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Dinosaurs for Experts, or for Everyone?

Mounting a full dinosaur skeleton, some paleontologists believed, had more to do with art and architecture than with science

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Visitors walk in the shadow of a reconstructed Tyrannosaurus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Photo by author.

Dinosaurs are everywhere. They’ve got more lasting star power than any Hollywood celebrity you care to name, and artists are constantly crafting images of what they might have looked like when alive. (Some efforts are better than others, and paleo bloggers Marc Vincent and Trish have had a lot of fun ripping apart sorry looking ‘saurs.) Back when Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Apatosaurus were new to science, though, some paleontologists were not so enthusiastic about seeing illustrators resurrect prehistoric creatures.

In 1940, Yale paleontologist Charles Schuchert co-authored a biography of the celebrated bone-hunter O.C. Marsh with research assistant Clara Mae LeVene. The focus is obviously on Marsh, but Schuchert peppered the manuscript with a few of his own experiences and observations from a career researching fossils. This included a rather disappointing debate about how fossils should be appreciated.

Even though paintings, reconstructions and restorations of dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms are museum centerpieces today, this started to become the case only after this episode from 1891. Before that, many paleontologists preferred to leave the bones alone. (There were some notable exceptions—such as the work of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins—but restored and reconstructed dinosaurs were nowhere near as common as today.) Even Marsh, who oversaw the illustration of intricately detailed dinosaur skeletons, didn’t want to actually mount a full dinosaur skeleton. Such efforts had more to do with art and architecture than with science, as Schuchert himself was told.

After viewing the a beautifully sculpted head of a prehistoric mammal called a brontothere created by artist Adam Hermann for the American Museum of Natural History, Schuchert decided that the United States National Museum—now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—needed similar restorations. How better to instill an appreciation of prehistory than to put flesh on old bones? Writing in the third person, Schuchert explained:

On his return to Washington, he laid the matter before his chief, Director G. Brown Goode, describing in glowing terms the marvel he had seen and all that it had taught him. Director Goode listened patiently, and then smilingly replied: “Mr. Schuchert, I admire your enthusiasm, but what you have seen is not Fine Paleontology, but Fine Art.” He suggested that the same story be told to Dr. Theodore Gill of the Museum, to see what his reaction would be. Gill agreed, crushingly, that such restorations were indeed Nothing But Fine Art; furthermore, he held that fossil skeletons were not for the understanding of the general public, but that the bones should be left inarticulated in museum drawers or on shelves for the edification of paleontologists alone!

Needless to say, I am thrilled that things have changed since the early days of Schuchert’s career! Fossils form part of everyone’s story, and it would be a downright shame if they were simply locked up in boxes in dusty cabinets. After all, much of the point of paleontology is to try to figure out how long-extinct creatures lived, and how can we do that if we never allow our imaginations to take hold of the fossils we find? We need “Fine Art” to bring aspects of “Fine Paleontology” to life.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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