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Monday Museum #2: The Hadrosaur Foot

October 19, 2009
Hind foot (pes) of a hadrosaur, on exhibit in the Manitoba Museum (photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

Hind foot (pes) of a hadrosaur, on exhibit in the Manitoba Museum (photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

Most items on exhibit in a museum provide links to the past. Many also link us to the past versions of that museum. This foot of a hadrosaur (“duckbilled dinosaur”) was included in the first batch of renewed Cretaceous exhibits that we opened at the Manitoba Museum this spring. Since I have known it from the instant it came out of the ground, I am particularly attached to this foot (so to speak).

When I look at this piece, I don’t just see an attractive exhibit. And I don’t just see the dinosaur living on its ancient floodplain 76 million years ago. Rather, I see the valley of the South Saskatchewan River in southern Alberta, where we collected the foot (and much of the rest of this hadrosaur) in 1994. I feel the heat of that blinding June sun reflected from the rocks. I breathe the dust emanating from sandstones and popcorn mudstones. I hear the high calls of the prairie falcons. I watch rusty vans bumping along that late afternoon dirt track across endless fields, the wary pronghorn antelopes always keeping themselves close to our horizon. I see us strolling down the centre of Empress’ empty main street, heading to the bar for a Kokanee at the end of a long and rewarding day.

The South Saskatchewan River valley, 1994

The South Saskatchewan River valley, 1994 (photo © The Manitoba Museum)

Beyond that sense of place, I see even more strongly the people who have worked with that dinosaur and that collection. Some of those people are gone: I watch my predecessor George Lammers, cheerfully directing this week’s crop of field volunteers as they patiently toil to remove sandstone overburden. Others are still very much with us: I observe Debbie Thompson’s younger self in the lab, painstakingly preparing and restoring the bones of the foot, rounding out and smoothing each crushed tarsal. Finally I see the skilled workshop and collections staff just a few months ago, planning and constructing the complex mount that supports, protects, and exhibits the foot to maximum advantage.

George Lammers (L, holding broom) leads the 1994 dinosaur dig. (photo © The Manitoba Museum)

George Lammers (L, holding shovel) leads the 1994 dinosaur dig. (photo © The Manitoba Museum)

This foot is just a single specimen, on exhibit in a single provincial museum. Yet it is the repository of multiple pasts and stories. How many stories are held within the objects in this museum alone? And how many are there in all museums combined?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven Kukla permalink
    October 20, 2009 10:51 am

    How Zen-like. Just as the original find was enmeshed in its surrounding mineral, rock and dirt matrix, the restored fossil is still enmeshed, but now in an invisible web and matrix of relationships, effort, study and story. While you can see all this in one glance at the restored foot (relive the discovery, recount the toil, remember the persons), this invisible web is often quite hidden and unknown to the ordinary museum patron. When I visit a museum I want the artifact or specimen to come to life and help me understand and relate to it’s life, environs & era, as well as gain deeper appreciation of the entire process from it’s life to becoming a fossil, and from the fossil discovery to the museum floor. Would be great if such accounts (as your blog entry) were somehow coupled with the fossil when the patron visits.

    • Graham permalink*
      October 20, 2009 11:01 am

      Thank you. That’s exactly what I was trying to get across. We are telling some of these sorts of stories with our new Cretaceous exhibits, but only for the big skeletons. Even for those, we tend to discover that there isn’t enough room to fit the stories into the label copy.

      This storytelling an example of how the new technologies could be applied very effectively in a gallery setting, and we are taking this approach with an exhibit we are now installing about the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (due to open at the end of this month). Perhaps in future museums will be able to put this deep interpretation into all exhibits?

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