Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Or so I thought.
A couple of weeks ago, I paid my first visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Yes, I know, this is quite unforgiveable for one who has lived in the Northeast for years, but honestly, I'm quite a busy person. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural history museum in the Americas, a storied research institution with a noble history and a long tradition of public exhibits and educational programs for both schools and the general public.
It is also very dear to Thomas H. Benton's heart; it was a visit to the Academy that sparked the first of his polemics. There have been several since then, but the one that offended me most was his assertion that museums that display casts of fossil specimens are engaging in fraudulent behavior at the expense of their visitors. I took issue with this on a number of grounds, one of which is that reputable museums have a series of safeguards that ensure that the visitor is always aware what is real and what is a cast. So I have to say that I was a little shocked when I took a walk around the fossil gallery in Philadelphia.
As you can see from the photo above, it is packed full of skeletons. Almost all of these are casts. Virtually none of them are labelled as such. There's no information on where the original specimen actually came from - for example, I was pretty sure that their Tylosaurus skeleton was a cast of a specimen from western Kansas, the original of which is in the collections of the University of Kansas, but there's no way of telling that from the exhibit label. This information may seem geeky, but it's actually very important because it links the reproduction to the actual specimen, which is a real occurence of the animal in time and space. Without that data, you might as well just buy a model.
To be fair, some of this information is available on the Academy's website (for an example, see http://www.ansp.org/museum/dinohall/tylosaurus.php), but there's a bigger issue here. The Academy is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology, the home institution of Joseph Leidy, with a collection of over 22,000 specimens that includes the first remains of a dinosaur (beyond isolated teeth) from North America. Very little of this is on display. One or two casts would be fine, but is a whole army of reproductions justifiable in a museum that has an actual VP collection (and a very good one) and which continues to do high quality paleontological research? Surely more of this should be accessible to visitors through the displays?
I still believe that my original anti-Bentonian argument holds true - casts have a role to play, not least by generating an appropriate sense of awe in visitors, especially smaller ones. But I can't help thinking that the Academy's fossil gallery has crossed a line.