Category Archives: paleoart

Clash of the Texas Fossil Exhibits: HMNS

Quetzalcoatlus

A standing Quetzalcoatlus skeleton is a sight to behold, but is that enough? Photo by the author.

Last week, I checked two major fossil exhibits off my must-see list – the Morian Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Life Then and Now at the Perot Museum in Dallas. Although both exhibits opened the same year and cover the same basic subject matter, they are radically different in terms of aesthetics, design, and interpretation. Life Then and Now is unabashedly excellent and pretty much embodies everything I called a Good Thing in my series on paleontology exhibit design. I’ll be sure to discuss it in detail later on. Nevertheless, I’m itching to write about the HMNS exhibit first because it’s—in a word—weird. The Morian Hall essentially rejects the last quarter century of conventional wisdom in developing fossil displays, and for that matter, science exhibits of any kind.

The Morian Hall occupies a brand-new 36,000 square foot addition to HMNS, apparently the largest in the museum’s history. The first thing I noticed walking into the exhibit was that the space doesn’t look like any other science exhibit I’ve seen, past or present. Instead, it strongly resembles a contemporary art gallery, and this fossils-as-art aesthetic permeates every aspect of the exhibit design. Specimens are displayed against stark white backgrounds, with smaller fossils in austere wall cases and larger mounted skeletons on angular, minimalist platforms. Most objects are displayed individually, with lots of negative space between them. Interpretive labels, where present, are small and out of the way (and the text is all in Helvetica, because of course it is). There are no interactive components of any kind—no movies, no computer terminals, not even question-and-answer flip-up panels. The exhibit is defined by its own absence, the structural elements and labels fading into the background with the intent that nothing distract from the specimens themselves.

white walls and art gallery format

The HMNS paleontology exhibit looks and feels like a contemporary art gallery. Photo by the author.

For the benefit of those outside the museum field, I should clarify that for myself and many others trained in science and history museums, art museums are basically opposite world. In an art museum, objects are collected and displayed for their own sake. Each artwork is considered independently beautiful and thought-provoking, and curators often strive to reduce interpretation to the bare minimum. Some museums have gone so far as to forgo labels entirely, so that objects can be enjoyed and contemplated simply as they are. Not coincidentally, art museums have a reputation as being “highbrow” establishments that attract and cater to a relatively narrow group of people. People who do not fit the traditional definition of art museum visitor sometimes find these institutions irrelevant or even unwelcoming (more on that in a moment). This summation is hardly universal, but I would argue that the participatory, audience-centered art museum experiences created by Nina Simon and others are an exception that proves the rule.

Natural history museums are different. Collections of biological specimens are valuable because of what they represent collectively. These collections are physical representations of our knowledge of biodiversity, and we could never hope to understand, much less protect, the natural world without them. Each individual specimen is not necessarily interesting or even rare, but it matters because it is part of a larger story. It represents something greater, be it a species, a habitat, or an evolutionary trend. Likewise, modern natural history exhibits aren’t about the objects on display, but rather the big ideas those objects illustrate. Since the mid-2oth century, designers have sought to create exhibits that are accessible and meaningful learning experiences for the widest possible audience, and natural history museums are generally considered family-friendly destinations.

label your damn casts

You can tell Robert Bakker was involved because everyone is rearing. Photo by the author.

There is much to like in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. For one thing, the range of animals on display is incredible. I cherished the opportunity to stand in the presence of a standing Quetzalcoatlus, a Sivatherium, a gorgonopsid, and many other taxa rarely seen in museums. Other specimens are straight-up miracles of preservation and preparation, including a number of Eocene crabs from Italy. I also enjoyed that many of the mounts were in especially dynamic poses, and often interacting with one another. With fossil mount tableaus placed up high as well as at eye level, there was always incentive to look around and take in every detail.

Nevertheless, the art gallery aesthetic raised a number of red flags for me. To start, the minimalist design means that interpretation takes a serious hit. Although the exhibit is arranged chronologically, there are many routes through the space and the correct path is not especially clear. Meanwhile, there are no large headings that can be seen on the move—visitors need to go out of their way to read the small and often verbose text. All this means that the Morian Hall is an essentially context-free experience. Visitors are all but encouraged to view the exhibit as a parade of cool monsters, rather than considering the geological, climatic, and evolutionary processes that produced that diversity. There is an incredible, interrelated web of life through time on display in the Morian Hall, but I fear that most visitors are not being given the tools to recognize it. By decontextualizing the specimens, the exhibit unfortunately removes their meaning, and ultimately their reality*.

*Incidentally, most of the mounted skeletons are casts. This is quite alright, but I was very disappointed that they were not identified as such on accompanying labels.

gorgeous but what does it mean

This double-helix trilobite growth series is gorgeous—but what does it communicate, exactly? Photo by the author.

What’s more, the idealized, formal purity of the exhibit design echoes a darker era in the history of museums. It’s no secret that many of the landmark museums we know today were born out of 19th century imperialism. Colonial domination was achieved not only with military power, but through academia. When colonial powers took over another nation, they brought their archaeologists, naturalists, and ethnographers along to take control of the world’s understanding of that place, its environment, and its people. Museums were used to house and display natural and cultural relics of conquered nations, and to disseminate western scientists’ interpretation of these objects. Even today, it is all too common to see ethnographic objects displayed in austere exhibit spaces much like the Morian Hall of Paleontology. These displays erase the objects’ original cultural meaning. Dinosaurs don’t care about being silenced, of course, but it’s odd that HMNS would choose to bring back such loaded visual rhetoric.

Pretty ammonites with donor names prominently displayed send the wrong message. Photo by the author.

Pretty ammonites with donor names prominently displayed send the wrong message. Photo by the author.

My final concern with the art gallery format is the implication that fossils have monetary value. Fossils are priceless pieces of natural heritage, and they cannot be valued because they’re irreplaceable. While there is a thriving commercial market for rare fossils, a plurality of paleontologists do not engage with private dealers. Buying and selling significant fossils for private use is explicitly forbidden under the ethics statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and it is institutional policy at many museums that staff never discuss the monetary value of fossil specimens.

The art world has its own rules and standards. The price tags of famous pieces, including what a museum paid to acquire them, are widely known. Private collectors are celebrated, even revered. In fact, it is common to see exhibits built around a particular individual’s collection. These exhibits are not about an artist or period but the fact that somebody purchased these objects, and has given (or merely loaned) them to the museum. Two rooms in the Morian Hall are actually just that: otherwise unrelated specimens displayed together because they were donated by a specific collector. By displaying specimens with the same visual language as art objects, the Morian Hall undermines the message that fossils should not be for sale. Not only is the private fossil trade legitimized, it communicates that the primary value of fossils is their aesthetic appeal. Like the lack of contextual signage, this serves to obscure the specimens’ scientific meaning. Fossils are precious remains of real organisms, clues about ecosystems from long ago and the making of the world as we know it today. But that information is only available if they are publicly accessible, not sitting on someone’s mantelpiece.

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A truly remarkable fossil mount tableau, in which a mastodon flings a human hunter while a mammoth is driven off a “cliff” in the background. Photo by the author.

Now hold on (regular readers might be saying), haven’t I argued repeatedly that fossil mounts should be considered works of art? Absolutely, and that is part of why I was taken aback by this exhibit. The difference is that while the Morian Hall displays fossils the way art is traditionally exhibited, it does not interpret them like art. When I call fossil mounts works of art, I mean that they have authorship and context. They have encoded and decoded meaning, as well as relationships with their viewers, creators, host institutions, and ultimately, the animals they represent. Calling something art is opening it up to discussion and deconstruction. The HMNS exhibits do the opposite.

For the last few decades, natural history museums have been opening windows onto the process of creating knowledge. Modern exhibits seek to show how scientists draw conclusions from evidence, and invite visitors to do the same. In the Morian Hall, those windows are closed. Specimens are meant to be seen as they are, reducing the experience to only the object and the viewer. But there is no “as they are” for fossils. Thousands of hours of fossil preparation and mount construction aside, every display in that exhibit is the result of literally centuries of research into geology, anatomy, and animal behavior. These are representations of real animals, but they also represent the cumulative interpretive work of a great many people. The display simply isn’t complete without their stories.

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Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, HMNS, mammals, museums, opinion, paleoart, reviews, science communication

Installation art in the service of science

totes awesome

Unbridled awesome. Photo by the author.

Earlier this week, Dippy the Diplodocus gave me an opportunity to discuss mounted fossil skeletons as objects imbued with cultural and historical meaning. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and discuss them as art. Hold on tight, because it’s about to get interdisciplinary up in here.

The Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the most amazing fossil displays in the world. Within the historic Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, an adult Barosaurus skeleton rears to a height of fifty feet to protect its offspring from a charging Allosaurus. Although all three skeletons are glass-reinforced polyester and polyurethane foam casts (by necessity – it would be unwise to mount real fossil bones in such a precarious manner), they are based directly on real specimens. The adult Barosaurus is a cast of AMNH 6341, which was excavated by Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument in 1923. The Allosaurus is a cast of DMNH 1483. The young Barosaurus is the most speculative of the lot and mostly consists of sculpted bones, but it includes casts of real juvenile sauropod vertebrae.

Looking past its physical properties, this display comes with an explicit pedagogical agenda. AMNH paleontologist Mark Norrell stated that the objective was “to imagine dinosaurs as living organisms, facing challenges similar to those that confront animals today.” When the exhibit was built in 1991, it was considered important to showcase what active, hot-blooded dinosaurs might be capable of. In this case, we have a portrayal of considerable speed and agility, as well as a suggestion of parental care and group living. The mount and its associated signage also invite visitors to consider the nature of the fossil record, and what questions paleontologists can and cannot definitively answer. We don’t know whether Barosaurus would have protected or even lived with its young. We don’t know if Allosaurus would have attempted to attack an animal more than three times its size. Even the ability of Barosaurus to rear up on two legs has been the subject of some debate. While not enormously far-fetched, this is still an imaginative reconstruction – one which challenges visitors to consider the evidence behind this and other displays throughout the museum.

However, even this sort of interpretation does not fully capture the experience of observing this tableau – there is something else going on here. The dynamic poses give the dinosaurs a startling presence, and it is scarcely possible not to imagine them as living animals. Visitors must consider what it would be like to encounter an Allosaurus charging at full speed, or to stand beneath a multi-ton sauropod. Standing in the center of the room, the viewer is literally surrounded by the mounts, and necessarily becomes a participant in the drama. Even if we ignore the representational identities of the dinosaurs and think of this display as a set of abstract shapes, it is still decisively monumental. The mise-en-scène draws the viewer’s eye around the room and up the neck of the Barosaurus, toward the vaulted ceiling. The scene can thus be described as a visual and physical intervention that draws each and every visitor that enters the rotunda into a shared performance.

Fancy fisheye photo.

The visitors themselves become part of the installation by providing a human scale. Source

As impressive as the mounts are on their own, they cannot be divorced from the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda that surrounds them. Aesthetically, the grandiose nature of the skeletons compliments the neoclassical architecture. The site-specific composition also encourages visitors to look around the room and take note of structural elements they might have missed (e.g. the ceiling). But the room itself is far from a neutral exhibition space. It is a public monument to the first President Roosevelt, who Donna Haraway calls “the patron saint for the museum.” In addition to an array of canvases depicting scenes from Roosevelt’s public life,  quotations are etched into the walls under the headings Youth, Manhood, Nature, and The State. Roosevelt’s words, literally carved in stone, speak to his appreciation of the natural world, his support for what he called “the strenuous life”, and his belief in living honorably and compassionately. Were it not for the throngs of tourists, this space could be mistaken for a shrine.

There are a few possible ways to interpret  the relationship between the dinosaurs and the hall around them. We could cast the adult Barosaurus as Roosevelt’s idealized citizen. Rather than letting the Allosaurus pick off it’s more vulnerable companion, it stands its ground, for “the highest form of success comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.” Alternatively, we could follow Haraway and consider this space a monument to hyper-masculinity and paternalistic oppression. Haraway slams the Roosevelt Rotunda (which implies a male audience at the exclusion of others) and the adjacent Hall of African Mammals (which displays artificially-assembled nuclear families, always with a male leader) as products of the wealth and privilege of the early-20th century aristocracy. But if we assume – as many visitors apparently do – that the defending Barosaurus is female, the dinosaurs might be read as a direct critique of the institution’s history. While political and sociological readings probably didn’t come up much when these mounts were being constructed, intent isn’t the whole story. This is a public space, and visitors can and will make conscious and unconscious connections between the various objects on view. Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time fossils have been entwined with presidential politics.

Different

The fossils weren’t created to be displayed in this space, but the mounts were. Photo by the author.

A museum display always involves the staging or framing of the world. It is this infusion of creative choice that moves  fossil mounts beyond the realm of science and into art. As Polliquin puts it, a specimen from nature “permits or invites experience, wheras a work of art is intentionally made for an experience.” Whether they are composed of real fossils or casts thereof, fossil mounts are purposefully constructed to exist in the museum environment. Paradoxically, they are both the objects of scrutiny and the exhibit context. This is not something to hide or be ashamed of, but to celebrate. These mounts embody aesthetic  beauty, deep history, and rich culture, and these elements are just as important as their scientific value when we consider their role in the museological landscape.

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2005). “Thoughts in Things” Modernity, History, and North American Museums. Isis 96:4:586-601.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N. and Smith, N. (1996). Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.

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

Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Vogel, S. (1991). Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Displays. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, paleoart, reptiles, sauropods, theropods

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.

Babies

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.

crocs

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.

extinction

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.

paleoart

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.

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

National Fossil Day 2014

Happy National Fossil Day! This will just be a quick photo post covering the events at the National Museum of Natural History today. The National Park Service started the day with a junior paleontologist swearing-in ceremony, where students from a dozen area schools learned about the importance of protecting and preserving public lands and natural resources.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

The main show was in the Q?rius education center, where museum staff and volunteers showed off their latest work and discoveries. Visitors could see tiny mammal bones and teeth plucked from matrix collected in Haitian caves, and work through a particularly inspired activity demonstrating how geologists correlate layers in different parts of the world.

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Photo by the author.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

Resident scientific illustrator Mary Parrish had a particularly fascinating display, showcasing the methods and materials she uses to create accurate paintings of prehistoric environments. Note the aluminum foil leaves used as models to paint from, as well as the hand-made macquettes used to block out scenes and experiment with poses. Also on view was a draft of the giant Hell Creek mural that will be on display in The Last American Dinosaurs, opening in November.

nfd3

Photo by the author.

Out in the lower level lobby, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, National Science Foundation, Calvert Marine Museum, and Maryland Dinosaur Park had activities and displays. Here’s our display of recently discovered fossils from Cretaceous Maryland, slightly overshadowed by the Nation’s T. rex. We talked with visitors about Maryland’s role in the history of dinosaur science, the importance of the early Cretaceous as the origin of the world we know today, and our citizen science programs at the Park in Laurel.

image

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Our Deinonychus replica looks a little small next to the Nation’s T. rex. Photo by the author.

National Fossil Day is all about generating awareness and enthusiasm for fossils and the study of the Earth’s natural history. In that, I think the event was quite successful. We talked to nearly 400 people, all of them enthusiastic and eager to learn about local prehistory and the process of discovering the ancient past. It was also a fun opportunity to catch up with people – the Washington area paleontology scene isn’t very big!

Thank you to the National Park Service for coordinating this event, and to the Smithsonian for hosting it!

 

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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, exhibits, museums, NMNH, paleoart, science communication

Mount Making at MMFC14

This past week, I had the fantastic opportunity to be a part of the Mid-Mesozoic Field Conference. I can’t possibly offer enough praise to conference leaders ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Jim Kirkland, and John Foster for pulling off this amazingly informative journey across the Colorado plateau. Unfortunately, since we live in a world where it’s a bad idea to post images of fossil localities, and it’s downright toolish to share details about unpublished research, I won’t be posting a ton about the conference right now.

What I can share, however, are two stops we made that are especially relevant to this blog. The first is the Gaston Design workshop in Fruita, Colorado. Rob Gaston and his team specialize in casting and sculpting fossil replicas, and their mounted skeletons are on display all over North America, but especially at younger museums in the western interior. Gaston showed us how they mold, cast, and sculpt fossil replicas, a process that relies a great deal more on artistic and technical skill than fancy equipment.

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This second set of photos is from the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah. Ken Carpenter, the museum’s new director, has taken on the task of completely remounting the menagerie of Morrison dinosaurs in the center of the paleontology wing (some photos of the old mounts here). The original AllosaurusCamptosaurus and Stegosaurus mounts from the late 1980s suffered from an unfortunate case of the tail-drags, and the Camarasaurus had previously been relegated to a death pose. Carpenter’s new mounts, which combine original fossils with new and old reconstructed bones, are much livelier. The stated goal of the project is to encourage visitors to imagine what it would be like to encounter these animals in life. What’s really awesome, though, is that the mounts are being built right in the exhibit, so that visitors can see the progress and the tools and techniques used to build these displays. At present, Allosaurus and Camptosaurus are finished, work on Stegosaurus is underway, and the Camarasaurus skeleton is laid out in pieces.

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Sorry to post such a short tease of the awesome stuff we saw at the conference. My head is absolutely packed with information and ideas, so hopefully there will be opportunities to share more soon!

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Filed under dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, museums, paleoart

Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 2

Old meets new

Old meets new: The classic Carnegie T. rex (CM 9380) is now paired with a cast of Peck’s Rex (MOR 980). Photo by the author.

Start with Displaying the Tyrant King – Part 1.

In 1915, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex ever constructed. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History followed suit with their Tyrannosaurus mount in 1941, and for most of the 20th century New York and Pittsburgh were the only places in the world where the tyrant king could be seen in person. Nevertheless, these displays propelled Tyrannosaurus to universal stardom, and the instantly recognizable dinosaur appeared in countless books, films, and other media for years to come.

The omnipresence of T. rex was secured in part by two additional museum displays, ironically at institutions that did not have any actual Tyrannosaurus fossils on hand. The Field Museum of Natural History commissioned Charles Knight to paint a series of prehistoric landscapes in 1928, the most recognizable of which depicts a face-off between Triceratops and a surprisingly spry Tyrannosaurus. In 1947, Rudolph Zallinger painted a considerably more bloated and lethargic T. rex as part of his Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both paintings would be endlessly replicated for decades, and would go on to define the prehistoric predator in the public imagination.

Rex Renaissance

Despite enduring public enthusiasm, scientific interest in dinosaurs declined sharply in the mid-20th century, and new discoveries were few and far between. This changed rather suddenly with the onset of the “dinosaur renaissance” in the 1970s and 80s, which brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. The next generation of paleontologists endeavored to look at fossils in new ways to understand dinosaur behavior, biomechanics, ontogeny, and ecology. Tyrannosaurus was central to the new wave of research, and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers since 1980. More interest brought more fossil hunters into the American west, leading to an unprecedented expansion in known Tyrannosaurus fossils. Once considered vanishingly rare, Tyrannosaurus is now known from over 50 individual specimens across a wide range of ages and sizes. Extensive research on growth rate, cellular structure, sexual dimorphism, speed, and energetics, to name but a few topics, has turned T. rex into a veritable model organism among dinosaurs.

RTMP 81.6.1, aka Black Beauty, mounted in relief at the Royal Tyrell Museum. Source.

RTMP 81.6.1, aka Black Beauty, mounted in relief at the Royal Tyrell Museum. Source

The most celebrated Tyrannosaurus find from the early years of the dinosaur renaissance came from Alberta, making it the northernmost and westernmost T. rex to date. The 30% complete “Black Beauty” specimen, so named for the black luster of the fossilized bones, was found in 1980 by a high school student and was excavated by paleontologist Phil Curie. The original Black Beauty fossils were taken on a tour of Asia before finding a permanent home at the newly established Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. In lieu of a standing mount, Black Beauty was embedded in a faux sandstone facade, mirroring the environment in which the fossils were found and the animal’s presumed death pose. This relief mount set Black Beauty apart from its AMNH and CMNH predecessors, and even today it remains one of the most visually striking Tyrannosaurus displays.  Since the original specimen consisted of less than half of a skeleton, much of this display is made up of sculpted bones, including the pelvis, scapula, and most of the ribs. The mounted skull is a cast, but the real skull is displayed behind glass nearby. A complete cast of Black Beauty in a traditional free-standing mount is also on display at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

The World’s Most Replicated Dinosaur

Driven by the increased public demand for dinosaurs, many museums without Tyrannosaurus fossils of their own have purchased complete casts from other institutions. In 1986, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened “Discovering Dinosaurs”, the world’s first major exhibit showcasing active, endothermic dinosaurs. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a cast of the original AMNH Tyrannosaurus, posed for the first time in the horizontal posture that we now know was the animal’s habitual stance. The following year, another AMNH cast appeared in the lobby of Denver Museum of Nature and Science in a strikingly bizarre pose, with one leg kicking high in the air. The mount’s designer Robert Bakker intended to push boundaries and demonstrate what a dynamic and energetic Tyrannosaurus might be capable of, although the mount has subsequently been described as dancing, kicking a soccer ball, or peeing on a fire hydrant. Meanwhile, The Royal Tyrell Museum prepared a mount of RTMP.81.12.1 (a specimen consisting of a relatively small number of postcranial bones) that was filled in with AMNH casts, including the highly recognizable skull.

Cast

Tyrannosaurus cast at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Source

Since the late 1990s, however, casts of another specimen have overtaken AMNH 5027 for the title of most ubiquitous T. rex. BHI 3033, more commonly known as Stan, was excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute, a for-profit outfit specializing in excavating, preparing, and mounting fossils. Stan is significant for being over two-thirds complete and for including the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus skull yet found. BHI has sold dozens of casts of the Stan skeleton to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. With over 50 casts sold as of 2017, Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world.

Stan the Tyrannosaurus at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Stan the Tyrannosaurus at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

All these new Tyrannosaurus mounts are forcing museums to get creative, whether they are displaying casts or original fossils. Predator-prey pairings are a popular display choice: for example, the Houston Museum of Natural Science T. rex is positioned alongside an armored Denversaurus, and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum matches the tyrant dinosaur with its eternal enemy, Triceratops. Meanwhile, the growing number of juvenile Tyrannosaurus specimens has allowed for family group displays. A second T. rex exhibit at LACM features an adult, subadult and baby, while the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis pairs a Stan cast with the original skeleton of Bucky, a “teenage” T. rex. The most unique Tyrannosaurus mount so far is certainly the copulating pair at the Jurassic Museum of Asturias.

Tyrannosaurus versus Denversaurus at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author.

Each of these displays gives a substantially different impression of Tyrannosaurus. Depending on the mount, visitors might see T. rex as a powerful brute, a fast and agile hunter, or a nurturing parent (or a gentle lover). Each mount is accurate insofar that a real Tyrannosaurus probably adopted a similar stance at some point, but the museum’s choice of pose nevertheless influences visitors’ understanding of and attitude toward the dinosaur.

Restoring the Classics

With dozens of new Tyrannosaurus mounts springing up across the country and around the world, the original AMNH and CMNH displays began to look increasingly obsolete. Unfortunately, modernizing historic fossil mounts is an extremely complex and expensive process. The early 20th century technicians that built these displays generally intended for them to be permanent: bolts were drilled directly into the bones and gaps were sealed with plaster that can only be removed by manually chipping it away. What’s more, the cumulative effects of rusting armatures, fluctuating humidity, and vibration from passing crowds have considerably damaged historic mounts over the course of their decades on display.

AMNH 5027 was restored and remounted in 1995.

AMNH 5027 was restored and remounted in 1995. Photo by the author.

Despite these challenges, AMNH and CMNH have both been able to restore and update their classic Tyrannosaurus displays. While fossil mounts used to be built in-house, often by the same people who found and described those fossils, modern mounting projects are typically outsourced to specialist companies. Phil Fraley Productions, an exhibit fabrication company based in the Pittsburgh suburbs, was responsible for both T. rex restorations. At AMNH, Jeanne Kelly spent two years disarticulating and conserving each bone before Phil Fraley’s crew took over to build the new armature. The new mount not only corrected the dinosaur’s posture, but improved visitors’ view of the fossils by removing obstructive vertical supports. Instead, most of the skeleton’s weight is now supported by steel cables hanging from the ceiling.  Each bone is secured to an individual metal bracket, allowing researchers to easily remove elements for study as necessary. A new cast of the skull was also prepared, this time with open fenestrae for a more natural appearance. Rather than attempting to match the dramatic and showy T. rex mounts at other museums, the AMNH team chose a comparatively subdued stalking pose. A closed mouth and subtly raised left foot convey a quiet dignity befitting this historically significant display.

Historically, the 1941 CMNH Tyrannosaurus had never quite lived up to its New York predecessor. Although it incorporated the Tyrannosaurus type specimen, it was mostly composed of casts from the New York skeleton, and it sported an unfortunately crude replica skull. It is therefore ironic that CMNH now exhibits the more spectacular T. rex display, one which finally realizes Osborn’s ambitious plan to construct an epic confrontation between two of the giant predators. As they had with the AMNH mount, Phil Fraley’s team dismantled the original display and painstakingly removed many layers of paint, shellac, and plaster from the bones. Michael Holland contributed a new restored skull, actually a composite of several Tyrannosaurus skulls. The restored holotype T. rex now faces off with a cast of “Peck’s Rex”, a specimen recovered from Montana in 1997. Despite the difficulty of modernizing the historic specimen, the team reportedly developed a healthy respect for turn of the century mount-makers like Adam Hermann and Arthur Coggeshall, who developed the techniques for making enduring displays of fragile fossils that are still being refined today.

Continue to Displaying the Tyrant King Part 3.

References

Colbert, E.H., Gillette, D.D. and Molnar, R.N. “North American Dinosaur Hunters.” The Complete Dinosaur, Second Edition. Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, T.R. and Farlow, J.O., eds.Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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

Johnson, K. and Stucky, R.K. 2013. “Paleontology: Discovering the Ancient History of the American West.” Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals, No. 4.

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.

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

Norell, M., Gaffney, E.S. and Dingus, L. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Psihoyos, L. 1994. Hunting Dinosaurs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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

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: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

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”.

References

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.

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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). 

References

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

First Full-Sized Dinosaurs: From Crystal Palace to Hadrosaurus

Last time, we covered how Albert Koch turned a tidy profit with his less-than-accurate fossil mounts, leading credible paleontologists to avoid involvement with full-sized reconstructions of extinct animals for much of the 19th century. With the exceptions of Juan Bautista Bru’s ground sloth and Charles Peale’s mastodon, all the fossil mounts that had been created thus far were horrendously inaccurate chimeras assembled by often disreputable showmen. Serious scientists were already struggling to disassociate themselves from these sensationalized displays of imaginary monsters, so naturally they avoided degrading their work further by participating in such frivolous spectacle.

The prevailing negative attitude toward fossil mounts among academics would begin to shift in 1868, when paleontologist Joseph Leidy and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins collaborated on a mount of Hadrosaurus, the first dinosaur to be scientifically described in America and the first dinosaur to be mounted in the world. While prehistoric animals were well known by the mid-19th century, the Hadrosaurus was so bizarre, so utterly unlike anything alive today, that it truly opened people’s eyes to the unexplored depths of the Earth’s primordial history. I have written about the Hadrosaurus mount before, but its creation was such a landmark event in the history of paleontology and particularly the public understanding of prehistory that it deserves to be contextualized more thoroughly.

Discovering Dinosaurs in Britain

In the early 1800s, American fossil hunters were busy poring over the bones mammoths, mastodons and other mammals. Across the Atlantic, however, it was all about reptiles. Scholars were pulling together the first cohesive history of life on earth, and Georges Cuvier was among the first to recognize distinct periods in which different sorts of creatures were dominant. There had been an Age of Mammals in the relatively recent past during which extinct animals were not so different from modern megafauna, but it was preceded by an Age of Reptiles, populated by giant-sized relatives of modern lizards and crocodilians. The marine ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs unearthed by Mary Anning on the English coast were the first denizens of this era to be thoroughly studied, but they were soon followed by discoveries of terrestrial creatures. In 1824, geologist William Buckland received a partial jaw and a handful of postcranial bones found in the Oxfordshire shale. Recognizing the remains as those of a reptile, Buckland named the creature Megalosaurus, making it the first scientifically described non-avian dinosaur (honoring the unspoken agreement to ignore “Scrotum humanum”).

The partial jaw of Megalosaurus, the first named dinosaur.

The partial jaw of Megalosaurus, the first named dinosaur.

Of course, the word “dinosaur” did not yet exist. As covered by virtually every text ever written on paleontological history, it was anatomist Richard Owen who formally defined Dinosauria in 1842 as a distinct biological group. Owen defined dinosaurs based on anatomical characteristics shared by Megalosaurus and two other recently discovered prehistoric reptiles, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus (fatefully, and somewhat arbitrarily, he excluded pterosaurs and doomed paleontologists and educators to forever reminding people that pterodactyls are not dinosaurs). In addition to being an extremely prolific author (he wrote more than 600 papers in his lifetime), Owen was a talented publicist and quite probably knew what he was unleashing. The widely publicized formal definition of dinosaurs, accompanied by displays of unarticulated fossils at the Glasgow Museum, was akin to announcing that dragons were real. By giving dinosaurs their name, Owen created an icon for the prehistoric past that the public could not ignore.

“Dinosaur” soon became the word of the day in Victorian England. Looking to capitalize on this enthusiasm for paleontology, the Crystal Palace Company approached Owen in 1852 to oversee the creation of an unprecedented new exhibit. The company was building a park in the London suburb of Sydenham, meant to be a permanent home for the magnificent Crystal Palace, which had been built the previous year for the Great International Exhibition of the Works and Industry of All Nations. Concerned that the palace would not draw visitors to the park on its own, the Crystal Palace Company commissioned Owen and scientific illustrator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create a set of life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the first of their kind in the world. The sculptures were a tremendous undertaking: the Iguanodon, for instance, was supported by four 9-foot iron columns, and its body was built up with brick, tile and cement. Hawkins then sculpted its outer skin from more than 30 tons of clay. All told, more than a dozen animals were built, including Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus and an assortment of marine reptiles and mammals.

The Crystal Palace dinosaurs under construction in Hawkin's studio.

The Crystal Palace dinosaurs under construction in Hawkin’s studio.

Queen Victoria herself presided over the opening ceremony of Crystal Palace Park in 1854, which was attended by 40,000 people. This was an important milestone because up until that point, only the broadest revelations in geology and paleontology made it out of the academic sphere. But as Hawkins himself put it, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs “might be properly described as one vast and combined experiment of visual education” (Hawkins 1853, 219). The general public could see firsthand the discoveries and conclusions of the most brilliant scientists of their age, in a format that could not only be readily understood and appreciated, but experienced. Full-sized reconstructions of prehistoric animals, including fossil mounts, continue to be built today for precisely this reason.

Recently restored Iguanodon sculptures. Wikimedia Commons.

Recently restored Iguanodon sculptures at Crystal Palace Park. Source

While the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are important historic artifacts and beautiful works of art in their own right, they have not aged well as accurate reconstructions. Owen only had the scrappiest of dinosaur fossils to work with, enough to conclude that they were reptiles and that they were big but not much else. As a result, the Megalosaurus and Iguanodon sculptures look like rotund lizards, as though a monitor lizard or iguana gained the mass and proportions of an elephant. By modern standards, these beasts look pretty ridiculous as representations of dinosaurs, but they were quite reasonable given what was known at the time, at least for a few years.

Dinosaurs of the Jersey Shore

And so at last Hadrosaurus enters the story. Just four years after the unveiling of the Crystal Palace sculptures, the first American dinosaur was found on a farm near Haddonfield, New Jersey (dinosaur footprints and teeth had been found earlier, but their affinity with the European reptiles was not recognized until later). William Foulke, a lawyer and geology enthusiast affiliated with the Philadelphia-based Academy of Natural Sciences, was at his winter home in Haddonfield when he paid a visit to his neighbor, John Hopkins. Hopkins told Foulke that he occasionally found large fossils on his land, which he generally gave away to interested friends and family members. With Hopkins’ permission, Foulke searched the site where the fossils had been found with the assistance of paleontology and anatomy specialist Joseph Leidy. Also a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Leidy is considered the founder of American paleontology and during the mid-1800s, he was the preeminent expert on the subject. At the Haddonfield site, Foulke and Leidy uncovered approximately a third of a dinosaur skeleton, including two  nearly complete limbs, 28 vertebrae, a partial pelvis, scattered teeth and two jaw fragments.

All known Hadrosaurus fossils, presently on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

All known Hadrosaurus fossils, presently on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Now in possession of the most complete dinosaur skeleton yet found, Leidy began studying the fossils of what he would name Hadrosaurus foulkii (Foulke’s bulky lizard) in Philadelphia. The teeth in particular told Leidy that Hadrosaurus was similar to the European Iguanodon. Like IguanodonHadrosaurus was plainly an herbivore, and for reasons left unspecified Leidy surmised that it was amphibious, spending most of its time in freshwater marshes. Leidy noted that Hadrosaurus was a leaner and more gracile animal than Owen’s Crystal Palace reconstructions, but he was particularly interested in “the enormous disproportion between the fore and hind parts of the skeleton” (Leidy 1865). Given the large hindlimb and small forelimb, Leidy reasoned that Hadrosaurus was a habitual biped, and likened its posture to a kangaroo, with an upward-angled trunk and dragging tail. As such, we can credit Leidy for first envisioning the classic Godzilla pose for dinosaurs, which has been known to be inaccurate for decades but remains deeply ingrained in the public psyche.

Although the new information gleaned from Hadrosaurus made it clear that the Crystal Palace sculptures were hopelessly inaccurate, Leidy had been impressed by the Sydenham display and wanted to create a similar public attraction in the United States. Leidy invited Hawkins to prepare a new set of prehistoric animal sculptures for an exhibit in New York’s Central Park. Hawkins set up an on-site studio and began constructing a life-sized Hadrosaurus, in addition to a mastodon, a ground sloth and Laelaps, another New Jersey dinosaur. Unfortunately, Hawkins’ shop was destroyed one night by vandals, apparently working for corrupt politicians. What remained of the sculptures was buried in Central Park and the exhibit was cancelled.

Edit 4/20/2017: Leidy was not actually involved in planning the ill-fated Central Park display. Thanks to Raymond Rye for the tip!

The “Bulky Lizard” Mount

Instead of abandoning the project entirely, Hawkins and Leidy redirected the resources they had already prepared for the Central Park exhibit into a display at the Academy of Natural Sciences museum in Philadelphia. Leidy decided he wanted a mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus, rather than a fully fleshed model as was originally planned. Such a display had not appeared in a credible museum since Charles Peale created his mastodon mount, but if anybody could get a fossil mount to be taken seriously, it was Leidy.

With only a partial Hadrosaurus skeleton to work with, Hawkins had to sculpt many of the bones from scratch, in the process inventing many of the mounting techniques that are still in use nearly a century and a half later. For instance, Hawkins created mirrored duplicates of the left limb bones for use on the animal’s right side, and reconstructed best-guess stand-ins for the skull, scapulae and much of the spinal column using modern animals as reference. Based on photographs like the one below, it appears that portions of the vertebral column were cast as large blocks, rather than individual vertebrae. The mount  was supported by a shaped metal rod running through the vertebrae, as well as a single vertical pole extending from the floor to the base of the neck. In fact, very little of the armature appears to have been externally visible, suggesting that making the skeleton as aesthetically clean as possible was a priority.

Hawkin's studio

Hadrosaurus under construction in Hawkins’ studio. Note the flightless bird mounts used for reference. From Carpenter et al. 1994.

The Hadrosaurus mount had a few eccentricities that are worth noting. First, the mount has seven cervical vertebrae, which is characteristic of mammals, not reptiles. Likewise, the scapulae and pelvis are also quite mammal-like. Hawkins was apparently using a kangaroo skeleton as reference in his studio, and it is plausible that this was the source of these mistakes. In addition, Hawkins had virtually no cranial material to work with (despite several repeat visits to the Haddonfield site by Academy members searching for the skull), so he had to make something up. He ended up basing the his sculpted skull on an iguana, one of the few exclusively herbivorous reptiles living today. Although fossils of Hadrosaurus relatives would later show that this was completely off the mark, it was very reasonable given what was known at the time.

The Hadrosaurus mount was unveiled at the Academy of Natural Sciences musuem in 1868, and the response was overwhelming. The typical annual attendance of 30,000 patrons more than doubled that year to 66,000, and the year after that saw more than 100,000 visitors. Traffic levels were so high that the Academy had to decrease the number of days it was open and enforce limits on daily attendance in order to prevent damage to the rest of the collection. Soon, the Academy was forced to relocate to a new, larger building in downtown Philadelphia, which it still occupies today.

The audience for the Hadrosaurus mount was expanded greatly in the 1870s by three plaster copies of the skeleton, which were sent to Princeton University in New Jersey, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh (the first dinosaur mount displayed in Europe). The Smithsonian copy had a particularly mobile existence: it was first displayed in  the castle on the south side of the National Mall, moved to the dedicated paleontology display in the Arts and Industries Building around 1890, and finally traded to the Field Museum in Chicago later in the decade. In Chicago, the Hadrosaurus was displayed in a spacious gallery alongside mounts of Megaloceros and Uintatherium, and it is in this context that the best surviving photographs of the Hadrosaurus mount were taken. Sadly, by the early 1900s all three casts had been destroyed or discarded by their host institutions, since they had either deteriorated badly or were deemed too inaccurate for continued display. The original Philadelphia mount was also dismantled, although the Hadrosaurus fossils are still at the Academy.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

Why was the Hadrosaurus mount such a big deal? For one thing, it was different from previous fossil mounts in that it was the product of the best scientific research of the day. This was not the work of a traveling showman but a display created by the preeminent scientific society of the era, with all the mystique and prestige that came with it. Most importantly, however, the Hadrosaurus mount presented the first ever opportunity to stand in the presence of a dinosaur. By the mid-19th century, western civilization had had ample opportunity to come to terms with the fact that organisms could become extinct, but for the most part the fossils on display were similar to familiar animals like horses, elephants and deer. The Hadrosaurus, however, was virtually incomparable to anything alive today. It was a monster from a primordial world, incontrovertible evidence that the Earth had once been a very different place. By comparison, the Crystal Palace sculptures were essentially oversized lizards, and therefore fairly relateable.  The Hadrosaurus was the real turning point, the moment the public got their first glimpse into the depths of prehistory. For 15 years, the Hadrosaurus was the only real dinosaur on display anywhere in the world, so it is no wonder that people flocked to see it.

Of course, the Hadrosaurus was only the beginning of the torrent of dinosaur fossils that would be unearthed in the late 19th century. It would prove to be but a hint at the amazing diversity and scale of the dinosaurs that would be revealed in the American west, as well as the scores of fossil mounts that would soon spring up in museums.

References

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.

Leidy, J. (1865). “Cretaceous Reptiles of the United States.” Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. 14: 1-102. 

Waterhouse Hawkins, B. (1853). “On Visual Education as Applied to Geology.” Journal of the Society of Arts. 2: 444-449.

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Filed under anatomy, dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, ornithopods, paleoart, reptiles

The Gilmore Models: Where are they now?

Regular readers of this site (if there are any) undoubtedly know Charles Whitney Gilmore as the Smithsonian paleontologist who, between 1903 and 1964, led in the creation of most of the mounted dinosaur skeletons that remain on display at the National Museum of Natural History today. You don’t necessarily have to be in Washington, DC to see Gilmore’s reconstructions, however. In addition to being an expert anatomist and fossil preparator, Gilmore was a formidable sculptor, and during his tenure at the Smithsonian he produced a number of gorgeous life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. Plaster copies of these models were gifted or sold to large and small museums in North America and Europe, including the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. These models were typically displayed alongside isolated fossil elements to give a sense of the entire animal at institutions where complete mounts were unfeasible.

Gilmore with Diplodocus vertebrae.

Charles Gilmore, or Chucky G, as he was known to his friends.

Unfortunately, many of the museums that acquired copies of Gilmore’s models in the 1920s and 30s seem to have lost the detailed provenance of these acquisitions (not a rare occurrence, as museums must track literally millions of objects and historic records on paper do not always survive). The Hunterian Museum has the best records regarding these models that I am aware of, and incidentally their online catalog is the source of most of the photographs in this post.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

While Gilmore’s models are obviously far from accurate by modern standards, a closer inspection reveals that Gilmore was familiar with every inch of the fossils in his care, and put that knowledge to use in his sculptures. The Stegosaurus above, for instance, is a perfect match for Gilmore’s full-sized mount in terms of pose and proportion. Undoubtedly, physically assembling an actual skeleton is among the best ways to become familiar with how an animal would work in three dimensions. In particular, note that unlike many contemporary reconstructions, Gilmore did not fudge the number or position of the plates; they’re all accounted for.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Triceratops model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

The Triceratops model exhibits a number of interesting choices. The classic bowed ceratopsian forelimbs (which Gilmore first proposed after finding no other way to articulate them in his 1905 Triceratops mount) are clearly in evidence, but my eye is drawn to the scrawny, lizard-like hindlimbs. Comparing this model to Gilmore’s mount, there would appear to be virtually no muscle back there. The size of the head is yet another remnant of the mounting process. Since his Triceratops mount was a composite of numerous specimens, Gilmore used the skull of an inappropriately small animal, and apparently carried the chimeric proportions to this sculpture. The lack of cheeks and extremely thick neck are also characteristic of older ceratopsian reconstructions, although I can’t comment on precisely when or why that look went out of style.

Stegosaurus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Diplodocus model in plaster of paris. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

This Diplodocus has a much more defined shape than most mid-century sauropod reconstructions. Note in particular the sloping back, which peaks at the sacrum. This differs from the 1907 Diplodocus mount at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which had a completely horizontal spinal column. When Gilmore led the creation of the Smithsonian Diplodocus mount, he had the opportunity to use a vertebral column that was found articulated in situ, and was thus able to more accurately portray the shape of the animal’s midsection.

Ceratosaurus
Ceratosaurus. Image courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Gilmore’s Ceratosaurus is the liveliest of the set, and is the only one that doesn’t strictly adhere to the pose of a corresponding fossil mount. Delivering a killing blow to a hapless ornithopod, one can easily imagine the energetic pounce that preceded this scene. I will point out, though, that this guy’s hindquarters are enormous. 

Gilmore's stub-tailed Dimetrodon. Image from Gilmore 1939.

Gilmore’s stub-tailed Dimetrodon model. 

Gilmore also sculpted some non-dinosaurs, including at least one prehistoric horse and the Dimetrodon pictured above. Note the teensy stub of a tail, which this model actually shared with Gilmore’s mount of the pelycosaur. The lips obscuring most of the teeth except for a couple incisors is an unusual choice, and I’m not sure what inspired it. This image is from Gilmore’s 1939 paper on Dimetrodon, and the Basiliscus basiliscus in the corner provides a helpful comparison to a contemporary animal with a similar dorsal sail.

In addition to the models shown here, Gilmore created sculptures of “Anatosaurus”, “Brachyceratops” and a Cenozoic horse, as well as busts of Styracosaurus and Corythosaurus (and there may well have been others I haven’t seen). As mentioned, copies of these mounts were distributed to museums and possibly private collections throughout the 20s and 30s, and I have no idea how many were actually made. A few museums, such as the Sternberg Museum, actually have these models on display, but at other institutions they have been relegated to storage. Objects like these present an unusual challenge for collections managers. They were accessioned as scientific representations, but their value has shifted over the last century to the realm of art and history. While these models are undoubtedly important, they are probably no longer useful at many of the institutions that hold them. As such, the Gilmore models exemplify that museum collections are not necessarily static, but change in meaning as the years go by.

If you work at an institution that has one or more Gilmore models in its collection, feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to start a working database of where copies of these models have ended up!

References

Gilmore, C.W. (1939). “A Mounted Skeleton of Dimetrodon gigas in the United States National Museum, with Notes on the Skeletal Anatomy.” Proceedings of the US National Museum 56:2300:525-539.

Gilmore, C.W. (1932) “On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum.” Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81:1-21.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, history of science, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles