Forgive us. We nearly didn’t notice until late 2018 that the year marked the 25th anniversary of the UCMP website! We decided that early 2019 was a good time to celebrate that milestone since the site is undergoing a somewhat radical redesign, only the fourth big design change in its history.
We felt that this was also a good time to look back at those 25 years and pick out some of the highlights. I contacted website founders Rob Guralnick, currently Associate Curator of Biodiversity Informatics, Department of Natural History and the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, and P. David Polly, Professor of Geological Sciences, Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, to see what they remembered from the early days. They both recalled a fair bit.1
The origins of the site can be traced to 1992 and Rob Guralnick. He received his BA from UC Berkeley that spring and then spent a year as a systems administrator for both Professor Tony Barnosky (maintaining ArcGIS) and the museum. During this time he began running a gopher server — enabling searches on the UCMP collections database (thanks to WAIS indexing) — and learning about the internet, which was at that time transitioning to the modern form we see today. Rob was admitted to the Ph.D. program in the Department of Integrative Biology (Dave Lindberg’s lab) in 1993 and felt that he no longer had the time to deal with systems administration, so that responsibility passed to grad student Dave Polly.
Dave recalls that “Rob was in touch with everything internet and he had heard about this new thing, the ‘web,’ which he showed me.” Dave says he was “incredulous” when he saw what it was capable of doing. It was Rob’s idea to set up a web server at UCMP so Dave did just that in August 1993, marking the birth of the UCMP website. The searchable collections database became a primary component of the site. Dave tells me “We converted that into the www site, both with a direct search interface and embedded in customized web pages about particular taxa. The idea was to connect users with the primary fossil evidence about the groups.” According to Rob, “When we first announced our web site, we were one of only a hundred web sites in existence, and one of only two museums on-line.”2 Dave describes what building web pages was like at that time:
You downloaded source, configured it, then compiled. The [web] world was small enough that you worked with the authors of the [algorithm/application] packages to debug. I recall corresponding with Tim Berners-Lee [founder of the World Wide Web] about the configuration. The first pages weren’t much.
Rob, Leigh Anne [Leigh Anne McConnaughey, currently Digital Asset Specialist at the Florida Museum of Natural History] (now Rob’s wife), and I played around over the next few months, and later in the fall is when we did the coherent redesign that had Huff [William Gordon Huff’s sculptures] on the front page.3
Dave went on to describe what working with images was like:
We had neither scanner nor means of transferring files from a scanner to the server. We took the photos down to the local copy store who scanned them onto a disk, which we then carried back to UCMP. We edited all the graphics in XPaint on the Sun workstation. In 1993 the only web browsers were for UNIX (except Lynx, the text-only browser). So we edited the graphics for display on the Sun’s screen. The PC version of Mosaic was released somewhere in there, and our images were way [too] big for PC screens (as some of the early coverage of the UCMP website mentioned!).
Dave and Rob served jointly as webmasters for the remainder of 1993. Grad student Allen Collins, with help from Rob, was the next to take on the job and he was the first webmaster to actually be paid for his efforts. In early 1994, Allen and Museum Scientist Tony Fiorillo began creating web pages and they were soon joined by grad students Ben Waggoner, Brian Speer and Brian Simison. At first, the site had a vertebrate focus but the new page authors had other areas of expertise so it expanded “to encompass all the diversity of life.”4
The students began adding pages to the website at a furious pace. By 1996 the site had grown to well over 2,000 pages and had quickly become the premier paleontology website, attracting the attention of educators and the media, receiving several awards.5 Between January 1995 and June 1999, Ben Waggoner and others kept track of favorable website reviews; “Best of the Web,” “Site of the Day,” “Editor’s choice,” “Top site,” and similar accolades for the UCMP website can be found on this very dated page. With the exception of the webmaster (from 1994 on) all these students worked on the website on a voluntary basis — they received no compensation for their efforts. The thrill of using this new technology to disseminate information on a global scale was enough to inspire them.
This early iteration of the site was dominated by three main pathways: one was a path to explore the diversity of life phylogenetically; a second was to explore the history of life through geologic time; and a third was to explore the history of evolutionary thought by reading about various topics and scientists who have contributed to our modern understanding of evolution. All of these pages were cross-linked so visitors could “roam” the site freely.
Judy Scotchmoor, a middle school science teacher, had recently been hired to fill a new Museum Relations position to “formalize UCMP’s outreach and professional development programs.”6 Judy, who would later become Assistant Director of Education and Public Programs, quickly saw that the internet could be a fantastic educational tool and began to ponder new ways to use it in improving science education.
I joined the Education and Public Programs unit as a graphic designer in 1996; helping to maintain and create new web pages was part of my job. I became one member of a team of UCMP faculty, staff and grad students, as well as local science teachers, assisting Judy in the planning of “modules that provide basic natural science education at the university and college level, as well as grades K-12.”7
Work on Explorations Through Time began in the summer of 1998 and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Pacific Bell soon followed. The Explorations modules included “Life Has a History,” “Origins of Flight,” “Getting into the Fossil Record,” “Stories from the Fossil Record,” “Understanding Geologic Time,” “What Did T. rex Taste Like?” and “Adventures at Dry Creek.” Descriptions of these individual modules can be found in the May 2002 issue of UCMP News. The Explorations modules were used by educators and students around the world and some were translated into other lanuguages.8
Grad student Brian Simison succeeded Allen Collins as webmaster in 1997 and served in that capacity until mid-2000 when Colleen Whitney became the first staff person to take on the job. Partnering with the Berkeley Digital Library, Colleen provided a new and improved searchable collections catalog in late 2002. She also replaced the website’s old WAIS search with a search engine developed by an upstart company called Google. These were both wonderful new resources, not only for researchers and the public, but for the staff as well — it suddenly became easy to find anything, no matter how deeply buried within the website.
In July 2000, a major redesign of the UCMP website was unveiled — for which I must take some credit — the first since the initial launch of the site. The site was given an entirely new home page and was divided into five main sections: “About UCMP,” “What’s New,” “Discover the History of Life,” “Collections” and “Other Resources.”
By October 2000 the site had grown to over 3,000 pages. In May 2002 there were more than 5,000. The website was only nine years old at this point but information contained in many of the pages created in the 1990s was already outdated. Unfortunately, the grad students who had been voluntarily adding to the website had earned their degrees and moved on, leaving the museum with an impossible task. UCMP lacked the funds to pay new students to bring content up to date and the Education and Public Programs unit hadn’t the staffing, expertise or time to deal with it. Besides, their attention had been diverted to the creation of stand-alone, ancillary websites such as Understanding Evolution and The Paleontology Portal. Work began on both of these sites in 2002 and both were launched in 2004.9
Nevertheless, new content slowly and steadily continued to be added to the UCMP website. Following the discovery of mammoth bones near the Mineta San Jose Airport in 2005, UCMP staff and students collected and prepared the specimen. A special web exhibit chronicling the collection and preparation of the mammoth was posted in 2006. MIOMAP was announced in early 2007 but it had been functional since 2005.10 A website blog was initiated in July 2009 and new posts continue to be added today. In 2010, Fossil eggshell: Fragments from the past, a special exhibit created in collaboration with researchers from the University of Colorado and Montana State University, was added. An exhibit made in collaboration with CalTrans called The geology and paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel’s Fourth Bore was completed in the final days of 2013. Another University of Colorado collaborative exhibit, Fossil footprints through geologic time, went public in 2014. To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service Fossils in our parklands: Examples of UCMP service and stewardship went up in spring 2015.
Josh Frankel, who had joined the Education and Outreach unit of UCMP in 2003, assumed the webmaster job in the summer of 2004. Josh headed another major redesign of the UCMP website (the third) in 2006, switching from straight html to server-side php between May and September. But the problem of updating content remained.
Judy Scotchmoor retired in 2013 and Lisa White stepped in as the new Assistant Director for Education and Public Programs. Planning for a fourth ancillary website, Understanding Global Change, began in 2014. Under the leadership of Project Scientist Jessica Bean, a conceptual framework for understanding global change was developed, and in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Web BioInteractive on Understanding Global Change was launched in the fall of 2018. The full web resource will debut in spring 2019.
Josh Frankel left UCMP in 2015 to pursue other opportunities and Trish Roque, who had worked with UCMP previously in different capacities, took over the webmastering duties. For this 2019 makeover of the UCMP website, Trish used WordPress as the framework, focusing on a clean design and structure to readily accommodate mobile devices. She has also adopted the Berkeley brand — visual design guidelines to establish a clear Berkeley identity — launched by the campus in February 2013.
Only top level pages and those most frequently visited will be converted to the new design for now. Since funds and staffing are expected to remain in short supply, the museum must accept that thousands of pages will never be updated; I asked Joyce Gross, who keeps an eye on our server, just how many pages ending in .htm or .html are on the UCMP website today and the answer stunned me: more than 14,000! Of course, there’s probably a lot of duplication in there, as well as deprecated pages, but there are still several thousand unique, accessible pages for sure. Sometime in the near future many of them will have to be archived, resulting in a leaner, meaner and more relevant website. Long live ucmp.berkeley.edu!
- Quotes and other information on the early days from P. David Polly and Rob Guralnick, “p.s. — yet more on UCMP website” and “Birth of the UCMP website,” emails to the author, 7 and 9 Feb 2019
- Rob Guralnick, “the faces behind the scenes,” UCMP News, Sep 1996, p. 4.
- The first home page featured sculptures created by William Gordon Huff for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-1940. The home page underwent minor modifications during the first six years of the site’s existence with Huff’s sculptures retaining prominence until 2000 when the first big redesign took place.
- Guralnick, “the faces …”.
- UCMP’s website won honorable mention in the Best Educational Service category at the First International Conference on the World-Wide Web (WWW1) held in Geneva, Switzerland, May 1994. It won a Scientific American Sci/TEch Web Award in May 2001 as one of “the 50 sites deemed most valuable as science and technology resources.”
- “Judy Scotchmoor, UCMP’s science educator, to retire,” UCMP News, Jul 2012.
- “Sun Shines on UCMP,” UCMP News, Feb 1996, p. 1.
- “Web Notes,” UCMP NewsUCMP News, Oct 2003, p. 3. There was interest in translating Explorations into German by the Natural History Museum of Bavaria in 2002; see “Web Notes,” UCMP NewsUCMP News, Jan 2002, p. 3.
- Read about the Understanding Evolution launch; The Paleontology Portal launch.
- Read the UCMP News article about MIOMAP.
- Read about the Understanding Science launch.