Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Bill DeWalt, the new Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History


In February  2001, Bill DeWalt, University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Service Professor of Public and International Affairs  and former Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, became the director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  After completing his commitments to the university, DeWalt joined the museum staff on a full-time basis in July.   He talks about his new role with the editor of CARNEGIE magazine, Robert J. Gangewere.



What challenges do natural history museums face today?


Many natural history museums were founded in the 19th century or the early 20th century, when explorations all over the world brought back objects and specimens for study, and museums developed new exhibits to display them.   During the 1930s, however, research became increasingly laboratory-based, and investment in natural history research and exhibits diminished.


Now the research pendulum is swinging back toward more holistic, ecological studies as scientists identify the magnitude of the great extinction of species taking place in the world, which is largely as a result of human activity.  This is a great issue confronting humanity, and museums have a special responsibility to understand and educate the public about stewardship of the natural world. 


Museums of Natural History are like libraries of the Earth, and we need to be much more engaged educationally.  This doesn’t mean becoming politically active, or advocating for or against issues like drilling for oil in the Arctic.  But we can do research on the species that exist (or existed) in particular habitats, understand the environments needed in order to continue their existence, and educate the public about the science and the issues involved.  The basic needs of human beings need to be met just as do the needs of other species.  Achieving the balance is the major challenge.


Technology will allow us to learn even more about popular museum exhibits such as The Atlantic Walrus diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals.


How do you see technology at a museum serving the role of education? 


We would do the public a disservice to use the technologies of the past to deliver the content of today.  The content is most important, however, and creative use of technology can help convey important information.  Museums can, and should, "tailor" the information in an exhibit to the level of the audience.  Our walrus diorama is a good example. It is a work of art.  Visitors can stand in front of it and imagine themselves in that environment, but they should also be able to have their questions about the walrus answered:  How long are the tusks? What does it eat? Where does it live?  A computer kiosk, for example, could provide the visitor with answers to questions he or she poses. As their interest is piqued, they could go deeper and deeper into information about a particular subject.  Ultimately, someone could eventually reach the level of “virtually” visiting the museum’s collections to see the specimens and find the answers to the questions they have. 


The museum's exhibits are its most important communications venue, and they must convey to the public up-to-date science,  as well as reflect the scientific research that takes place at the museum.  We need to use technology creatively to continually update and improve our exhibits so that they reflect current knowledge.


Is scientific research at a museum like this important?  How do you provide resources for research?


It's extremely important, and we are fortunate to have some of the world’s best scientists working here.  They are developing knowledge about important aspects of the evolution of Earth and its inhabitants.  Most people have no idea how much scientific research occurs here, or that the number of objects and specimens on exhibit is much less than one percent of the collections we have.  It’s important to me that the public understands the vital interconnections that exist among our collections, scientific research, and the educational and exhibit functions of the Museum.  


Occasionally one of the scientists says to me in conversation,  "You’re the boss.”  But my reply is that it is the reverse. I, as director, am working for them.  I see my job as facilitating the scientists' work.  Their workplace has to be sound--physically, socially, and fiscally.  Our scientists are successful in seeking out their own research grants to support their work; my job is to find the money for the basic infrastructure.  


What do you see as your particular set of experiences that can help you as director?  Every director has a unique perspective and background: Craig Black was a paleontologist, and Jay Apt was an astronaut.


I have a strong background in studying and understanding cultural diversity, as well as in looking at the human dimensions of environmental use and abuse.  Perhaps most importantly, I am a scientist and I have a passion for trying to communicate the excitement and importance of scientific discovery to the general public. But  it’s not the particular skills  I  have as a cultural anthropologist that count here


I see one of my main skills as understanding how to create collaborative relationships.  This museum has always collaborated with universities and other museums, but I want to deepen that.  Collaboration is easy to say--and hard to achieve.  It's easy to say,  "We'll help one another out."  But to do that we need common goals. Even within the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, we need to work at facilitating collaboration among our four museums.  We should all be working toward the same goal of making Pittsburgh a venue and destination for cultural and scientific learning and enjoyment.


What are the changes you are thinking about for visitors who come to the museums?



In the immediate future, we have a major project to display more adequately and appropriately some of our greatest treasures – the dinosaurs.  We have arguably the best collection of real dinosaur fossils in the world; but our exhibits do not adequately reflect that.  As a first step toward correcting this, by November we will have a new Fossil Preparation Laboratory established.  The public will be able to watch scientific preparators doing the painstaking work of taking fossil bones out of the stone in which they have been encased for 150 million years.  A huge dinosaur called Camarasaurus will eventually emerge and be mounted for exhibit.  The bigger project  will expand Dinosaur Hall in a major way--and there will be major news about that soon. 


We will also be working toward exhibits that better reflect what I have been loosely calling “biodiversity in your backyard.”  These will show people how this region, their backyard, has changed through geological time.  Knowing this can help people comprehend much of what has happened to our world and why.  As part of this effort, we will focus on monitoring the current state of the ecosystem of our backyard, so that visitors understand how their own actions affect the health of the planet. 


Ultimately, you will see the exhibit galleries reorganized and updated to better convey  key messages and themes that visitors should take away about how this museum reflects the world.  All visitors should leave with a deeper understanding of four fundamental themes of natural history: evolution, ecology, biological diversity, and cultural diversity. 


The  century-old building  in which we are housed is wonderful--but it presents real challenges in maintenance and in the construction of new facilities to better serve  contemporary visitors.  A lot of creativity, hard work, and funds are required to maintain the standards we have set for ourselves.  


What 's the best thing about working here?


Knowing that you are part of an incredible legacy, and having the ability to build on that--to use that legacy to make it even stronger.  Few people in the region realize that we are an  renowned research institution and a museum that houses international treasures. We can become even better.  I feel privileged to be a part of this -- but most people here at Carnegie Museum of Natural History have that same feeling.  It’s a pleasure to work with people who have such a dedication to their work and to this museum.



Speaking Science

Matt Phillips and Rachael Crossland 


There are more than 20 million objects in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collections and each one has a story. Who tells these stories?


Within the museum’s Division of Education, writer/editor Matt Phillips and assistant writer/editor Rachael Crossland supply the words that bring exhibits to life for the public. As a publications team their mission is to interpret natural history in a way that is both educational and entertaining – from describing the life of an ancient reptile to explaining the natural phenomena of fluorescence and phosphorescence.


Matt and Rachael always collaborate closely with the scientists, making complex topics like evolution, extinction, and biodiversity understandable for the museum’s diverse audience.


When new discoveries are made, it is Matt and Rachael who present the latest findings to museumgoers.  A typical challenge was to explain Dr. Chris Beard’s discovery of the ancient primate Eosimias, which meant focussing on and making perfectly clear the meaning of a remarkable fossil no larger than a grain of rice.


Recently Matt and Rachael scripted a Dinosaur Hall light show that spotlighted the hotly contested debate about Tyrannosaurus rex’s dietary preferences. They turned to popular culture, creating The rex-Files, a spoof of a familiar television series. Likewise they introduced into the museum experience for young people Paul and Polly Pennsylvania, two rambunctious characters that introduce young visitors to museum specimens native to the state


In addition to collaborating with scientific staff, the publications team works closely with the staff in the departments of education, exhibits, and marketing, and works in a variety of media. They provide the dialogue for Chips the Dinosaur Hall Robot, the scripts for the Dinosaur Hall light shows, the storylines for multimedia games, and the content for the natural history museum's Web site. They produce educational materials ranging from classroom activity books to annual class catalogs to Discovery Room theme boxes.


Matt and Rachael’s work can be seen in a variety of publications and all over the museum. So next time you’re taking a tour with Chips the Robot, remember who put the words in his mouth!



The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie's Dinosaur


Less than a hundred years ago, Diplodocus carnegii --named after museum founder Andrew Carnegie--was the most famous dinosaur on the planet.  The most complete dinosaur skeleton unearthed to date, Diplodocus was copied and sent to major museums around the work, where it was seen by millions of people.


Bone Wars tells story of how this fossil dinosaur, unearthed in Wyoming in 1899 and first displayed in Pittsburgh, gave rise to the public's fascination with prehistoric beasts.  A remarkable story of hope, hubris and turn of the century science, Bone Wars reveals the research, politics, and promotional schemes of that era, including the roles played by imperious museum director William Holland, and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  Like today's world, it was a time of rapidly changing technology, a popular press that that loved to sensationalize, and large amounts of money being channeled into the hands of a few decision makers.


Author Tom Rea grew up in Pittsburgh admiring the dinosaurs at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and now lives in Casper, Wyoming with his family.  A freelance writer, for a dozen years he covered politics, education and science for the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming's largest newspaper.  


A feature story he did for the newspaper led to the publication of this book.

His research involved the supportive help of today's museum staff-- experts such as collection manager Betty Hill (who led him to old letters kept in the Big Bone Room), museum librarian Bernadette Callery, and scientists such as Chris Beard and Mary Dawson in Vertebrate Paleontology--the modern-day counerparts of bone-hunters who worked at the museum a century ago.



Enjoy the Holiday Season at Carnegie Museum of Natural History   wc 84


Fall Colors Across North America

Brilliant color photography  by Anthony Cook.

Natural History Gallery. Through January 12, 2002


Millenium Show, and Force Five

Shown daily in the Natural History Theater



Saturday, November 3

Fall Colors Across North America

Photograher Anthony Cook

Lecture Hall, 1 pm


Wednesday,  November 14

Trade and Caravans along the Silk Road

Anthropologist Sandra Olsen

CMA Theater 7 pm


Saturday, November November 17

Bone Wars; Excavations and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie's Dinosaurs

Author Tom Rea

Carnegie Lecture Hall, 1 pm


In the Store:

Cook Books

Fans of nature photographer Anthony Cook will find several items celebrating his work in the Museum of Natural History Store, including his most recent photo-essay book, Fall Colors Across America; poster reproductions of two of his photographs; and his previous photo-essay book, Cook Forest: An Island in Time.






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Copyright (c) 2001 CARNEGIE magazine 
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