Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science

A review of Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science, by Lukas Benjamin Rieppel.

Lukas Rieppel leads us on a gallivanting romp through turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, in a journey that includes the miners of the Old West and the industrialists of the East Coast. His dissertation draws on a seemingly narrow case study — the uses and roles of dinosaur fossils — to reveal wide-ranging and previously under-recognized connections among science, society, and business in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The primary connection is, he argues, capitalism. As the railroad tycoons and bank barons fought their way to economic power, they drew on the natural resources of the western United States first to support their industries and later to build up their social prestige, by endowing public natural history museums and collections of fossil megafauna in particular. Similarly, independent-minded miners leveraged their knowledge of remote fossil outcrops, digging, and salesmanship to sell their fossil wares to museum curators. Business tactics inspired not only the J.P. Morgans and Andrew Carnegies of the era, but also, Rieppel argues, the frontiersman collectors, museum curators, and scientific researchers. In this engaging and well-written dissertation, Rieppel reassesses the well-documented histories of American natural history museums, fossil hunting, and big business to offer a novel argument for how capitalist management strategies shaped all three and thereby turned dinosaurs into a symbolic “icon of science.”

Rieppel gives the oft-told history of fossil hunting in the American west a new meaning in his first chapter, by framing specimen collection in terms of commoditization. Through the early nineteenth century, naturalists gave fossils to institutions as gifts; they were not viewed as having monetary value. But by the 1870s, fossils were treated like any other natural resource — they were extracted, marketed, and shipped east in exchange for cash from museums and scientific societies, e.g., the Peabody Museum at Yale University and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science. Technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad contributed crucially to the efficiency of this model of exchange. The fossils’ new role as commodities actually led to discoveries, Rieppel argues, because only when these objects had buyers did collectors begin searching in earnest. For example, three new dinosaur quarries were found in 1877 alone. The haggling between buyers and sellers, preserved in written correspondence, is a fascinating window into how the market value of fossils was constructed and negotiated. Buyers particularly valued complete specimens of new species, collected according to careful procedures of documentation and packing. Because fossils were relatively abundant and only a few institutions were willing to pay for them, Rieppel describes it as a buyer’s market. Thus collectors had to shop their goods around as independent contractors, selling fossils in one-off transactions with little loyalty to institutions. Collectors invested their labor in finding and collecting specimens in the hope of selling them east to researchers, who in turn hoped that their sight-unseen purchases would pan out to be complete and epistemologically reliable pieces of extinct organisms. In this risk-based exchange network, cash served to translate fossil goods into scientific knowledge.

The second chapter asks how the establishment of civic museums affected the market for fossil commodities, by tracing the history of attempts and successes at founding a natural history museum in New York in the late nineteenth century. Philanthropy was widespread, as wealthy industrialists strove to “convert some of their considerable economic wealth into social capital” (p. 117) by donating to public causes. Philanthropists and city politicians alike believed that New York would benefit from a prestigious museum in Central Park. Rather than attempting to compete with Europe’s art museums, these groups decided that this museum could excel at natural history and thereby display the distinctly American wilderness. In 1869, thanks to the support of notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall politicians, collaboration between the city government, local bourgeoisie, and eager naturalist Albert Bickmore (1839-1914) successfully founded the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as the country’s first “civic museum” (p. 98). The founding groups’ diverse motivations included public education, scientific progress, and prestige for both the city and the museum’s philanthropic funders. Thus specimens and particularly the crowd-pleasing “dinosaurs became a public good rather than a form of personal property” (p. 95). To preserve the museum’s claim to scientific credibility and effective public education — and thus its donors’ social capital — the AMNH had to clearly distinguish itself from its competitors: the existing commercial venues of “rational recreation” (p. 120) that charged admission to see more-or-less “natural” oddities, such as P.T. Barnum’s (1810-1891) museum of taxidermied specimens alongside bearded women and the “feejee mermaid” (p. 122). The AMNH considered mounted dinosaur skeletons to be a showcase exhibit because they combined the museum’s desired scientific credibility and educational value with the popular spectacle of massive otherworldly animals. This story of competition and defining market niches offers a rich view into nineteenth-century New York politics, economics, and beliefs about education and social status.

Because fossils were marketable natural resources, fossil collecting was not seen as a scientific pursuit worthy of researchers. Instead, it was considered a type of mining carried out by profit-seeking frontiersmen without science training and, crucially, without participation in the traditional and respectable “moral economy of research science” (p. 180). This reviewer’s dissertation analyzes the roles of today’s non-scientist workers in paleontology laboratories, where questions of social status and motivation continue to divide researchers from technicians (Caitlin Wylie, “Invisible Technicians: A Sociology of Scientific Work, Workers, and Specimens in Paleontology Laboratories,” University of Cambridge 2013). Chapter 3 of Lukas Rieppel’s dissertation historicizes these themes by comparing the careers of two famed fossil hunters in the late-nineteenth century, thus illustrating the resulting social differences from conceptions of fossils as commodities and as research objects. William Harlow Reed (1848-1915), a miner and railroad worker in Wyoming, sold fossils piecemeal to several museums for years before being hired as a staff member by the Carnegie Museum in 1899. Reed moved to Pittsburgh and worked in the museum for the winter, but he was fired the following summer. The museum director W.J. Holland (1848-1932) disliked Reed for his brashness, noncompliance, and monetary motivations; basically, Rieppel argues, Reed behaved like a miner and specifically not like a naturalist. In comparison, Charles Hazelius Sternberg (1850-1943) was also a longtime fossil collector and seller — doing ostensibly the same work as Reed — but was respected by museum curators, including Henry F. Osborn (1857-1935) at the AMNH, as a fellow naturalist. Sternberg was interested in natural history, had briefly attended college, and often stated that he worked primarily for acknowledgement in scientific papers rather than for monetary profit: “In contrast to Reed, Sternberg thus clearly styled himself as a humble servant to science, a trustworthy assistant rather than a cunning negotiator” (p. 193). Sternberg appealed to museum workers’ sense of how a naturalist should act, thereby also fitting civic museums’ efforts to distinguish themselves from for-profit “humbug” museums. These efforts thus entailed de-commoditizing fossils: “Civic museums transformed [dinosaurs] into a higher and more rarified cultural good” instead of just a natural resource with a price (p. 195). By opposing the greedy, competitive, capitalist attitude to fossils and to natural history, museum staff made fossils and civic museums better matched to philanthropists’ desire to invest in a public good and thereby improve their social standing.

Chapter 4 explores a seeming contradiction of Rieppel’s argument that civic museums, at the behest of their donors, worked to decommoditize fossils: these museums’ growing similarities to companies. “Around 1900, institutions such as the AMNH evolved into sprawling, multi-unit organizations that were run by a small army of salaried managers, employed sophisticated accounting techniques to keep track of specimens as well as employees, integrated backwards into the acquisition of raw materials, and integrated forwards into mass distribution” (p. 204). Drawing from the histories of management theory and capitalism, Rieppel offers a new interpretation of the practices and goals of civic museums: as imitation corporations to, firstly, show donors the “returns” of their investments in terms that businessmen understood — namely, numbers — and, secondly, to strive for the organizational efficiency celebrated by American industrialists. Accordingly, Rieppel portrays the history of paleontology in terms of the classic concept of “big science,” to trace the development of large teams of workers, government funding, and bureaucracy in paleontology. For example, mid-nineteenth-century paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899) employed big-science-like tactics by hiring many workers:  “His ambition was to set up a streamlined production process that resembled a paleontological factory” (p. 219). Like Marsh, late-nineteenth-century civic museums began to hire their own staff to work as fossil collectors, preparators, and mountmakers, instead of relying on independent contractors. However, Rieppel argues that Marsh’s “factory” produced only a third of his planned monographs because Marsh micromanaged; he refused to delegate decision-making power through an organizational hierarchy, a tactic that proved crucial for the operation of later civic museums. Civic museums built clear internal divisions of labor and power that were modeled after the hierarchical structure of railroad companies and banks, including chains of mainly quantitative progress reports from fieldworkers to curators to directors to trustees. Thus museums borrowed corporate tactics of accounting, hierarchy, vertical and horizontal integration of work, and report-writing in order to impress donors, improve internal operations, and thereby, Rieppel argues, exert control over the diverse and complex work of many employees on many specimens.

These corporate practices served civic museums’ twin purposes of both enabling research and exhibiting natural history to the public. Chapter 5 explores what the exhibits were like, both physically and epistemologically (see also Lukas Rieppel, “Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life: Exhibiting Prehistory at the American Museum of Natural History,” Isis 103, 2012, pp. 460-490). Rieppel suggests that dinosaur mounts are best understood as “mixed media installations,” as “iconic representations of the past” rather than as indexical pieces of nature (p. 253). He draws from Charles Sanders Pierce’s definition of indexical (fact-based) versus iconic (symbolic or similarity-based) representations to argue that fossil mounts had to serve the dual role of appearing indexical despite scientists’ disputed beliefs about anatomy and behavior, and despite mounts’ construction from many non-fossil materials, such as plaster, paint, and metal. Civic museums’ goal of providing both education and entertainment for the public relied on the perception of its mounts as accurate; however, “real” fossils were broken, incomplete, and came from animals naturalists had never seen. Rieppel claims that the AMNH therefore promoted its dinosaurs’ indexicality and downplayed their iconicity, such as by displaying mounts in habitat dioramas and action poses and by painting replica bones to match the fossils.

Lukas Rieppel’s dissertation is a rare success at contributing equally to the fields of history of science, social history, economic history, and material culture. In addition, Rieppel’s conclusion offers his case study as an aid to philosophers’ debate about nominalism versus realism, primarily drawing from Ian Hacking’s work. Despite his claim to leave the philosophy to the philosophers, Rieppel raises classic questions of philosophy and science studies, e.g., what is “real,” how social context shapes how people do science, how scientific ideas shape social beliefs and behaviors, what defines a discovery, and, on a variety of levels, what makes a dinosaur.

Caitlin D. Wylie
Program in Science, Technology and Society
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Primary Sources

Archives of the American Museum of Natural History, New York
Archives of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh
Archives of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge MA
Archives of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 388 pp. Primary Advisor: Janet Browne.


Image: Fossil bones of a Brontosaurus (now synonymized with Apatosaurus) from the American Museum of Natural History, with an Allosaurus predating upon a section of Brontosaurus tail in the background.  The photograph was taken in 1927 and the negative is currently housed in the Research Library, American Museum of Natural History.

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