Category Archives: paleoart

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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Allan McCollum’s fossil art

Click here if the embedded video doesn’t work.

My first love is natural science, but I also fancy myself an amateur art enthusiast, particularly for performance and installation pieces from the last 50 years or so. I am fascinated by art that directly engages the viewer, art that is not complete without the involvement of the spectator. As it happens, mounted fossil skeletons are a great example of  installation art, although they are not deliberately constructed as such. The size and presence of a dinosaur skeleton, such as the Stegosaurus below, necessarily incorporates the viewers’ human scale into the experience. Viewers are not merely spectators but participants in a shared performance. Nevertheless, fossils are nearly always displayed and interpreted as scientific specimens, rather than art objects.

Stegosaurus fossil mount and life-size model circa 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Stegosaurus fossil mount and life-size model at USNM circa 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

One important exception occurs in the work of prolific New York-based artist Allan McCollum. McCollum’s installations frequently address repetitive labor and industrial manufacturing, often incorporating hundreds or thousands of similar but subtly unique objects. Each piece is the product of many small actions, gradually assembled over time. In the early 1990s, the artist turned his attention to fossils, particularly their historic meaning and aesthetic appeal.

"Lost Objects" by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

“Lost Objects” by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

In 1991, McCollum collaborated with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to produce “Lost Objects”, displayed next door at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Using molds taken from dinosaur fossils (apparently all limb bones) in the CMNH collection, the artist produced several hundred fossil casts for the installation shown above. To me, this piece is a reflection on the global sharing of fossil material permitted by casting technology. In the Art21 video at the top of this post, McCollum briefly discusses the prominence of casts among the dinosaur mounts that are a staple at natural history museums. Dinosaur skeletons are virtually never found complete, and mounts are often filled in with casts of specimens held by other museums. For example, the National Museum of Natural History Diplodocus mount incorporates casts of the left hindlimb and much of the neck of the Carnegie Diplodocus. What’s more, casted duplicates of the entire Carnegie Diplodocus can be seen in London, Berlin and several other cities in Europe and Latin America, and casts of the American Museum of Natural History Tyrannosaurus are on display in Denver and  Philadelphia. It would be an impressive sight if all the casts of certain fossil specimens scattered around the world were reunited in one room, a monument to the knowledge gained from a century of scholarly collaboration. It would also commemorate the intangible excitement generated by dinosaur mounts, made possible only through the duplication and sharing of casts.

MCollum also comments that “there aren’t as many dinosaur bones in the world as we think.” Perhaps, then, “Lost Objects” is a reflection on the scarcity of intact fossils, by showing an impossibly large collection that no museum could hope to amass. Let’s just hope he wasn’t trying to comment on the alleged mass-production of casts cheapening the original fossils and the museums that hold them, because he’d be dead wrong (EDIT: He wasn’t, see comments).

mccollumnaturalcopies

“Natural Copies” by Allan McCollum. Image from Art21.

In 1995, McCollum followed up on “Lost Objects” with “Natural Copies, a series of casted dinosaur footprints produced in collaboration with the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. For the artist, this piece was a reflection on the idea that 150 million-year-old fossils can be valued as cultural history. The footprints in question were found by the hundreds in a Utah coal mine. While many ended up at the museum, others were collected by miners to display at home. The fossils took on a second life as symbols the community’s workforce and natural heritage, irrelevant to the dinosaurs that produced the tracks but important all the same. McCollum’s work separates the fossils from their typical scientific context so that viewers may reflect on their cultural meaning and even the aesthetic beauty of their form.

So what’s the point of these installations? These appropriations of fossils as aesthetic pieces has no bearing on the science of paleontology, and in fact may obscure information about how the animals that left these traces lived and behaved. And yet, from the moment a fossil is first seen by human eyes, whether it is an ammonite preserved in a split open rock or the glint of a vertebrate bone weathering out of a hillside, it becomes meaningful on a human scale. For the discoverer, the researcher who describes the fossil, the institution that holds it in its collection and the visitor who sees the fossil on display, that specimen has cultural value. This does not diminish the value of fossils as natural specimens, but rather enhances their importance.

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Fossil mounts in the museum environment

Sue and Stan reconstructions from Scott Hartman's DeviantArt page.

Sue and Stan reconstructions from Scott Hartman’s DeviantArt page.

Scott Hartman posted the above image to his DeviantArt page the other day, comparing the Tyrannosaurus specimens Sue and Stan side by side. For those unfamiliar, Hartman is known for his rigorously measured skeletal diagrams of dinosaurs (and sometimes other animals) that are crucial references for many artists and paleontologists. I’m always impressed by Hartman’s work, but this new comparative image really floored me. I knew that Sue is the largest and most complete rex yet found, but I had never properly appreciated what a monster she is. I’ve seen the mounted Sue skeleton at the Field Museum several times, and I’ve seen at least four casts of Stan in various locations, but I never realized what a significant size disparity exists between the two.

Tyrannosaurus Sue at the Field Museum of Natural History.

Tyrannosaurus Sue at the Field Museum of Natural History.

Tyrannosaurus Stan at the National Museum of Natural History.

Tyrannosaurus Stan at the National Museum of Natural History.

It’s not a groundbreaking discovery by any means, but I’m struck by how important the museum environment is when exhibiting a mounted skeleton. I mentioned yesterday that exhibits are never neutral, and this is a particularly clear example. Sue is exhibited in the gigantic central hall of the Field Museum, and in this open, grandiose environment, her size is actually deemphasized. By comparison, the presence of the Stan mount at the National Museum of Natural History was not anticipated during the 1981 renovation of the dinosaur hall (it was added in 2001, I believe) and is sort of crammed into a corner. In the cramped space, Stan looks pretty big, and it’s little wonder I had never appreciated the marked difference in size between the two mounts.

The takeaway, I guess, is that it would do us well to pay careful attention to the design choices (or constraints) in a museum exhibit. We’d like to think that a rare and important specimen like a Tyrannosaurus skeleton speaks for itself, but visitor impressions of even these fossils are shaped by the context they are placed in.

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Extinct Monsters: Murals and Dioramas

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

Fossils are the hard evidence behind paleontology. They tell us not only that prehistoric organisms existed, but hold clues as to how they lived and behaved. However, it is only through  artwork that extinct animals and ecosystems can be brought back to life. Since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built the first life-sized dinosaur sculptures in 1842, skilled artists have played a critical role in visualizing the results of paleontological research and making that information available to a wider audience.

At the National Museum of Natural History, spectacular works of art have always appeared alongside displays of original fossils, firing up the viewer’s imagination and inviting them to visualize the world of prehistory. Although many of these pieces are now scientifically dated, they were on the cutting edge in their time. These artworks remain exquisite works of craftsmanship, invaluable for their decades of contribution to science education.

The Life-Sized Models

The charmingly ugly Stegosaurus pictured above is one of the oldest fixtures of the Smithsonian fossil exhibits. F.A.L. Richardson created this model for the the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair in 1904. Made from papier mâché with a foam skin, the Stegosaurus was based on small sculpture produced by Charles Gilmore. With its sagging belly, sprawling forelimbs, and head held well below the horizontal plane, this Stegosaurus is typical of reconstructions from the early to mid 20th century.

As legend had it, the paper used to fabricate the Stegosaurus was ground-up money from the National Treasury. The model had even earned the nickname “Mr. Moneybags” among some of the museum staff. Curator Emeritus Ray Rye got to the bottom of this in 1981. He contacted the Treasury to find out what was done with worn-out paper money at the turn of the century – apparently it was burned at a plant in Maryland. Nevertheless, at Rye’s request a group of historians from the Treasury took a sample of the Stegosaurus while the hall was closed for construction, and confirmed that it was made from regular paper.

This pudgy papier mache Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904.

This pudgy Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1910, the Stegosaurus was given a spot of honor right in the center of the room. In 1913, a real Stegosaurus skeleton was placed alongside it. Both dinosaurs would remain in place until the exhibit was renovated in 1963. In the reconfigured and renamed Hall of Fossil Reptiles, the model Stegosaurus was relocated to a corner display.  Most recently, the 1981 renovation saw the Stegosaurus model moved to the south side of the gallery, protected by a low plexiglass barrier. This time, it was given a cycad replica for company, and a mural of lush Jurassic jungle behind it. The Stegosaurus remained in this position until the fossil halls closed in 2014.

quetzalcoatlusprogress

The NMNH exhibits team with their nearly-finished Quetzalcoatlus. Image from Thomson 1985.

quetzal2014

The Quetzalcoatlus survived a 2010 earthquake, although the plaster molding above it was damaged. Photo by the author.

The 1981 renovation also saw the introduction of a life-sized model of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus. Having been discovered in 1971, the largest flying animal that ever lived was big news at that time. In-house modelmakers spent two years on the project, first sculpting the animal in clay, then casting it in lightweight fiberglass with a steel armature. Paleontologist Nicholas Hotton served as the scientific consultant. Although he was dubious that pterosaurs had any sort of soft body covering, he okayed the use of deer fur to give the model believable texture. However, Hotton nixed the idea of placing a dangling fish in the mouth of the Quetzalcoatlus. Contemporary wisdom was that even giant pterosaurs were extremely light, weighing as little as 75 pounds, so even a 5-pound fish was thought to be enough to disrupt a Quetzalcoatlus in flight.

The Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus both now reside at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.

The Murals

The first dedicated prehistoric mammal exhibit at NMNH opened in the summer of 1961. Alongside the array of Cenozoic fossil mounts, the exhibit featured six brand new murals created by paleoartist Jay Matternes. Still active today, Matternes is a prolific artist of both modern and prehistoric wildlife. In addition to the NMNH murals, Matternes has contributed to exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine. For more of his work, you can check out his website  or the substantial gallery assembled at Agathaumas.

c.11

Matternes’ Oligocene mural as first exhibited in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Eocene section in the current Mammals in the Limelight exhibit, featuring mural by Jay Matternes. Photo by author.

The Eocene section in the  Mammals in the Limelight exhibit, featuring a mural by Jay Matternes. Photo by the author.

Each of the murals Matternes contributed to the exhibit depicts North America during an epoch of the Cenozoic, and is displayed behind corresponding fossil mounts. Most of the animals on display coincide with life reconstructions in the murals, so visitors can match the skeletons to images of how they may have looked in life. Matternes’ hyper-detailed style is particularly striking. The environments look nearly photo-real, and not too far removed from the world today. Likewise, the artist’s knowledge of anatomy plainly shows in the utterly lifelike appearances of the animals. I particularly like Matternes’ use of familiar color patterns on the relatives of modern taxa. The Pliocene and Pleistocene murals will be returning in 2019.

Cenozoic

The Cenozoic section of Kish’s 130-foot magnum opus. Source

The “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit debuted in 1990 with a monumental 130-foot mural by Eleanor Kish. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural spans 541 years of deep time. The project took Kish two years to complete and is, simply put, a masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms.

The Dioramas

My personal favorite part of the NMNH fossil galleries are the dinosaur dioramas. Norman Neal Deaton created three dioramas, representing North America during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The Mesozoic dioramas were commissioned for the 1963 exhibit renovation, and were on display until 2014. Each 1″:1′ scale diorama is set into a recessed space in the wall and is protected by glass.  The scenes are populated by a menagerie of outdated but gorgeously detailed dinosaurs and contemporary reptiles, set among dense forests of ferns and craggy rock formations. The complexity of the dioramas allows viewers to get lost in them as their eye wanders from one static encounter to the next. I’ve been admiring these scenes since literally before I could talk and I still notice minute details I hadn’t seen before.

The diorama project began in 1963 and took four years to complete. The scenes were initially blocked out by Jay Matternes and Nicholas Hotton, the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the time. Matternes and Hotton worked together on anatomical drawings for each of the animals to be reconstructed, and planned the basic layout of the dioramas. Deaton created the final dioramas at his studio in Newton, Iowa. Deaton had been previously employed at the Smithsonian as an exhibits specialist, but had left to found his own studio in the late 1950s, where he continued to work on projects for the Smithsonian as a contractor. In addition to the dinosaur dioramas, Deaton led the creation of the iconic Fénykövi elephant that stands in the NMNH rotunda today, and has created sculptures and dioramas for dozens of other museums. Deaton is still active today, and much of his 2-D and 3-D work can be seen at his website.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton sculpted each of the animals in clay based on the drawings provided by Matternes and Hotton. Nearly every model went through a few incremental adjustments based on notes from Hotton, changing things like the bulk of the muscles or how visible the scapula or pelvis would be under the skin. The soft anatomy was based on modern reptiles, particularly crocodiles, although Deaton found that some of the animals had no obvious analogs. Once the clay models were approved, they were casted in rubber, then painted. Deaton also created the miniature worlds inhabited by the animals, including foliage, muddy riverbanks, and sheer cliffs. The backdrops, however, were painted by Matternes.

The completed dioramas represented the most up-to-date knowledge of the Mesozoic world at that time. Of course, our understanding of dinosaurs has been overhauled significantly since then. Compared to the active, fleet-footed, and often feathered dinosaurs we know today, the inhabitants of the NMNH dioramas at first look a bit ponderous and inert. Inaccuracies are easy to point out: the Ankylosaurus has a weird clubless armadillo tail, the torso of the Diplodocus is much too long, the Cretaceous diorama mixes Hell Creek and Judith River dinosaurs that were separated by at least 20 million years, and there are sprawly tail-draggers aplenty.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Source: flickr.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Photo by the author.

Triassic diorama

Triassic diorama by Norman Deaton. Source

Still, these issues are easy to overlook when one appreciates just how engaging these scenes are. Little details like footprints behind each animal and mud splattered on their feet fill the motionless dioramas with life and the possibility of more adventures in the imagination of the viewer. And several of the models are surprisingly energetic for 60’s dinosaurs. The Ceratosaurus face-biting the Camptosaurus (above) is full of energy, and the Elphrosaurus  is running full-tilt with its tail in the air (and even has propatagia for some reason!).

Many of the works of art in the NMNH fossil halls are no longer appropriate as literal representations of prehistoric animals. But that does not mean they are irrelevant relics of mid-century science. Each model and painting is a stunning example of artistry, and more to the point, every inaccuracy is an opportunity to start up a conversation about what we know about prehistory and how we know it. These pieces are time capsules in the history of science, representing different eras of understanding and the researchers that took part in them. I, for one, would hate to see them forgotten.

A big thank you  to Norman Deaton and Raymond Rye for their assistance with this article!

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Filed under dinosaurs, Extinct Monsters, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles, science communication