Q&A with American Dinosaur Abroad author Ilja Nieuwland

Q&A with <i>American Dinosaur Abroad</i> author Ilja Nieuwland

Q&A with American Dinosaur Abroad author Ilja Nieuwland

Photo by Milo van de Pol

Ilja Nieuwland is the author of American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus. He is a historian of science–in particular paleontology–attached to the Huygens Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

American Dinosaur Abroad covers the discovery in 1899 of the Diplodocus carnegii—or Dippy, as it’s known today—by a team of paleontologists sponsored by Andrew Carnegie. Then the longest and largest dinosaur on record, the Diplodocus skeleton was replicated into plaster casts that were gifted to different nations by Carnegie in the years leading up to World War I. In this largely untold history, Nieuwland explores the influence of Andrew Carnegie’s prized skeleton on European culture, revealing much about the social, political, cultural, and scientific context of the early twentieth century.

Nieuwland will be at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh on May 2nd at 6 PM for a discussion with Carnegie Museum of Natural History head of vertebrate paleontology Matt Lamanna and book signing. This event is free; register online through the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures website at https://pittsburghlectures.org/lectures/ilja-nieuwland/.

1. American Dinosaur Abroad explores the cultural, scientific, and political influence of Carnegie’s dinosaur casts in the first part of the twentieth century. How did Carnegie use Dippy to serve his political ambitions? And what were the major contributions the casts made to both popular culture and science?

Like many self-made men, Carnegie was convinced that firstly, his route to success was the prerequisite one, and secondly, that his personal role was paramount. So when he set himself to fostering world peace through an international system of legal arbitration, he wanted to create personal ties to powerful people – kings, emperors, presidents – to make this possible. Being able to give these people a gift the size of a Diplodocus served three purposes. Firstly, Carnegie made a personal gift to the people he sought to influence; secondly, the king/emperor/president was required to show public gratitude to Carnegie, thereby bolstering Carnegie’s reputation; and thirdly because the subject of Carnegie’s munificence was an object of science – the whole idea of arbitration was to replace messy warmongering with a scientific system of solving political conflict.

As a scientific object, Diplodocus was initially not particularly interesting during the 1900s. Sure, it was big, but sauropod dinosaurs (of which “Dip” was one) had been known since the 1870s. Sure, it was big (or rather, long), but around 1905 paleontologists thought they knew most things worth knowing about these animals. That changed as its popular appeal grew as a consequence of Carnegie’s donations in the decade following 1905. As a “celebrity”, Diplodocus became the ideal substrate to explain ideas about evolution or about these specific animals, and therefore more central in scientific deliberations in the countries to which a cast was donated.

Usually, in those countries the plaster Diplodocus was initially tied into its original setting: the world of high politics, diplomacy, and industry of Carnegie. This is also the context for its use in popular culture: paintings are made, songs are sung, cartoons are drawn and articles written commenting on the situation of the day through Diplodocus. We see the animal being used as a metaphor for Carnegie and for the USA in general. But after a while, the cast gets appropriated by the countries themselves: it becomes their cast, and loses that original surrounding. When German and French scientists disagree about the way in which Diplodocus moved, the French seem particularly piqued because the Germans try to tell them something about their own Diplodocus.

2. At one point, you refer to the Diplodocus carnegii casts (specifically, the public perception of dinosaurs that was formed because of them) as a meme. Could you elaborate on this?

Because of certain properties, Diplodocus is ideal for metaphoric use. In particular, the combination of great strength and great stupidity, something endlessly repeated in press reports, makes it very suitable to be used as a symbol for (in no particular order) Carnegie, the United States, politicians in general, the concept of capitalism, and so on. A particularly good example is its use in WW1 French propaganda, which used as a metaphor for the Prussian war machine. Thinking went as follows: yes, it is capable of great destruction, but it will inevitably (reassuringly) eat itself into extinction (a common popular idea at the time was that the dinosaurs had died out because they needed too much food). So if you wanted to show concepts such as gluttony, great size, or stupidity, you only needed to show a Diplodocus, something known to a great number of people, to get your point across.

3. While dinomania has fluctuated in popularity in the past century, it seems like the general public will always be fascinated by dinosaurs. What is it about dinosaurs that you think people find so appealing?

Steven Jay Gould once gave this triple whammy as an explanation for the popularity of dinosaurs: “great, fierce, extinct”. In other words: they are impressive and even dangerous, but reassuringly absent from our lives. From the earliest – and I mention this in the book – dinosaurs have been used to contrast us with the wildest, most desolate form of nature.

Indeed, there is a consistent trope from the 1880s onwards which shows dinosaurs wreaking havoc on civilization. Films like King Kong (1933), the Godzilla series and the Jurassic Park/World franchise are based on this theme. While dinosaur paleontology has moved on from the growling nightmares of the 19th century, the representation of dinosaurs really hasn’t; just look at the snarling and roaring way in which they are portrayed in popular books. I’ve even seen one where one dinosaur’s daily calorie intake is given in persons eaten.

4. In the book’s preface, you discuss the value of digital archives in your research, but you also note what it lacks. Could you briefly discuss your research process? What was easy to find and what took some digging?

I am a cultural historian, and this is basically a reception history. For that, written traces of that reception are essential: private papers such as letters and diaries, but also more public sources, particularly newspapers and magazines. We live in a great time, where more and more of these sources become available online. Research that used to be time-consuming and costly has often become a lot cheaper. Thing is: not everywhere. Countries such as France, Spain and to a lesser degree the USA have put their entire national newspaper archives online. But in other places, such as Germany, Austria or Russia, getting access to newspapers still is a very labor-intensive process. Also, the situation of museum archives varies enormously. In natural history museums, historical archives are sometimes almost treated as an afterthought, but can also be a source of pride elsewhere (for instance, in London or New York). What yielded much more than I had dared to dream was my contact with the descendants of some of the people that I write about. I am talking particularly of the families of Oliver Perry Hay and Otto Jaekel. In addition to source material, they offered me moral support and, over discussion, insights that I might never have gotten any other way. The Jaekel material was so abundant, and the contacts with the family so inspiring, that I decided to make the biography of Otto Jaekel my next project.

5. Since its removal from the central hall of London’s Natural History Museum in 2015, Dippy has been on tour in museums across Europe. What do you think is the message of this tour? What do you think will happen to Dippy (and its legacy) after the tour is over?

Immediately after “Dippy’s” removal, it was rumored that the main reason was that the NHM wanted to have the floor available for receptions and other (expensively) hosted events. They have admitted as much, and to be fair it’s not the most inopportune reason. British state museums are not allowed to ask for an entrance fee, which severely restricts their financial possibilities. And the income from these events will benefit the museum and its activities. Since then, Dippy has been on tour in the UK (not in Europe, but significantly in all constituent parts of the UK; see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/take-part/dippy-on-tour.html).

If there is a “message”, it is that the NHM wishes to make its most famous denizen visible but also useful outside the bubble that is London. It is a carrier of both cultural and scientific significance, the former because of historical reasons, and the latter because extinction has become foremost on many scientists’ mind. As a bridge between the two, Diplodocus is ideally placed to make the public aware of ecological concerns while also telling a crucial part of history. As a historian, it is refreshing to see how – unusually, alas – a museum incorporates history in such a way.

I don’t know what is going to happen to Dippy after the tour. Rumors that I have heard mention that the NHM will prepare a metal version of the skeleton to be displayed in front of the London museum building on Cromwell Road, a bit like Pittsburgh’s Dippy. Given the link with Carnegie, having a Diplodocus in steel would be an interesting historical reference. The plaster skeleton may very well be relegated to the museum’s cellar. After all, plaster is nowadays not considered to be a very practical material for displays, because it is so vulnerable and heavy.

But maybe it will be displayed after all, if only for historical reasons.

American Dinosaur Abroad is now available to purchase at your favorite book retailer. Books will be available for sale from Classic Lines at our May 2 event.