Published on December 15th, 2022 | by Guest Blogger Episode 148/149/150: Palaeoart in Pop Culture
Palaeontology (dinosaurs in particular) is incredibly well represented in nearly all forms of popular media today. From documentaries and films to computer games and even specialist podcasts. But where did the public fascination in dinosaurs come from? Has it always been there, ever since the existence of dinosaurs was first revealed, or has interest grown cumulatively with every public engagement milestone?
In this special three-part episode of Palaeocast, guest host Dr Suresh Singh interviews Vicky Coules about the history of palaeontology in pop culture. Vicky is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, but has a background in art, engineering and documentary production. Her current research focuses on the interrelationship between palaeontology as a science and as an art, with a focus on late 19th and early 20th century America.
Vicky and Suresh are both members of the
Bristol Palaeomedia Project.
The Crystal Palace dinosaurs were created following the Great Exhibition of 1851. These were the first sculptures of dinosaurs ever produced, commissioned some 30 years after their discovery.
They were constructed by the natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who was commissioned to produce a series of sculptures of prehistoric animals (including marine reptiles and mammals), to be displayed within the grounds of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Photo by Photograph by Maull & Polyblank. Image from ‘Wellcome Images’ CC 4.0.
Following the work for the Great Exhibition, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins later tried to replicate his dinosaur exhibition in New York using American fossils. Sadly, this exhibition was never to be and the sculptures were destroyed before they were completed. Image from Wikimedia PD.
Amongst the sculptures was a Hardrosaurus that was mounted for the very first time. This new bipedal and upright stance for a dinosaur, created so soon after the quadrupedal models of Crystal Palace, helped convey their huge size like never before. So popular were such skeletal mounts that museums such as the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) decided to start charging an entrance fee to view exhibitions and ‘dinomania’ was born.
Edward Drinker Cope was one of the researchers behind this interpretation of Hardrosaurus as bipedal. Cope is probably most famous for his rivalry with Othniel Charles Marsh in what has been termed the ‘Bone Wars’. One of the points of contention was how the two men thought about the artistic depiction of their fossils. Cope was a lot more artistic and encouraged the reconstruction of his animals in their palaeoenvironments.
Marsh was less artistic and disliked Cope’s speculative approach, preferring to just figure the raw scientific illustration of fossil specimens. This difference was a key difference in approach by the two scientists in a complex relationship worthy of its own episode.
Closely aligned to Cope’s thinking, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the AMNH, commissioned the artist Charles R. Knight to paint numerous pieces of dinosaurs as living organisms.
Marsh referred to these paintings a “Kindergarten Science”. His argument was that we don’t know enough about these animals and such depictions might be wrong and yet they’ll become entrenched within the public’s mind.
This argument continues to the present day. Where does the balance lie between palaeoart being figurative, utilitarian and limited to the known facts; or exciting and speculative, even if it might be wrong?
Dinosaurs have had a huge impact on screen and Jurassic Park, more than any other franchise has helped to show dinosaurs as living, moving animals. When reconstructing any extinct organism as a living thing in a visual medium (especially film), an artist is required to paint a complete picture and therefore has to fill in any gaps in knowledge. In many cases, when we look back at some of the titles with dinosaurs, we see that the animations are more accurate (by today’s understanding) than the palaeontological consensus of the time.
Released in 1914 by Winsor McCay , Gertie the Dinosaur was one of the very first animations ever made and is the very first moving reconstruction of a dinosaur. McCay’s work was pioneering and established animation techniques still used in the industry today.
Even at this earliest stage of reconstruction, Gertie’s biomechanics are relatively well represented.
Disney’s Fantasia (1940) is another excellent example of how animators were able to accurately represent movement in dinosaurs. Here a bipedal dinosaur is shown running in a way similar to the Deinonychus drawn by Bob Bakker as part of the ‘dinosaur renaissance’ some 30 years later.
The T. rex is clearly the villain of the piece and is referred to as one of the “bullies and gangsters” of the time. This interesting terminology was likely a social/cultural reference to the gangsters of the Prohibition era of the USA. Going against convention, the T. rex ultimately triumphed in its battle with the Stegosaurus.
Fantasia also went so far as to show the end of the dinosaurs. At the time, there numerous competing hypotheses as to their demise, but they chose to say how “some scientists think that great droughts and earthquakes turned the whole world into a gigantic dustbowl.”
This was likely another social/cultural reference to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Many of the refugees of this event ended up in Los Angeles where Walt Disney Studios were located.
In the modern era, one of the biggest issues faced by film and tv productions is the need to substantiate the scenes they depict. How do audiences know if what they are watching is backed up by scientific fact? Image Apple©.
Prehistoric Planet released additional media explaining the science behind each of its episodes, but this separated the documentary from the science, requiring audiences to seek out this justification themselves. Image Apple©.
Jurassic World, as a piece of fiction, was able to justify taking its dinosaurs in direction it did. However, is such monsterisation detrimental to the communication of scientific fact? Does it even need to justify itself as a work of fiction? Perhaps for palaeontology, as a science, it doesn’t matter so long as audiences are becoming inspired by the dinosaurs they see on screen.
Vicky Coules is currently a PhD student at the University of Bristol. She has degrees in art and engineering, and a successful career in documentary production.