I’m always bummed when I hear museum-goers describe fossil mounts, particularly those that are entirely or partially made up of casts, as “fakes.” It is inaccurate, if not inflammatory to describe mounts in this way, and I always make sure to offer a correction (see this ancient post of mine or Christopher Norris’s much better explanation for details).
Well, it turns out I was wrong, or at least trapped in a western-centric worldview. There are fossil mounts that can and should be called fake…in China. Earlier today, Brian Switek linked to a brief radio story at CRIEnglish about the recent appearance of dinosaur-themed parks throughout China. According to the clip, local governments throughout China have been competing to built the biggest and best dinosaur park. The parks are apparently the equivalent of attention-grabbing and income-building public works projects, such as stadiums or fancy shopping centers, that are created regularly in the U.S. But while these new parks might have been inspired by the torrent of spectacular, paradigm-shifting fossils found in China over the last two decades, they are not museums. These are amusement parks, featuring robotic and fiberglass awesomebro dinosaurs. They are entertainment, not educational or scientific enterprises by any stretch of the imagination.
So where are these municipal dinosaur theme parks getting their dinosaurs? As it turns out, there are literally dozens of new companies in China that exist entirely to supply these attractions. I had encountered some of these sites before, but didn’t know the context of their existence until now. Google “China robotic dinosaurs” or something similar and you’ll find them. Most of these products are what they are: big, goofy looking animatronic dinosaurs that aren’t especially attractive but at least can’t be mistaken for scientific reconstructions. But then I saw the “dinosaur skeletons”:
It’s possible that parts of these might be casts, but I doubt it. These are pretty much abominations, sculpted with little regard for the actual appearance of these dinosaurs, or animal anatomy in general. I’ve written at length about how the public conception of dinosaurs is irreversibly intertwined with its conception of museums. When we think of fossils, we think of grand museum halls populated by towering skeletons. This connection is so ingrained that mounted skeletons have become, in the public eye, the only proper way to display dinosaurs. It’s therefore not unexpected that these companies would capitalize on that association.
The problem is that unlike a mural or life-sized model, which are obviously reproductions, mounted skeletons retain the aura of authenticity that comes from displaying known fossils. To display a skeleton is to imply that we are seeing real specimens, or at least replicas standing in for specimens that exist somewhere else. Displaying “dinosaur skeletons” with no regard for accuracy ruins that association. For nearly 200 years, fossil mounts have been symbols of credible science, and I hate to see that good reputation sullied.