Tag Archives: museums

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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Sorry for the absence, folks.  I’ve been pretty busy with classes, so we’ve got some catching up to do.  Here are a few items to amuse and inform:

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

A respite at Marble Springs

We just had our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs, along with our “Sevier Soirée” fundraiser.  Thanks to everybody who stopped by; I think both events went over really well.

It gave me a good excuse to take a brief respite from doctoral work and do a little public history.  I really enjoyed the time I spent working in museums, and interpretation was always my favorite part of the job.  Part of me has always missed it, so it was nice to get to do it again this weekend.

Plus, there’s nothing like sitting on the step by the door of the Sevier cabin and listening to an afternoon rain shower.  Rain doesn’t do much for visitation, but something about the way it sounds against a two-hundred-year-old roof is just wonderful.


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Why we need plenty of historic house museums

A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:

Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.

The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”

I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one.  But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.

  • HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience.  People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
  • They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
  • Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles.  Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point.  HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional.  The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara.  It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
  • HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact.  The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum.  That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
  • HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions.  A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM.  When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there.  Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience.  There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.

A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving.  But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd.  What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.

When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession.  It’s a small tragedy.

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Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.


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Anchors aweigh

During my short trip to Baltimore I had the chance to visit a really neat museum in the Inner Harbor—and I mean literally in the Inner Harbor.

Historic Ships in Baltimore is a collection of four vessels and one lighthouse.  You just pick a ticket option depending on how many of the ships you want to see and then tour them in whatever order you please and at your own pace.  The star attraction is this lovely lady, the USS Constellation.


Specifically, she’s the second Constellation.  The first was one of the six frigates approved for construction in the 1790s, and saw service in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, and against the Barbary pirates.  She circumnavigated the globe in the 1840s, but that was her last hurrah.  The next decade saw her torn apart for scrap just as construction began on the second Constellation, the one currently on display in Baltimore.

At some point in the twentieth century there was a lot of confusion surrounding the relationship between the two vessels, with a lot of folks thinking they were actually the same ship, the second one having supposedly been fashioned out of the original in the 1850s.  (For a thorough analysis of the brouhaha, check out this report.)  As of now the debate has been pretty conclusively resolved, and the ship sitting in the Inner Harbor is interpreted as a Civil War-era vessel, allowing visitors to get a firsthand look at the twilight of the Age of Sail.


The second Constellation started her career in the Mediterranean, and then patrolled the coast of West Africa in search of slave ships, the trade in human cargo having been outlawed.  This is an aspect of U.S. naval history I hadn’t heard much about, but it’s one of the topics explored in the small museum alongside the vessel.  The exhibit also includes quite a few original artifacts from Constellation‘s very long career.  She returned to the Mediterranean during the Civil War to search for Confederate prey, and was still in service during WWI as a sort of floating classroom for naval recruits.

The view from the helm:


In addition to the standard exhibit signage, visitors get a handheld audio device to take with them.  When you enter the number of each tour stop into the keypad, you hear a little recorded dialogue between a kid and a Civil War-era sailor who explains how the different ship components worked and what life on board was like.


I’m not a tall guy, but I had to stoop a little to move around belowdecks.  I can’t even begin to imagine how chaotic it would’ve been in this confined space when the guns went into action:


The captain’s cabin, ready to entertain fellow officers or a group of dignitaries from shore:


Dining arrangements for the average seaman weren’t quite as genteel.


One of the added bonuses of taking the Water Taxi is getting a close-up look at Constellation‘s starboard side.


The second-coolest vessel in the Historic Ships collection is the WWII submarine USS Torsk, moored alongside the National Aquarium.


A section of the controls.  I’d add more info here, but I have no idea what any of these buttons and levers are for.  I can’t even drive a manual transmission.


On August 14, 1945 two Japanese frigates found themselves at the business end of these torpedo tubes and became the last enemy vessels sunk by the U.S. in WWII.


There’s a lot for history buffs to do in Baltimore, but I’d rate Historic Ships as a must-see if you’re planning a trip to the city.

Within spitting distance of the ships is another treat for Civil War aficionados.  Just across the water from the Constellation is Federal Hill.  In 1789 Baltimoreans gathered here to ring in the Constitution.


By 1861 the city’s attitude toward the national government had soured just a wee bit, so Union troops fortified Federal Hill to keep things in line.

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New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.


What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

Wikimedia Commons

The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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