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assembling the dinosaur

1 september 2019

Since 1996, visitors to the fourth-floor fossil halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York have started their tour through vertebrate paleontology in the Wallach Orientation Center. For two decades, the Center was just a large open room, with some benches where you could sit and listen to a video narrated in enervating tones by Meryl Streep. Then, in 2016, the Center was suddenly filled to bursting with a skeleton of Patagotitan mayorum, the Titanosaur, a hilariously outsized herbivore that makes Brontosaurus look like a Honda Fit. The Titanosaur looks at first like a mistake – it is too big for the room, it spills into the corridor – till you realize that the discrepancy is highly intentional: nothing makes a big thing look even bigger than squeezing it into a too-small space.

Of course the Titanosaur isn't "real." It is not made of bone or rock. It is a glass-fiber cast representing what paleontologists think the creature looked like, 100 million years ago. The cast is based on incomplete data, filtered through scientists' imagination. The Titanosaur is popular, but its popularity is the result of showmanship and simulation. Not fakery, I hasten to say. The interpretive text in the Center is clear that you aren't looking at the bones of a dinosaur. But how many visitors take their eyes off the giant long enough to read about it?

Dinosaurs are, let's face it, charismatic megafauna. Lukas Rieppel's new book from Harvard, Assembling the Dinosaur, is a genealogy of their special charisma, in an American context. Rieppel draws some ultimately unremarkable connections among dinosaurs, capitalists, and American ideologies. Among them is that our vision of dinosaurs tracks rhetorics about the American capitalist spectacle, "from lumbering behemoths of the prehistoric into agile, intelligent, and intensely social creatures covered by colorful feathers" (251). But Rieppel draws these connections thoroughly, with a high level of precisely-documented detail. In the process, we learn how the Titanosaurs and T. Rexes that we love to visit got into the great museums that house them, how they came to take their well-known exhibited forms, and what they have meant to American life.

We start in the 19th century. Old-timey museums, of course, were bursting with fakes, and early dinosaur devotees, whether they were natural historians, or nationalist rhetoricians proud of America's paleontological heritage, chafed at the trickery of P.T. Barnum and his emulators. The philanthropists and early academic researchers who built America's first true scientific museums needed to stock them with genuine material, provenanced, theorized, and expertly reconstructed. But getting a supply of fossils wasn't as easy as prancing out into virgin strata with your whiskbroom and your Indiana Jones hat. Even before the cornerstones of museums like the AMNH and Pittsburgh's Carnegie were laid, dinosaur discovery was inextricable from a complicated social nexus.

Rieppel begins with dinosaur entrepreneurs who, following the template of mining prospectors, located and excavated dinosaurs – then sold them eastward, usually sight unseen. The market for dinosaur fossils was created by players like Andrew Carnegie and the various well-heeled backers of the American and later Field (Chicago) Museums, who combined deep pockets with a desire for intellectual respectability.

As the story moves into the 20th century, Rieppel finds a tension between the museum magnates' desire to entertain (without which, after all, museums would have no visitors and little municipal support) and their desire to prepare scientifically impeccable specimens. Along these lines, little has changed. Meryl Streep intoning drably on the principles of cladistics was getting a little snoreworthy, and had to be balanced by the wondrous Titanosaur. Museums made a rousing comeback in the 1990s and since by updating their entertainment value, but at the price of some anxiety over their status as dispassionate displayers of the genuine.

And dinosaur fossils are rarely genuine, even when they aren't totally artificial. Rieppel cites C.S. Peirce on the contrast between indexical and iconic imagery: items that show something as it is, and items that stand for our imagination of something. Dinosaurs have usually, since the mid-19th-century, been valued as indexical: the skeleton you're seeing is really that of a millions-years-old beast (or at least the stone transformation thereof). But the great "mounts" in New York, New Haven, Pittsburgh and Chicago are largely pieced together from different specimens, interpolated with guesswork casts, and posed in dubious fashion.

Dinosaur fossils tend to be discovered in a highly crushed state, so dinosaur mounts are always exercises in reconstruction. The results are indexical skeletons that have in turn become iconic. Particularly interesting to me was Rieppel's discussion of "panel mounts" (215), which instead of being free-standing are almost two-dimensional objects, showing a fossil as it would (apparently) have been found embedded in a stratum of stone. Panel mounts always look to me like they've been sliced right out of the living rock, with minimal preparation. But they tend to be just as artificial as free-standing mounts, albeit held together with plaster rather than steel. Panel mounts achieve realism by an extra effort of illusion.

Paleontologists building dinosaur mounts are hardly mountebanks. But they often have to resort to artifice faute de mieux. One of the funnier things about the film Bringing up Baby, at least to dinosaur nerds, is the idea that Cary Grant would have cared at all about his intracostal clavicle. That fateful bone is a true MacGuffin. A real-life dino scientist would just have ordered up a plaster cast.

Rieppel moves forward to look at 1920s animated dinosaurs, such as those Willis O'Brien made for the silent film of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and other early lurid examples of dinosaur fakery. Spectacular dinosaur models long predated Jurassic Park and have never really gone out of style. Along one of those Möbius strips of popular culture, one of my favorite exhibits in New York's American Museum is a dinosaur trackway unearthed along the Paluxy River, in Texas. When you go to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas, you can be treated to fiberglass models of dinosaurs that were shown at the World's Fair in New York, 50-something years ago. The dinos that parade around in Texas today (and once did in Queens) bear only an indirect relation to the ones that walked there long ago; but the sauropod mount that prances atop the segments of Paluxy riverbed on the Upper West Side likewise has a tenuous relation to the tracks below. Knowledge and fun may ultimately turn out to be more closely related than we'd like to think.

Rieppel, Lukas. Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil hunters, tycoons, and the making of a spectacle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. QE 718 .R54