Monday, April 13, 2015

The American Museum Brontosaur - A History In Pictures

The wooden model used to explore poses for the original
brontosaur mount is now on display beside the
revised mount at the AMNH. Photo by the author.
Here's one more post to commemorate the revival of the name Brontosaurus for the beast formerly known as Apatosaurus excelsus. As I mentioned in my last post, the mounted skeleton of the so-called "Nine-Mile Quarry Brontosaur" at the American Museum of Natural History, while it may or may not actually be a Brontosaurus, is probably the most iconic version of this animal, overshadowing even the archetypal brontosaur skeleton at the Yale Peabody Museum.

This is in no small measure thanks to the efforts of problematic Hitler enthusiast and highly successful paleontology promoter Henry Fairfield Osborn. Osborn became the first curator of the Vertebrate Paleontology department at the AMNH in 1891 and quickly rose to prominence, becoming the president of the museum in 1908. Osborn worked quickly to create a world-class collection of dinosaurs for the museum, both launching his own expeditions to collect fossils for display and making significant trades and acquisitions, such as the collections of E.D. Cope.

The completed forelimbs of the AMNH
Brontosaurus mount, 1904. AMNH.
The original plan, as reported later in a 1908 issue of the AMNH Journal, was that Cope's collection would become the centerpiece of a new museum in Philadelphia, where Cope was based. The museum was to be built in Fairmount Park, similarly to other grand museums at the time, like the AMNH itself, which is adjacent to New York's Central Park (and was originally based in a structure within the park). Also as with the AMNH, the city of Philadelphia itself was to finance the building of the museum and the preparation and mounting of Cope's fossils. However, for reasons unstated, this plan fell through, and Cope's collection languished in the basement of Fairmount Park's Memorial Hall for many years, with Cope himself occasionally pulling pieces for study at his own private museum on Pine Street in Philadelphia. Cope eventually became destitute toward the and of his life and career, and so had to sell off his vast collections of fossils. In 1899, after Cope's death, the remainder of his collection was purchased for the AMNH, and construction of their fossil halls could begin in earnest.

By that time, the AMNH had already begin preparing a few of their first display mounts. One of the museum's early acquisitions were a series of apatosaurine specimens collected by museum employee Barnum Brown, which Osborn planned to use to create the first ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. A competition had been ramping up between these newly culturally relevant urban museums to create the biggest and best fossil displays. At around the same time, Andrew Carnegie was reading about the discovery of giant sauropod bones, and was sending out his own teams to find a complete sauropod to mount in his new Pittsburgh museum. Osborn ended up beating him to the punch.

The AMNH Brontosaurus, on display in the original
dinosaur hall on the 4th floor of the museum, shortly
after it was completed in 1905. Note the 1897 Charles
R. Knight painting and model on display beneath it.
The AMNH team had to essentially invent mounting techniques as they went along. At the turn of the 20th century, once most of the Brontosaurus bones were prepared, museum fossil preparator Charles Falkenbach (1876-1916) built a small, articulated wood model of the skeleton, so that various ideas for poses could be explored. It took six years to complete the Brontosaurus display. I won't get into the long and complex saga of the missing head - this has been covered very well recently on the Extinct Monsters blog. The Brontosaurus mount was completed and on display in the original 4th floor Dinosaur Hall by April of 1905 (see image of the original display above).

Brontosaurus behind the anatosaurs
in the second AMNH Dinosaur Hall (now the
Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs),
1927. AMNH.
Initially, the museum's Brontosaurus was mounted in its original vertebrate fossil hall, along with various display cases and some mounted sauropod limb bones completed in late 1890s. As more mounts were completed, they were moved to a new Dinosaur Hall. At this point, the museum's mounted collection was still small enough to fit in a single large room - an illustration of just how much the collections grew during Osborne's tenure.

In the images shown here from the AMNH photo archive, you can see the Brontosaurus displayed among a growing collection of specimens, including Cope and Barnum Brown's "trachodont dinosaurs" (Anatosaurus) mounted in 1907, the Allosaurus mounted at about the same time or slightly earlier, and some of those early mounted sauropod legs. It was soon joined by the museum's other iconic dinosaur mount, the Tyrannosaurus, which was originally placed in the ground floor Hall of Man and Nature (now the Warburg Hall of New York State Environments), and moved to the new 4th floor Dinosaur Hall in the 1920s. The museum's Triceratops, and plaque mounts of Gorgosaurus and Struthiomimus were also in place by this time flanking the entrance to the Dinosaur Hall.

The Brontosaurus being
disassembled in the
Dinosaur Hall, 1938. AMNH.
Moving the tail section to the Hall of Jurassic Reptiles, 1938. AMNH.
As the museum's collections grew, a second dinosaur hall was opened to make room. The two halls were segregated by time period. Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Anatosaurus, and others from their time period were left the second Dinosaur Hall, now re-branded the Hall of Cretaceous Reptiles (and later again as the Hall of Late Dinosaurs). Brontosaurus and contemporaries were moved into a smaller space, the new Hall of Jurassic Reptiles (later the Hall of Early Dinosaurs), where it was joined by a newly mounted Stegosaurus, as well as a small collection of Triassic and Permian period vertebrate fossils, like Dimetrodon.

The Brontosaurus and new Stegosaurus
mount in the Hall of Jurassic Reptiles. AMNH.
The Brontosaurus had to be partly disassembled during the move in 1938, but was remounted essentially unchanged. In 1953, Dr. Edwin Colbert, at the time the AMNH curator of vertebrate paleontology, led another re-modelling effort of the new halls, including the addition of a chalk mural featuring Jurassic dinosaurs behind the Brontosaurus in what became the Hall of Early Dinosaurs. By 1958, the mount was partly disassembled again in order to change its base  - it would now be mounted on top of a sauropod trackway from the Paluxy River site.

Brontosaurus remounted on a trackway base, 1959. AMNH.
The Brontosaurus remained in this hall, unchanged for over 30 more years. I visited the museum for the first time in 1987 or '88, and had a chance to see the dinosaur collections both shortly before and shortly after they were closed for the first half of the 1990s for a major renovation. I can't find a single color photo of the original Hall of Early Dinosaurs pre-renovation, so here's the best I could do from my own family photo archives:

Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus in the AMNH Hall of Early Dinosaurs circa 1987.
As you can see, the old Hall of Early Dinosaurs was very simply lit and not very conducive to photography. The Hall of Early Dinosaurs was partially closed for renovations in 1990 (according to this helpful New York Times article) and completely closed in February of 1991. The Hall of Late Dinosaurs followed in February of 1992, keeping the Museum's famous T. rex on display a while longer than old Bronto. Though the major renovation of 1990-1995 seems like a no-brainer to us, it did have its share of critics at the time, even among notable paleontologists like former AMNH curator Ned Colbert. Colbert primarily criticized the new layout, lamenting that contemporary dinosaurs would no longer be displayed together; instead, the new layout arranges dinosaurs by phylogenetic relationships. (Colbert was not exactly a fan of phylogenetic nomenclature. "Cladistics has resulted in serious errors of classification," he said. "A kitten may have been born in an oven, but you can't assume, as the cladists might, that the kitten is therefore a biscuit.").

Colbert also criticized the use of an entirely replica set of skeletons for the new centerpiece of the museum's dinosaur displays, the 55-foot tall rearing Barosaurus and allosaurs in the Roosevelt Memorial rotunda. "If you have to replace some missing bones with casts, that's fine," Colbert was quoted saying by the Times, "but something of the real animal should be there." Museum staff noted that, of course, the pose would be impossible if they had used real, heavy fossil bones. All that aside, here's my favorite, somewhat prescient line from this article: "The most widely publicized of these errors is in the museum's brontosaur (or as some paleontologists prefer to call it, apatosaur)." Prefer, indeed.

When I returned to the museum in 1995, many of the mounts had been moved and/or disassembled again, and re-shuffled based on classification instead of time period. The second Dinosaur Hall, which then became the Hall of Cretaceous Reptiles and then the Hall of Late Dinosaurs, is now the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, where the re-mounted Brontosaurus stands today, still atop the Paluxy River tracks. The tail is longer and depicted in mid-whiplash, the neck is more elevated, and the head is based more appropriately on Apatosaurus rather than Camarasaurus, but otherwise it's the same classic mount.

Now, maybe we just need another label change...

Close-up of the big guy, December 2005. Note the newer mounting technique of
hanging the neck and tail vertebrae from the ceiling, allowing for the removal of the old triangular neck supports. Photo by the author.


  1. I regret not taking general layout pictures of the pre-1990s Halls (or the pre-1980s dino hall at the Smithsonian, but more forgivable then as I was a kid...). I find it hard to picture the organization of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Halls, since I am so used to the Ornithischian & Saurischian ones.

  2. The lack of decent photos of natural history exhibits from the 60s-80s seems to be a common problem. Online anyway...I'm sure there are plenty of photo prints gathering dust in family vacation albums. This seems particularly true of the non-dinosaur portions of fossil exhibits - I've never been able to find a photo of the old "sloth hall" at AMNH, for example.

  3. There are two old National Geographic magazine issues which contain photographs of the old AMNH Hall of Early Dinosaurs (pre-Cretaceous): May 1954 (R.T. Bird article on Paluxy trackways) and February 1963, with a nice color shot of the Stegosaurus-Brontosaurus-scavanging Allosaurus island, plus the chalk drawings on the blue wall above.

    Tom Johnson

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. I've updated the article with a bit of slightly more detailed info from an old NYT article on the subject...