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Grass Surprise!

May 11, 2018

Patrick Sweeney called and told me he had made an identification of the grasses from the diorama. The label to the diorama says that the grasses are “Buffalo grass” and “grama grass”. Patrick said that what we have is CERTAINLY not buffalo grass or grama grass, but a type of fescue that is common in Connecticut.
Diorama grass

Connecticut grasses used in the Bison diorama

This is surprising on several levels. The scientific rigor in most of our Peabody dioramas is usually very high-especially when the specimens are identified in the label. Some of my lowest moments as a museum preparator have been when I was called out by a curator or student on a less-than-accurate model I produced and wanted to add to the dioramas. See my (12-13-2016) blog on the “flesh fly” model I installed in the Bog diorama. The entomologist, Ray Pupedis, who is also a trout fly-tying wizard, was less-than-enthusiastic about my model and did his best to hold back a snicker or two when he told me my flesh fly model had to go!

So now, I am confronted with the failings of my mentor, Ralph Morrill who built the foreground with his highly talented apprentice, David Parsons. I am sure it wasn't all Ralph Morrill's fault and that there was curatorial conspiracy in the decision to use Connecticut grasses, but I have to say it shocked me.

Bison install PMNH 1956

Ralph Morrill and Dave Parson's installing the Bison diorama foreground, circa 1956

There is some historical evidence that might provide a clue to the use of non-Wyoming grass. The museum was creating these North American dioramas on a shoestring-financially. Dillon Ripley as director of the Peabody Museum at the time, was trying to secure bison for new taxidermy mounts rather than using the old, cracked, and faded mounts from the American Museum. He succeeded in finding a donation of two bison from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, but the museum couldn't afford to send Morrill and Parsons out to prepare them.

Dillon Ripley to Marion Lambert, Dec. 20, 1956 (PMNH archives)

“After consultation with the staff here, I must report that we cannot see our way to taking them[two bison] off your hands. I am very unhappy to say this, after your efforts on our behalf and your full cooperation. The fact is that the effort in money as well as in time for our staff seems to be unfeasible at this time. By the time the animals have been skinned and transported here, I see at least $700 will have been spent, let alone the time our men which we can spare with equal difficulty…I can only report that what seemed feasible nearly a year ago, now seems too difficult to manage.”

My guess is that the Connecticut grasses were chosen as a financial default, possibly even as a temporary solution until actual buffalo grass and grama grass could be collected from Wyoming and installed. And so, 62 years later, I intend to remove the CT grass and collect and install the correct grass.


Specimen of Buffalo Grass from the Yale Herbarium

Patrick knows botanists in Laramie, WY who can probably have a student go out and collect the appropriate grasses for us. He will check this out and let me know. I also know that our Vertebrate Paleontology preparator, Marilyn Fox, goes on fossil collecting trips every summer for the museum, so I asked her. She is going to Arizona, so probably won't have ready access to prairie grass. But, she told me that there are several crates of fossils from Wyoming in our collections dating from the 1880's packed with prairie grass. She took me into the collections and pulled out three or four crates in which I found some seed stems and a clump of grass that I will check out with Patrick. If it is the right kind of grass, who knows, maybe it can be used!

Fossil packing grass

Fossil crate packing grass

Avangrid Foundation

Posted on May 11, 2018 by Michael Anderson

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Taken from the following blog: Museum Model Making at Yale Peabody