In 1962, when Mary Dawson was appointed assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), the director assured her, "No woman will ever be a curator here." Today Dawson smiles when she remembers that story. But she has a lot to smile about: thirty-six years later, not only is she Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, she is also the Chair of the Division of Earth Sciences at CMNH.
Dawson's current research focuses on the origins of rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares, and their relatives). She is also interested in animal life during the Eocene era, 55 to 40 million years ago. Her longtime interest in animals was nurtured by her childhood on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and by her family's love of animals. "Paleontology and the study of vertebrate fossils were a natural extension of these interests," says Dawson.
In the years since she first became interested in fossil records, scientists have changed the way they view the surface of the earth, Dawson explains. The stabilist theory, which was generally accepted until about 30 years ago, concluded that the continents of the earth have been in their current locations since the formation of the planet. In the 1960s, however, the theory of plate tectonics gained prominence. This theory postulates that the plates that make up the crust of the earth are constantly moving, causing the continents to shift subtly. Scientists now hypothesize that animals might have at one time been able to move directly from continent to continent. This possibility convinced Dawson and three other paleontologists to make several trips during the 1970's to Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands in the Arctic Ocean where they uncovered fossil evidence that mammals had in fact once journeyed from Europe to North America. "At that time there were alligators, soft-shell turtles, even small monkeys in the Arctic," says Dawson.
Although the field of paleontology has traditionally been dominated by men, Dawson says that she has faced very few obstacles as a woman. "I never took an overt approach. I just did my own thing," says Dawson. Yet she cheerfully described how she was given a Paleontologist Barbie for Christmas. To her dismay, the largest item in the doll's tool box was her hairbrush. "Obviously there's still a long, long way between Barbie and reality," says Dawson.
Dawson's office, cluttered with worn books, yellowed newspaper clippings, maps, crumbling postcards, awards, and boxes upon boxes of bones, represents her many productive years at CMNH. The institution is an ideal location for her studies because its strong endowments support research and field projects. The museum also has a number of large collections that have been well maintained and computerized.
Dawson is also proud of CMNH's excellent teaching program, which is largely greared toward young children. "All kids want to be either firemen, astronauts, or archeologists," says Dawson. "Of course, not one in a thousand or even a hundred will ever become an archeologist or a paleontologist, but our real goal is to encourage their interests in science." Unfortunately many of the sciences are neglected in elementary and high school schools, she says. Museums have traditionally been able to stimulate young appetites for science where schools often fall short.
During her tenure as curator, she has also seen scientists and museum directors developing innovative ways to introduce new concepts-video and interactive media, for example. The CMNHcollections are very specimen-oriented. Although the objects are well presented and well preserved, many visitors are not satisfied to simply look at specimens; instead they want to understand the whole story behind the objects. Museums have a responsibility to present as much of that story as possible-as creatively as possible- says Dawson.
Dawson, however, looks less favorably on the emerging trend in museums to create an entertaining rather than an educational environment. She believes that museums should challenge their visitors to think in new ways, not simply play games with them. "People can go anywhere to throw a ball. Museums are not, and should not be, amusement parks," she says. "People are genuinely interested in our collections. But we need to show them just how exciting these collections really are."