I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, which means I grew up going to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. When my family and I visited this museum masquerading as a Gothic cathedral, we’d see the pinned insects, the taxidermied birds, the giant Olmec head, and, of course, the dinosaurs. I wasn’t really a science kid (I became a historian for a reason), but the 65-foot long Brontosaurus excelsus standing in the museum’s Great Hall was the landmark of my childhood.
A few years ago, I went back to the Peabody. I’d started working at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia—a natural history museum whose exhibit hall is preserved from the 19th century—and I was making the rounds of its peer institutions, museums I hadn’t visited since I was a kid. Like the Wagner, these places—the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody in New Haven—had been around since the 19th century. While they operated as science museums, they were history museums too. And they were my history no less than they were the history of science writ large.
In New Haven, I walked back into the Great Hall with its Brutalist concrete walls and its murals of prehistoric life. I looked up at that Brontosaurus just like I had when I was a kid. My first thought was that it seemed smaller than I remembered, but there was something else that I noticed for the first time. That giant, fossilized skeleton was held up by a second skeleton. The dinosaur had steel posts running up into its chest and its pelvis. It had wires stringing its ribs together. And it had this elegant steel armature that curved from its head, down its long, long neck, across its back, and out to its tail.
In his history of the Peabody, Richard Conniff describes it as a “cumbersome steel understructure.”1 Looking at that dinosaur and noticing the second skeleton for the first time, I saw something else. I saw a specimen of science and the natural world, of course, but I also saw a beautiful object constructed, created, by people—by paleontologists, museum curators, engineers, and welders.
Museums construct knowledge. As a historian of museums this is what I study. But museums don’t just construct knowledge through architecture, collecting, arrangement, or labeling. They construct knowledge by constructing objects—literally.
This Brontosaurus was collected in 1879 from a quarry at Como Bluffs, Wyoming.2 But before it arrived in New Haven, it was a prize to be won in the Bone Wars waged by Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences, two of the most prominent paleontologists of their day. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, they competed with one another, first for territory in which to dig for bones, and then for possession of the bones themselves. When William Harlow Reed and William Edward Carlin discovered the fossils at Como Bluffs, they wrote to Marsh to see if he was interested in them. In their letter, they recognized the secrecy necessary to guard against rival collectors like Cope. Once the quarries were open, deceit continued, with Cope’s men spying on and even sabotaging Marsh’s fossil beds. Marsh returned the favor by destroying fossils outright so Cope couldn’t have them.3
As heated (and petty and counterproductive) as this was, the heart of the competition between Marsh and Cope was over who would be the first to turn those bones into species by naming and describing them for publication in scientific journals back East. They sought out dinosaurs because they were the cutting edge of scientific research into evolution and extinction. They also sought out dinosaurs because they believed the drama of these giant, terrible lizards was sure to bring them immortality with scientists and the public alike.4