Mary Anning is a dinosaur. Not only an inhabitant of a former age, whose life and appearance we must reconstruct from surviving historical traces, but also a towering figure who dominates the popular palaeontological landscape. For my PopPalaeo talk I drew on this BSHS Viewpoint magazine piece, which surveyed the numerous historical and contemporary presentations of Anning’s life, particularly those intended for juvenile audiences. Whether starring in Kate Beaton’s witty cartoon reworking of Kelis, an online BBC educational resource and game, or a children’s science podcast on Dinosaur Poop Part 2, the multifaceted Anning, I showed, has appeared in various guises and for varied purposes over the past 200 years.
As the subsequent discussion demonstrated (via many shared remembrances), the story of Mary Anning clearly remains a compelling entry-point into palaeontology and its histories, that very flexibility one reason for its continued success. Anning has been celebrated as a child discoverer, embodying the recurrent idea of the close connections between young people, nature, and curiosity; as a model observer, someone who can not only be admired but someone whose actions - and, perhaps, discoveries - can be mimicked; a Lyme Regis local, as firmly embedded in and associated with the Jurassic cliffs as any of her famous fossil specimens; an example of working-class engagement and negotiation with scientific authority and authorities; an expert whose specialist judgement and knowledge of palaeontological finds was sought out and valued; now, as an icon, Anning is a recurrent star of women in science lists, stage, and screen. However, for historians of science these stories are often unsatisfactory, reproducing heroic, individualised accounts of discovery and genius, particularly when distilled into works for children.
A recurring theme of the conference was how evidently popular and already well-known aspects of palaeontology can be used as ‘gateways’ into more unfamiliar and complex material, unglamorous bryozoa or underwhelming fossil fish riding the coattails of charismatic megafauna. Can we - like the dinosaur - also use the popularity of Anning to introduce a wider perspective on what the history of palaeontology is and has been? New versions of Anning’s story, I suggested, could be told which might better reflect current approaches to histories of the sciences, highlighting Anning’s own place in a wider culture, other less celebrated figures, or those whose traces in the historical record do not survive. Moving beyond a heroic or a rags-to-not-quite-riches template for Anning’s story would not only enrich accounts and understandings of her palaeontological activities and their place in wider culture, but would also stress more firmly that stories about individuals always contain multitudes.
One approach would be moving beyond individual biography to prospographies, using Anning as a entry-point to diverse communities of practitioners (as the excellent TrowelBlazers site reveals); another would be a questioning of the seeping hagiography which figures Anning as some sort of superhero, and instead presenting her as a flawed human being. Accounts could relocate the focus of their attention from people to objects, whether discovered specimens, relics, or places; or from the technical palaeontological content to a wider cultural history of seaside tourism and geological visiting, and much more. These are not novel thoughts: all these approaches have been and are being used in academic works, and to a certain extent in the more in-depth popular writings; but can it be done, too, in shorter or juvenile works? We have, I would argue, tended to brush off too much of the surrounding material when preparing Anning’s story for young audiences.
Overall, the PopPalaeo discussed provoked valuable reflections on storytelling, the relationship between academic work and wider audiences, and on how traditional modes of biographical writing can be reworked or challenged in an attempt to introduce more complex cultural histories. So perhaps I should rephrase my opening line: necessarily living within a sea of wider connections and contexts, Mary Anning is – of course – a plesiosaur.
Melanie Keene is Fellow and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, Cambridge. She works on the history of science for children, and is the author of Science in Wonderland: the scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain (OUP, 2015). Her current research projects are on science in juvenile periodicals, Noah’s Arks, and elementary anatomy.
As a story, it has it all: a seaside setting, impoverished beginnings, a lightning strike, monstrous creatures, a tragic death, fame if not fortune, and even a little dog. No wonder numerous tales about nineteenth-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning have been told to rapt young audiences over the past one hundred and fifty years. During this time, different aspects of her story have been emphasised by children’s writers and illustrators: she has metamorphosed from a juvenile ‘Columbus’ of the ichthyosaur ‘fossil furies’ to a scatological ‘coprolite queen’ who should best be remembered for her expertise in ‘fossilized bits of poo’. Anning’s appealing life has evidently been an effective means to draw in new generations, introducing palaeontological research and discoveries through one of its favourite protagonists. This talk uses a range of representations of Anning’s life to explore the wider lessons these stories can teach us about ways to present the history of science to children.