What’s your dinosaur? Or, imaginative reconstruction and absolute truth in the museum space

Jordan Kistler, Will Tattersdill


For the first half of the nineteenth century, objects in the British Museum were largely unlabeled, uncatalogued, and unexplained. Nevertheless, the idea that the object could evoke a ‘larger world’ was current in discussions of the pedagogical use of the museum. The popular understanding of the museum as a place of education foregrounded the idea that engagement with the thing itself, rather than any wider context or paratext, was enough to allow access to an object’s ‘realm of significance’ (Bennett, 1994), which was figured as Absolute Truth in Kantian terms embedded within each museum object. The fantasy of knowledge that could be gained from a mere glimpse reached its heights in the feats of identification and reconstruction performed by naturalists of the period like Georges Cuvier or Richard Owen. It encouraged the conception of the museum encounter as an act of instantaneous imaginative reconstruction, in which the fragmentary or uncontextualized part could be reassembled into an ideal, accurate whole. This attitude can still be seen in today’s responses to palaeoart, a discipline heavily associated with the experience of natural history museums which proposes to evoke a world to which its practitioners have only very partial access. With dinosaur palaeoart as its chief case study, thinking in particular about Owen and Waterhouse Hawkins's famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs (1854) and Ann Coates's rather less famous children's book about them (1970), this essay stresses the tenuous relationship between interpretation and reality. It argues that the universal truth implicitly promised by the museum encounter is deceptive, but also that there is a virtue in acknowledging the creativity which underpins these impressions of a world beyond the self.


dinosaurs; imaginative reconstruction; reconstruction; resonance and wonder; aesthetic gaze; museum labelling; palaeontology; Crystal Palace Dinosaurs; Walter Pater; Ann Coates; John Vernon Lord; Waterhouse Hawkins; Henry Rider Haggard; Richard Owen

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.29311/mas.v17i3.3219

Copyright (c) 2019 Jordan Kistler, Will Tattersdill

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360

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