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What’s in a Name?

Naming things.
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We all do it.

You know the process you go through to select the name of your child — starting out with lists that you may have kept since you were a child, refining it based upon people you’ve met along the way, choosing from names that are fashionable, popular or unique at the time your child is born. Or waiting until you meet your little one to see what name fits. Then experiencing the almost magical way in which their name takes on their essence as the child grows.

We think about names around the Utah Museum of Natural History, too.  Though for us, it’s less about Thomas or Ashley and more about taxonomy.

Okay, that’s a word that I hadn’t encountered until working at the Museum.  But taxonomy, or the way in which organisms are named by science, forms the foundation on how you and I end up interpreting — even "seeing" — the world around us! And, believe it or not, museums play an critical role in keeping all those names organized!

Richard Fortey, the "trilobite man" at London’s Natural History Museum, explains in his great memoir, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, about the important role museums play in naming:

"The most important single feature of the great collections [held by museums] is that they form the basis for naming the living world.  They are the reference system for nature. The curated specimens are the ground truth for the scientific names of animals, plants and minerals. The naming of organisms is called taxonomy.

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"All those cabinets I passed when I explored the Natural History Museum in London were the storehouses for the still-growing catalogue of what is now often termed biodiversity, the richness of the living world."

Last spring, we introduced to Museum visitors a 10-foot-long young Ceratopsian dinosaur puppet.  This puppet is part of our weekly museum theater piece, The Dino Show: Live from Laramidia. It is an artistic expression of scientific researchundertaken by the Museum’s paleontology team, specifically "Dr. Scott" Sampson and Mark Loewen (pictured above with one of his "babies"). Over 3,000 people have come to the Museum to see the show and meet the puppet, but he doesn’t have a name! Why?

The puppet is based upon the identification of a new species of dinosaur that Scott and Mark discovered in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  After discovering this huge fossil, airlifting it out of the Monument, and then prepping and studying it for years in the Museum’s Paleontology Prep Lab, they have determined that this is a brand new species of Ceratopsian dinosaur.  They then documented their research findings, submitted those findings to other scientists to review and comment on, and, once the scientific community agrees that this is indeed a new species, then they will get to name it! That name then becomes the universal code — or understanding — of the unique characteristics of that species!

So, what is the name of our puppet? Well, I don’t know yet.  But I have it on good authority that the world will know soon!  Watch for information about the publishing of Scott and Mark’s research, the announcement of the dinosaur species name, and a public event at the Museum with the fossil cast and the scientists very soon.

In the meantime, play the Name Game with us at the Museum this fall. And thanks for indulging me in a lesson about taxonomy!

— Janet

P.S. While an adult non-fiction book, Fortey’s "Dry Storeroom #1" is a great read aloud for families with older children, especially if they enjoy science, nature, dinosaurs, bugs, or if you are a family of Anglophiles, like mine.  We’ve discovered many interesting facts and tid-bits about 20th Century England through Fortey’s anecdotes and great photographs! Enjoy!


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