How to look at dinosaurs in a museum

I’ve been traipsing around North America a lot lately for a fresh burst of museum visits, which got me to thinking about the things I need to do in order to do research in museum collections. I thought I’d share some advice about visiting museum collections – consider this a mix of tips for beginners and experienced collections researchers alike. Obviously this advice is geared towards palaeontological research, but I bet it’s applicable to many other fields as well, and it would be interesting to hear about differences! Also beware, this post is more text-heavy than usual for me!

Before going to the museum:

  • Before visiting a collection, you’ll need to contact a curator or collections manager to request access to the collections. Write a polite (but brief!) email outlining who you are, what you want to see, and the dates you’re interested in visiting.
  • Once you’ve settled on a visit, you should also ask the collections manager or curator what time you should arrive and if there is a special entrance you should arrive at – sometimes you aren’t entering through the regular public entrance but a staff entrance, so make sure you know where to go. If you’re visiting a collection located on a university campus, ask if they can point you towards a campus map, since it’s often a bit more difficult to navigate around unfamiliar campuses. I rarely rent a car when I’m traveling, but if you are arriving via a car, make sure you check out parking rates and locations ahead of time – university parking lots are notoriously expensive for visitors or have restricted access for non-permit holders.
  • It’s also good to ask if the collections are closed during lunch, and what time you need to leave by. I usually also ask (or check the museum’s website) to see if there is a cafe or restaurant nearby for lunch – a notable example where there is no food on site is the Canadian Museum of Nature collections: bring your own lunch if you’re visiting there, as there isn’t any food nearby!

On the plus side, the CMN staff cafeteria looks over a very pleasant pond, and also there is an Amargasaurus to keep you company!

What to bring with you:

  • DSLR camera – although I typically use a point-and-shoot or cellphone camera for fun and casual pictures, for specimen photos I use a DSLR camera. I am by no means an accomplished photographer and I really ought to take some classes or watch some tutorials to get the most out of my camera, but having at least a basic beginner’s DSLR is important for getting publication-worthy specimens photos. BUT, in the earliest days of my MSc I got away with a point-and-shoot digital camera because I had a:
  • Tripod – you can get away with a less good camera if you have a tripod. I have a nice Manfrotto tripod that extends out to about as tall as I am and has a pivoting head. It set me back about $100 CAD, but a tripod is really crucial for getting good photos. A tripod and decent lighting will get you 90% of the way to a good photo if you’re working with large-ish dinosaur fossils; for small fossils, you probably need some different gear.
  • That being said, keep a backup camera on you in case something happens to your ‘good’ camera! I also have had pretty good success pointing a regular digital camera down the eyepiece of a microscope to take pictures when I didn’t really have a proper setup for doing that kind of work. The DSLR didn’t work as well in that instance so I was glad I had my little point-and-shoot camera.
  • Calipers – I have a digital caliper that I love to death because I am a lazy butt and don’t want to fuss about with reading the actual numbers on the calipers. Turn it on, zero it, line it up, and bam you’re done. They are the best. If you work on very small fossils and/or require a super high degree of accuracy, you might want to invest in fancier calipers, but for me these calipers from Canadian Tire get the job done. Pro tip: avoid packing calipers in your carry-on luggage – I have run into trouble with security thinking they could be used as a weapon, and have almost had them confiscated!

My basic kit! If you’ve got these, you’re 90% of the way there.

  • Measuring tape – some of my fossils are too big for my calipers, so I still rely on measuring tape for the large fossils. Also, soft measuring tape is crucial for taking circumference measurements, say if you want to eventually calculate body mass using limb bones. Don’t leave home without measuring tape!
  • Notebook and pencil kit – I am a weirdo who likes to write down my measurements before transferring them to Excel or wherever, so I always keep a lined notebook and a bunch of pens, pencils, pencil crayons, erasers, and pencil sharpeners on hand for museum trips. Secret pro tip: only write on one side of your notebook pages – it seems wasteful, but prevents bleed-through of your notes if you scan your pages later or as ink penetrates the paper, and prevents smudging on opposite pages if you’re using pencil.
  • Scale bars – I keep like a billion scale bars on me at all times because I lose them everywhere. You should always keep a scale bar in your photographs! I like to buy the official Society of Vertebrate Paleontology scale bars (although the new ones are not as good, SVP exec! Bring back the old blue ones!), but I have frequently gotten good freebies at conferences, and some cool credit-card sized ones from the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Canadian Museum of Nature that can stay in my wallet! You can get away with just your measuring tape and/or calipers, but scale bars look nicer.
  • Things I don’t do yet: Portable lights! Most museums have a variety of desk lamps or photography setups for visiting researchers, but not everywhere. While you can still get pretty ok photographs sometimes without extra lighting, sometimes you might want some low-angle lighting to highlight skin impressions or other subtle features, or you might want light to penetrate more deeply into an object, like the palatal region of a skull. I have sometimes included a small flashlight in my kit, for spotlighting areas on fossils and for peering into dark racks and cabinets. I have been considering purchasing a small desk lamp that could travel in my checked luggage – readers, do you travel with your own lighting?
  • While I don’t often use a background cloth, some of my friends travel with either a white or black sheet to lay under fossils. Somewhat counterintuitively, black works well if you have dark fossils, because of the way it makes your camera interpret the light. I don’t mind deleting out backgrounds manually from my photos, but a uniform white or black background probably cuts down the processing time for some people.

At the museum:

  • Be gentle with fossils! Make sure you’re handling fossils carefully, by lifting them at the most sturdy parts and supporting as much as them as possible. Use carts wherever possible, and keep them on foam – if there isn’t foam already on the cart or table, scavenge around the collections until you find some. When photographing specimens in different views, try to keep delicate parts supported on foam or sandbags; if for some reason those things are not readily available, I have occasionally used erasers (white and gum) to provide soft-ish supports for fossils during photography.
  • Be nice to collections managers and curators: put fossils back exactly where you found them, and keep specimen cards with the specimens. If something breaks, tell them!
  • Take more photos than you think you need – make sure you get orthogonal views (top, bottom, sides, etc.), but try varying the angle of your light sources, your zoom, your angle, etc. It’s also helpful to have a variety of close-ups for interesting features (braincases, noses, palates), and to have unorthodox views that might jog your memory or reveal proportions or angles that are lost in orthogonal-only views. Sometimes I literally just walk around the specimen snapping photos, such that I could probably make some photogrammetry models from things I photographed 10 years ago before photogrammetry was a thing. I take hundreds of photos each day during a collections visit.
  • When you’re photographing a specimen, include a least a few photos where you include the original specimen tag – this helps keep the info with the specimen for years later when you may be revisiting old photos.
  • Lunchtime is a good time to visit the exhibits and snoop on how people are interacting with the museum’s interpretive materials, which is one of my favourite creepy pastimes.

Here’s me and my inexplicably hidden face (I obviously haven’t totally figured out this new ‘do yet) working in the Ft Worth collections last week! Working in museum collections is awesome and one of my favourite parts of being a palaeontologist.

After your visit:

  • Download your photos each night and sort them by specimen number. I have a huge folder of all of my specimen photos sorted by museum, visit (when I’ve been to a collection more than once), date, and specimen number. I’m a weirdo and tend to remember things in time-relative terms, so sorting by date helps me remember specimens and correlate back to my notebook; you might prefer to sort by taxon and then museum, or museum and then taxon, or any way that works for you.
  • Scan/photograph/photocopy your notebook as a backup.
  • Send a thank you email to the people who helped you during your visit! It’s just good manners and also it is nice to be nice to other people.

Ok, that’s my slightly too long stream-of-consciousness discussion of museum visit tips and tricks! What things do you bring with you or do in order to have a successful research visit in museum collections? What would you recommend to beginners in the field?

15 thoughts on “How to look at dinosaurs in a museum

  1. +1 to non-orthogonal photos! I wish I had learned that earlier in my career…

    I would add that video commentary can be really helpful, especially if a structure doesn't show up easily on a photo, or if you are working through a particularly hard-to-interpret piece of anatomy (learned this trick from Mark Loewen and Joe Sertich). So, I'll often film a piece of video, where I point out important structures, trace out sutures with my finger, etc.


  2. I find it interesting you like a black background for dark fossils. Maybe it's the relative scales that we're working on, but I find I need the contrast of a white background for dark fossils. For extant skeletal stuff, though, black backgrounds all the way!


  3. I've sometimes had problems with white backgrounds reflecting in weird ways onto dark fossils. . .of course, then the problem with dark backgrounds and dark fossils is that you can get shadows that are tough to distinguish from the bone. Which is really a long way of saying I have no skill as a photographer.


  4. Great post! Personally, I think carry a cheap sheet of black velvet fabric is essential. It makes cropping backgrounds later so much easier by giving you a more-or-less solid colour and reducing shadows. Mine cost about €15. You can also scrunch it up to hold smaller fossils in place while you photograph them, and use it as a support to stop them getting damaged. Also, I agree that you can get great results on a black background even with black fossils.

    Camera-wise, agree totally on needing a dSLR and (most essential) a tripod, but in addition to the often slightly crappy kit lens that is normally supplied with the camera, I would get a sharp, fixed length 50mm lens. I never travel without a high quality macro lens, but I need to photograph small objects. My Manfrotto tripod has a superb feature where the arm will flip from vertical to horizontal, allowing you to place the camera directly above fossils that are lying on the floor or table. Other key bits of camera kit I would never travel without: spare battery, charger, very large memory card, scale bars, and best of all, a remote control. You can get a remote control for very little money, and it is brilliant at reducing camera shake.

    For anyone interested, our research group's camera set-up is a Nikon D5100 with a kit lens, a Nikon fixed 50 mm lens, and a Nikon 105 mm macro lens. We have Manfrotto 055XPROB and 190XPROB tripods with a Manfrotto 322RC2 head.

    Agree that digital callipers are great. As far as soft, flexible tape measures go, take a visit to IKEA and pick up a bunch of those paper tape measures that they give out for free at the shop entrance!

    In the non-essential but useful stuff that we sometimes carry on research trips: graphics tablet for making drawings of the fossils while they are in front of us; DinoLite USB microscope for taking photos of microscopic objects; an Optivisor (a magnifier that you wear on your head); and slidebars for taking stereo photographs.


  5. Oh, the IKEA paper tape measures are a great suggestion! I'm going to have to remember that next time I'm at one.

    Would you mind telling us about slidebars and stereo photographs? I've been curious how exactly one goes about taking stereo photographs – is it a very involved process, and where do you find (or make) slidebars?


  6. I think the way it works is that because you have a dark background, the camera takes in more light and therefore you get a better quality photograph if your fossil is also dark coloured.

    I feel like one of the things palaeontologists and palaeo grad students should do is take a basic course in digital photography, something like you'd do at a rec center or similar. I've been meaning to for ages!


  7. Exactly, Andy, I was going to say the same thing! Also, a quick video of rotating the specimen or walking around it really helps with remembering the 3D shape of the object and how all your 2D photos fit together.

    And yes on “photobombing” the specimen. Digital photos are cheap and fast, and this may be your only chance to visit that museum, so take photos from every possible angle! For important angle shots that I know I will use for publication (like a lateral view of a maxilla, etc), I take multiple photos from very very slightly different angles, as well as different lighting conditions. Many times, when I go to make a figure, I realize that the photo I thought was best is actually very slightly from the wrong angle, so I am always grateful to my past self that I took so many photos. I won't ever use most of them, but you never know which one of them might be very important in the future.


  8. Yes, it's all about “tricking” the camera's light sensors. I'll admit that most of the time, I just leave my camera on “auto” settings. I have a very good camera, and I have found that this works better than me fiddling with settings. I also (and this is sacrilege to most photographers) usually just let the camera use its flash, because the auto settings take crisper photos with the flash on. However, if a specimen is shiny, or I want a certain shadow to highlight a ridge or depression, then I start experimenting with the various lamps available. With a white background, the camera senses enough light that it will not flash, but may not have the right exposure level on the dark specimen. Sometimes I will swap backgrounds and take the same photo on a white, then a black, background, and see which one has better exposure of the fossil.


  9. This is a great post. I agree with everything, and it's exactly what I would have said myself.

    Additional suggestions for pre-visit emailing:

    Ask for recommendations on nearby hotels (prices, safety of neighborhood) and information on public transit if you're farther than walking distance. Even if they give you a recommendation, still do an internet search of your own. When I visited one museum, the collections manager recommended a hotel that was one or two subway stops away, but online I found a nice name-brand hotel that was only two blocks from the museum, and it was much cheaper (and located next to a grocery store)! Somehow the museum staff didn't know it existed, and now they recommend the closer cheaper hotel to visitors.

    It never hurts to ask if there are any grad students that might let you stay at their apartment. Hotels are expensive, and most researchers don't have much money, so let's all help each other out. Buy your hosts dinner or something as a thank-you, and they're happy because they get a free meal, and you're happy because you saved a lot of money on hotels. Also, you can get rides to the museum with them, and staying with paleontologists is great networking time!


  10. Definitely yes to asking about hotel recommendations! One way that I try to save on hotel costs is by splitting the room with fellow grad students/postdocs – many of us in the Currie lab would try to coordinate research trips to places like the AMNH or Tyrrell in order to save on hotel costs. Also it is more fun to visit cities with friends, anyway! One thing I would recommend is balancing safety and cleanliness with cost – I've stayed in some slightly sketchy places before because I was trying to save a few bucks, and in retrospect I would much rather have shelled out a bit more money for a nicer/safer/cleaner hotel and found somewhere else to save the money.

    I disagree, however, about asking to stay with grad students near the museum. While I get the 'it never hurts to ask!' mentality, in my experience it is very, very difficult to say no to people who are asking that kind of favour of you. For me, friends or relatively good acquaintances are welcome in my home, but I would feel really awkward if random grad students asked that favour of me. (Sorry fellow palaeontologists! Y'all are nice, but I'm a bit of a hermit.) The flip side of this is that if you are comfortable sharing your residence with visiting researchers at your own institution, it would be very kind and generous to offer that pre-emptively if you know someone is going to be visiting.


  11. +1 to preemptive offering of accommodations – several very kind individuals did this for me during my grad days. And now that I am in a place with some space, it is good to return the favor!


  12. True, there are many, many reasons why no one may be able to host a visitor, so a visiting researcher should never be offended if no one volunteers their home. That's why I would recommend very politely and gently enquiring from the collections manager/curator whether they know of any people willing to host. Make it clear that you completely understand if no hosts are available, and you are happy to stay in a hotel, but you just thought you'd ask. You are not entitled to someone's couch. Don't go begging around repeatedly through every avenue (multiple museum staff, department secretary, etc). People got your request, and as Victoria said, it is difficult to say no, so they must have had their reasons for not volunteering. Students/staff are often too busy to host, or literally may not have any space for a guest, even on the floor.

    The reason I suggest asking the collections manager/curator whether they know of any potential hosts is because, at my grad museum, the grad students and staff were rarely informed ahead of time about visiting researchers. If we had known a visitor was coming, we could have made plans to spend time networking, going out to meals, etc, even if we weren't able to host them overnight. It's always a shock to walk into collections and see someone unexpected (especially if you already know them or always wanted to meet them). By asking your contact person to do you the small favor of announcing your visit, people will be prepared to spend more time helping you.

    So, as with all professional emails, choose your words carefully and always be positive and polite.


  13. We got these – we bought them in Germany, but it must be possible to get something similar in North America.

    You fix it to the tripod head, fix your camera to it, and then you can wind the camera along the track between left and right positions for stereo photography. Basically, you take one photo, then you wind the camera a few centimetres to the right and take a second one. As long as you get the distance right (lots of information online about what the distance should be) then the stereophotograph will work.

    You can also get decent stereophotograph results, particularly with larger specimens, without a slide bar, just by physically moving the camera yourself. This is probably what most people do, to be honest.


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