“I gave them their own species name: Abundus egocentrus.”
January 30, 2016 7:43 AM   Subscribe

A tyrannosaur of one’s own. by Laurie Gwen Shapiro [Aeon] Dinosaur collecting isn't just for museums any more — film stars and sheikhs do it too. What drives a man to covet big bones?
The world’s most famous palaeontologist doesn’t understand why anyone wants to collect dinosaurs. Mark Norell sits across from me in his expansive corner office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and launches right in: ‘People are weird. I think: “Who is buying this shit?” No accounting for people’s taste. I have a passion for dinosaurs, but certainly not what I would call “dinosaur insanity”. Dinosaurs are just a medium for me to do science. But if I were doing the same thing on some other organism – you wouldn’t be here.’
posted by Fizz (20 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
People are weird. I think: “Who is buying this shit?”

C'mon. What were you into you when you were 12-16 years old and would buy if you had a shit-ton of disposable cash? Muscle cars? Rocket ships?

A dinosaur seems like a bargain.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:03 AM on January 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


Can confirm. Through my work I've encountered:
  • one billionaire dinosaur collector who ultimately donated his specimens to a nine-figure general interest museum he funded;
  • one dinosaur hunter who created a small private museum to house his finds and then became unable to retire because he couldn't imagine any other paleontologist taking decent care of his treasures and/or had bitter feuds with all of the local obvious candidates;
  • one dinosaur hunter who found a pretty rare specimen as a youngster, became a paleontologist, sold the specimen to a large institution, became a curator at a different large institution, and now struggles to balance his urge to collect with the same museum job requirements referenced in the article (unsuccessfully, IMHO);
  • one small (but complete) dinosaur skeleton urged upon me during a visit to China by someone who thought I could place it with a US museum that would pay big bucks for it;
  • one inexperienced dinosaur collector who was heartbroken when forced to give up a specimen a la Nicholas Cage and then became even more heartbroken when the expert he hired to vet the rest of the collection found more items with questionable provenance. Related note: I have not told my little brother that one of his fossils is a cast.
    Fun fact: a relative of mine once sold Nicholas Cage a tangerine Shelby. He's got the collecting gene.

  • posted by carmicha at 8:10 AM on January 30, 2016 [12 favorites]


    Dinosaurs are just a medium for me to do science.

    I like how "doing science " makes it sound like some kind of drug. I imagine him saying that and taking a mighty hit of science out of a fossilized
    Compsognathus femur.
    posted by louche mustachio at 8:14 AM on January 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


    Laurie is a friend of mine; so glad to see her work here on the blue!

    I did a recent scripting project with the Canadian Museum of Natural History in Ottawa, and got to explore their collections, among which are dinos, birds, and so forth - they have a lot of terrific collections.

    The dinos didn't appeal to me as the gems did. They have a whole section of the museum devoted to rocks and minerals and various gems, with a Canadian focus. And come to think of it, the last time I went to DC, the first museum I went to was the Smithsonian's natural history museum and went straight for the rocks and gems. I think I understand a little bit about how there's that urge to have the object in your own hand and being able to contemplate it and study it at leisure. The showing off thing, not so much. Not unless I had a particularly fascinating gem like the Star of India or something (and I don't think the AMNH would lend it, though, so that's right out).

    It was nice to see in Laurie's article that John Lennon liked gems, too. The orderly structure of gems fascinates me, the connection between these elements and space and time awes me. And then, of course, there's the "oooh! shiny pretty!" aspect. But I don't collect gems, mainly because I can't afford to! Plus, it's not like I have the space where I live to display such objects properly. The last thing I want my living space to look like is some sort of "House of Tchotchkes".
    posted by droplet at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


    What drives a man to covet big bones?

    I like big bones, and I cannot lie.
    posted by Faint of Butt at 8:36 AM on January 30, 2016 [8 favorites]


    So now it's 'weird' to want a throne made out of a triceratops skull?
    posted by ian1977 at 8:47 AM on January 30, 2016 [10 favorites]


    So now it's 'weird' to want a throne made out of a triceratops skull?

    Iron. What you really want is a throne made of iron.
    posted by Fizz at 8:50 AM on January 30, 2016


    The big bones jokes are priceless.

    Also, you want a dinosaur skull on your table a la Last Man On Earth.
    posted by jenfullmoon at 8:54 AM on January 30, 2016


    The developmental issues associated with an early interest in dinosaurs can be usefully looked at through the prism of psychosexual stages such as the traditional oral, anal and phallic ones. It is not terribly shocking, with that in mind, to see that many dinosaur aficionados collect coprolites, fossilised dinosaur dung.
    This is parody, right? Please tell me this is parody.

    Also, quite an interesting read. It's frustrating to think of what all that billionaire-science-enthusiasm could fund if collectors instead chost to fund actual science.
    posted by eotvos at 8:57 AM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


    It would have been welcome to explore the connections between paleontology and the oil and gas industry, which employs and enrichens substantial numbers of paleontologists (the kind who study ferns and forams and whatnot, but maybe who went into the field to study dinosaurs).
    posted by Rumple at 9:09 AM on January 30, 2016


    If people find this post interesting, they might find a related news article on the other side of the formula (the people digging up the fossils, and the non-researchers now involved in this space, and the economic incentives to do so). I listened to it a few months ago and found it fascinating, relevant Planet Money podcast The T-Rex in my Backyard and transcript.
    posted by Wolfster at 9:11 AM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


    Mark Norell sits across from me in his expansive corner office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and launches right in: ‘People are weird. I think: “Who is buying this shit?” No accounting for people’s taste. I have a passion for dinosaurs, but certainly not what I would call “dinosaur insanity”. Dinosaurs are just a medium for me to do science. But if I were doing the same thing on some other organism – you wouldn’t be here.’

    If you were "doing the same thing on some other organism" Dr. Norell, you wouldn't be in that expansive corner office either.
    posted by jamjam at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


    I need to talk to a Freudian.

    This is almost never true under any circumstances, come on.
    posted by poffin boffin at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2016 [7 favorites]


    I like how "doing science " makes it sound like some kind of drug. I imagine him saying that and taking a mighty hit of science out of a fossilized
    Compsognathus femur.


    I used to work in a museum. This is 100% legit.

    Also, the vertebrate zoologists would occasionally employ small, shrill metal flutes to command their legions of dermestid beetles to swarm out of the department and devour the flesh of their enemies. It was awesome, but I had to learn to wear a lot of artificial fibers and practice tasting inedible.
    posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:33 AM on January 30, 2016 [9 favorites]


    The post by Kattullus about Cope and Marsh a few weeks ago reminds us that this ‘big bone’ craziness has been going on in America for close to 150 years. Back in the 1980s, I wrote an article for American Heritage about Andrew Carnegie’s dinosaur hunting.
    posted by LeLiLo at 10:46 AM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


    Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between spacial relations and metaphor.

    Like the pick-axe.
    posted by clavdivs at 10:59 AM on January 30, 2016


    The author sure inserted herself into the article unnecessarily. In what way was it relevant?
    When I unexpectedly scored my interview, I swiftly transformed myself into a walking version of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dinosaurs. By the time I arrived at the museum’s grand Central Park West entrance, I was ready to chat fluently about the English naturalist Mary Anning [...]
    Yeah, that's called research. You don't need to tell me about how it transformed you. Who's the Abundus egocentrus, really?
    posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:40 PM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


    Also, the vertebrate zoologists would occasionally employ small, shrill metal flutes to command their legions of dermestid beetles to swarm out of the department and devour the flesh of their enemies. It was awesome, but I had to learn to wear a lot of artificial fibers and practice tasting inedible.
    posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:33 PM on January 30


    I don't even think I have to say the thing.
    posted by louche mustachio at 4:13 PM on January 30, 2016


    All due respect to Norell, but I don't think someone with an "expansive corner office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City" is really in a position to ridicule folks for wanting to own fossils. "Why would you need to own it, when you can just walk out of your office and down the hall, swipe your card, and get access to it any time of the day or night? Or, hell, just excavate them yourself in the Gobi Desert and look at 'em there. I don't understand these people."

    I mean, I absolutely agree that the illegal fossil trade should be fought against, fossils disappearing into private collections is bad, etc. But a professional fossil guy of all people should understand that fossils can inspire excitement bordering on or indeed well into the irrational.
    posted by No-sword at 4:47 PM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


    I'd be happy if I had a replica T-Rex.
    posted by Monochrome at 12:52 PM on January 31, 2016


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