Have you ever been to a museum with dinosaur fossils on display? Often, fossilized bones, or plaster casts of them, are mounted into complete skeletons in life-like poses that allow visitors to imagine what the huge beasts must have looked like when they walked the earth. The first person to mount a dinosaur skeleton in that way was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who visited the Niagara Falls Museum on August 15, 1868.
B. Waterhouse Hawkins, as he is most often known, was an English artist and sculptor who took a special interest in natural history and geology. While in his early career he produced illustrations and models of living creatures, he became well known for his representations of long extinct animals and dinosaurs.
In 1852, Hawkins was commissioned to create the first life size dinosaur sculptures in the world for a paleontological installation in Syndenham Park, London. He created 33 life-size concrete sculptures of extinct animals and dinosaurs, grouped and arranged in scenic vignettes so that visitors could walk through and view them as if they were living animals in a zoo. The sculptures helped popularize dinosaurs and paleontology among the general public and are protected historic structures that can still be viewed today.
In 1868, Hawkins travelled to New York. Due to the success of his earlier sculptures, and his passion for using art to educate the public about scientific discoveries, Hawkins was commissioned to create a ‘Paleozoic Museum’ in the newly-formed Central Park. Specifically, the mission of this museum was to “undertake the resuscitation of a group of animals of the former periods of the American continent”.
His starting point on that project was to travel to Philadelphia, where the country’s first paleontologists were members of the Academy of Natural Sciences. One of these paleontologists was Dr. Joseph Leidy. Ten years earlier in 1858, Leidy had aided in the excavation of North America’s first dinosaur skeleton, Hadrosaurus foulkii. At the time of its discovery, it was the most complete dinosaur specimen ever found. Hawkins offered to mount Hadrosaurus’s skeleton in exchange for the for the Academy’s permission to make a copy for his own museum.
The idea of mounting the fossils, as his proposal letter puts it, “to their natural relations in the figure of that great dinosaur”, was a new one. Previously, fossils were displayed individually, lying in cabinets or mounted on their own stands. Hawkins’ innovation was to mount casts of the fossils as a complete skeleton, with sculpted parts to fill in any gaps. His Hadrosaurus was not just the first mounted dinosaur skeleton, it was also the only one for 15 years after its creation. The mount was a gigantic success, more than tripling the number of visitors to the Academy, from.30,000 to 100,000 a year, as people clamoured to view this prehistoric novelty.
Hawkins made his proposal to the Academy on September 15, 1838- just one month after he had visited the Niagara Falls Museum. It is tempting to wonder if he had visited to get inspiration, to get advice on building his own museum collection or even to get advice on mounting skeletons in lifelike poses. Thomas Barnett, the founder and owner of the Museum, was a prolific and accomplished taxidermist who furnished his own collection as well as selling and trading his mounts to other institutions. An account from a few years later numbered the Museum’s collection at over 5000 specimens of bipeds, quadrupeds, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, shells and minerals, as well as some First Nations artefacts. It certainly wouldn’t be the only time Hawkins took inspiration from Niagara Falls; A later painting he produced for Princeton University of Devonian era fishes is set against a background of the Falls.
You may be wondering why you have never heard of the paleontology museum in Central Park. The reason is simple- it never existed. The political scene of mid-1800’s New York City was cutthroat and corrupt. The museum’s construction was cancelled by New York senator William ‘Boss’ Tweed and when Hawkins publicly protested it’s closure, Tweed sent out a gang of thugs to destroy his models in the dead of night. It is reported that his moulds were thrown in the lake and the models were buried, though no evidence of their burial has ever been uncovered.
While you cannot visit the Central Park Paleozoic Museum, B. Waterhouse Hawkins’ vision of public science education through art is alive in any paleontology museum you may visit today.