Much of what I write for this site starts with an attempt to find one reference or another, only to discover that it does not exist online. This time, I was curious how many times the American Museum of Natural History paleontology halls had been renovated, but I quickly found that there was no simple answer. Unlike the fossil exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History, which have occupied the same large hall since the building opened, the AMNH counterparts have been moving and growing for more than 120 years. The museum expanded organically, eventually encompassing 27 interconnected buildings. And as its footprint grew, the paleontology exhibits grew with it.
The following is my attempt to make sense of the fourth floor exhibit halls’ convoluted history. I’ve divided it into seven main phases, although this should only be considered a rudimentary outline. Many specimens were added and removed during each phase, particularly during the period of frantic expansion in the early 20th century. At the very least, however, this should be enough to contextualize most of the historic photos made available by the AMNH Research Library. As with my NMNH posts, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or scientific discoveries by museum staff, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere. My focus here is solely on the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.
Phase I: 1874 – 1904
AMNH was founded in 1869, although the first buildings in Manhattan Square did not begin construction until 1874. The original structure was designed by architect Calvert Vaux. Since electric lights were not yet available, Vaux created exhibit spaces that maximized the impact of natural lighting. Large windows were divided into slits that paralleled rows of glass display cabinets. The sun would shine through the windows and directly into the cabinets, illuminating the specimens within. When the museum opened, the single exhibit hall on the fourth floor was dedicated to geology specimens. While this space mostly housed rocks, minerals, and small fossils, a handful of mounted skeletons stood among the cabinets. Early acquisitions included a moa and the Pleistocene deer Megaloceros, shown below.
Things changed radically shortly after Henry Osborn was hired in 1891. As a paleontologist, Osborn emerged from Princeton riding the crest of a wave of goodwill his discipline had enjoyed for most of the 19th century. Paleontology was the darling of American science, and one man in particular, O.C. Marsh of Yale, received generous federal funding to find and describe new fossils from the western interior. In the 1880s, however, an economy-minded Congress pulled that funding. Meanwhile, the rise of experimental biology led to the marginalization of descriptive natural history, including paleontology. The next generation of paleontologists needed a new home for their work, and they found it in museums. AMNH was one of several new museums backed by wealthy benefactors with an interest in public education. These benefactors gravitated toward paleontology because, as Ronald Rainger put it, fossils are “rare, valuable, and visible facts.” The skeletons of extinct monsters were huge and sensational, and naturally complimented the grandiose neoclassical halls of the nascent museums. But while the paleontology programs at institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum were quite respectable, they all were overshadowed by Osborn’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH. Osborn’s goal was to make AMNH the center of American vertebrate paleontology in the post-Marsh world, and by most any measure he succeeded.
The next Phase I exhibit was the Hall of Fossil Mammals, which opened to the public in 1895. Osborn’s research was focused on Cenozoic mammals, especially brontotheres, and he tasked his department with assembling a suitably impressive collection. Some of the fossils on display were acquired in an 1897 purchase of Edward Cope’s personal collection. Many others were collected by AMNH staff in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. Among these in-house finds was the famous (and famously misleading) series of fossil horses, most of which were found and prepared by William Matthew. The largest and most captivating mounted skeleton on view was the Warren mastodon. Discovered in 1845 in a bog near Newburgh, New York, this specimen was the first complete mastodon ever found. It was initially described and displayed by Boston-based anatomist John Warren, but Osborn convinced J.P. Morgan to buy it for AMNH in 1906.
Aside from a few shuffled mounts (including the aforementioned mastodon, which seems to have been in nearly every room on the fourth floor), the Hall of Fossil Mammals remained mostly intact for the duration of the 20th century. Shortly after it was completed, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology shifted its focus to dinosaurs. The mammals were only the star attractions for a few short years, but this display would nevertheless endure in its original form for generations.
At this point, it is crucial to mention that Osborn was an objectively lousy scientist, and that much of his work was motivated by a bigoted personal agenda. He subscribed to an inaccurate orthogenetic (or as he called it, “aristogenetic”) interpretation of evolution, professing that all life forms had their place in a natural hierarchy. According to Osborn, people of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestry were the pinnacle of existence, and he endeavored to turn his flagrantly racist beliefs into public knowledge by way of his exhibits. Nowhere is this clearer than the Hall of the Age of Man, which opened around 1900. This hall included a range of extinct animals that coexisted with early humans, but the central cases were dedicated to Osborn’s unorthodox narrative of human evolution. Hominid fossils were co-opted to illustrate Osborn’s unfounded view that modern human races were evolutionarily distinct, and to communicate his support for eugenics and racial purity. Osborn’s agenda was supported by many of the aristocratic elite that funded the museum, but apparently few of the AMNH research staff endorsed it. Margaret Mead in particular was highly critical of Osborn’s views, and especially his influence over public-facing interpretation.
Phase II: 1905 – 1920
For all of Osborn’s bigotry and bad science, it’s difficult to imagine the modern museum field without his influence. He was very good at marketing himself and his paleontology program, and he knew how to put on a show that would attract visitors in droves. Osborn heightened the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular fossil mounts in order to make science exciting for a wide audience. Osborn’s devotion to storytelling and drama in the exhibits he curated brought millions of visitors to AMNH and defined public expectations for what museums should offer.
In 1906, Osborn became the fourth president of AMNH, and he oversaw its most rapid period of expansion. As president, he tripled municipal funding for the museum from New York City, and gained plenty more through his connections with wealthy potential donors. Much of this income was funneled into the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology’s famous dinosaur collecting expeditions, in which fossil hunters like Barnum Brown and Walter Granger earned fame and notoriety. However, the pioneering work on fossil preparation and mounting at AMNH was also significant. While many peer institutions were assembling and exhibiting new dinosaur mounts during this period, none matched the output or ambition of AMNH. With the sheer quantity of fossils coming in and institutional pressure to mount them for display as quickly as possible, chief preparator Adam Hermann had no choice but to modernize and professionalize his craft. Hermann developed a sophisticated prep lab with overhead tracks for hoisting heavy fossils, as well as electric and pnuematic hook-ups for power tools. Techniques like sand-blasting, acid preparation, and on-site metalworking developed by Hermann are still standard practice today.
Dinosaurs take up a lot of space, and to accommodate them, a new gallery was opened on the far end of the Hall of Fossil Mammals. This Hall of Fossil Reptiles debuted in 1905 with “Brontosaurus” – the first mounted sauropod ever built – as its centerpiece. Actually a composite of four individuals and many sculpted elements (including the way-off-the-mark head), the “Brontosaurus” took Hermann’s team the better part of six years to construct. After that, the Hall of Fossil Reptiles filled with new dinosaur mounts very quickly, cementing the repuation of AMNH as the place to see dinosaurs. In 1906, Hermann added the “Trachodon” pair. The standing individual came from the Cope collection, but the crouching specimen was excavated that very year by Barnum Brown. The Allosaurus was also a Cope specimen, but apparently the 19th century paleontologist had never unpacked or inspected it. Several years passed before Hermann’s team discovered that the skeleton was remarkably complete, although it was missing a skull. The fossils were mounted in 1908, posed as though feeding on a set of Apatosaurus vertebrae. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield describes the AMNH exhibits as timeless and unchanging, but if he visited between 1905 and 1920 he would have seen new fossil mounts almost every year.
Arguably the most important mount added during the early 20th century mounting spree was the Tyrannosaurus rex. This specimen is no less than an icon, and has been a destination attraction in New York for longer than the Empire State Building. When the Tyrannosaurus was unveiled in 1915, it was a sensation, akin to mythical dragon made real. For a generation, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could stand in the presence of a T. rex, and to this day the image of the classic mount is quintessential to both paleontology and museums in general. For example, you may recognize it from the cover of a certain Michael Crichton novel.
Phase III: 1921 – 1939
In 1922, the 9th building in the AMNH complex was completed, and the paleontology exhibits expanded into what Osborn called the “Great Hall of Dinosaurs.” The largest dinosaur mounts – including Tyrannosaurus, “Brontosaurus”, “Trachodon”, and Allosaurus – were moved from the comparatively cramped Hall of Fossil Reptiles into this new space. The extra breathing room allowed for the mounts to be clustered into Jurassic and Cretaceous areas on opposite sides of the room. There were also a few new skeletons, including Leptoceratops, Thescelosaurus, and most significantly, Triceratops.
Meanwhile, AMNH fossil collecting efforts had moved from the American West to Mongolia. The primary goal of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions was to find evidence for Osborn’s pseudoscientific ideas about human ancestry, but no such remains were found. Instead, the expedition returned a wealth of new dinosaur fossils, including the first dinosaur nests ever found. Dispatches from the field also drummed up considerable publicity for the New York museum.
Osborn’s iron-fisted reign over American paleontology lasted until his death in 1933. Unfortunately for the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, Osborn’s activities were heavily dependent on personal relationships with private donors. With Osborn out of the picture (and the Great Depression at its bottom), those donations dried up. Meanwhile, Osborn’s good standing in the scientific community had begun to wane, and his unorthodox anthropological ideas became something of a joke. The results of internal investigations into Osborn’s less-than-legitimate use of funds and favors during his time as president did not help matters. In 1942 the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was dissolved. Paleontology work was folded into the Department of Geology with a much smaller budget and fewer staff. The Osborn-era fossil displays at AMNH remained largely unaltered in the years that followed, but only because of the lack of staff time, money, and interest.
Next week, we’ll wrap up this timeline, passing through the era of Edwin Colbert and into the present day. Stay tuned!
Brinkman, P.D. (2009). Dinosaurs, Museums, and the Modernization of American Fossil Preparation at the Turn of the 20th Century. Fossil Preparation: Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium 21-34.
Brinkman, P.D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Haraway, D. (1984). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.
Hermann, A. (1909). Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 56:283-331.
Osborn, H.F. (1921). The Hall of the Age of Man in the American Museum. Nature 107:236-240.
Rainger, R. (1991). An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.