When and under what conditions did scientists successfully appeal to the public? And how did the public’s perception influence scientists’ agendas? These are key questions in order to understand the relationship between knowledge production and dissemination. At the Popularising Palaeontology workshops held at the King's College London in August 2016, I tried to tackle this issue by analyzing how German paleontologists marketed their discipline in order to obtain enough financial resources to excavate dinosaur bones in German East Africa (Tanzania) between 1909 and 1913. (Video here http://www.poppalaeo.com/tamborini )
What was the financial situation of early 20th-century German paleontology? The 1900 annual personnel budget of the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History was fixed at 20,000 marks; whereas in order to attract the physicist Friedrich Kohlrausch (1840–1910) to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin-Charlottenburg the Ministry of Interior was ready to pay him 18,900 marks per year. That means almost the entire amount of money available for Stuttgart. Or, the 1905 operating budget of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt came to 40,000 marks; while between 1909 and 1911 the entire budget of the Berlin Geological-Paleontological Museum of Natural History amounted only to 17,300 marks.
Thus, during the first decades of the 20th century, it seems that industrial-based sciences as physics, chemistry etc. obtained much more financial support than natural history did. Concerning the lack of Prussian interest in natural history, German paleontologist Otto Jaekel (1863–1929) remarked: “Like anything that does not bring in any money, there seems not to be the slightest interest in natural history in Prussia.”
Let us focus now on another kind of numbers.
This table shows the budget of first two excavation seasons of the so-called Tendaguru expedition. This was one of the most successful paleontological expedition of the 20th century. Between 1909 and 1913, Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde unearthed more than 225 tons of fossils near Tendaguru in German East Africa (todays Tanzania), and transported them to Berlin. Among them were the bones of a Brachiosaurus, which would eventually become the biggest mounted dinosaur in the world.
As figure 1 shows, the first two excavation seasons of the German expedition were mainly financed by private citizens, who donated a total of 1,727 German marks. The Prussian central state was less generous. Even the Berlin Society of Friends of Natural Science [Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin] and the Berlin city council donated more than the central state did—making contributions of 20,000 and 8,000 German marks, respectively. Whereas the Prussian central state gave a mere 5,000 marks.
However, the Prussian state decided to become more closely involved in the expedition, making a large donation of 45,000 marks to the 1912 excavation season. Why and how did this happen? Why did the Prussian state decide to support a discipline detached from industry, like vertebrate paleontology? And, how could paleontology acquire an institutional, social, and scientific value in a society that put a premium on the industrialization of science? The answer to these questions lies in Wilhelm von Branca’s fundraising campaign.
Wilhelm von Branca (1895–1907) was the director of the Geological-Paleontological Museum in Berlin. He conducted a highly successful campaign to market the importance of dinosaurs in Prussia and to convince public opinion and the Prussian central state of the value of paleontology. Branca used dinosaurs to underpin and disseminate his notion of natural history as a synthetic activity and to merge paleontological and geological research (see Richard Fallon’s post for a comparative perspective: http://www.poppalaeo.com/blogposts/2017/1/3/richard-fallon-popularisation-and-palaeoart-then-and-now )
Branca’s communicative strategy was extremely simple. He sought to conjure up dinosaurs before the eyes of the public and the Prussian government. In order to do that, he focused on two main aspects: the exceptional enormous size of the bones discovered and the international prestige linked to this expedition. He presented the find in these terms to a significant number of different audiences in order to mobilize a great deal of financial resources, consensus, and sponsorship. In other words, he marketed Tendaguru and with it his idea of natural history.
With the help of pathologist David Paul von Hansemann (1858–1920), Branca established a committee to launch an efficient public fundraising campaign. The committee’s first move was to advertise the dinosaur finds in various local and national newspapers as well as in popular science magazines. In 1909, the committee chose the popular weekly journal, Naturwissenschaftliche Wochenschrift, to place a fundraising advertisement. After briefly describing the importance of the expedition, the committee explicitly cited the competitive emulation of the United States in order achieve its goal: “It would be desirable for this enterprise to be energetically supported by local friends of the sciences following the example set by American sponsors.”
As a result, great excitement arose in the Prussian Empire about the paleontological findings with various applications arriving at the Museum from people eager to accompany the Berlin paleontologists to Tanzania. First and foremost, though, the newspaper advertisement gave rise to generous voluntary donations from the German middle classes, who were eager to see the German expedition unearth dinosaur bones bigger than the American ones.
Hence, Branca’s communicative strategy was extremely successful. He gathered enough resources to excavate a huge volume of paleontological remains, send them to Berlin, and prepare them. This was so effective that even the Prussian central state eventually decided to financially support the 1912 excavation season. This was an important victory. In fact, vertebrate paleontology, as was the case for other so-called “field sciences” like archeology and ethnography, was for the most part financed by private philanthropists both in Europe and elsewhere. Yet, what kind of service could a discipline detached from industry offer to the state?
Prussia decided to support the expedition, not because it was convinced that paleontology was able to foster the state’s industrial development, as chemistry or physics did, but rather because it played a significant role in promoting German nationalism. Branca decided to market the value of paleontology by taking advantage of this particular aspect. Indeed, he noted that the “unexpected success” of the Tendaguru expedition was due to the fact that “the excavations revealed an incredible wealth of forms and remains of enormous reptiles. Their size outshone what was already known so far, [they eclipsed] even the American giant finds… the Emperor himself has expressed his warm interest in this scientific as well as national enterprise” [italics mine]. By 1912, the Tendaguru expedition had indeed become a national enterprise, increasing the prestige of a state seeking to compete with other states politically, economically, and socially.
More on early 20th-century German paleontology and the Tendaguru expedition here: https://www.naturkundemuseum.berlin/de/dinosaurier-in-berlin