February 13th

The Curious Business of Mounting Fossil Skeletons

O.C. Marsh, one of the most celebrated paleontologists of all time, was totally against the notion of assembling fossil skeletons for public display. He felt the exercise did not serve science and was therefore, not worth his time. But a few of his contemporaries and almost all of his successors think otherwise. So why are we so drawn to the vacant, mineralized skeletons on display in our natural history museums?

The first dinosaur discoveries in England were fragmentary. A few teeth here and leg bones there. Illustrations fired the imagination, but the public’s first real outbreak of dina-mania began when life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs were unveiled in Crystal Palace Park in 1854. Without full skeletons, mounting dinosaur fossils in life position was not even considered. But discoveries in the United States would change that.

Waterhouse Hawkins, the man who sculpted the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, was recruited to help mount the first semi-complete dinosaur skeleton ever found–Hadrosaurus from Haddonfield, New Jersey. In 1868, Hadrosaurus went on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, becoming the first dinosaur ever to be mounted as a complete skeleton for public display. The missing bones were sculpted to match the ones found in the New Jersey marl pit. The resulting skeletal model was nothing short of a sensation and copies were sent to various institutions, spreading the dinosaur fever to the New World. Thousands flocked to see the dinosaur wherever it was displayed, and museum halls have never been the same.

Hadrosaurus / Wikimedia Commons
Hadrosaurus / Wikimedia Commons

Today, paleontologists can rely on a number of solutions to the problems of missing bones. A left leg can be made in mirror image to become a right one (thanks to the bi-lateral symmetry of vertebrate tetrapods). Similar species can donate a few bones, too. Computers can help to scale specimens of different sizes to match the animal going on display. With advancements in digital scanning, computer modeling, and 3d printing, paleontologists can assemble life-like skeletal mounts without compromising authenticity. Yes, there is always benefit to seeing the authentic bones, but if many more people can enjoy copies of the same skeleton (as Andrew Carnegie’s Diplodocus and its worldwide fame have shown), then displaying a replica is a boon, not a bust. Replica dinosaur skeletons at natural history museums are far from “fake.”

In the ancient architecture of the dinosaurs, we find stark, brutal truths about mortality. We find humility in the shadows of the once-ruling giants. We struggle to understand the scale of their existence, in epochs so remote that we struggle to imagine how much time has passed since their unsurpassed sojourn on our planet. Dinosaur skeletons–whether harvested from the earth or mounted as exact copies–are not suitably appreciated on mobile devices or flickering computer screens. They must be contemplated in person. Their power rests in their defiant and triumphant rise from the grave into our life in the human imagination.

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