Wednesday, September 28, 2011

White (and pink and black) Washing the Past

Back in 1963, the artist Louis Paul Jonas was contracted by Sinclair Oil Company to create a set of life-size dinosaur sculptures that Sinclair displayed in "Dinoland" at the 1964-65 New York City World's Fair. His restorations were based on the best science of the day. The sculptures were painted in the mostly muted green hues that were then considered the most plausible colors for "terrible lizards" until the "dinosaur renaissance" that started in the late sixties. The stegosaurus from the Sinclair Dinosaur Tour collection found its way to Dinosaur National Monument, and it stood next to the Quarry Visitor's Center for half a century. The Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitor Center blog has a post showing what has happened to the sculpture along with some of its history. Here's the original sculpture's color scheme is contrasted against the new harlequin repaint below:

History vs. Paleo Hipster
I maintain that it's no more appropriate to repaint the historic sculpture Louis Paul Jonas created than it would be to have artists change the colors of dinosaurs in the murals of Charles R. Knight that grace walls in Chicago's Field Museum. The new color scheme doesn't make the stegosaurus up-to-date, and in my opinion it defaces an historic work of art as well as obscuring the history of paleontology. What would be a respectful and educational way to display the Jonas' stegosaurus? Restore the original paint scheme and put it next to a fully modern reconstruction. Install a placard that explains that paleontology has progressed since the days of green tail-dragging interpretations of dinosaurs, and that today they're interpreted as more dynamic and (perhaps) more colorful creatures. And have the humility to say that a modern reconstruction may well be made obsolete as new paleontological discoveries further revise our views. Inevitably our reconstructions will forever be the product of imagination working from our best understanding and evidence. Assuming that there's no budget for the U.S. Park Service to obtain a modern reconstruction sculpture, an economical interpretive plaque could include modern illustrations that would contrast with the historic sculpture.

Some of the other Sinclair dinosaurs ended up in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas. There's a placard at the park describing the process Jonas used to sculpt, scale, and build the fiberglass dinosaurs. The Texas park displays the sculptures in their original color scheme and interpretive plaques provide the modern perspective. I hope that the Texas Sinclair dinosaurs continue unmolested by revisionist color schemes. Paleontology and its public displays have a history that's important to conserve. It's a great story that underscores how science is a dynamic, often contentious process.


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