Carmel Church

Part of Exhibition: Uncovering Virginia



of an Exhibit

by Ryan Barber

Published on March 19, 2009

  • Museum: Virginia Museum of Natural History

  • Visit Date: Year 2009

  • Website(s):

  • Description:

    *Co-authored with Dr. Alton Dooley, assistant curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

    The Uncovering Virginia gallery features recreations of six VMNH research sites that represent time periods ranging from 300 million years ago to 300 years ago. For each site, displays of actual fossils excavated at that site are accompanied by interactive components that allow visitors to manipulate fossil replicas. In the way, each visitor can “become a scientist” by examining evidence and then comparing that evidence to previously identified material.

    Another important but little-known facet of research is the scientist’s imagination. Animals and plants that today are represented only by fossil evidence were, in the past, living organisms that interacted with one another in a variety of ways. As scientists excavate a research site, they use their vivid imaginations to re-create in their minds a menagerie of past animals and the environments they occupied.

    In its new permanent galleries, VMNH used innovative A-V media techniques to bring to life each of the six research sites. These A-V animations allow visitors to “see into the past” and to experience the scientists’ re-creation of animals and environments from that place and that time. Original sound-beds enhance the experience, by suggesting the cacophony of sounds that one might have heard during each of the eras.

    The Carmel Church exhibit presents preliminary results of a research site currently being excavated and studied by the scientists at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The site is a dense bone bed of fossil whales, sharks, and other marine animals that lived 14 million years ago. It includes a large number of species, which are often only represented by scraps of bone that are not necessarily visually compelling (or easily identified), making it a challenge to the engaged visitor.

    The centerpiece of the exhibit is a reconstruction of the partially-excavated Carmel Church site, with numerous fossil remains, a monitor-and-trackwheel control panel in front of the reconstruction, and an overhead projection screen presented as if looking up from the seafloor. The control screen displays a navigable, zoomable image of the bone bed, which visitors can explore using a cursor, designed to look like a paleontological brush. When a bone from the model is selected, a new screen appears with an information page about that bone. In keeping with the active research theme, the data is presented in a “field notebook” style, and the text is a font based on the lead scientist’s handwriting. In addition, some of the specimens are only partly identified or listed as “unidentifiable” to emphasize the incomplete nature of the research.

    Four of the species in the bone bed offer a special surprise. When a visitor selects the bones of a whale, shark, ray, and sea turtle, they trigger an animated silhouette of the selected species, swimming overhead, as if they were under the sea looking up towards the surface. The presence of more than 50 specimens representing 20 species in the reconstruction, with only about 10% of them activating animation, keeps the visitor engaged and ensures that repeat visitors never have the exact same experience.

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