by Owen Kinser (MA, 2016)
The Perot Museum of Nature and Science opened its current location in Dallas, Texas in December of 2012, replacing the old facility at Fair Park. The Fair Park facility remains home to the Research and Collections department and the Education Outreach Team while the new museum is home to 11 permanent exhibit halls covering everything from gems, minerals, engineering, energy use, physics, and of course dinosaurs. Karen Morton, the museum’s collections manager, describes the relationship between the museum and the national park writing: “As a repository for fossils from Denali National Park and several other federal land units, and as part of the agreement between the two parties, the museum curates the specimens and works with the park to maintain a detailed catalog of the collection.”
My primary duties this summer were to maintain and update the existing database of Denali specimens and photograph all 307 specimens. This project came at the request of the curatorial staff of Denali National Park.
Since 2005 paleontologists from the Perot Museum have traveled to Alaska in search of fossils and other traces of prehistoric life, many of which have come out of Denali National Park. – Karen Morton, Collections Manager, Perot Museum
The collection contains many types of fossil remains, including dinosaur tracks, bird tracks, vertebrate and invertebrate traces, plant traces, and coprolites (fossilized dung). These fossils range in size from small invertebrate traces to large Hadrosaur tracks. Excavating large, intact slabs of rock with tracks in them is usually not practical, so most of the dinosaur tracks are brought back as molds, from which fiberglass casts can be made. The fossil preparation team nicknamed several of these larger molds. Below you can see those affectionately known as “Dancefloor” and “Skidmark.”
The fossils, molds, and casts are kept at the old Dallas Museum of Nature and Science building in Fair Park, which is operated by the Perot. Fair Park hosts the annual State Fair of Texas and is home to the Cotton Bowl. The Fair Park location houses a good chunk of the Perot museum’s natural history collection as well as the fossil lab. Five large cabinets house the majority of the Denali collection, with the heavy drawers full of specimens that you see below.
Photographing and entering 307 specimens into the museum’s database is a large, often repetitive undertaking so my goal during this digitization project was to make everything as efficient as possible. I split the project in to two parts: shooting and editing. It took me about a week to get used to everything because I was not used to working with DSLR cameras or programs like Photoshop. I think it’s time to add both of those things to my resume with a “proficient at/with” next to them.
Each specimen needed three shots: one overhead and two profiles. Centrally framing each specimen was important because (besides the obvious) it allowed me to slap a template onto each photograph in the editing stages without worrying if it would obscure the image. Manually saving photographs in different file types and sizes is tedious, but thankfully the creators of Photoshop are as lazy as I am and so I was able to use script processing to expedite the process. After shooting and editing, the plan is to send the photos to Denali National Park for their personal use. All in all, the whole project contains around 2,700 photos and files and takes up 240 Gigabytes of space—a little too large to send over Gmail! There are large file sharing services available online but the most likely outcome will be purchasing a portable hard drive and mailing it from Texas to Denali, in Alaska: a first for the Perot. To quote Morton again: “The photographs will enhance the catalog records for both the Perot Museum and Denali National Park. Working with federal agencies can be a delicate operation, and maintaining good relations with curators and collection managers at these agencies will help the museum’s collections grow and ensure that our research team continues to have access to the specimens that are so critical to their research projects.”
Large scale digitization of their collections is still something that many museums across the country struggle with, but it is becoming more and more important each year in our increasingly digital society. As Perot Collections Assistant Chelsea Herrod says, “Digitizing a collection is important because it helps keep specimen history in one place, allowing for better access of information to be used by museum staff, students, researchers, and even the public.” This is of course not just true for long dead dinosaurs, but for every type of museum collection.
To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.