A Trip Back In Time, or A Visit to the New Paleo Hall

Before we dive into my recent trip to the new Hall of Paleontology (known to Houstonians as the Paleo Hall) at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I need to remind you that I am a major science nerd.  If you’d rather not read my review of the new hall, feel free to ignore this post and visit again tomorrow!

Let me start by saying that I loved the exhibit overall.  The layout, which follows geologic time, is fantastic.  I liked starting with stromatolites and moving through an abundance of trilobites before reaching the prehistoric reptiles (including dinosaurs) and then passing through into the age of mammals and ending with hominids and humans.  Very logical, to my mind, and well done.  I also enjoyed some of the more unusual (and surprising) fossils on exhibit, including Queztalcoatlus, which is a gigantic pterosaur, and an early marsupial mammal (Didelphodon) that I’d never heard of before.  Some things I needed to see myself in order to get a good perspective of scale, and a few things raised goosebumps on my arms because they were so very cool.  I also appreciated the two feathered dinosaur fossils on display, and went back for a second gaze after my first rotation through the exhibit.

After all of that praise, there are three things that I didn’t like.  Maybe that’s not the best phrasing, since I didn’t really dislike anything.  Perhaps we’ll just say that I would have done it differently.  First, not everything was labeled, which drove me crazy.  What is it?  Why is it here?  Second, to go along with the lack of labels, nothing was labeled as “cast” or “fossil” so I had no idea what was real and what was a cast of the real thing.  I don’t mind looking at casts – they are usually very well done and give the same information – but I want to know if I’m looking at a cast.

The third issue is less technical and more of a broad concern.  The transitional forms (formerly known as missing links, which is an inaccurate term) were not well-represented or effectively highlighted.  The exhibit didn’t shy away from discussing evolution (another thing I liked) but while Archeaopteryx was discussed and feathered dinos were on display, there wasn’t even a cast of the famous ancestral bird.  And there was a cast of Tiktaalik (one of my goosebump-raising, scale-providing moments) but it was poorly labeled, not explained, and tucked around a weird corner where many people will probably miss it.  While the lack didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the exhibit, I did notice both while touring.

I also had a great moment when I was enjoying the abundance of trilobites.  I flashed back to a childhood moment, looking at some small fossil at the Field Museum in Chicago.  This was the moment when I realized that paleontologists studied rocks, and I decided to move from dinosaurs into something still alive.  I realized that the childhood Leigh would have turned her nose up at the wall of trilobites in favor of the dinosaurs around the corner, but the grown-up Leigh found them equally fascinating.  (I may have even spent more time looking at the trilobites than at the dino skeletons when all was said and done.)  It’s very cool to me that my interests have come full circle, bringing back to life that curiosity that dinosaurs and their kin sparked so long ago.

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