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Displaying original fossils (was Re: Sue Photos Online)



As a docent who has accompanied fossil carts at the California Academy of
Sciences in San Francisco with four traveling exhibits (Dinosaurs of Jurassic
Park, Dinosaur Adventure, Missing Links Alive, and Africa: One Continent, Many
Worlds), I have had firsthand experience dealing with the public and its 
feelings
about replicas as opposed to original fossils.

Many young people would approach my fossil cart and ask simply: "Are those real
fossils?"  I would explain that they were exact copies molded from the real
fossils, or if I was feeling mischievous I would say that they were "real casts
made of real plastic molded from the real fossils," which then might provoke a
discussion of what is meant by the word "real."  A fossil formed by mineral
replacement is not the original material, after all.  Many people would just 
walk
on by at this point, satisfied that they weren't going to miss anything real, so
why bother?  I can't speak for them, but it is well known that museum visitors
often whisk through museums without spending much time at any one place,
attention spans being what they are these days.

Sometimes I have countered the initial "reality" question (regarding, for
example, an _Australopithecus afarensis_ skull cast) with a question of my own:
"Do you think I'd be passing the skull around the room like this if it was the
real thing?"  And I can explain that many dinosaur skeletons in museums (such as
every one of the articulated dinosaur skeletons at our museum) are casts (or as
some members of the public prefer to call them, "fakes").  I tell them that this
is true of most _Tyrannosaurus rex_ skeletons on display, and I explain that if
you traveled to Berlin to view the _Archaeopteryx lithographica_ fossil, you
would see a replica there, too, because the priceless original is kept locked up
in a vault, available only to reputable scientists.  In France, one can see the
"faux" Lascaux Cave, but the original, which suffered considerably from the
traffic of visitors (the lighting and human heat and breath wreaking havoc with
the delicate cave ecosystem) is off limits to the general public.  Most dinosaur
specimens are simply too rare to be exhibited in every natural history museum,
and some, such as _Archaeopteryx_, are kept off display so they will always be
available for scientific study, protected against theft or vandalism.

When particularly valuable specimens go on display, they are often held in glass
cases and top security measures are employed (as is the case with valuable works
of art).  Only original fossils can provide some kinds of essential information
(microscopic detail; MRI, CAT scan or x-ray analysis; chemical and DNA analysis;
histology; matrix composition; etc.), so extreme measures are sometimes required
to preserve these irreplaceable artifacts in perpetuity.  Of course, even
carefully curated off display museum specimens are not immune to loss or damage,
as when they are transferred out of a museum to another institution for study, 
or
when handling puts wear and tear on them (as in the case of too many caliper
measurements wearing down the surface of a fossil), or when fossils are 
adversely
affected by atmospheric, preparation, or storage conditions, or when military
bombing campaigns take their toll (among other things).

On the other hand, less well endowed museums can display replicas that are posed
accurately and dynamically, and can provide fossil casts for touch carts.  More
easily acquired genuine fossils (such as marine invertebrates or isolated
dinosaur bones) may be made available available for public viewing and touching.

 The majority of people I encountered at the fossil carts were able to 
understand
these issues and accept the limitations of available fossil material, so we 
could
then proceed to use the replicas to learn quite a bit about fossilized
organisms.  A _Deinonychus_ skull looks cool whether it is genuine or a cast, 
and
is still very informative.  We try to make the best of what we've got.

Having said all this, I recognize that there is something very special about
seeing "the real thing," and that this can be a treasured experience.  For
example, I felt truly honored to be able to view the actual _Sinornithosaurus_
specimen at the Graves Museum, and a cast would not have given me the same
experience at all.  I was in awe of this well preserved little animal from a
distant time and place, unique in all the world.  In the case of Sue, the casts
will certainly generate some excitement, but they will not hold the public in
thrall quite the same as the original.  On the other hand, there is much to be
said for fossil casts which can present undistorted, exciting skeletal mounts to
museum visitors around the world while the originals are safely held for future
study.

I wonder: will the Sue replicas be identical to the original mount or will the
pose be adjusted (in terms of rib, coracoid, and furcula placement) to present a
more accurate reconstruction?

-- Ralph W. Miller III     gbabcock@best.com