The Art of Bones

Nineteenth-century artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins still influences how prehistoric life is represented today.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s life-size reconstructions of prehistoric animals take shape in 1853, in preparation for their installation on the landscaped grounds of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, London.

Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library

In 1868, after a hiatus in which he mainly worked as a freelance illustrator and lecturer, Hawkins received a second major commission, to create a grand “Paleozoic Museum” in New York City. There he would “undertake the resuscitation of a group of animals of the former periods of the American continent” in Central Park. Community leaders, self-conscious about what they considered the city’s cultural shortcomings, envisioned an installation comparable to the one at the Crystal Palace.

Just what to put in the new museum was another matter. The discovery of the first reasonably complete dinosaur skeleton in New Jersey ten years earlier, along with additional finds in England, revealed that Hawkins’s heavy, mammal-like reconstructions of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus were in error and that Owen’s ideas about the appearance of those creatures had been wrong. Hawkins’s new challenge was to design a dynamic display of life-size extinct animals from America, as he phrased it, “clothed in the forms which science now ventures to define.”

Because neither the specimens nor the scientific expertise he required were available in New York, Hawkins traveled to Philadelphia, to the Academy of Natural Sciences, to seek the advice of Joseph Leidy, a curator who had become the country’s leading expert on prehistoric life. Leidy was generous in sharing his deep knowledge and innovative thinking about dinosaurs with Hawkins, to whom he gave access to the important fossil specimens in his care at the Academy.

In September 1868, with Leidy’s encouragement and the approval of the Academy’s curators, Hawkins began the painstaking process of reconstructing a complete skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a thirty-foot herbivore. The result forever changed the way dinosaurs were displayed in museums around the world. Up to that time, dinosaur bones, if they were exhibited at all, were usually shown as isolated paleontological specimens, without context or meaning to any but a very few specialists. With Leidy’s guidance, Hawkins took a new approach to the ancient bones. He carefully suspended plaster casts, bone by bone, from a metal armature, filling in the missing bones with plaster reconstructions, and topping his model with an invented skull, based loosely on the skull of a modern-day iguana. In a little more than two months of feverish activity, he created the first fully articulated dinosaur-skeleton display in the world, which he presented as a gift to the Academy in thanks for the institution’s generosity in allowing him access to its collections.

Lithograph plate by Hawkins of the Indian crested porcupine, for Illustrations of Indian Zoology by John Edward Gray.
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library

Hawkins’s Hadrosaurus skeleton was put on exhibition in the Academy’s museum in November 1868. The public’s response was overwhelming. Even though the museum was open to the public only two afternoons a week (and closed for the month of August), nearly 100,000 people came to see the Hadrosaurus foulkii in 1869—almost twice as many as had visited the museum in the previous year.

Most of the Academy’s members were highly appreciative of Hawkins’s gift, but not everyone was pleased with its unexpected consequences. In a year-end report, the secretary described the wreckage the new Hadrosaurus display was causing in the formerly staid Academy:

The crowds lead to many accidents, the sum total of which amounts to a considerable destruction of property, in the way of broken glass, light wood work, &c. Further, the excessive clouds of dust produced by the moving crowds, rest upon the horizontal cases, obscuring from view their contents, while it penetrates others much to the detriment of parts of the collection.

Hawkins had introduced “dinosauromania” to America. The curators concluded that the only way to reduce the “excessive number of visitors” was, for the first time in the Academy’s history, to charge an admission fee.

Despite the tremendous success of his display in Philadelphia, Hawkins’s New York venture did not fare so well. Corrupt politicians in Tammany Hall, led by the infamous William “Boss” Tweed, suspended Hawkins’s contract in the middle of his work on the lucrative museum project. When Hawkins complained publicly of their interference, their retribution was shockingly brutal and complete. On May 3, 1871, a gang of “vandals,” hired by one of Tweed’s henchmen, broke into Hawkins’s New York studio and completely destroyed the models, molds, and completed sculptures that Hawkins had been preparing for over three years.

Five months later Tweed and his gang were arrested, to be tried and convicted for their egregious corruption, but for Hawkins, this justice came too late. The great Paleozoic Museum he had been hired to imagine and create would never recover. Heartbroken by the loss of his work, Hawkins moved on to other projects, augmenting his artistic commissions with a busy schedule of public lectures on life in the prehistoric world. Those lectures, though popular, were not what one might have expected from the man who had brought dinosaurs to life.

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