[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Subject Index][Author Index]

California Academy of Sciences no longer a natural history museum? -- long



Dear friends,

I apologize for the cross posting.

As you can see by the subject heading above, I am very concerned about the
direction planned for the public floor at the new California Academy of
Sciences, where I presently serve as a docent and teacher.  The California
Academy of Sciences is the combined aquarium, planetarium, and natural
history museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California.  Currently
celebrating our 150th anniversary, the present facility is scheduled for
demolition beginning January 1, 2004, to be replaced with an all new
building in 2008, with a revoltionary design inside and out.  Nothing new
has been constructed yet, but plans for the new exhibits are entering the
final stages.

Here is the bottom line: no dinosaurs, and no treatment of prehistory prior
to the emergence of man are proposed for the new museum.  If you do not care
about this, then you need read no further.

The plans for the new museum are a matter of public record.  You can learn
about the philosophy and plans such as they are at
<www.calacademy.org/newacademy/newexhibitions.php> and at
<www.calacademy.org/geninfo/newsroom/releases/NewAcademy_0702.html>.

The new floor plan calls for Simson African Hall to remain as is, but with
the waterhole scene replaced with a large tank where our live African black
footed penguins will have more room to swim.  As I love the penguins, I do
approve of this.  There is to be an improved planetarium with state of the
art digital projection, and a four level walk through rainforest dome, which
will serve as a habitat for live flowers, birds, reptiles, fish, insects,
and (possibly) bats, representing four rainforests of the world.  One could
not ask for better indoor visions of astronomy and extant terrestrial
biodiversity than that!

There will also be a Galapagos diorama, and other dioramas representing
other island systems.  California wildlife is slated to receive some
treatment as well, and the swamp and the variety of fish we currently have
on display will be transferred to the new museum relatively intact.  There
will likely also be some treatment of human evolution.  There will be an
effort to explain the current research that is going on at the museum behind
the scenes and in the field, and to integrate this subject matter into our
displays.

Wild California and Life Through Time (which includes three Czerkas
_Deinonychus_ models in a redwood forest) are the two halls that are slated
for the scrapheap, in spite of their being our two newest halls.  In theory,
with the exception of Simson African Hall, the museum will no longer have
halls per se, but will be a potpourri of exhibits which are supposed to be
thematically interconnected, and tied to current research.

Some time ago, when it was clear that the museum was to be torn down and
rebuilt (owing to seismic damage and safety issues, and funded in part by
successful propositons to raise the necessary start-up capital), public
input into exhibition design was encouraged.  I submitted a four page letter
to the exhibit director, which may have influenced the decision to include a
rainforest with live animals.  My additional suggestions included a
treatment of the theropod origin of birds and a display on life in Liaoning,
China, during the Early Cretaceous.  This is, of course, the home of
_Confuciusornis_, _Eomaia_, _Archaefructus_, and the feathered dinosaurs,
not to mention thousands of other things.

Since there was no response to these latter two suggestions -- which I
should think would tie in well with many other of the exhibits planned for
the museum -- I have just submitted thorough, illustrated proposals for
these two concepts (which I now call "Birds Are Dinosaurs" and "Feathered
Dragons of China") complete with descriptions of each display as I imagine
them, and loaded with beguiling visuals and many opportunities for visitors
to engage in hands-on activities.  My proposals would take very little floor
space and very little money, and they would tap into the tremendous natural
human fascination with the age of dinosaurs, but brought to life as never
before.  In addition, I expect that Asian American and international Asian
visitors would be pleased to see some representation of the profoundly
important paleontological research that is going on in China today, in a
display that would feature decorative touches that reflect the rich
traditions of art in Asia, and with signs in English and Chinese characters.

I presented these proposals to Lorie Topinka, manager of teacher services,
on Monday, June 9, 2003.  She was most receptive to my ideas, but feared
that there might be objections that the exhibits I propose would be
perceived as not reflecting the research being done at our museum and not
meshing with the themes outlined for the new museum.

I counter that these exhibits directly reflect the work of Jacques Gauthier
undertaken when he worked here at the Cal Academy, where his groundbreaking
paper, "Saurischian Monophyly and the Origin of Birds" was published in
1986.  This paper has been cited by every one of the _Nature_ descriptions
of new feathered dinosaur species, and is part of Gauthier's body of work
that led to his being honored with the species epithet in the name of the
recently discovered basal oviraptorosaur, _Incisivosaurus gauthieri_.  As
for the problem of these issues not being relevant to the proposed themes,
this suggests to me that the themes (which don't bear directly on all of the
approved displays so far as I can see) should be amended to include the
Mesozoic, without which the term "natural history museum" loses its meaning.

We do not have a vertebrate paleontology department.  We have an excellent
staff of dedicated scientists who perform research in the following areas:
anthropology, botany, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate
zoology, mammalogy and ornithology.  In the San Francisco Bay area,
vertebrate paleontology is practiced across the bay at U. C. Berkeley, and
collections are held at the U. C. Museum of Paleontology, where there is
little space for public display (although the material on display is very
nice, indeed).

Should we penalize museum patrons for our lack of a vertebrate paleontology
department by depriving them of the opportunity to view and interact with
displays that explain the rich history of life on Earth?  When the visitors
ask where the dinosaurs are, should I direct them to Los Angeles?  Galapagos
and Laetoli are all well and good, and I applaud efforts to bring these to
the people, but I cannot fathom the thinking that we must only present
displays that are relevant to our current research.  In terms of geological
time, this is not natural history -- it's natural current events.

The proposed "stories within topical themes" that have been drawn up to
guide the content of the new Academy displays are as follows...

CALIFORNIA: Conservation Success Stories; Managing Our Knowledge
LIFE IN THE WATER: Fragility of Ocean Systems; What is Biodiversity?
ISLANDS IN EVOLUTION: Lessons Learned From the Studies of Evolution;
Evolution & Human Technologies
HUMAN CULTURES: Pressures of Human Populations; Responsibility of Being
Human
EARTH AND ITS PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE: Myth of Man's Dominion; Potential of
Positive Action

I write this letter not to criticize the powers that be for the approved
exhibits -- which do look very educational and wonderful -- but rather to
encourage people who care about the public display of exhibits portraying
ancient life forms and environments to express their opinions toward those
who can make a difference.  Do not ask for "Life Through Time" hall to
remain intact.  This is not possible.  If my suggestions appeal to you,
particularly if you can explain in your own words why such exhibits deserve
a place in the new natural history museum in light of the themes put forward
and the research interests at the museum, then please write.  If you have
associations with the museum, past or present, or if you have a position as
a teacher, curator, or paleontologist, then your message to the executive
director may be of particular interest to the recipients, although I urge
anyone of any age to write, as there is power in numbers.  Write to your
friends and encourage your students to give our executive director your two
cents' worth.

If we fail, it will break my heart, and no doubt multitudes of visitors will
be very disappointed to find that the new improved museum has no place for
dinosaurs.  Imagine on the other hand the connections the visitors will make
in "Birds Are Dinosaurs."  Think of the delight in the children's eyes when
they walk through the "Feathered Dragons of China" dioramas, and see for
themselves the richness of an exceptionally well preserved Early Cretaceous
ecosystem.

As for me, I do not stand to gain in any way from decisions made about the
new museum except as they pertain to my ability to facilitate and teach
there (in which respect my interests currently stand to be seriously
debilitated) and my pleasure at the looks on the faces of our guests as they
discover for the first time a glimpse of the great Mesozoic biodiversity
that we have come to know and love in our fertile imaginations.  Please do
not take advantage of this situation to flood the good people listed below
with harsh words, solicitations, or other correspondence which would only
hurt our cause.  On the other hand, if you are a dinosaur artist whose work
might inspire the decision makers to reconsider the present course of
action, be my guest to relay your imagery to the museum staff with no
strings attached.  We stand on the very brink of a great transformation for
the California Academy of Sciences.  I sincerely want this to be a change
for the better.

On-list discussion will not change things.  Writing me will be of no use, as
I am leaving immediately for a two month trip through the American West,
including visitations to museums and an authorized dig at Egg Mountain
(arranged though the Old Trail Museum).  Unfortunately I will not be
accessible, nor will I be able to read e-mails during this time.

If the natural history museum of the California Academy of Sciences matters
to you, please write to the following people:

Dr. Patrick Kociolek, Curator and Executive Director
<kociolek@calacademy.org>

Copy your letters also to :

Lorie Topinka, Manager of Teacher Services    <ltopinka@calacademy.org>
Carol Tang, Assistant Chair of Education    <ctang@calacademy.org>

I can't thank you enough for your efforts.  Imagine what a wonderful museum
the California Academy of Sciences can be in 2008!  Help to make it what
_you_ would like it to be.  And if you think I'm off my rocker, and
vertebrate paleontology does not deserve to take up space on the exhibition
floor at the California Academy of Sciences, then tell them that they are on
the right track with the current plans.

--------Ralph W. Miller III
        ralph.miller@alumni.usc.edu
        Docent at the California Academy of Sciences
        proud member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology