Category Archives: movies

Jurassic Museum

Teaser image for Jurassic Park 5, via Colin Trevorrow/Universal.

Well, this is a doozy. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow tweeted the above image this afternoon, which is a teaser for the upcoming “Jurassic World 2” (Jurassic Park 5?). The film doesn’t have an official title yet, but apparently they started shooting on February 23rd and are aiming for a June 2018 release.

The Victorian-style museum gallery piqued my interest immediately. Since this is the first promotional image they put out, it stands to reason that natural history exhibits might play a significant role in the film. Is this a flashback to a formative experience for a main character? Or is it a brief moment of quiet before Chris Pratt smashes through the wall riding a mutant cyborg T. rex? Both are probably equally likely at this point, but there are still a few things worth noting.

First, this scene is plainly referencing the century-old association in the public consciousness between museums and dinosaurs. When we think of museums, we think of dinosaurs, and vice versa. This is no accident – as I’ve discussed here on many occasions, dinosaurs (and their mounted skeletons in particular) played a central role in defining the modern museum at the start of the 20th century. The first Jurassic Park film played with this iconography in its classic finale, when the flesh-and-blood Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor literally obliterate a pair of skeletal mounts. In that case, the implication was clear: the living, cloned dinosaurs represent new technology and scientific progress smashing the old and obsolete incarnations of paleontology to bits.

Y’know, this scene. (Universal).

Is “Jurassic World 2” pushing a similar message, casting the iconography of a museum hall as a past doomed to extinction? Maybe. The Victorian design elements – wood paneled walls, skeletons on open pedestals in orderly rows – distinctly evoke museums of the past. You’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit that looks like that today. Perhaps the filmmakers are using the Victorian iconography to enhance the impression of dusty obsolescence. Or maybe the baby boomer producers are recreating the sort of museum they remember from their childhood. The primary counterpoint is that the mise en scène on display here is stately and impressive. That dramatically-lit ceratopsian skull looks formidable, not at all like something shrinking back into history.

Let’s talk about that ceratopsian skull for a hot sec. The other skeletons are (perhaps incredibly) reasonably accurate representations of identifiable dinosaurs. We’ve got a tyrannosaur, a hadrosaur, and a dromaeosaur on the left, and what looks like Euoplocephalus, Kosmoceratops, and Protoceratops on the right. The skull in the center stands out as the sole fanciful element in the scene. It looks like an oversized, exaggerated Triceratops, with extra-long, tapering brow horns and a frill studded with spikes. Jurassic World established fantasy dinosaurs as being part of the Jurassic Park universe, so it’s possible this represents some kind of new, fictitious hybrid.

Charles Knight’s 1897 Agathaumas painting. Source

However, I was immediately reminded of Charles Knight’s classic take on Agathaumas. E.D. Cope named Agathaumas sylvestris in 1872, based on a pelvis and a number of vertebrae discovered in southwest Wyoming. It was technically the first ceratopsian dinosaur to be named and described, but without a skull, Cope had little idea of what the animal looked like (today, it’s considered a synonym of Triceratops).  Charles Knight depicted imagined the animal as a sort of spiny uber-Triceratops. His striking reconstruction was copied almost exactly for the Agathaumas that appeared in 1925’s The Lost World.

Triceratops and Agathaumas models, sculpted by Marcel Delgado and animated by Willis O’Brien. Source

It would be beyond awesome if the dramatic ceratopsian skull was meant to be a throwback or nod to the mythic Agathaumas. Or perhaps I’m reading too much in to it.

1 Comment

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, movies

Here Comes Jurassic World

Gyrosphere scene. Source

A bucolic scene at the dinosaur zoo. Source

I was planning to be bitter and jaded about “Jurassic World”, but my excitement has gotten the better of me. I like much of what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film next week. Moreover, the cultural endurance of the original “Jurassic Park”, now 22 years old, is incredible. When leading tours, I am regularly asked about the (largely fanciful) ground-penetrating radar shown in the movie. The word “dromaeosaur” results in blank faces, but if I call it a “raptor-type dinosaur, like in Jurassic Park,” I get knowing nods. These movies are the frame of reference for the public’s understanding of paleontology – not just how dinosaurs looked and behaved, but how scientists learn about them.

An important digression: we can’t give sole credit for Jurassic Park’s outsized role in popular culture to its dinosaurs and visual effects. I doubt the film would have the same lasting power without its memorable story and characters. Jurassic Park turned the classic lost world fantasy on its head, mixing it with a modern, tech-infused setting and a believable – albeit impossible – method for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film raises concerns about the corporate commodification of GMOs that (whether reasonable or not) are at least as relevant today as they were in 1993. The entertaining and relatable way in which Jurassic Park broaches complex topics has not gone unnoticed by teachers. More than two decades later, the film is still being used to introduce subjects ranging from bioethics to complex mathematics.

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park features some of the most true-to-life scientist characters I’ve ever seen in a popular film (a very low bar, to be fair). Alan Grant has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that reminds me of a number of colleagues and acquaintances. He usually thinks before he speaks or acts, but he also has a playful side that demonstrates the absolute joy he takes in discovering things about the world around him. Ian Malcolm, on the other hand, is what is known as an academic asshole. Like certain celebrity scientists, he’s a self-righteous jerk who may have some wisdom to impart, but chooses to do so in an insufferably arrogant and aggressive way. Scientists are as complex as anyone else, and it’s nice to be able to point to a movie that goes beyond the usual nerds in lab coats. Some more diversity among the principal cast would be better, but Jurassic Park is a move in the right direction.

A very reasonable reaction to encountering a living Triceratops.

A very reasonable reaction upon encountering a living Triceratops. Source

Back to my main point, the Jurassic Park films have had a meaningful and substantial impact on popular impressions of dinosaur science, and in this respect they should be taken seriously. A substantial amount of ink and pixels has been spilled regarding the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for precisely this reason. Since the first Jurassic World trailer was released last fall, much of this conversation has revolved around the retrograde appearance of the new film’s saurian stars – rather than taking advantage of two decades of new science, the filmmakers stuck with the early 1990s designs. Experts have called this choice “lazy,” “a missed opportunity,” and “unbearably stupid in every conceivable way.” In response, die-hard Jurassic Park fans are rushing to the film’s defense. Many have explained away any deviations from real dinosaurs by pointing out that the cloned animals are genetic aberrations to some degree. Maddeningly, others have taken to questioning what experts truly know about extinct animals.

Misguided appeals to ignorance can be dismissed out of hand, but the “cloned aberrations” argument deserves attention, if only because it completely misses the point. The Jurassic Park series has always been viewed (and marketed) as credible science fiction. The filmmakers hired Jack Horner, probably the world’s best-known paleontologist, to vouch for the dinosaur designs of all four films. By the time the third movie came out, special effects genius Stan Winston (rest in peace) was claiming that they had “blurred the theatricality of movies with museum-type education,” and that “there’s something to be learned from watching these movies” (quotes from DVD featurette “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III”). Given statements like these, it’s important that anyone with a vested interest in natural history education be aware of the films’ content, and be prepared to call out inaccuracies as necessary.

Something is awry. Source

Pictured: inaccuracy. Source

Nevertheless, I’d also like to direct some finger-wagging at those who seem excessively eager to tear down the Jurassic Park films in the name of education. Many otherwise reasonable adults care a great deal about these movies, and “classic” dinosaur depictions in general. Perhaps this is due to an association with childhood, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of “awesomebro” culture. Either way, my job and my passion is to communicate the amazing discoveries scientists are making about our world, but I also know that telling people the things they like are stupid and wrong isn’t a great way to win over hearts and minds. Rather than alienating and antagonizing potential learners, I’d prefer to make use of what the audience is bringing to the conversation. Jurassic Park is a wide-reaching frame of reference and a helpful starting point for conversations about what we know about past life and how we know it. As I’ve argued before, the ideal approach is to acknowledge the relevance of pop-cultural dinosaurs, while working to separate them in our audience’s minds from the real dinosaurs that we learn about by studying fossils.

As an educator, what I want out of Jurassic World is a good movie, full stop. A good movie is a memorable movie, one that inspires people to visit parks and museums and to read up on paleontology. In more substantive terms, the original Jurassic Park also brought forth a great deal of funding for new research and museum exhibits, simply by creating awareness that dinosaur science has popular appeal. So to director Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World, I say bring it on. We’re ready for your inaccuracies, and we’re ready to turn them into great discussions.

PS: Please consider participating in the Jurassic World Challenge – match your movie ticket price with a donation to help fund paleontology research and outreach. 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication

Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 3

Subtlety is unnessesary when T. rex is involved.

Who needs subtlety when you have a T. rex?

Start with Displaying the Tyrant King Part 1 and Part 2.

Tyrannosaurus rex displays changed for good in the 1990s thanks to two individuals, one real and one fictional. The latter was of course the T. rex from the film Jurassic Park, brought to life with a full-sized hydraulic puppet, game-changing computer animation, and the inspired use of a baby elephant’s screeching cry for the dinosaur’s roar. The film made T. rex real – a breathing, snorting, drooling animal unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jurassic Park was a tough act to follow, and in one way or another, every subsequent museum display of the tyrant king has had to contend with the shadow cast by the film’s iconic star.

The other dinosaur of the decade was Sue, who scarcely requires introduction. First and foremost, Sue is the most complete Tyrannosaurus ever found, with 80% of the skeleton intact. Approximately 28 years old at the time of her death, Sue is also the eldest T. rex known, as well as one of the largest. The specimen’s completeness and exquisite preservation has allowed paleontologists to ascertain an unprecedented amount of information about the lifestyle of meat-eating dinosaurs. In particular, Sue’s skeleton is riddled with fractured and arthritic bones, as well as evidence of gout and parasitic infection that together paint a dramatic picture of the rough-and-tumble world of the late Cretaceous.

From South Dakota to Chicago

Sue at Disney World

Cast of Sue at Walt Disney World, Orlando. Source

It was the events of Sue’s second life, however, that made her the fossil the world knows by name. Sue was discovered in the late summer of 1990 by avocational fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson (for whom the specimen is named) on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute, a commercial outfit that specializes in excavating, preparing, and exhibiting fossils, initially intended to display the Tyrannosaurus at a new facility in Hill City, but soon became embroiled in an ugly four-way legal battle with landowner Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne council, and the United States Department of the Interior. With little precedent for ownership disputes over fossils, it took until 1995 for the District Court to award Williams the skeleton. Williams soon announced that he would put Sue on the auction block, and paleontologists initially worried that the priceless specimen would disappear into the hands of a wealthy collector, or end up in a crass display at a Las Vegas casino. Those fears were put to rest in 1997 when Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History won Sue with financial backing from McDonald’s and Disney. Including the auctioneer’s commission, the price was an astounding $8.36 million.

FMNH and its corporate partners did not pay seven figures for Sue solely to learn about dinosaur pathology.  Sue’s remarkable completeness would be a boon to scientists, but her star power was at least as important for the Museum. Sue was a blockbuster attraction that would bring visitors in the door, and her name and likeness could be marketed for additional earned income. As FMNH President John McCarter explained, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish” (quoted in Fiffer 2000). Particularly in the late 1990s, with Jurassic Park still fresh in people’s minds, a Tyrannosaurus would attract visitors and generate funds, which could in turn fund less sensational but equally important research, like ichthyology and entomology.

Still, some worried that McCarter, whose background was in business, not science, was exploiting an important specimen as a marketing gimmick at the expense of the Museum’s educational mission. This echoed similar concerns voiced 80 years earlier, when the original mounted Tyrannosaurus was introduced at the American Museum of Natural History. As president of AMNH, Henry Osborn oversaw the creation of grandiose and dramatic exhibits, with the intent to draw crowds and justify private and municipal financial support. When the Museum unveiled the Tyrannosaurus mount, Osborn held a lavish publicity gala for the New York elite and members of the press. The buzz generated by Osborn’s promotion resulted in lines around the block and front page headlines, but the attention was focused on the spectacle of the dinosaur rather than the science behind it. Many academics derided this as lowest common denominator pandering, while others, like anthropologist Franz Boas, grudgingly accepted that “it is a fond delusion of many museum officers that the attitude of the public is a more serious one, but the majority do not want anything beyond entertainment.”

Original skull of Sue the T. rex, displayed on the upper mezzanine. Photo by the author.

FMNH was under similar scrutiny as museum staff revealed their plans for Sue. The role of the corporate sponsors that paid for the fossils was a particular cause for concern, and the marketing team knew it. Although the idea of T. rex-themed Happy Meals was briefly on the table, McDonald’s and Disney wisely opted to present themselves only as patrons of science. McDonald’s got its name on the new fossil preparation lab at FMNH and Disney got a mounted cast of Sue to display at Walt Disney World, but the principal benefit to the two companies was high-profile exposure in association with youth science education. The Museum retained control over the message, highlighting Sue’s importance to paleontology and only coyly admitting her role as a promotional tool. Likewise, FMNH is the sole profiteer from the litany of shirts, hats, toys, mugs, and assorted trinkets bearing the Sue name and logo that are continually sold at the Museum and around Chicago.

You May Approach Her Majesty

Once Sue arrived at FMNH, the Museum did not hold back marketing the dinosaur as a must-see attraction. A pair of Sue’s teeth went on display days after the auction, which expanded organically into the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, where visitors could watch the plaster-wrapped bones being unpacked and inventoried. Meanwhile, McDonald’s prepared an educational packet on Sue that was distributed to 60,000 elementary schools.

The main event, of course, was the mounted skeleton, which needed to be ready by the summer of 2000. This was an alarmingly short timetable, and the FMNH team had to hit the ground running. Much of Sue’s skeleton was still buried in rock and plaster. The bones needed to be prepared and stabilized before they could be studied, and they needed to be studied before they could be mounted. In addition, two complete Sue casts had to be fabricated: one for Disney World and one for a McDonald’s-sponsored traveling exhibit. The casts were produced by Research Casting International, the Toronto-based company that recently built the mounted menagerie for “Ultimate Dinosaurs“. Phil Fraley Productions, the same exhibit company that rebuilt the American Museum and Carnegie Museum T. rex mounts, was tapped to mount Sue’s original skeleton.

The mounted skeleton of Sue in the Stanley Field Hall. Photo by the author.

Unlike every other Tyrannosaurus mount before or since, Sue can hardly be called a composite. With the exception of a missing arm, left foot, a couple ribs, and small number of other odds and ends, the mounted Sue skeleton is composed of real fossils from a single individual. FMNH public relations latched onto this fact, emphasizing in press releases that while “many museums are displaying replicas of dinosaur skeletons, the Field Museum has strengthened its commitment to authenticity. This is Sue.” Just as they did with the AMNH Tyrannosaurus, Fraley’s team built an armature with individual brackets securing each bone, allowing them to be removed with relative ease for research and conservation. No bolts were drilled into the bones and no permanent glue was applied, ensuring that the fossils incur only minimal damage for the sake of the exhibit. Despite these improvements over historic mount-making techniques, however, the Sue mount does have some inexplicable anatomical errors. The coracoids should be almost touching in the middle of the chest, but the shoulder girdles are mounted so high on the rib cage that there is a substantial space between them. Consequently, the furcula (wishbone) is also positioned incorrectly.

After a private event not unlike the one held by Osborn in 1915, Sue was revealed to the public on May 17, 2000 with the literal raising of a curtain. A week-long series of celebrations and press junkets introduced Sue to Chicago, and she has been one of the city’s biggest attractions every since. All the publicity paid off, at least in the short term: FMNH attendance soared that year from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. 14 years later, Sue the Tyrannosaurus is still known by name, and is even used as the voice of FMNH on twitter. Interestingly, Sue’s new identity as a Chicago landmark seems to have all but eclipsed the legal dispute that was her original source of fame. A recent RedEye cover story goes so far as to proclaim this South Dakotan skeleton as “pure Chicago.”

 The Nation’s T. rex

This customized truck transported the Nation’s T. rex from Montana to Washington, DC.

This year, another Tyrannosaurus specimen has rocketed to Sue-like levels of notoriety. MOR 555, also known as “Wankel Rex”, is being transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it will eventually be mounted for long-term display. Now dubbed “the Nation’s T. rex“, the promotion of this specimen has mirrored that of Sue in many ways. Front-page media coverage, first-person tweets from the dinosaur and even an official song and dance contest herald the arrival of the fossils from their previous repository, the Museum of the Rockies in Montana. Much like the “Sue Uncrated” exhibit, the process of unpacking the unarticulated bones will soon be on view in a temporary display called “The Rex Room.” Meanwhile, the very name “Nation’s T. rex” is a provocative invented identity akin to Sue’s new status as a Chicagoan.

Nevertheless, the Nation’s T. rex does not quite live up to Sue’s mystique. This Tyrannosaurus is neither as large nor as complete as Sue, and there was no prolonged legal battle or frantic auction in its past. The 60% complete skeleton was found in 1988 by Montana rancher Kathy Wankel, on land owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The fossils are now on a 50 year loan from from the Corps to the Smithsonian, (presumably) a straightforward transfer between federal agencies. In addition, MOR 555 is by no means a new specimen. Several casts of the skeleton are already on display, including exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of the Rockies, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and even the Google campus. In fact, a cast of the MOR 555 skull has been on display at NMNH for years.

NMNH Director Kirk Johnson, fossil hunter Kathy Wankel, her husband Bob Wankel, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick preside over the arrival of the Nation’s T. rex at the Smithsonian. Source

With that in mind, the hype around the Nation’s T. rex might seem like much ado about nothing. As this series has demonstrated, the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on exhibit, whether original fossils or casts, has exploded in recent years. A quarter century ago, New York and Pittsburgh were the only places where the world’s most famous dinosaur could be seen in person. Today, there may well be over a hundred Tyrannosaurus mounts worldwide, most of which are identical casts of a handful of specimens. Acquiring and displaying a T. rex is neither risky nor ambitious for a natural history museum. No audience research or focus groups are needed to know that the tyrant king will be a hit. And yet, excessive duplication of a sure thing might eventually lead to monotony and over-saturation.

So far, such fears appear to be unfounded. A specimen like Sue or the Nation’s T. rex is ideal for museums because it is at once scientifically informative and irresistibly captivating. Museums do not need to choose between education and entertainment because a Tyrannosaurus skeleton effectively does both. And even as ever more lifelike dinosaurs grace film screens, museums are still the symbolic home of T. rex. The iconic image associated with Tyrannosaurus is that of a mounted skeleton in a grand museum hall, just as it was when the dinosaur was introduced to the world nearly a century ago. The tyrant king is an ambassador to science that unfailingly excites audiences about the natural world, and museums are lucky to have it.

The Nation’s T. rex in its final pose at the Research Casting International workshop.

This week, NMNH will be celebrating all things Tyrannosaurus, starting with a live webcast of arrival of the Nation’s T. rex on Tuesday morning. Stay tuned to this blog for further coverage of the events!

References

Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Boas, F. 1907. Some Principles of Museum Administration. Science 25:650:931-933.

Counts, C.M. 2009. Spectacular Design in Museum Exhibitions. Curator 52: 3: 273-289.

Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex: The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.

Rainger, R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1980-1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Switek, B. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and our Favorite Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

5 Comments

Filed under dinosaurs, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, NMNH, reptiles, science communication, theropods

Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 1

 

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The original Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo from Dingus 1996.

Woodrow Wilson is in the white house. The first World War is raging in Europe, but the United States is not yet involved. The women’s suffrage movement is picking up speed. And you just heard that the skeleton of an actual dragon is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is difficult to imagine a time before every man, woman, and child in the developed world knew the name Tyrannosaurus rex, but that world existed not even a century ago. In 1915, AMNH unveiled the very first mounted skeleton of the tyrant lizard king, immediately and irrevocably cementing the image of the towering reptilian carnivore in the popular psyche.

Today, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity among dinosaurs, appearing in every form of media imaginable. More importantly, however, it is an icon for paleontology and an ambassador to science. The cult of T. rex began in the halls of museums, and museums remain the prehistoric carnivore’s symbolic home. The mounted skeletons in museums provide the legendary T. rex its credibility: these are the authentic remains of the giant predator that once stalked North America. And yet, most of the dozens of  Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display around the world are casts, and none of them represent complete skeletons (rather, they are filled in with spare parts from other specimens and the occasional sculpted bone). These are sculptures as well as scientific specimens, works of installation art composed by artists, engineers, and scientists. Herein lies the paradox presented by all fossil mounts: they are natural specimens and constructed objects, embodying a challenging duality between the realms of empiricism and imagination.

Tyrannosaurus mount is at once educational and spectacular. Both roles were embraced at AMNH in 1915, and these dual identities have defined T. rex displays ever since. 14 years ago, FMNH PR 2081, also known as Sue, became a star attraction for the Field Museum of Natural History and the city of Chicago at large. Later this month, another T. rex will unwittingly take on a similar role: on April 15th, MOR 555, an 80% complete Tyrannosaurus specimen discovered in Montana, will be dubbed “The Nation’s T. rex and entered into the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History collection with considerable fanfare.

Skull cast of MOR 555, soon to be "The Nation's T. rex", at NMNH.

Skull cast of MOR 555, soon to be “The Nation’s T. rex“, at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

This three part series is a look back at how the tyrant king has defined, and been defined by, the museum experience. Part 1 will cover the circumstances surrounding the creation of the iconic original Tyrannosaurus mount in New York, as well as its successor in Pittsburgh. Part 2 will explore the changing role of Tyrannosaurus in museums caused by a surge of new fossil finds and a revolution in our understanding of dinosaurs. Finally, Part 3 will conclude with a discussion of the positives and negatives of a modern world saturated in all things T. rex.

The Original Tyrant

Between 1890 and 1910, the United States’ large urban natural history museums entered into a frenzied competition to find and display the largest and most spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Although the efforts of paleontologists O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late 19th century fleshed out the scientific understanding of Mesozoic reptiles, it was these turn-of-the-century museum displays that brought dinosaurs into the public sphere. Bankrolled by New York’s wealthy aristocrats and led by the ambitious mega-tool Henry Osborn, AMNH won the fossil race by most any measure. The New York museum completed the world’s first mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur in 1905, and also left its Chicago and Pittsburgh competitors in the dust with the highest visitation rate and the most fossil mounts on display.

Osborn’s goal was to establish AMNH as the global epicenter for paleontology research and education, and in 1905 he revealed his ace in the hole: two partial skeletons of giant meat-eating dinosaurs uncovered by fossil hunter Barnum Brown. In a deceptively brief paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn described the fossils from Wyoming and Montana, coining the names Dynamosaurus imperiosus and Tyrannosaurus rex (a follow-up paper in 1906 reclassified “Dynamosaurus” as a second Tyrannosaurus specimen). Fully aware of what a unique prize he had in his possession, Osborn wasted no time leveraging the fossils for academic glory (and additional funding from benefactors). He placed the unarticulated Tyrannosaurus fossils on display at AMNH shortly after his initial publication, and commissioned legendary artist Charles Knight to prepare a painting of the animal’s life appearance.

In 1908, Brown collected a much more complete Tyrannosaurus specimen (AMNH 5027), with over 50% of the skeleton intact, including the first complete skull and a significant portion of the torso. With this specimen in hand, AMNH technician Adam Hermann and his team began work on a mounted Tyrannosaurus skeleton to join the Museum’s growing menagerie of mounted dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. Inspired by the Museum’s collection of taxidermy mounts in dynamic habitat dioramas, and seeking to accentuate the spectacle of his reptilian monster, Osborn initially wanted to mount two Tyrannosaurus skeletons facing off over a dead hadrosaur. He even published a brief description complete with illustrations of the projected scene (shown below). However, the structural limitations inherent to securing heavy fossils to a steel armature, as well as the inadequate amount of Tyrannosaurus fossils available, made such a sensational display impossible to achieve.

Model of unrealized T. rex showdown mount from Osborn 1913.

Model of unrealized T. rex showdown mount. Image from Osborn 1913.

Instead, Hermann prepared a single Tyrannosaurus mount, combining the 1908 specimen with plaster casts of leg bones from the 1905 holotype. The original skull was impractically heavy, so a cast was used in its place. Finally, missing portions of the skeleton, including the arms, feet, and most of the tail, were sculpted by hand using bones from Allosaurus as reference. During the early 20th century, constructing fossil mounts was a relatively new art form, and while Hermann was one of the most talented and prolific mount-makers in the business, his techniques were somewhat unkind to the fossil material. Bolts were drilled directly into the fragile bones to secure them to the armature, and in some cases steel rods were tunneled right through the bones. Any fractures were sealed with plaster, and reconstructed portions were painted to be nearly indistinguishable from the original fossils. Like most of the early AMNH fossil mounts, preserving the integrity of the Tyrannosaurus bones was often secondary to aesthetic concerns like concealing the unsightly armature.

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

AMNH Tyrannosaurus, ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

The completed Tyrannosaurus mount, a magnificent sculptural combination of bone, plaster, and steel, was unveiled in 1915 to stunned audiences. The December 3rd New York Times article was thick with hyperbole, declaring the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity”, “the king of all kings in the domain of animal life,” “the absolute warlord of the earth” and “the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatsoever” (and people say that today’s science journalism is sensationalist!). With its tooth-laden jaws agape and a long, dragging lizard tail extending its length to over 40 feet, the Tyrannosaurus was akin to a mythical dragon, an impossible monster from a primordial world. This dragon, however, was real, albeit safely dead for 66 million years.

Today, we know that the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was inaccurate in many ways. The upright, tail-dragging pose, which had been the most popular attitude for bipedal dinosaurs since Joseph Leidy’s 1868 presentation of Hadrosaurus, is now known to be incorrect. More complete Tyrannosaurus skeletons have revealed that the tail reconstructed by Osborn and Hermann was much too long.  The Allosaurus-inspired sculpted feet were too robust, the legs (casted from the 1905 holotype), were too large compared to the rest of the body, and the hands had too many fingers (the mount was given proper two-fingered hands when it was moved in 1927). It would be misleading to presume that the prehistoric carnivore’s skeleton sprang from the ground exactly as it was presented, but it is equally problematic to reject it as a fake. There are many reasons to criticize Osborn’s leadership at AMNH, but he did not exhibit outright forgeries. The 1915 Tyrannosaurus mount was a solid representation of the best scientific data available at the time, presented in an evocative and compelling manner.

The AMNH Tyrannosaurus mount was no less than an icon: for paleontology, for its host museum, and for the city of New York. The mount has been a New York attraction for longer than the Empire State Building, and for almost 30 years, AMNH was the only place in the world where visitors could see a T. rex in person. In 1918, Tyrannosaurus would make its first Hollywood appearance in the short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This star turn was followed by roles in 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong, firmly establishing the tyrant king’s celebrity status. It is noteworthy that special effects artist Willis O’Brian and model maker Marcel Delgado copied the proportions and posture of the AMNH display exactly when creating the dinosaurs for each of these films. The filmmakers apparently took no artistic liberties, recreating Tyrannosaurus precisely how the nation’s top scientists had reconstructed it in the museum.

A T. rex for Pittsburgh

In 1941, AMNH ended it’s Tyrannosaurus monopoly and sold the incomplete type specimen (the partial skeleton described in Osborn’s 1905 publication) to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While it is sometimes reported that this transfer took place to keep the valuable fossils out of harm’s way during World War II (e.g. Larson 2008), the deal was apparently underway well before the United States became involved in the war. Having paid an astounding $100,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars) for the fossils, CMNH staff wasted no time in assembling a mount of their own. The Tyrannosaurus holotype only included only about 15% of the skeleton, so most of Pittsburgh mount had to be made from casts and sculpted elements. Somewhat pointlessly, the skull fragments included with the specimen were buried inside a plaster skull replica, making them inaccessible to researchers for several decades. Completed in less than a year, the CMNH Tyrannosaurus was given an upright, tail-dragging posture very much like its AMNH predecessor.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo from NPR.

CM 9380 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Source

The mid-20th century is sometimes called the “quiet phase” in vertebrate paleontology. After enjoying public fame and generous federal support during the late 1800s, paleontology as a discipline was largely marginalized when experiment-driven “hard” sciences like physics and molecular biology rose to prominence. By the 1950s and 60s, the comparably small number of researchers studying ancient life were chiefly concerned with theoretical models for quantifying trends in evolution. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals were perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists. Between 1908 (when Brown found the iconic AMNH Tyrannosaurus skeleton) and 1980, only four largely incomplete Tyrannosaurus specimens were found, and no new mounts of this species were built.

Continue to Displaying the Tyrant King Part 2.

References

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Glut, D. 2008. “Tyrannosaurus rex: A century of celebrity.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hermann, A. 1909. “Modern Laboratory Methods in Vertebrate Paleontology.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 21:283-331.

Larson, N. 2008. “One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons.” Tyrannosaurus rex, The Tyrant King. Larson, Peter and Carpenter, Kenneth, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

“Mining for Mammoths in the Badlands: How Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Dug Out of His 8,000,000 Year old Tomb,” The New York Times, December 3, 1905, page SM1.

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Osborn, H.F. 1906. “Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous Carnivorous Dinosaur.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 22:281-296.

Osborn, H.F. 1913. “Tyrannosaurus, Restoration and Model of the Skeleton.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 32:9-92.

Rainger, Ronald 1991. “An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. University of Alabama Press.

Wesihampel, D.B. and White, Nadine M. 2003.The Dinosaur Papers: 1676-1906. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

1 Comment

Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, NMNH, reptiles, theropods

Another JP4 Feathers Post

Okay, I’ll bite.

A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.

The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.

But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.

As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.

I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.

2 Comments

Filed under dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, reptiles, science communication

Jurassic Park is awesome and a milestone for paleontology…

…deal with it.

What follows was partially written several months ago and never finished. I dug it up again due to the resurgence of JP interest with Steven Spielberg’s announcement.

I was six years old when Jurassic Park came out. I was crazy about dinosaurs, but my parents had been told that the movie was way too scary for a kid my age. Since Aliens was already on my short list of favorite films at that point, this seems a moot point, but by the time my parents warmed up to taking me to see JP, it was at a second run theater. I don’t remember seeing it at the theater, but I do remember my endless viewings of my VHS copy, and the tattered box remembers too.

I still enjoy Jurassic Park immensely. It means a lot to me, but surprisingly, that feeling is not shared by the entirety of the paleontological community (as a student/intern, I put myself in a very broad definition of that collective). As an example, take a look at Dr. David Hone’s admittedly 3-year old post about the film. While Dr. Hone is generally positive, he expresses annoyance about the inaccurate portrayals of dinosaurs and paleontologists that have so firmly entrenched themselves in the public consciousness as a result of Jurassic Park. Similar complaints turn up from time to time on the Dinosaur Mailing List as well.

I, for one, have to disagree. When I’m chatting with people about vert paleo, something I genuinely enjoy, I’m thrilled when Jurassic Park enters the conversation. It’s such a genuinely entertaining movie that people remember it well, 18 years after it’s release. What’s more, it’s a movie that made many people think about what they were watching: what dinosaurs were like, and how we know what we do about them. This is an excellent jumping-off point for any discussion about paleontology, because it is a shared frame of reference. At work, I have become well acquainted with the fact that very few people understand Deep Time, or have ever given it any thought at all. But people know Jurassic Park, and I am very grateful for it as a starting point in the education process.

What’s more, we can complain all we like about what Jurassic Park got wrong, but I’m more impressed by how much it got right. Jurassic Park was the first widely disseminated look at believable dinosaurs, and it single-handedly brought post-Dinosaur Renaissance conceptions of dinosaurs to everyone.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, Jurassic Park is 18 years old now. It took awhile, but it seems to no longer be the go-to source of dinosaur knowledge for many Americans. The seemingly endless parade of shitty “documentaries” on cable TV, as well as fare like Dinosaur Train, are crowding Jurassic Park off its perch. And that is why I’m optimistic about the announcement of Jurassic Park 4. The original film was a fantastic resource not only for paleontology education, but science education in general. If a new sequel can match or approach that level of quality, then our job as educators will be much easier.

I also have a bunch of thoughts about Jurassic Park that I feel like sharing but don’t really have a place for above. Read on at your own risk.

  • One time when I was watching Jurassic Park with friends, somebody commented that Grant’s jaw dropping and staggering about at the sight of the Brachiosaurus was really bad acting. I beg to differ…I imagine I would do much the same thing.
  • The CGI dinosaurs get all the credit, but they are on screen for less than two minutes. Stan Winston’s flawless puppets and animatronics are the real stars of the show.
  • In fact, the dinosaurs as a whole don’t get much screen time. There’s barely a dinosaur to be seen for the first hour. Credit to Spielberg for great pacing and constructing fantastic set-piece sequences that get the most out of very few dinosaur scenes.
  • Grant’s dig site at the beginning of the film cracks me up. Putting aside the completely articulated skeleton for the moment, the rag-tag assortment of people present doesn’t make much sense, and the assortment of clutter in the trailer seems rather useless too.
  • Jurassic Park can (and has) be used as a basic introduction to cloning, genetics and chaos theory. Molecular biologists and mathematicians can nit-pick the movie as much or more as paleontologists can, but at the end of the day it’s an effective way to introduce the public to ideas they might not otherwise be exposed to.
  • It’s kind of funny that the idea of cloning was science fiction in the late 1980s when Michael Crichton wrote the book.
  • What was Gennaro asking Hammond about “auto-erotica?” What could that possibly mean besides what I think it means? Seriously, I would love an explanation.

Leave a comment

Filed under dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, science communication