April 3rd

The Role of Museum Dinosaurs

They began as curiosities–strange relics of a bygone age. They were strange, obsolete beings born before the deeds of history were counted. People visited museums to see these hulking skeletons, imagining what kind of primeval brutes once strode across a planet that was unquestionably in the hands of their species. How unfortunate were the dinosaurs, reduced to old bones. Their time had ended.

Children looking at the AMNH Brontosaurus, early 1900s / Cracking the Collections

But as dinosaurs took center stage in the public’s picture of prehistory, the museums that exhibited the bones looked at the dinosaurs differently. They weren’t of particular scientific interest. They were trophies from a big game hunt that spanned not thousands of miles, but millions of years. The museum with the biggest and best dinosaur displays won the bragging rights, and especially in the United States, this contest was waged with much fervor.

But as the decades passed, dinosaurs came out of the shadows of the jungles and swamps we imagined. Their world was not what we initially dreamed it to be. The bones became sources of information first, and objects of wonder in a secondary fashion. As the science of paleontology improved and new technologies were integrated into the study of the past, dinosaurs became more intriguing. The suggestion that these animals were not doomed to extinction from their origin enlivened dinosaur paleontology. The suggestion that they might have had warm-blooded metabolisms and complex social structures made scientists, and later the public at large, view these Mesozoic megastars in a new light.

Now, dinosaurs are more than clues to the past–they are part of a story. The history of life on earth has a giant chapter for dinosaurs and their world and that story continues into the present day, where our species contemplates their long reign and sudden disappearance (all except the birds, of course).

Undoubtedly, dinosaurs will be regarded in new and unexpected ways in the future as our understanding of their nature continues to improve. But however we perceive them, however many layers of mystery our fascinations unlock, dinosaurs will always stir us. Our imaginations will never get enough.

Share your favorite museum dinosaur displays with us on on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.