Virtual Field and Museum Skills: Part 1

Article by: J. D. Dixon
Consultation: Kirsty Edgar and Richard Butler
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

The temperature was over a hundred degrees (…) beneath the great blue bowl of sky, blunted hills, exposed outcroppings of crumbling limestone, stretched for miles in every direction. There was not a tree, or a bush. Nothing but barren rock, hot sun, and whining wind.” – Michael Crichton

This extract from Jurassic Park sets the scene over the blistering Montana badlands, and a similar landscape was what many of us expected to experience when visiting Utah as part of our Palaeontology Field and Museum Skills module. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our department could not offer international travel that would ensure the safety of staff and students. Safety does come first, so unfortunately we lost our desert fantasy, one that we hope to fulfil another day. Instead, the module coordinators (Richard Butler, Sam Giles, Kirsty Edgar, and Jon Clatworthy) worked tirelessly to design a relevant and engaging palaeontological experience for us online. This required vast changes to the ‘Field Week’ structure and the establishment of a new schedule full of different and entertaining tasks all possible through a virtual lens. Thankfully, our cohort didn’t share Alan Grant’s aversion to computers.

Virtual Museums: Dinosaurs and Discussions

The ferocious Sinraptor mounted in the Dinosaurs of China exhibition.

Richard started the first session on Tuesday, and was joined shortly afterwards by Jon. This period was all about virtual museums: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The aim was to investigate the developing realm of digital museums and tours, and to discuss what institutions are doing to make their collections more globally accessible. Initially, we were given free reign over one of these online experiences. The first was the Nottingham Natural History Museum 2017 exhibition Dinosaurs of China: Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers. The exhibition was set up in Wollaton Hall, featuring a mix of casts and actual specimens integrated into existing displays. It explored the story of dinosaurs and birds, how the latter evolved from the former, and what East Asian fossils can tell us about this tale. The event was successful, attracting over 130,000 visitors who flocked to admire the 26 rare fossils showcased outside of their countries of origin for the first time. The layout was unique, adopting an approach informed by the research of Dr Wang Qi, which says that a combination of architectural space and narrative will enhance visitor and learning experiences. You can delve into the virtual tour yourself by clicking here.

For around 40 minutes, we were set loose on the virtual landscape to learn all about these fascinating animals and examine potential advantages and disadvantages of this digital tour format. There was a 3D floor plan model which showed where visitors could move, and you can zoom into different sections. This was a strong start as it allowed us to get our bearings quickly. The tour operated in a similar way to Google Street View, where we could click to move through a photographic environment following faint white circles on the floor. Along the way, there were beautiful life reconstructions and artworks, photos of some specimens, and videos embedded in yellow circles around the exhibition to help guide visitors. The tour guide booklet was also included at the start in its entirety, which was a nice touch. Navigating the museum was easy, as following the markers and reading the text across the walls made the route obvious, but there were some problems. 

The entrance to the digital tour.

Some of the yellow buttons didn’t work for all of us, whole areas were hazy, and very minor portions of the text throughout the displays were illegible. Most of the displays followed a coherent theme, but some of us found it a little jarring when they juxtaposed the more traditional-looking, permanent cases of birds and mammals. Likewise, some areas seemed to be next to ‘cabinet of curiosity’ style cases, which didn’t fit with the overall narrative. Still, we can appreciate that the museum had to work with the space they had available, and the integration of the story between the dinosaur and bird rooms was decent.

We thought the balance of real fossils and casts combined was brilliant (around 30% were real) considering the political, cultural, and scientific implications for the international transport of such material. Many specimens were labelled to detail whether they were real fossils or not, to make it clear there was no ‘big palaeo cover up’ exhibiting replicas as original material. We’re sure seeing this in real life would’ve been hugely impressive (some of our team were lucky enough to experience it first hand in 2017), but the resolution of the virtual tour wasn’t great. Some of the smaller specimens, such as Mei long or Yi qi, didn’t show much detail when viewed on a computer screen. A few could even be described as blurred ‘blobasaurus smudges’. Although the huge Mamenchisaurus and Sinraptor skeletons were impressive in the beginning, the sense of scale was almost lost as we traversed the rooms.

Sadly, this tour format also means that visitors don’t have an option to ask questions. Sure, they can email staff after they complete the tour, but that involves going through the museum’s website to find the contact information for relevant professionals. Many younger visitors won’t want to go through this much trouble for a digital day out.

The Mei long display.
The closest position available on the tour.

We also discussed the reviews of the exhibit from when people could visit it in real life. Those about cost seemed reasonable, but we found many of the other criticisms unfairly harsh. Visitors stated that the fossils weren’t big or important enough, that the event was overhyped, or were disheartened by the casts. The presence of these specimens in the UK was a huge event, and we as palaeontologists could appreciate the rarity and significance of these fossils. Still, we know that not everyone is versed in the complex world of global fossil laws and regulations, and we thought that the exhibition could have provided this background more clearly when visitors went in. Nevertheless, we did think that many of these reviews probably represented a disgruntled subset and didn’t reflect the true visitor experience for the most part.

Overall, the exhibition addressed hot topics in palaeontology, showing the public that the traditional view of dinosaurs and birds is far from what we now know. It helped illuminate some of the less famous fauna from outside of North America and gave visitors the chance to see once in a lifetime fossils. While this virtual tour could have been better, we are grateful that the event was digitised at all, and with the development of newer technologies in the past few years, we can see how this could have been the best option for the museum at the time (even if we now can’t buy anything from the gift shop).

Virtual Museums: Biological Disarray

The next virtual museum we visited was the Great North Museum Biological Store. This institution is one devoted to natural history and ancient civilizations, and it is associated with the University of Newcastle and the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Usually, only around 10% of museum collections are actually exhibited. Most material is kept sequestered for security, preservation, or lack of display space, so behind-the-scenes tours are extremely popular. They offer the chance for the public to access parts of a museum that are typically off-limits, and they can delve into the collection’s history and significance. Recently, many museums have decided to digitise these tours, and the virtual tour we used can be found by clicking here.

Some of the store, featuring an assortment of organisms in no particular structure or story.

Again, we were left to our own devices as we steered through the store room. The tour format was the same as that for the Dinosaurs of China exhibition, with the faint white circles marking the route and the occasional extra bit of information accessed via a yellow circle. However, these yellow circles were few and far between and didn’t cover anywhere near half of the store’s contents. Many items were placed in shot but had no associated information, so, disappointingly, we couldn’t find anything out about these specimens. Those that did have information were only provided with a brief synopsis of what the object was and where it was from. Learning more about the people behind the store, how objects were donated/acquired in more detail, and what they have been used for (previous displays or studies) could have enhanced the experience on a personal level, making us feel closer to the history of the specimens.

These tours are normally lead by a staff member, but the virtual tour didn’t have this feature. This means that visitors are less engaged, as there is no narration or voice to guide them through the objects and what they represent. A video or audio guide to accompany the tour would do wonders for adding a reasoning to the design and items. The tour also didn’t have one clear direction, but rather two ways to work around the room, so there was no overall narrative to follow besides “these are some of the things we have down here”.

The organisation of objects in the store was another matter of concern. Many of the items were taxidermy animals, but there seemed to be no clear order as to how these were arranged. Some drawers were positively filled with vacuum-packed birds of one species, but other shelves were cluttered with a plethora of organisms. One cupboard seemed to have a shelf dedicated to modern reptiles, but upon closer inspection there were a few birds looming at the back. Some readers may be screaming “but birds are technically reptiles!” at their screens, but it seemed clear that the birds were classified as their own group in other parts of the store. It’s worth noting that there was a shelf directly above this one which did hold birds, and these lurking specimens may just be due to overflow onto the second shelf.

The chaotic cupboard.

Many of the objects focused on seemed to be the most eye-catching or impressive, while most other items were neglected. Some of the lower and higher shelves were also inaccessible through this tour, so items that may be of interest couldn’t be examined closely.

It was really interesting to see inside this store and to find out what the museum has in its bowels. The store room works well as a store, but to really enhance the visitor experience and encourage people to come back, a clearer narrative, more detailed focus on specimens, and potentially a guiding voice are needed.

Virtual Museums: Brainstorms and Blueprints

After a quick lunch we moved on to the next task, which was suggesting elements for a virtual tour that the university could use for their own Lapworth Museum of Geology. We were joined by Aerona Moore, the Learning and Public Engagement Manager at the museum, to discuss what they had been thinking of doing so far. Three breakout rooms designed separate museum tours thinking about which areas of the museum we would include, and when we got back to the main session, Kirsty and Sam joined us to hear our ideas. These included several different features, such as guided vs independent tours, an animated Charles Lapworth (voiced by Brian Blessed!), a few prehistoric arcade games, and interactive display cabinets and 3D models. We got to think about language preferences and how accessibility for a worldwide audience could be provided, and even got to throw in a cheeky Jurassic Park reference (because why not?). This discussion ended our first day, and we continued on Thursday.

Lyme Regis: Scintillating Sketches and Barcode Bedding

As the waves lapped and the wind blew at the beach (presumably), we sat ready for our next session in the virtual field. This time, it was kicked off by Kirsty and Richard on Thursday morning. The aim was to examine Lyme Regis, part of the Jurassic Coast of Southern England and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our first task was to get to know the Blue Lias Formation: an Upper Triassic – Lower Jurassic outcrop that stretches across the coast of the area. We did this by producing field sketches of the outcrop. Field sketches are quick illustrations of geological structures used to refer back to later for important information. They are a key skill to develop while studying geology and are beneficial to authors, as they can pick out key information and annotate it accordingly while looking at what it is that they have drawn. Kirsty and Richard provided us with detailed images of the cliff, using which we started to discuss and understand the local geology.

Admittedly, I’m no artist and the annotations were quick, so this sketch leaves a lot to be desired. Illustration by J. D. Dixon.
A much more impressive field sketch by Jack Wood.

Then we reviewed what we had discovered. We thought that the Blue Lias was between 10-20 m thick and there were two units within it. These were a darker, more friable unit, interbedded with a more stable-looking light unit. We could tell the latter was more durable as it had eroded back less than the darker layers. We didn’t initially notice any sedimentary structures, but we did see that the bedding became thicker further up the outcrop. The beds dipped very slightly towards the east (the right of the images above), following the coastline. To sum up our findings, we thought that these layers were a light limestone and dark mudstone or shale.

Following this, we got to work on the next task. This was to build a summary figure of the sedimentological, palaeontological, and geochemical observations and interpretations of the Blue Lias outcrop. We did this by making simplified graphic logs to capture any main features. The chronostratigraphic age and lithostratigraphic name of the formation were first, followed by the grade of the lithology (assigned a numerical value). We also added an estimate of Total Organic Carbon (TOC) in the layers as a simple line plot.

A zoomed photo of the Blue Lias Formation’s interbedded units. Image by Ian West.

Our analyses of this gave us a more in-depth understanding of the outcrop. We found that there were two types of limestone, tabular limestones near the top and bottom and nodular limestones in the middle layers. These layers had irregular bases and tops. The fact the nodules weren’t laterally continuous and deformed the layers surrounding them also suggested that diagenesis had occurred. Then, upon investigating what we had previously referred to as a shale, we found that each of these actually represented two distinct characters. The first was a soft and pale grey bed, with no laminations, while the second was a darker, narrower unit sandwiched between the paler sections, sometimes showing laminations. These were a marl and a shale respectively, and the structure of the outcrop seemed to go: limestone, marl, shale, marl, limestone…

The TOC was black and is preserved in anoxic conditions, so we thought it was more likely preserved in the darker layers.

Exploring Ecosystems

Kirsty and Richard then gave us several images of fossils recovered from the Blue Lias, which we used to infer the ecosystem that once existed in this space. There was a great diversity of body fossils, including ammonites, belemnites, starfish, bivalves, crinoids, ichthyosaurs, fish, a piece of wood, and even an aerial pterosaur called Dimorphodon. However, we also saw some trace fossils like Chondrites, Arenicolites, and Thalassinoides, proving the presence of burrowing organisms. This dynamic environment had nektonic and benthic inhabitants, and we used this to infer that the area was probably moderately deep marine. It was not too shallow due to the lack of reef or shelf fauna such as corals, but not too deep due to the presence of the wood and Dimorphodon (a hypothetically poor flyer with limited range), as well as the lack of deep sea fish or shark teeth.

The fossils were preserved in 2D in the darker sediment layers (due to compression) and 3D in the limestone layers. We added the distribution of these fossils to our graphic logs and got to thinking about what the trace fossils can tell us about past oxygen levels. Sediments with more trace fossils have a higher Bioturbation Index (BI). This is a semi-quantitative evaluation of the intensity of bioturbation, which can be related to dissolved oxygen levels in these sediments. The more extensive or larger individual bioturbation showed that oxygen was higher, and this was the case for the lighter sediments. These were also added to our graphic logs, producing finished items like these.

A finished graphic log. Illustration by Adam Manning.

Ammonite Abundance

After lunch we discussed the large quantity of ammonites in the Blue Lias Formation, particularly in the famous ‘Ammonite Pavement’. This is an 18 cm thick bed known as ‘Bed 29’, a 3D model of which is available here. This layer holds an unusually high number of ammonite body fossils, so we were encouraged to think of hypotheses as to why this may be the case, along with methods to test these.

We thought:

[1] A decline in predators or increase in food caused a population boom – so check the layer for increased remains of predators, damage to the shells caused by attack, or the presence of ammonite prey species. Potentially, this is problematic as vertebrate fossils (predators) are rarer, but microfossils could tell us about changes in primary productivity and if there is more food available for higher tropic levels.

[2] This was a spawning/mating site, where ammonites could die after mating or birthing, or it could represent a mass burial event of such a site – so check for the presence of juveniles or sexual dimorphism in individuals.

[3] This layer shows a preservation bias toward ammonite shells (presence of exceptional preservation) – so compare this layer to those above and below for exposure or preservation quality of ammonites.

[4] An ocean current could have dragged the ammonites to the same space – so look for damage or breakage of shells where they may have been transferred, for ripples in the sediment, or a specific preferred orientation of the specimens.

[5] Environmental changes (e.g. salinity, temperature, pH) caused mass mortality – so look at geochemical/isotopic evidence for these changes.

[6] There was a sedimentation rate decrease, preserving a greater accumulation of ammonites in the same bed – so use ammonites and microfossils as biomarkers to see if changes in biostratigraphy show changes in sedimentation, or see if there is an imprint of Milankovitch cyclicity in the succession.

Presentations of Lyme

Our final task was to break off into two groups and deliver brief presentations on ‘The Historical and Scientific Significance of the Site’ and ‘Protection and Preservation of the Blue Lias Formation’. We returned to be joined by Sam Giles as we went through our topics and rounded off the day with another chat about Lyme Regis, fossil collection and preservation strategies, and Mary Anning’s legacy, featuring some rather bizarre headwear on our part.

We’ll continue our field experiences in a later week as the module’s second set of activities gets underway. For now, I’d like to say thank you to Richard, Kirsty, Sam, Jon, and Aerona for this week and all we’ve learned (with the benefit of not getting sunburned in the wilderness).

Image References
[1-4] Images taken using the Dinosaurs of China virtual tour. Click Here.
[5-6] Images taken using the Great North Museum Biological Store virtual tour. Click Here.
[7] Field sketch by J. D. Dixon.
[8] Field sketch by Jack Wood.
[9] The Blue Lias Formation. Image by Ian West.
[10] Graphic Log by Adam Manning.