Skeletal Remains

Celebrating the 140th anniversary of the dinosaur display.

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Look at enough dinosaur displays and you begin to ask questions beyond the scope of the exhibit. What would a sleeping dinosaur look like? How do you clean one of these things? Where’s the cafeteria?

It’s not that the dinosaurs themselves are uninteresting — the danger they suggest infuses museum halls with a sense of potential energy. Instead, it’s the fact that once you’ve seen one T. Rex, all other T. Rexes start to look alike.

And there are a lot of them out there. Indeed, dinosaur mounts have become so fundamental to our idea of what makes a natural history museum that it can be difficult to imagine the institutions ever existing without them. Yet the “fearfully great lizards” made a relatively late appearance in the tradition of collecting and displaying the Earth’s artifacts. The Egyptians were collecting exotic wildlife as early as 1400 B.C., and the Europeans started housing natural curiosities in wunderkammers in the 16th century, but dinosaurs didn’t appear until the 19th. It wasn’t until 1868 that the first dinosaur was mounted for exhibition, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. This year, the museum celebrates the 140th of that influential move with a new exhibit, “Hadrosaurus foulkii: The Dinosaur That Changed the World.”

Hadrosaurus was found in the U.S., but that change began in Europe. In the early part of the 19th century, fossil evidence of large, lizard-like creatures not found in the contemporary world began to appear there. Interest in what naturalist (and anti-evolutionist) Richard Owen described in 1841 as “dinosaurs” grew rapidly. When the Crystal Palace of Britain’s Great Exhibition was relocated to be the centerpiece of new pleasure gardens in south London, Owen (as scientific adviser to the gardens) hired noted wildlife artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create sculptures of the great beasts for display among the gardens — objects of wonder, to be sure, but also proof of divine majesty. As historian Robert M. Peck notes in All in the Bones, the artist’s charge was, in Hawkins’ own words, “to call up from the abyss of time and from the depths of the earth, those vast forms and gigantic beasts which the Almighty Creator designed with fitness to inhabit and precede us in possession of this part of the earth called Great Britain.”

“The Snydenham Crystal Palace, with
Extinct Animals in the Foreground,” lithograph by George Baxter.

Hawkins’ success in Britain laid the foundation for his later work on dinosaur mounts. Living in New York at the same time that plans were launched for what would become the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History, Hawkins was hired to create a separate palaeontology museum in Central Park. Recognizing that knowledge on dinosaur anatomy and structure had changed since his work in Britain, he traveled to Philadelphia’s Academy to study what was at that point was the most complete dinosaur skeleton — Hadrosaurus foulkii, pulled from New Jersey marl pits 10 years earlier.

Hawkins crated molds of the Academy’s skeleton for his New York museum (which, unlike the Met or American Museum, never came to fruition). But before he left Philadelphia, he put the casts all together, creating the world’s first assembled dinosaur skeleton. The public response was overwhelming; in fact, what’s today often the centerpiece of natural history museums drew crowds whose size so exasperated the Academy that it instituted admission fees as a way of controlling them.

The centerpiece of the Academy’s current exhibit is a remount of the specimen using casts of the original bones. For Hadrosaurus’ sake, it’s lucky it has the distinction of being first. Lacking the Stegosaurus’ plates, the Triceratops’ horns, the Pterodactyl’s wings odd head, Hadrosaurus can feel a bit tame as far as dinosaurs go. But a comparison of the new mount with Hawkins’ original reveals that, as static as they can seem, the displays of these extinct species evolve just as much as living creatures do. Whereas Hawkins, lacking a Hadrosaurus skull, modeled one off that of the iguana, modern paleontologists (still without a skull) based theirs on a closely related dinosaur species. And while Hawkins’ mount assumed a sluggish upright pose and gripped a tree branch (as much a means of supporting the mount as a reflection of the limited knowledge of dinosaur posture at the time), the Academy’s new Hadrosaurus is sleeker, despite its reliance on four legs instead of two.

   The Academy of Natural Science’s updated
Hadrosaurus mount.

These differences reflect a century-and-a-half’s worth of behind-the-scenes research by scientists at universities and museums like the Academy. But if dinosaur displays are created for the public, does their value change whether we know if Hadrosaurus walked on two or four legs? What’s the use of dinosaur displays anyway?

Dinosaur mounts are often considered to be children’s territory. Aesthetically — which is how most people of all ages approach any museum exhibit — these are loud and brash displays. They do not rely on subtlety or nuance and therefore seem ideally suited to the fickle attention span of the young (there’s even a “big kid” identity imposed on paleontologists, the idea that “digging for dinosaurs” is the fulfillment of the ultimate childhood fantasy). We accept this appeal as a means of generating foundational interests in science and, more broadly, learning itself.

But beneath the field-trip group assignments and admonishments to stop touching that! lies a more significant development. For many children, a visit to the exhibit of long-extinct species marks their first encounter with an abstract idea of the natural world — namely, that it exists with or without us in it.

The situation for adults is a bit more complex. For us, it’s not so much that, say, Hadrosaurus walked on four legs, but more that this new knowledge reflects a better understanding of the world as it was before we appeared in it. We’re compelled by improved understandings of those environments that have yet to open themselves to human occupation — Mars, the deep sea, the past. Understanding life in a way that either spatially or temporally transcends the presence of humans builds a context that helps us understand that presence. The fact that we have a better idea of what the Hadrosaurus’ skull looked like, that we can replace some of the bones Hawkins used to fill in the blanks, so to speak, suggests that an image of the past is fully constructible if only we’re given the right parts.

In this way, natural history becomes like a jigsaw puzzle, one with an infinite number of pieces, none of which is ever an edge or a corner. Never, then, comes the satisfaction of placing the final piece. But never ends, either, the pleasure of the process. • 5 December 2008

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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