Monday Museum #2: The Hadrosaur Foot
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.
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.
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?