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Fossils are the hard evidence behind paleontology. They tell us not only that prehistoric organisms existed, but hold clues as to how they lived and behaved. However, it is only through artwork that extinct animals and ecosystems can be brought back to life. Since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built the first life-sized dinosaur sculptures in 1842, skilled artists have played a critical role in visualizing the results of paleontological research and making that information available to a wider audience.
At the National Museum of Natural History, spectacular works of art have always appeared alongside displays of original fossils, firing up the viewer’s imagination and inviting them to visualize the world of prehistory. Although many of these pieces are now scientifically dated, they were on the cutting edge in their time. These artworks remain exquisite works of craftsmanship, invaluable for their decades of contribution to science education.
The Life-Sized Models
The charmingly ugly Stegosaurus pictured above is one of the oldest fixtures of the Smithsonian fossil exhibits. F.A.L. Richardson created this model for the the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair in 1904. Made from papier mâché with a foam skin, the Stegosaurus was based on small sculpture produced by Charles Gilmore. With its sagging belly, sprawling forelimbs, and head held well below the horizontal plane, this Stegosaurus is typical of reconstructions from the early to mid 20th century.
As legend had it, the paper used to fabricate the Stegosaurus was ground-up money from the National Treasury. The model had even earned the nickname “Mr. Moneybags” among some of the museum staff. Curator Emeritus Ray Rye got to the bottom of this in 1981. He contacted the Treasury to find out what was done with worn-out paper money at the turn of the century – apparently it was burned at a plant in Maryland. Nevertheless, at Rye’s request a group of historians from the Treasury took a sample of the Stegosaurus while the hall was closed for construction, and confirmed that it was made from regular paper.
When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1910, the Stegosaurus was given a spot of honor right in the center of the room. In 1913, a real Stegosaurus skeleton was placed alongside it. Both dinosaurs would remain in place until the exhibit was renovated in 1963. In the reconfigured and renamed Hall of Fossil Reptiles, the model Stegosaurus was relocated to a corner display. Most recently, the 1981 renovation saw the Stegosaurus model moved to the south side of the gallery, protected by a low plexiglass barrier. This time, it was given a cycad replica for company, and a mural of lush Jurassic jungle behind it. The Stegosaurus remained in this position until the fossil halls closed in 2014.
The 1981 renovation also saw the introduction of a life-sized model of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus. Having been discovered in 1971, the largest flying animal that ever lived was big news at that time. In-house modelmakers spent two years on the project, first sculpting the animal in clay, then casting it in lightweight fiberglass with a steel armature. Paleontologist Nicholas Hotton served as the scientific consultant. Although he was dubious that pterosaurs had any sort of soft body covering, he okayed the use of deer fur to give the model believable texture. However, Hotton nixed the idea of placing a dangling fish in the mouth of the Quetzalcoatlus. Contemporary wisdom was that even giant pterosaurs were extremely light, weighing as little as 75 pounds, so even a 5-pound fish was thought to be enough to disrupt a Quetzalcoatlus in flight.
The Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus both now reside at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.
The first dedicated prehistoric mammal exhibit at NMNH opened in the summer of 1961. Alongside the array of Cenozoic fossil mounts, the exhibit featured six brand new murals created by paleoartist Jay Matternes. Still active today, Matternes is a prolific artist of both modern and prehistoric wildlife. In addition to the NMNH murals, Matternes has contributed to exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine. For more of his work, you can check out his website or the substantial gallery assembled at Agathaumas.
Each of the murals Matternes contributed to the exhibit depicts North America during an epoch of the Cenozoic, and is displayed behind corresponding fossil mounts. Most of the animals on display coincide with life reconstructions in the murals, so visitors can match the skeletons to images of how they may have looked in life. Matternes’ hyper-detailed style is particularly striking. The environments look nearly photo-real, and not too far removed from the world today. Likewise, the artist’s knowledge of anatomy plainly shows in the utterly lifelike appearances of the animals. I particularly like Matternes’ use of familiar color patterns on the relatives of modern taxa. The Pliocene and Pleistocene murals will be returning in 2019.
The “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit debuted in 1990 with a monumental 130-foot mural by Eleanor Kish. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural spans 541 years of deep time. The project took Kish two years to complete and is, simply put, a masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms.
My personal favorite part of the NMNH fossil galleries are the dinosaur dioramas. Norman Neal Deaton created three dioramas, representing North America during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The Mesozoic dioramas were commissioned for the 1963 exhibit renovation, and were on display until 2014. Each 1″:1′ scale diorama is set into a recessed space in the wall and is protected by glass. The scenes are populated by a menagerie of outdated but gorgeously detailed dinosaurs and contemporary reptiles, set among dense forests of ferns and craggy rock formations. The complexity of the dioramas allows viewers to get lost in them as their eye wanders from one static encounter to the next. I’ve been admiring these scenes since literally before I could talk and I still notice minute details I hadn’t seen before.
The diorama project began in 1963 and took four years to complete. The scenes were initially blocked out by Jay Matternes and Nicholas Hotton, the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the time. Matternes and Hotton worked together on anatomical drawings for each of the animals to be reconstructed, and planned the basic layout of the dioramas. Deaton created the final dioramas at his studio in Newton, Iowa. Deaton had been previously employed at the Smithsonian as an exhibits specialist, but had left to found his own studio in the late 1950s, where he continued to work on projects for the Smithsonian as a contractor. In addition to the dinosaur dioramas, Deaton led the creation of the iconic Fénykövi elephant that stands in the NMNH rotunda today, and has created sculptures and dioramas for dozens of other museums. Deaton is still active today, and much of his 2-D and 3-D work can be seen at his website.
Deaton sculpted each of the animals in clay based on the drawings provided by Matternes and Hotton. Nearly every model went through a few incremental adjustments based on notes from Hotton, changing things like the bulk of the muscles or how visible the scapula or pelvis would be under the skin. The soft anatomy was based on modern reptiles, particularly crocodiles, although Deaton found that some of the animals had no obvious analogs. Once the clay models were approved, they were casted in rubber, then painted. Deaton also created the miniature worlds inhabited by the animals, including foliage, muddy riverbanks, and sheer cliffs. The backdrops, however, were painted by Matternes.
The completed dioramas represented the most up-to-date knowledge of the Mesozoic world at that time. Of course, our understanding of dinosaurs has been overhauled significantly since then. Compared to the active, fleet-footed, and often feathered dinosaurs we know today, the inhabitants of the NMNH dioramas at first look a bit ponderous and inert. Inaccuracies are easy to point out: the Ankylosaurus has a weird clubless armadillo tail, the torso of the Diplodocus is much too long, the Cretaceous diorama mixes Hell Creek and Judith River dinosaurs that were separated by at least 20 million years, and there are sprawly tail-draggers aplenty.
Still, these issues are easy to overlook when one appreciates just how engaging these scenes are. Little details like footprints behind each animal and mud splattered on their feet fill the motionless dioramas with life and the possibility of more adventures in the imagination of the viewer. And several of the models are surprisingly energetic for 60’s dinosaurs. The Ceratosaurus face-biting the Camptosaurus (above) is full of energy, and the Elphrosaurus is running full-tilt with its tail in the air (and even has propatagia for some reason!).
Many of the works of art in the NMNH fossil halls are no longer appropriate as literal representations of prehistoric animals. But that does not mean they are irrelevant relics of mid-century science. Each model and painting is a stunning example of artistry, and more to the point, every inaccuracy is an opportunity to start up a conversation about what we know about prehistory and how we know it. These pieces are time capsules in the history of science, representing different eras of understanding and the researchers that took part in them. I, for one, would hate to see them forgotten.
A big thank you to Norman Deaton and Raymond Rye for their assistance with this article!