Mark Carnall, The Other 97%

My presentation at the workshop, titled The Other 97%: Making the most of the underwhelming fossils in museums (video here) was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek examination of some of the difficulties of popularising palaeontology, especially in museums but also further afield. As Mark Witton has already touched on in his blog post and as evidenced by a number of (excellent) talks during the Popularising Palaeontology workshop, popularising palaeontology is almost always synonymous with talking about dinosaurs. Occasionally, mammoths will sneak in there and every now and then there’s a focus on human evolution but from paleontological exhibitions, permanent museum displays, young adult popular science books and palaeontology in the mainstream press there’s a disproportionate focus on dinosaurs.

With the explosion of social media and many palaeontologists writing their own blogs there’s more accessible paleontological content out there than ever before, however, when it comes to the wider public, museums still remain as the places where most people come face to face with palaeontology and as evidenced by the queues for the dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum London during the holidays and from the photos from museum visitors on social media, dinosaurs remain a firm favourite. In fact, in museums dinosaurs are synonymous with the whole of natural history- the ‘one with the dinosaurs in it’ is a common way to differentiate between the different museums in South Kensington (and at Oxford University museums).

However, a focus on dinosaurs in museums is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, for museums wanting to educate but also needing to attract visitors, dinosaurs are somewhat expected and more likely to draw the crowds. There’s a reason that the Natural History Museum London’s touring exhibitions are so dinosaur centric (four out of ten at the time of writing). Are some museums trapped into popularising dinosaurs?

Secondly, most museums lack the resources to keep their displays and exhibitions up to date with current dinosaur palaeontology. This was highlighted recently with the release of Jurassic World as vertebrate palaeontologists took to social media to point out the myriad of scientific inaccuracies in the blockbuster film, many of our natural history museums still have displays and artwork woefully out of date or inaccurate. It’s no wonder that so much of the reaction to popularising palaeontology is correcting inaccurate preconceptions (non-feathered dinosaurs, tail dragging, dinosaurs as birds) when many of the star attractions in museums are 19th Century articulated casts and skeletons in need of an expensive rearticulation or reinterpretation.

 

Figure 1:  Isitinterestingtous notjet theoretical animal made up of less interesting fossil organisms into the shape of one that people may recognise. Image collage sources for images. Acanthodes: J. Arthur Thomson, M.A., LL.D. Outlines of Zoology(New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1916), Monoplacophoran: Paul Bunje, UCMP. Monoplacophoran anatomy by Ivy Livingstone, © BIODIDA Trochocystites: http://geologie.vsb.cz/paleontologie/paleontologie/zoopaleontologie/DEUTEROSTOMIA/Homostelea.htm and rudists: Schumann & Steuber 1997; Kleine Senckenbergreihe 24: 117-122

 

Lastly, and the thrust of my presentation is that, obviously, non-avian dinosaurs are just one part of palaeontology; taxonomically, temporally and professionally. When it comes to the physical material held by museums, it’s also a tiny percentage of the paleontological material held. Other large fossil vertebrates can be just as awe-inspiring as the models, casts and skeletons of dinosaurs yet don’t tend to have entire galleries dedicated to them. Where invertebrate palaeontological displays exist they tend to be either arranged taxonomically or chronologically, with the best looking of a representative sample labelled little more than a scientific name and horizon.

What I would like to see is an injection of creativity and diversity around ‘the rest’ of palaeontology when it comes to museum display sand exhibitions to make more use of the 97% of collections and to try to break away from re-treading the tropes of dinosaur palaeontology on display. We have already developed a lot of these tools for supplementing museum material and making engaging exhibitions and displays that can be turned to popularising the rest of palaeontology:- virtual reality, animatronics, models, 3D reconstructions and cinematics.

Imagine walking into a palaeontological gallery to be faced with the large crushing jaws of Cameroceras or a herd of ‘taxidermy’ Synthetoceras next to original fossils and casts. Imagine a line-up of Leedsichthyis, Andrewsarchus, Shonisaurus and Prionosuchus next to the usual sauropods and cetaceans. Imagine dioramas of Tanystropheus, Helicoprion and Arthropleura. Of course, these examples are just the bombastic end of the diversity we find in the palaentological record- the biggest, weirdest and err wonderfullest for starters. 

I’d also like to see a diversity in modes of interpreting fossils in museums. Outside of dinosaur displays, taxonomy and chronology are still dominant modes of display that can be traced back to 19th Century arrangements of specimens, parodying the ‘comprehensive displays’ that would only be visited by learned gentlemen. How about displays on soft tissue anatomy, ecosystems, lansdcapes convergent evolution? I can imagine exhibitions called Butts, Flightless and When Continents Collide which would be unlike anything we’ve seen so far. Or alternatively, letting go a bit of dry interpretation and rigid adherence to evidence with content around speculative palaeontology (All Yesterdays: the exhibition) or embracing humour and popular culture as in my attempt to popularise the other 97% with the blog series underwhelming fossil fish of the month, making interest out of the fact that some species of extinct organisms will never be interesting to most people (or even palaeontologists).

Of course, this isn’t completely unexplored territory, many natural history museums are already experimenting with new modes of popularising palaeontology. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences had a display of theoreticaldescendant animals; including ‘taxidermy’ specimens of the tapir-like rodent Cortichaeris gouldi, marsupial Trichopteryx dixoni and a model of arthropod Helicopodus biryani. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, models of theoretical ancestors concestor and shrewdinger are the focus of touchable displays on evolution (naming shrewdinger itself was an exercise in popularising palaeontology by the American Museum of Natural History).

 

Figure 2:  Speculative palaeontology from the future with Cortichaeris gouldi and the past with Concestor and Shrewdinger. With a nice Diictodon model thrown in for good measure. Images courtesy of the respective institutions.

 

This is not to say that dinosaurs should be blacklisted as gateways into an interest or inspiration into natural history but with today’s technology and modes of communication, there’s an opportunity to break the mould of what has been a long dominant way of popularising palaeontology through displays and exhibitions. Arguably, its static museum displays and the tropes of interpretation which perpetuate those unshakable misconceptions we all have to work so hard at addressing before we can engage with ‘new content’. Reinforcing long outdated ideas and underselling the broader picture of what makes palaeontology such an interesting area beyond what one group was up to in the Mesozoic.  

 

 

 

 

Richard Fallon, Popularisation and Palaeoart: Then and Now

 
Figure 1: Scelidosaurus harrisoni by Joseph Smit, from Extinct Monsters (1892)

Figure 1: Scelidosaurus harrisoni by Joseph Smit, from Extinct Monsters (1892)

 

In the preface to the second edition of his Extinct Monsters (1892), Henry Neville Hutchinson wrote to thank readers for ‘the kind way’ they had received his ‘endeavour to popularise the results of modern Palæontology’. ‘There seem to be fashions in all things—even in sciences’, he continued, adding that ‘wonderful advances’ in physics and biology ‘may have tended to throw Palæontology somewhat into the shade. Let us hope that it will not remain there long’. Yet, considering that it was preceded by the infamous, litigious, and bountiful Bone Wars, and shortly followed by the hunt for gigantic sauropod dinosaurs that Paul D. Brinkman calls the Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, Extinct Monsters was hardly a shot in the dark.

However seriously we take the popular writer’s self-promoting preface, palaeontology has rarely been cast into the shade by historians of science. We’ve seen a tremendous deal of great work on the field’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pioneers, especially in Britain and France. Now, as Chris Manias noted at the beginning of this excellent and productive workshop, many scholars are working on continuing where the narratives of figures like Georges Cuvier, Mary Anning, Charles Lyell, and Richard Owen leave off, through their late-nineteenth-century successors and into the very different landscape of the twentieth century.

At Popularising Palaeontology, Germany and the United States took the historical spotlight. Funding, institutional politics, and the strategic machinations of palaeontologists in the brave new twentieth-century world were the order of the day. Unlike most of the subjects of these papers, Hutchinson wasn’t a professional or institutional palaeontologist. He published very few scientific papers in specialist periodicals. Rather, his main claim to palaeontological authority was his secondary research—wide-ranging, synthetic, and often based on personal relationships with leading palaeontologists and geologists. His other claim was that people actually read his work. Or, if nothing else, they looked at the pictures.

Back in 1892, thanks primarily to the work of O. C. Marsh, complete skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs were, for the first time, available to artists. Hutchinson hired Joseph Smit, a highly-accomplished zoological chromolithographer, to provide Extinct Monsters with restorations, or palaeoart, that captured this new vision of dinosaurs as lithe, heterogeneous, and often bipedal animals. These were far removed from the lumbering reptilian beasts depicted earlier in the century, which were based on ingenious extrapolation from much more limited fossil material. Hutchinson’s book proudly paired woodcuts of skeletal reconstructions with Smit’s sensational restorations, showing the reader that these were not fanciful pictures but cutting-edge contributions to scientific thought, and endorsed by none other than the London Natural History Museum’s Keeper of Geology, Henry Woodward. In the text, Hutchinson honestly explained to readers the difficulties of this search for some form of palaeoartistic fidelity. The book was a great success: it popularised palaeontology.

Over the course of this workshop, Darren Naish, Mark Witton, and John Conway all discussed the power of art in expressing contemporary palaeontological ideas. Exciting images of extinct animals proliferate rapidly as memes—copied, plagiarised, altered. The same was true in Hutchinson’s day. Smit’s designs, lifted from Extinct Monsters and its sequels, reappeared in cartoons, newspapers, and novels in the following decades, removed from the cautious and didactic context of the popular science book. The memetic status of a palaeoart image doesn’t necessarily correspond to whether or not its artist was scrupulously working with the fossil material at hand, or critically consulting the most current research. An attractive but scientifically baseless restoration can, therefore, find itself duplicated in new and unrelated contexts. In addition, a particularly compelling and enduring restoration inspired by contemporary palaeontology, like the iconic Velociraptor of Jurassic Park (1993), can fire interest in new visions of prehistoric species, but then later to obstruct efforts to interest publics in more recent developments. In the world of palaeoart, quality control (a controverted concept in itself) is largely self-enforcing, and is therefore often not enforced. What level of responsibility do popularisers and artists have for their work? 

Hutchinson certainly possessed a keen sense of responsibility. He felt that access to science was being shut away from borderline figures like himself, and that, for the public, the situation was even worse. Experts in the field, according to Hutchinson, wrote only ‘“dry-as-dust descriptions” and ponderous reports’ with no hope of attracting wider audiences brought up on thrilling modern novels. In the 1910 edition of Extinct Monsters, he promised to deal with his material ‘in a light and superficial way’. It was, after all, only ‘the cream that the general public require’, rather than the ‘reservoir of milk below’. Many of the specialists whose works Hutchinson translated to more palatable prose found his tone somewhat impertinent. What gave him the right to take such a high tone? After all, he was simply a populariser.

It goes without saying that nobody in attendance at Popularising Palaeontology would have been comfortable with the idea of someone being ‘simply a populariser’. When Hutchinson died in 1927, his Geological Society obituary noted that he was ‘known, at least by name, to a far wider circle than that which most of us can reach’. If you read about palaeontology in English in the 1890s, 1900s, or 1910s, then the chances were high that you were learning from Hutchinson. His books lurked on library and drawing-room bookshelves for decades after—increasingly outdated in their science, but, like Jurassic Park, no less appealing for the passage of time. The diffusion concept of popularisation, where scientific facts are directly but slowly passed down to the unquestioning public, has long since gone extinct in academia. As Ian Malcom says to John Hammond: “the kind of control you’re attempting is…it’s simply not possible”. Understanding how popularisation works is essential to the history of science, and if contemporary popularisers of palaeontology are going to persuade their various publics that Velociraptor had feathers, then they, too, might have to dust off Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters.

 

Links

H. N. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Man and Beast (1896):
https://archive.org/stream/prehistoricmanbe00hutcuoft#page/n7/mode/2up

H. N. Hutchinson, Extinct Monsters (1893 edition):
https://archive.org/stream/extinctmonstersp00hutcrich#page/n9/mode/2up

H. N. Hutchinson, Extinct Monsters (1910 edition):
https://archive.org/stream/extinctmonster00hutc#page/n11/mode/2up
 

 

Elsa Panciroli, Cutting Out the Talking Platypus

You can’t say half of what you want to say in a public talk. Whether it’s at a huge international conference or among a small cosy research group, whether enthusing children or sharing your subject with keen-minded adults, there is always so much more to share than can ever fit into your allotted time.

There are a few approaches to this problem. Some speakers can’t bring themselves to part with a single slide. They get three-quarters of the way through their talk, then tear through the unwieldy number of slides still remaining while the session Chair stands behind them, tapping their wristwatch and impatiently clearing their throat. Another approach is to cram oodles of information onto each slide, hoping that even if you can’t say everything, the audience can at least see your copious thoughts, packed between the dense text and brain-boggling array of images.

For the rest of us, we admit defeat. You just can’t say everything you want. Embrace the burn: pick out the very best slides to illustrate the main themes, and then have a stiff drink to lament the creativity and knowledge you have no time to share. You can even allude to these “lost slides” during the presentation, or perhaps invite your audience to ask you about them afterwards.

I’d like to share with you my forgotten slides from Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives.

 

The title slide from my talk at the workshop. But as with all presentations, some of the slides never made it to the final version.

 

My omitted slides involve a talking platypus. I know what you’re thinking: how on earth could such a thing not be of utmost importance for any talk, whatever the subject? In this case, despite it being my favourite part of the research I did for my presentation on the challenges of popularising mammals from the time of dinosaurs, these slides didn’t contribute enough towards the main narrative of the presentation.

While doing research, I was exploring the appearance of early mammals in the public consciousness. These creatures - scientifically perhaps the most important fossils to come from Mesozoic rocks - have long been overshadowed by the giant reptiles they lived alongside. I went spelunking for popular references to Mesozoic mammals in art and literature, and in doing so came across the wonderful, Dot and the Kangaroo.

 

Frank P. Mahony’s lovely illustration of a scene from Dot and the kangaroo (1899).

 

In this Australian children’s book, written by Ethel C. Pedley and published in 1899, a little girl named Dot wanders into the outback near her home, and gets lost. As children are wont to do in fiction, she befriends an animal: a kangaroo who has lost her joey. The kangaroo agrees to help Dot find her way home, and suggests they consult the platypus, who has been around so long it knows everything. The platypus, according to the highly strung creature in Pedley’s tale, existed “millions of years before the ignorant Humans”. While the same can be said of a great many animal lineages on earth, what Pedley is specifically referring to is a hangover from early Victorian misunderstandings about mammal evolution.

The first scientists to encounter mammals from the time of dinosaurs misidentified them as marsupials (animals with pouches, such as the kangaroo) and monotremes (the platypus and echidna). They considered life to have “progressed” up a ladder; with humankind wobbling on a throne at the top. In early evolutionary scientific models, mammals began as primitive egg-laying monotremes, then stepped up a rung to become marsupial, before reaching the perfection of the placental (giving birth to live young). This led to depictions of Mesozoic platypuses being gobbled by crocodiles beside fern-lined swamps.

The true course of evolution is more beautifully complex than this. Monotremes, marsupials and placentals all share an ancestor. These lineages have lived alongside one another for millions of years, rather than evolving from one another along some anthropogenically judged scale of “primitive” to “advanced”. While platypuses and echidnas share many characteristics with our Mesozoic ancestors (which provides clues to ancient mammal biology) they are as advanced along their own path of evolution to the present day, as we are along ours.

 

From H.R. Knipe’s Nebula to Man (1905). A depiction of Mesozoic platypuses being eaten by crocodiles.

 

While science moved on from this misunderstanding before the end of the 1800s, the misconception of monotremes somehow belonging to the time of dinosaurs and being more ancient than placental mammals, remained alive and well in popular culture for decades (arguably, vestiges of it still remain). The platypus in Pedley’s story rants at Dot about its multi-million year origins; “I can prove by a bone in my body that my ancestors were the Amphitherium, the Amphilestes, the Phascolotherium, and the Stereognathus!"

This speech stunned me. Where did Pedley dig up these names for creatures relatively unknown to the public? How amazing to see them in a child’s story, when our current culture is hell-bent on over-simplification for fears of frightening the villagers with fancy science-talk. As palaeontologists know well, children are not afraid of scientific nomenclature (though many adults are). Pedley lifted her monotreme’s ancestry from Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology (1841). How wonderful to think that a generation of Australian kids might be familiar with the obscure early mammals I’m endeavouring to popularise over 100 years later.

 

One of the deleted slides from my presentation, containing a short film clip from the 1977 adaptation of Dot and the Kangaroo. (From 42mins 20secs into the film. Be warned, it ends with singing.)

 

By the 1970s, the feature-length animated adaptation of Dot and Kangaroo had already begun to whittle the number of names: “…my ancestors were the famous Amphitherium, the illustrious Phascolotherium, and the renowned Stereognathus!" It is maliciously delicious to hear the voice-actor strain over pronouncing these unfamiliar beasts.

I screen captured the platypus scene from the film for my slides, but admitted to myself later that including the story of Dot and the Kangaroo was an indulgence on my part. It excited me to hear the beautiful little mammals I study mentioned in literature and blurted out in a cartoon. However, the clip ate a large chunk of presentation time, without adding a great deal to my point.

While I shed it for the workshop, I can share this delightful morsel of Mesozoic mammal cultural history with you here. I hope it tickles you, as it did me.

 

 

(This blogpost is dedicated to the memory of all the slides that never made it into our talks. May they live on it our memories - and in uncut powerpoint files on our computers.)

 

Links

Dot and the Kangaroo (feature-length animated film) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTg3wV3DnGY

Knipe, H.R. 1905 Nebula to man - https://archive.org/details/nebulatoman00kniprich

Lyell, Charles 1841 Elements of Geology - https://archive.org/details/elementsgeology00lyelgoog

Pedley, Ethel C. 1899 Dot and the Kangaroo - http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18891/18891-h/18891-h.htm

 

Mark Witton, The popularity of dinosaurs - for better, for worse

 

The Popularising Palaeontology workshops held in August 2016 presented fascinating insights into the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. Our many talks and roundtable discussions touched varied topics but several central themes emerged, of which one was the prevalence of dinosaurs in virtually all palaeontological PR exercises. Whatever we discussed - the history of museums, the palaeoart industry, public interest in research or palaeontological influences on cinema - dinosaurs were almost always involved. Even if they weren’t a main focus, their influence there - catalysing certain events, influencing decisions, eclipsing other outreach topics. It would be wrong to say popularising palaeontology is totally synonymous with popularising dinosaurs, but for better and worse, these animals have a major role and influence over public outreach of palaeontological science.

 

 

The success of dinosaurs in outreach

 

Exactly why dinosaurs occupy such an important and influential space in popular culture remains largely mysterious. On paper, dinosaurs are a group of extinct reptiles which are not - superficially at least - so different from other long-dead sauropsids, and yet they have somehow gained global fame and many dedicated followers. My suspicion is that dinosaurs uniquely combine obviously amazing, ‘high impact’ anatomy - large size, fantastic skeletal structures such as horns, huge teeth and so on - with bauplans that are easily understood by the general public, without being so familiar that they’re pedestrian. For instance, everyone can appreciate Allosaurus as an active, large bodied predator even if just looking at its skeleton in a museum, but - as bird-like as it is in detail - the overall form is somewhat alien and intriguing. Other fossil groups, such as ancient carnivorans or whales, are impressive enough but perhaps also too familiar to inspire our imaginations in the same way. At the other end of the spectrum are extinct creatures which are just too unusual for widespread appreciation. Perhaps their anatomy is too strange or their life histories are too obscure and difficult to relate to familiar biology. This applies to many extinct invertebrates, as well as several types of weirder vertebrates. Dinosaur biology is thus near perfect for outreach material: they’re visually impressive, anatomically and biologically accessible, but different enough to warrant interest. Whether this is the actual basis for dinosaurian appeal or not, museum staff, educators and merchandisers have realised for over 150 years that dinosaurs are an excellent way to interest the public and make money, and given them prominent roles in outreach. Aiding any intuitive draw we have to dinosaurs is a lot of social inertia, and part of the enduring appeal of dinosaurs is a long history of ingraining them into popular culture.

 

Figure - Why are dinosaurs so popular?
The success of dinosaurs in the public eye almost certainly reflects many varied influences, but their unique anatomical qualities may play an important role. Does any other fossil group combine interesting, ‘high impact’ biology, in a format that the public can easily grasp, in the way that dinosaurs do?

 

For those of us interested in science education, dinosaurs are one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal. We see them as not only fascinating subjects in their own right but as a way to introduce ‘bigger picture’, perhaps fundamentally more important, scientific concepts to lay audiences. Dinosaurs are gateways to discussions of evolution, adaptation, anatomy, biological diversity, extinction, geological time and the changing nature of the planet. They provide, as charismatic and fantastic creatures, perfect characters to maintain interest in discussions of these sometimes complex concepts, and well-known Mesozoic dramas - the breakup of Pangea, formation of the Deccan Trapps, the Chicxulub Impact - offer rich backgrounds to stage our conversations. Dinosaurs are more than just awesome animals: they’re public ambassadors for science, facts and intelligent thinking.

 

We cannot ignore the economic value of dinosaurs, too - and not just to Hollywood movie makers and toy manufacturers. Dinosaurs provide academia and its satellite industries with vital income because of their easy marketability and merchandising potential. Public interest in dinosaur news, books and artwork keeps authors and palaeoartists in work, while the pull of dinosaur exhibitions in natural history museums not only keeps turnstiles spinning but brings essential revenue - in the form of gift shop purchases, entry fees and cafe visits - to these underfunded venues. I don’t know that anyone has ever attempted to work out the net worth of dinosaurs to education, but, globally, their appeal must bring millions of pounds into venues that perform outreach every year.

 

 

Too much of a good thing?

 

So hurrah for dinosaurs, then, and their role as not only fascinating subjects for research and art, but as bankable, relatable and demanded elements of modern culture. But the popularity of dinosaurs does have an impact on other aspects of palaeontological PR, and in some conversations at our workshop ‘dinosaur’ almost became a bit of dirty word. No-one will deny the positive aspects of dinosaur popularity, but their dominance in popularised palaeontology influences outreach strategies, merchandising and public expectation, and not always in a positive way.

 

Some of the problems caused by dinosaurs were outlined in detail during talks at our workshop. We heard that a large portion of natural history museum visitors are exclusively concerned with seeing dinosaur exhibits, challenging natural history museums to use the rest of their collections in a meaningful, impactful manner. This is despite many museum goers being unable to distinguish dinosaur remains from those of other animals without the aid of helpful signage. It seems that, for some museum visitors, dinosaurs act like a brand label, or justification for interest, rather than an excuse to visit a museum for a rounded educational experience.

 

We also heard that bringing attention to non-dinosaur groups can be extremely difficult, and the less dinosaur-like they are, the harder it is. Groups like pre-Cenozoic synapsids, extinct invertebrates, fossil fish and so on struggle for attention and require highly creative outreach tactics to receive any interest. One of the commonest strategies - used frequently for semi-technical books on fossil animals - is to make sure dinosaurs remain prominently mentioned even in those events or products which are focused on completely unrelated groups of animals. We just don’t trust most non-dinosaur clades to draw crowds or revenue on their own and have to spin them as being relevant to dinosaurs in some way. Tellingly, the only groups to escape frequent dinosaur namechecking are those which are already somewhat ‘dinosaur-like’. Giant fossil mammals, pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles share aspects of size and gross appearance with Mesozoic dinosaurs and might be seen as ‘honorary dinosaurs’ by the public, and perhaps mistakenly interpreted as the genuine article by many. Both dinosaur-targeted museum visits and our resistance to promote palaeontological topics without a dinosaurian safety net questions whether dinosaurs are a genuine ‘gateway’ to wider scientific education, and perhaps suggests a rather narrower interest in prehistoric life among the public.

 

Our group also raised the association between dinosaur outreach and very young demographics, and the challenge this presented to educators. The problem isn’t that many children are naturally interested in dinosaurs - if anything, this is something to celebrate and encourage - but the impact this association has on older audiences. Many adults assume that anything to do with dinosaurs, and by extension any prehistoric animal, is automatically related to children, and often very young children. This becomes an issue for to those attempting to perform outreach or market palaeontologically-informed products to older audiences, and particularly outside of online venues. Experience shows that ‘real world’ dinosaur events - regardless of venue, event type or advertising theme - will be primarily stocked by children and parents expecting child-friendly media. I’ve experienced this many times in my outreach career, such as bowing to pressure for colouring-in stations at a palaeoart gallery, being asked whether a public lecture (entitled ‘Palaeoart: the Never Ending Quest for Accuracy’) was suitable for toddlers, and being invited to run art stalls and events for older audiences at dinosaur-themed events to find few interested people over 10 years of age.

 

The general expectation that dinosaur-related events or products skew towards children presents a complex set of challenges. Firstly, it can lead to older audiences deciding a priori that they cannot take anything away from dinosaur outreach because the event - whatever it is - is ‘just for kids’. I’m sure many of us have seen how ‘switched off’ parents of young dinosaur fanatics are when visiting outreach events, even though the people their children are speaking to may be expert scientists, experienced fossil hunters or world-renowned palaeoartists. Secondly, mismatched expectations of outreach events can be frustrating for both outreachers and audiences: attendees may wonder why a dinosaur event is pitched above the level of their children, while outreachers may feel over-prepared or over-invested in their activity programme when confronted with only young audiences. Perhaps the most concerning issue is that many outreachers and merchandisers use young demographics as an excuse for low scientific standards and sensationalism, promoting outdated, erroneous and sometimes idiosyncratic views of palaeontology because their audience is too young and insufficiently educated to know otherwise, or ignoring scientific data where it might curb child appeal. I am sure most readers can think of numerous examples of products - many labelled as ‘educational’ - which show evidence of this, and it’s easy to see how this attitude may play a major role in perpetuating outdated and erroneous ideas about the past.

 

One of our final discussion touched on perhaps another issue faced by dinosaur outreach: the schism between public and palaeontological appreciation of what dinosaurs are. For palaeontologists, dinosaurs are a constantly - and sometimes rapidly - evolving set of hypotheses and ideas, and this is what we generally try to present to the world in our outreach. But certain dinosaur concepts outgrew palaeontologist-steered media long ago and now occupy their own place in popular culture, one almost entirely divorced from developments of dinosaur science and instead orbiting their portrayals in film, TV and popular literature. Most of these products - even those produced in the last few years - stick to now long-outdated 20th century interpretations of dinosaur biology and, divorced from guiding hands of scientists, solely emphasise marketable aspects such as their size, perceived ferociousness, and unusual anatomy. The result is a public largely familiar with dinosaurs in a scientifically-distanced, simplified and monstrous form rather than the animals reconstructed through biological and geological sciences, and with little appreciation for their evolutionary context, the scientific techniques used to understand them, or their relationship to wider, ‘core themes’ of scientific outreach. Recent studies partly vindicate this view in showing that the public are generally unaware of even the most basic aspects of dinosaur science, such as the near 50-year old revision from the classic ‘tail-dragging’ posture to an elevated tail and horizontal body attitude (Ross et al. 2013). This is despite museums, artwork, documentaries and some of the most successful blockbuster movies of all time showing the latter since at least the 1990s. This being the case (and with an added caveat that the study in question was relatively small), perhaps our issue with dinosaur education is more severe than we thought: are people really engaging with dinosaur media at all, or are our subjects of research, artwork, and hallowed gateways to other sciences little more than time-fillers and distractions?

 

Figure: Hollywood Dinosaurs
Despite the best efforts of many scientists, the public at large seem to associate dinosaurs with considerably outdated interpretations and monstrous creatures. Reviewing recent successful entries into one of the most widely-accessed sources of popular dinosaur culture - Hollywood movies - is this surprising? Perhaps the most visually progressive rendering in this set are the sparsely feathered dromaeosaurs from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (bottom right). However, the state of their integument still recalls dinosaur palaeoart from the mid-1990s, and not the extensive feather body covering shown by fossil evidence and now commonly restored over certain dinosaur species. Image sources, from top row down; King Kong (2005); Godzilla (2014); Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014); Toy Story (1996 - onwards); Jurassic World (2015); The Good Dinosaur (2015).]

 

 

So, are dinosaurs as useful as we think for outreach purposes?

 

The points raise a simple but significant question: how effective is dinosaur-based outreach, really? As noted above, many decisions about outreach are shaped around dinosaur science and resources are poured into promoting dinosaur science itself. But are we right to regard dinosaur outreach as highly as we do?

 

Trying to balance the positive and negative points raised above, my take is yes, dinosaurs are an effective means to bringing science to people… but probably only certain people. Specifically, they seem to work very well among those who are already tuned into palaeontology, natural history and general science, an audience composed mostly of adult enthusiasts and children. Beyond this, their effect seems to tail off quickly and they may actually be a barrier to effective outreach. Audiences with preconceived expectations of dinosaur-themed content may ignore anything dinosaur related, which is a concern with us giving dinosaurs such privileged consideration in educational material. Are we limiting our promotion of other topics that could engage these uninterested people? And is one of our challenges of popularising palaeontology making dinosaurs and related topics universally attractive, and not just subjects with appeal to specialist audiences or younger people?

 

Of course, your opinion on this matter may differ. But even so, I think most of us would agree that our wider education about dinosaurs and related matters could be more effective, or at least more nuanced and reflective of more topics, than it currently is. I am optimistic that a groundswell of suitable movements towards this goal may already be underway. Many modern curators, scientists and artists are attuned to matters of science communication and interested in identifying outreach issues, sharing best practise, evolving public engagement methods and reaching new audiences with new topics. The fact that this article is being written as output from a workshop dedicated to popularised palaeontology is evidence of these practises actually occurring, and it feels like the right questions are being discussed. How can we, and when should we, shift focus from dinosaurs? How do we make other forms of life/parts of museum collections of wider interest? How do we more effectively impart new science to publishers, movie makers and other non-educational bodies making palaeontologically-themed media? It’s also pleasing to see more discussions about the once largely backgrounded industry practises of palaeoartistry in both scientific and popular media. Realising the important role that palaeoart has for communicating science, many involved in its production are vocally distancing themselves from the ‘popularised’ image of dinosaurs to more nuanced, scientifically-validated and interesting portrayals of dinosaurs, as well as other forms of prehistoric life. We are still on the uphill part of this journey to revising our outreach approach, but it’s reassuring to know that a body of professionals are looking critically at dinosaur outreach and its wider impact.

 

Most of the discussions and innovation in dinosaur/palaeontolgical outreach are taking place online, and transferring these to ‘real-world’ outreach, where the necessity of resource investment makes change risky, may be our greatest upcoming challenge. Again, however, there are signs of this sort of thing happening, such as the famous (or infamous?) decision to replace the Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus cast with a blue whale skeleton. This logic of moving this famous attraction has been questioned by some, but I admire the museum for putting a very relevant and symbolically significant specimen in their most prominent location. In doing so, they’re making a clear statement about what they consider to be important, and what they want the public to engage with. Whether you agree with the controversial reorganisation of the natural history museum or not, the idea of outreachers taking initiative with their educational agenda is something I feel we should echo when popularising prehistoric animals. If our outreach is primarily reaching pre-interested audiences anyway, then why not have faith in their interest and tell them what we - as researchers, artists and curators - think is fascinating and exciting about our field, whether it’s related to dinosaurs or not? It would seem a diverse array of outreach topics is more likely to spread out from palaeo-primed audiences and into broader public interest than one largely revolving around a single, perhaps somewhat over-familiar topic. Perhaps cutting palaeontological outreach’s umbilical chord with dinosaurs would benefit us outreachers too, allowing us to freshen and rethink our approach to popularising neglected groups and focus on their own selling points, instead of using them to greater contextualise dinosaurs.

 

The risk of failure is what prevents many of us, and our employers, from straying too far from tried and tested means of outreach. And yes, if we’re talking paleontology with the public, dinosaurs are an obvious safety net. But we should take advantage of the fact that we’re more enabled than any previous generation of educators to cooperate, create and promote the subjects we feel are important with only a little inventive thinking and technological knowhow. Individuals can now develop significant outreach resources without the need for expensive designers and developers; online promotion can be essentially free; and the increasing accessibility of printing - both 2D and 3D materials - is lowering the financial risks tied into ‘real world’ outreach events. Any public enterprise involves a level of investment and risk, but resourceful thinking and shouldering the brunt of development ourselves can minimise these.

 

In closing, I want to stress that I’m not wailing on dinosaurs. As may be evident from my own output, I think they’re fantastically interesting animals with an important role to play in outreach. But for dinosaur outreach to be successful and support, not restrict, other outreach efforts we have to realise their limitations, as well as their strengths, as public ambassadors.

 

 

Reference

 

Ross, R., Duggan-Haas, D. and Allmon, W. (2013). The posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science? Journal of Geoscience Education, 61, 145-160