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Diplodocus diplomacy? A review of 'American Dinosaur Abroad'


Diplodocus diplomacy? A review of ‘American Dinosaur Abroad’

Or just another way for industry to exert its power over the world?

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In the early days of October 1902 – or so the story goes – King Edward VII of England arrived at Skibo Castle, the Scottish residence of American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Despite the short notice, Carnegie did his best to make the monarch feel at home, and while relaxing with port and cigars, the king happened to notice, hanging on the wall, an etching of a colossal dinosaur.

This was the Diplodocus carnegii, pulled from the Wyoming soil three years prior at the behest of Carnegie, named in his honor, and intended as the centerpiece of the recently established Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States. Struck by this prodigious animal, Edward immediately asked Carnegie if he could obtain him one for the London Natural History Museum.

The fact that a British monarch would make such a request of an industrialist rather than a politician or scientist is in itself a striking commentary on American culture and the powers that dominate it. It also forms the basis of paleontological historian Ilja Nieuwland’s debut book, American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). Printed in hardback with black and white photos throughout, American Dinosaur is divided into seven chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion.

Though nominally concerned with the story of how Carnegie used his Diplodocus (or more accurately, mass-produced life-sized plaster copies of it) as a tool to further his own political machinations, this book is ultimately a rather plodding and idiosyncratic work that will likely only be of real relevance to those with an intense interest in backroom museum bureaucracy.

Diplodocus diplomacy? A review of 'American Dinosaur Abroad'

Interestingly enough, American Dinosaur actually opens amidst the 19th century sea serpent frenzy, a setting which allows Nieuwland to discuss the curious career of Albert Koch, a German-born fossil collector turned P.T. Barnum-esque showman who achieved infamy on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for his exhibition of a fraudulent sea serpent skeleton. Nieuwland actually sees Koch as a precursor to Carnegie.

Both men figured out early on how to expertly exploit paleontology for their own personal gain, especially in Europe. And even though Carnegie’s Diplodocus was very real, while Koch’s sea monster was not, this distinction seems to have mattered little to the crown heads and general public who flocked to see them in every country in which they appeared. In the eyes of the masses, both of these antediluvian monsters were just as real and just as fake as the other.

Following this strong first chapter the book quickly finds itself quagmired, as the bulk of it – Chapters 2 through 5, plus 7 – primarily concern not Carnegie, but rather entomologist William J. Holland, the director of Carnegie’s natural history museum and the man tasked with overseeing the installation of each and every plaster Diplodocus in every region whose leader requested one. This included Britain, Germany, and Paris (each of which gets its own chapter), as well as Brazil, Austria, Russia, Argentina, and Spain, which are all lumped together in Chapter 7.

Nieuwland chronicles these various installations in exacting detail — where and when the plaster bones would be transported, where in the museum they would be set up, how they should be posed, who will be at each unveiling, etc. — facts it seems even the author begins to find monumentally tedious. In between this minutia, Nieuwland occasionally brings up an interesting sociological facet of this story, such as how the arrival of the Diplodocus in France paralleled that of the first live giraffe in 1826, or how Diplodocus served as proxy for the ancient history which America was seen as lacking, in contrast to Europe. However, such topics are rarely developed or fully explored.

By far the most compelling facet of Holland’s life is his rivalry with Henry Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which came to a head when Osborn decided to donate an actual diplodocus skeleton to a German museum before Carnegie could arrange for installation of one of his copies.

Diplodocus diplomacy? A review of 'American Dinosaur Abroad'

Awkwardly sandwiched between Chapters 5 and 7 is the only discussion of actual paleontology, and while reminiscent of the kind of popular science writing found in such classics as Adrian Desmond’s The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs (1975), it ultimately feels out of place. Carnegie wasn’t a scientist and Holland not a paleontologist by training, meaning that both men have little to do with the debates concerning Diplodocus chronicled here.

The story of Carnegie’s Diplodocus has been told before, in such books as Tom Rea’s Bone Wars (2001) and Paul Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush (2010), and it clearly feels as if Nieuwaland has assumed that readers of his book will already be familiar with these previous explorations of the topic. In fact, I sometimes wondered if American Dinosaur was not commissioned as a sequel to Rea’s book (they share the same publisher).

What’s also striking is what Nieuwaland doesn’t discuss about Carnegie and his Diplodocus. Carnegie was a ruthless businessman who openly prescribed to Herbert Spencer’s problematic theory of Social Darwinism, which resulted in the often poor treatment of his employees, like Holland. Previous scholars such as W.J.T. Mitchell in The Last Dinosaur Book (1998) and, more recently, Boria Sax in Dinomania (2018), have highlighted how Carnegie used dinosaurs – seemingly the biggest and most powerful creatures to ever walk the earth – as symbols of his own power both in the United States and abroad.

Nieuwaland never addresses this, instead painting a rather more benign picture of Carnegie as a big kid who hoped that by sharing his plaster dinosaur with various world leaders, he could open up channels for international communication that would help to prevent future wars. The final Diplodocus that would be gifted was erected in Madrid in 1913. The events of the following year demonstrated just how naïve Carnegie’s dreams really were.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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