Art, Science Converge In Museum Displays Creating realistic and accurate museum exhibitions requires close collaboration between artists and scientists. Ira Flatow talks with exhibit designers about what is involved in recreating animals and environments that disappeared long ago.
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Art, Science Converge In Museum Displays

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Art, Science Converge In Museum Displays

Art, Science Converge In Museum Displays

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Next up, when you walk into a natural history museum this weekend, and I know that some of you will be doing that, and you go past that exhibit of extinct animals and the dinosaurs, the early humans, if you're like me, and I do this all the time, you're going to be asking yourself: how do they know where to put these things in the exhibits? How do they know what colors are true? How do they know how to draw the right shapes? How do they know what, you know, what plants are out there? We only have, you know, fossilized bones in some of these exhibits, if you're talking about the dinosaurs and things to work from.

On the other hand, if you're a museum artist and you want to create a vivid stirring presentation, scientifically accurate, the rendings of early humans, extinct animals, who are you going to call to help you so you know what the texture of dinosaur skin feels like? Or when did the whites of hominids(ph) eyes actually get white? Or where were the plants, what were the plants like in the Artic 50 million years ago?

A lot has changed over the years in museum science and artistry and it continues to evolve as museums try to stay current. So how they do it? That's what we're going to be talking about in our next segment, 1-800-989-8255. Let me introduce my guest. Stephen Quinn is senior projects manager and artist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He is right here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Steve.

Mr. STEPHEN QUINN (Senior Projects Manager; Artist, American Museum of Natural History): Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. John Gurche is a freelance paleo-artist who works on paintings and sculptures of prehistoric humans. You may know him from his work on "Jurassic Park," the 1989 dinosaur staff. Yeah, he painted that one. He is currently an artist in residence at the Paleontological Research Institute's Museum of Earth in Ithaca, New York. He also worked on an exhibit for the Smithsonian to come out next year. And he joins us from Cornell University. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, John.

Mr. JOHN GURCHE: (Paleoartist) Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Mr. GURCHE: Good to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Rick Potts is the director of the Human Origins Program at the National Museum and a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Welcome back, Rick.

Dr. RICK POTTS (Director, Human Origins Program): Hi, Ira. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Must be pretty busy times for you guys out there. Let me begin…

Dr. POTTS: Oh, my God…

FLATOW: Who said that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What's so busy for you?

Dr. POTTS: Well, for me, I'm working on a segment of it that I've been working on for three years and this - the little piece that I'm working on just now has to be finished in two weeks. So I'm making five figures to be molded and cast in bronze, and it's night and day - it's almost working around the clock at this point, but I'll be done in time.

FLATOW: And these are figures of what?

Mr. GURCHE: These are figures of human ancestors, early hominids.

FLATOW: And how do you know - let's get right into it. How do you know what they should look like?

Unidentified Man #1: Well, how much time do we have?

FLATOW: We only have about three minutes to the break, but you must consult scientists, right?

Mr. GURCHE: Yeah, sure, I do, and actually, a skeleton can tell you quite a lot, if you know what look for, in terms of what - telling about what the soft tissue was for that ancestor. So you can see, for example, muscle attachments up and down the skeleton, and you can get a good idea of where the muscles attach. You can get range of motion estimates from looking at the joints. You can also get some idea of the development of muscles, and you put all that together over a few months, it usually takes, and you come up with a good guess as to what the human ancestor looked like.

FLATOW: Steve Quinn - is museum artistry like any other kind of artistry?

Mr. STEPHEN QUINN (American Museum of Natural History): Well, it's this unique intersection of art and science. You might refer to it as art in the service of science. We, as artists, work very closely with the curators and kind of enjoy that discipline. I think as a museum artist, you have to really want to get it right and duplicate nature, whether it be as a sculpted figure or re-creating an ecosystem or habitat.

FLATOW: John Gurche, what do you think?

Mr. GURCHE: Yeah, I would agree with that. You have to really do your homework, or else it's not really worth doing.

FLATOW: Rick, you're in agreement with that?

Mr. POTTS: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. What I really enjoy about working with artists is that they're working with the scientists to offer a window into the daily lives or a critical moment in the lives of early ancestors, and the scientists, I get the chance to think and intuit like an artist, and so it's a real melding of different perspectives, are absolutely - the melding is absolutely critical to trying to reach the public.

FLATOW: Steve, how has it evolved over the years. I've been going to your museum for 50 years or so.

Mr. QUINN: Well, the American Museum has a long tradition of arts in service of science. Our exhibits department was founded in 1885, and really it was an effort on the part of our curatorial staff to re-create nature within the walls of the museum, whether it be prehistoric life or contemporary creatures and habitat and ethnographic dioramas as well.

So it's a unique school of art, and the museum has maintained our staff, and the traditions have been passed down from one artist to another through the years, and it's a very unique application.

FLATOW: All right, we'll talk more about it as we take a break. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Maybe there's something you'd like to ask all our artists about how they do their magic in the museum. 1-800 - as I say - 989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back with Steve Quinn, John Gurche and Ron Potts, and you can also send us a tweet @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about artistry and science with folks who make science come alive through their artistry at museums and exhibits around - dioramas around the country. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Steve Quinn is here from the American Museum of Natural History. John Gurche is a freelance paleo-artist, working on an exhibit for the Smithsonian. And from the Smithsonian is Rick Potts.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And Steve, you were telling us how museum art has evolved. We're all familiar with those old dioramas. They're still up there. Those are the first things, right? Just stuffed animals, a lot of them.

Mr. QUINN: Well, museum taxidermists would probably take offense if you're referring to them as stuffed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Excuse me.

Mr. QUINN: You stuff your Thanksgiving turkey, not an African elephant.

FLATOW: I stepped into that.

Mr. QUINN: But yeah, the dioramas are really an effort to re-create nature inside the artifice of the museum, and when you think of the period during which they were created, they predate television, they predate modern motion pictures, and certain computer technology.

So you might think of them as a very early form of virtual reality, and as such, at the time they were created, they were very powerful tools for environmental awareness and science education, and still today we find that people really respond to this illusion of nature in much the same way that they would respond to encountering wildlife in the natural world.

FLATOW: Rick Potts, a lot of people now come to the museum to see something that really wasn't shown way back then, and that is human-origin exhibits. They're very - you have them, I know, Steve, in the Museum of Natural History. But Rick, you have to trust the artist to get the features just right, don't you?

Mr. POTTS: Well, absolutely, and the artist needs to trust the scientist to provide the access to the discoveries of fossil bones and also the other types of information. What we're really trying to do is to strive to understand early human ancestors in the state-of-the-art exhibits in terms of the challenges they faced in their environments of old.

So we have to, as scientists, call upon evidence from fossil pollen, from what we know about ancient climates, even what we know about how early humans grew up, what pace they grew up. Did they grow up more on an ape-like pace of growth or more like a human-like pace of growth? And that affects, really, what an artist strives to do with how ape-like, how human-like, or indeed how unique the artist tries to render the early humans.

FLATOW: John Gurche, you make these exhibits of early humans.

Mr. GURCHE: I do.

FLATOW: How much do you have to rely, after a certain amount of point where the science has run out, on your own intuition?

Mr. GURCHE: Well, you try to keep that to a minimum. I mean, it's definitely necessary, and there's - I shouldn't say you keep it to a minimum. The art definitely has to come in there to - it has to make the thing aesthetically strong.

I look at it as looking for the area of overlap between something scientifically plausible, and you take that as far as you can take it, and something that's artistically, aesthetically powerful.

So basically, if you do some research, and I've spent about - a little more than 20 years dissecting great apes and human faces, especially, and if you look for the commonalities by which the face is constructed in that group, and there are quite a few, they can really guide you, and they can let you take it pretty far in getting the appearance right of an early hominid, and then once you are done with that, you throw up your hands and you have some artistic license.

But you know, you usually try to be conservative. We don't know, but it could be that australopithecines had big flaming orange manes that didn't get preserved in the fossil evidence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GURCHE: Well, I don't tend to put that sort of feature on my hominids because it's just, it's kind of distracting from the things we do know.

FLATOW: Yeah, but you have to think - I mean, years ago, we were wondering what kind of skin dinosaurs had, and then we found some skin on dinosaurs, right?

Mr. GURCHE: Yup, yup, they actually had some - not for as many species, but there's some fossil dinosaur skin going a ways back.

FLATOW: Steve? You found - remember seeing that…

Mr. QUINN: Oh, actually, there's a number of specimens at the American Museum that have quite detailed impressions of dinosaur skin. But I think John's comments hold true with other groups of prehistoric life as well. You draw analogies to present-day animals that live in similar ecosystems, may have behaved similarly and work hand in hand with the curator to come up with, oh, similar color patterns and fur textures or feather patterns that work with the group that you're rendering and re-creating.

FLATOW: And you even work on what kind of lighting there was. I know I remember seeing an article about one of our old friends, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium, helping you out, right?

Mr. QUINN: Yes. We just re-created a scene 50 million years ago on what today is Ellesmere Island, as it would appear during the height of the growing season, with the midnight sun, at midnight, and Neil was able to chart the position of the sun in the sky, just 12 degrees over the horizon, and that accounted for the very kind of dramatic side-raking, warm light in the scene.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Vinnie in Oakland. Hi, Vinnie.

VINNIE (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

VINNIE: Enjoy your program. My question is this. Over the years, I have noticed the depiction of the Neanderthal has changed from a rather beastly depiction and become more and more human over time, to the point where the latest depiction I saw was very human, indeed, and almost had a personality that you could see. And I wanted to find out how much of that depiction that has changed reflects the change in how we think of Neanderthal, what their actual life was like and so on.

FLATOW: Who wants to jump in? John?

Mr. GURCHE: Sure. Well, the old caveman image of Neanderthals dates to a time in the early - I think it's 1911 to 1913, an old study that was the most comprehensive made at that time of Neanderthal bones, and it was a flawed study because it failed to take into account some pathologies, and it concluded that Neanderthals have this sort of brutish appearance, with bent knees and bent hips, and that was shown to be the result of the pathology.

In truth, Neanderthals, as far as the evidence can tell us, stood as upright as we do, and so sometimes old images die hard, and you still see a lot of the caveman image persisting even to today. But if you try to stick with the bones and stick with the evidence, you come up with something that really looks pretty human.

You hear the comment sometimes that he might - the Neanderthal might pass unnoticed with a shave and a haircut and a suit in a New York subway. I wouldn't go quite that far myself, or I might say only in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I have to defend my hometown here. I've been in those Washington metros too, so…

Mr. GURCHE: If you meet any of those guys, send them my way, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POTTS: Well, if I may also comment on that, Ira, it's - what the art does is it's an archive of changing scientific understanding, and so when we had relatively few fossils in the human fossil record, it was very easy to put Neanderthals as either a side branch or right on the line, right on the trunk leading from an ape-like common ancestor to us today. And now we have many, many more fossils, and it's fairly clear that the Neanderthals were a separate species.

And so they are a side branch, but John's absolutely right. With the accumulation of fossils, we have basically a bone from - every bone in the body of a Neanderthal is known, and we would certainly render a much more human-like creature than what John was referring to with the nasty, short and brutish reconstructions from the early part of the 20th century.

But in addition, we also have art reflecting changing social values, and that includes to what extent people in the present value in understanding of ancestors.

FLATOW: I know that you're updating your exhibitions at the Smithsonian for next year. Is it because the public wants to see newer things?

Mr. POTTS: Well, we feel there's, in such a vibrant area of science and research, including that taking place at the Smithsonian, such a vibrant area as human origins, that we have an obligation to get the latest findings out there. It's, you know, one of those fields that's covered on the front pages of news magazines and newspapers, you know, with latest discoveries, and so we feel it's a very important thing to be able to get the best possible exhibit out there for the public.

FLATOW: Steve, I see you shaking your head. Are these popular exhibits?

Mr. QUINN: Oh, very much so, yes. Last year, we've opened our Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, and it's a tremendously popular hall at the American Museum of Natural History.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Interesting question from Sara in Salt Lake. Hi, Sara.

SARA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

SARA: Well, so I've - we recently, like a year ago, visited the Museum of the Rockies up in Bozeman, and there's a really fantastic animatronic exhibit there, with triceratops. My little five-year-old was absolutely fascinated. She wouldn't leave the - there's a little - a nest of triceratops and a nestling is like looking like it's asleep there and it's breathing. And she was convinced that if she waited long enough, it would wake up. And she still talks about it, like, a year later.

And I'm just wondering how they tie the animatronics and the robotics together with the science with, like, how these animals might have actually moved?

FLATOW: Good question. And anybody who want to tackle that? Steve, you want to?

Mr. QUINN: Well, it's interesting, because the animatronic exhibits that are out there - the American Museum has really relied largely on its collections in its fossil halls. So we've really kind of steered clear of animatronic exhibits that really go to great lengths to dramatize prehistoric life and maybe depict sound and behavior and color patterns. So I must say that our curators have shied away from them.

FLATOW: You think that's a little too much license there.

Mr. QUINN: At least that's my perception of how scientifically our institution reacts to them.

FLATOW: All right. And if anybody else wants to - Sara, thanks for calling.

SARA: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. John, when you work on creating an early human figurine there, or figure there, do you start with any one part of the body, you know, do you act like a doctor? Do you have to dissect, you know, real kinds of humanoids or - to find out what goes on inside there, make it as realistic as you can?

Mr. GURCHE: Well, I tried to do a lot of dissection of whatever it is, is its most recent relatives…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GURCHE: …for example, apes and humans in the case of human ancestors. And I usually start with the face and head because that is - I do that separate from a body. Let's say, if I'm doing a whole body, I usually do the head, hands and feet separately because if I'd make a misstep and squash the foot, it'll take me three weeks to replace it. So, I usually do it off of the body and cast it in plastic and then go forward. But the first part is usually the head, and that kind of captures in the end the character of the thing. Often, there are surprises along the way. I don't always know what they're going to look like. In fact, I almost never do, and I just let the evidence guide me. And when I get to the end, it's often a surprise.

FLATOW: Would your reconstruction of the head be much like the "CSI" people do with, you know, the bones that they find, by doing these reconstructions we see?

Mr. GURCHE: I think if different people are operating from different bodies of evidence, they might come up with a different interpretation of it. And right now, there's not a lot that's out there. I mean, I have notebooks full of data on this, but I haven't published much of it at all. And there's not really very - anything very useful out there in the literature. So I think right now, it's best looked at as a field that's really kind of its infancy still.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GURCHE: And I look forward to a time when there's a lot more information published and a lot more sort of common knowledge about this stuff.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking about museums.

Did you want to jump in there?

Dr. POTTS: Yeah. With regard to John's comments, one of the things about "CSI" is that the interpretation, in terms of sex and race and age of an individual, that we see on the television shows is all based within the realm of what's known of people today.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POTTS: And so, it's based on that body of data. And what John's trying to do and what we're all trying to do and what Stephen's trying to do is to imagine, in part, based on the best possible data what extinct forms of organisms, including extinct human ancestors and cousins were like. And that requires a combination of using principles of science, the latest discoveries -and of course, the body of evidence changes with new discoveries that scientists make - as well as guesswork with regard to matters of the color of the eyes or shape of the ears, the soft tissues, which don't really have much of an anchor in the fossil evidence…


Dr. POTTS: …that we find.

FLATOW: Steve, with the, you know, 3-D graphics on television and computer-generated stuff we have, do you think dioramas are going to be able to survive in this new world? Will they be with us?

Mr. QUINN: I definitely do, Ira, because I think they provide the sorts of models that we're talking about, reconstructions that we're talking about. And the recreation of an entire prehistoric scene is very different from interacting on a computer or a television screen or see in film. It really duplicates that one-on-one personal encounter with a creature or an entire habitat and duplicates that epiphany…


Mr. QUINN: …that sense of wonder and awe.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, that's true because if you go to look at your exhibits in the Smithsonian, you look at the reality and say, wow, this is so real-looking.

Mr. QUINN: To give you an example, we have - we've just opened an exhibition called Extreme Mammals. And as you enter the hall, right behind the entrance door is a reconstruction of a great, big Indricotherium, the largest four-legged animal, land-dwelling animal to have lived. And it's 16-foot at the shoulder. And you actually walk between its legs as you enter the exhibit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINN: Some people just say, wow…

FLATOW: Well, you know…

Mr. QUINN: …nothing can duplicate that experience.

FLATOW: Well, that's point. My point is, if it were a computer graphic, you could say, oh, it's just a graphic. You can do anything with a computer, right?

Mr. QUINN: Yeah.

FLATOW: But here, now that you're looking at it, you realize the artistry and the work…

Mr. QUINN: The scale.


Mr. QUINN: The scale, the mass, sure.

FLATOW: Rick, you agree?

Dr. POTTS: Yeah. Yeah, I agree with that. The dioramas will stay around. I think that one of the real challenges we have, though, is to not only put forth to the public reconstructions that reflect the real size and shape - the massiveness, the encounter, in a sense, of the public with that organism that's being reconstructed - but also we now have terrific technologies for understanding how those ancient organisms moved around. So, we have the ability to animate and to basically put forth scientific hypothesis working, with the artists, to create animations in addition to the more static 2-D and 3-D dioramas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, we're all in agreement these will be around for quite a while. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Steve Quinn, John Gurche and Rick Potts. Take your questions, 1-800-989-8255. Maybe there's a technique about these dioramas that you've seen. You always said, how do they do that, because I'm sure there are. I have lots of questions about that. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. This hour, we're talking about - we're actually taking an audio tour. That's what they call them in museums, right? Sort of an audio tour - earphones optional -behind the scenes of natural history museums to talk about what's going on there. And we have some artists and scientists who work together to create the most interesting and up-to-date and accurate stuff. How do they do that?

Well, here to answer those questions with me is Steve Quinn, senior projects manager and artist at the American Museum of Natural History. John Gurche, freelance paleo-artist, currently the artist in residence at the Museum of Earth, at work on an exhibit for the Smithsonian. And Rick Potts is a paleoanthropologist and director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Museum and the institution's Museum of Natural History. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Steve, you've been doing a few years?

Dr. POTTS: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINN: Well, I started at the museum in 1974 through a New York State Council on the Art's program. I was bringing young artists in to apprentice with senior artists who were retiring at that time and taking with them these unique museum skills. So, way back in that time, 1974, at that time my starting salary was $7,000 a year.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible)

Mr. QUINN: Of course now, I make twice that much. But at that time it was a…

FLATOW: Yeah. Same starting salary I had at NPR.

Mr. QUINN: Yes.

Dr. POTTS: That's a great salary for an artist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And then, so you sort of liked it, I guess.

Mr. QUINN: You know, it's the - the rest is history. I love the place. It's a wonderful place to work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. John Gurche, how did you get involved?

Mr. GURCHE: Well, I've really enjoyed this kind of thing ever since I was kid. I was one of those little kids that I hear come into the museum everyday and say, where are the dinosaurs? And I think, you know, when you're a kid and you love some field of science like that, you do a lot of art. You draw pictures or you sculpt dinosaurs. And I guess the short answer is I've never stopped.

FLATOW: Yeah. You too, Rick?

Dr. POTTS: Well, yeah. It goes back to when I was kid. I always wanted to go out and play baseball with my brother. And he would sit me down, say, yeah. But let me teach you about - something about like the origin of the solar system or something about science. And he's five years older than I am. And I would always appreciate the origin of things. And when I was in high school and found out that you could actually study new information, discoveries about the origin or own species, I was hooked.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's see, Deborah(ph) in Oakland. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DEBORAH (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Are you hooked?

DEBORAH: Hello? Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yes. Are you hooked on this?

DEBORAH: Okay. I'm hooked. Yes. I'm finding this fascinating. And I'm just - I'm curious - it sounds like both of you have been doing this for a long time -but if somebody was interested in becoming a paleo-artist nowadays, what would you recommend, as far as academically and job pursuits, to get one involved?

FLATOW: I'll go around the table. Let me start with Rick Potts.

Dr. POTTS: Well, I'm less in the domain of artists. I go out and find old things in East Africa and in China, working with teams of scientists there and putting them together. But I would recommend, you know, a strong background in sciences because every artist needs to be able to treat their art as if they're treating a hypothesis about rendering the past.

FLATOW: Steve?

DEBORAH: Mm-hmm.

Mr. QUINN: Yes. I think, really, it's helpful to have a real passion about natural history and science. And also, in my case, it's an art background. I graduated from art school. And I think, if you're really interested in landing that job in a natural history museum, your portfolio, what you do, what you can do in terms of sculpture, painting, illustration, scientific illustration, is going to be your best foot forward.

FLATOW: John, you're a freelancer. Can you survive as a freelancer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GURCHE: Ask my wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GURCHE: Let's see. I think what I would say is, you certainly need to keep your skills up as an artist. But I think studying the sciences, taking that as far as you can in university - at university level is probably really important. It's a lot easier to study the sciences in school and keep the art alive on the side than it is to do the other way around. In other words, go to art school and try to pick up paleoanthropology on the side. That would be kind of a ridiculous effort, I think.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Okay. Deborah, we got you on your career path there?

DEBORAH: Yes. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones again. Joe(ph) in Louisville. Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Hey. Thank you all. A moment of levity. I am from the state - great state of Kentucky. And not to be outdone by the great state of Kansas, we have our own creationist museum here in Northern Kentucky. And if you guys need any help, they can show you all they need - all you need to know about creationism and evolution.

My question - and I'm being very facetious here - my question is, these guys have got saddles on their dinosaurs with cavemen riding their dinosaurs. And I'm just curious if any of your people there, your panel, have ever worked at that creationist museum and what they think about that? I mean, I know any kind of scientist, what they think about the creationism, but what they think about that particular museum.

FLATOW: Okay, Joe. Thanks. Anybody want to weigh in?

Mr. GURCHE: Didn't you find a fossil saddle last year?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. POTTS: No, we haven't found a fossil saddle at any early human sites, nor have we found dinosaurs and early humans associated at any place in the world together.

But, you know, one has to respect the efforts of trying to take what evidence there is out there and to present it within the context of largely religious standpoint. But it's not the same as science. And those of us who are working at science museums and value the enormous body of evolution, evolutionary evidence, have to put forth a different standpoint.

Mr. QUINN: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think exhibits that are based on science are very different from exhibits that are based on faith or a belief with very different criteria in their design and…

FLATOW: Would you take an exhibit that you have and say, this is what we don't show? We don't show saddles on dinosaurs, and here's the reason why. And we, you know, be proactive about saying why we don't show some things instead of not - just not having them as part of the exhibit.

Mr. QUINN: Well, we - think the American Museum is really a science museum, so we really feel the responsibility to tell science and (unintelligible).

FLATOW: But you understand the point that people are going to be - are exposed to this?

Mr. QUINN: Yes.

FLATOW: You know, Rick, would you do something like that?

Dr. POTTS: Yeah, I think we would. We wouldn't necessarily do it in the context of, you know, our lead story in an exhibit. Exhibit space in a museum is precious, a precious commodity, and we need to serve people who are coming in for the science specifically.

But I think it's very important for us to develop, you know, handouts and other materials, things now on the Web that would go with exhibits that are trying to make a bridge between people who are coming in with a whole variety of different belief systems. And that includes people coming in with very diverse religious standpoints that may not always include creationism in a way that the creationist museum in Kentucky portrays it.

FLATOW: Steve, which would you prefer to work on - something that's a contemporary scene from nature, or something prehistoric?

Mr. QUINN: Well, I particularly enjoy contemporary work. The museum has a tradition in actually sending teams of artists to the actual site and location to be recreated. That's something that few visitors realize when they see our diorama halls like the big African hall, that each one of those scenes depicts a real place that was visited by this team of curators and artists. And you can go back and visit those sites today and see - in many cases, the dioramas were instrumental in the creation of preserves and sanctuaries. And some of them have eroded in passing time in terms of their quality of the habitat. So they're like little time capsules.

But I really enjoyed documenting a natural setting and documenting the ecosystem, referencing with field paintings and sketches and collected specimens and then recreating that same place back in New York.

FLATOW: Amanda in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

AMANDA (Caller): Hey.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

AMANDA: I'm actually a (unintelligible) anthropology student at NYU. And I spent a lot of time studying with Professor Randall White, who does a lot of work with feminine symbols and feminine representation in the Paleolithic. And we talked a lot about kind of what you guys are doing, but the cultural edge of how gender is perceived through these representations. And I was hoping you guys might be able to bring that up, sort of the gender bias that's still around in the field.

Because I just recently went to the Museum of Natural History for the first time since I was a child, and it seems like a lot of the exhibits are exactly the same as they always have been. And, you know, you still have, like, the strong man, modern man sharpening his spear, standing over the two women that are huddled in a corner, sort of whittling away at mundane tasks. And I was wondering what you guys thought about what was going on there.

FLATOW: Steve, you want to defend your exhibit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINN: Well, there - the exhibits that you presently see aren't really old. They've been created just in the last few years. I don't know that I would be best in addressing paleoanthropology issues, maybe one of our other speakers.

Dr. POTTS: Sure. I can jump in there.


Dr. POTTS: You know, I mentioned earlier in the show that the art, the renderings of early humans are - not only represent changing scientific understanding, but also changing social values.

I think maybe one of the dioramas at the New York Museum of Natural History, the American Museum is the - a controversial one that even scientists jumped in and sort of sometimes complained about. The curator of that museum - of that exhibit, Ian Tattersall, has pointed out that the arm of the male Lucy, the male Australopithecus africanus, around the female was a bit paternalistic, in some ways.

The ways in which we represent, say, the division of labor in a painting of early humans also falls into this category of - where they reflect assumptions that occur at different times in society. So in the 1950s, everything was portrayed in almost a Flintstones kind of mentality, with the man bringing home the bacon to the wife at home or around the hearth. But now, we would not fall into those same assumptions, today, hopefully.

So, indeed, the art does reflect not only the science, but also the social values. And as both scientists and artists, we need to be very cognizant of that.

Mr. QUINN: In the Smithsonian project that Rick and I have been working on, we do show females in some strong roles. So I hope we've done a good job of shedding some of those assumptions. We don't have a lot of evidence when it comes to things like division of labor, but they are things that can be teased out of the fossil record a little bit.

So we're trying to use the evidence and do the best we can, but there's no reason to assume that early females weren't doing some very powerful things also, physically powerful, partly because we look at the bones and we can see that those bones - let's say we go back a million-and-a-half years or so, we can see that those bones had been incredibly loaded, the males and the females.

So there's - the forces that are passing through those bones were very strong, stronger than an average person today experiences. So they were obviously being very physically active.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is - let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I have to join - Steve…

Mr. GURCHE: Well, I'll just explain, too, the scenes that our caller may have referred to, to try and explain and defend the museum's stand on their dioramas, the one, the Neanderthal scene, the male is the standing dominant figure with an elderly female processing skins under the overhang of the cave entrance.

But again, I really don't feel qualified to comment on the, you know, paleoanthropological nature. The other scene is a Homo erectus, where there are male and female involved in actively scavenging from a dead impala. And both are equally involved in the activities depicted.

FLATOW: Does that answer the question, Amanda?

AMANDA: Yes, sort of.


AMANDA: There is actually another female in the first scene you're talking about, though, directly under the male, that's the same age as him, about. I just wanted to add that in.

Mr. QUINN: Yes. I believe you're right. Yes.

FLATOW: All right, you've got - you've done your homework.


(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Have a good weekend.

AMANDA: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. People do notice…

Mr. QUINN: They do.

FLATOW: They take great…

Mr. GURCHE: They do.

FLATOW: …notice of the details. That's why it's so important to get it right…

Mr. GURCHE: Yeah.

FLATOW: …for the museum and all of you. You must get all kinds of - being put on notice about things that are not perceived as correct.

Dr. POTTS: Artists, so often, are right there on the frontlines…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. POTTS: …creating the visual image and the visual science.

FLATOW: Do you - John, do you have to defend your work at points?

Mr. GURCHE: Not really from that kind of thing. I try to be really aware and stay as close to the evidence as I can. So I haven't had times when I, you know, made assumptions and did a sort of nuclear family - well, actually, going way back, I did do a nuclear family out in the savannah, but that painting is more than extinct now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's pushing up daisies. So…

Mr. QUINN: Well, that's actually an interesting point, because I think that, in my view - I can't really speak for artists, but let me try something out here. An artist who goes into this field, in my view, cannot be like an artist who feels that she or he is creating a work of utter endurance for the centuries. This is - an artist working in this field also serves as a scientist and understands something about the provisional, the changing nature of the information and therefore the rendering of ancient critters.

Mr. GURCHE: And, boy, does that information change fast.

Mr. QUINN: It does. And so I think that exactly what John is saying here is that a piece of art that he did, say 20, 30, whenever it was, years ago, you have to, you know, almost basically throw it away and try to do it over again with the newest information.

Dr. POTTS: A great example of that is how we perceive dinosaurs to have appeared and how that's changed over the last 20 or 30 years. In terms of locomotion and relationship to birds and…

FLATOW: And how they walked. Yeah.

Mr. GURCHE: Mm-hmm. Right.

FLATOW: All right. Gentleman, thank you very much.

Mr. GURCHE: And it's…

FLATOW: Go ahead. Last comment?

Mr. GURCHE: Oh, I was just going to add one more comment, and that is one of the figures that I'm working on for the Smithsonian exhibit, while working on it, twice there were things published in the scientific literature that made me have to change directions.


Mr. GURCHE: And, for example, I - there's not much of a foot skeleton known for Homo erectus at this point. And I was basing my feet for the Homo erectus figure on some close relatives, and it was sort of a best guess based on those. But all of a sudden, there's a paper published that is the first - oh, sorry.

FLATOW: I got to interrupt. It's great.

Mr. GURCHE: Okay.

FLATOW: But you had to change everything.

Mr. GURCHE: Yeah.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you, John. I'm sorry to cut you off. We've run out of time.

Mr. GURCHE: That's all right.

FLATOW: It's better to do that that to come up short.

Steven - let me just remind everybody that we're talking to: Rick Potts, director of human origins at the National Museum and - anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. John Gurche is a renowned paleo-artist, and Stephen Quinn is the senior projects manager at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York.

Thank you all for taking time to be with us.

Mr. GURCHE: Thanks, Ira.

Dr. POTTS: Thanks.

Mr. QUINN: Thanks. (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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