Thursday, 23 December 2010

Dusty Dinosaurs

Although Christmas is upon us, I thought that I would have a little grumble this week. Not too much of a moan because I think that would be a bit unfair but it is something I’ve been observing for quite a while and, since last week, has almost become an embarrassment.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London over the last few years and I love the place. More often than not, it is for comparative study of fossil bones, to take digital images for the same purpose and also for this blog. I also go for the atmosphere that the building brings, and what a magnificent building it is – simply stunning.

Normally my first point of call is to go and look at the dinosaurs although, on this particular visit, it was to have a good look at the marine reptile gallery and examine a couple of specimens. So I arrived at the museum and, just like most visitors do, promptly headed for the Dinosaur Gallery and have yet another wander around.

On this occasion I walked in and straight away came upon the casts of Camarasaurus and Triceratops. As usual just their presence is enough to create that immediate sense of awe and wonderment and I got my camera out ready to start taking images.

I gazed at the scapulocoracoid of Camarasurus. At first in wonder at the size of these great shoulder blades and then, in amazement, at the amount of dust that was covering these cast bones. I looked up and around the great sauropod and, in the subdued museum lighting, I could see that the entire skeleton was caked in dust. Frankly, it looked awful and I quickly moved on to the Triceratops mount.

This cast was also in a filthy state but had an additional problem. Some of the exhibits are surrounded by toughened glass barriers which are obviously there to stop people from touching the bones or causing them damage. This makes sense but looking at the glass, you would be hard pressed to guess when it had been last cleaned. It was covered in fingerprints, misted over in many places and severely impaired ones view of the specimen. Truly disgusting.

A bit dark but you get the idea
I left the trike and climbed the stairs that were situated behind the camarasaur. I looked down on the sauropod and again was horrified at the amount of dirt on display. This was the pattern throughout the rest of my tour of the gallery. It didn’t matter where you looked, the overall condition of the specimens, the platforms where they were mounted, the glass barriers and displays was, frankly, shocking. I took quite a few images and later, when I downloaded them to the computer, the problem becomes even worse because of the flash.

Surely something needs to be addressed here. Keeping the museum and exhibits clean demonstrates a museum that has a sense of duty and cares for its collection. At the same time it also sends a valuable and positive message to the public, donors and supporters alike.
Like so many museums the NHM is centrally located in a city environment and there are a number of pollutants that cause problems. In this case, and one suspects that all museums have the same problem, dust is the number one issue. It permeates from the exterior, a combination of dirt, soot, soil and other nasties, and then combines with human skin and hair to settle throughout the interior and on the exhibits.

It continues to build up and become unsightly. Dust can also absorb moisture and create humidity which can damage specimens. It can also stain, attract pests and carry pollutants with it. It can even be abrasive when wiped off of delicate objects. Dust needs to be controlled.

I understand that in these times of austerity that the funds or indeed the inclination is not there to become proactive with regards to dust control or to even manage a simple cleaning regime. I don’t pretend to have all the answers either. I mean – how do you clean and dust a sauropod skeleton? With a vacuum cleaner and lots of extensions? Feather dusters? Will a scaffold be necessary? What are the health and safety implications? I do realise the problems. I do understand that only trained museum staff can do the job.

And yet something does need to be done. Surely regular cleaning in the museum is good management practice? The amount of dust on these specimens must amount to a few years of build up now and frankly it is unacceptable for the exhibits in a national museum to be in such a state and I hope something will be done soon to alleviate the problem.

That just leaves me to wish all of you who celebrate it, a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Dusty dromaeosaurs!


Anonymous said...

yes, you have highlighted a lack of professional care of the exhibits. Another problem is that most of the dinosaur exhibits are casts not original bone. On the marine reptile side of things there are no exhibits (as far as I'm aware) of recent discoveries. Some of the older specimens have been remounted though.


saurian said...

Thanks for the comment Paul. Yes I mentioned the fact there were casts and you are quite right that the vast majority are indeed casts but this does not mean that should not be kept in a reasonably clean state although as I mentioned in the post, I am not unsympathetic to the problems faced by the staff.
I was actually looking at the marine reptiles on display for comparitive study and wasn't looking for anything recent as such but they are fascinating all the same, especially those that have been "improved".

kristin said...

Wow they are dusty! I understand having to practice caution when cleaning artifacts and such but there are plenty of other methods to cut back dust collectors etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid this dusty dinosaur problem isn't unique to the NHM. A few years ago I was touring the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and was puzzled to see what I thought was "countershading" of the mounts: the bottoms of the bones were dark brown, while the tops were light grey. On closer inspection, I realized that it was dust! Some of it was nearly 1/4" thick! The invertebrate fossil displays were in equally appalling shape: labels curled up and unreadable, some specimens had come unglued from their wall mounts and had fallen to the bottom of their display cases, light bulbs in some of the display cases had burned out and not been replaced. I haven't been there lately, but I'm hoping things have improved in the interim.

Oh, and regarding the use of casts rather than real bones, it's worthwhile reading this blog post from earlier this year:


saurian said...

Howard, you are quite right about this being a problem to other museums - I did realise this when I was writing the post. They must all face similar problems. But this was as bad as I've ever seen it at the NHM.

I have no objections to casts being used - makes sense to me anyway. The weight implications alone, by using fossil "bone", are enormous and impractical. A couple of years ago I attempted to lift a medium sized apatosaur femur - attempted being the word. I couldn't budge it.

Thanks for the link as well - great post.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see more UK dinosaur fossils like the Baryonx, Iguanodon and Megalosaurus original fossils on display. Nothing wrong with casts but let's have a reasonable proportion of original material too. Regarding chimaerae how many people know that the Ophthalmosaurus skeleton on display comprises material from 3 individuals?

Saurian - did you see my post for the previous article?


saurian said...

It's interesting that there is so little original material on display at all. Baryonyx is a cast, Iguanodon is a cast (one of the Bernissart specimens) and nothing representing Megalosaurus except for a tooth but at least that is a fossil! You have to go to Oxford to see some genuine Megalosaurus material.

And you are right - nothing on display highlights what are cast or composites. However, I'm not sure I'd like my prize Baryonyx fossils exposed to all that dirt.

Paul, I have a post coming up with dimensions and a bit more information about the vertebra for you.

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