Although the east wing fossil halls are closed for renovation until 2019, the National Museum of Natural History will not be without a dinosaur display for much longer. An interim exhibit entitled “The Last American Dinosaurs” will open later this month, occupying the space that formally held the “Written in Bone” exhibition. The Last American Dinosaurs will cover a small but important slice of the age of dinosaurs: the final ecosystem to grace North America before the extinction event 66 million years ago. While the new exhibit will feature several show-stealing dinosaurs, the main message is that these animals lived within a complete and complex ecosystem, just like the animals of today. The exhibit will also cover the phenomenon of extinction, and how massive environmental change (whether caused by a giant space rock or by human activity) can drastically alter the course of life on Earth.
What I’d like to discuss in this post are the two dinosaurian centerpieces of the exhibit: Hatcher the Triceratops and Stan the Tyrannosaurus. Both mounts stood in the classic fossil hall for years, and I’ve already written extensively about each of them. Nevertheless, these two dinosaurs nicely encapsulate the history of mounted fossil skeletons, as well as the changing face of museum paleontology. As the ambassadors to the Smithsonian’s dinosaur collection for the next five years, I think it’s worth revisiting their origin stories.
The First Triceratops
The Smithsonian Triceratops hails from what we might call the golden age of museum paleontology. Mounted dinosaur skeletons were an integral part of the rise of large urban natural history museums at the turn of the 20th century. The opening of the American western frontier revealed an unprecedented treasure trove of fossils, far greater than what was previously known in Europe. As a result, paleontology became one of the first realms of science in which Americans were leaders, and patriotism was a significant factor in the growing public enthusiasm for extinct monsters. Wealthy benefactors of recently formed institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Columbian Museum envisioned the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs as an opportunity to increase attendance and public interest, and they provided ample funding to find fossils for display. These efforts were not wasted, as the golden age fossil mounts have been enjoyed for generations…and most are still on display today.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of this era of discovery and exposition. Golden age fossil mounts were forged into being entirely in-house. At a given museum, the same small group of staff was frequently responsible for finding, preparing, describing, naming and mounting a new dinosaur. As such, fossil mounts were typically exclusives to particular museums, and they garnered significant amounts of institutional and regional pride. New York had “Brontosaurus” and Tyrannosaurus. Pittsburgh had Diplodocus. And for more than 20 years, Washington, DC had the world’s only mounted Triceratops.
Built in 1905 by Charles Gilmore and Norman Boss, the Smithsonian Triceratops has been a Washington, DC attraction for longer than the Lincoln Memorial. Like most turn of the century dinosaur mounts, it is not a single specimen but a composite of several individuals. The fossils were recovered from Wyoming by the prolific fossil hunter John Bell Hatcher, working in the employ of O.C. Marsh and the United States Geological Survey*. USNM 4842, the most complete partial skeleton available, provided the torso and pelvis, while the remains of at least six other Triceratops filled in the rest of the mount.
*Incidentally, this means the Triceratops doesn’t quite fit the story I outlined above. It was not discovered or named by Smithsonian scientists – instead, the Smithsonian inherited the fossils Marsh collected for the federal government when he was through with them.
Even though it was a slightly disproportionate chimera, for experts and laypeople alike the Smithsonian Triceratops mount was Triceratops. Virtually every illustration of the animal for decades after the mount’s debut dutifully copied its every eccentricity, including the slightly undersized head and excessively sprawled forelimbs. If you can strain your eyes to read Sunday Star article above, it’s also interesting to see how the mount was presented to the public. Even in an era when museum displays were unapologetically created by experts for experts, the Triceratops is repeatedly likened to a fantastical monster. Although the creation of the mount was an important anatomical exercise for the small community of professional paleontologists, it seems that for most visitors a display like this primarily served as whimsical entertainment.
After a brief stint in the original United States National Museum (now called the Arts and Industries Building), Gilmore and Boss’s Triceratops was transferred the east wing of the present-day NMNH in 1911. It remained there for 90 years, until the aging and deteriorating fossils were finally disassembled and retired to the collections. In their place, Smithsonian staff created an updated replica skeleton, called “Hatcher”, from digital scans of the original bones. This version is the Triceratops that will be on display in The Last American Dinosaurs.
A Prefab Tyrannosaurus?
Since 2000, Hatcher the Triceratops was in a permanent face-off with another replica mount, Stan the Tyrannosaurus. Unlike Hatcher, Stan is not based on fossils in the Smithsonian collection. This T. rex cast was purchased from the Black Hills Institute, a private company that produces and sells replica fossil skeletons (as well as original specimens, which is another issue entirely). Discovered by avocational fossil hunter Stan Sacrison in 1987, Stan the dinosaur was excavated and is now owned by BHI. Since 1995, BHI has sold dozens of Stan replicas to museums and other venues. The Smithsonian acquired its version in 1999, in part because of visitor demand for the world’s most famous dinosaur, but also apparently as a consolation prize for missing out on Sue.
Clearly, much has changed in the way museums source their dinosaurs. Rather than creating fossil mounts on-site, museums frequently contract out the production to exhibit fabrication companies like Research Casting International, Gaston Design, and the aforementioned Black Hills Institute. These companies can construct mounts using fossils or casts from a particular museum’s collection, but they also offer catalogs of made-to-order skeletons. Thanks to these exhibit companies, more or less identical copies of certain dinosaurs are now on display all over the world. In Stan’s case, the Smithsonian version has a twin just seven miles north at the Discovery Communications building in Silver Spring.
An argument could be made that this degree of replication lessens the impact and cultural value of dinosaur displays. How much allure does a mount have when identical versions can be seen at dozens of other locations, including corporate offices and amusement parks? I would counter that this is a small price to pay when we consider the substantial educational benefits of this unprecedented availability of dinosaur skeletons. Widespread casts like Stan give people all over the world the opportunity to see a T. rex in person, an experience that was until recently limited to those with the means to travel to a handful of large cities. Typically priced in the tens of thousands of dollars, dinosaur casts certainly aren’t cheap, but they are still within the means of many small to mid-sized local museums.
Furthermore, these casts are hardly rolling off of assembly lines. They are exact replicas of real fossils, and require a tremendous amount of experience and skill to produce. Mounts are manufactured as needed, and are customized to meet the needs of the specific museum. Meanwhile, museums still employ scientists who collect new fossils for their collections. The difference is that these collecting trips usually seek to answer specific research questions, rather than going after only the biggest and most impressive display specimens. Finally, museums definitely haven’t outsourced exhibit production entirely. All summer at NMNH, in-house preparators have been working in collaboration with contractors from Research Casting International to dismantle the historic fossil exhibits in preparation for the upcoming renovation.
There’s one more change for the better in modern paleontology exhibits. When the Smithsonian Triceratops was first introduced to the world in 1905, natural history displays tended to focus on the breadth of collections. Curators composed exhibits with other experts in mind, and the non-scholars that actually made up the majority of museum visitors were not directly catered to. Without any context to work with, fossil mounts were little more than toothy spectacles for most visitors. Today, museum staff create exhibits that tell stories. The Last American Dinosaurs has been explicitly designed to contextualize the dinosaurs – to show how they fit into the history of life on Earth, and why their world is meaningful today. How successful will this be? I’ll report back after the exhibit opens on November 25th.