executed brilliantly, no museum is perfect, and I feel obliged to bring up those items of interest to LITC readers which I found lacking. First, while the Pleistocene gets some nice space, the rest of the Cenozoic is relegated to a smaller room with even lower ceilings which also houses one of those children’s fossil dig activities. It’s loud and kids and their parents are constantly jostling you, making it more difficult to take in the material. The mounts and displays are excellent, and in a perfect world they’d be displayed with the kind of attention to paleoenvironment the dinosaurs are given. Second, the exhibit of bird mounts, a floor above Dinosaurs in Their Time, is crammed into a long, narrow corridor which Jennie and I both found to be too cramped and crowded to spend time in.
But these critiques hardly ruin what is a remarkable museum. There will always be compromises. I had a fantastic time slowly taking in these exhibits. A lot of tender loving care has gone into every detail. I hope to return some day, and if you ever have the chance to visit Pittsburgh, you won’t regret putting the Carnegie at the top of your to-do list. But don’t take my word for it! Ben Miller has written insightfully about CMNH at his Extinct Monsters blog; give this post a read.