Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Untangling "Sauropod Swindle!"

World's Largest Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History
The star of "World's Largest Dinosaurs." Photo by Garrett Ziegler, via Flickr.

In a post at The Awl called Sauropod Swindle! The Monstrous Lies of the World's Largest Dinosaurs, Caroline Bankoff and Jonathan Liu write about a recent visit to the current exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, which aims to go "beyond traditional fossil shows to reveal how dinosaurs actually lived by taking visitors into the amazing anatomy" of the sauropods.

This isn't a dry summary or unthinking string of gee-whiz moments, though. It's a thoroughly disappointed deconstruction of what they see as a major failing of the museum. Museum exhibits rarely receive this level of criticism, and while I find that aspect refreshing, I couldn't help but feel that I was being battered with cleverness during most of the piece.

After an early paragraph offering the entirely reasonable criticism of the small space the exhibition is held in, this is dropped in the reader's lap.
As dino-lovers and museum curators, we tend to be supremacists—and wishful thinkers. Perhaps it’s our bipedality, perhaps it’s the bloodlust, but for too long human beings have constrained our fellow feeling to the vultures and jackals, the terrorists and hysterics, of the dino world. A boy who pretends to be a Tyrannosaur is liable to be made quarterback or goalie (despite his terminally short arms). One who play acts Velociraptor tends to be tracked into college-prep courses and have his internet use monitored. But he who wanders around peacefully as Brachiosaurus or Diplodocus is suspected of autism, or worse. And yet we people aren’t carnivores, not really. Indeed, with ever more, and ever-fatter, human beings—beings, in this country at least, made almost entirely out of corn—it will be the plant-munching sauropod, if any dino at all, that offers us deliverance. Certainly not the gym-toned hunter-killers who by all accounts threw in their lot with the birds long ago.
I quote it at length because it's absolutely absurd, serving as a perfect demonstration of how hard the authors work to shoehorn their (shared, I suppose) ideologies into the piece. I may be off the mark here. There may be a wealth of peer-reviewed studies which look at the ways that our early childhood dinosaur fantasies correlate to our later performance in life. But to me, it reads as cuteness for the sake of it, as a desperate attempt to give silly ol' dinosaurs some larger cultural significance.

The exhibit may or may not be successful; I unfortunately lack the means to visit myself. The writers see AMNH missing the mark, and offer a knot of questions that color the rest of the post and illustrate their assumptions further.
When did this biggest city’s biggest cultural bulwarks get so theropod-craven? How was the public’s inborn need, and love, for dinos so thoroughly co-opted by commerce and ideological coercion? Darkest of all, can a new generation be made to understand the awesome majesty of these creatures in the face of the seeming dereliction of duty of every independent guardian of dino propriety?
I want good, unflinching criticism of museum exhibits. Too often, the media's attention to them involved regurgitated press releases, a practice nicely dubbed "churnalism." This doesn't serve anyone's interests, except for those of the institutional ticket booth. That's an interest I care about, naturally. I have always loved museums. I plan vacations around them. I believe in their intrinsic value as caretakers of knowledge and history. Be that as it may, when they mount exhibitions, they have the duty to do it well. They cannot be exempt from reasoned criticism. Their relationship with commercial entities deserves scrutiny. The prohibitive cost of large special exhibits does, too.

What makes "Sauropod Swindle" so aggravating is that it's not a total piece of garbage. Bankoff and Liu have valid concerns about the way the exhibit has been mounted. They are worth hearing. When they try to color the exhibition as a surreptitious piece of propaganda for its sole sponsor, Bank of America, these complaints are drowned out.

Seriously, they do that.
If the brontosaur’s heart is really no different than a chicken’s when it comes down to the chambers, the valves, the pumping, then B of A is clearly just a friendly up-scaling and streamlining of the Main Street bank in taking savings and making loans, and, perhaps, maximizing value in its own proprietary operations on the side.
This was when I started getting a serious Poe's Law vibe. As commenter Werner Hedgehog wrote, "Reading it made me feel like I was on a date with a too-serious grad student." It's not a universal sentiment; some commenters enjoyed it, as did a respected Tweep, @cambrianexplode. He then wrote that he hoped to write something in a similar vein about the Walking With Dinosaurs live show, which I find entirely appropriate and look forward to reading. After all, the WWD live show is a work of spectacular fiction. It's bound to be loaded with odd socio-political baggage.

Then again, "Sauropod Swindle" may be a big, fat joke of the sort I haven't been trained to understand. Maybe it really is a good example of Poe's Law. In that case, I'll fake a chuckle and hide behind a bottle of beer on the fringe of the in-crowd.

If you've read "Sauropod Swindle," what did you think?

And for more on this exhibit, visit SV-POW!, Pseudoplocephalus, and Dinosaur Tracking.


  1. I read it, and unless I'm completely naive (and I often am), it slowly began to feel like one of those dripping-with-irony self-indulgent satirical pieces of post-Pitchfork take-the-piss out of you "humor." You know, where the satire is so deadpan the joke is really on the reader? I liken folks like that to the bullies that used to mock my genuine childhood enthusiasm for unpopular subjects, only to become interested in those subjects when they had acquired some ironic currency.

  2. Well, isn't Pitchfork-style snark EXACTLY what paleontology needs?

  3. I enjoyed the piece, but it's certainly got its flaws and is extremely self-indulgent. The tone of the piece is quite trying, but due to my own terrible taste I actually like overly verbose, pretentious prose with non-sequitur parentheses (What, did they put 1000 Velociraptors in a room with 1000 typewriters? No, wait, that's the plot of Jurassic Park 4.) And god knows it goes on for about twice as long as it needs to. The thing is that there is very little material out there that subjects museum exhibits to the same scrutiny as music, books or art, say. In that sense it is a rarity - which is why we're discussing it at all. I think David is bang on the money when he says that it is "not a total piece of garbage" but also that "cuteness for the sake of it" accounts for about 2/3 of the article. I definitely want to incorporate humour into my article re: Walking With Dinosaurs, but the more I think about it, the more I would want to avoid this style. I'm sure we can talk about paleo-pop culture in a funny and self-aware way without descending into a near impenetrable quagmire of superfluous wankery. - cambrianexplode

  4. I started to read it, but when after three and a half pages I still hadn't figured out what their actual complaint was, I gave up. Terrible, terrible writing: all words, no message.


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