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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - American Museum of Natural History, Part 2
Tyrannosaurus also felt the winds of change. Since his debut in 1915 he had stood upright, like Godzilla, a towering 18 feet. But Godzilla has morphed into a ferocious roadrunner, in acknowledgment of the scientific near-consensus that the modern branch of the T. rex lineage survives as birds. He's been mounted in a horizontal, much more birdlike posture, and if the occasional visitor can be heard asking plaintively where the T. rex is, only to learn that he's, uh, standing in front of it, well, that's a small price to pay for scientific accuracy.
So, you may ask, "What's not to like?"
In a word, attitude. This seems to be a renovation designed by brilliant scientists for other brilliant scientists, people who in their enthusiasm for their discipline have forgotten how little the rest of us know. Imagine going to a concert expecting to hear "The Three Tenors" and being told that the program had been changed to "An Evening with John Cage," and you'll have a sense of how disoriented a first-time visitor can feel. The displays are educational; they're information-rich; they're exhaustive. But user-friendly they're not. Much of the signage is too technical, and the layout, featuring informational kiosks at evolutionary branching points, is bewildering unless you understand the structure before you start.
The fossil displays - from armored fishes to dinosaurs to Irish elk - were reorganized in a framework known as "cladistics," a relatively new theoretical approach to evolution that was pioneered in part by American Museum scientists. Cladists, who by now include most vertebrate palaeontologists, no longer focus on ancestor/descendant relationships - what gave rise to what - but on groups, or clades, that share particular anatomical characteristics. For instance, the presence of a backbone links humans with dinosaurs as members of the huge vertebrate clade. The dinosaur clade includes two subgroups, courtesy of an anatomical difference in the hipbone.
This is a big switch from the comfortable, chronological narrative that this museum once employed, and that most museums still use. Indeed, the decision to adopt a cladistics was fiercely debated, but in the end, says project manager Dingus, "We decided that people could see the chronological approach lots of places. We wanted to give them something different." The result? Goodbye "Early Dinosaurs" and "Late Dinosaurs"; hello "Ornithischians" and "Saurischians."
Whether "different" means better for the museum-going, dinosaur-loving public is an open question. Perhaps cladism, like Impressionism, will eventually catch on outside academe; perhaps, like twelve-tone music, it won't. But to get the most out of the exhibits in the interim, try the following: Enter the museum through the relatively dinky 77th Street entrance. The elevator there lets you out at the Orientation Center on the fourth floor, where a video narrated by Meryl Streep explains cladistics, among other things. (You don't even have to listen - and judging from the rows of beautifully designed but empty benches, most people don't - but it helps.) This puts you at the beginning of the evolutionary loop, pointed in the right direction. You'll have to walk through Vertebrate Origins to get to the saurischians, but those early vertebrates are worth seeing, too.
Or you can cut Cladistics 101 and head straight for the dinosaurs. They speak for themselves, which isn't surprising, since some of them have had 100 million years to figure out what to say.