DeWalt, the new Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Bill DeWalt, University
of Pittsburgh Distinguished Service Professor of Public and International Affairsand 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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. Butit’s not the particular skillsIhave 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 projectwill 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
Ultimately, you will see
the exhibit galleries reorganized and updated to better conveykey 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.
Thecentury-old buildingin which we are housed is wonderful--but it presents real challenges
in maintenance and in the construction of new facilities to better
servecontemporary visitors.A lot of creativity, hard work, and funds
are required to maintain the standards we have set for ourselves.
'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 anrenowned 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
feature story he did for the newspaper led to the publication of this book.
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 CarnegieMuseum of
Natural Historywc 84
Fall Colors Across North
Brilliant color photographyby 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
Photograher Anthony Cook
Trade and Caravans along the Silk
Bone Wars; Excavations and Celebrity of Andrew
Author Tom Rea
Carnegie Lecture Hall,
In the Store:
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.