Hallucigenia. Courtesy Mary Parrish and the National Museum of Natural History.


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, and a billion years later only the most primitive life inhabited its oceans. These single-celled bacteria remained the planet’s dominant life forms for the next 3 billion years.

Suddenly, in a burst of evolutionary creativity beginning about 600 million years ago, complex multicellular animals appear in the fossil record. Much of what we know about the so-called “Cambrian Explosion” comes from a unique fossil deposit found in the Canadian Rockies. Discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Burgess Shale ranks as one of the 20th century’s most significant paleontological finds.

The amazing array of creatures preserved in the Burgess Shale includes the ancestors of virtually all modern animals while other organisms found there are unlike anything alive today. What did these extraordinary creatures look like? How did so many body designs appear in such a short period of time? How are these sometimes bizarre-looking animals related to contemporary species? Through models, photographs, simple interactives, and selected Burgess Shale specimens from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) collection, the exhibition demonstrates the events and implications of this biological “big bang.”

Some of the animals to evolve during this exciting period include Anomalocaris—a gigantic beast for its time at three feet long—that roamed the seas, preying on smaller creatures. And little Pikaia, a slightly flattened worm, harboring a special trait: a notochord or stiffening rod that makes it the earliest known representative of our own phylum, Chordata.

Dr.Douglas H. Erwin of NMNH is the exhibition curator and co-author of The Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Smithsonian Books). The Burgess Shale: Evolution’s Big Bang explores current theories about the “Cambrian Explosion,” shows how interpretations of some of the most mysterious fossils have changed over time, and tells fascinating tales of the paleontologists who have worked to uncover the secrets of early life on Earth.

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Exhibition specifications

Contents 7 Cambrian specimens, floor case with diorama, 4 mechanical interactives, 7 flip panels, text panels

Companion book , educational resources, PR materials, digital graphic templates

Participation Fee

$10,000 for a 12 -week booking period


2,000 sq. feet (185 sq. meters)

Crates 14

2,020 kg ( 4,485 lb.)

Category Science & Natural History
Security Moderate

Prorated, SITES-designated carrier

SITES Contacts

Ed Liskey, 202.633.3142 (Scheduling)
Jennifer Bine, 202.633.3106 (Content)

Toured Through 2007
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Tour itinerary

Dates   Host Institution Status
7/7/01 9/30/01 Calgary Science Centre, Calgary, Canada Booked
10/20/01 1/13/02 Virginia Museum of Natural History, Martinsville, VA Booked
2/2/02 4/28/02 Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA Booked
5/18/02 8/11/02 Mineralogical and Mining Museum of Thetford Mines, Quebec, Canada Booked
8/31/02 12/1/02 University of Tennessee - Frank H. McClung Museum, Knoxville, TN Booked
12/18/02 3/12/03 New York State Museum, Albany, NY Booked
3/29/03 8/10/03 Springfield Science Museum, Springfield, MA Booked
8/30/03 11/23/03 Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, CT Booked
12/13/03 3/7/04 National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC Booked
3/27/04 10/24/04 Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, KS Booked
11/13/04 5/1/05 Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA Booked
7/1/05 11/27/05 Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Norman, OK Booked
12/17/05 3/12/06 Durham Western Heritage Museum, Omaha, NE Booked
4/1/06 6/25/06 Heritage-Hjemkomst Interpretive Center, Moorhead, MN Booked
7/15/06 10/8/06 Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, Bryan, TX Booked
10/28/06 1/21/07 The Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX Booked
2/10/2007 5/13/2007 The Right Honorable John G. Diefenbaker Centre, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Booked
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Related publications

The Fossils of the Burgess Shale
by Derek E. G. Briggs, Douglas H. Erwin, Frederick J. Collier, Smithsonian Institution Press, reprint edition, 1995, soft cover, 256 pages.

The Fossils of the Burgess Shale book
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Fossils of Burgess Shale Explored in Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition

"Burgess Shale: Evolution's Big Bang," a new traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), uses fossils, lifelike models, scientific illustrations and interactives to highlight events of this evolutionary upsurge. "Burgess Shale" opened at the Calgary Science Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on July 7, and will remain on view through Sept. 30.

More than 500 million years ago, Anomalcaris - a gigantic beast for its time at 3 feet long - roamed the seas, preying on smaller creatures. Pikaia, a slightly flattened worm, harbored a special trait: it was a primitive chordate and the earliest known representative of the mammalian phylum.

These fascinating creatures, as well as many others, were discovered within the Burgess Shale, a fossil deposit in the Canadian Rockies. The fossils of the Burgess Shale provide researchers with the most complete record of life at the time of the so-called "Cambrian Explosion" a biological "big bang," which began 600 million years ago.

After its viewing in Calgary, the exhibition will continue on its four-year tour to a total of 15 institutions.

"Burgess Shale" showcases the astonishing diversity of creatures discovered within the landscape. Ranked as one of the 20th century's most significant paleontological discoveries, the Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

"Burgess Shale: Evolution's Big Bang" was developed by SITES and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Department of Paleobiology. The exhibition curator, Douglas H. Erwin of the museum, is the co-author of The Fossils of Burgess Shale.

The exhibition explores current theories about the "Cambrian Explosion" (543 million-490 million years ago) - a burst of evolutionary activity that generated a sudden increase in the complexity and variety of animal life - and presents highlights from the story of early life on Earth. Detailed descriptions and illustrations of the extraordinary creatures found in the Burgess Shale combine with the tales and methods of the paleontologists who have studied these fossils to engage the audience in an exciting and ever-changing adventure.

Visitors will learn how many of the fossil fauna found in the Burgess Shale are among the earliest representations of virtually all modern, multi-cellular animals. Others appear unrelated to any living forms and their later disappearance presents an intriguing mystery to paleontologists.

Further information about the Burgess Shale is available at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History website. The site offers photographs of actual fossil specimens and artist's reconstructions of primitive animals over half a billion years old as well as brief descriptions of the creature's lives, habitats and place in biological history.

Each year, SITES shares the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside of Washington, D.C. One of the Smithsonian's four National Programs, SITES makes available a wide range of exhibitions about art, science, and history, which are shown not only in museums but wherever people live, work, and play: in libraries, science centers, historical societies, community centers, botanical gardens, schools, and shopping malls. In 2002, SITES will celebrate 50 years of connecting Americans to their shared cultural heritage.

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