When the new Berlin Aquarium opened on 18 August 1913, it had an important task to fulfill: emphasizing that the Berlin Zoo, of which it was part, was still a force to be reckoned with among zoological gardens—both as a public attraction and a scientific institution. Rather surprisingly, none of its fish, amphibian, and reptilian denizens could be seen on the outside of the aquarium building. Instead, both the side facing the zoo and the one facing the street showed depictions of prehistoric life—in mosaics, reliefs, and sculpture. On the zoo side, a colossal statue of the dinosaur Iguanodon formed an impressive entrance piece. These images served two goals: to exploit the public’s fascination with prehistoric life and also to connect such fascination with the science of past life.
Note: this post remains a work in progress as I work on the other chapters. Feel free to comment directly, or get in touch via e-mail if you feel it could be improved.
Many who arrive in Berlin will do so by train. Thanks to Germany’s excellent railroad infrastructure, the journey is usually comfortable and quick, and drops you off right in the centre of the German capital. Granted, Hauptbahnhof is rather cramped for the amount of traffic it receives and it’s not fully hooked up to the subway station yet (a situation which is going to change quickly), but it takes only minimal effort to get wherever you need to go – even if that destination lies outside of the city. Continue reading The Lost Termini of Berlin, Part 1. A City to Arrive in
Paleontological art, or paleoart, is experiencing a veritable renaissance. Before the pandemic brought public events to a halt, the European mainland was set to witness no fewer than three exhibitions centered on this genre within the span of a year. (Image: Mark Witton)
Sometimes it is made out that “alternative” facts are a new, or at least phenomenon, but anyone enversed in the history of science can probably easily rattle off a few well-chosen examples. Sometimes, however, the division between what is “real” and “imagined” isn’t quite so clear, as the history of the search for living dinosaurs reveals.This piece was originally part of my PhD dissertation but didn’t make it to my book American Dinosaur Abroad. A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus (University of Pittsburgh … Continue reading
A World Lost?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) is a strange but highly successful amalgam of adventure story and science novel, and probably his best-known work outside of the Sherlock Holmes canon. It has given rise to numerous film adaptations, including the one of the first appearances of ‘living’ dinosaurs on celluloid in 1925.
Doyle was likely inspired to write the novel after having spoken at a lunch at the Royal Society in 1910, in the presence of Robert Peary, who had just returned from his quest to discover the North Pole. In his talk, Doyle contemplated, in the light of the activities of Peary and others, whether there was any unknown part of the world left for writers of adventure stories to draw their inspiration from. Coupled with Doyle’s admiration for adventurists and his interest in paleontology, The Lost World was his answer to this question.Miller, Russell. 2008. The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle. A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 301f.
This year, we on the European mainland will see no less than three exhibitions dedicated to paleoart, the imagination of extinct animals and worlds through art: in Munich, Haarlem and CoburgOriginally set to open on May 17th, but postphoned until February 6th due to the COVID-19 crisis. This takes place against a background of paradigmatic shifts going on in our ideas about how to reconstruct the life of the past, coupled to All Yesterdays, a book published in 2012 by Darren Naish, John Conway and C.M. Kosemen. However, the background of this movement is much more diverse than this and I may write about it in the future, so let’s concentrate on the exhibitions for now.
The first 6 months of 1905 saw two prominent, celebrity-studded, and copiously publicized unveilings of full-size dinosaur exhibits. In February, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York unveiled its Brontosaurus mount; in April, Andrew Carnegie’s donation of a cast of Diplodocus carnegii (his “namesake,” as he liked to call it) was presented to the British Museum in London. As Lukas Rieppel explains in his book, Assembling the Dinosaur, neither the timing, nor the place, nor the form of these events rested on coincidence.
Last week, I spent some time in the truly amazing Vienna Natural History Museum – more about that later. Tucked away in a staircase between the second and third floors is a small exhibit about the history of the museum that devotes a lot of space to the early history of the collection (and virtually none to those seven years after 1938 the Viennese would rather forget about). In one of these cases I found the little statue you see to the right, a plaster concoction from a Dr. Friedrich König (which may have been this guy, although I rather doubt it). Continue reading The Mystery of Friedrich König’s Plaster Dinosaurs
As some of you will know, I spent the last six years working on my PhD thesis about the cultural, scientific, and political influence of Andrew Carnegie’s casts of the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii (and one Diplodocus longus that Carnegie had nothing to do with) in the first decades of the twentieth century. I shall defend my thesis on Thursday, May 11th (yes, that’s next week). There are plans in motion to publish the book next year. If you’d like to be kept informed about those plans and the book, please leave your e-mail address here.
What is it about, this book? Well, to answer that all-too-obvious question I shall give a summary below.
Museums present their cultural treasures as tangible proof of historical events; robust sources of scientific knowledge and transparent cultural images for the public to identify with. Natural history museums show their fossil relics as incomplete but uncomplicated witnesses of life’s past. Continue reading The Colossal Stranger
(This is a repost of a short piece I wrote for the Shells and Pebbles blog a while ago, but I thought it would not be out of place here and have adapted the text somewhat. In addition, it gives me the opportunity to show off Heilmann’s whole Iguanodon picture, above).
The Danish artist-cum-scientist Gerhard Heilmann, who became famous for his book The Origin of Birds, published a little-known, short piece about Iguanodon a few years later, in an issue of Othenio Abel’s journal Palaeobiologica, dedicated to the Belgian paleontologist Louis Dollo. In many ways, this Iguanodon is much more ‘old-fashioned’ than his dynamic restorations in The Origin of Birds. First, it is positioned much more vertically. Although its tail doesn’t rest on the ground in the way that, for example, Charles Knight reconstructed his bipedal dinosaurs, it is still an altogether more stodgy-looking affair. This is further enhanced by the fact that the animal now looks very iguana- (and therefore reptile-) like.
A few years ago, the presenters of the car show Top Gear (yes, I know) compared American and British police chase videos, much to the detriment of the latter. Where car chases from the United States offered exciting, edge-of-seat entertainment, UK coppers seemed unduly hampered by procedure, protocol and a marked lack of performance from their Astra diesels. There may be very good reasons for this (taking into account the 5,000 bystanders killed by American police car chases since 1979) but it’s all so much less exciting. Any ten-year-old will gladly swap the dullness of safety for a chance to go out in a blaze (pun intended) of glory.
The town of Valkenburg is located in gently rolling hills on the southern border of the Dutch isthmus of Limburg, bordered by Belgium to the south and west, and Germany to the east. For centuries, people have been mining the rich sandstone deposits in the area, and have thus stumbled upon numerous fossils. Perhaps none are more famous than those of Mosasaurus. The first of these was found in 1764 and now resides in the wonderful Teylers Museum in Haarlem (which also happens to be my part-time employer). The other, found around 1772, found its way to Paris through the evil machinations of the devious French (note that I’m not judging anyone).
(This is a repost of a short piece I wrote for the Shells and Pebbles blog a while ago, but I thought it would not be out of place here. However, since I didn’t really investigate the origin of the feathered dinosaur idea, I’m a bit unhappy with my assertion made here that Reichel was the first to propose the concept. Hence the question mark).
While the rest of the world was dedicating way too much time and resources to exterminating one another, Switzerland remained a relatively tranquil spot in 1941 Europe. In that year, the micropaleontologist Manfred Reichel published an article outlining his views on the ‘first bird’, Archaeopteryx lithographica. Reichel’s text but particularly his illustrations are at least partly inspired by the work of Gerhard Heilmann in his very influential The Origin of Birds, a book that was to dominate the field of avian and flight evolution for decades afterwards. And like Heilmann, the exquisite artwork serves to support the ideas set out in the article. And like Heilmann, Reichel can be very critical of earlier ideas.
Parisians who visited a newsstand or book store in the spring of 1886 were confronted with the frightening prospect of a dinosaurian intrusion into their sixth-floor apartments. It was introduced to them by a poster that was part of the advertising campaign for French author Camille Flammarion’s new book (and newspaper serial) Le monde avant la création de l’homme (‘The world before man’s creation’).The whole approach of the publicity campaign turned out to be a good indication of the tone of the book. Flammarion’s book was a work of popular science, and sought to awe and entertain its readers as much as inform them. Although the rather overweight dinosaur here borrows heavily from the reconstructions made about fifteen years earlier by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins for the Crystal Palace exhibition, the image of a dinosaur standing next a high building looking into its top floors would prove compelling enough to last.
As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ going for Albert Koch’sHydrarchos harlani. Last week, we were lucky enough to meet up with Hydrarchos (or part of her) in person, in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Continue reading Meeting Hydrarchos in Person(s)
I think that we, PhD candidates in the history of science, should help our colleagues in the labs. For too long we have passively described science in action, without answering the climate scientist’s call for practical action. Even worse, as Latour observed, our critical apparatus of cultural deconstruction is now being used by the ‘worst possible fellows’ to deny global warming. We are scholars who try to describe the political, ideological and social aspects of science, but we are also humans who care about the future of our planet and humanity. Because of climate change, and because of ‘bad guys’ who refer to us to trivialize the problem, our very future is at stake! We can no longer observe these developments from a distance. It is about time to draw a firm line and come into action.