On October 1st, NPR featured a story on the construction of the “nation’s T. rex,” a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton set to be the crown jewel of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum’s new Fossil Hall, opening in 2019. The dinosaur, somewhat disappointingly nicknamed the “Wankel T.” (after the Montana rancher who discovered in in 1988), will, indeed, stand out among other dinosaur skeletons for some visible—and not-so-visible—reasons. Maybe most obviously, the Wankel T. is being displayed in a “natural” state of carnivory: rather than standing straight up, small arms waving prostrate in the air, the Wankel will be shown bent down, tearing into the flesh of a dead triceratops. Preparators hope that this life-like scene of consumption, though perhaps a bit disturbing to triceratops lovers, will capture the imagination of young visitors while encouraging a sort of “nature in action” form of display. Even more significant to paleontologists, though, is the fact that the Wankel is constructed with mostly real bones.
The hidden secret of paleontological exhibitions in natural history museums, from the Smithsonian to the Field Museum, is that the vast majority of dinosaur skeletons are built out of casts rather than real bones. There are a number of practical reasons for using casts rather than real fossils in displays; first and foremost, of course, is the fact that complete dinosaur bones are incredibly rare. While paleontologists might find hundreds or thousands of fossilized bone fragments in the field, finding a complete skull—or, indeed, a complete femur bone, or complete skeleton—is hard. Since complete (and attractive) bones are so rare, paleontologists tend to make plaster casts for display while preserving the real versions behind closed doors. This isn’t just an issue of children rubbing greasy fingers on rare T. rex bones—even paleontologists oftentimes conduct their research on casts, and scientific illustrators usually work from “fake” specimens that they can pick up, turn over, and study without worrying about say, dropping the fossil.
Taking casts of fossils also allows for sharing in the paleontological community. Although museum specimens—and especially fossil specimens—have, historically, served as incredibly contested objects in nationalist cultural competitions, the paleontological field relies heavily on an open sharing economy in conducting current research. A number of interesting books have been written on “bones of contention”—on how politically, culturally, and scientifically loaded fossils have been throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One need only look to televised debates between paleontologists over famous fossil discoveries to see how contentious skeletons can be. One result of this sort of hyped-up, highly publicized contention over discovery might work towards popularizing paleontology—rendering the field every fifth grade boy’s chosen future profession—but it obscures the actual daily practices of working with dinosaur bones, both in the field and in the museum.
Paleontology, and paleobiology in general, consists largely of working long, dusty, and hot days in designated field sites with massive research teams; of weeding through hundreds of thousands of bone shards; of entering data into computer databases and running digital imaging software. In essence, paleontology is serves as a prime example of “what science really looks like in action”—very few discoveries actually make it into the press, even fewer bones actually yield significant discoveries, and even fewer paleontologists actually gain any public notoriety. This isn’t to downplay how “cool” paleontology is—dinosaurs, no matter what form they come in, are very cool. Rather, the realities of paleontology on a daily basis point to how incredibly significant the Wankel T. is. The paleontologists, preparators, and curators at the Smithsonian who get to work with Wankel, who get to lay their hands on its 230, 67 million year-old, bones, realize how lucky they are.
The process of putting together and arranging Wankel T. for display is similarly strange and incredible. Team members at Research Casting International, a company in Ontario, are working with the fossil skeleton to create custom mounts, armatures, and frames that will hold the bones without damaging them—an effort that will take years, millions of dollars, and a lot of scientific know-how and artistry. Preparators scanned every bone before working with it, and designed several virtual images of the skeleton to get it in exactly the right position before sculpting and designing the mounts. Arranging the specimen digitally was especially necessary in this case not just because the preparators would be working with real bones, but because they had to get the ripping and tearing of the triceratops exactly right. This dramatic dinosaur death scene, the preparators hope, will draw in record numbers of visitors to the new National Fossil Hall when it opens.
Interestingly, like other museum renovations (including the Please Touch Museum, featured in my last blog post), the new Fossil Hall will hearken back to its earlier design. Returning to its 1910 layout (called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters”), the new hall—which is costing the Smithsonian $48 million—will be much more open, presenting apparently life-like scenes that visitors can walk around, rather than hiding them behind glass (whether the painted dioramas will return is unclear). Renovating the hall seems to be a herculean task; every fossil had to be removed, disassembled, and cleaned before being rearranged into new displays. Unlike the early-twentieth century exhibits, though, the new Fossil Hall will supposedly pose climate change-related questions to visitors, encouraging ecosystem thinking in considering how, where, and why the dinosaurs lived and died. The Wankel T., our nation’s T. rex, will make its blood-thirsty debut in 2019, hopefully inspiring children to embark on dusty, database-powered research driven by discovery.