In a luminous top-floor workshop closed to the public at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, artists work with scientists to re-create scenes from lost or vanishing worlds. This is the birthing room for the museum’s elaborate dioramas, such as the brace of Northwest Indians who air-paddle their canoe through a fluorescent entrance hallway, or the 94-foot blue whale that swoops down from the duplex ceiling of the Ocean Life Hall, or the herd of elephants with fearsome tusks and windblown ears that charges through the Hall of African Mammals.
In recent months, artists in the workshop have been putting finishing touches on a special exhibit called Fighting Dinosaurs. In a diorama for the new exhibit a fierce Velociraptor, looking like a thinned-down turkey with frighteningly large teeth, stalks a Protoceratops. With a flanged crest and beaked mouth that make it look like a goat-sized version of its larger and more famous cousin, Triceratops, the Protoceratops sees the predator coming and snarls. The scene is so vivid that some visitors may glance around nervously to be certain they haven’t been whisked back 80 million years by a hidden time machine. “When you come upon a diorama,” says David Harvey, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions, “it transcends all of the data. It becomes a real experience.”
Yet it is precisely that experience with which a growing number of scientists have a big problem: There is precious little data about dinosaurs to transcend. What the museum scientists know about Indians, whales, and elephants is more than enough to mimic real life. But when it comes to dinosaurs, all they really have to work with is an incomplete jumble of bones. Indeed, if the exhibits department were limited to just skeletal data for its dioramas and reconstructions, these halls would take on a most unromantic flavor. For instance, the Indians in the canoe would lack noses, ears, and breasts, and the diorama artists (ignoring for the moment that they are humans themselves) would be at a loss for what to cover them in—slick skin like a dolphin? Monkey fur? Gorilla hair? As for the blue whale, no one would know to make it blue. And the elephants are a special case. There’s a running joke among professional dinosaur artists that goes like this: Given just an elephant skeleton, they’d probably render a titanic hamster.
Does anyone know what dinosaurs really looked like? Sure we do. We see them everywhere, not just in the museums, but in magazines, movies, even in value meals at McDonald’s. But all of these lifelike renderings are mostly artistic interpretations based on very sparse scientific evidence. To begin with, dinosaur skeletons are rarely found intact, and figuring out how scattered bones fit together is not always clear. Then, making the leap of placing tissue and skin on those bones is a process fraught with unknowns. Some paleontologists trained in comparative anatomy are beginning to analyze microscopic marks that soft tissues make on bones in search of clues to what dinosaurs actually looked like. But taking a pile of bones and conjuring up what snarling dinosaurs about to battle each other really looked like involves at best equal parts educated guesswork and complete artistic fancy. As Mark Norell, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the museum, puts it, dinosaur artwork “is a fantastic leap from what we know.” And most scientists say we may never know a lot more than we do now.
Further, to blame the artist is also to blame the messenger. Dinosaur art pervades our culture because we want it to. As fantastic creatures that really did exist, dinosaurs excite our imaginations. We want to explore their size and power and weirdness—and be glad they’re no longer around. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould describes dinosaurs as “big, fierce, extinct—in other words, alluringly scary, but sufficiently safe.” Randall Osborne, a social psychologist, contends...