Hidden histories abound around here.
Kirk Johnson, then at DMNS, holding a 1961 issue of National Geographic magazine describing Oregonian fossil collector extraordinaire Douglas Emlong. (Dave Bohaska had a copy in his office). On the left page, Emlong chips away at a fossil pecten; opposite is USNM 215068, now a referred skull of the extinct pinniped Proneotherium and USNM 186887, teeth belonging to a desmostylid.
Earlier this spring, NMNH hosted a conference with a buzzwordy title: 21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings. The title didn't immediately grab me, but when I heard more about the conference, I was intrigued: one goal, in building its participant list, was for representative institutions to send both an educator and a scientist. The idea was to spur dialogue about the future of natural history by involving two groups who need to understand one another better. And, pretty soon, I began to hear from like-minded colleagues who were also attending. (Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of paleontologists).
At the meeting, I had time to catch up with Kirk Johnson, then Chief Curator and VP of Research and Collections at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Kirk headlined the plenary list for the event; he was also spending some time in the Smithsonian Archives, reading up on Douglas Emlong, one of the great fossil collectors, but largely forgotten outside of marine mammal circles. Why Emlong and why the archives?
At the time, Kirk was working on a book with his longtime collaborator Ray Troll on the coastal fossils of North America -- a seaside follow-up to Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway. Kirk's interest in Emlong actually goes back to a National Geographic magazine article, in 1961, that featured a young Emlong and his growing collection of fossils from Oregon's coast in Lincoln County. Many years later, the majority of Emlong's collection, which included fossils of ancient marine mammals found nowhere else in the world, were sent to NMNH. (For a detailed summary, see Clayton Ray's 1977 account in Systematic Zoology). Emlong's trove is unparalleled, and to this day, we're still uncovering treasures, which reveal evolutionary and ecological glimpses into a time period that is poorly understood by marine mammalogists. Also, as part of NMNH's holdings, the definitive collection of Emlongiana -- his notes, photos, letters, and even album recordings -- are curated by Smithsonian Archives. As we paged through Emlong's hidden history, we realized how much more there is to say about the complex relationship between Emlong and my predecessors at the museum.
I'm excited to see what Ray Troll dreams up for Emlong. And the most interesting twist to this story? Kirk's now Sant Director of NMNH. The braided connections captured by the photo at the start of this post said more than we all realized at the time.