Museum Models

Not everyone is a fan of life-reconstructions in museums (or indeed in general) but I think that they are fundamentally interesting in their own right and can provide a key learning / education tool. They can be used to explain what fossils and evidence is known (footprints, skin, bones) how this can be added to from extant animals (muscles, etc.) and completed with educated and informed guesswork (colours and patterns) with missing bits taken from relatives or other specimens. These are not just cobbled together (well, they shouldn’t be!) to make something the looks nice, but shows a chain of information and different levels on confidence in that information to make the complete sculpture.

I’m also generally fond of the idea that science is great, but a little bit of art mixed in is no bad thing from time to time and these can provide a perfect measure of this. This is true of murals and paintings as much as models and sculptures, though the latter seem to be more common in the museums I have visited, I assume because they can be cheaper and easily moved with the specimens and don’t necessarily require a large amount of space or wall support. The ones shown here are from (inevitably) the Oxford Museum.

These can also provide particular enhancement to certain exhibits by drawing in the audience or providing a frame of reference (like this superb sign). Many dinosaurs are instantly recognisable to the public as ‘live’ animals, who might struggle with a piles of bones or even a mounted skeleton. These can then form part of the draw of the museum, to get people interested and involved in a way in which they might not otherwise be. Assuming that’s the case (and it would be fascinating to study this properly and see what people like and don’t and what they get from it) then aside from the obvious aesthetics, they can be an important part of a museum display.

10 Responses to “Museum Models”

  1. 1 David Stern 15/08/2010 at 2:49 pm

    The second model shown is certainly missing some feathers? Going by the claws on its feet.

    • 2 David Hone 15/08/2010 at 3:05 pm

      Well, if you assume that large dromaeosaurs had feathers (it’s supposed to be a life-size Utahraptor). I think people get a bit hung up on feathers sometimes – sure some things like Microraptor really should have them, but it’s not unreasonable to think of thinks like this as un-feathered. Unlikely perhaps, but far from impossible too (and feathers are very hard to do well on a 6ft tall model).

  2. 3 Mark Robinson 16/08/2010 at 1:47 pm

    Dave, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and enjoy the variety of archosaur-flavoured posts (“archosaur flavour” = “chicken”? ;-). This is the first time I’ve felt the urge to comment.

    Personally, I can’t get enough of decent life reconstructions. I think they’re great for inspiring kids but also help inform adults. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many more for a 3D model?)

    While I don’t mind a bit of art creeping in (informed speculation) it irks me when it’s taken too far. An example of this is when, during the ’90s, there seemed to be a push in palaeo-art to show Dinos as anything but slow and dull, and there were brightly-coloured Tyrannosaurids and sauropods everywhere.

    While they might have been emerald and vermillion, it’s at odds with the colouring of extant large terrestrial animals (either close relatives like birds and crocs, or mammals occupying similar ecological niches). I’m no expert but in these cases I would favour a more conservative colouration, perhaps with some bright bits if during the mating season.

    This brings me to the actual reason for putting fingers to keyboard – carnivorous dinosaurs are often depicted with vertical slit pupils, like the Compsognathus(?) above. I guess it makes them look more mean and alien. (I note that the “Velociraptors” in JP had slit pupils whereas the T. rex did not).

    However, I thought that slit pupils are usually only present on animals that are active in both bright and dark conditions (eg day/night or air/murky water), especially if their pupils are large relative to the size of the eye. It is my understanding that a slit opening permits more control over the amount of light entering the eye and serves to reduce chromatic aberration.

    I’m sure that some dinos would have had vertical slit pupils (and other shapes – grazers of low vegetation might have had elongated dual-focus pupils to help watch for danger), just not all the “mean” ones.

    • 4 David Hone 17/08/2010 at 1:23 pm

      Well there’s a few things I’d note here (probably worth a post in itself) that I think are worth taking into account.

      First off the idea that big modern things are boring colours is true, but I think problematic. Really what people usually mean is that rhinos, elephants and hippos are dull colours. But that’s a pretty limited set of organisms, which are relatively closely related to each other. If things like mice and bats and lizards got that big would they still be grey? (and yes, komodos and crocs are a bit dull I admit, but they are also odd animals in their own ways). It’s just a handful of species and still the Sumatran rhino is a rather nice shade of orange and hippos tend towards pink. Other large animals like giraffe, banteng and tapir can be strikingly patterned if not in colour as well.

      Oh yeah, and at least *some* of those crests should be brightly coloured, if not the rest of the animal.

      Mammals are problematic too since aside from primates they don;t have colour vision so it’s no surprise they have not evolved exotic reds and blues etc. Perhaps a colour-vision elephant would be red and white? At the very least, dinosaurs were close to birds and to a lesser extent lizards and these are not famous for being dull colours.

      Finally, I think you have to allow at least a bit of artistic license for artists. Even if many were dull in colour, it’s likely some were not and since we can’t tell which (at least right now) then it’s not a major issue if they do tend on the garish side.

      In short, I don’t have a problem with bright colours on big dinosaurs, and I understand why people do it, though equally some are clearly overdone. There are lots of reasons to think that many might have been dull in colour, but good reason to make nice models with bright hues. I’ll be among the first to complain about a green and purple dinosaur with blue and yellow stripes and pink and white spots too though.

      As for the eye slits, well yes in general but a) goats! and b) it[s not unreasonable to think some dromaeosaurs and especially troodontids may have been crepescualr or operating at night. So again I agree it’s overused, but not necessarily wrong.

      • 5 Mark Robinson 17/08/2010 at 8:15 pm

        Thanks for the response. I accept what you’re saying but my beef was really with *brightly* coloured large dinos, rather than plain orange ones, and I have little doubt that there would have been a range of quite striking patterns among even some of the largest species.

        I think you’re right about colour-vision playing a role, although if the colouration was intended for other species, say as a warning, colour vision might not necessarily be present in the brightly-coloured species.

        A lot of birds, some with better colour vision than us, are not particularly brightly coloured (although they may possess striking contrast colouration) – large raptors, tubinares, emus, columbiformes, most anseriformes, and so on.

        Birds that are brightly coloured tend to be very social or live in heavily vegetated habitats where, presumably, colour helps them to stand out. The cassowary, a close relative of the emu, has a fairly plainly coloured body but is brightly coloured from the neck up. It lives in a heavily vegetated environment and eats a lot more fruits than emus, so perhaps it has better colour vision. I just don’t see large Tyrannosaurids fitting this bill although they might very well have had (eg) tiger-like colouration if they were predominately an ambush predator.

        I agree that crests, frills, etc are likely to have been brightly coloured at least some of the time.

        With regard to pupils, goats (and similar animals) were exactly what I was thinking of when I mentioned elongated, dual-focus pupils. It was also troodontids that I had in mind when when thinking about dinos that might have hunted in conditions of widely-varying light. However, if they were strictly nocturnal, I think it’s probably more likely that they would have large round pupils.

        I know that we’re speculating about things for which there is little direct evidence but, for me, it’s an interesting exercise.

      • 6 David Hone 18/08/2010 at 8:25 am

        Noting wrong with some good speculation – if you have a good source of data on how it might fit together with other features or a good comparison then it can be valuable. In the case of dinosaur colours / patterns it’s pretty much essential!

        I agree that many, perhaps most big dinos (crests aside) might have been dull colours, but that critically does not mean the patterns have to be dull (as often seems to be conflated by some). Zebras are black and white but no one seems to think they are dull! I’d also really back the idea of predators having cryptic colours, even something as big as a rex. It’s a relatively minor alteration to their biology but if it means that prey does not spot them coming for even a couple of steps that can make a big difference to hunting success – few predators don’t have disruptive patterns of some kind.

        I think we are largely on the same page, but it was worth the opportunity to expand a bit more on a fairly common argument that rinos and elephants are grey therefore all sauropods are monotone grey and I just don’t buy it. Cheers.

  3. 7 Zach Miller 17/08/2010 at 6:36 am

    Who’s that first guy, Dave? Looks like a compsognathid.

    I really like that Iguanadon head!

  4. 9 Brett Booth 17/08/2010 at 11:39 pm

    Love the compy and the iguanadon, I’d head to the museum just to see them. A great example of what can be done at museums, I just wish some of the ones by me had such nice sculptures!



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