Tag Archives: dinosaurs

Carnegie’s transatlantic dinosaur just got an eviction notice

Here’s a news item that’s gotten plenty of us dinophiles riled up.  After decades of faithful service, Dippy the Diplodocus is moving out of the central hall of the Natural History Museum, London.  A blue whale skeleton will take his place in 2017.

I, Drow male [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The NHM has been reminding everybody that their Diplodocus is a plaster copy of a skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, whereas the blue whale’s bones are the real deal.  That’s true, but Dippy isn’t just any any other display cast.  This dinosaur has got quite a backstory, one that links a multimillionaire, a monarch, and two continents.

Andrew Carnegie was a man who liked to give away money, and some of that money funded dinosaur collecting.  His philanthropic activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with a period of fierce competition among America’s natural history museums, each institution sending teams of collectors into the great fossil graveyards of the West to find the biggest and most complete specimens for exhibition and trying to woo successful field men away from their rivals.  The three-way rivalry among Carnegie’s Pittsburgh museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum in Chicago was particularly intense.

The biggest game of all were Jurassic sauropods, those massive dinosaurs with long necks, whiplike tails, and legs like Doric columns.  Carnegie wanted something big for Pittsburgh, and he got it in 1899; the Diplodocus his collectors unearthed in southeastern Wyoming that year was the largest dinosaur ever found at the time.  It was an important moment in the Carnegie Museum’s history, establishing it as the premier institution for the collection and exhibition of Jurassic sauropods.

Diplodocus bones had been found before, but this specimen was remarkably complete and the holotype of a new species, which John Bell Hatcher named D. carnegii in honor of the man who signed the checks.  Carnegie was so proud of his namesake dinosaur that when Hatcher published a reconstruction of its skeleton in 1901, the steel magnate had the image framed on the wall of Skibo Castle, his Scotland retreat.  In 1902 King Edward VII paid Carnegie a visit at Skibo, spotted the picture, and decided that the British Museum needed a Diplodocus of its own.

Carnegie was happy to oblige.  His technicians cast the dinosaur’s bones in plaster, along with pieces from other sauropod specimens to fill in what was missing from the 1899 find.  The Diplodocus made its British Museum debut in the Gallery of Reptiles on May 12, 1905.  Carnegie’s remarks for the occasion pitched the dinosaur as a transatlantic link between two countries, emphasizing the connection between the up-and-coming science museums of America and the more established institutions in Britain:

It is doubly pleasing that this should come from the youngest of our museums on the other side to yours, the parent institution of all, for certainly all those in America may be justly considered in one sense your offspring; we have followed you, inspired by your example.…Thus you, Trustees of the old museum, and we, Trustees of the new, are jointly weaving a tie, another link binding in closer embrace the mother and child lands, which never should have been estranged, and which, as I see with the eye of faith which knows no doubt, are some day—some day—again to be reunited.

The skeleton was a sensation, and it wasn’t long before other museums wanted their own Diplodocus copies.  Plaster sauropods became something of a cottage industry in Pittsburgh.  Within a few years, duplicates of Carnegie’s dinosaur stood in Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and the museums of other great cities.  (For more on the backstory of Carnegie’s dinosaur, check out Tom Rea’s fascinating account, from which I pulled the above quote.)

The original specimen went on display back in Pittsburgh, while the London copy moved a couple of times before taking up its current quarters in the central hall in 1979.  That’s where it was in the late eighties, when I saw it as a kid on my first trip overseas.  My parents both taught high school, and used to take their students on field trips to Europe during the summer.  Maybe they decided this would be a good opportunity to give me a learning experience, or maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter willing to put up with me while they went galavanting off to England for ten days.  Either way, I managed to get a trip to the natural history museum out of the deal.  Young dinosaur nut that I was, I got a bigger kick out of Carnegie’s plaster Diplodocus than I did out of the Tower of London or any of the other things I saw.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of irony in my personal connection to Dippy.  After dinosaurs, whales were my second biggest obsession as a young kid.  Along with the Diplodocus, one of my most vivid memories from that trip to England is seeing the whale exhibit in the Large Mammals Hall, including the blue whale skeleton that’s taking Dippy’s place in 2017.  Normally I’d be thrilled to see a new whale mount going up in a museum, but when the whale is knocking a dinosaur off its pedestal I can’t help but be a little miffed.

According to statements released by the NHM, the blue whale will remind visitors of the fragility of life on earth, since even this huge creature is vulnerable to extinction.  I can understand that, but my sentiments are still with those who want to leave Dippy in place.  One of the reasons the dinosaur’s pending relocation has stirred up such strong feelings is the fact that we all have such strong emotional attachments to those places where our earliest moments of discovery happened.

The NHM is thinking about creating a new cast of Dippy for the museum’s grounds, or taking the skeleton on tour.  Those aren’t bad ideas, but I can’t imagine anything more fitting to be the centerpiece of the main hall than a dinosaur.  I’m extremely partial to dinosaurs—as partial as they come—but you don’t have to be a hardcore dino aficionado to realize that there’s just something uniquely transcendent about them.  As paleontologist Robert Bakker has said, dinosaurs “take your mind and they stop it.”  The only response to one of those massive skeletons, whether it’s a plaster cast or not, is to just stop and stare up in awe with our mouths agape and our eyes wide, everything giving way to simple, unfeigned, unmixed, undeniable awe at the notion that such things were real, that they walked the same planet we do now.  For centuries, we’d been telling ourselves stories about dragons and monsters, and then when mankind had finally outgrown these stories, when we’d begun to master time and space and assumed that we’d peeked in all the world’s dark corners and reassured ourselves that there were no dragons lurking there, we started digging in the ground and found out that the dragons had always been there after all, waiting for us.

A whale skeleton might indeed remind NHM visitors that the world needs good stewardship, but if you want an invitation to wonder and curiosity, to the sort of attitude that museums work so hard to cultivate, you just can’t top a dinosaur.  Carnegie and Edward VII knew that, and I hope the folks at the NHM keep it in mind.

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Just in time for Thanksgiving, it’s the Jurassic World trailer

Aaannnnd here it is…

First impressions?  What excites me most is the scale.  A fully operational park full of crowds means interesting opportunities for some serious mayhem on a wide canvas, very different from the more intimate, tightly focused approach of the third installment.

Looks like an interesting balance of new stuff (mosasaurs, nifty ride systems, new characters) alongside old stuff that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (wonder, terror, kids in peril, raptors, and scientists making reeeaaaallllly bad decisions).

Would’ve been nice to see some T. rex, but there’s still plenty in that two-and-a-half minutes to take in.

I wish next summer would hurry up and get here already.

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“Great Hera!” Historians’ unexpected projects

The prolific and talented Jill Lepore has anew book coming out on…the history of Wonder Woman.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a departure; Lepore usually writes about early America.  It’s quite a long way from colonial New England to Themyscira.

But it also looks like a great read.  Wonder Woman has a fascinating origin story.  I don’t mean “origin story” in the sense that the phrase is generally used when referring to comics characters (although that story is pretty interesting, too).  Instead, I mean the story of how William Moulton Marston—psychologist, inventor of the polygraph, feminist, and polyamorist—developed a superheroine to be a model for what he called “the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

You can’t help but wonder how an early Americanist decides to switch gears and write an entire book on a comic character.  Most historians’ bibliographies seem to develop in an organic fashion, with obvious connections between one project and the next, but sometimes something unexpected will pop up.  I find these occasional departures fascinating, and I love to read interviews with authors who talk about their decisions to pursue subjects that are totally different from their usual fare.

One of the historians included on the syllabus of a Civil War seminar I once took wrote a biography of John Lennon, although now I can’t remember the guy’s name.  And one of my undergrad professors at LMU, the Civil War historian Earl Hess, co-wrote a book about the film Singin’ in the Rain as well as a book about another Gene Kelly musical.  Nathaniel Philbrick is best known as a maritime and New England historian, but he also published a book about Little Bighorn.

I find these unexpected projects encouraging, because ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to write dinosaur-related books.  One of my dreams is to do something on the history of paleontology.  I think I’ve mentioned before that when I had to pick a topic for a major research paper in my undergraduate methodology class, I wrote about the rivalry between two Gilded Age paleontologists.  Actually, if I’d thought more about it, I probably would’ve specialized in the history of science in grad school and written a dino-related thesis instead of a study on memory and the Rev War, but I’ve had so much fun with King’s Mountain that I can’t complain.

Anyway, if Jill Lepore can study both colonists and Wonder Woman, maybe someday I can juggle backcountry revolutionaries and nineteenth-century dinosaur hunters.  It might make for an unusual CV, but it would be a heck of a lot of fun.

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The USSR was a sick Triceratops

For my America and the World course I’ve been reading We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis.  The twentieth century isn’t really my thing, but I’ve really enjoyed this book.

One of the themes running through We Now Know is that the Soviet Union operated with a number of disadvantages.  Its authoritarian structure could not create and maintain alliances as well as the democratic U.S., which was more accustomed to compromises and building coalitions.  The USSR therefore had to coerce its “allies,” whereas allies of the U.S. enjoyed more flexibility and initiative.  And since there was nobody in a position to say “no” to a Stalin or a Khrushchev, nobody could stop them when they pursued a course that was misguided, as they tended to do often.  (Gaddis notes that “there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality.”)

One of the few things the USSR had going for it was the appearance of military strength, which brings us to this delightful metaphor:

The end of the Cold War made it blindingly clear that military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its arms and armed forces fully intact.  Deficiencies in other kids of power—economic, ideological, cultural, moral—caused the USSR to lose its superpower status, and we can now see that a slow but steady erosion in those non-military capabilities had been going on for some time.

To visualize what happened, imagine a troubled triceratops.  From the outside,  as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament, and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it.  Appearances deceived, though, for within its digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up, and then shutting down.  There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air, still awesome but now bloated, stiff, and quite dead.  The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state (p. 284).

Looks like she’s come down with a nasty case of perestroika, but we’ll need to check her poop to be sure. Image via http://www.moviemag.org/2013/04/review-giveaway-jurassic-park-3d/

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In Rev War and dino entertainment news

Today‘s Jenna Bush Hager visited the Jurassic World set and talked to the cast.  Mostly they discussed Chris Pratt’s abs, but there were also some tantalizing glimpses of what the park is going to look like.

Meanwhile, it looks like AMC has renewed Turn for a second season.  As much as I like having some Rev War fare on TV, I’m not a fan of putting a fictional love triangle at the center of the story.  I’d much rather see the plot unfold from the circumstances of what the Culper Ring was actually doing.  You’d think there would be drama enough involved without manufacturing all these romantic interests for the characters.

And they really need to stop teasing us with the prospect of showing iconic battles without following through.  That stunt where one of the main characters was unconscious during Trenton?  That was just mean.

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Count me in

Director Colin Trevorrow has responded to the recent Jurassic World leaks, and I’m feeling a lot better.  I really think this guy has tremendous respect for the franchise and wants to contribute to it in a way that develops organically out of what’s come before.

Here’s a sample of the interview:

Jurassic World takes place in a fully functional park on Isla Nublar.…And there are dinosaurs. Real ones. You can get closer to them than you ever imagined possible. It’s the realization of John Hammond’s dream, and I think you’ll want to go there.…

This film picks up twenty-two years after Jurassic Park. When Derek [Connolly] and I sat down to find the movie, we looked at the past two decades and talked about what we’ve seen. Two things came to the surface.

One was that money has been the gasoline in the engine of our biggest mistakes. If there are billions to be made, no one can resist them, even if they know things could end horribly.

The other was that our relationship with technology has become so woven into our daily lives, we’ve become numb to the scientific miracles around us. We take so much for granted.

Those two ideas felt like they could work together. What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth…and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves. “We’ve seen CG dinosaurs. What else you got?” Next year, you’ll see our answer.

In hindsight, it’s highly unfortunate that we didn’t get to see the “super dino” within the context of a story. Instead, it came as an isolated revelation in the form of an Internet leak, and a lot of us JP aficionados (including me) freaked out. Let’s see how it plays out as part of an entire film. Let the filmmakers tell us the story, and then we’ll judge that story as a whole.

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Behemoths in Baltimore

I said we’d be seeing Giganotosaurus again soon, and by golly, here he is.

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That’s one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs of all time.  I ran into this bad boy at the Maryland Science Center, within spitting distance of Federal Hill and the USS Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  I had some extra time after visiting Ft. McHenry, so I stopped by to indulge in a little dino-viewing.

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Most of the dinos at the MSC are casts, including the Giganotosaurus, but they’re beautiful mounts all the same.  I especially like this dynamic, lunging T. rex.

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Donald Gennaro’s last view:

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And here’s Tarbosaurus, T. rex‘s cousin from Mongolia.

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Two very early dinosaurs from South America, Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus.

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Cryolophosaurus, a pompadour-sporting meat-eater from Antarctica.  (Yep, dinosaurs in Antarctica.)

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Finally, here’s an Acrocanthosaurus in the flesh…

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…trying to take down an Astrodon, Maryland’s state dinosaur. This scene is based on a famous trackway from Texas excavated by R.T. Bird and recently reconstructed digitally.

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