Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it!

As a fitting achievement for our final day, we reached our goal of finishing type rehousing on the 6th floor. We’ve been working on that floor for two weeks and breathed a sigh of relief that we could see it to completion. The floor has proven especially challenging because we originally thought it contained only a few type specimens in need of rehousing, but a survey done by volunteers as well as our own run through of the type-inventory sheets revealed we had a long way to go. Some types tried to remain elusive, but with our powers combined, we tracked them down, scattered throughout the cabinets though they were. Many of ‘hiding specimens’ were so large that they required in-drawer rehousing, such as the skull pictured here. The large size of the fossils on this floor is no surprise considering it’s the floor containing Rhinos and their relatives. While working on some of the biggest type specimens to date, we became pros at in-drawer rehousing and developed some new creative ways to work on that scale.

At the end of the day, we compiled information on what we had done over the course of the internship and strategized about what needs to be tackled in the post-season (those of us whose school schedules aren’t whisking us away right now are staying for another 5 weeks to continue work on the project). We're proud to say we entirely finished Element Descriptions and sent them to Ruth to be uploaded to Paleocat. We made a lot of headway in Georeferencing; most of us identified locality information for the country, state and county of each of our roughly 160 localities and spent the final week tracking down latitudinal and longitudinal information. And we wrapped up type rehousing on all but one of the eight floors of fossil mammals.

Anthropology Tour

On Wednesday we visited the Anthropology Department and were guided by Paul Beelitz through the various collections in the department. At the start of the tour Paul gave us a quick breakdown of the field of Anthropology into its components, Physical Anthropology, Ethnology, and Archaeology – for a link to those definition click here. The AMNH has collections of material from each of these three subject areas, primarily from the New World: North, Central and South America.

Some of our favorite artifacts on the tour were the Hopi dolls, known as kachina, which the museum has been collecting since the late 1800’s. It was fascinating to see what has changed and what has remained the same in the making of kachina dolls in over that period of time.

Other highlights of the tour included a teepee liner with a story depicted across it, a painting of the Buddha currently being researched for the untraditional location of texts on it, and a hand-made, life-sized, paper replica of a Peugeot bike from Vietnam.

Finally, all of us were very impressed with the Smudge Room – an area for people with a personal (i.e. ancestral, spiritual, cultural, etc.) connection to artifacts in the collections to interact with them. Paul, who designed the room, said it is most commonly, but not only, used by delegations from American Indian tribes and is equipped with a ventilation system for smoke from incense, sweetgrass, and the likes. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that the objects in the museum are not alienated from their people and vise versa.

Fossil Halls Tour

We also had the privilege of a pre-work tour led by Doc Carl Mehling of the Fossil Halls (Hall of Vertebrate Origins, Saurischian Dinosaurs, Ornithischian Dinosaurs, and Fossil Mammals and Their Relatives). Carl worked on the most recent renovation of the Fossil Halls in the 1990's and told us the stories behind making the exhibits what they are today. It’s safe to say none of us will ever see that, or any other, fossil hall the same way again.

Firstly, Carl explained layout of the hall – instead of taking a chronological approach to the organization of the fossils there, as many museums do, the designers took a phylogenetic approach, recreating the cladistics of vertebrate evolution in the layout of the exhibits. This strategy focuses on evolutionary relatedness as opposed to shared time periods.

Since many of the fossils (and footprints and eggshells) on exhibit are real – the layout of parts of the Halls was finalized using life sized replicas made of cardboard so that they could be moved and repositioned often without fear of damaging them. Keeping in mind how big some of the fossils are, the replicas sound like they were masterpieces in themselves.

One of the most impressive attractions in the dinosaur hall – the real trackway of Apatosaurus footprints – was also one of the most complicated parts of the renovation. The trackway had been found in limestone and excavated in large slabs. When these slabs were given to the museum, the were plastered together on the floor. When the 1990’s renovation of the Fossil Halls took place, moving them involved forcing large metal sheets underneath them (to create what amounted to an over-sized spatula), turning the floor into a giant slip-n-slide with ivory soap and dragging the tracks across with pulleys. Now they’ve stood the test of about 150 million years of the elements and one AMNH renovation. Here is a picture of the tracks taken in 1959 with a young boy sitting in one of the footprint - hope this gives you an idea of their scale.


In addition to everything we learned about handling and rehousing fossils and always keeping locality data with a specimen, we leared a lot about the AMNH and the challenges and advantages inherent in such a large institution. Through the weekly tours we saw different ways each department deals with the challenges of maximizing storage space, fighting pest infestations and maintaining an organized collection. We also saw the myriad of ways departments collaborate. Whether is a mammalogist taking a fossil out on loan from Paleontology to compare its characteristics with that of a modern mammal or a paleontologist using the rock saw in the Planetary Sciences to cross section a specimen, the size of the museum means that there is an incredible wealth of information and technology housed in one institution.

That's all for now, but thanks for following the blog in the 2009 season and don't forget to stay tuned for post-season updates!

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