Back in August, when news broke that billionaire conservative activist David Koch had died, I made a post on social media noting his passing. Not because I agreed with Koch’s politics – which included climate change denial – but because I had just visited the Smithsonian Institution’s newly renovated fossil hall the month before, an exhibit which Koch largely paid for.
Though scores of people flock to natural history museums every year, many just to see their dinosaur halls, most probably don’t think much about who exactly has paid for such exhibits, or what those fossils might mean to their various underwriters. These two questions inform much of paleontological historian Lukas Rieppel’s debut book, Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle (2019, Harvard University Press).
Running close to 340 pages, with numerous black-and-white photos, Rieppel takes readers on a journey through America’s Long Gilded Age (1860s to 1929), a time of economic prosperity and industrial growth that helped contribute to a climate in which the natural sciences — paleontology in particular — were able to thrive, thanks to the philanthropic contributions of some of America’s most successful (and ruthless) businessmen.
Rieppel opens his first chapter against the backdrop of the infamous Bone Wars of paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale), both of whom used their considerable family fortunes to try to outdo one another by finding and classifying more new fossil species first. Like cutthroat businessmen, Cope and Marsh were not above resorting to underhanded means, including espionage and sabotage, to achieve their aims.
The Bone Wars also created the first market for dinosaur fossils in the U.S., transforming the bones of prehistoric monsters into geological commodities akin to gold, silver, coal, steel, and oil. In particular, Rieppel profiles celebrated 19th century fossil dealer William Harlow Reed, who at various times supplied fossils to both Cope and Marsh, angled for the best deals on the bones he was prospecting, and was occasionally swindled by the big city scientists as well.
Eventually, the bones dug up by men like Reed made their way to newly emerging east coast museums, including Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, Chicago’s Field Museum, and New York’s American Museum of Natural History, as detailed in the book’s second, third, and fourth chapters, respectively. These institutions were the pet projects of a number of wealthy industrialists — steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, department-store magnate Marshall Field, and Wall Street banker J.P. Morgan, who managed to have one of his nephews, William Henry Osborn (himself the son of a wealthy railroad family), installed as the museum’s fourth president.
As Rieppel explains, natural history museums were seen as safe philanthropic investments for tycoons because they were both not-for-profit and perceived as altruistic, in that they worked to better educate the poor and working classes. Such pretenses could be deceiving, though, as the education being promoted by natural history museums was not free of its own aims and biases.
Assembling’s fifth and most provocative chapter, “Exhibiting Extinction,” shows that early museum exhibits betrayed a racist and classist agenda, and were used to promulgate ideas like eugenics and white exceptionalism. In a subtle twist on the contentions of previous scholars like W.J.T. Mitchell, who maintained that dinosaur exhibits served as a way for wealthy industrialists to promote Social Darwinism and proprietary capitalism, Rieppel contends that because dinosaurs were seen by early 20th century paleontologists as evolutionary dead ends, their exhibits in major museums were rather used as cautionary tales against such old fashioned dog-eats-dog business models, in favor of the emerging corporate capitalism then taking control of the American marketplace.
The idea that one could control the financial market through excessive bureaucratic oversight and reams of paperwork then melded directly into the ideas of the eugenicists, like Osborn, who believed that the best way to stave off extinction for the (white) human race was to begin micromanaging its reproduction, ideas which would have deadly consequences both at home and abroad.
Following what feels like the book’s natural climax, Assembling the Dinosaur continues for two more chapters, both of which are something of a detour. Chapter six deals with how early natural history museums worked to display fossils in ways meant to convey their authenticity to a skeptical public who were wary of dime-museums, such as those run by hucksters like P.T. Barnum or Albert Koch, who often showcased fake fossils (i.e. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant, Koch’s sea-serpent).
At the same time, natural history museums needed to attract visitors, which meant they also needed to be entertaining. This led to dinosaur fossils being articulated in lifelike poses and accompanied by dramatic paintings executed by pioneering paleoartist Charles R. Knight, as well as pamphlets and placards which helped to explain the science behind the spectacle.
Rieppel concludes his book by jumping from the end of the 1920s to the present day, and looking at how China has come to dominate the global market — both in terms of economics and paleontology — subsuming the position once held by the United States. This has led to rocky relations, with American and Chinese scientists having to learn to work with each other rather than competing. It’s also opened up a new international market for dinosaur fossils, one filled with numerous pitfalls and ethical problems, like the Archaeoraptor hoax which rocked the National Geographic Society in the early 2000s.
Despite the slight discontinuity felt with the last two chapters, overall Assembling the Dinosaur comes highly recommended for anyone interested in the cultural-historical aspects of the study of prehistory, an area that currently appears to be experiencing a boom in new scholarship. As one of these emerging voices, Rieppel is welcomed and I look forward to his next book.