Connecting Anatomy & Paleontology: Anatomy Connected 2023 Plenary Speaker Matthew Carrano

(Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

In 2019, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History closed for a major five-year renovation that included its dinosaur and fossil halls. Now, the 31,000-square-foot Deep Time Fossil Halls is open to the public and at least one Smithsonian employee couldn’t be more pleased or proud.

As Smithsonian’s Curator of Dinosauria, Matthew Carrano played a big part in making sure the new Deep Time Fossil Halls would tell a cohesive and engaging story of more than 3 billion years of evolution while keeping museum goers coming back for more.

“In a museum environment, you’re encountering so many people but only for a short amount of time. It’s not like at a university – you have no leverage, there is no exam coming,” said Carrano, who will discuss the role anatomy played in renovating and designing the new space on Friday, March 24 at Anatomy Connected 2023.

“Anatomy is not the main thing we do as a paleontology department, so to be able to bring that in, that was my expertise to the project,” he said.

The New Age of Dinosaur Exhibits – And Dinosaur Curators

Carrano knew he wanted to be a paleontologist from the time he was a kid, “but had no idea what that meant as a job,” he said. “It was clear there were three options for being a paleontologist and getting paid in the 1980s – become a professor, work in a museum, or the hidden job, which is teaching human anatomy. There are a whole bunch of human anatomy programs where the professors are actually paleontologist, but outside the field, it’s a total mystery.”

Carrano, who got his PhD in Organismal Biology & Anatomy from the University of Chicago, taught human anatomy at the dental school at Stony Brook University for five years while when the Smithsonian position popped up.

“The Smithsonian had never had a dinosaur curator before. Well, they did but he died in 1946,” Carrano said. “And that was the case for museums in many countries during that time because dinosaurs weren’t considered a serious subject. Museums didn’t care about them as a research topic. They had them for display and that was it.”

Smithsonian’s new Deep Time Fossil Hall, however, is not your grandfather’s museum exhibit. Here, the dinosaurs are doing things. “There’s a dinosaur scratching its nose. We have a rhino taking a nap. So hopefully, the physicality of the animals is what’s evoking responses and is geared toward the stories we’re telling in the hall,” Carrano explained. “That was important to show that they are animals, and people should have a reaction to a real animal, not an alien life form.”

Anatomy and vertebrate paleontology play a big part in how the specimens are interacting with the space and what pose will best tell the story of the history of the earth and dinosaurs’ roles in it. “We focus on evolution, form and function. How do we know what these things are and how they’re related to other things,” Carrano continued. “Some of it is strictly anatomical–What is this for and what is it doing?” 

Also, because it is a museum, typical visitor questions must also be addressed, including “How do you know it’s a dinosaur?” “A big part of putting this exhibit together was meshing raw scientific content with the design and physical needs of an exhibit and then the educational desires of the institution and its visitors,” he said.

Carrano and his team have also worked on ways to energize the experience for visitors, including hands-on learning spaces with temporary demonstrations, such as a dissection of an alligator. “It’s the thing about anatomy. It can be simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, which is an opportune space where people’s brains are quite alive,” Carrano continued. “It was the same with us. The room was packed, people came and stayed for like, 30 minutes. It was also an opportunity to have a conversation about what looks like [it does in] us and what looks completely different.”

Anatomy Connected 2023 will be Carrano’s first AAA event. “I’m excited to be in a room full of anatomists, which I rarely get to be in, and not just the ones I already know,” he said. “And getting reintroduced to all the other dimensions of anatomy we don’t get to talk about with fossils. It’s very invigorating to get perspectives outside of your immediate home, intellectually speaking.”

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