Modernizing American Fossil Preparation

Modernizing American Fossil Preparation at the Turn of the 20th Century

Paul Brinkman
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC 27601

By the turn of the 20th century, the institutional setting for American vertebrate paleontology had shifted from private collections into large, well-funded, urban museums, including the American Museum in New York, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, and the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago. This shift ignited a fierce competition among museum paleontologists to display fossil vertebrates – especially gigantic Jurassic sauropods from the American West. Museums launched ambitious expeditions aimed at collecting exhibit-quality dinosaurs. The net result was an enormous influx of unprepared fossils. Getting these fossils into shape for study and display posed a number of novel challenges for fossil preparators. New material arriving from the field required room for temporary storage and dedicated laboratory space in which to prepare it. Adapting a basic fossil preparation lab to the needs of dinosaur paleontology often involved considerable extra investment in equipment and space. Finding, training and retaining skilled fossil preparators could be very expensive, also. The sheer volume of work, and its unique demands, led to increased specialization and professionalization among the science support staff. This, in turn, drove higher standards for the work, leading to important lab innovations. Preparators developed new techniques to handle the workload, some of which required expensive new machinery, entirely new systems (e.g., electricity, or pneumatic apparatus) or new spaces in which to operate the equipment, some of which produced particularly noxious dust, noise, or smells. The essential task of fossil preparation, usually performed in backroom or basement labs by low-paid minions working in relative obscurity, was a vital prerequisite for the higher profile work of publishing original research and putting fossils on display.

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Last updated: March 16, 2018

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