austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

When the whole world had barely begun

So you know how rabbits are not rodents, pandas are not procyonids, and mongooses are not vivverids, and skunks are not mustelids? And how there isn't any logically coherent taxonomic unit that can be labelled ``Reptiles''? Be honest. Because it does seem like a lot of people's ideas of animal taxonomy was fossilized by what they kind of remember from elementary school. And there's been a lot of changes in recent decades, as genetic research got added to the bulk of humanity's knowledge. Science finds these things. Eventually they catch up to pop science treatments. Eventually, maybe, even to the pops.

The Ruthven Natural History Museum had panels that were decades old and yes, part of what we were there for was to see how hilariously out-of-date they'd let text get. It's easy to suppose they hadn't done much updating in the last year or two as plans to move the facility were under way. But how long had they let things slide before then? I admit knowing only a few little things about gene-based taxonomic discoveries, mostly about the raccoon and coati family (raccoons are farther from coatis than we used to think!) and also I'm gratified to learn there's a fair bunch of taxonomists who don't see why guinea pigs are called rodents. But bunny_hugger is as expert on this as you can be without it being your area of specialization.

So I don't know the significance of the ``Planning in progress for new display. Thank you for your patience!'' sign covering up their display paragraph about Homo habilis. It might be that they just had to put a sign up somewhere and this was convenient, central enough shelf space. But we did try to date the installation of the panels by what they said about animals. The panels have a strong tone of the chain-of-progress view of animals, which to me reads as a pre-1960 thing. ``Worldwide primitive marsupials'' in a display about the branching off of species types? Or the claim that ``the koala is one of the most distinctive and most familiar of living Australian marsupials''? No question it's distinctive and familiar, but kangaroos are so in the lead at most-distinctive-and-familiar. It's kind of like ``Denny Laine was one of the most prominent members of Wings''. Also, I'm not looking to get Moxie and the museum fighting. But I also can't see the new facility offering a statement like ``Sciuromorphs, the most primitive rodents'' even if it is (still?) thought that their ``principal chewing muscle (masseter) remains relatively simple''.

They describe the procyonids as ``closely related to the dogs, and are similar to the dog ancestors''. Certainly was a time people thought that was so; look at the family name. These days we'd say they're close to mustelids, and have mephitidae ancestors. (This is shown off with a raccoon skull and a nice greywashed illustration of a coati.) ``The Vivverids include the living civets and the mongooses'', it says, although offers in a footnote that mongooses are ``by some, now separated as herpestids''. That ``some'' has grown to be ``all'' and the panel probably would give us the date range for the panels' creation. (We so need histories of science thought.) ``Hyaenas developed from Vivverids in the Miocene'' it says, and so far as I know that's not in serious dispute. Lagomorphs are shown on the same display wall as Rodents and Sciuromorphs, but the text starts off by explaining ``Rabbits and hares, except in their dentition, differ substantially from rodents''. My understanding is rabbits were split off from the rodents ages ago and pop culture never quite accepted that.

Not all of our time was spent giggling over the fact that humans used to know things less well than we do today, and certainly not thinking about what stuff we know today that will turn out to be hilariously wrong forty years from now. A lot was spent appreciating the craft of the older exhibits. Many of them were small statues, reproducing the appearance (as best as could be known, in some cases) of animals. Many of the sculptures had discs beside them crediting the thing to Carleton Watson Angell, museum artist from 1926 to 1956. Some was spent just admiring the more spectacular exhibits, particularly the (hanging) skeletons of early whales and whale-related creatures. At least one of them was the skeleton of a Basilosaurus, a whale, that looks like some kind of crazy science fiction sea creature.

An amazing exhibit I did not witness: their Edmontosaurus skeleton. bunny_hugger remembered seeing this. But the 32-foot-large skeleton had already been taken out, with drywall temporary partitions blocking off most of its area. I won't have the chance to see it, either: one sign beside a bunch of those great old pre-feather artworks of dinosaurs prowling around forests explained that as they freed the skeleton from its old base they found it was too fragile to be remounted. It transpired the skeleton had been originally placed in a ``laying down'' pose because that was the only way to hold it together to start with. The head's slated to be returned to display, at least.

This was my first visit to this museum. And I'll surely never again see the place in this form. The display labels are surely never going to be seen again, a pity, as three-dimensional letters mounted to the plaques are so inviting and tactile in a way that a neat panel of printed Helvetica text --- or, worse [*], a tablet computer reeling out data --- can't be. But it felt as warmly familiar and nostalgic to me as it must have to bunny_hugger. The graphic design, the styling, the ordering of things and the faint attitude about how animals developed brought back thoughts of being the 70s and reading pop-nature books themselves from the 60s or 50s and that old-fashioned art and old-fashioned chain-of-progress and all that. It was that curious bit of visiting a new place that feels like a home revisited.

[*] Worse if you are, like me here, letting sentiment overwhelm good judgement. Putting aside that museum labeling should reflect the best-established thinking about a subject, obviously it would be better to have, say, a panel that can provide text at children's, adolescent, or adult reading levels as desired, and in as many languages as the staff can support. That's --- well, I won't say easy, but at least it's possible with a touch-screen panel and unthinkable for the old-fashioned kind. And that's before you start thinking about accessibility for people with impaired sight. Inch-tall black letters on a green backdrop seen in a yellow light from at least four feet away is great for those who can read it, but other people should have their chances too.

Trivia: The curling arena for the 1992 Albertville/Savoie Winter Olympic Games was built by Pralognan-la-Vanoise, a village with population 650. The facility cost a reported #3,400 per inhabitant, with $400 per day maintenance cost. Source: Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement, Editors John E Findling, Kimberly D Pelle.

Currently Reading: The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

Some Mathematics Things I Read On Twitter, for those curious what I am up to.

PPS: Springtime!


Do you see our letterbox planted here? No, because it isn't in this mass of greenery. But it's a good mass of early-spring plantings anyway and I think most of this is actually plants grown on top of water so watch your step.


Merch table set up in the old skating rink. This had us baffled at the time, but I think it's stuff sold for the frisbee golf players who were having a time in the park.


And someone's abandoned kayak, upside-down and stuck in the river. We assumed it was abandoned. If it wasn't then we were unaware of the distress signals being transmitted.

Tags: #3, ann arbor

Posts from This Journal “ann arbor” Tag

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