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The Colossal Stranger

Last updated on January 24, 2020

Kaart Promotie Ilja Nieuwland 11 mei 2017

As some of you will know, I spent the last six years working on my PhD thesis about the cultural, scientific, and political influence of Andrew Carnegie’s casts of the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii (and one Diplodocus longus that Carnegie had nothing to do with) in the first decades of the twentieth century. I shall defend my thesis on Thursday, May 11th (yes, that’s next week). There are plans in motion to publish the book next year. If you’d like to be kept informed about those plans and the book, please leave your e-mail address here.

What is it about, this book? Well, to answer that all-too-obvious question I shall give a summary below.

Why Diplodocus?

Museums present their cultural treasures as tangible proof of historical events; robust sources of scientific knowledge and transparent cultural images for the public to identify with. Natural history museums show their fossil relics as incomplete but uncomplicated witnesses of life’s past. 

But the way in which “the” dinosaur was established as a cultural point of reference in continental Europe is surprisingly recent and rather turbulent. It largely came about as a consequence of a series of donations made by the Scottish-American tycoon Andrew Carnegie to European potentates. Between 1905 and 1913, seven plaster copies of his 27-meter-long Diplodocus carnegii were mounted in as many natural history museums on the European mainland; an eighth in Argentina, but all in the image of the original fossil skeleton in Pittsburgh, Carnegie’s base of operations. By that time, Carnegie had already asserted himself as a philanthropist with the ambition of establishing a world-wide system of legal arbitration to prevent international conflict. As a self-made man, he was convinced that personal relations between him and kings, emperors and presidents were the most effective way of getting the result he longed for. The impressive scientific, evocative donations were to expedite the wealthy industrialist’s working relationship with foreign heads of state.


The first Diplodocus donation came about after a chance visit by King Edward VII. But soon Carnegie’s museum director, William Holland, convinced him to distribute more plaster dinosaurs as part of an elaborate diplomatic scheme explicitly intended to put Carnegie in foreign potentates’ good books. The British donation turned out to be mostly a success, even if the press did not grant the whole affair the   proper gravitas. But by the time of the unveiling of the original fossil in Carnegie’s home town of Pittsburgh, two years later, overtures were made in order to have the steel baron donate copies to Germany and France, too. While the German donation was somewhat overshadowed by political events and the donation of another Diplodocus by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Parisian dinosaur caused a cultural and artistic resonance. The impact of subsequent unveilings in Vienna, Bologna, and St. Petersburg failed to match this; not only were these governments not as interested in science as those that had earlier received their plaster dinosaur, a sense of repetition had also begun to set in. Renewed interest was stirred when William Holland, who co-ordinated the mounting of the skeleton casts, published a book about his voyage to Argentina, where he set up Diplodocus number seven – as did the final donation in 1913 to Madrid.

As the public impact of the donations gradually declined, Diplodocus had become a more lasting popular and political symbol in the venues where the plaster skeleton was erected. At an early stage, the dinosaur was identified with the United States, capitalism and robber barons such as Carnegie himself – which did not always turn out to be a flattering comparison. But these original contexts eroded as the Europeans appropriated the dinosaurs both in a scientific and a cultural sense. Diplodocus’ fame turned it into a suitable substrate for addressing various public issues. For instance, the London cast was exploited to deliver political commentary, and French propaganda used the dinosaur, doomed to extinction, as a metaphor for the Prussian war machine during the First World War. Diplodocus could be seen in popular science but also in art, literature, in comic books, in politics, and more literally on the battlefields of the First World War.

Crawling Diplodocuses

But its most far-reaching scientific exploitation took place in Germany, where scientists attempted to gain public support for scientific reorganization using Carnegie’s plaster dinosaur. Although earlier voices had cast doubts on Diplodocus’ elephant-like stance, shown in Holland’s version of the skeleton mounting, it was the German zoologist Gustav Tornier who initiated an attempt, both in scientific and popular literature, to arrive at a more reptile-like reconstruction of the dinosaur. The wider aim of this campaign was to support his fellow scientist Otto Jaekel’s initiative to end the status of paleontology as a subordinate discipline of geology, and to stimulate collaboration and methodological integration between paleontology and zoology. As probably the most well-known dinosaur at the time, and one fresh in the memory of the people, it formed the perfect example for Tornier to illustrate and support his argument in a public forum. Although geology’s stranglehold on paleontology was not broken, the “crawling Diplodocus” continued its existence in Germany until the discovery of dinosaur footprints in the 1930s disproved the hypothesis. Internationally, Tornier’s work was not received very well, and dismissed in a nationalistically motivated tit-for-tat, not least due to the publications of a personally offended William Holland.

Carnegie’s ambition of peace arbitration tragically failed at the onset of World War II. But its by-product, the eight casts of Diplodocus carnegii, was established by him and his museum staff as the dinosaur for generations of European museum visitors to come. Seen as such, these copies are true historical originals: they unite various international stories of people, power, ideologies – and cultural, scientific and political world views.

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