Too often, science is presented as a final product–something that is neither under continued testing and scrutiny, nor arrived at through careful, peer-reviewed consideration. Science is not commonly seen as a process. Dinosaur paleontology can be that window into the ongoing efforts of scientists from around the world.
Science, like evolution, moves in punctuated equilibrium–long periods of stasis interrupted by bursts of activity. So although it is well established that dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails, many of the most iconic skeletal mounts are still tail-scrapers. The “error” is not an omission of the truth, but rather a collection of interconnected realities.
The first consideration of museum staff is practicality. Many skeletal mounts were constructed with display in mind, not conservation. So the fragile bones have had holes drilled through them and metal armatures forced through their mineralized cores. Disassembling these structures would be extraordinarily expensive, if not physically impossible.
It’s also important to remember how historically important some dinosaur displays have become. Their current inaccuracy reflects a change in our understanding. This communicates to the public the changing stories of dinosaur science, bringing the quest for knowledge into tangible reality.
The tail-dragging dinosaurs are nearly extinct. The last few major natural history museum dinosaur exhibits are being converted to reflect new knowledge. So the old swamp-dwelling behemoth dinosaurs are due to disappear too. Perhaps the dynamic, modern poses favored by contemporary curators better represent the Mesozoic superstars than the stately, static displays of yesteryear.
But it’s important to remember that the fossil bones are not dinosaurs. Neither are our marvelous mounted skeletons. The real non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, but live on in our imaginations–the only place where the past can return to life. So whether we are looking at the latest dinosaur models or outdated cantankerous monoliths, the “inaccurate” museum displays are only a starting point for the ever-agile human mind.