ITHACA, N.Y. –– Bold women are on display at “Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology,” a new exhibition from the Museum of the Earth and the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) that opened March 28 and highlights women paleontologists past and present.
Visitors can follow the dinosaur footprints down a ramp to the exhibition’s entrance, where they can place their faces in a cardboard cutout of two women excavating and travel through time as they learn about women paleontologists’ stories. PRI is a Cornell University-affiliated organization that houses over seven million paleontological specimens, one of the largest collections in the United States. “Daring To Dig” is a temporary physical exhibit at the Museum of the Earth with an accompanying online version. The in-person exhibit will stand until Fall 2021.
Helaina Blume, director of museum exhibits at PRI, said that the idea for the exhibition started with “Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology,” a children’s book written by Beth Stricker, former PRI Director of Exhibitions, and illustrated by Alana McGillis. Now those creators have taken their story off the page.
McGillis’ artistic style can be felt everywhere in the new exhibition –– using the same color palette of greens, browns and mustard yellows that she uses in her illustrations. Actual copies of her illustrations are also being used in exhibit materials –– presented next to profiles of different women of the past, while the modern women paleontologists have a headshot next to their story. McGillis also created the exhibit’s videos about both the modern-day and historical women paleontologists.
“I wanted it to be something that kids would like, so definitely a cartoony version, not hyper-realistic science illustrations, but more like a comic,” she said. “And I was excited to pack as much in there as we could.”
Many of the women featured in the exhibition come directly from “Daring to Dig,” like Mary Anning, a trailblazer for women in the field who is famous for her 1823 discovery of the near-complete skeleton of a marine reptile called a plesiosaur. Blume said one story in the exhibit that struck her is that of Tilly Edinger, a 20th-century German vertebrate paleontologist and the first woman elected president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1963.
Edinger’s research crafted the foundations for paleoneurology, the study of fossil brains. As a Jewish scholar, she conducted her work in secret during the Nazi party’s reign, and in 1939, she escaped Germany and lived in England before she moved again to the U.S. to work at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
“My favorite part of the exhibit was learning about and being inspired by the women paleontologists of the past and present,” Blume said. “These women have faced prejudices and still face them today, however, they have continued to persevere and helped shape the field of paleontology, as we know it today.”
McGillis said it was exciting to speak with Francisca Oboh-Ikuenobe — a palynologist from Ubiaja, a community in the Esan South East Local Government Area of Edo State, who studies microfossils — for the exhibit’s video on her.
“It just felt so cool to actually talk to a scientist and hear her stories and her research in her own voice,” she said. “Especially becoming a paleontologist the 80s, or coming to the United States and having an accent, and being a Black woman and all these other things, she’d brought to the story, [that] was just really, really cool.”
The exhibit expands on the lives of the women spotlighted in the book and includes new stories of women currently working in paleontology. One side of the exhibit is dedicated to women of the past. But as attendees veer right, they will encounter displays of present-day women like Riley Black, a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer who speaks about her experience as a transgender woman in the profession.
Along with the highlighted women — represented through McGillis’ illustrations or photograph headshots — visitors can learn about how visible women in paleontology are. One display includes the historical context for modern women in paleontology and the roles held by women in the field starting in the 1900s. Though more women were starting to work at this time, the workforce was not created with women in mind. As a result, they faced mistreatment in the workplace, the field or the lab.
“The exhibit was designed to allow visitors to explore the lives of women paleontologists, learn the prejudices they faced and still face today, and see some of their greatest accomplishments,” Blume said via email. “Our goals for the exhibit were to spark an awareness and appreciation of the long legacy of women in paleontology, people’s ability to overcome societal challenges (gender-based prejudices) and the number and kinds of challenges faced by historical and contemporary women through the stories of these influential and important paleontologists.”
Elizabeth Hermsen, a research scientist at PRI, and another instrumental hand in making the exhibit come to life helped shape the narratives of each profile and found supplemental material to put in the online exhibit. Shortened versions of each woman’s profile are displayed in the in-person exhibit, and full editions of them can be found online.
Hermsen said that in the past, women paleontologists usually worked with their families, typically under the direction of their fathers or husbands. As a result, their contributions to the profession can be hidden. Moving into the late 19th century, Hermsen said that women take a more dominant stance in taking ownership of their contributions in a more formal way.
However in more recent years, despite taking ownership of their achievements, women are still underrepresented in paleontology. At four-year college and university Departments of Geoscience in the United States as of 2017, 25 percent of paleontology faculty were women while as of 2018, women supervisors of fossil collections comprised only 18 percent of the job force across the county. As of 2019, 36 percent of women and nonbinary people make up the nonprofit organization Paleontological Society, and from 1963–2019, only 7 percent of women, or 4 out of 56, have won the Paleontological Society Medal, the highest honor of paleontology.
“(The exhibition is) kind of tracing this evolution of how women were more included in the field as time went on and given more credit as time went on,” Hermsen said. “It was one of the big challenges, I guess, with telling the story in some places. … I do think there has been more of a push to recognize the contributions of women and maybe other peoples of other groups … whose contributions may have been hidden in the past and to bring them forward today. But there’s probably still a lot of work to be done in that regard.”