Guest blogger Lukas Rieppel writes...
Everyone seems to be talking about the gigantic new titanosaur that went on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City a couple of weeks ago. For the most part, what’s got everyone so excited is the specimen’s colossal dimensions. It is so big—122 feet in all—that it could not even fit into a single room at the museum, and its head and its neck extend out through the doorway poking fully six feet into the hall:
But even more interesting than its immense size is what most people aren’t talking about: the fact that the museum’s newest star specimen isn’t even a real fossil. The New York Times, for example, only mentions in passing that it’s just a cast. Other news outlets follow a similar script, briefly citing but never dwelling upon its status as a copy or simulacrum of the real thing. Now, just to be clear, I don’t want to accuse anyone of duplicity. There is no reason to think the museum sought to deceive the public by deliberately failing to bring up the question of authenticity. On the contrary, exactly the opposite seems to be going on. Casts are so commonplace in the museum they are barely considered worthy of mention. It’s as though they were completely unremarkable. (The main exception are Christian fundamentalists who are keen to find ammunition for the argument that natural history museums are full of hoaxes and frauds.)
Imagine we were talking about an important sculpture being unveiled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Let’s say it’s a piece of classical statuary, or perhaps a Degas or a Rodin. Here, it would be strange, to say the least, if the museum chose to exhibit a replica instead of the original. Further, I think it’s safe to say that such a decision would be met with ridicule and perhaps even outrage by the art world, not blasé acceptance. Unless we are talking about Warhol’s silkscreens, Duchamp’s readymade sculptures, or Koons’ giant balloon dog, but these works are deliberately designed to interrogate traditional aesthetic hierarchies that classify mechanical reproductions as mass culture rather than fine art.
Clearly, then, different standards of authenticity operate in these two institutional contexts. In fact, the dinosaur that was just put on display at the natural history museum is actually twice removed from the original. According to the Times, the museum hired Peter May from the Canadian firm Research Casting International to fabricate the exhibit. May traveled to Argentina, where the titanosaur was discovered, and made a three-dimensional, digital scan of the specimen. These scans were then used to fabricate molds of each bone, out of which a series of fiberglass casts stuffed with foam and held together using steel bars were made. As Research Casting International explains on its website, this use of digital technology is not only noninvasive and therefore ideal for specimens that are “very delicate or particularly large,” it also has the added benefit that “we can easily reduce, enlarge, mirror-image, ‘correct’ geological distortion, and digitally sculpt missing parts” of the original.
But if the natural history museum is willing to go this far, why not just create vivid and life-sized sculptures that take the extra step of putting some flesh and skin onto the dry dinosaur bones? Or better yet, why not exhibit animatronic displays with lifelike movements and sound effects?
The crucial difference between a cast—including a cast made from a digital scan—and a sculpture (animatronic or otherwise) is that a cast is a mechanical reproduction whereas the production of a sculpture requires an act of the imagination. That is, we can identify a fairly direct causal process linking the cast to the original bone, one that doesn’t rely on human creativity. And although creativity is important, scientists nonetheless value the discovery of facts over the production of imaginative flights of fancy. As the famous paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn put it nearly a century ago, “The best books, written by the best scientific men, soon become out of date, but a fact of nature … will be the same for thousands of years—in truth, for as long as the museum endures.” For that reason, he insisted, “we are scrupulously careful not to present theories or hypotheses, but to present facts” to the visitor.
This preference for facts over theories is familiar enough, and it helps explain why the museum prefers to display mounted skeletons over more overtly imaginative reconstructions. But why exhibit casts alongside original fossils? The reason, I would like to suggest, is that paleontologists value mechanical reproductions over more artistic renderings, trusting the latter to preserve the material facticity of the original specimen. A cast might be materially distinct from the original, it might even differ from it in all sorts of respects, but it does so in ways that still allow it to stand in for what Osborn called 'facts of nature'.
Compare the production of a fossil cast to a portrait. A fossil is a material descendant of the original. Although the frequency with which fossils are scattered and distorted through geological time often makes them extremely misleading, they nonetheless stand in a fairly straightforward causal relationship to a long extinct animal. For a portrait, a much more circuitous causal story is necessary. We might say that light was reflected off the subject and into the artist’s eyes where it was translated into a neurological signal that was then processed by her brain resulting in other signals being sent to her hands, all of which, in the end, caused her to produce a likeness of the subject. The salient difference is that one process involves deliberate human agency whereas the other does not.
My suggestion is that insofar as their execution requires an exercise of consciousness, artistic representations like sculptures or paintings are seen as too subjective to serve as reliable objects of knowledge. The problem is not so much that scientists worry about being actively deceived. Rather, they worry about their hopes, desires, ideas and theories infecting the evidence somehow. Because fossils can come into being without any human involvement at all, they are considered an objective and therefore reliable source of knowledge. That said, of course the act of digging a fossil out of the ground and preparing it for study and for display does involve humans, which is a perennial source of anxiety for paleontologists, and they work hard to develop techniques designed to dampen the epistemically corrosive effects of those interventions.
Casts resemble an original fossil insofar as their production need not directly involve human consciousness. They are a representation that is judged to be free of interpretation. In that regard, they are like photographs: representational artifacts whose epistemic authority derives from our trust in the mechanical reproduction process itself. Of course, photographs can be engineered to deceive. The photographer might choose to crop out a crucial part of the scene, for example. But we nonetheless tend to believe in a photograph much more so than a painting, because what it does show results from a fairly straightforward causal process. The same, I would like to suggest, is true for a cast. It may be one step removed from the original fossil, but to the extent that its production merely involves adding an additional link to the causal chain that connects a museum display to a real, live dinosaur, we value it nearly as much as the original itself.
This marks a stark contrast to the art world, where things could hardly be more different. Here, the status of casts as mechanical reproductions is precisely what gives them so little value. The very same property that makes casts a valuable source of reliable knowledge and therefore fit for a natural history museum’s exhibition hall also make them suspect as authentic art objects that are out of place in a respectable gallery. Depending on the institutional context in which it resides, the cast’s status as a mechanical reproduction has radically different consequences.
But this was not always so. Right up to the end of the 19th century, art museums were chock-full of casts. Indeed, in the United States, the vast majority of museums primarily saw themselves as educational institutions tasked with cultivating the rudimentary aesthetic senses of ordinary Americans by exhibiting copies of well-known and highly regarded masterpieces from abroad. It was only quite recently, around the turn of the 20th century, that most art museums began to remove casts from their public galleries. In the United States, a penchant for ostentatious displays of public munificence among wealthy capitalists resulted in a flood of European artworks donated to American museums. As this happened, originality came to be prized above all else. At the same time, a new set of aesthetic ideals took hold, ones that celebrated the artist’s innate genius as it was manifested in spontaneous flashes of insight, inspiration, and imagination. This way of thinking also stressed the importance of forging a deeply personal and emotional, unmediated connection to artworks on the part of the viewer.
Together, these developments gave rise to a new conception of the value of art, one that was anathema to the exhibition of casts and other kinds of mechanical reproductions. In 1904, for example, the Assistant Director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts argued “the one thing” that could be said about “every cast, which might indeed be inscribed under each in a museum, is THE ORIGINAL DOES NOT LOOK LIKE THIS.” Dismissing casts as “the Pianola of the Arts," he wrote that “The exhibition halls of our Museum have the same right to be free of mechanical sculpture as the programmes of the Symphony Concerts, which set the standard of musical tastes in Boston, have of exemption from mechanical music.” As a result, the first third of the 20th century saw most American art museums relegate their plaster casts to the basement, place them in storage, or else, destroy them outright.
Not so at the natural history museum, though, because these institutions prized truth and reliability over originality, inspiration, and spontaneity. Thus, while the art world almost universally came to embrace what Walter Benjamin would eventually describe as the “aura” of authenticity, natural history museums continued to exhibit casts and copies of various kinds throughout their galleries. Seen in this light, the New York museum’s newest dinosaur display hardly constitutes a fake and a fraud. It’s something far more interesting than that: an emblem of the radically different standards of authenticity that developed in science and art around the turn of the last century.
When he's not moonlighting as a triceratops wrangler, Lukas Rieppel teaches the history of science, the history of capitalism, and American history at Brown University. He is currently working on a book about what the history of dinosaur paleontology can tell us about the culture of capitalism in the United States, tentatively entitled "Assembling the Dinosaur: Science, Museums, and American Capitalism." In addition, he has written several essays and book chapters about the history of museums, the history of the life sciences, and the intersection between media studies and paleontological practice.
The central ideas for this piece are drawn from two recent publications:
Rieppel, Lukas. “Plaster Cast Publishing in 19th Century Paleontology.” History of Science 53, no. 3 (2015).
Rieppel, Lukas. “Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life: Exhibiting Prehistory at the American Museum of Natural History.” Isis 103, no. 3 (2012): 460–90.
For more on the history of “mechanical objectivity,” see
Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2007.
And, finally, for more on the fate of plaster casts in American art museums, see
Wallach, Alan. “The American Cast Museum: An Episode in the History of the Institutional Definition of Art.” In Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States. UMass Press, 1998.