More on Megalosaurus

The other day I put up a little post on the Megalosaurus holotype. This is on display at the Museum in Oxford (yes another one) and is part of, I think, a growing trend of important specimens being on display. Berlin now has its Archaeopteryx out on display, the IVPP regularly put out holotypes of newly described specimens in the museum and these are not the only ones. There have always been major specimens on display around the world but to my eye, ever more, and more important / valuable specimens are coming out of the curatorial collections and into the display cabinets.

I feel rather ambivalent about this, on the one hand it is great to have scientifically interesting and important specimens out there and for people to see them and (hopefully) get excited by them. Having the real, actual specimen there makes something more tangible – it is better than a cast or a model. On the other hand though, while this will be appealing to the public, I suspect that it is only appealing to a very small minority: the average museum visitor will probably not notice, or care, if what they are looking at is a cast or an original or a holotype.

In that case is it really worth the risk of putting something this valuable out on display. They need to be protected from theft and accidental damage, can be vulnerable to humidity and temperature changes or even the light from the sun or camera flashes. None of this is easy or cheap, or even always feasible.

The trade off then is providing public excitement for perhaps only a limited part of the audience, against increased risk of the specimen. Obviously there are lots of things to take into account – if the museum is well stocked with impressive specimens then there is perhaps no great need to leave out something exceptional, whereas one can sympathise that a small museum with a lone ‘star’ specimen might want it out on display. One has to make individual assessments based on individual cases, but I am a little concerned about more and more specimens going on display. I am about as interested as one could be (on average) about nice fossils in museums and I’m generally more than satisfied seeing a good cast, why risk something as critical as an important holotype?

9 Responses to “More on Megalosaurus”


  1. 1 jay 01/11/2010 at 10:26 am

    And on display, scientific study of a critical type specimen is restricted, as opposed to in the collections out of displace. I agree that most public visitors would not be able to tell if it’s a cast, provided it is well reproduced.

    • 2 David Hone 01/11/2010 at 10:34 am

      That can be an issue certainly, though not always. A major specimen like a large dinosaur mounted can be very inaccessible, or sealed inside a case things can be very hard to get it. However, some are easily available for study with the right key to open the appropriate cabinet for example. I think it is something that can be a problem, not not necessarily a fundametlaly inherent one.

  2. 3 Heinrich Mallison 01/11/2010 at 2:44 pm

    Quite true, Dave, to show or not to show is a dilemma that can’t be easily solved – unless you talk about institutions where the exhibition hall has better security, fire protection and air conditioning than the collections (you know what place I am talking about).😉
    Heinrich

    • 4 David Hone 01/11/2010 at 2:49 pm

      Oh yeah, it’s a whole big mass of interlocking issues and you have to make a decision based on every specimen and the surrounding situation. I don’t pretend it’s easy, but i do think that on average, most things should go into storage and not on display if possible.

      Given that over time institutes should (on average) accumulate more specimens and be able to store more things in better conditions while older specimens become ever more important or accumulate damage, I would expect the trend to be away from putting things out when instead it seems to be the opposite. I find this odd and a little worrying.

      • 5 Heinrich Mallison 02/11/2010 at 9:05 am

        I agree, on the other hand I dislike the eternal plastic dino shows. My hope is that advanced imaging and 3D printing techniques can improve the quality of casts to the point where it is really not possible to distinguish the replica from the original a the normal viewing distance in a museum. Then, the visitor gets something that is 100% as good as the real thing, and we can all be happy🙂

        I should now defend the MFN with regards to the Archaeopterxy:
        – it is better protected where it is now than it ever was
        – it is as well protected as it would be in the collections
        – it is easily accessible
        – the installed lighting system makes study easy, because it already offers all the different lighting directions you need
        – I have never ever seen a replica that was good enough to show all the important detail (from a teaching-the-public perspective)

        but feathered tiny fossils in limestone slabs are an exception, and Archie is another exception among exceptions because of its role in the history of paleontology. The same reasoning does not apply equally to other specimens.
        🙂
        Heinrich

      • 6 David Hone 02/11/2010 at 9:29 am

        I don’t have a problem with real specimens being on display, there’s lots of scope for good material to be there and be seen. Sue is an exceptional specimen but she was also a very public specimen and there is lots of excellent rex material archived so I don’t see the harm in her being out, but I would question say, the Microraptor gui holoype being on permanent display (not that it is).

        For the Berlin Archae specifically I know the trouble and expense the museum went to and I am pleased it is out there. It genuinely is nice for people to be able to see it, and it is *so* critical a specimen (I’ve said more than once that it is the single most recognisable fossil in the world) that I’m not too bothered about this one specifically. As noted, there are exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. I think if it had been my decision it would not have been done, but I do totally understand the reasoning behind it.


  1. 1 Дейвид Хон за музейните експонати Trackback on 04/11/2010 at 8:38 pm
  2. 2 More of Megalosaurus « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 04/11/2010 at 11:06 pm
  3. 3 Yes, it’s another Megalosaurus post « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 03/12/2010 at 10:53 am
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