The American Museum of Natural History has made available for download historical photographs of its permanent and temporary exhibits. There are photographs of the museum's dinosaur displays and many more of its famous dioramas. All are in black & white.
Perhaps the most interesting from the catalog are the ones showing the museum staff preparing those exhibits. You see in those photographs landscape facsimiles in various stages of recreation; creatures undressed or nearly dressed; ethology imprinted on a three-dimensional canvas; and exterior habitats crammed into architectural spaces.
So marvelous are these bunch that we are going to post a lot of them.
Meanwhile, we have to mention at this point a very early episode of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, titled Simulated Worlds. In the second act — just after we meet some Civil War reenactors who don't wear underwear and also after we get a tour of a wax museum and a fake coal mine but before we hear about host Ira Glass's visit with an actual medieval scholar to a Medieval Times dinner theater in suburban Chicago — writer Jack Hitt gives us a short history of dinosaur displays.
According to Hitt, dinosaur displays are not entirely the product of accumulated scientific data, of empirical truth. They are cultural artifacts, our “national psychic erector sets which we've put together in different ways depending on our mood.”
During the first decades of the 20th century, the AMNH posed its T. rex bones in an upright position, propped on its tail. Skeletons were broken, some bent and others removed altogether so that it looked like the “marauding predator” people thought they were. And also so that it didn't look too diminutive in the large exhibition hall. Natural history as a function of architecture: it had to reach high up to the ceiling, fill up all that space, loom large over the crowds. This was, after all, the time of P.T. Barnum, “when you put up your most fantastic stuff in your museum or your circus” in order to attract more people than your competitors.
This was also the time of America's ascendancy. Transcribing Jack Hitt:
These creatures had slept forever and now they were upright for the first time in a hundred million years. What had put them up on their feet literally was the wrought iron strength of Pittsburgh steel, the American industrial revolution. But the exact dates are also timely. The brontosaurus went up in 1906 and the T. rex in 1912, just before World War I, when the slumbering giant of America awoke. To the Europeans we were still a friendly, dumb rube of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but we were about to prove ourselves as international warriors. The crowds that flooded through New York's museum saw two images: the affable but dimmed brontosaurus, and across the aisle, the berserk rage of T. rex. Friendly until agitated, then fury, which is how the world came to see us: an amiable, joshing hick who, if provoked, will kick your ass.
A few decades later, after World War II, dinosaurs were presented in more animated positions, sometimes in “outrageous poses.” They were “jimmied into action poses, locked into face to face combat like two upright grizzly bears or [?] ready to assault. This was the 50s dinosaur, the dinosaur of kitsch. They were no longer held up together by steel but animated by plastic, the essence of America at the time, a substance and a future entirely of our own making.”
In the 80s, dinosaurs gained a new persona. “No longer was the dinosaur a slow, dimmed monster. Now he was a slick, swift, calculating hunter: the Velociraptor. A 6-foot tall predatory entrepeneur, who learned and adopted quickly. He was the perfect dinosaur for global capitalism, who'd eventually starred in a bestselling book and movie, Jurrassic Park.”
As for the 90s, the decade had the eco-saur. Jack Hitt here describes a dinosaur exhibition at the AMNH, then new when this episode first aired in 1996:
We see dinosaur eggs and baby dinosaurs. The ambience is largely about parenting. The scene is more ecological and holistic. We are meant to see these animals as part of the natural ecosystem of their time. Eggs, babies, parents, death, bones. This is a story about the the cycles of life. A warmer tale, a greener tale. This is a story of dinosaurs not as George Patton would see them but as Al Gore would: emblems of a proper view of the environment. The eco-saur, who's seen the light of family values and the beauty of biodiversity.
In an era when the role of America is uncertain, when solutions to many of its problems are unclear, our nation's dinosaur exhibits speak directly to our time in bright yellow stickers attached directly to the display cases. That message: we just don't know.
And like the dinosaurs dying out, that's “probably not a bad thing.”
In any case, more photos! Including this seemingly contemporary snapshot of a bear confronting its own simulation, predating both Jean Baudrillard and Damien Hirst by decades.
Would we have to reassess the history of Abstract Expressionism if we were to discover that this taxidermist was Robert Rauschenberg's lover and that the artist's found objects were not appropriated from the streets and trash heaps of New York City but were actually pilfered from the museum's workrooms during their nighttime trysts?
And the rest.