The Work of Fossils in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

27 July 2010

An experiment:

Grab your reconstructed resin cast Deinonychus skull, (retails from the Bone Room – $289.00 US).

Grab one (1) “real” fossil you have lying around, I like to use a rugose coral but you can use whatever is handy a brachiopod, a crinoid columnal whatever.

Lay them out on a table.

Borrow, rent, whatever, a nine-year-old.

Ask her, “Which is cooler? The ‘real’ fossil, or the artistically/scientifically reconstructed replica?”

Kids these days.  Am I right?

Chris Norris links and retorts a recent article by Thomas Benton published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, dripping with Benjamin and nostalgia, that decries the descent of the holy reliquary of the natural history museum dinosaur hall into profane airport lobby infotainment center.

On some level, I’m sympathetic to the, erhm, aura of Benton’s argument.  I have witnessed the instant decay of fascination into disregard when a child casts aside the awesome lower jaw of Dunkleosteus when I admit that though 100% authentic, the torture device they hold is not an original, not “real” as they say.  It is plastic, not apatite.

The FAIL comes—a bit strangely from one who reads (fairly in my opinion) the fossil as sacred relic—in Benton’s telling of the history of the natural history museum:

Natural-history museums like the academy emerged to provide exhibits that were reliably authentic and that could instruct the public and build the credibility of science in a period, like our own, in which pseudoscience had a strong hold on the general imagination.

True enough, natural history museums are temples of genuine scientific discourse, but that cultish practice that takes place largely behind the scenes.

At the front of the house, exhibits have not progressed nearly as far from their wunderkammern roots as many would like to believe.  By and large natural history museums continue to be a place that people go to see cool stuff.  Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum transformed the aristocratic showroom into a public spectacle and opened a new conduit between the masses and the scientific priestly caste that wound up being a critical element of democratic society.  It is easy, and naive, to imagine that the power dynamic flows steadily from the learned to the learning.

A museum is a place that people go to see cool stuff.

This holds for scientists and museum professionals just as much as it does for the family and the couple on a date.

Aside perhaps from the various “creation museums” scattered around the country, people do not go to museums to receive established wisdom, though it is a fair hope to for scientists to make the most of the captive audience.  But remember, visitors glance at, but don’t read, signs.

Coolness, of course, is a relative concept.  A wall of Dire Wolf skulls at the Page Museum is to me the coolest display imaginable.  Each of these, once, living, breathing dogs, long since dead in the tar.  Others, understandably say “meh.”

The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation. The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator. Yet some people have launched spirited attacks against precisely this superficial aspect. Among these, Duhamel has expressed himself in the most radical manner. What he objects to most is the kind of participation which the movie elicits from the masses. Duhamel calls the movie “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator. That is a commonplace.

Far more, it seemed to me, were interested in this:

3 Responses to “The Work of Fossils in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

  1. Jessica Says:

    I thought the wall of Dire Wolf skulls was gratuitous.

  2. Nick Gardner Says:

    Was there any reason in particular that you felt that the wall of Dire Wolf skulls is gratuitous?

  3. Mike Keesey Says:

    I think the wall of dire wolf skulls is the best exhibit at the Page museum. The sheer vastness is breathtaking.

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