Friday, November 26, 2010

The Very Real, Multidimensional Hadrosaurus foulkii ~ Convoluted History and Rejoinder to a Critic of Natural History Museums

At some point in the 1870s or possibly the very early 1880s, photographer James F. Jarvis set up his camera and array of equipment at the Smithsonian Castle and took photographs of the institution’s mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous period (about 146 to 66 million years ago).  From the glass negatives he prepared at the Smithsonian, Jarvis produced a stereoview or stereograph featuring the Hadrosaurus.  (Stereoviews or stereographs – cards whose dual mounted photographs generate a 3-D image when viewed through a stereoscope – have been considered previously on this blog.)

I recently added a copy of this stereoview to my collection.  The full face of this stereoview and a closeup of one of the two pictures are shown below.  The Hadrosaurus is prominent in the foreground, facing into the picture.  In front of it is a large Himmalayan tortoise shell from the Miocene epoch (about 23 to 5 million years ago), and in front of the tortoise is the restoration of an Irish elk, the Pleistocene epoch giant deer that went extinct some 11,000 years ago.

Jarvis was well known for the manufacture of stereoviews of Washington, D.C., and various series of stereoviews from government explorations of the western U.S..  For a period, he ranked among the country’s major producers of this popular photographic medium.

Originally, I thought it would be relatively easy to compose a posting on the subject of this specific stereoview.  Clearly, I had no clue about the richly convoluted the history of this mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus.  Nor did I recognize that these photographs speak to a contemporary debate about the display of “fake” skeletons by natural history museums.  (Some of the sources I consulted are identified in the text; most are included in the discussion of sources at the end.)

Initially, though, I wanted to place a date on the stereoview, well, actually, the taking of the negative.  The Smithsonian has produced a fascinating webpage on stereoviews of the institution.  According to the information appearing there, beginning in 1874, the Hadrosaurus skeleton was on display in the Main Hall of the Smithsonian Building, a structure usually referred to as the Castle.  Then, in 1882, along with other skeletons and specimens, the Hadrosaurus was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum building.  This Jarvis stereoview shows the Castle’s Lower Main Hall looking east, which means it had to have been taken between 1874 and 1882.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t really narrow it down very much.

What was the source of the skeleton?  The fossilized bones of  a giant creature had been discovered in 1858 in Haddonfield, New Jersey, by Philadelphia lawyer and fossil hunter William Parker Foulke.  Foulke called in Joseph Leidy, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, who identified them as coming from a dinosaur, a term that had been coined by English paleontologist and biologist Richard Owen in the early 1840s.  This was the most complete dinosaur skeleton that had ever been found anywhere.  Leidy named the dinosaur Hadrosaurus foulkii (the genus name means “bulky lizard” and the species name recognizes Foulke).

A decade later, the English anatomist, scientific illustrator, and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins came on the scene, having traveled to the U.S. to create a dinosaur display for a new museum in New York City.  After consulting Leidy about the New York display, he undertook the task of mounting the Hadrosaurus skeleton for the Academy of Natural Sciences.  With assistance from Leidy and one of Leidy’s students, Edward Drinker Cope, Hawkins created a mounted dinosaur skeleton using plaster casts of the bones at hand and plaster reconstructions, based on educated guesses, of those that were missing.  This was the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever produced and, as we all know, this kind of display was destined to become a staple of natural history museums worldwide.

The skeleton went on display at the Academy in late 1868, attracting throngs of visitors, so many that officials of the Academy took steps to reduce the number of visitors, curtailing the days it was open to the public and charging admission.  The success of the display apparently was not lost on other institutions that then sought to obtain their own copies; Hawkins produced several.  According to Richard C. Ryder, the Smithsonian received a copy sometime between March 1874 and mid 1875.

After being displayed in the Smithsonian Castle, the Smithsonian’s Hadrosaurus was moved in 1882 to the National Museum building where it remained until perhaps 1893 or 1894.  Ryder says that it was then sent to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, “only to be discarded when the museum moved to new quarters a decade later.”

Breathtakingly innovative for its time, Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus skeletons got some things right, and missed the boat on some others.  For instance, the posing of the Hadrosaurus in an upright, bipedal position reflected Leidy’s accurate understanding of the dinosaur.  But, the three-pronged supporting position of the hind legs and the tail, giving the creature a kangaroo-like appearance, was ultimately disproven by subsequent research.  The drawing below depicts current understanding of the positioning and use of the tail (the picture comes from the New Jersey Geological Survey).  The Academy’s clutch of Hadrosaurus bones lacked a skull, so Hawkins made one based on the head of an iguana lizard, a creative though erroneous solution to the problem.

One passing comment on Leidy’s student, Edward Drinker Cope.  Cope became one of the country’s foremost paleontologists and engaged in the famous no-holds-barred competition against Othniel Charles Marsh to find dinosaur fossils – the so-called Bone Wars.  This conflict had a Hadrosaurus connection.  Before the battle royal began, the two men spent what paleontologist Michael Novacek describes as “a friendly week together poking around Leidy’s old Haddonfield quarry for hadrosaur bones.”  Hoag Levins, in an article on his great website Finding the World’s First Dinosaur Skeleton:  Hadrosaurus foulkii, asserts that the Cope-Marsh conflict had its roots in this friendly time together.  Cope generously introduced Marsh to the managers of different pits from which dinosaur bones were being collected.  The falling out occurred when Cope learned that, shortly after they left the area, Marsh returned alone, money in hand, to bribe the managers to send him bones and word of what they had found.

Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus skeleton also has some bearing on a debate of sorts that involves natural history museums today.  Earlier this year, “Thomas H. Benton” (the pen name of William Pannapacker), a professor of English at Hope College, published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Getting Real at Natural-History Museums (July 1, 2010) in which he takes these museums to task for succumbing to the entertainment bug and for mounting displays that contain “fakes.”  Venturing into the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia with his daughter in search of the real dinosaur skeletons he remembered from his youth, he was dismayed to discover only replicas.  He asserts

Natural-history museums like the [Academy of Natural Sciences] emerged to provide exhibits that were reliably authentic and that could instruct the public and build the credibility of science in a period, like our own, in which pseudoscience had a strong hold on the general imagination.  Of course, the replicas in natural-history museums, unlike [P.T.] Barnum’s humbugs, present authentic science, but, over the last few generation, museums have become more willing to use substitutes in place of real artifacts.  It seemed like a good idea at the time. . . .

You could say that a fake skeleton educates as well as a real one, and it surely looks as good for publicity purposes.  But one of the fundamental attractions of natural-history museums – and museums in general – is the aura of authenticity and the power they have to inspire the imagination, particularly for children, in an era that is increasingly characterized by the virtual and the simulated.  That was not true when fossil replicas were first introduced – the changes were made with the best of intentions – but it is surely the case now.

Frankly, I am always suspicious of people who argue that there was once a “golden age” and that we’ve lost our way.  Too often that “golden age” proves to have been a mirage, the reality being nothing like what was remembered.  Clearly, that's the case in this instance.

A wonderful response to “Benton” was penned by Chris, a museum curator, on his blog Prerogative of Harlots (July 26, 2010).  He observes, “When Benton refers to fakes, he’s actually taking about casts – specifically the cast dinosaur skeletons that many museums exhibit in their galleries.”  Why do they do that?  For one thing, there are very few complete fossil skeletons.  Most are exceedingly incomplete.  So even a skeleton of an individual specimen that includes real bones will include many replicas of bone.  Chris points out that the dinosaur “Benton” remembers from his youth at the Academy was a composite, not the “real” thing.  Chris describes the precision behind the creation of casts, a process producing something that is

as close to the fossil as it’s possible to get without actually owning it.  Casts are heavily used in paleontology because of the scarcity of fossil specimens – they are exchanged between museums and sent out on loan to researchers.  We assign them catalog numbers and treat them in the same way as we would treat any museum specimen.

He argues, persuasively in my mind, that the answer to the question “Is it real?” when standing before a dinosaur skeleton cast is

Absolutely, in the sense that there was once an animal that looked like this, we have the bones to prove it, and this exhibit specimen could not have been made without those bones.

Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus foulkii itself constitutes another strong response to “Benton.”  From the very outset of museums displaying mounted dinosaur skeletons, they were real only in the sense that Chris described, not in the way “Benton” misremembered from his childhood and before.  Then and now, they draw crowds and inspire the imagination, regardless of whether this or that bone is rock or a cast.

One final small note, Hawkins is tied to the Hadrosaurus stereoview in another way; it’s his restoration of an Irish elk appearing in the background.


The Academy of Natural Science has some useful information on its website for the exhibit about Hadrosaurus foulkii that it mounted in 2009.

Richard C. Ryder wrote a very interesting piece on dinosaurs in stereoviews entitled Dinosaurs Through the Stereoscope, Stereoworld, March/April 1985.

For a great exploration of Hawkins’ work, including the process for creating the mounted Hadrosaurus skeleton, see The Art of Bones:  Nineteenth-century Artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Still Influences How Prehistoric Life is Represented Today, by Robert McCracken Peck, Natural History, December 2008 – January 2009.  This article was adapted from the book All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck.

Among good sources of background on Hadrosaurus is When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey by William B. Gallagher, 1997.

The Cope-Marsh competition is described in many sources.  Time Traveler:  In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals From Montana to Mongolia  by Michael Novacek (2002) includes a brief, concise overview of the Bone Wars.


  1. Thank you for noticing one of my columns on natural history. There is a "Part II" for that column that you might like better.

    I agree that the first one I wrote in 2006 has some errors of fact, but it reflects some instincts that I stand by.

    Essentially, my position is that museums have been facing financial stress, and, in response, they have tried to attract more people by using strategies that almost cross the line into theme-park culture.

    One sign of that is the escalating expectation for spectacular specimens, which only exist as replicas. That trend crowds out the smaller scale exhibits based on "real," albeit less spectacular artifacts.

    "Real" doesn't always mean not-replicated; it can mean something that has a significant connection to the history of place: a replica can become "real," given enough time and collective memory.

    My initial reaction was prompted by the wholesale replacement of a public space that had acquired that sense of the "real" with replicas that had no connection to the place. They seem designed as photo-ops and were based on Jurassic Park.

    Fortunately, the "fakes" are now slated for removal at the Academy of Natural Sciences, once enough money is raised. Then they can replace them with some of the smaller-scale, historically significant relics currently in storage.

    W. Pannapacker

  2. Thank you for your comment. The debate sparked by your columns of 2010 is a healthy one. (I have not read your 2006 piece.) In this posting, I was reacting to the first column you wrote on natural history museums in 2010 which I view as primarily a critique of what you perceive as the wholesale displacement of “real” displays by “fake” displays. I still disagree with that critique for the reasons laid out in this posting. Thanks for steering me to your "Part 2" column (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2010). It has, I think, a different focus or emphasis. Perhaps it strikes a different balance in your overall argument. Nevertheless, I do find myself mostly in agreement with your argument against museums mounting spectacular, crowd-pleasing displays that are divorced from, and at the expense of, the particular attributes or history of the institution. I understand their impulse for doing so, but don’t think these displays reflect the virtues of these museums. That said, I still strongly disagree with a theme that I feel runs through both columns which equates replicas or casts with fakes. The reference to P.T. Barnum doesn't help.

    If you've visited the fascinating Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia, I wonder what you think of its strict adherence in its displays to authenticity and the institution's history. It's certainly bound to its roots, perhaps too much so.

  3. I think we will find nearly complete agreement once we get past the use of a word such as "fake," which I agree is contestable—provocative, really, because I am writing for a general audience and need to get a reaction. I would gladly withdraw the word in the context of a more nuanced discussion with museum professionals.

    I have visited the Wagner Free Institute several times. I appreciate the way it preserves the history of natural history. I would not say that it should be a model for other museums with different missions, but I hope it will be preserved. As long as we are talking about Philadelphia museums, I particularly like the way Gretchen Worden managed the revival of the Mutter Museum (a mix of science, history, aesthetics, and showbiz), and I admire the recent efforts of Barbara Ceiga at the Academy (see the lobby and the vestibule and the temporary exhibitions on the Hadrosaurus and on Jefferson’s fossils).

    You might also find some interest in my review of Richard Fortey’s _Dry Storeroom No. 1_. There's some resonance between what has happened to museums in the last few generations and what has happened to higher education, a topic on which I've written more extensively.


    W. Pannapacker

  4. Yes, "fake" does provoke. I agree that, in the final analysis, we may not be all that far apart. I just read your review of Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1 (Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 12, 2008) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some great recommendations in it. Thanks again. Tony

  5. FYI: I recently purchased this same Jarvis stereoview and penciled on the back is the faded date Oct. 1st, 1876. If the date is accurate (and I think it is) that would place the time of Jarvis taking the photo at sometime before that.

    1. The date you suggest certainly is plausible. It would mean that Jarvis took these stereoview photographs very shortly after this cast was acquired by the Smithsonian which makes sense. Thanks, Tony


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