Category Archives: mammals

Missourium: Hiding in Plain Sight

A while back I wrote about Albert Koch, the 19th century showman who made a tidy profit assembling and touring chimeric composites of fossil bones. Koch’s monsters – an exaggerated mastodon called “Missourium” and two alleged sea serpents made from whale fossils – were a hit with the public but an embarrassment to scientists. At the time, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s fraudulent commodification of fossil evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously.

The mastodon once called Missourium in the Mammal hall. Source

Is this mastodon at NHM actually the legendary Missourium? Source

One thing I breezed over in the previous post was the eventual fate of Koch’s creations. It is widely reported that the whales (which Koch alternatively called “Hydrargos” and “Hydrarchos”) met rather dramatic ends: one perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, while the other was purchased by the Royal Anatomical Museum in Munich Berlin and was subsequently blown up during World War II. But what about Missourium? Following Simpson, I wrote that the mount was sold to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum), and left it at that.

However, Mike Taylor recently asked whether Missourium might still be on display in South Kensington today:

I didn’t know that the “Missourium” was sold to the British Museum! Do you know what they did with it? I don’t suppose anyone has the specimen number? Is it possible that they got rid of all the fakery and mounted it in the mammal hall, and that it stands there today under the shadow of the whale?(Link to comment)

After some very modest digging, I found that Mike’s hunch was exactly right. General googling revealed that several authors, including McMillian, Debus, and Fuller, had concluded that the NHM mastodon and Missourium were one and the same, but none of them offered a proper citation. While I have no reason to doubt these authors, I still wanted a primary source. I eventually found that in a 1991 article by NHM preparator William Lindsay, which details the process of moving the mastodon to its current home in the Mammals Gallery, and confirms its identity as a remounted Missourium.

An insane illsutration that accompanied Koch's traveling exhibit.

This insane illustration of Missourium in its natural habitat accompanied Koch’s traveling exhibit.

As far as we know, Koch retrieved all the fossils that made up Missourium from a single Benton County, Missouri spring in 1840 (Hoy confirmed the locality and found several additional bones in 1871). Koch used the bones of at least two individuals to assemble a chimeric super-mastodon, which he displayed in St. Louis. Most notably, Koch spliced a number of extra vertebrae into the spinal column, extending the mount’s length to 32 feet. To appeal to local audiences – and to differentiate his creation from Peale’s mastodon – Koch named the beast Missourium, and proclaimed it to be the skeleton of the biblical Leviathan. In 1841, Koch sold his St. Louis showroom and took Missourium on tour, eventually winding up in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly, London.

Local specialists, including Gideon Mantell, were initially impressed by the display. However, attitudes soured in February 1842 when Richard Owen presented a scathing critique of Koch’s work to the Geological Society of London. In his lecture, Owen made some cursory remarks about the inaccurately articulated skeleton, but he was primarily concerned with confirming that Missourium was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill American mastodon. Owen was a trendsetter, then as well as now, and for decades afterward his fellow naturalists took every opportunity to take Koch to task. For example, James Dana allowed that “the credit is due him of having performed a great service to science by his collections”, but tore into Koch’s publications to prove that he “was quite ignorant of geology and without scientific training.”

It is therefore ironic that Owen himself gave Koch one of the biggest paydays of his life when he bought Missourium on behalf of the British Museum. In exchange for the skeleton, Koch made off with a $2000 downpayment (about $65,000 today), plus $1000 a year for the rest of his life. It seems museums have been paying extortion prices for display-caliber fossils for a long time.


Diagram of the mastodon’s internal armature. Figure 10 of Lindsay 1991.

Museum technicians, including an individual named J. Flower, disassembled Missourium and rebuilt it into a proper mastodon. Reduced to a length of 20 feet, the remounted skeleton (now OR15913) was placed in the historic fossil mammals exhibit and remained there for almost 150 years. In 1991, the mastodon was selected for inclusion in the new Mammals Gallery at NHM, which combines both fossil and modern specimens. Although William Lindsay and colleagues had only limited time to restore and move the skeleton, they gained fascinating insight into 19th century mounting practices. As shown above, the internal metal armature was virtually identical to 20th century counterparts. A hand-wrought iron beam threaded through each vertebra provided the mount’s central anchor point. Four additional iron bars skewered the appendicular elements and connected to the vertebral beam inside the pelvis and under the shoulder girdle. An enlarged foramen magnum allowed the vertebral beam to enter the back of the skull, which turned out to be composed almost entirely of papier-mâché. A real palate and set of upper teeth were buried in the paper cranium, supported by a cradle of wood and copper wire. Amazingly, an 1881 issue of The Weekly Dispatch used in a cursory repair to the skull was still legible.

historic photo of mastodon

Missourium remounted as a standard mastodon in the historic fossil mammals hall. Source

As to be expected from anything on display for a century and a half, the mastodon was in rough shape. As usual, vibration damage was the primary culprit, and Lindsay discovered that the spongy bone in the femur and cervical vertebrae had been crushed beneath the weight of the iron armature. Although NHM staff weren’t able to completely disarticulate the skeleton, they separated it into seven pieces for transport. A coating of polyvinyl acetate was applied to consolidate the fragile fossils, and larger cracks were filled in with putty. Meanwhile, the deteriorating replica skull was retired and replaced with a glass-reinforced plastic cast. The original tusks are still included in the display, however, which is unusual among proboscidian mounts.

Missourium was the third mounted fossil skeleton ever assembled, after Bru’s Megatherium and Peale’s mastodon. Although they’ve each been reconfigured and restored at various points in time, all three specimens are still on exhibit today. While any object that has been on public display for 150 years (or more) is fascinating, I find it especially compelling that so few fossil mounts have ever been taken off exhibit. Public demand, institutional inertia, and the challenges of safely disarticulating a historic mount all contribute to the incredible longevity of these displays, but time inevitably takes its toll on fragile fossils. I can’t help but wonder how many more generations of visitors will be able to view the mastodon that was once Missourium before a mounted display becomes untenable.


British Museum (1904). The History of the Collections Contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum. London, UK: British Museum (Natural History) and Longmans and Co.

Dana, J.D. (1875). On Dr. Koch’s Evidence with regard to the Contemporaneity of Man and the Mastodon in Missouri. The American Journal of Science and Arts 9:335-346.

Hoy, P.R. (1871). Dr. Koch’s Missourium. The American Naturalist 5:3:147-148.

Lindsay, W. (1991). “Mammoth” Task. Curator 34:4:261-272.

Owen, R. (1842). Report on the Missourium now exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, with an inquiry into the claims of the Tetracaudodon to generic distinction. Proceedings of the Geologic Society of London 3:3:82.

Simpson, G.G. (1942). The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 86:1:130-188.


Filed under anatomy, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.


The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.


Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

Extinct Monsters: Basilosaurus

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

The National Museum of Natural History houses the world’s most complete assemblage of fossil marine mammals. The crown jewel of this collection is assuredly the historic mounted Basilosaurus, which was until recently the only mount of its kind composed of original fossils. Since 2008, this ancestral whale has been suspended from the ceiling of the Sant Ocean Hall, but these fossils have actually been on near-continuous display for 120 years and counting. Technically this wasn’t the first time Basilosaurus fossils were used in a mounted skeleton (Albert Koch’s absurd chimera “Hydrarchos the sea serpent” preceded it by 60 years), but it was the first time this species was mounted accurately and under scientific supervision.

Basilosaurus was named by anatomist Richard Harlan in 1834. The name means “king lizard”, since he erroneously thought the bones belonged to a giant sea-going reptile. Richard Owen later re-identified the bones as those of a whale, and coined the new name “Zueglodon” (yoke tooth). While the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature decrees that the first published name must be used, late 19th century paleontologists apparently preferred to use Owen’s junior synonym.

Note basilo

Basilosaurus cast in the original USNM, now called the Arts and Industries Building. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1884 Charles Schuchert, an Assistant Curator at the United States National Museum, went to Clarke County, Alabama in search of “Zueglodon” remains. This would be the very first fossil-hunting expedition ever mounted by the Smithsonian. Decades earlier, Koch came to the same region to collect the fossils he used to assemble Hydrarchos, and local people had been familiar with the whale bones long before that.

Schuchert did not find the complete Basilosaurus skeleton he was looking for, but he did recover a reasonably complete, albeit fragmented, skull and jaw. He returned to Alabama in 1886 and collected an articulated vertebral column, a pelvis, and enough other elements to assemble a composite skeleton. Museum staff used the fossils to produce plaster casts, and combined them with sculpted bones to construct a replica “Zueglodon.” The whale was first unveiled at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, before finding a home in the original United States National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building). The 40-foot skeleton hung from the ceiling of the southwest court, with the original fossils laid out in a long case beneath it.

Basilosaurus as the centerpiece of the Hall of Extinct Monsters sometime before 1930. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, the USNM relocated to a larger building on the north side of the national mall, which is now of the National Museum of Natural History.  The east wing of the new museum became the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and has been the home of fossil displays at the Smithsonian ever since. The Basilosaurus was selected as the centerpiece of the new display, as its great length and toothy appearance made it popular with visitors. In honor of the occasion, preparator James Gidley reworked the old plaster mount to incorporate Schuchert’s original fossils. A series of caudal vertebrae from a third Basilosaurus specimen was also used. Still labeled “Zueglodon”, the mount was completed in 1912, about a year after the Hall of Extinct Monsters first opened to the public. As Curator of Geology George Merrill explained, the wide-open floor plan of the new hall allowed visitors to walk all the way around the mount, and inspect its every aspect up close.

During the 1960s and 70s, Basilosaurus occupied a case in the fossil mammal exhibit in Hall 5. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1931, the Basilosaurus was upstaged by a new centerpiece: the mounted Diplodocus that took Charles Gilmore and his team more than a decade to assemble. The Diplodocus took the front-and-center position (where it remained until 2014), while the Basilosaurus was relocated to the south side of the hall. The Great Depression and World War II ensured that the east wing exhibits remained largely unchanged for nearly three decades after that, but the space was eventually renovated in the early 1960s as part of a Smithsonian-wide modernization campaign. In its new incarnation, the east wing’s open spaces were carved into smaller galleries dedicated to different groups of ancient life. With the central Hall 2 occupied by dinosaurs and fossil reptiles, the Basilosaurus joined the other Cenozoic mammals in Hall 5. This gallery became “Life in the Ancient Seas” in 1989, but the Basilosaurus remained in place.

The Basilosaurus was in the Ancient Seas gallery from 1989 to 2008.

For the Ancient Seas gallery, Basilosaurus was remounted with an arched tail. Photo by Chip Clark.

Life in the Ancient Seas was a very different setting for the Basilosaurus than the Hall of Extinct Monsters, reflecting the significant changes in museum interpretation that occurred during the 20th century. The historic exhibit showcased the breadth of the museum’s fossil collection in a fairly neutral environment. Interpretation was minimal, and generally intended for a scholarly audience. In contrast, Life in the Ancient Seas was an immersive educational experience (no pun intended). The Basilosaurus and other marine mammal skeletons were posed over a papier-mâché ocean bottom, while a blue and turquoise color palate and even shimmering lights contributed to the illusion of traveling through an underwater world. Combined with text panels written with a jovial, inviting tone, the net effect was an exhibit pitched to a general audience at home with multimedia.

The historic Basilosaurus

The historic Basilosaurus, remounted for display in the Ocean Hall. Photo by the author.

The Basilosaurus was moved once more in 2008, when it was incorporated in the enormous new Ocean Hall. In its 5th position in a little over a century, the skeleton now hangs from the ceiling as part of an exhibit on whale evolution. Moving the historic skeleton was not an easy task, and took about six months of work. NMNH staff collaborated with Research Casting International to disassemble the skeleton, stabilize and conserve each bone, and finally remount the Basilosaurus on a new armature. In the new mount, each bone rests in a custom cradle with felt padding, to prevent vibration damage caused by the crowds passing beneath it. Smithsonian paleontologists also reunited the whale with its hind legs, which Schuchert found alongside the articulated vertebral column in Alabama but were, until recently, thought to belong to a bird.

This latest setting for Basilosaurus is a happy medium between museums past and present. The historic gallery occupied by the Ocean Hall has been restored to its original neoclassical glory, and much like the original Hall of Extinct Monsters visitors have clear sight lines across the space. Rather than being led on rails through a scripted exhibit experience, visitors can move freely through the gallery, bouncing among the objects they find compelling. At the same time, however, the Basilosaurus is explicitly contextualized as an example of the transformative power of evolution. Presented alongside cast skeletons of Maiacetus and Dorudon, this display makes whales’ evolutionary link to terrestrial mammals crystal clear.

This post was last updated on 1/8/2018.


Gilmore, C.W.  (1941). A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum No. 90.

Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Meet Basilosaurus, an Ancient Whale (2008). Smithsonian Institution.

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Filed under exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH

The Last American Dinosaurs Has Arrived!

Hatcher greets visitors

Hatcher the Triceratops greets visitors at the entrance to The Last American Dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are once again on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Opening just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, “The Last American Dinosaurs” provides a much-needed dose of paleontology while the main fossil hall is being renovated. I was fortunate enough to take part in a preview tour for social media users – you can check out the storified version, or read on for photos and my initial thoughts on the new exhibit.

Stan is cool

Stan the T. rex is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.


Triceratops growth series reveals how much we’ve learned about the lives of dinosaurs over the last 25 years.

As promised, there are plenty of dinosaurs on view. Specifically, these are the dinosaurs of Maastrichtian North America, the last of these animals to grace this continent before the extinction event 66 million years ago. In addition to the mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus discussed in the previous post, be on the lookout for a hatchling and juvenile Triceratops, an Edmontosaurus, and bits and pieces from dromaeosaurs and pachycephalosaurs.

However, the dinosaurs are just the tip of the iceberg. As lead curator Hans-Dieter Sues explained within the first few minutes of the tour, the central message of this exhibit is that dinosaurs were only one part of a complex ecosystem. To that end, the dinosaurs of The Last American Dinosaurs are outnumbered by a menagerie of of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, and plants that shared their world, most of which are on display for the first time. These specimens come from a variety of sources. Some, including turtles and fossil leaves, were collected by NMNH paleontologists in North Dakota specifically for this exhibit. Others, like the lizard Polyglyphanodon, have been in the museum’s collection since the 1930s but have never before been put on display. I also spotted a few casts sourced from Triebold Paleontology, including the mammal Didelphodon and the alligator-like Stangerochampsa

Gilmore specimen

This Polyglyphanodon was collected by Charles Gilmore in the 1930s.


Stangerochampsa and Champsosaurus are examples of animals that survived the K/T extinction.

Much like the Human Origins exhibit, The Last American Dinosaurs incorporates the faces of Smithsonian researchers and staff throughout the displays. There are large photos showing the museum’s scientists at work in the field, and the popular windowed FossiLab has found a new home in this exhibit. In addition, a large area is deservedly devoted to scientific illustrator Mary Parrish, chronicling the methods she uses to turn fossil data into gorgeously detailed renderings of prehistoric animals and environments. Videos of Parrish and others at work can be seen here.

I’m definitely a fan of this personalized approach to science communication. In-house scientists are museums’ most important and unique resources, and placing them front-and-center reminds visitors that science is done by real and diverse people, not caricatures in lab coats. A human face goes a long way toward making the process of doing science relateable to visitors.

new stuff

Handwritten labels on these fresh from the field fossils provide a personal touch.

The phenomenon of extinction is another important theme in The Last American Dinosaurs. The exhibit details how an asteroid impact combined with several other factors to radically alter the environment worldwide, causing 70% of species to die out (fun fact: ambient temperatures in North America directly after the impact were comparable to the inside of a brick pizza oven). However, the exhibit goes on to make direct comparisons between the K/Pg extinction event and the anthropogenic extinctions of today. Habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and climate change caused by burning fossil fuels are instigators of environmental upheaval as powerful as any space rock.


This moa and dodo remind visitors that extinction isn’t limited to the distant past.

In this way, The Last American Dinosaurs is a warm-up for the key messages of the new fossil hall. The overarching theme of the planned exhibit is that “Earth’s distant past is connected to the present and shapes our future.” It will showcase how living things and their environments are interdependent, and change over time. Crucially, it will also demonstrate how our understanding of how life has changed over time is important for understanding and mitigating our impact on present-day ecosystems. The Last American Dinosaurs is evidently a testing ground for how these ideas will resonate with audiences.


Historic models of Agathaumas and Triceratops by Charles Knight and Charles Gilmore.

In designing modern paleontology exhibits, museum workers have tried many approaches to squelch the idea of the dinosaur pageant show and instead convey how the science of paleontology is relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Back in 1995, the American Museum of Natural History tried a cladistic arrangement with a focus on biodiversity. More recently, the Field Museum used the process of evolution to frame the history of life on Earth. While there are certainly overlaps with what has come before, the “modern implications of environmental change over deep time” approach under development at NMNH is fairly novel, and also quite timely. Some of the displays in The Last American Dinosaurs hit pretty close to home, and I’m eager to find out how visitors respond.


Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, paleoart, reptiles, reviews, science communication, theropods

Extinct Monsters Updated

artists conception

This early artist’s conception of the new NMNH fossil hall was on display on closing day.

Way back in 2012, I wrote a series of posts on the history of fossil displays at the National Museum of Natural History. Now that the old exhibit is closed for five years of renovation, it seemed like a good idea to go back and revise the old articles. That, and it can be very painful to read things I wrote over a year ago. Each of the seven posts, plus the launch page, have been substantially updated with new information, new images, and less abuse of the passive voice. You can check out the new articles via the Extinct Monsters link at the top of the page, or by clicking here.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NMNH, reptiles

The Top Seven Dinosaur Mounts #MuseumDinos

According to Twitter, today is #MuseumDinos day, possibly because it’s the 10th anniversary of the groundbreaking DinoSphere exhibit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. At any rate, dinosaurs in museums is a thing I’m kind of interested in, so here’s the first ever DINOSOURS! listicle: the hastily-planned and in-no-way-definitive top seven coolest dinosaur extinct animal mounts from around the world.

7. MegatheriumMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

The original Megatherium fossils have been remounted at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Image from TripAdvisor.

Megatherium at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Source

Let’s start with the eldest. There are quite a few ground sloth mounts in the world, but the Megatherium in Madrid has the distinction of being the first assembled skeleton of a prehistoric animal ever put on public display. It’s hard to imagine, but when Juan Bautista Bru created this mount in 1795, biological evolution was completely unknown, and naturalists were just beginning wrap their heads around the idea that organisms could become extinct. This Megatherium was a product of a very different era of human understanding about the natural world, but unlike other historic mounts like the Peale mastodon and Leidy Hadrosaurus, it has survived to the present day.

6. Stegosaurus and Allosaurus, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Stegosaurus and Allosaurus

Stegosaurus and Allosaurus at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Source

In addition to being a respected scientist, Ken Carpenter is among the most skilled fossil mount creators working today. Among his most recognizable work is the Stegosaurus and Allosaurus face-off at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Featuring a remount of a historic Stegosaurus specimen and an Allosaurus discovered and mostly excavated by 12-year-old India Wood, this lively display was unveiled in 1995 as the centerpiece of the “Prehistoric Journey” exhibit. In addition to biomechanical accuracy exceeding many other modern mounts, this display by Carpenter and Bryan Small is imbued with remarkable dynamism and energy.

5. Tyrannosaurus pair, Museo Jurasico de Asturias

Tyrannosaurus at Museo Jurasico de Asturias. Source

Tyrannosaurus at Museo Jurasico de Asturias. Source

Then again, there are a lot of fighting dinosaur mounts. I love that dinosaurs had big teeth and killed things as much as the next person, but it’s refreshing to see a mount that showcases some other aspect of these animals’ lives. That said, the Spanish Museo Jurasico de Asturias is, as far as I know, the only museum to display a pair of copulating dinosaurs. The T. rex on the bottom looks like yet another Stan cast, but I’m not sure about the one on top.

4. Diplodocus, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (and elsewhere)

The original "Dippy" the Diplodocus at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The original “Dippy” the Diplodocus at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Like the Madrid Megatherium, this Diplodocus is intractably situated in history. If the worldwide popularity of dinosaurs could be traced to a single specimen, it would be this one. At the turn of the 20th century, Andrew Carnegie, who funded the creation of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, demanded that his museum find and display a sauropod dinosaur. This launched the Great American Sauropod Race, a frenzied competition among the United States’ large natural history museums to assemble the biggest dinosaur for display. The American Museum in New York was first across the finish line in 1905 with their composite “Brontosaurus”, although the Diplodocus collected by the CMNH team was a more complete specimen. Not to be outdone by his New York competitors, Carnegie commissioned several casts of the skeleton, which he presented to several cities in Europe and Latin America. Diplodocus casts sprang up seemingly overnight in London, Paris and elsewhere, and the original specimen was unveiled in Pittsburgh in 1907.

3. GiraffatitanMuseum für Naturkunde

Should the Giraffatitan at Berlin's Museum fur Naturkunde be displayed in Germany? Image from Wikipedia.

The biggest fossil mount in the world. Source

The Berlin Giraffatitan is on this list for two reasons. First, it’s really big. The biggest mount in the world composed mostly of original fossils, as a matter of fact, and big things are awesome. However, this display is also a fascinating example of the cultural meaning natural specimens can take on when placed on display. The fossils themselves were removed from what is now Tanzania under the authority of a colonial government that is no longer considered legitimate or appropriate, and the mount itself was completed in 1935, a time when the hall it was displayed in was filled with swastika flags. The fossils themselves (and the current museum staff that have inherited them) obviously have nothing to do with Nazis or colonial imperialism, but the display they were incorporated into is entrenched in history that should not be ignored or forgotten.

This is actually the second iteration of this display, the bow-legged original having been remounted in 2007.That’s one of the Carnegie Diplodocus casts peeking in from the right, by the way.

2. Triceratops, National Museum of Natural History

Triceratops at the National Museum of Natural History.

Triceratops at the National Museum of Natural History.

Triceratops is objectively the coolest dinosaur ever, and NMNH is the home to the definitive (and first) Triceratops mount. Charles Gilmore and Norman Boss constructed this composite skeleton in 1905 from fossils collected throughout Wyoming, resulting in a mount that was inaccurate in many details; most noticeably, the skull was too small compared to the rest of the body. Nevertheless, this Triceratops was the basis for illustrations in popular books for decades to come. In 2000, Steve Jabo and others retired the original mount, conserving the fossils and replacing them in the exhibit hall with a casted duplicate. Among other improvements, the undersized head was corrected by digitally scanning the original and 3D-printing it at a different scale.

1. Barosaurus and Allosaurus, American Museum of Natural History

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source:

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Source

Was there ever any question what would be in first place ? The Barosaurus encounter in the Theodore Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH is a prime contender for the world’s most spectacular fossil mount. What I like most about this exhibit is the purposeful mise-en-scene: the dinosaurs decisively fill the space, drawing the viewer’s eye not only around the room but up the neck of the 50-foot Barosaurus toward the high vaulted ceiling.  Since 2010, visitors have been able to walk between as well as around the mounts, inserting their own human scale into the scene. According to AMNH paleontologist Mark Norrell, the objective of this exhibit was “to imagine dinosaurs as living organisms, facing challenges similar to those that confront animals today.” However, Norrell freely admits that the display was also meant to be a spectacle, emphasizing the “romantic history and grandeur of fossils”.


Brinkman, P.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.

Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossil Vertebrate Skeletons. In Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

López Piñero , J.M. (1988). Juan Bautista Bru (1740-1799) and the Description of the Genus MegatheriumJournal of the History of Biology. 21:1:147-163.

Norrell, M.A., Dingus, L.W. & Gaffney, E.S. (1991). Barosaurus on Central Park West. Natural History, 100(12), 36-41.


Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles

Juan Bautista Bru and the First Fossil Mount

The first fossils ever assembled into a freestanding mount belonged to the giant ground sloth Megatherium. The fossils, which were unearthed near Luján in what is now Argentina, were described and mounted in 1795 by Juan Bautista Bru at the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid. But while the Megatherium mount played an important part in the history of paleontology and in our understanding of the changing Earth, the man who made it possible is scarcely mentioned in the literature. Instead, Bru’s work on Megatherium is typically overshadowed by the involvement of the much better known anatomist Georges Cuvier. Drawing principally from José López Piñero ‘s 1988 paper on Bru, this entry is intended to highlight and acknowledge Bru’s contribution to the practice of mounting fossils for public display.

Cuvier's adaptation of Bru's drawing.

Cuvier’s adaptation of Bru’s illustration of the Megatherium mount.

The Megatherium  in question was discovered  in 1789 in what was then the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata, on the banks of the Luján River, “a league and a half” from the town of the same name. As region was controlled by the Spanish monarchy at the time (although the Argentine War of Independence was not far off), it was standard procedure for viceroy Marqués de Lorento to ship the important find to Spain with all haste. Packed into seven crates, the nearly complete skeleton was delivered to the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid, which curated natural specimens from Spanish territories and was among the most respected scientific institutions in Europe.

By the late 1700s, the European Enlightenment was well established, and the pursuit of knowledge about the world through reason and scientific deduction rather than legend or dogma was popular among the societal elite. The study of natural history was deemed particularly important, and institutions like the Royal Cabinet which collected, quantified and published knowledge about the natural world were well-respected and well-funded. However, the meaning of the fossil record still eluded the top minds of the era. A century earlier, Nicolaus Steno had determined that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms, and by the late 1700s some naturalists were starting to come around to the idea that species that once existed had become extinct. Nevertheless, when the Megatherium arrived in Madrid, naturalists still lacked the most important part of the puzzle presented by the fossil record: an understanding of evolution and the interrelatedness of life on Earth.

The task of interpreting the Luján fossils went to Juan Bautista Bru, the “Artist and First Dissector” at the Royal Cabinet. Born in Valencia, Bru had initially tried his hand as a traditional artist, but found little success. After shifting his focus to natural science, Bru joined the Royal Cabinet in 1771 and remained there until his death in 1799. Bru primarily served as a scientific illustrator, combining his artistic skill with his extensive anatomical knowledge to produce gorgeously detailed drawings of biological specimens, as was required before photography became commonplace. He was also responsible for producing taxidermy pieces and occasionally, mounted skeletons of animals.  In 1777, Bru prepared and mounted the skeleton of an elephant that had died at the royal estate in Aranjuez, a task which doubtlessly provided useful practice for mounting the gigantic Megatherium.

Plate from Bru's monograph

Plate I from Bru’s Megatherium monograph.

Bru devoted four years to studying the Luján fossils, which were complete except for the animal’s tail. He completed his monograph in 1793, which included detailed descriptions of every skeletal element, in addition to 22 plates illustrating the bones from various angles. Among the illustrations was the completely articulated skeleton shown above, which is, incidentally, the first recorded instance of a skeletal drawing illustrating the living form of an extinct animal. Since the mounted skeleton did not go on display until 1795, it is unclear whether Bru based the illustration on the mount or vice versa. Unfortunately, little is known about how Bru created the Megatherium mount, and his drawing provides no information about the armature that supported the massive bones. Since Bru did not discuss the mount’s construction in his monograph, one can only surmise that the techniques he refined over the years building mounts of modern animal skeletons were applicable to the fossils. Wooden armatures were used to mount fossils in the early 1800s, and it is plausible that Bru pioneered this technique. Regardless of how it was supported, the  rhino-sized Megatherium mount was placed on a rectangular wooden platform in a room of the Royal Cabinet already devoted to fossils and minerals.

It is unclear why, but Bru never published his monograph, and this unfortunately resulted in him effectively being scooped by Georges Cuvier in 1796. A representative of the French government working in Santa Domingo acquired a set of proofs of Bru’s monograph and illustration, and passed them along to the Institut de France. The proofs made their way to Cuvier, who was well established as one of the world’s leading experts in anatomy and natural history. Although he had not yet seen the actual fossils, Cuvier wrote a brief article in the journal Magasin Encyclopedique on the South American creature, in which he coined the rather vague name Megatherium americanum, meaning American giant beast. Cuvier’s article was not without error (he claimed the fossils were found in Paraguay), but he did correctly recognize that the animal was an edentate* and was curiously similar to modern tree sloths**. In contrast, Bru’s description of the fossils, while thorough, contained no attempt at classification.

As it happened, Cuvier published a second important article on fossil animals in 1796: his Mémoires sur les espèces d’éléphants vivants et fossiles, in which he established that the mammoth fossils found in the Americas belonged to an extinct relative of modern elephants. The wave of attention Cuvier received that year for his contributions to the young field of paleontology apparently eclipsed any recognition of Bru’s multi-year study of the Megatherium. Bru ended up selling his monograph and illustrations to a publisher, and a translated version eventually appeared in a widely disseminated booklet with Cuvier’s Megatherium article in 1804, five years after Bru’s death.

Megatherium would continue to be important to 19th century paleontologists. Charles Darwin became interested in South American fossils during the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. In particular, the relationship between the extinct ground sloths and their modern relatives contributed to Darwin’s ideas about the succession of species over geologic time. In 1849, the British Museum produced a Megatherium mount of their own, a composite of two skeletons found very near to where the Spanish specimen was first discovered. Plaster casts of this mount would appear in museums on both sides of the Atlantic, and the original cast is still on display in London today (some of the fossils were destroyed during World War II). But while the discovery of Megatherium would be recounted often over the subsequent two centuries, it was Cuvier, not Bru, who was always given credit for introducing the animal to the world. Only in recent years has Bru’s name begun to circulate again in historical accounts.

The original Megatherium fossils have been remounted at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Image from TripAdvisor.

The original Megatherium fossils have been remounted at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Image from Virtual Tourist.

However, there is a bit of happiness at the end of this story. Unlike other early mounts like Peale’s mastodon and Hydrarchos, Bru’s Megatherium has survived to the present day. Remounted on a new steel armature in an approximation of the original quadrupedal pose, the Luján Megatherium fossils are on display at the Royal Cabinet’s spiritual successor, the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid. On public display for a nearly uninterrupted 218 years, this specimen can  surely be said to have taken on a second life. It was once a giant beast that roamed across the ancient Argentinian plains, and now it is a monument to scientific achievement.

*Edentata is a historic paraphyletic group that includes sloths, anteaters, pangolins and aardvarks. Modern biologists recognize that the new world sloths and anteaters and old world pangolins and aardvarks are not closely related. The name Xenarthra is now used for sloths and their new world relatives.

**Cuvier was working many decades before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and as such, did not subscribe to the idea that species could change and diversify over time. It is therefore worth noting that while he recognized the similarity between Megatherium and modern sloths, he did not conceive of their relationship in an evolutionary sense (that is, related species sharing a common ancestor). 


Argot, C. (2008). Changing Views in Paleontology:
The Story of a Giant (Megatherium, Xenarthra). Mammalian Evolutionary Morphology. Pp 37-50.

López Piñero , J.M. (1988). Juan Bautista Bru (1740-1799) and the Description of the Genus Megatherium. Journal of the History of Biology. 21:1:147-163.

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Filed under fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, paleoart

The Chimeric Missourium and Hydrarchos

In 1802, naturalist and painter John Peale unveiled the first mounted fossil skeleton ever put on display in the United States. The mount, a mastodon (Mammut americanum) collected on a farm near Newburgh, New York, immediately captured public attention and inspired a wave of interest in anything old and big. Although Peale charged admission to view the mastodon and somewhat dramatized its importance as “the first of American animals” and “the largest of terrestrial beings”, his primary intent was to educate the public about the natural world. Nevertheless, many American capitalists saw the crowds of people lining up to see Peale’s mastodon and concluded that there was a profit to be made in exhibiting fossils. The best known of these 19th century fossil showmen was surely Albert Koch. Having immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1835, Koch was a contemporary of P.T. Barnum, and like Barnum, he made a career out of exhibiting “curiosities”, some real and some fraudulent or exaggerated. At “Dr. Koch’s” (he never actually earned a doctorate) exhibition hall in St. Louis, Missouri, visitors paying the 50 cent admission fee could view wax sculptures, exotic animals, artifacts from distant countries, extensive miniature dioramas, and alleged freaks of nature. Koch also had a live grizzly bear and several alligators – sources differ on whether or not they were forced to fight for entertainment.


In 1840, Koch received word of something much bigger. A Missouri farmer had discovered large fossil bones, and Koch quickly arranged to purchase the find along with the rights to search the farmer’s land for more. Within four months, Koch had assembled a complete mastodon skeleton. More than complete, actually: Koch’s mount included numerous extra vertebrae and ribs from one or more additional mastodon individuals. Like Peale before him, Koch placed blocks of wood between the vertebrae to further exaggerate the animal’s length. The result was a 32-foot mount, nearly twice as long as a typical mastodon. As a final flourish, Koch positioned the mastodon’s tusks pointing upwards, to make the beast look more fearsome. In order to differentiate his creation from Peale’s earlier exhibit, Koch called the creature “Missourium”, although there was no scientific reason to distinguish it from other mastodon finds. Missourium went on display at Koch’s St. Louis establishment later that same year, and proved to be an instant success. In fact, Koch decided that the composite mastodon mount was worth more than then every other display combined. In 1841, he sold the exhibit hall and took Missourium on tour, traveling to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and several other American cities.

Illustration of Missourium. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

Contemporary academics, including the British naturalist Richard Owen, pointed out that Koch’s mount was clearly an incorrectly assembled composite, and expressed disapproval for Koch’s sensationalized treatment of important fossil specimens. Just like famous P.T. Barnum frauds like Joice Heth and the Feejee mermaid, however, the controversy surrounding Missourium’s legitimacy only increased the enthusiasm of the paying public.  As an interesting side note, Koch claimed to have found stone tools and other human artifacts alongside the Missourium fossils. He included a pamphlet with his traveling exhibit which explained that these tools demonstrated that human populations in North America extended much further back in time than had been previously assumed. Koch may well have been telling the truth about where he found the artifacts and would eventually turn out to be correct about the antiquity of American humans. Nevertheless, because of the obviously fraudulent nature of Missourium, scientists of the day saw fit to ignore Koke’s suggestions entirely.


Koch sold Missourium to the British Museum in 1843, but he was soon at it again in 1845, when he began scouring Alabama for new display-worthy fossils. This time, Koch was after the bones of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus cetoides. The Philadelphia-based naturalist and physician Richard Harlan had first described and named Basilosaurus in 1835 (he erroneously thought it was a reptile, hence the name meaning “king lizard”), but its fossils had been well known in the American south for decades before that. Enslaved men and women often ran into the bones while plowing fields, and these fossils were sometimes used as furniture or foundation posts for houses. Between January and April of 1845, Koch traveled across Clarke, Choctaw, and Washington counties, retrieving Basilosaurus remains. His best find was an articulated partial skeleton, including much of the skull, which he unearthed near the Tombigbee River.

After accumulating parts of at least six Basilosaurus individuals, Koch combined the fossils into a 114-foot mount (he would claim that it was 140 feet). Just as he had with Missourium, Koch strung together the vertebrae of multiple animals, extending his creation’s length to an absurd degree. This time, Koch did not even limit himself to whale fossils: as naturalist Jeffries Wyman would point out, many of the elements in Koch’s chimeric creation were actually ammonite shells. Billed as a sea serpent called “Hydrargos sillimani” (named after Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, who was not involved in the project and immediately requested that the reference be removed), the mount was first exhibited at the Apollo Saloon in New York City. Hydrargos, eventually renamed Hyrarchos, proved to be even more popular and profitable than Missourium. Cleverly, Koch had constructed the skeleton not as a single structure but as several modular components secured to wooden boards. This made it easy for the showman to disassemble, transport, and reassemble the display, which he toured throughout the United States and Europe.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York’s Apollo Saloon.

As they had with Missourium, scientists confronted Koch over his inaccurate and sensationalized displays. Undaunted, Koch eventually sold the Hydrarchos mount to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who exhibited it in Berlin’s Royal Anatomical Museum despite the insistence by the museum’s experts that the mount was a fraudulent reconstruction. Koch was still not finished, however. In 1848 he completed a second Basilosaurus composite, this one 96 feet long, and again took it on tour. The Mark II Hydrarchos would eventually be sold to Colonel Wood’s Museum in Chicago. E.L. Wood’s “museum” was yet another exhibition of mostly-bogus oddities, like Koch’s original operation in St. Louis. Still, the Basilosaurus mount’s final home can be credited for correctly identifying it as a prehistoric whale. The composite mount was labeled as “Zeuglodon”, a junior synonym coined by Richard Owen when he determined that the Alabama fossils belonged to marine mammals, not reptiles. Properly identified or not, the mount was destroyed along with the rest of Wood’s Museum during the great Chicago fire in 1871. Most of the original Hydrarchos was lost during World War II, although some parts remain at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.

Modern Influences

Koch’s fossil mounts were frustrating to 19th century paleontologists because they cast unnecessary doubt on their young discipline. The actual bones that made up Missourium and Hydrarchos were genuine, Koch had merely assembled them incorrectly to enhance the appeal and profitability of his displays. To the scientists’ chagrin, when they criticized Koch’s displays, the popular press and the public often misinterpreted their statements and became skeptical of fossil finds in general. During the 19th century, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s spurious commodification of hard evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously in the public sphere.

In fact, modern paleontologists still have to do damage control when the occasional forgery turns up. In 1999, the discovery of “Archaeoraptor” was widely publicized in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere as a feathered dinosaur that provided important evidence for the dinosaurian origin of birds. Archaeoraptor was not the first feathered dinosaur ever found, but it was one of the early ones, back when the concept of dinosaurs with feathers was still news. Unfortunately, it was only after the National Geographic article had gone to press that paleontologists Xu Xing and Phil Curie determined that the Archaeoraptor specimen, which had been smuggled into the United States from China by an unknown dealer, was actually a composite. Someone in China knew that a complete skeleton was worth more than an incomplete one, and cemented together partial skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Microraptor and Yanornis. When National Geographic retracted the story, however, many readers misunderstood the extent of the forgery. They thought that the feathers, the most exciting part of the find, had been faked, when in reality all the parts of Archaeoraptor were quite real, they just belonged to different animals.

This out-of-copyright image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount's wooden armature. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

This image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount’s wooden armature. Incidentally, the above caption is accurate. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

More than ten years later, writers with creationist agendas and a few scientists who ought to know better are still pushing the myth that Archaeoraptor was a deliberate hoax. Literally hundreds of genuine feathered dinosaur specimens found since then contribute to the scientific consensus that birds area incontrovertibly dinosaurs. And yet, paleontologists are still fighting skepticism inspired by the Archaeoraptor mistake.

19th century paleontologists paid for Koch’s displays in much the same way. Editorials denouncing evolution and the fossil record repeatedly referenced Koch’s ridiculous chimeras, as though these showpieces were representative of paleontologists’ work. I suspect that the general animosity paleontologists of the era felt toward fossil mounts came from dealing with Koch’s legacy. O.C. Marsh, for instance, hated the idea of mounting fossils and refused to let any of his finds be displayed in such a way during his lifetime. It would not be until 1868 and the discovery of the first somewhat complete dinosaur remains that paleontologists would again see mounting as a legitimate means for displaying their finds.


Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossi Vertebrate Skeletons. In Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D.E. 1998. Doctor Koch and his “Immense Antidiluvian Monsters.”

Rogers, M. 2010. Delia’s Tears: Race, Science and Photography in Nineteenth Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Simpson, G.G. 1942. The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 86:1:130-188.

Switek, B. 2008. “Koch’s “Mammoth” and Human Antiquity.”


Filed under fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums

The Artist in His Museum: Peale’s Mastodon

In 1801, naturalist and painter Charles Wilson Peale assembled in Philadelphia the skeleton of a mastodon (Mammut americanum).While Peale’s mastodon was not the first fully assembled fossil animal put on display, it was assuredly the first display of this type to capture widespread public attention, particularly in the United States. What’s more, the mastodon became an important symbol for the untold natural wonders of the American continent, which was still largely unexplored (by European colonists) at the beginning of the 19th century. Finally, Peale’s mastodon made clear to the public one of the most important principles of modern biology: the idea that organisms can become extinct.

The Peale Museum mastodon, as illustrated by Charles Peale's son, Rembrandt. The Peale Museum mastodon, as illustrated by Charles Peale’s son, Rembrandt.

An extinct giant

The story of the mastodon mount actually began a full century before the 1806 debut. In 1705, a farmer in Claverack, New York found an enormous tooth that had eroded out of a hillside. The farmer traded the tooth to a local politician, and it eventually made it its way into the hands of New York’s colonial governor, Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon. Hyde in turn sent the tooth to London, describing it as a remnant of an antediluvian giant. As word of the remains of a giant spread, other Americans soon began reporting similar finds. Throughout the colonies, giant bones, teeth, and tusks began to be uncovered. While early reports called these fossils the remains of “incognitum,” or “the unknown,” naturalists caught on reasonably quickly that these were not the bones of giant men but of elephant-like creatures.

At this point a brief digression on etymology and taxonomy is required. For most of the 19th century, the American fossil elephants were invariably called “mahmot” or “mammoth.” This was an Anglicization of the Old Vogul term maimanto (meaning earth-horn), which referred to giant tusks occasionally found in Siberia. It is unclear, however, who first made the correct connection between the frozen mammoths of Siberia and the American fossil skeletons. Credit for adopting “mammoth” as a synonym for “big” goes to Thomas Jefferson, who was fascinated by paleontology and the mammoth fossils in particular.

It was not until 1817 that French anatomist Georges Cuvier recognized that there were at least two types of extinct American proboscideans: the taller mammoths and stockier mastodons. Unequivocally demonstrating the staggering repression of the Victorian era, Cuvier coined the name “mastodon,” meaning nipple tooth, because apparently he thought the animal’s most distinguishing feature was that its teeth looked like breasts.

Boobs? Couvier, you poor bastard. Cuvier, you poor bastard.

The American elephantine fossils raised difficult questions for naturalists. The fossils clearly belonged to animals that had never been seen alive, which meant that the entire species must have died out. This concept of extinction was new to science, and it challenged the biblically-inspired presumption that all species had originated in a single creation event. Cuvier was a leader in the 19th century scientific movement known as catastrophism–the idea that extinctions were the result of periodic disasters, such as floods. While Cuvier himself rejected the idea that populations of organisms could avoid extinction by adapting and changing, his work on extinction would prove important when Charles Darwin worked out the process of evolution several decades later.

Unearthing the mastodon

In 1789, Nicholas Collin of the American Philosophical Society proposed a search for a complete mammoth skeleton, in order to resolve the animal’s identity and the question of its extinction once and for all. Collin’s call was answered by Charles Wilson Peale, founder of America’s first modern museum. Peale is best known today as a portrait artist during the American Revolution, but he was also the founder of the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Although semi-formal collections of interesting natural specimens had existed before, Peale uniquely fashioned his institution as a space for public education, rather than a private vanity project. On the second floor of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Peale arranged displays of mammals, birds, and plants in a scala naturae, which was the contemporary understanding of natural order. Peale intended the museum to be a public resource that would improve visitors’ moral character through lessons in science, as was made clear by the slogan printed on every ticket, “the birds and beasts will teach thee.”

In 1799, a farmer named John Masten reported that he had found bones of “an animal of uncommon magnitude” on his land outside Newburgh, New York. Masten gathered a large party of friends and neighbors to help excavate the find. This proved to be a little too much fun: the crowd eventually descended into alcohol-fueled chaos, and many of the fossils were destroyed. Nevertheless, Peale decided to pay Masten a visit, with the hope of securing mammoth fossils for his museum. Peale ended up paying Masten $200 for the surviving fossils, plus another $100 for the right to search his land for more remains. Peale returned to Masten’s farm with a better-organized crew and $500 in additional funding from the American Philosophical Society. The ensuing excavation is the subject of Peale’s 1806 painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, shown below.

“The Exhumation of the Mastodon” by Charles Peale, 1806.

Although highly dramatized, The Exhumation of the Mastodon provides the best available record of the event. Since the pit where Masten first found the bones had filled with water, Peale oversaw the construction of a huge wooden wheel, which drove a conveyor belt hauling buckets of water out of the work site. Peale himself can be seen on the right, presiding over his small army of excavators. The well-publicized project eventually uncovered most of a mastodon. Exploring a few nearby farms, Peale’s workers eventually accumulated enough material to build a complete skeleton, most notably a mandible found on another farm down the road. In what was either showmanship or genuine confusion regarding the diets of elephants, Peale said of the find, “Gracious God, what a jaw! How many animals must have been crushed beneath it!” (quoted in Simpson 1942, 159).

The mastodon on exhibit

Once the mastodon skeleton had been transported to Philadelphia, the process of building the mount fell upon Peale’s son Rembrandt and Moses Williams, a free man of color who worked for the Peales. It took three months to articulate the skeleton, although sadly the details of how it was mounted on its armature are lost to history. Initiating a practice that would become necessity for most fossil mounts in years to come, Rembrant filled in missing parts of the mastodon skeleton (the top of the cranium and the tail) with sculpted elements. In addition, wooden discs were placed between vertebrae, slightly exaggerating the mount’s total length.

The completed mastodon mount was unveiled in 1802, in the main hall of the American Philosophical Society. Shortly thereafter, it was moved to the Peale Museum at Independence Hall. For 50 cents (plus regular admission), the visiting public could marvel at the creature Peale touted as “the first of American animals” and “the largest of terrestrial beings.” The mastodon (still being called a mammoth at that time) was a sensation, stirring up fascination with natural science, the prehistoric past, and no small amount of ours-is-bigger-than-yours patriotism in the young United States. In 1822, Peale would commemorate the unveiling of the mastodon with his self portrait, The Artist in His Museum. Ever the showman, Peale ensured that the skeleton in his painting is only barely visible below the rising curtain.

“The Artist in His Museum” by Charles Peale, 1822.

After Peale’s death in 1827 his museum floundered, and was eventually reduced from a meritorious educational institution into a circus of cheap spectacle. It shut down for good in 1848, and the mastodon (by then one of many similar mounts) was put up for auction. There are several conflicting accounts of what became of the mount, including the suggestion that it was destroyed in a fire, but in fact Peale’s mastodon has survived to the present day. Johann Jakob Kaup purchased the skeleton for the Landesmuseum in Durmstadt, Germany, and it has remained on display there ever since.

Germany Peale’s mastodon survives in Durmstadt, Germany. Source

Peale’s mastodon left an unmistakable legacy for both paleontology and public education. Today, the public conception of prehistory is inseparably connected to the image of towering mounted skeletons in museum halls. But fossils do not come out of the ground bolted to steel armatures, so it is largely thanks to Peale that mounts have become the most enduring means of sharing paleontology with the public.


Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossil Vertebrate Skeletons. Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Connriff, R. (2010). Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters. Smithsonian Magazine.

Semonin, P. (2000). American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Simpson, G.G. (1942). The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North Ameirca. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 86:130-188.


Filed under field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums

The Osborn problem

In both paleontology and the museum field, we’ve long contended with what one might call “the Osborn problem.” The legacy of Henry Fairfield Osborn, paleontologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History between 1908 and 1933, is quite important to both fields.  To paleontologists, he is known for accumulating at AMNH one of the largest and most exhaustive fossil collections in the world,  for financing and supporting the careers of legends like Barnum Brown and Charles R. Knight, and of course for naming and describing saurian celebrities like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor.

Osborn is also well-regarded by museum specialists for heightening the standards for public exhibitions, investing in lifelike habitat dioramas of taxidermy animals and spectacular mounted dinosaur skeletons in order to make science exciting for a wide audience. Osborn’s devotion to storytelling and drama in the exhibits he curated brought millions of visitors to AMNH and quite literally defined public expectations for what museums should offer to this day.

Henry Fairfield Osborn.

Henry Fairfield Osborn.

In recent decades, however, historical interest in Osborn has been mostly focused on his disreputable personal and political beliefs: Osborn was a flagrant racist and anti-Semite,  an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a strong supporter of research in eugenics. Osborn regularly used his clout to bring material harm to the American working class, lobbying for legislation including the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924. For what it’s worth, Osborn was also apparently unbearably arrogant and truly dreadful to work with, going as far as to demand lower-ranked museum employees leave the elevator car when he got on.

All this puts paleontologists and museum specialists in an awkward position. Is it acceptable to admire Osborn’s positive achievements in light of his personal politics? After all, Osborn’s views were not terribly unusual among the aristocratic class of his day. Perhaps we shouldn’t condemn the man entirely for not “rising above his time and place” (as Stephen Ambrose argues regarding coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson the slave owner).

Unfortunately, Osborn’s case is complicated by the fact that his bigotry inspired (or at least contributed to) much of his work at AMNH*. To start, Osborn’s scientific work was based on an inaccurate orthogenetic interpretation of evolution. He professed that an ill-defined guiding force shaped life from lesser to greater forms, the effect of which could be seen by comparing “primitive” and “advanced” species, and of course, “primitive” and “advanced” expressions of humanity. While we cannot conclusively link Osborn’s pseudo-evolutionary ideas with his bigoted social agenda, it is certainly convenient for him that he saw people of “Nordic” descent as biologically superior.

*To clarify, none of the exhibits curated by Osborn remain on display and none of my comments here apply to the present day AMNH.

Critically, Osborn did not keep his ideas of natural hierarchy in the ivory tower. He explicitly intended that the exhibition halls of AMNH educate visitors not just about natural science but about the naturally graded order he believed to be characteristic of life on earth. Osborn thought that collections of biological specimens implicitly revealed an upward ascent of life, and that those on top had earned their place through innate superiority. Osborn pronounced that his exhibits would teach morality to new American immigrants, presumably by putting them in their place with the rather hideous racial hierarchy on display in the Hall of the Age of Man. As Donna Haraway puts it in her classic essay Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Osborn’s exhibits were a “gospel of wealth and privilege” that appropriated natural specimens to affirm the American elite’s place at the top of the pecking order.

Tyrannosaurus and others in AMNH Dinosaur Hall, 1927. Photo courtesy of AMNH Research Library.

Tyrannosaurus and others in AMNH Dinosaur Hall, 1927. Photo courtesy of AMNH Research Library.

Museums are understood to be sources of intellectual authority, and deservedly so. But exhibits have authorship, same as any other written work, and Osborn’s legacy demonstrates that the influence of authors and their worldviews can be a powerful force. For example, Osborn arranged the Hall of the Age of Man in what he saw as ascending order, from the ancient peoples of Africa, to North America, and finally Europe. Placed at the end of an exhibit series that started with Cambrian invertebrate fossils before passing through Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic fossil displays, the Age of Man gallery deliberately implied that European-descended humans were the culmination of the entire history of life on Earth.

Meanwhile, the exhibit on fossil horses curated by Osborn depicted small, multi-toed horses of the Eocene gradually becoming larger, losing toes and becoming better at being modern Equus. This orthegenetic representation runs counter to evolution via natural selection as originally proposed by Darwin, and as understood today. Indeed, other paleontologists, including O.C. Marsh, had established in the 19th century that horse evolution more closely resembled a tangled bush, with many overlapping morphological offshoots adapted to varying environmental circumstances. But Osborn had rejected Darwinian evolution in favor of his presumed hierarchy of life, and ensured that his inaccurate story was what was seen by millions of visitors.

So what does Osborn’s legacy mean to paleontologists and museum specialists today? Do we need to qualify every mention of his name with a denouncement of his worldview? Should we always write out “Tyrannosaurus rex Osborn, 1905″ as “Tyrannosaurus rex Osborn the racist jerk, 1905″? At minimum, Osborn’s exhibits are a sobering reminder to all us involved in science education that our field is not immune to bias. The  subjectivity of cultural and historical museum exhibits has been well-explored by scholars like Ames and Weil, but comparatively little reflection has been done on the authorship of exhibits on science and natural history. We rely on the “naturalness” of the objects we display to speak for itself, and to bear the burden of proof for the statements we make. The world around us is knowable, and science is the best tool to learn about it. But explaining what we have learned in any form (books, technical journals, museum exhibits) is an avenue for personal or cultural bias to slip in, and that is why it remains important to actively and regularly check our assumptions.


Ames, M.M. (2004). Museums in the Age of Deconstruction. In Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Brinkman, P.D. (2010). The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Colbert, E.H. (1968). Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc.

Haraway, D. (1984). 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 96:586-601.

Osborn, H.F. (1921). The Hall of the Age of Man in the American Museum. Nature 107:236-240.


Filed under AMNH, anthropology, history of science, mammals, museums, science communication