GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 11-2
Presentation Time: 8:25 AM


JOHNSON, Kirk, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC 20013,

Some forms of science flourish in a museum context and paleontology is certainly one of those. Since the innovations of the “new museum men” in the1880s, natural history museums have operated with a tripartite mission: primary research, collection preservation and use, and a public-facing program of exhibits and education. Public interest in fossil exhibitions was, and remains, high because there is no other place to see actual evidence of ancient worlds. In addition to showing real fossils, museums also created murals, graphics, and dioramas of ancient organisms and landscapes. These art-science collaborations are, in the best cases, visual hypotheses that drive additional research questions. A virtuous cycle of expedition, analysis, illustration, and exhibition drove both the research- and public-facing aspects of many US museums through the 1920s. A cycle of fossil hall renovation began in the 1980s and continues today. Many of these renovations have included revitalized field programs and open-to-view fossil preparation laboratories partially staffed with volunteer citizen scientists. These labs, in turn, drive a demand for more training and fieldwork. This is important because the best fossils are still in the ground. For reasons that remain unclear, dinosaurs are extremely popular with very young children, a trend exemplified by the television show Dinosaur Train and the growing popularity of natural history museums for family groups. Local interest in paleontology has resulted in the founding of new regional museums that drive tourism in fossil-rich areas. Since fossils are often discovered by construction crews during excavation, many states have mandated that paleontological resources be salvaged, creating a funded industry that generates research- and exhibition-grade fossils. Published fossil collections in museums form the raw data of the Paleobiology Database. The combination of public interest, new discoveries, charismatic curators, access to well-curated collections, preparation labs, volunteer citizen scientists, educational programs, philanthropic funding, and local pride has continued to grow public support for basic research in paleontology. Research in paleontology has benefited from its long association with natural history museums and the benefit is mutual.