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Casts versus Fossil Bone

We surely are discussing some complex issues these days.

Regarding the display of full skeletons made of real bone,
I applaud the Field for developing systems where the bone
does not have to be violated to do a real skeletal mount
such as Sue but I still have tremendous concerns about doing
any more real bone mounts such as that one. As we have found
out, there is still significant damage that occurs solely
due to gravity, humidity and temperature shifts which happen
in all museums (despite insinuations by some quoted in the
press that they do not at their museum). The Field can be
very hot at times and shows much the same variation we have
and this will progressively hurt every real bone not under
protective vitrines. Also, these days, there is a much
bigger propensity towards vandalism of mounts, even when
they seem to be out of reach. We're getting lots of
problems, including people throwing stuff at them and
somehow getting to the mounts and grabbing them and it keeps
getting worse and more serious in degree. I also have some
concerns about potential purposeful vandalism of a higher
degree that we have to consider a possibility, coming either
from idiot publicity seekers - which seem to be a cottage
industry these days - or from fundamentalists (in the broad
sense not in any particular religion, most religions have a
more extreme fundamentalist sector) who will some day decide
that dinosaur skeletons are either blaphemous or satanic or
something and need to be destroyed. Just as oceanographers
have to consider anything they throw over the side as
expendable, we will have to consider any bone left out in a
display without very significant protection against
environment/people also that way. Most dinosaur is far too
precious to me for that. The AMNH does have lots under large
protective glass and that helps, but that is not possible
for some of our stuff (and theirs).

I understand the real/fake attitude that some visitors
have, although I think that much of that can be taken care
of by having much real material on display along with a cast
skeleton so that they see both. The real material must be
under vitrines, however, which will fend off most of the
problems I discussed and makes the specimens easier - not
necessarily easily - studied by paleontologists. Some
visitors will never be happy with cast mounts and that's a
shame but, given the wonderful reactions I see of the
visitors who are in the Tyrell, for example, where almost
all mounts are casts, I don't think it is a bummer for most
visitors, especially when the real stuff is right there as
well. I have had this exact discussion with some retired
USGS paleontologists who are very much in favor of putting
out full, real mounts. However, they study Paleozoic
invertebrates and don't have a real intuition about how
precious and rare dino stuff really is. Hate to see any
fossil destroyed, but when you have large sample sizes, you
can be more cavalier about sacrificing a specimen to the

So, as much as I enjoy seeing mounts of real bone, I think
there are too many issues about specimen conservation,
weight, the ability to pose and reconstruct far more easily
that argues for cast mounts - labeled as such, of course -
backed up with real material. Our new horned dinosaur hall
will have a cast mount of the Triceratops reacting to the
cast (and very popular) mount of Stan across the stairs,
backed up with the real heads of Triceratops and Diceratops,
some real post-cranial material, and the real Styracosaurus
and Centrosaurus, all real stuff under vitrines and

Ralph Chapman

Ralph E. Chapman
Applied Morphometrics Laboratory
National Museum of Natural history
ADP, EG-15  NHB, 10th & Constitution, NW
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560-0136
(202) 786-2293, Fax: (202) 357-4122