Earlier this week, Dippy the Diplodocus gave me an opportunity to discuss mounted fossil skeletons as objects imbued with cultural and historical meaning. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and discuss them as art. Hold on tight, because it’s about to get interdisciplinary up in here.
The Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the most amazing fossil displays in the world. Within the historic Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, an adult Barosaurus skeleton rears to a height of fifty feet to protect its offspring from a charging Allosaurus. Although all three skeletons are glass-reinforced polyester and polyurethane foam casts (by necessity – it would be unwise to mount real fossil bones in such a precarious manner), they are based directly on real specimens. The adult Barosaurus is a cast of AMNH 6341, which was excavated by Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument in 1923. The Allosaurus is a cast of DMNH 1483. The young Barosaurus is the most speculative of the lot and mostly consists of sculpted bones, but it includes casts of real juvenile sauropod vertebrae.
Looking past its physical properties, this display comes with an explicit pedagogical agenda. AMNH paleontologist Mark Norrell stated that the objective was “to imagine dinosaurs as living organisms, facing challenges similar to those that confront animals today.” When the exhibit was built in 1991, it was considered important to showcase what active, hot-blooded dinosaurs might be capable of. In this case, we have a portrayal of considerable speed and agility, as well as a suggestion of parental care and group living. The mount and its associated signage also invite visitors to consider the nature of the fossil record, and what questions paleontologists can and cannot definitively answer. We don’t know whether Barosaurus would have protected or even lived with its young. We don’t know if Allosaurus would have attempted to attack an animal more than three times its size. Even the ability of Barosaurus to rear up on two legs has been the subject of some debate. While not enormously far-fetched, this is still an imaginative reconstruction – one which challenges visitors to consider the evidence behind this and other displays throughout the museum.
However, even this sort of interpretation does not fully capture the experience of observing this tableau – there is something else going on here. The dynamic poses give the dinosaurs a startling presence, and it is scarcely possible not to imagine them as living animals. Visitors must consider what it would be like to encounter an Allosaurus charging at full speed, or to stand beneath a multi-ton sauropod. Standing in the center of the room, the viewer is literally surrounded by the mounts, and necessarily becomes a participant in the drama. Even if we ignore the representational identities of the dinosaurs and think of this display as a set of abstract shapes, it is still decisively monumental. The mise-en-scène draws the viewer’s eye around the room and up the neck of the Barosaurus, toward the vaulted ceiling. The scene can thus be described as a visual and physical intervention that draws each and every visitor that enters the rotunda into a shared performance.
As impressive as the mounts are on their own, they cannot be divorced from the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda that surrounds them. Aesthetically, the grandiose nature of the skeletons compliments the neoclassical architecture. The site-specific composition also encourages visitors to look around the room and take note of structural elements they might have missed (e.g. the ceiling). But the room itself is far from a neutral exhibition space. It is a public monument to the first President Roosevelt, who Donna Haraway calls “the patron saint for the museum.” In addition to an array of canvases depicting scenes from Roosevelt’s public life, quotations are etched into the walls under the headings Youth, Manhood, Nature, and The State. Roosevelt’s words, literally carved in stone, speak to his appreciation of the natural world, his support for what he called “the strenuous life”, and his belief in living honorably and compassionately. Were it not for the throngs of tourists, this space could be mistaken for a shrine.
There are a few possible ways to interpret the relationship between the dinosaurs and the hall around them. We could cast the adult Barosaurus as Roosevelt’s idealized citizen. Rather than letting the Allosaurus pick off it’s more vulnerable companion, it stands its ground, for “the highest form of success comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.” Alternatively, we could follow Haraway and consider this space a monument to hyper-masculinity and paternalistic oppression. Haraway slams the Roosevelt Rotunda (which implies a male audience at the exclusion of others) and the adjacent Hall of African Mammals (which displays artificially-assembled nuclear families, always with a male leader) as products of the wealth and privilege of the early-20th century aristocracy. But if we assume – as many visitors apparently do – that the defending Barosaurus is female, the dinosaurs might be read as a direct critique of the institution’s history. While political and sociological readings probably didn’t come up much when these mounts were being constructed, intent isn’t the whole story. This is a public space, and visitors can and will make conscious and unconscious connections between the various objects on view. Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time fossils have been entwined with presidential politics.
A museum display always involves the staging or framing of the world. It is this infusion of creative choice that moves fossil mounts beyond the realm of science and into art. As Polliquin puts it, a specimen from nature “permits or invites experience, wheras a work of art is intentionally made for an experience.” Whether they are composed of real fossils or casts thereof, fossil mounts are purposefully constructed to exist in the museum environment. Paradoxically, they are both the objects of scrutiny and the exhibit context. This is not something to hide or be ashamed of, but to celebrate. These mounts embody aesthetic beauty, deep history, and rich culture, and these elements are just as important as their scientific value when we consider their role in the museological landscape.
Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.
Kohlstedt, S.G. (2005). “Thoughts in Things” Modernity, History, and North American Museums. Isis 96:4:586-601.
Lindsay, W., Larkin, N. and Smith, N. (1996). Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.
Norrell, M.A., Dingus, L.W. and Gaffney, E.S. (1991). Barosaurus on Central Park West. Natural History 100:12:36-41.
Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Vogel, S. (1991). Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Displays. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.