do dinosaurs matter?


Look at enough dinosaur displays and you begin to ask questions beyond the scope of the exhibit. What would a sleeping dinosaur look like? How do you clean one of these things? Where’s the cafeteria? It’s not that the dinosaurs themselves are uninteresting — the danger they suggest infuses museum halls with a sense of potential energy. Instead, it’s the fact that once you’ve seen one T. Rex, all other T. Rexes start to look alike. And there are a lot of them out there. Indeed, dinosaur mounts have become so fundamental to our idea of what makes a natural history museum that it can be difficult to imagine the institutions ever existing without them. Yet the “fearfully great lizards” made a relatively late appearance in the tradition of collecting and displaying the Earth’s artifacts. The Egyptians were collecting exotic wildlife as early as 1400 B.C., and the Europeans started housing natural curiosities in wunderkammers in the 16th century, but dinosaurs didn’t appear until the 19th. It wasn’t until 1868 that the first dinosaur was mounted for exhibition, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. This year, the museum celebrates the 140th of that influential move with a new exhibit, “Hadrosaurus foulkii: The Dinosaur That Changed the World.”

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