Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Imagining Dinosaurs



By Robert J. Gangewere


"A skeleton is an idea," says Tom Rea in Bone Wars, a new book on the dinosaurs at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. "Meaning gathers up there in the darkness, above the skulls," he says. When you see a person in a museum gazing at a dinosaur skeleton for fifteen minutes, then you know that person is trying to imagine the intense life that once surrounded those bones.


In "Dinosaur Dreams" (Harpers, October 2001), Tom Witt goes even further.  He says that dinosaurs in America are a metaphor for the anxieties and worries that afflict the country.  They are icons of our pyschic and social concerns. For instance, if you thought Andrew Carnegie was interested only in paleontology when he bought the biggest and best dinosaur fossil of his time for Pittsburgh, you are wrong.  Carnegie was demonstrating patriotism by suggesting that America rather than Europe had the greatest example of ancient life, and that American scientists, including those in his museum in Pittsburgh, were the best in the world. 


When Carnegie was buying dinosaurs, patriotism was in the air after America's emergence on the world stage by defeating Spain in the Spanish American War. Carnegie saw himself as a player on the world stage, and was an advocate for world peace.  The passion with which he blended international politics and science was unique, and he played his Dinosaur card, so to speak, in a personal effort to secure international cooperation and peace.  He paid the bills to dig up and display Diplodocus carnegii in Pittsburgh, and imagined that sending  replicas to nine museums in capital cities around the world would be understood as a gesture of American scientific cooperation.  When his museum director, Dr. William Holland (the former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh) wrote him that displaying this monster "would be the most colossal undertaking of its kind in the world," Carnegie responded with characteristic enthusiasm: "See what you can do.  I should like to do the Colossal for the Colossal by the Colossal Lord Chancellor. AC. "


It delighted Carnegie when King Edward VII of England saw a picture of Diplodocus at Carnegie's Skibo castle in Scotland, and asked Carnegie if the British Museum could obtain one.  Carnegie responded by presenting to the King the first replica, which stands today in a place of honor.


Spectacular dinosaur fossils stir the public imagination.   Recently the Chicago Field Museum acquired at a public auction the large and complete fossil skeleton of a T. rex discovered in 1990, obtained with financial support from McDonald's Corporation and Walt Disney World Resort.  In 1997 the museum installed the exhibit at its grand entrance, and named it "Sue," in honor of fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson who found it. Carnegie Museum paleontologist Mary Dawson smiles when she says it could as easily have been named Sioux, in honor of the South Dakota badlands where it was found.  But the names of new dinosaurs are a very human affair. The second large dinosaur installed in Pittsburgh was named after Carnegie's wife, Louise: Apatosaurus louisae.



The Popular Imagination


Using dinosaurs as symbols of human values has been going on a long time.  After World War II, the science fiction fantasies about Godzilla packed movie theaters for 50 years in 24 different films.  The T. rex-styled monster was an international symbol of global worries about atomic destruction. It rose up from the depths of the sea and punished humans with annihilation for the way that scientists tampered with the mysterious powers of nature.


In the recent film Jurassic Park (1993), director Steven Spielberg modernized the fear of dinosaurs with the Velociraptor.  Writer Tom Witt believes that the Velociraptor is actually a metaphor for the1990s Japanese-styled "global business warrior, physically downsized, entrepreneurially fleet, rapaciously alert, ready for the dissolution of the nation state."  In Jurassic Park the movie scientist tells us, "it has jugular instincts ('lethal at eight months'), cunning ('problem-solving intelligence') and strategic adaptability ('they remember')."


While the popular imagination has made dinosaurs a century-long hit in American culture, during that time paleontologists have made important discoveries that change the way we should understand the real dinosaurs that walked the earth. They no longer believe that giant sauropods such as Diplodocus and Apatosaurus had to live in water so that their weight could be buoyed up. At the London Museum of Natural History the dinosaur that Carnegie donated now has a raised tail and a new look. 


A classic example is the change is that of the skull of Apatosaurus at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which was made in 1979.  Since this animal is the "type" specimen which defines the species, all other exhibits of this same animal had to change their heads as well. Carnegie Museum curator David Berman was one of the investigators who demonstrated that the first skull, made up of fossil pieces found 50 and 500 miles distant from the existing skeleton of the body, was simply a mistake in judgment.  Rival paleontologists of the past were themselves divided on which head should go on this body (which was excavated at the site without the skull).  It turned out that the wrongly installed skull belonged to a different species, a Camarasaurus.


The Scientific Imagination


What is required during the reconstruction of  fossil skeletons is a scientific imagination, since the animals are often incomplete, and mixed in a jumble with bones from many different animals.  Did they all die at the same time, or were their bodies deposited later at one location by flowing waters?  Removing fossilized bones from the hard "matrix" of rock and completely reconstructing one or more animals is a delicate puzzle in species identification. 


But science corrects past misconceptions, and modern technology has made that process more exciting.  Investigators can now study the bones and go inside the skulls of extinct animals with CAT scans, and use computer simulations to reconstruct the anatomies and physical behavior of long-dead animals.  Such analysis has indicated that the tails of some great lizards served as posterior balancing weights for their long necks and heads, thus new museum displays now raise the tails of some exhibited specimens off the ground.  The Diplodocus replica outside Carnegie Museum of Natural History installed in 1999 has the correct posture, but the "type" specimen itself inside the museum was mounted in 1907, and still shows the old concept that the creature's tail was dragged on the ground. 


Computer-assisted studies of dinosaur trackways use physics and mechanical engineering to recreate the way dinosaurs really moved. It is clear now that T. rex and many dinosaurs moved bird-like, in a horizontal posture on two legs, rather than by standing erect and as humans do.  Pittsburgh's popularly remembered mural of a Godzilla-like T. rex from the1950s, at one time on the wall behind the type specimen of the real T. rex, was scientifically misleading--which is why scientists had it removed several years ago.  The new T. rex replica in the museum's entrance hall has the new posture, but the T. rex mount in the Hall of Dinosaurs still displays the old posture. 


Studies now indicate that T. rex probably moved at a speed no greater than 20 miles per hour, and that if an adult fell down at that speed it could easily fracture its skull and die.  T. rex had small arms completely useless for grabbing prey or for getting itself up, but its olfactory powers were so great (based on CAT scans of its skull) that it could smell carrion five miles away.  T. rex may have been a hyena-like scavenger of dead meat and not the fleet-footed predator of live prey the public imagines.


There are also trends in scientific interpretation.  In the 1970s fossil hunter Jack Horner discovered dinosaur eggs, and named a new species "Good Mother Lizard," or Maiasaura.  This feminizing trend continues in the latest museum exhibits, like the one at the American Museum of  Natural History in New York, where a dinosaur mother protects her babies against a fierce predator, although whether lizards protected their young the way mammals do is debatable.


Recent discoveries in China and elsewhere have revealed that some dinosaurs probably evolved into birds, causing some to imagine that in an evolutionary sense the dinosaurs are still with us.


All this new information has led Director Bill DeWalt of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, along with Curator Mary Dawson and other staff paleontologists, to examine the ways that other museums display their dinosaur fossils. 


Which museum has the best dinosaur exhibit of dinosaurs from the Jurassic Age?  DeWalt  points out that the answer depends upon what you are looking for, and "there is no simple measurement but based on the quantity and quality of our specimens, we have arguably the best collection."


Carnegie Museum of Natural History has many outstanding specimens that it never had space to exhibit.  In addition, it is amazing to imagine that the T. rex in Dinosaur Hall is in fact closer to us in time, some 65 million years ago, than it is in time to the Diplodocus and Apatosaurus specimens standing in front of it.  These two animals stand only fifteen feet away in the Hall of Dinosaurs, but the distance is meant to suggest more than 65 million years in evolutionary time.


When asked what is in the future for the Hall of Dinosaurs, DeWalt says, “our priority now is to bring our exhibits up to the standards merited by the quality of our collections. Our vision is of an exhibit that shows dinosaurs in the full context of their own times, including mammals, plants, insects, and the rest of the environment of the dinosaurs--all areas that are part of the scientific collections of Carnegie Museum of Natural History."





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