natural history museums

Book review – Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea (Second Edition)

8-minute read

The deep past harbours many events, epochs, and places that are still a mystery to me. Case in point: once upon a time, North America was cut in half by an enormous ocean. Something I was only dimly aware of. Luckily, Indiana University Press’s flagship palaeontology series Life of the Past has just the book to remedy that. I may be three years late to the party, but this 2017 book provides all the details one could ask for, and then some.

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Book review – Visions of Lost Worlds: The Paleoart of Jay Matternes

7-minute read

If you ever visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. sometime before 2015 and visited their fossil hall, you will have come face to face with a series of six large murals by palaeoartist Jay Matternes, showing different stages in the evolution of mammals. For nearly five decades, these were part of various exhibits until they were dismantled in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit the museum. But, luckily for me, Smithsonian Books has now published Visions of Lost Worlds, a beautifully produced love letter to Matternes’s palaeoart. Written by the museum’s Curator of Dinosauria Matthew T. Carano and director Kirk R. Johnson, in close collaboration with Matternes himself, this large-format art book offers an unparalleled look at these murals and the artistic process of making them.

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Book review – The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them

6-minute read

What is better than a good dinosaur story? How about 25 of them? Geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero returns to Columbia University Press for the third book in this format. Having covered fossils and rocks, he now serves up 25 fascinating vignettes of famous dinosaurs and the people who discovered them.

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Book review – Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

6-minute read

Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

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Book review – American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus

8-minute read

If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy (see also Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon). Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.

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Book review – Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.

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Book review – The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy

Where do fossils belong? Should they be housed in museums, available for study by scientists to learn more about our planet’s deep history? Or can they be treated like exclusive souvenirs, traded and auctioned on a market that stocks the private collections of rich people? Journalist Paige Williams here tells the full story, warts and all, of a high-profile auction gone awry. She initially reported on this in 2013 in the New Yorker. Up for sale? A fully reconstructed skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

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Book review – The Art of Naming

In my review of Kemp’s The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums, I highlighted the importance of naming species and the rich vein of undiscovered species hiding in museum collections around the world. But how does the naming of species work? And what complications can arise? With The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl has written a surprisingly engaging book on the potentially stuffy topic of taxonomical nomenclature that beautifully complements Kemp’s work.

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Book review – The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough, who, together with Erroll Fuller, wrote Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led a young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers.

Wait, what?

Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.

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Book review – The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums

Planet Earth is home to a staggering number of species. A 2011 article in PloS Biology gave an educated guess of 8.7 million known species of eukaryotes (this is the domain of life to which all multicellular life forms – plants, insects, fungi, mammals etc. – belong, but excludes single-celled life forms such as bacteria). More staggering still is that this probably is only 10-12% of all existing species, with an estimated 86% of terrestrial species and 91% of marine species as of yet undiscovered.

So, scientists describe new species of plants and animals all the time. This much you probably know. What might come as a surprise, however, is that many of these discoveries are not made in the field, but in the massive natural history collections housed in museums around the world. In The Lost Species, Christopher Kemp takes the reader on a tour through the collections to reveal the stories behind some of these discoveries.

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