by Kaitlin Buickel
How long does it take for a group of flesh-eating beetles to eat the meat off of an animal skull? What are some similarities between a horse skull, a dolphin skull, and a human skull? How do nose, eye, and teeth variations help animals adapt to their environments? You can find out the answers to all these questions and more at the Skulls exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences, up through November 30. As part of my 2014 internship working in the Mammalogy and Ornithology collections department, I was given the unique opportunity to work on many aspects of this complex and fascinating exhibit.
The exhibit is housed in a large room on the second floor of the Academy, one of the only rooms that is temperature controlled. This is important because if it is too warm or cold or if there is too much humidity, skulls will begin to deteriorate quickly. The exhibit has various “stations”: a sea lion skull wall along the far side, the flesh-eating beetle section towards center, hands-on activities, a human origins section, as well as specimen diversity cases and technological aspects located all throughout the exhibit. A small gift shop and a photography station mark the exit.
A major theme throughout every section of the exhibit is the natural variation between skulls of the same species and skulls of different species. One case, my favorite one by far, exhibits skulls of different species that display “surprising mutations”, and how these mutations came to be. For example: did you know that if a male deer is lacking a particular hormone that controls antler growth, his antlers may continue to grow long after they should have stopped? Other cases exhibit specimens with large teeth, ones with head-top noses, ones that are quite mall, ones with distinct eye functions, ones with antlers (e.g. the antler wall), ones that are primarily aquatic, ones that are different but share similar ecosystem, ones that are all different breeds of dogs, and so on. Lindsay Palaima, the temporary registrar for Skulls, says that her favorite parts of the exhibit are these diversity cases: “I really like the way the displays showcase each major grouping of vertebrates, conveniently divided by Research division: ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology, and mammalogy. The 3D prints in the reptiles & amphibian case are a cool way to show how natural history collections are using technology. The human skull in the mammal case gives a nice perspective of our head compared to our fellow mammals, and I really like how full the fish case is.”
Visitors can sit at and sketch a skull based on various skull casts mounted on the table, play a pop-up game that lets them answer questions about individual skulls, create their own skull variations on a magnet wall, and look into a lens to see the perspective of either a predator, like a lion, or prey, like a zebra. The technological features include a few videos throughout the exhibit, such as a loop of sea lions swimming in the Pacific Ocean and a video about Ray Bandar, a large interactive touch screen where visitors can view 3D models of different skulls, and a screen that allows for visitors to click certain buttons below to view short cartoon clips of how dynamically different skull features on various specimens are. The flesh-eating beetle section is particularly fascinating because in it there are several animal carcasses that still have “meat” on them. Visitors can witness how dermestid beetle larvae in a sense clean off these specimens so they can then be put on display.
This six-month long exhibit had previously been at the Academy from 2002-2003 but included less diversity, less opportunities for interactivity, and less technological aspects. However, it did feature some of the same “celebrity skulls”, such as the rhino and the giraffe, as well as the signature California sea lion skull wall. A large majority of the skulls on display in the exhibit have either been donated by or on loan from scientist and collector Ray Bandar. Ray has been collecting skulls, with legal authorization from the Academy, from all over the world for decades, and his entire skull collection will eventually be donated to the Academy. Ray had much more of a leading role in curating this exhibit than he did in the 2002 one, and came up with many of the topics and organizational structure of the skulls. Collecting and displaying such a large number of skulls, many of which are from the same species, demonstrates the natural variation that exists among particular animals, and helps scientists study these variations in order to learn more about how diet, the environment, and other natural factors can have a substantial effect on the life of an animal.
I assisted with nearly every aspect of the exhibit, beginning with the packing and transporting of the skulls from Ray’s house up in the Twin Peaks area to the Academy’s collection space. This involved spending hours in his basement, which was jam-packed with over 7,000 different skulls, going through a list and picking out which skulls had been requested to go on exhibit. We then recorded the information given to each skull by Ray himself, such as his collection number, took a few photo of the specimen, and carefully packed them into crates with plastic bags and ethafoam. Once at the Academy, the skulls were put into a decontamination freezer for 48 hours, moved onto various shelves in the collection space, and logged into the specimen database. I then worked on cleaning each skull in preparation for display; I used a small hepa vacuum and an array of different sized paintbrushes to clean out any dust and dirt from both the exterior of the skulls as well as the inner, more fragile areas. Next, I went through all 400 sea lion skulls in the collection and did a brief condition report on each to determine where on the wall they would be mounted. For example, ones that had many obvious defects were put higher up on the wall while one that were smaller and more intact were lower and more centered on the wall. I then helped create metal mounts and attached them to the lower mandible of each sea lion so that they were able to be securely mounted. During this entire process I worked on entering and double-checking that every specimen had their accurate taxonomic name in the skulls spreadsheet so that they would be written properly on the labels in the exhibit. This responsibility was daunting, but it gave me a chance to explore the Academy’s online collection’s database, as well as various university and museum-affiliated websites, more thoroughly and get comfortable browsing through them. Along with this I assisted in entering the metadata for each individual specimen, which made sure that everything was accounted for in the Academy database. I attended various formal meetings that focused on the lighting and temperature conditions of the exhibit, and I also positioned and mounted many of the skulls on display in the various cases. Seeing all aspects of the work I did come together on opening day on May 16 was incredibly surreal and more rewarding than I could have imagined.
Accompanying the exhibit are various programs that help visitors learn even more about these different specimens. For example, the Naturalist Center on the third floor includes more skulls that could not quite fit into the exhibit space, the opportunity for kids to touch animal skulls and pelts, and a “sketch a skeleton” activity similar to the one in the exhibit. There is also a Hohfeld Hall live presentation called “From Stardust to Skeletons” that focuses on the cosmic connection between space and bones. The exhibit has received much positive feedback by both employees and visitors since it opened, and it is the type of exhibit that visitors can frequent and learn even more upon each visit. My experience working on Skulls was a great opportunity to see the entire process of an exhibit coming to life in a short period of time. I am now much more confident in my collections management skills, particularly specimen handling. I believe that it is important for any museum professional, no matter their title, to receive training in collection handling and care. Museum work tends to overlap quite a bit, another lesson I learned while working on the Skulls exhibit, thus people need to frequently communicate and share their ideas in order to successfully provide the visitors with the best experiences possible. It is hard to narrow down which aspect of the Skulls exhibit I liked working on the best; when asked what her favorite part was, Lindsay Palaima says, “Not only did I get to share the joy of working with Ray with others, I got to balance the interplay with everyone’s excitement about the Bone Palace treasures with the logistics of securely transporting nearly 600 specimens”, and I very much agree with this. This representation of variation within the exhibit is a direct testament to the Academy’s mission to Explore, Explain, and Sustain life, because it gives both researchers and visitors the chance to really learn about animals from the inside out.