For 26 years, I’ve been filled with a monomaniacal desire to study the humanities. Earlier this year, however, I became interested in Vertebrate Paleontology—that’s right, dinosaurs. With that being said, a couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia given by a well-known paleontologist named Jack Horner. Dr. Horner bills himself as a renegade dinosaur authority. Even though he never earned a college degree except the honorary kind, he has changed the way the world thinks about dinosaurs on more than one occasion. His lecture, titled, “Dinosaurs: How to Get Rid of Some Old Ones and Make a New One” outlined some highlights of his research on dinosaur growth and evolution. By viewing thin slices of fossilized bone under fancy microscopes, Horner and his graduate student pals are discovering that some dinosaur species are actually just the misidentified juveniles of other dinosaur species. He isn’t really getting rid of dinosaurs as the title of his lecture would lead one to believe– instead of pruning the family tree he is simply condensing and reorganizing it.
The histological study of fossil bone needed to prove his controversial hypothesis requires Horner to employ some unorthodox tactics–basically he needs to saw through multiple fossil specimens. The idea of purposefully damaging an ancient fossil is like fingernails across a chalkboard to me. As curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Dr. Horner is the professional overseer of a large collection of fossils and, well, he can pretty much do whatever he wants with them. Yet it is worth mentioning that curators at other repositories generally have the same fingernails on the chalkboard reaction to his requests to use their specimens for his destructive research ventures regardless of how important his findings may be.
The 45-minute drive back to my apartment was filled with armchair thoughts about the differences between curating a Natural History collection and curating a Fine Art or Cultural History collection. Both types of collections are used for research as well as exhibition, but in some cases, the approach to studying the objects varies. For example, a scientist working on a project investigating the evolution of renal function in female alligators might request to slice open rare preserved specimens to prod at the curled wires and nodules that shape the excretory system. On the other hand, it is far less likely that a folk historian studying 18th century lead-glazed redware jugs would need to mutilate the artifacts in order to draw his or her conclusions.