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Defying conventional wisdom, Mary Schweitzer works to transform dinosaur paleontology into a molecular science. The team has been searching under the high summer sun without success for the fossil-rich strata that braid through the arid rangeland here. Then, toward sundown, the aging Chevy Suburban in which she and four colleagues are riding erupts in a brief, poltergeist-like spectacle—with door locks jumping up and down and multiple dashboard warning lights flashing simultaneously.

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Dinosaur bones on display at the American Museum of Natural History always balanced conveying objective truth with promoting science to the public.

But, as historian Lukas Rieppel writes, the iconic dinosaur exhibit has always balanced conveying objective truth with promoting science to the public. But, Rieppel writes, the most objective display of fragmented fossilized bones would be terribly boring.

Dinosaur shocker

So when the museum created its Hall of Dinosaurs in the early twentieth century, large teams of scientists and technicians tried their best to reconstruct whole skeletons. Since almost all unearthed dinosaur fossils were incomplete, that meant replacing missing bones with plaster of Paris copies, and mixing and matching pieces of different specimens, taking their best guess at exactly how different fossils fit together and how the creatures would have stood.

At the center of the hall was the foot long, foot high Brontosaurus, a display Osborn hoped would be a hit with the public. To help make that happen, the museum undertook a major publicity campaign.


When the display opened, it invited around special guests, including the mayor and major business leaders, to get a first look. Women served tea beneath the skeleton. Privacy Policy You may unsubscribe at any time by clicking on the provided link on any marketing message.

A New York Times story conveyed the public appeal of the exhibit while raising questions about its scientific merit. The museum took steps to show scientifically-minded visitors how it had reconstructed the skeletons without spoiling the illusion for everyone else.

For example, Rieppel writes, it seems to have tried to distinguish plaster bones from real fossils with subtle visual clues that would only be obvious to a close observer. Some scientists objected strenuously.

The controversy around the first museum dinosaurs

Scientific truth, of course, is an ever-evolving process. The challenge for museums, and anyone serving science to the public, is conveying that gradual process, while still getting anyone to pay attention.

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A paleontologist assembles dinosaur bones for the American Museum of Natural History, By: Livia Gershon. August 16, August 16, Share Tweet Print. Want more stories like this one?

Have a correction or comment about this article? Please. On the Restoration of Skeletons of Fossil Vertebrates.

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