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Episode Info: ges were like. That dovetailed a bit with the reorganization of the paleontologists at the museum at the time into what’s now known as the Department of Paleobiology. They were more interested in the life and evolution of these animals. I think everyone knew at the time that that was going to be the future, this integrative approach, telling a story about a particular point in time or bringing together a particular narrative was going to be what exhibitions were going to be in the future. That was what drove the renovations throughout the whole east wing for the rest of the century. They continued on to the spaces where the dinosaurs were and around them and eventually finished in 1991 with the Ancient Seas Gallery. It wasn’t always easy. There were some points of tension between this old guard of curators and the new professionalism and greater voices of authority in the project that the exhibitions department was having. But, ultimately, people were seeing these exhibits as something that existed more for the public, rather than being a showroom for the collections. It’s also the version of the exhibit that Miller remembers visiting as a youngster growing up in the DC area. Ben Miller: I’m not sure when I started going, probably around 1990, and there were still a few changes after that.I was maybe two or three years old, so I don’t really know how deeply I was thinking about it. This was probably the first dinosaur exhibit I went to, so it was just the place to see dinosaurs, I didn’t really have a point of comparison, and got to know all of those specimens very well, going to see them year after year after year. What I think was always very clear is that space was at the mercy of its history, and that this had been a series of partial renovations over the course of decades and decades. There were some tight corridors. There were a lot of false walls boxing people in, leading to dead ends and cul-de-sacs. That was just the result of continuing to add new things and new partial renovations to a space that wasn’t really built for that. They added the cast of T. rex around 2000. But, that version of the exhibit, it stuck around for quite some time. The gallery was restricted in part by the story it was telling, guiding visitors through time in a maze-like fashion, making it difficult from a visitor flow perspective to go backwards, particularly with the visitor numbers as high as they were. This is also the version of the gallery that Miller studied when, later, he worked as an intern at the Smithsonian. Ben Miller: I was working with the Paleobiology Department and, later, with the Education Departments, and one of the things I was doing was visitor research, interviews with visitors there about: how they understood the history of life on earth, how they conceived of the great expanses of time, what they thought about the presentation of evolution in the gallery, and that sort of thing. I hope that that little contribution I made was helpful in eventually conceiving the hall as they did. This series of renovations from the 70s and 80s lasted all the way to 2014 — when the hall was closed for the renovations that ultimately became Deep Time. What makes Deep Time so exciting was that it was by far the most complete renovation since the hall first opened in 1911. And that meant the possibility to completely rethink fundamental assumptions about the way the story of life on earth was presented. That meant stripping the entire gallery of the “earth-tone” carpet, and clearing away all the false walls and cul-due sacks that had made the renovations in the 1980s so claustrophobic. Ben Miller: They had this opportunity to take everything out and start over from the beginning, which I’m very jealous of as a museum professional. Usually, you’re just building on decades and decades of what already exists and trying to fit your new story in. They wanted to bring back that historic architecture. I imagine that also has something to do with the visitorship that the Smithsonian gets. That’s one of the most highly visited museums in the world. They get 8 million people every year. When they plan exhibitions, they really have to think about getting those crowds through the space. I imagine that to that end is part of why it’s such an open exhibit, that you can explore at your own pace and go in different ways instead of going along a predetermined route. Deep Time presents the story of life on earth and that includes drastic changes in climate. The gallery does a good job of presenting anthropogenic climate change against the backdrop of previous, much slower changes. The people who made the exhibit have made it hard to visit the museum without contemplating the climate crisis and our role in creating it. Project manager for Deep Time, Siobhan Starrs, says that while people come for the dinosaurs, “they’re get get a lot more than dinosaurs.” Ben Miller: They were able to really start from square one, what do we want people to think about when they think about the history of life on earth? What they landed on was they really wanted to bring the human story into that, to show that we, as people today, were part of the evolution of life. We’re not separate from it, and everything we see in the world today is something that has a story and has roots in the long history in deep time, as the exhibit is called. I think orienting the exhibition around the extinctions seems like a really good move, as you said, because it connects to the modern story about humans causing extinction today, and, also, because, these extinctions are checkpoints in the history of life where everything changed One of the exhibits that helps visitors think on a deep time scale is an animated interactive media piece called “Your Body Through Time,” which illustrates early instances of characteristics found in our bodies like bilateral symmetry and lungs, and how they evolved in our ancestors. And the presentation of the fossils themselves is dynamic—very much a departure from the taxonomical presentation when the room was simply “the hall of extinct monsters.” Ben Miller: I know something that was important to the curators was to show the skeletons as animals. They went through the process of disarticulating all of their mounted skeletons, conserving them, and putting them back together in poses that show different kinds of behavior, not just eating and killing each other, as you see in a lot of newer exhibits. But, they’re doing things like sleeping and guarding eggs. There’s even a mammoth in there, that’s using its tusks to clear snow off the grass. All sorts of really interesting behaviors that bring new life to these creatures and really show them as living, thinking beings that once existed. The re-imagined exhibit is also arranged in reverse chronological order: visitors start among mammoths and ground sloths of more recent history and move backward in time through increasingly alien-looking versions of North America, until ultimately encountering the earliest life. This reorientation also means visitors enter the gallery in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction event already in progress — the same way we enter any place on earth. Ben Miller: I think it’s a very novel approach to start in the present day and move back. I think most exhibitions, they have started with the origins of life and moved forward. It will be really interesting to see how folks react to going back in time. Certainly from an aesthetic perspective, I think it’s very clever, because you can put your big, impressive ground sloths and mastodons at the front and really show people something really cool. Ben Miller: Whereas if you start with the origins of life, you’re starting in a room full of really old stromatolites and rocks and hell scenes of what the earth looked like then. You’re kind of hiding what the big show is, which is going to be your skeletons of dinosaurs and so forth. It will be interesting to see how people respond to that. .........
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