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