Papier mâché brings to mind messy elementary school projects involving newspaper and glue. So you might be surprised to learn that is was the construction material for “Steggy,” the 111-year-old life-size model Stegosaurus that delighted generations of families in our fossil hall. Now that we’ve closed our fossil hall for renovation, the Stegosaurus has moved to a new home at the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth (MoE) in Ithaca, New York. But before we could pack it up and wish it “bon voyage” we had to take it apart, which gave us a chance to learn how it was built.
A Well-Traveled Stegosaurus
In 1903, the United States National Museum commissioned Milwaukee Papier Mache Works, Inc. to make a full-scale model Stegosaurus for display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. After a brief detour at the Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair in Portland, Oregon, the model finally came to the Smithsonian, where it remained on display for 107 more years.
It’s now 2015, and “Steggy” is traveling again, this time to New York, where its massive bulk, giant plates, intimidating spikes (and tiny head!) can continue to enthrall visitors. But first, we had to get “Steggy” out the door. Stegosaurus was a hefty dinosaur—adults could grow 30 ft. long and weigh 15,000 lbs.—and our model had been on display for so long that it couldn’t fit through newer areas of the building. So to help “Steggy” on its way, we needed to take it apart.
In the process, we learned a lot about how “Steggy” was made. In 1903 Charles R. Knight prepared a statuette with guidance from curator Frederic Lucas, which served as the model for a full-sized version sculpted in clay. The fabricators then made a mold of this clay model, and prepared the papier mâché cast from the mold. The papier mâché layers are 3/8 of an inch thick in some areas, and much heavier than your standard elementary school project. Our de-installation team soon discovered that there was also quarter-inch-thick wire embedded in the papier mâché that seemed to spiral around the dinosaur's body to provide additional support.
The de-installation team used a borescope to see inside the model and discovered that the Stegosaurus was assembled in three sections: the head and neck, the body, and the tail. These three parts had separate internal armatures mechanically fastened to each other, and a thin paper fill covered the seams. Once they knew how “Steggy” was constructed, the de-install team could reverse those connections. The de-install team carefully cut off the model’s tail, separated its back, and removed the various platform layers that had accumulated over the years. At last, the Stegosaurus was ready to be shipped.
Putting “Steggy” Back Together
The model Stegosaurus arrived at the Museum of the Earth on May 7th, and visitors will be able to see the entire conservation process all summer, in person and via webcam. Conservators have already reassembled “Steggy” using the original internal armatures (with some modifications) for support. Later in the summer they’ll start the cosmetic work, giving “Steggy” a much-needed paint touchup. The Stegosaurus’s arrival is part of a larger exhibit renovation to their Dino Lab: the new space opens this summer. Along with “Steggy,” it will feature a large Jurassic mural, touchable specimens, dinosaur costumes, a reading nook, and more. And so starts a new chapter in the life of the papier mâché dinosaur.
By Juliana Olsson, Exhibits Writer/Editor, National Museum of Natural History