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My first love is natural science, but I also fancy myself an amateur art enthusiast, particularly for performance and installation pieces from the last 50 years or so. I am fascinated by art that directly engages the viewer, art that is not complete without the involvement of the spectator. As it happens, mounted fossil skeletons are a great example of installation art, although they are not deliberately constructed as such. The size and presence of a dinosaur skeleton, such as the Stegosaurus below, necessarily incorporates the viewers’ human scale into the experience. Viewers are not merely spectators but participants in a shared performance. Nevertheless, fossils are nearly always displayed and interpreted as scientific specimens, rather than art objects.
One important exception occurs in the work of prolific New York-based artist Allan McCollum. McCollum’s installations frequently address repetitive labor and industrial manufacturing, often incorporating hundreds or thousands of similar but subtly unique objects. Each piece is the product of many small actions, gradually assembled over time. In the early 1990s, the artist turned his attention to fossils, particularly their historic meaning and aesthetic appeal.
In 1991, McCollum collaborated with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to produce “Lost Objects”, displayed next door at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Using molds taken from dinosaur fossils (apparently all limb bones) in the CMNH collection, the artist produced several hundred fossil casts for the installation shown above. To me, this piece is a reflection on the global sharing of fossil material permitted by casting technology. In the Art21 video at the top of this post, McCollum briefly discusses the prominence of casts among the dinosaur mounts that are a staple at natural history museums. Dinosaur skeletons are virtually never found complete, and mounts are often filled in with casts of specimens held by other museums. For example, the National Museum of Natural History Diplodocus mount incorporates casts of the left hindlimb and much of the neck of the Carnegie Diplodocus. What’s more, casted duplicates of the entire Carnegie Diplodocus can be seen in London, Berlin and several other cities in Europe and Latin America, and casts of the American Museum of Natural History Tyrannosaurus are on display in Denver and Philadelphia. It would be an impressive sight if all the casts of certain fossil specimens scattered around the world were reunited in one room, a monument to the knowledge gained from a century of scholarly collaboration. It would also commemorate the intangible excitement generated by dinosaur mounts, made possible only through the duplication and sharing of casts.
MCollum also comments that “there aren’t as many dinosaur bones in the world as we think.” Perhaps, then, “Lost Objects” is a reflection on the scarcity of intact fossils, by showing an impossibly large collection that no museum could hope to amass. Let’s just hope he wasn’t trying to comment on the alleged mass-production of casts cheapening the original fossils and the museums that hold them, because he’d be dead wrong (EDIT: He wasn’t, see comments).
In 1995, McCollum followed up on “Lost Objects” with “Natural Copies, a series of casted dinosaur footprints produced in collaboration with the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. For the artist, this piece was a reflection on the idea that 150 million-year-old fossils can be valued as cultural history. The footprints in question were found by the hundreds in a Utah coal mine. While many ended up at the museum, others were collected by miners to display at home. The fossils took on a second life as symbols the community’s workforce and natural heritage, irrelevant to the dinosaurs that produced the tracks but important all the same. McCollum’s work separates the fossils from their typical scientific context so that viewers may reflect on their cultural meaning and even the aesthetic beauty of their form.
So what’s the point of these installations? These appropriations of fossils as aesthetic pieces has no bearing on the science of paleontology, and in fact may obscure information about how the animals that left these traces lived and behaved. And yet, from the moment a fossil is first seen by human eyes, whether it is an ammonite preserved in a split open rock or the glint of a vertebrate bone weathering out of a hillside, it becomes meaningful on a human scale. For the discoverer, the researcher who describes the fossil, the institution that holds it in its collection and the visitor who sees the fossil on display, that specimen has cultural value. This does not diminish the value of fossils as natural specimens, but rather enhances their importance.
Okay, I’ll bite.
A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.
The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.
But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.
As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.
I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.
Scott Hartman posted the above image to his DeviantArt page the other day, comparing the Tyrannosaurus specimens Sue and Stan side by side. For those unfamiliar, Hartman is known for his rigorously measured skeletal diagrams of dinosaurs (and sometimes other animals) that are crucial references for many artists and paleontologists. I’m always impressed by Hartman’s work, but this new comparative image really floored me. I knew that Sue is the largest and most complete rex yet found, but I had never properly appreciated what a monster she is. I’ve seen the mounted Sue skeleton at the Field Museum several times, and I’ve seen at least four casts of Stan in various locations, but I never realized what a significant size disparity exists between the two.
It’s not a groundbreaking discovery by any means, but I’m struck by how important the museum environment is when exhibiting a mounted skeleton. I mentioned yesterday that exhibits are never neutral, and this is a particularly clear example. Sue is exhibited in the gigantic central hall of the Field Museum, and in this open, grandiose environment, her size is actually deemphasized. By comparison, the presence of the Stan mount at the National Museum of Natural History was not anticipated during the 1981 renovation of the dinosaur hall (it was added in 2001, I believe) and is sort of crammed into a corner. In the cramped space, Stan looks pretty big, and it’s little wonder I had never appreciated the marked difference in size between the two mounts.
The takeaway, I guess, is that it would do us well to pay careful attention to the design choices (or constraints) in a museum exhibit. We’d like to think that a rare and important specimen like a Tyrannosaurus skeleton speaks for itself, but visitor impressions of even these fossils are shaped by the context they are placed in.
While running errands this morning a thought came to me: a natural history exhibit in a museum is a lot like a stage performance*. When watching a play, the viewer knows she is seeing a performance, but it willing to suspend disbelief so long as the fantasy is well-created. To varying degrees, most modern natural history exhibits engage in the same theatrical relationship with their audiences. Exhibits re-create reality within the museum environment, and visitors accept the performance as truth.
*Actually, I thought “movie” first, but theater is a better analogy because the actors are real and present.
Habitat dioramas featuring taxidermied animals are the most obvious example. Dioramas like the lovely east African savannah scene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History pictured above are exactingly detailed microcosms modeled after actual environments. The backdrops are typically based on photographs of real locations. The teams that collected the animal skins would also take samples of leaves and even molds of tree bark, in order to exhibit the ecosystem in toto. And of course, the mannequins on which the animal skins are mounted were sculpted by artists with a strong foundation in anatomical science. And yet, the diorama is clearly not real. Visitors know that they are not looking at an actual game reserve that has been somehow frozen in time. Many viewers might mistake the animals as being “stuffed” (they are in fact sculptures with tanned skins fitted onto them), but they still recognize some element of artifice. The animals clearly didn’t end up in the glass-enclosed box on their own accord. And yet, visitors accept the illusion, because they keep coming to museums to learn about the world around us.
The same holds true for most other displays. These dioramas at the New York State Museum are not literally historic Iroquois villages shrunk down to 1/20 scale. The Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops pictured below are not really fighting, nor did they die in a death struggle. Even the Apple Store-eque NMNH Hall of Mammals recreates natural behaviors against a sterile backdrop. Unless the museum is displaying completely decontextualized specimens lying prone on a shelf, there is some degree of theatricality in the exhibit.
The theater analogy begins to go astray, however, when we consider that the performances in natural history exhibits are informed by reality. For the most part, exhibit designers do not place specimens in completely fictitious scenarios; the theatrical element serves to illustrate something real. Perhaps exhibits are more akin to a movie “based on a true story.” But like those movies, there is an undeniable selectivity in how museum workers tell their stories. Why are the zebra in the CMNH diorama chilling amicably with wildebeest? That is certainly something that real zebra have been known to do, but zebra have also been known to drown lions, trample foals and chew on the cars of obnoxious tourists. For that matter, why does this diorama not include any sign of human pastoralists, who have lived in the same environment as these animals for thousands of years?
Exhibits have human authorship, just like any other document. The manner in which any specimen or object is displayed is inherently subjective, and there will always be emphasis and omissions, intentional or otherwise, that change the way the exhibit is interpreted. Before you misjudge me, dear reader, this is not an argument that there is no objective reality. I wouldn’t even say that it is impossible to understand and perceive objective reality. Scientists do it all the time. But when it comes time to communicate that information, we are creating something new, and choosing what we incorporate and how we express it. Getting back to my original point, we’re putting on a representational show. And that means that what we’re creating only works as long as our audience is willing to participate in the performance.
I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, my first visit in at least 10 years, and of course made a point of visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in North America, founded ”for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” Initially formed as a hub for research on the American frontier, the Academy has sponsored scientific expeditions across the world and has amassed a collection of 17 million specimens that is still actively used 200 years after its founding.
In 1868, the Academy museum made a landmark contribution to paleontology by hosting the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever constructed. The mount, the work of paleontologist Joseph Leidy and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, depicted Hadrosaurus foulki, the first dinosaur discovered in North America and at the time the most complete dinosaur ever found. With only two limbs, a section of the spinal column and some other odds and ends to work with, Hawkins invented many of the mounting techniques that are still in use today. For instance, Hawkins created mirrored duplicates of the left limb bones for use on the animal’s right side, and reconstructed best-guess stand-ins for the skull, scapulae and most of the vertebrae using extant animals as reference. By modern standards, the Leidy-Hawkins Hadrosaurus mount wasn’t especially accurate (the sculpted scapulae and vertebrae resemble those of a mammal, not a reptile; the skull, based on that of an iguana, turned out to be completely off the mark; the fully upright, kangaroo-like posture is now known to be anatomically implausible), but it nevertheless presented the first-ever opportunity to stand in the presence of a dinosaur. Extinct animals were already known to the public, and some had even been mounted, but the Hadrosaurus was so bizarre, so utterly unlike anything alive today, that it really opened people’s eyes to the unexplored depths of the Earth’s primordial history.
The Hadrosaurus display caused public visitation to skyrocket, prompting the Academy to relocate in 1876 to a larger building in central Philadelphia, where it remains today. I haven’t been able to find any photographs or detailed information about it, but for much of the 20th century the Academy had a fossil exhibit with a Corythosaurus mount as its centerpiece. This was replaced in 1986 with an expanded “Discovering Dinosaurs” exhibit, which apparently was among the first to showcase the discoveries of the dinosaur renaissance. This exhibit has just about zero web presence, as well (seriously, any help tracking down details about it would be greatly appreciated). The current version of the Dinosaur Hall opened in 1998, and is what I will discuss below.
Although crammed into a fairly small space, the Academy’s two-level Dinosaur Hall is packed with mounts of North American fossil reptiles, including Tyrannosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Deinonychus, Tylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus and many more. Compared to the sterile and coldly scientific displays at larger museums like the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy’s exhibit designers clearly put an emphasis on accessibility, particularly for younger visitors. Signs are attractive, colorful and use simple language, but do not sacrifice scientific accuracy. Although “Do Not Touch” notices abound, guardrails are low and allow visitors to view the mounts up close. Even the fossil prep lab, a staple in paleontology exhibits, is not behind glass but is separated from visitors by a low wall, allowing guests to converse freely with the preparators if they so choose (This might not be so fun for the preparators; I’ve worked in a couple of these labs and I’ll be the first to admit that our conversations are not always for public ears).
The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is also filled with interactive activities. I question the educational value of a green-screen that places visitors into a scene with dinosaurs running around (the last thing we need is to encourage more people to think humans and dinosaurs coexisted), but many of the other interactives are quite inspired. In one corner, children are encouraged to climb inside a Tyrannosaurus skull cast to find evidence for its diet and lifestyle. Crouching between its jaws, kids find partially-erupted teeth, evidence that the predator broke and regrew teeth throughout its life. My favorite interactive, however, featured parallel rows of theropod and crocodile footprints on the floor. Visitors were directed to walk down each trackway, comparing how it felt different to move with an upright or sprawling gait. At the end, a sign explained that it’s harder, and less energy efficient, to move like a crocodile. I loved this activity because it was simple (just images on the floor, no technology required) and yet conveyed a clear explanation of biomechanics. Visitors use their own bodies to reach the conclusion, finding the answer in a tactile and experiential way that is more memorable than just being told that a sprawling posture is inefficient.
Overall, the Dinosaur Hall is a great overview of dinosaur science. It focuses on the biology of dinosaurs, emphasizing their similarity to animals we know today, and how scientists can draw conclusions about past life by studying the modern world. This content is communicated in a way that is clear and engaging for visitors of all ages, making this exhibit a good example of the old adage that all good science can be explained in simple terms. When I visited, there were a couple children using the open exhibits like a playground, but for the most part I think this highly accessible dinosaur exhibit is quite successful.
What’s Not So Cool
The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall is 15 years old, and is in some places showing its age. Some of the exhibit content is not entirely up-to-date; for instance, a display on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs leaves the question completely open ended. I also saw at least two invalid names, “Majungatholus” and “Ultrasauros”, used on labels. Probably more obvious to most visitors is the general wear and tear visible in certain parts of the exhibit. Some labels, particularly those facing large windows, are badly faded. The Elasmosaurus mount was moved from the Dinosaur Hall proper to the entrance lobby at some point, but Elasmosaurus signage, now labeling an empty space, is still in place in the exhibit. I got the impression that the Academy, like much of Philadelphia, is hurting for funding.
The story of Leidy’s Hadrosaurus appears in several places throughout the museum. Casts of the original fossil material are displayed over a silhouette of the dinosaur toward the back of the Dinosaur Hall. Elsewhere , there is a new full casted mount of Hadrosaurus (signs explain that it is filled in with Maiasaura material), and the original tibia is displayed as part of a rather cool 200th Anniversary special exhibit. At the time, I wished that these displays were consolidated in one place, since the Hadrosaurus story is an important chapter in the history of science and of museums that can be seen exclusively at the Academy. I later found out that in 2008, the Academy had a major temporary exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the original Hadrosaurus mount, which featured, among other things, a recreation of the victorian-era exhibit and the workshop of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (great videos and interviews about the exhibit here). I wish I had been able to see that, because it blends the scientific, cultural and historic value of fossil mounts in a way that only this museum can.
The current centerpiece of the Dinosaur Hall is a cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. It’s neat, but I imagine most visitors would be more enthused to see the real one just a couple hours down the road. Indeed, most of the dinosaurs on display at the Academy are casts from other institutions. I have no problem with displaying casts, but I can’t help but feel that this generalized dinosaur exhibit is underselling the Academy’s own fossil collections, not to mention its contributions to paleontology. Should the Academy renovate this space again, I’d love to see the institutions’ unique history play a more prominent role, as well as the work that Academy-affiliated researchers are doing today.
In 2006, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago unveiled its newly renovated Evolving Planet exhibit. It’s a slightly exhausting tour of life on Earth from the Precambrian to the present, stuffed to the brim with fossils collected over the Museum’s 120 year history. By far the largest item on display is the mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus (FMNH P25112), which dominates the dinosaur room and marks the midpoint of the exhibit as a whole. I saw the mount last December, and being used to the comparatively puny NMNH Diplodocus, the sheer robustness of this animal was a sight to behold. The gigantic T-beams that support the dorsal vertebral column and pelvic girdle are also pretty impressive, and much more massive than I’ve seen on other sauropod mounts (near as I can tell, these supports have not been moved since the Field Museum moved to its current location in 1921, and the Apatosaurus was not remounted in 2006).
The Chicago Apatosaurus was not always so resplendent, however. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a dramatic rush among large urban museums in the United States to collect and mount the biggest and most spectacular dinosaur that could be found. This fossil craze was primarily motivated by the vanity of the museums’ wealthy benefactors, but proved to be extremely productive for both paleontologists and museums. Mounted dinosaur skeletons sprung up seemingly overnight in cities across the country, making names like “Brontosaurus” and Diplodocus household terms and igniting a wave of interest in museums and natural science. The American Museum of Natural History in New York was the first across the finish line, completing their “Brontosaurus” mount in February of 1905. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History finished their Diplodocus mount in 1907, alongside casted versions gifted to museums in London, Berlin, Paris, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, among others. The United States National Museum, meanwhile, had inherited much of O.C. Marsh’s vast fossil collection and by 1910, had completed the first-ever mounts of Triceratops, Ceratosaurus and Camptosaurus.
The Field Museum was also in the race, but its efforts were half-hearted from the start. When the Museum administration got word that AMNH and CMNH were planning on finding and displaying sauropods, they sent their paleontologist Elmer Riggs to lead fossil-hunting teams in Utah and elsewhere. Unlike the east coast competitors, however, neither the Field Museum nor its benefactors were willing to put up the necessary funding to properly supply the expeditions. The Chicagoans wanted to match or exceed anything New York did (as Chicagoans often do), but at an institution dominated by anthropologists the funding commitment was not there.
Despite these handicaps, the Field Museum actually managed to collect a more complete and better-preserved sauropod than either AMNH or CMNH. The mounts in New York and Pittsburgh were composites, assembled from several partial skeletons as well as casted or sculpted elements. Riggs’ team, however, had collected a single fully articulated Apatosaurus (labeled FMNH P25112) that was over 50% complete. Unfortunately, this was still only half a dinosaur, and Museum administrators refused to allocate the paleontology department any more funding. An additional field season to find enough sauropod material to complete the mount was off the table, as was purchasing casts from another museum. Nevertheless, Riggs was given the go-ahead to start mounting P25112. Undoubtedly Riggs hoped that once administrators saw how striking the mounted fossils would be (or how stupid the partial skeleton looked), they would pay for the mount to be completed.
No such luck. In 1908 the half-sauropod was unveiled to visitors, complete and beautifully preserved from the last cervical vertebra through the proximal half of the tail. Unfortunately, the forelimbs, pectoral girdle, neck and head were all missing, resulting in a teetering, two-legged dinosaur butt that would remain unchanged for another 50 years.
The mount was eventually completed in 1958, after the front half of an Apatosaurus was acquired by Riggs’ successor, Orville Gilpin. At least two generations of visitors have passed through the Field Museum since then. Even so, the half century of half sauropod must have been quite embarassing, and a testament to not taking on projects half-assed.
Brinkman, P.D. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sepkoski, D. 2012. Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
I have a question for the paleontological community. I know this blog doesn’t get anywhere near the traffic to expect many answers, if any, but I’m going to ask it anyway.
How do fossil mounts factor into your research? What information can be gained from an assembled and articulated vertebrate skeleton that cannot be determined (or is more difficult to determine) from the study of individual bones? Mounts did have a role in research historically: for instance, Gilmore used the process of creating the Triceratops, Camptosaurus and Diplodocus mounts for the United States National Museum to correct anatomical errors and assumptions previously published by Marsh. But are we still learning from the process of physically assembling skeletons (digital models don’t count)?
I ask because my immediate assumption is that mounts do not benefit research. Fossil mounts clearly have (admittedly difficult to quantify) educational value. They are spectacular, awe-inspiring displays with a physical presence that no book, film or shoddy cable documentary could hope to achieve. For many, including myself, fossil mounts were a first encounter with science in general, inspiring me to ask questions about the natural world and seek ways to answer them. But if we focus entirely on the process of studying and learning from fossils, do mounts have any value?
There is no shortage of reasons why mounts utilizing original fossils are problematic for researchers. Mounted fossils, which are often all-important holotypes, are difficult for researchers to access, and certain parts of the skeleton, like the back of the skull or the vertebral bodies, cannot be reached at all. The mounting process, while better than it was a century ago, is invasive, destructive and sometimes irreversible. Mounted fossils in public spaces inevitably suffer damage from fluctuating temperature and humidity (such as pyrite disease), uneven weight distribution and vibration from passing crowds. Many historic mounts used plaster or shellac to seal bones together or to reconstruct broken pieces, which is effectively impossible to remove without damaging the fossils. In the case of the Peabody Museum Apatosaurus, modern researchers do not know how much of certain bones are real and how much was reconstructed.
There is a long, worthwhile discussion to be had on whether the needs of research or the needs of education are more important in this scenario (David Hone and Heinrich Mallison make a case for each side on their respective blogs). But before I get to that point, I’d like to sort out if the distinction is as clear cut as “mounts good for education, mounts bad for research.” Any comments or experience on the matter would be very much appreciated!