Boney-fide mounted skeletons

Following on from the chimeras post I thought it was time to finally write something about mounted skeletons. For many, if not all of us, a mounted dinosaur skeleton was our first ‘real’ encounter with palaeontology (if not science as a whole) that went beyond books and TV. Here was something *real*, standing there impassively, a relic of a past that seemed unknowable, yet we were told things with great confidence about how this animals lived and died. How did they know that? How *could* they know that? Could we learn these things too?

Of course now in my professional capacity, I treat mounts primarily as a source of information – I start looking at subtleties in morphology, finding reconstructions, mistakes, preservation details and pathologies especially if it is from soemthing I have not seen before. It is a shame really, as I now have trouble seeing them for what they undoubtedly still are – edifices of science, engineering and art. I do genuinely have an affection for all the sciences, but can a model of an atom really compare with a 25 metre sauropod mount for wide-eyed wonder? That sense of awe and fascination still affects people of all ages and kinds, just watch their faces as they enter a museum hall with a decent sized dinosaur on display. People just stop and stare. While not exactly the most artistic person, I do love the intersection of science and art and I do think that many scientific displays come pretty close – not just having a nice background to a display, or having well designed information card, but there is, I think, a certain artistry to the shape of the bones, often in stark black in a brightly lit auditorium. Very nice.

However, from a more technical aspect, there is much to admire in how these mounts are created. I was lucky enough to be working on the ones of Berlin Brachiosaurus (and Dicraeosaurs [see image below], Kentrosaurs and others) while it was in the process of being remounted recently and got to watch firsthand how a major mount was created by the guys from RCI. I was very impressed with their anatomical knowledge and their enthusiasm for the project. Despite everyone on the project (that I met) having come from engineering or metalwork, they really knew their bones and had a genuine respect and love of the material they were working on. What was especially interesting for me was the fact that they were working on the actual bones and not just casts, which is relatively rare in Europe at least. Unlike the original mounts were bones were actively drilled, or bolted or clamped, here delicate and inticate cradles of metal were created to hold the bones in place. Each was held so that the bone would not be damaged and could be easily removed for examionation to allow researchers to access the material and minimuse any risks to the specimen.
Building the Dicraeosaurs mount

That is one thing that I think if understandably missed by the average visitor to a museum, the fact that what they are looking at is not actually ‘real’ – the bones sat up there are copies rendered in resin or plaster rather than bone. I know that is not always the case, and even today real bones are still mounted even in modern museums (where I would have hoped they might have a bit more sense) but I am far more used to seeing casts on display than bones. This is a big issue for me and obviously I have experience from both sides of the railings so to speak, but I really can’t see why museums are still mounting real skeletons for display.

OK, so if you have half a dozen complete specimens of a species, there is no real harm in mounting up one or even two of them for display provided it is done well, and the bones are both protected from damage and accessible to researchers, but to mount important specimens and even holotypes seems madness to me. No matter how carefully you mount a specimen, parts will likely suffer damage, and at the very least, parts of bones will be inaccessible to a researcher (like the back of the skull which will be covered up by the neck). Mounting bones is inherently far more dangerous for the specimen as they can fall or break, they will get dirty and dusty and exposed to pollution and cleaning fluids, and the fundamental integrity of the bones might not actually be up to supporting their own weight when mounted. It is true that casting bones is expensive and can still risk damage to the bones, but compared to the risk of dropping them, or having to drill into them to have them mounted?

What frustrates me is that there is no need for it. The average member of the public will not notice that that mount is not of a real fossil (and quite possibly not care), and those that do would probably know enough about science to respect the decision to preserve a valuable specimen both from damage and to allow research. I do not remember anyone ever being annoyed that the Diplodocus in the NHM (or Berlin or Frankfurt for that matter) is a cast of an American specimen – it is loved for being bold and dramatic and of course a superb specimen, cast or otherwise. Of course it is nicer for people to see real bones, but if that is the primary concern thrn can easily be provided as part of the exhibit, but does the whole thing need to be mounted? Even the best mounts generally have a few parts that are sculpted, are casts, parts are repaired or have been added from other specimens as complete skeletons are pretty much an oxymoron in palaeontology. This might actually make things more accessible for the public as bones seen close up (in a glass case for example) allow people to see the preservation of the bones, the changes in shape, that articular surfaces look different to shafts and even the presence of blood vessel formainas etc. which is impossible on a mounted skeleton even 3 feet away. So if the public get no benefit from mounting a real specimen, and the scientists are actively prevented from doing their work, and the specimen is put at greater risk, why exactly is it done again?

I am not going to advocate dissembling mounts because of this (thought I could name a few I would happily seen taken down for various reasons) and of course there are some beautiful mounts composed of real bones (like the Berlin Brachiosaurus, both in its old form, and glorious new remount) that I would not want to see removed. Double standards? Perhaps, but there is a difference between something of historical importance like Brachiosaurus (for which there is also a lot of other good material available), and a new holotype mounted unnecessarily just ten years ago (particaulry when even basic studies would not have been completed). However, I would like to see the practice stopped in general as really I can see no good reason for it, either for the visitor or the researcher. Casts might be expensive to produce, but the benefits surely outweigh the risks. The originals are protected against damage or even destruction and should the worst happen, at least there is the possibility to make a copy from them.

Sadly this practice will continue as they certainly are in a number of small provincial museums, they lack the skills, equipment or even the knowledge of casting and simply mount the bones as required. A well mounted skeleton does not hinder science severely (but it can still be extremely awkward) and can add plenty to a good exhibit, but I still feel that mounting real bones is to be avoided and sadly it could be with just a little effort and cost. We have made plenty of mistakes in the past with bad mounts and wrecked bones, it is about time we started learning from those mistakes and prevented further loss. We only get one chance with each specimen we recover and their care should take priority, we simply can’t condone the wilful and preventable damage to important material, though I fear it will be many years before that becomes the norm.

This is a modified Mk.1. post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

7 Responses to “Boney-fide mounted skeletons”

  1. 1 Jerrold Alpern 18/04/2011 at 3:34 pm

    You stated that the average member of the public will neither notice nor care if a mount is a real fossil or not. My experience as an Education Volunteer in the 4th floor Fossil Halls at AMNH for the last three years is the direct opposite. “Are these real?” is by far the most common question asked of me – a dozen times minimum during any two hour shift. Many visitors arrive believing the displays are “fakes” and are suitably wide-eyed impressed when told that no, most of them are real fossil bones. This can be a good lead-in to discuss the nature of fossils and the meaning of “real”.

    Lowell Dingus once explained to me that this was a factor in keeping the actual bones on display as part of the 1990’s renovation of the halls. Few would visit the Louvre to see a copy of the Mona Lisa, no matter how digitally accurate. Similarly, the AMNH dinos remain so popular because they are real.

    • 2 David Hone 18/04/2011 at 4:54 pm

      “Are these real?” well that’s not necessarily the same point – they might want to know if it IS real, but that doesn’t mean they care if it isn’t.

      Even so I take your point, though we clearly have very different experiences as I’ve not seen much of that before. (while I haven’t been a direct communicator on the floor as it were, I’ve done lots of museum and public comms work).

      Even so, as noted I’m not against bones being on display, but mounting skeletons is an issue. There’s a big difference between having a nice and even complete Iguanodon say on display in an accessible glass case and having one bolted to a metal frame (however well done). You can have bones on exhibit, but if you do it, don’t put them where they can / will be damaged, or can’t be cleaned or can’t be accessed by researchers.

      • 3 Jerrold Alpern 18/04/2011 at 5:41 pm


        Thanks for your response. In fact, the visitors do care if it isn’t real. As soon as they are told these are not “fakes”, they immediately take a greater interest in the exhibits, read the labels more carefully and ask more questions. Until they are told they are real, they are passive guests, walking through fairly quickly. Once assured of “reality”, they slow down, take their time and pay attention. To see the change from a bunch of teenage boys running around, loudly heaping scorn on the “fakes” to a respectful group of quiet, fascinated students asking pertinent questions after they are told they are real, is a revelation of just how important the distinction is to the public. And the transformation occurs in a millisecond.

        I understand your feelings about the possibility of damage to the fossils. AMNH has six foot high glass panels protecting some large mounts, but not most. Open vandalism has never occurred but it is always a possibility. Dust does accumulate and can be a problem during budget shortages that force layoffs of maintenance staff. Fortunately, they recently resumed regular dusting and vacuuming.

        However, I cannot imagine how a mount of a large dinosaur could be created without a metal frame (+ steel cables to ceiling girders in the case of T.rex and Apatosaurus – femur wgt. 600 lbs.). The Iguanodons in the renovated dino hall in Brussels are in an enormous glass case, but are still attached to iron frames. Nothing but loose bones lying on the floor of a glass box would neither attract visitors nor arouse much interest in paleontology.

        The AMNH bones are not bolted but secured in such a manner that they can be removed for research when needed. Talk to the Director of the Fossil Collections, Carl Mehling, He is extremely helpful and knowledgeable.

      • 4 David Hone 18/04/2011 at 6:39 pm

        Well again personal experience is different (and i know you have a lot more)and I’ve seen little of this in Europe – people tend to look at them properly on average anyway (and of course good signs help enormously to direct people to what they are seeing and explaining it).

        I still don’t quite see how hard or bad it should be to half part or most of a skeleton on display (real bones) but unmounted and then a mounted cast. That means the whole thing is there for people to see what it would look like, and real bones are there for people to see (and up close too, you can never get that close to a sauropod skull that’s on a mount without judicious use of balconies). BUT the bones would be easily accessible to a researcher (not mounted) and generally better protected. It’s not an either / or but a both!

        And as noted I’m speaking mostly as a scientist where mounted skeletons can be a huge pain in interfering with research. And I’m also talking ‘general use’ not ‘best case’. I’ve seen a ton of good specimens ruined by bad mounts (and I mean recent material, not 1800s jobs) things that were in great condition that have had bits broken and lost becuase they are mounted badly and handled badly. This is a real loss to science and hard to excuse in 2011.

        I’ve never seen any direct vandalism, but even the best mounted bones are at risk from being dropped or banged during routine cleaning or when being dismounted for examination in a way in which something on a shelf or in a case generally isn’t.

        I’m not exactly against mounted skeletons, but from what I have seen, I’d maintain that most people aren’t that bothered and the material is at enormously greater risk. Obviously museums have an educational duty, but that won’t get you very far if 100 years from now all your dinosaurs are broken.

  1. 1 More on Megalosaurus « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 01/11/2010 at 8:51 am
  2. 2 More on mounts and chimeras « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 18/04/2011 at 9:47 am
  3. 3 Scientific uses for fossil mounts « DINOSOURS! Trackback on 31/01/2013 at 8:43 pm
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