Mounted fossil skeletons, especially those of dinosaurs, are common at medium and large natural history museums. These mounts play a central role in the public’s perception of not only dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but of museums as well. However, just as dinosaurs are relatively new to science, fossil mounts have not always been a part of museums. The word dinosaur was coined in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen, based on a handful of fragmentary remains of large, extinct reptiles. Nevertheless, the study of dinosaurs did not start in earnest until 1865, when Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences described Hadrosaurus, the first dinosaur found in the United States, and eventually, the first dinosaur skeleton to be mounted. The western frontier of North America proved to be a richer dinosaur hunting ground than Europe had been, and so vertebrate paleontology was among the first realms of science that American researchers could claim as their own.
The American fossil rush that followed came in two waves. In the 1870s, the field was dominated by the well-publicized but ultimately counterproductive feud between Othneil Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences. While these collectors amassed enormous collections of fossils for their respective institutions, their research remained largely out of the public eye.
The second wave came at the turn of the 20th century, and was intrinsically related to the rise of the large museums that sprang up in America’s cities at this time. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and other, similar institutions became involved in a fierce competition to find and display the largest dinosaur (Spalding 1993). At this point, the discipline of paleontology had been marginalized in American universities, in part because of a rising interest in experiment-driven “hard” sciences like molecular biology and physics, but also because the demands of space, labor and money required by paleontological research was prohibitive.
Instead, paleontologists made their homes at the large natural history museums, which were backed by wealthy benefactors who were impressed by their collections of giant fossils. At the time, it was fashionable for wealthy businesspeople to donate extravagantly to cultural institutions, including museums, in the cities where they made their fortunes. To the benefactors, there was no doubt that paleontologists and their fossil specimens could draw larger crowds than a chemist or physicist ever could. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie is credited with conceiving of the idea to display a mounted dinosaur skeleton as the centerpiece of his new museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie gave CMNH $10,000 to find a giant sauropod dinosaur, preferably just like the Apatosaurus (then called “Brontosaurus”) collected by Marsh 30 years earlier. Patrons of the other large museums followed suit, and by 1905 the Carnegie Museum, the American Museum and the Field Museum all had sauropod mounts on display, along with a menagerie of other dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.
Unfortunately, by modern standards these displays favored spectacle over good science. As mentioned, vertebrate fossils almost never found as complete skeletons, but as scattered and isolated elements. As such, the museum collectors were not racing to find a single, perfect skeleton, but to amass enough individual dinosaur bones to complete a mount. The early 20th century dinosaur mounts are typically composed of fossils found in rocks separated by hundreds of miles and millions of years in age. The collectors did not keep good records of where the fossils came from, so modern museum workers can only guess how many individual dinosaurs make up the mounts they have inherited. For example, the Stegosaurus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History is composed of at least five individuals, and researchers disagree whether the Giraffatitan at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde is made up of three or five different animals.
Additionally, the technicians that created the mounts were attempting something that had never been done before, and perhaps inevitably, poor choices were made during the construction process. Adam Hermann, lead fossil preparatory at the American Museum of Natural History during the early 20th century, used highly destructive techniques when creating fossil mounts. Fossils were connected to steel armatures by drilling screws and bolts directly into the bone, and broken bones and visible sections of the armature were hidden with liberal applications of plaster (Evander 2004). These practices turned out to be essentially irreversible, and modern workers are hesitant to attempt to dismantle old mounts for fear of destroying the fossils entirely.
The creation of the first fossil mounts was chiefly inspired by the vanity of museum benefactors, but their influence on audiences and their ability to draw crowds is undeniable. Although new dinosaur mounts have been constructed over the course of the 20th century, many, if not most, of the historic mounts remain on display, important not only as evidence of prehistoric life, but as icons of the history of science and museums in America.
Brinkman, Paul 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.
Evander, Robert L. (2004.) “Armature Damage in a Mounted Specimen.” Presented at Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Conference, Bristol, U.K.