I’m doing an independent study with art faculty member Rich Pell this semester in parallel with a class he’s teaching, Mining the Museum. I am currently progressing on my final project, which will be a small temporary installation or series of installations in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Here I’ll summarize the current plan for the project as it’s in progress. In the next handful of weeks I’ll be building these ideas out and installing and testing them in the museum.

Funny Bones: a three-part exhibit

After coming up with five or six different ideas for museum installations in the CMNH, and truly too many weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally had a very productive discussion with Rich today in which he showed me that a few of my ideas were thematically similar and could be reasonably combined together. Now I’m feeling good about the plan which ties together three ideas all relating to bones. Hence the working title of the overall exhibit, “Funny Bones.”

Here are the three ideas:

1. Hairy frog’s crazy claws

The animal

There’s a Central African frog with two very peculiar, though seemingly unrelated, features that set it aside from other frogs. The animal’s Linnean name is Trichobatrachus robustus, though it’s also called “hairy frog” commonly, or so says Wikipedia. It earned that name by having a whole bunch of hair-like structures coming out of the sides of its abdomen in a pretty unusual fashion.

hairy frog image from Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1901) via archive.org

These hairs are theorized to give the frogs additional breathing skin surface area so that they can sit underwater guarding their egg clutches for a longer time. (Amphibians can breathe through their skin when submerged, so given more skin area they should be able to breathe more efficiently.)

In addition to the hairs, though, there’s another fascinating trick this frog can do which is unknown in any other animal. Notice the small barbs at the ends of its phalanages (finger bones) in the Zoological Society illustration above, figure 3. These phalanges are typically inside the animal’s fingers and so those spiky points don’t much matter to a predator. However, the frog can pull a muscle affixed to the phalanx (singular of phalanges) so that the most distal bone will break out of its usual position, rotate its joint, and pull through the frog’s finger, exposing the sharp spike.

Plenty of animals have claws, but claws are made of keratin (as are horns and hair). This frog is able to break part of its finger bones, pull it through their finger skin, and make a spike out of it. No wonder one of its common names is the “Wolverine frog.” (That’s Wolverine the Marvel character, not wolverine the mammal.) A 2008 “Biology Letters” paper provides an excellent study of the mechanism of this crazy trick.

The exhibit

Given this bizarre and incredible animal’s ability to expose part of its skeleton, I’d like to illustrate the biomechanics behind the phenomenon. There are two possible ways I’m going to investigate going about this:

  • building a model of the action that’s manipulable by museum visitors, so they can see the basic interlink between muscle and bone; or
  • creating a simple version of the mechanism that visitors can assemble themselves and take home. In this second case I’ll either find low-cost materials appropriate for the model (popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.), or design and lasercut custom parts.

I’ll be getting to this mechanical building/exploration shortly and will post some updates as I progress.

2. Beaky bird’s freaky tonguebone

The animal

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), a North American bird who wears a lovely red hat, does what most woodpeckers do: percussively drills holes in trees to eat insects under the surface of the bark. I was looking at a bird skeleton in the Section of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and asked a curator about a strange elongated bone I noticed in a different woodpecker specimen, and he showed me this M. carolinus skull of a bird that apparently flew into a window in 1997:

M. carolinus skull author’s image of Carnegie Museum of Natural History specimen, catalog #S16454

It turns out that the M. carolinus, like many (all? I don’t know) woodpeckers, has an exquisitely long, skinny bone that attaches to its tongue at one end and wraps around the neck, to the back of the skull, and up around to the top of the skull. This very long, flexible bone is called the hyoid bone and in woodpeckers it apparently serves two purposes. It allows the animal to stick its barbed tongue far into trees and pull back hard, to retrieve insects inside. It also is implicated in the woodpecker’s ability to not concuss itself into oblivion, though the mechanism by which it does that is a little trickier and there is not consensus about it.

The exhibit

As with the T. robustus frog above, I have a few different approaches I’m considering taking to share the oddness and beauty of the hyoid bone. Three ideas:

  • I’ll build a manipulable model of the bird’s skull with hyoid attached. Using some sort of slider or knob, the visitor can move the hyoid back and forth so as to extend and retract the tongue.
  • I’ll make a small take-home model of the mechanism using low-cost or custom lasercut materials (or both) so that visitors can build and keep their own analogue demonstration of the hyoid.
  • I’ll make an interactive be-a-bird device. I’m thinking this would mean taking a helmet and adding long skinny tubes to it imitating the path of the hyoid bone, and coming together in a point maybe 6” in front of the user’s face. They would be movable so that the “tongue” could extend and retract, and a user would need to extend the tongue to then be able to stick it into a long skinny hole in order to retrieve a bug that’s otherwise out of reach. (Likeliest a magnet at the end of the tongue would grab a magnetic bug, or perhaps velcro hooks on the tongue would grab a velcro loops–covered bug.)

3. You are filled with bones

The third piece of the exhibit is about human bones.

On the inside

After having seen a funny finger bone in a frog and a funny tongue bone in a bird, visitors might think, “well those are crazy bones inside those crazy animals.” But we humans also have these same bones, just not quite in the same configuration. Our phalanges look an awful lot like the bones inside the frog’s hands and feet, though hopefully ours remain safely inside our fingers for the most part.

And we also have, it turns out, our own version of the hyoid bone. It really does not look much like the woodpecker version, though: it in fact sits in the front-middle of our neck and interestingly is the only bone in the human skeleton that is not attached to another bone. It’s anchored in place by muscles and ligaments. It’s attached to the larynx (the speech organ) as well as the base of the tongue (just like in the woodpecker!). However, unlike the woodpecker’s hyoid, ours is fairly compact, though its U shape with long “horns” suggests the beginnings of the long extensions the woodpecker evolved.

human hyoid bone image from Wikimedia Commons

Both of these bones are visible on a vertically-mounted human study skeleton which the Carnegie Museum of Natural History keeps in a classroom space. I’d like to bring this skeleton onto the museum floor along with the rest of my exhibit pieces and either attach paper markers indicating the hyoid and phalanges, or otherwise indicate which bones are without touching the skeleton if that’s not permissible.

At the museum

Generally the way we treat human remains is quite different from the way we treat animal remains. I’d like to document some of the different places around the museum where there are people or pieces of people and make a small photo exhibition surveying these. The only human remains I’m familiar with that are on exhibition is a semimummified adult skeleton in a fetal pose in the Egypt exhibition, though I’ll need to confirm there aren’t any other remains I’ve looked over.

I’d like to photograph that Egyptian skeleton, as well as the study skeleton that resides in the classroom, and any other remains that are on display. I’d also like to either a) photograph other remains that are in storage as part of the museum’s collection, or, if that’s not possible, b) photograph the location where these remains are held (like the outside of the drawer unit, for instance.)

I don’t have a grand thesis for this human-remains exhibition; I’m just interested in the different ways that parts of humans are preserved, stored, and exhibited in the museum setting. I believe that putting some images of these together may provide an interesting juxtaposition of the institutional disposition of human remains.