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Monday Museum #4: The Cretaceous Marine Case

November 4, 2009

(photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

At the end of last week, we opened the second part of our renovated Cretaceous exhibits at the Manitoba Museum. I am delighted with all of these exhibits. I’m sure I am biased, but I think they are among the best things our museum has done, and it was hard to decide what to write about first. I am starting with this case since it contains so many beautiful and unusual fossils.

When a museum curator is beginning to formulate an exhibit on any given topic, he or she is usually confronted with one of two scenarios. Either the collections have a shortage of high-quality material on that topic, or there is such an abundance of wonderful material that tough decisions have to be made. I had to deal with the latter circumstance in trying to select material for a case of Cretaceous marine fossils. Manitoba, like other parts of western North America, is rich in Cretaceous fossils, and our collections room includes many cabinets of Cretaceous vertebrates and invertebrates.


This turtle arm was in the gallery before, but it has been remounted in a completely different way. I like that it now looks as though it is signalling a left turn! There was a conscious effort made to display the fossils a bit more like works of art. The cluster of fish vertebrae on the right has been a favourite specimen of some Natural History staff for years; it was wonderful to finally get it into the gallery. (photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

In a way, the selection process was a bit like a tryout for a sports team or arts performance. We would pull out batches of specimens, consider what would fit and how it would work, and eventually choose the stars that would be shared with our visitors. The remaining specimens would be sent back to the minor leagues of the collections room, perhaps to await their future chance to appear before the public.

Our designer, Stephanie Whitehouse, did a great job with planning these exhibits, but she had to be tough with me when it came to choosing specimens. Curators are notorious for wanting to put out far more pieces than can reasonably be fitted into the space. As the design progressed, and the spatial relationships became clearer, Stephanie would periodically have to come back to me and say, “You’re going to have to cut something from this area.” I would hem and haw, because I really did want to include the lot of them, but I would eventually have to admit that she was right. And the case “works” as a result.


This giant inoceramid clam is encrusted by many smaller bivalves. The specimen was collected in western Manitoba by Kevin Conlin. (photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

One of the problems with showing Cretaceous marine fossils is that the remains of cephalopods (ammonoids and belemnites) look quite different from the living animals. We needed some way of illustrating how they really were, and early in the conceptualization of this exhibit Betsy Thorsteinson suggested that she could make wax models of some selected forms. Betsy approaches every project with remarkable rigour and attention to detail, and her resulting ammonoids and belemnite add wonderful life and colour to the fossils they depict.


Each of Betsy's spookily real cephalopod replicas is located beside or above the fossil it represents. (photo © The Manitoba Museum, 2009)

Yes, I know that Monday Museum was posted on a Wednesday this week. I am still at the conference in Oregon, and the first part of the week was rather busy as I was presenting in a session on jellyfish blooms. More on that later …

One Comment leave one →
  1. Steven Kukla permalink
    November 4, 2009 10:51 am

    Now that’s an awesome display case. Wish I lived closer (i’m in Northern Virginia, USA), so I could see it all up close. Betsy’s wax model work helps bring it all to life again. The layout has nice balance and the lighting looks good too. Only thing I’d add is a splash of blue to somehow visually indicate that this is underwater marine life.

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