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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has always been a popular stop for tourists and locals alike. But the new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils–Deep Time has been described as “radically different” — a description that extends not only to the new exhibits and impeccably restored architecture, but also the message of the overall experience. Dinosaurs still rule the fossil hall, but the focus of the exhibition is now on climate change and how humans have brought the Earth to another major precipice.
We sit down with the director of the National Museum of Natural History to find out what it took to make the new fossil hall a reality and why it’s a must-see destination for visitors of all ages.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
- Kirk Johnson Sant Director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; @leafdoctor
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Have you visited the new fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History yet? Tell us about it. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, because the wait is finally over. After five long years, the new fossil hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reopened to the public on Saturday. And for local residents and tourists of all ages, this was not a moment too soon.
KOJO NNAMDIThe fully renovated fossil hall is a world away from the dimly-lit rooms and stiffly poised dinosaurs you may remember. The 31,000 square foot exhibition space has been restored to its original, century-old architecture and filled with interactive exhibits and 700 fossil specimens, all in all, telling 3.7 billion years-worth of the planet's history. Joining us now to share what it took to make this overall happen and what you can expect on your next visit to the museum is Kirk Johnson. He is the director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Kirk, thank you for joining us.
KIRK JOHNSONMy pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis was a five-year renovation process, during which the very popular T-rex fossil had to be taken out of commission. Why did the museum decide to take this on?
JOHNSONWe have this hall that has been open since 1911. It's had skeletons. It's really the National Fossil Hall, and we've done minor renovations over the last century, but nothing systematically complete. And a lot of science has happened in the last 100 years, so it had to be done. And we really want to deliver a world class fossil hall for the nation's audiences.
NNAMDIWhat was the final cost for this renovation in this space in the new exhibit?
JOHNSONThe exhibit itself was $39.9 million. We did about $70 million of work on the building to bring it up from a 1910 building to a 2019 building, so all told, $110 million.
NNAMDIKirk, the new exhibits have been described as, quoting here, "Radically different and unprecedented in the museum world." What makes it so different from all the fossil exhibits we've seen so far?
JOHNSONAny time you walk into a fossil exhibit, you see fossils, and they're all old things. So, how can they be relevant to you? They're cool but how can they be relevant? This hall is different, because it tells the story of life on Earth with fossils. And, of course, the story of life on Earth is happening right now, so people are in it. And we're all thinking about the future. So, this hall starts in the past, but ends in the future.
NNAMDIAnd this hall is called the -- well, before I get to the name of the hall, you're talking about a hall that's not only just different than the one we knew before, but one in which you're using a lot of the science that has been discovered over the past 30 or 40 years, and relating this both to humans and to climate change.
JOHNSONYeah, you know, there's so many discoveries that happen in science very single day, and we've got a large staff of paleontologists and biologists at the museum who are part and parcel of this discovery. And we've embedded that into the narrative of the planet. So, there are things that go through the exhibit, like through-lines. There's a climate thread. There's an extinction thread. There's an evolution thread. There's a human thread. All those things snake their way through the exhibit as we march through the history of the planet on a timeline kind of manner.
NNAMDIA bit of controversy there. The new hall is called the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils Deep Time in commemoration of the large donation given by David Koch, of Koch Brothers fame, to make the new hall a reality. The museum, received some criticism for that decision and for accepting the donation, since the Koch Brothers are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry and have opposed climate change initiatives in the past. Is there a conflict of interest here?
JOHNSONThere's not really a conflict of interest at all. I mean, the gift was accepted in April of 2012, and we have a very strong red line between donors and content in the exhibits. And if you look at the Smithsonian's statement on climate change, the Smithsonian has a very science-strong viewpoint on how climate is changing the world, how humans are causing climate to change, and what we should do about it. And that really is the content of the exhibit. So, it's an apparent conflict, but in reality not a problem.
NNAMDISo, David Koch knew that his donation was going to be used to build the new fossil hall but he had no idea what the contents of the exhibits would be, and he didn't get any of those details while the project was moving?
JOHNSON(overlapping) No. He was informed of what the content would be, but he had no influence on it himself.
NNAMDII should mention that WAMU receives funding from the Koch Family, as well, and currently has underwriting support from the Charles Koch institute, which focuses on criminal justice reform issues. Let's talk with Joyce in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Joyce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOYCEYes. Thank you for taking my call. I spent 25 years at the National Museum of Natural History as a school tour docent, from 1978 until 2003. So, I knew that old hall really well, and I'm very excited about the new one, and can't wait to see it.
NNAMDIOh, I thought you'd seen it already. Well...
JOYCEOh, no, no, not yet. I didn't try for opening weekend.
NNAMDIKeep listening, and you'll hear some more details during the course of this conversation. The star attraction at the new hall is still the 66 million T-rex skeleton that has been reposed in a dramatic way. The new pose isn't just about creating drama. It also reflects changes in scientific knowledge and technology. Tell us about this 66 million-year-old T-rex.
JOHNSONSo, it's a new skeleton. I mean, we didn't have it in the old hall. We had a plaster cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex, and we really wanted a real Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. So, we worked with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Museum of the Rockies in Montana to bring a new T-rex skeleton to us, one that was collected in 1988. And that skeleton is nearly complete. And what we wanted to do with that skeleton and all the other ones in the halls, was to pose them in dynamic, biologically active poses, as opposed to the old, Frankenstein-like poses when you mount these things.
JOHNSONAnd it's a problem, of course, because fossils are turned to stone, so they weigh a huge amount. And mounting a big stone dinosaur in an active pose is challenging. So, we used 3-D scanning and printing to actually model a shape for these animals before we went to the trouble of making the mounts. And almost all the skeletons in this exhibit are really in interesting dynamic poses. They're doing something. I like to say we've turned our dinosaurs into animals.
NNAMDI3-D printing, that's only been around for the last several years, so it really helps. One of the classic features of many dinosaur exhibits -- including the old fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History -- were the dioramas, complete with artificial plants and piles of sand and painted murals. The new fossil hall has done away with dioramas, for the most part. Why is that?
JOHNSONWell, we had, actually, not dioramas, per se, but large murals of scenes ,and we mounted skeletons in front of them and really wanted to make the hall light and airy. The old hall had gotten so dark, that we wanted to bring light and color into the space, which meant we didn't have -- we opened up the windows, we opened up the skylights and we didn't have that dark, dramatic lighting you do with dioramas. So, we changed out the idea and put in nine miniature dioramas. Think like miniature train sets, but a miniature train set from the Triassic or the Jurassic or the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous. So, they're small, but they're little worlds in these oval-shaped viewing containers. And so we get nine dioramas for the space of what one would've taken in the past.
NNAMDICan you tell us a little bit about the technology and interactive displays in the hall now, and the idea behind that?
JOHNSONWell, there's so many concepts in the hall that are tough, things like Darwin's insight that all humans are related, the core concept of evolution. But how are you related to a moose, for instance? What's the level of connection as to you to a moose? Those sorts of things are easier shown in branching diagrams and what we call trees of life. Just like the same way that you have a family tree, there's a tree of life. And we have dynamic interactives that sort of explain how those things work. And you can feel your way around and find out who you're related to and how closely a bear is related to a pig, and all those sorts of things. So, it's a way of shedding light on what we inherently know, but don't know the details of.
NNAMDIGot a Tweet from Sarah Holland, who says: I brought three of my 2nd graders to the fossil hall yesterday. Such an incredible experience to be there during the opening weekend. Kind of frenetic over the last weekend, wasn't it? (laugh)
NNAMDIHere is Lisa in Mason Neck, Virginia. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAOh, hi, Kojo. I just wanted to tell you that I've been going to the Smithsonian since I was a little girl, back in the '70s. And when I was in 4th grade, my aunt would take my cousin and me to the New Carrollton brand new Metro station and let us go all by ourselves into the city (laugh) to the Smithsonian. And we'd spend the whole day there, and then come home on the Metro.
LISABut one of the things I really miss from that time was sitting there and watching the pendulum, if I'm saying that right, the pendulum that would go -- does anybody remember that? We would stand and look down at the pendulum, just slowly swinging back and forth, and knocking a piece down, like a clock. Does anybody have a memory of that? That's what I wanted to know...
NNAMDIDo you know anything about that?
LISA...and if it would ever come back. If it would ever come back, I would love it.
JOHNSONI don't think it was in our -- I think it was in the American History building, but it predates my time. And I know these pendulums are mesmerizing for people. I was just in Berlin, where they have one, and people just gather around it and watch the rotation of the earth slowly move the pendulum around a big, clockwise circle.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Lisa. Here is Liana in Arlington, Virginia. Liana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LIANAHi. I just wanted to say I went to opening weekend, and I thought the new hall is fantastic. I can't wait to go back with my kids.
NNAMDIWhat do you like about it most?
LIANAWell, my personal favorite was watching the people at work in the laboratory. I just thought it was really neat to see the -- especially the guy who is doing the microscopic drawing of the fossils. I think I could've stayed there for my entire time and not gotten tired of it, but there was so much more to see, so I had to move on.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Different people like different things, don't they?
JOHNSONYeah. No, it's amazing.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Kirk Johnson. He is the director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, where the fossil hall reopened after five years this past weekend. As far as museum experiences go, on the other end of the spectrum from old-school dioramas are digital displays and virtual reality and all kind of new digital technology that makes many things in a museum accessible to people beyond the museum walls. How much of that have you embraced in the new fossil hall?
JOHNSONWe've used it where it makes sense . I mean, we have things -- like, one of our interactive shows, where all the continents were through time, you can spin the globe from any perspective and spin the time by any slide, and you can actually see where North America was 330 million years ago. But not only that, what was the temperature like, were there icecaps? So, you can kind of dial in your own world or any time and place, and that's something you can't really do anywhere else.
NNAMDIIs that kind of technology a blessing or a curse for a museum, the fact that people don't necessarily have to come to the museum to see something?
JOHNSON(overlapping) Well, you know, we are putting things in that'll help people answer the questions they have when they see the objects. And, ultimately, museums are the last bastion of the real thing. We're not getting digitally disrupted in a whole scale manner, but we do accept and add in some of the technological tools to help us expand on what we're showing in real time and real space.
NNAMDIHere's Monoxi in Vienna, Virginia. Monoxi, your turn.
MONOXIHello, Kojo. I listen to your show every day.
MONOXIWell, we were there on Saturday, and we were there five years back when the museum got closed. My son was in 4th grade, now he's in 9th grade. He wants to be a paleontologist since he was in kindergarten. And it was just like making more friends, the volunteers five years back, and then again volunteers on Saturday. The (unintelligible) women, they did a great job. The drums outside...
NNAMDI(overlapping) They are amazing.
MONOXIYeah, bringing lots of energy. And so we are planning to spend -- he say he will go to museum every week in the summer. And we also got to meet lots of paleontologists from -- they were from Delaware and New York, all those places. So, we were really fortunate to have this at this great place.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Kirk, is there a right way and a wrong way of experiencing the fossil hall? What are your tips to people for getting the most out of their visit to the space?
JOHNSONWell, this space is the most visited room and the most visited natural history museum in the world, so we were getting a lot of visitors. And when we opened this weekend, we saw just shy of 42,000 people in two days. And there are museums that don't do that in a whole year. So, it was crowded. We knew it would be crowded, so there are multiple lanes through the exhibit.
JOHNSONThere is a time arc you can go, but one pathway takes you through life in the seas back in time. One takes you through life on land back in time. And one path takes you up through the human perspective on the whole story. So, three different pathways, and lots of off-ramps. And we found that almost 2,000 people could sort of soak into the exhibit like it was a giant sponge, and it wasn't that crowded of an experience. It was really a fun weekend, and I'd say go and don't try to see the whole thing, because we calculated there'd be about 10 hours of reading if you read all the various sparse labels. There's lot of them. So, go back and take many, multiple dips.
NNAMDIIndeed, the Natural History Museum, it's my understanding, is the biggest museum in the world. What makes it that?
JOHNSONIt's the biggest naturalist museum in the world, and we measure it both on size of the collections, we have 146 million objects, number of scientists -- we have over 100 scientists -- and number of visitors, ranging from 5 to 6 million a year. So, it's a massive place and a global treasure.
NNAMDIFive to six million a year? Those are like television rating numbers I saw someplace.
JOHNSONAnd, you know, Kojo, the amazing thing is that we have so many tourists that, year after year, different people come. So, sort of accumulative number of individuals that show up at the museum. We calculate, over a decade's time, we might see as many as 30, 40 or even 50 million people, in that building, voluntarily enjoying the dinosaurs.
NNAMDINow, what challenges does that pose for you?
JOHNSONWell, you know, the main thing was just making sure that the exhibit itself was bombproof, that the cases are really tough, that there was plenty of space for the people, that we wouldn't have things that would be delicate and broken. Because we have so many people pouring through the exhibit, you have to make sure the cases and the fossils are well-protected.
NNAMDIHere is Nathan on the eastern shore of Maryland. Nathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANHi, guys. How are you? Long time listener, first time caller. Thank you for taking the call.
NATHANSo, I'm actually a volunteer at the Insect and Butterfly Pavilion at the Natural History Museum. And I had the pleasure of coming into the museum yesterday for a morning shift. And I got to go in early to look at the fossil hall while it was pretty empty. And it was really an incredible experience, you know. I remember, you know, interning in DC three years ago, and being a little upset that the fossil exhibit was closed. It was, like, what are you guys doing? This is, like, the main attraction.
NATHANAnd then I realized that, you know, it was going under this expensive renovation. You guys were -- like, people were peeling back, like, decades of the drywall to expose the original architecture. And to finally see everything come together yesterday, I was really amazed at, you know, how the exhibit just kind of integrates technology into this informal education center curriculum to make, you know, these really complex ideas as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. And to see it pulled off so well, I mean, that's one of the reasons why I just really love to volunteer at the Natural History Museum.
NATHANYou know, I have an environmental management background, and one of the things that I love to try and do is, you know, try and talk to people about what it is I'm passionate about. And given that science can be so technical sometimes, it's kind of challenging to do it moments. And, you know, to see the Natural History Museum kind of do it, you know, so well it was quite an experience yesterday. So...
NNAMDINathan, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, because, Kirk Johnson, there was a huge team behind this overhaul of the fossil hall. And each scientist had his or her priorities for the area of science that they have dedicated their life to. But what was your personal goal for the new fossil hall?
JOHNSONI'm a paleontologist myself, and I've built prehistoric journey halls before which tell that same story, but I've never built one at this time. And this time is so important, because the world is facing so many interesting challenges. And it's become really clear that our ancient history, our paleontology holds very interesting clues on what might happen in the future. So, the relevance of fossils from the past to our future is driving me right now. I think that it'll really be a useful tool, as people try and put themselves in context in planet Earth.
NNAMDIIndeed, that's one of the primary features of the new fossil hall is that it places us humans, and we've been around for, what, 5,000 years?
JOHNSONWell, our species has been around for 300,000 years.
JOHNSONYeah, but civilization for about 10,000 years. So, we've been around for a long time, but not when you compare it to say the long-necked dinosaurs, which were here for 100 million years.
NNAMDIBut being able to see ourselves in that context allows us to kind of intelligently speculate on what the future's going to be like.
JOHNSONExactly, and there are many examples from the past -- whether it'd be climate change or extinction or evolution-- that are useful as we think about what's happening in the next few decades.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Nathan. On to Hillary in Washington, DC. Hillary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HILLARYHi, Kojo. I have never called into your show before, but I love listening to you. Just to say that, as a kid, I climbed on that amazing triceratops that was on the Mall across from the Natural History Museum. And I really wish that were here today for my daughter to climb on. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat is the alternative that her daughter now has, Kirk?
JOHNSONWell, believe it or not, we have a stump. And it's a beautiful, 300 million-year-old stump cast in bronze, and it's in the middle of the exhibit. And we opened that up just two days ago and kids are crawling all over it. The stump is a reconstruction of an ancient fossil stump, and it's got all sorts of little lizards and eggs and things in it. And it was amazing. The kids were swarming that stump, so we do know that kids love to wrap themselves onto fossils, or facsimiles of fossils. And there's lots of touchable objects. There's the upper arm bone of a brachiosaurus, which is almost 7' tall, so you can, like, wrap yourself around a dinosaur bone. So, for those people who want to touch and climb on things, that opportunity does exist.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Hillary. The reviews that you go over the weekend were presumably all good, but here's this Tweet we got from Bass Clever: the pendulum was in the American History Museum, back when the American History Museum was good. That place was a favorite of mine since childhood, before it was ruined during renovations a few years ago. Did you get any complaints about the renovations at all over the weekend?
JOHNSONNo, not at all. I mean, we're waiting for the complaints, and would love it if we can fix anything we can. But, really, people just seemed to be so overjoyed to see the dinosaurs back. And the design of the exhibit really is a beautiful thing. So, bring them on. But, boy, we are having a great time with happy people right now.
NNAMDINo complaints about the renovation ruining everything (laugh) for anyone. What are your favorite pieces in the new fossil hall?
JOHNSONThere's two, Kojo. There is a fossilized palm frond that I actually collected live on television for “Nova" show, back in 2014 from Alaska. And the two words Alaska and palm should cause your head to explode, because palms are sort of the plant example of a warm place and Alaska's the geographic example of a cold place. But just that one fossil tells you the world has changed a lot.
JOHNSONThe second thing is this amazing fossil horse. It's only about two-and-a-half feet long, but it's an exquisite, perfect complete fossil horse that died in Wyoming 50 million years ago, sank to the bottom of a lake. Little fishes floated down by it, so I've got little fishes, like, next to it. And it is fossilized in a galloping position. It's an exquisite, little Hope Diamond of a fossil.
NNAMDIThat's the one that I want to see. Three feet by three feet?
JOHNSONYeah, on the rocks, it was about this big, but the horse would've been about the size of a little dog. Every single bone, his little tiny hooves, everything is there. It's exquisite.
NNAMDIThat's got to be really fascinating. A big part of this undertaking was to update the science that was on display in the fossil hall and reflect paleontological findings and knowledge more accurately. Do you think these new exhibits are going to stand the test of time, or are you going to have to more renovations pretty soon?
JOHNSONWell, science marches on incredibly fast. Now, I've been doing science since about 1980, and I've seen so many major breakthroughs. So, we know that the world of science is going to change but the big skeletons are posed in great time-holding positions. We've got digital interactors, which we can tweak. And we'll be able to put new things in as we find them. But I think, really, what we've done is brought this thing up to date.
JOHNSONOne of the things we have done, which is kind of cool, is that there's no present in the exhibit. There's sort of a path to the future, and our graphs don't stop at now, because now becomes out of date tomorrow morning. And so we kind of push our things forward into the future, and that helps futureproof the exhibit, if you will.
NNAMDIWhen you had, in 2014, the challenge of renovating the fossil hall, I remember Lonny Burns III, the incoming secretary of the Smithsonian, saying that there were times when he was thinking of what he had to do with the Museum of African American History and Culture that made him think he was on a fool's errand (laugh) at one point. Were there any points in this renovation in which you doubted whether you'd be able to get it done, and done the right way?
JOHNSONWell, you know, I got here in the fall of 2012, and the first thing I did was sign the contract to get the ball rolling. But the ball had really been rolling for almost a decade before that. And I was so lucky to inherit extremely good planning for my predecessors. And I've got to say, it's been a smooth, steady march. I mean, it's been almost a seven-year march, but there has been no single point where I was worried like I would have been, had I been Lonny, trying to build a brand new museum complete with no collections out of the ground. Lonny did an amazing thing with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I got to say that.
NNAMDIAnd he moves on then to be secretary of the Smithsonian, overall. What's next for you?
JOHNSONWell, we are now -- we've got that amazing situation where we've finished our major objectives. In addition to the Deep Time Hall, we've renovated the museum's IMAX. We've taken the IMAX out. We've put a new restaurant in. And hanging in that space is a 52-foot-long megalodon shark, the first ever accurate reconstruction of this giant shark. And these sharks are found right here around Washington, DC. Had you been here on the Mall 10 million years ago, you would've been covered by a shallow salty sea, and this giant shark would've been swimming right there.
JOHNSONSo, we've put this shark where the shark used to live, and that's been part of our ongoing process to make the whole visitor experience of the museum more fun, more engaging, more visitor-friendly. And we'll keep doing that. And as we look to the next thing, we'll be coming up with plans over the next four or five months, that will define the next big exhibit.
NNAMDISo, more challenges for you along the way. I think Al in Arlington, Virginia is on the line, so let me go quickly to Al. You're on the air. We only have about a minute left, Al.
ALMinute, minute. Okay, yeah. Look, how we doing on after-hour docent tours and things like that? I mean, like, yeah, I rode this triceratops, too ,once, and, like, I really, really approached it, and it felt premortal. It was late at night (laugh), yeah. What's going on with the -- I mean, that was like one of the best moments I had at a New York museum.
NNAMDISo, you're interested in after-hour docent tours?
ALAfter-hour docent tours.
JOHNSONYeah, we've extended hours at the museum until 7:30 for the next month, at least, and then for the last couple days of the week for the rest of the summer. So, we'll have -- it'll be open until 7:30. And we do things like sleepovers for children and adult programming efforts through our after-hours events. So, watch that online.
NNAMDIKirk Johnson is the director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOHNSONAlways a pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the new fossil hall the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum was produced by Monna Kashfi. And our update on the plans for President Trump's 4th of July celebration was produced by Mark Gunnery. Coming up tomorrow, a new play from the Pointless Theater Company spotlights the media's reaction to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. We'll talk about journalism ethics with the show's creative team and a photojournalist who covered those attacks. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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