Articulating Dinosaurs

Brian Noble is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University. One area of Noble’s research is the anthropology of science, techniques and expertise. Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology (University of Toronto Press, 2016) explores how scientific knowledge and public practices intersect to articulate dinosaur natures.

Noble begins by explaining that dinosaurs and their Mesozoic natures have always been in flux as new discoveries are made, new fictions are created, and both public and scientific attitudes evolve over time. Public knowledge of dinosaurs as once-living animals is informed both by paleontological discovery and mediated experiences — art, movies, books, web-based media, educational curricula, exhibitions, fictional texts, advertising, toys — and these interactions between science and media are historically rooted. Noble calls this intersection and tension between scientific ways of knowing and public exhibition the “specimen-spectacle divide.” Noble situates his research in contrast to the W. J. T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (University of Chicago Press, 1998).1 Noble explains that the key criticism of The Last Dinosaur Book from paleontologists is that Mitchell approaches dinosaurs only as culturally represented icons, not as once-living animals. Noble quotes paleontologist David Fastovsky, “The influence of dinosaurs and social climate has been well documented … its converse – the effect of culture on dinosaur paleontology – has not been thoroughly investigated.”

From there, the book is divided into two parts. Noble explores the performativity of paleontology through two case studies: the public display of a mounted Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton led by Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in the early 20th Century, and the creation of an interactive exhibit showcasing a Maiasaura specimen at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in the 1990s. Both of these scientific displays were developed when new popular dinosaur fictions were exciting the public imagination. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel The Lost World was published in 1912, just four years after the AMNH T. rex specimen was discovered in Montana, but before the public mount at the museum was completed in 1915. Similarly, The Maiasaura exhibit opened in 1995, just two years after the release of the blockbuster Jurassic Park. Noble asserts that new fictional and factual representations of prehistoric life are found in natural history museum displays “in the palaeontological elaboration of the Mesozoic, and in popular literature, all of which refracted and rebounded off each other” (p. 51).

Noble goes into detail exploring how each of the two case studies illustrates the performativity of paleobiological science. The Tyrannosaurus rex is of course the most iconic of dinosaurs; even today, with the discovery of much larger predatory dinosaurs, T. rex maintains his status as the Tyrant King of Dinosaurs. This image of T. rex as a ferocious, bloodthirsty hunter is no accident, and can be traced to Osborn’s conception in the early 20th Century. There is a distinctly masculine, imperialist ethos behind both Osborn’s and Doyle’s characterization of the adventurous expeditionary (white, male) scientist.2 And this plays directly into both “performative reconstructions of the greatest carnivorous dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus, Megalosaurus, and Allosaurus displayed vigor, the ability to conquer, to achieve a kind of imperial presence in their times and spaces. They could be and were rendered as the ultimate foes to humanity” (p. 101).

The Maiasaura exhibit at the ROM is an interesting contrast to the T. rex. The Maiasaura, or Good Mother Lizard, is also distinctly gendered, but in a feminine, caretaker role. By the mid-1990s, the imagery of the savage beast T. rex and other meat-eating dinosaurs was still dominant in public perceptions of dinosaurs. This can be seen played out — and reinforced — in Jurassic Park. Museum curators and other staff at the ROM were concerned that the herbivorous Maiasaura would be “boring.” The Maiasaura began to be described and conceptualized as “cute” and “friendly,” and gendered as female and a mother. The exhibit itself featured real technicians working on the specimen and a variety of multimedia and interactive components. Noble points out that Jurassic Park presented the island theme park with “plexiglass-enclosed laboratories, computer interactive displays, mounted skeletons, excited children, theatrical presentation spaces — blend of high-tech amusement park entertainment and technoscientific action” and notably, the ROM exhibit presented an experience just short of that in Jurassic Park “but also more in that there was a real specimen, real working technicians, not just cinematic representations” (p. 208). In creating and promoting the Maiasaura exhibit, there was heavy emphasis on the interactive and multimedia elements of the exhibit, “the attention cleaves to the act of mediation, in the most McLuhanistic sense,” the act of mediation itself became part of the attraction (p. 216).

  1. To be covered here in a future post.
  2. Also noted by Dr. Chris Manias in a <a href="http://www.palaeocast.com/the-history-of-palaeontological-outreach/">Palaeocast</a> interview, discussed <a href="https://portfolio.newschool.edu/dinosaurfeather/2019/05/31/palaeocast/">here</a>.