The Field Museum of Natural History (variously known as the Field Colombian Museum and the Chicago Museum of Natural History) was founded by wealthy philanthropists in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It has since expanded into one of the largest natural history museums in the world, a destination attraction and a hub for ongoing research. What follows is a summary of the historic paleontology exhibits at the Field Museum – when and how they expanded and changed, when major specimens were added, and who spearheaded these efforts.
As with my previous overviews of fossil exhibits at AMNH and NMNH, please note that I will not be discussing field expeditions or research by museum staff in any detail, as these topics are well-explored elsewhere (see Paul Brinkman’s extensive work, for starters). My primary interest here is in the public-facing exhibits, and the people who created them.
Phase I: The Field Columbian Museum
The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, principally as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Lasting six months and attended by 27 million people, the Exposition was monumental in size and scope. Years before it even opened, there was talk about using the Exposition displays to seed a new museum, which would rival the great natural history museums in New York and Washington, DC. Eager to establish an enduring cultural attraction in their city, a group of wealthy Chicagoans – including Marshall Field, who donated an unprecedented $1 million – contributed the necessary funds to buy up many of the Exposition’s exhibits and found the Field Columbian Museum.
As the largest and most elegant of the 200 temporary buildings constructed for the Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts became the Field Museum’s home. Frederick Skiff served as the first director, acting as an intermediary between the board of trustees and the new curatorial staff, who would manage the collections and assemble the exhibits. Skiff hired geologist Oliver Farrington to curate the earth science collections, a diverse mix of minerals, gems, meteorites, fossils, and fabricated displays purchased from the Henry Ward Natural Sciences Establishment. With thousands of specimens to catalog, Farrington was soon overwhelmed. He repeatedly asked Skiff to hire a paleontology specialist to support him, but the board (composed of the businessmen who founded the museum) was uninterested in paying more salaries or acquiring new specimens.
When the Field Columbian Museum opened on June 2nd, 1894, most the 5,000-piece fossil collection was on public display. In addition to the cases of as-yet unlabled invertebrates, plants, and other small fossils, the exhibit included several large reconstructions of prehistoric animals. As of opening day, a life reconstruction of a mammoth stood in the west court, while skeletons of Megaloceros, Scistopleurum, Megatherium, Hadrosaurus, and a uintathere stood in halls 35 and 36. With the possible exception of the Megaloceros, these were all replicas of mounts from other institutions. The Hadrosaurus in particular was woefully outdated, considered by contemporary scholars to have “long since ceased to have any value except as a historic attempt” (Beecher 1901).
After completing his catalog of the earth science collections in 1896, Farrington continued to lobby for a dedicated staff paleontologist. The board paid no attention until 1897, when the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History announced ambitious plans to scour the western interior for fossils. So began what Brinkman calls the second Jurassic dinosaur rush – a frenzied race among leading American museums to be the first to collect and mount a sauropod dinosaur. Not wanting to be left behind by peer institutions, the trustees approved the conditional hiring of Elmer Riggs to collect dinosaurs for the Field Museum.
Riggs and his classmate Barnum Brown cut their teeth in paleontology while studying under Samuel Wendell Williston at the University of Kansas. The two young men took part in an AMNH collecting expedition in 1896. Brown, who had quit his studies to work for the museum, quickly became a favorite at AMNH. Concerned about his own future, Riggs sent an unsolicited letter to Frederick Skiff, offering his skills as a fossil collector and preparator. The letter crossed Skiff’s desk at an opportune time, and in the summer of 1898 Riggs was paid a small stipend for a trial collecting trip with Farrington. The expedition was a success, and Riggs was hired as an Assistant Curator before the end of the year.
Riggs’ first three collecting seasons with the Field Museum were enormously successful. In addition to the holotype of Brachiosaurus, at the time the largest known dinosaur, Riggs collected a very-well-preserved back end of an Apatosaurus near Fruita, Colorado. Nevertheless, AMNH won the sauropod race when they completed their composite “Brontosaurus” mount in 1905. The Carnegie Museum had a Diplodocus on display in 1907, and was busy cranking out casts for European heads of state. While Riggs’ Apatosaurus was more complete than any single specimen the other museums had recovered, it was still only half a dinosaur. Riggs and Farrington repeatedly lobbied the board for funding to find more sauropod material with which to complete the skeleton, but the trustees had moved on to other things.
Plans were afoot to move the Field Museum to a new lakefront campus. However, when legal issues halted progress on the new building, Riggs was granted permission to mount the partial Apatosaurus in hall 35. The plaster casts previously displayed in this space were discarded, and unfortunately are now lost to history. A gas furnace was installed on the museum grounds, which Riggs and his small team used to shape massive steel I-beams for use in the armature. The teetering sauropod hindquarters was unveiled in 1908, but if Riggs hoped that the museum administrators would want to complete the mount once they saw how absurd the incomplete skeleton looked, he was out of luck.
Indeed, the years that followed were among the most frustrating of Riggs’ career. He received no funding to collect fossils after 1910, and could only look on enviously at the thriving paleontology research and exhibit programs at AMNH and the Carnegie Museum. The institutions in New York and Pittsburgh were headed by paleontologists, and bankrolled by wealthy fossil enthusiasts like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. By comparison, the Field Museum was controlled by trustees with seemingly little interest in paleontology. Already paid less than the museum’s other curators, Farrington and Riggs were left with meager resources and little to do until the 1920s.
Phase II: Halls 37 and 38
The Palace of Fine Arts was intended to last six months, and after ten years it was in dire shape. The roof leaked constantly, putting exhibits and collections in danger, and fences had to be placed around the perimeter to protect visitors from falling brick. Before his death in 1906, Marshall Field worked with architect Daniel Burnham to design a new home for the museum. It took years to settle disputes over where to place the building, but ground was eventually broken off Lake Shore Drive in 1915. Completed in 1920, the new Field Museum of Natural History was a gleaming marble fortress, decorated inside and out with intricate neoclassical reliefs and statuary.
Exhibits and collections were transported by rail car, often without being removed from their display cases. Earth science exhibits found a new home on the west side of the upper level. Hall 37, an east-west facing gallery accessible directly off the west mezzanine, housed invertebrate and plant fossils. Hall 38, running north to south against the far west side of the building, contained vertebrate fossils. Although it was colloquially known as the “dinosaur hall”, this space never contained many dinosaurs. In the 1920s, the only dinosaurs to be found were the half-Apatosaurus, a Triceratops skull, an articulated “Morosaurus” (Camarasaurus) limb, and parts of Brachiosaurus. The bulk of the specimens on display were Cenozoic mammals, including horses, rhinos, camelids, and a mammoth and mastodon. There was also a life-sized “coal swamp” diorama behind a glass barrier, with large model insects suspended in flight.
This comparatively modest exhibit was expanded significantly between 1922 and 1927, when Elmer Riggs was once again able to collect fossils in the field. Thanks to a bequest from Marshall Field’s grandson, Riggs traveled to Alberta, Argentina, and Bolivia, securing many unique specimens along the way. These included several new species, like the marsupial cat Thylacosmilus and the predatory bird Andalgalornis. A colossal Megatherium Riggs recovered in Argentina was immediately mounted for display, and became one of the most memorable elements of Hall 38.
Hall 38 also boasted a spectacular set of murals by Charles Knight. The undisputed master of paleontological reconstructions and wildlife art, Knight had a long working relationship with Henry Osborn, president of AMNH. Osborn had commissioned Knight to create many large and small paintings for his museum’s fossil exhibits, but the two frequently argued over Knight’s remuneration. For years, Osborn and Knight discussed a series of immense wall canvases illustrating the entire history of life. Osborn could never get the money together, however, and Knight refused to produce any concept sketches for fear that they would be turned over to a less-skilled artist. In 1926, the Field Museum’s board of trustees asked for a meeting with Knight about an identical project for their new fossil hall. The initial discussion did not go well, and Knight walked out when the trustees started making “suggestions” about the content, color, and composition of the proposed artwork. Knight was very talented, but also very particular. He gladly accepted anatomical expertise from scientists but would not suffer meddling with the artistic aspects of his work. Fortunately for both parties, Knight’s daughter/manager Lucy intervened, securing her father the biggest commission of his career.
Knight completed 28 murals for the Field Museum, the largest of them measuring 25 feet long and nine feet high. Subjects ranged from the Proterozoic primordial soup to an iconic standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. These images were not only painstakingly researched reconstructions based on the latest fossil evidence, they were (and still are) gorgeous works of art in their own right. With Knight’s murals in place, the Field Museum finally had a world-class paleontology exhibit.
Riggs retired in 1942, leaving paleontology at the Field Museum to the next generation, among them Eugene Richardson, Brian Patterson, and Orville Gilpin. In 1951, Richardson oversaw a thorough modernization of Hall 37. The number of specimens on display was drastically reduced, making room for more accessible explanations of the fossils and ten new dioramas of Paleozoic marine life. The resulting exhibit was one of the most comprehensive displays of fossil invertebrates in the world.
Although virtually no dinosaur research was done at the Field Museum between 1910 and the late 1990s, the 1950s saw the acquisition of two significant specimens for the benefit of the visiting public. In 1956, preparator Orville Gilpin assembled a Daspletosaurus (then called Gorgosaurus) for the central Stanley Field Hall. The skeleton was a surplus specimen from Barnum Brown’s years collecting along Alberta’s Red Deer River, and trustee Louis Ware spearheaded the effort to buy it from AMNH. Since the Daspletosaurus was acquired explicitly for display, Gilpin opted to skewer and otherwise permanently damage many of bones for the sake of an unobstructed, free-standing mount. In the mid 20th century, dinosaur fossils were thought of as display pieces first, and irreplaceable specimens second.
Two years after installing the Daspletosaurus, Gilpin finally completed Riggs’ partial Apatosaurus in Hall 38. When Edward Holt announced that he had discovered the front half of a sauropod near Green River, Utah, the Field Museum purchased the rights to excavate and display the find. Gilpin added the new fossils to the existing mount without dismantling Riggs’ heavy-duty armature. Relabeled “Brontosaurus” and erroneously given a casted Camarasaurus skull, the refreshed sauropod debuted in April 1958 – half a century after Riggs started the project.
The next three decades saw occasional piecemeal additions to the fossil halls. For example, the University of Chicago donated its entire geology collection to the Field Museum in 1965. This included a unique assortment of Permian amphibians and synapsids from the red beds of central Texas, many of them holotypes. Field Museum preparators remounted several of these specimens and integrated them into the exhibits. Nevertheless, Hall 38 never received a complete overhaul, and by the late 1980s it was quite dated. Not only were the fossil mounts in stiff, tail-dragging poses, but the stilted label copy written by curators past did not meet modern expectations for natural history exhibits. Even the vibrant Charles Knight murals looked tired behind years of accumulated dust and dirt. In short, the Field Museum was long overdue for a total re-imaging of its paleontology displays.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the Field Museum’s fossil exhibits from the 1990s onward. Stay tuned!
Beecher, C.E. 1901. The reconstruction of a Cretaceous dinosaur, Claosaurus annectens Marsh. Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. 11: 311-324.
Brinkman, P.D. 2000. Establishing Vertebrate Paleontology at Chicago’s Field Colombian Museum: 1893-1898. Archives of Natural History 27: 1: 81-114.
Brinkman, P.D. 2o10. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. (March 1956). 27: 3.
Gilpin, O.L. 1959. A Freestanding Mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator 2: 2: 162-168.
Glut, D.F. 2001. Remembering the Field Museum’s Hall 38. Jurassic Classics: A Collection of Saurian Essays and Mesozoic Musings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Lelièvre, M A. 2006. Evolving Planet: Constructing the Culture of Science at Chicago’s Field Museum. Anthropologica 48: 2: 293-296.
Milner, R. 2012. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York, NY: Abrams.
Tubitis, T.J. 2005. Revitalizing Life Over Time: A New Look for a Very Old Topic. In the Field 76: 2: 18.
Williams, P.M. 1968. The Burham Plan and the Field Museum. Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 39: 5: 8-12.