The vintage painting shown below, left, was recently found rolled up in a drawer in the Department of Paleobiology’s fossil storage area. It depicts two fossil preparators working in front of the public, with reconstructions of dinosaurs depicted on the wall behind them. Enlargements on the right show two of the stylishly dressed visitors, one of the reconstructions, and a sign identifying the fossil undergoing preparation as a specimen of the Late Jurassic sauropod dinosaur Camarasaurus from Dinosaur National Monument. Everyone who saw the painting was intrigued. Was this a plan for an exhibit? Was it ever built? What could we learn about the Camarasaurus? Were the reconstructions ever made and, if they were, who did them?
It turns out that in 1936, chief fossil preparator, Norman H. Boss, was sent to Dallas as part of the Smithsonian’s participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition. Boss and a hired assistant, Gilbert F. Stucker (who later became a preparator at the American Museum of Natural History), worked in the Dallas Federal Building from June 6th through the end of November, preparing a skeleton of Camarasaurus (USNM 13786) from five large field jackets. Newly-completed 15x8' oil paintings of Camarasaurus (by R. Bruce Horsfall) and Dimetrodon (by Garnet W. Jex) in their environments, prepared under the direction of Smithsonian vertebrate paleontologist Charles Whitney Gilmore, and a diorama depicting “all known life of the Jurassic age” were also exhibited, with the intention of showing “a picturization of the scientific knowledge of prehistoric reptilian life derived from laboratory studies.” Other, non-reptilian fossils, including mammoth teeth, were displayed in cases nearby.
The Department’s archives yielded photos, below, of Boss taking hammer and chisel to one of the field jackets at the Texas Exposition. On the left, a life-size sketch of the dinosaur can be seen behind Boss, with previously-prepared skull and vertebrae mounted in front. The painting is Horsfall’s reconstruction of Camarasaurus. The photo on the right shows bones that had been removed from the rock displayed on tables, and a large, unopened field jacket on the floor.
Six million people attended the Expo. Despite competition from displays of such new wonders as television and air conditioning, the Smithsonian exhibit must have been very popular, as Boss was sent back to Dallas the following year to prepare fossils in front of crowds attending the Greater Texas & Pan American Exposition.
The museum began sending fossils to major expositions in 1895 (an earlier post describes the travels of our papier mâché Stegosaurus to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904). What was gained from participating in these events? Gilmore, in his History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, wrote that not only did expositions afford opportunities to make the work of the Smithsonian known to the public, but they also provided funds for the purchase of “illustrative material” such as paintings and models, as well as new specimens. Indeed, the Texas Centennial Commission paid for the paintings, the diorama, and for several fossils Gilmore felt were of exceptional scientific importance -- although it’s not clear these fossils ever went to Texas.
In contrast, the Camarasaurus was not acquired specifically for the Texas Centennial. Beginning in the 1920s, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh had excavated numerous specimens of these large dinosaurs, along with other species, at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Gilmore had excavated our spectacular skeleton of Diplodocus from a site nearby, but the Smithsonian did not have a good specimen of Camarasaurus -- and we wanted one. Fortunately, we had things the Carnegie desired, which could be offered in trade; the dinosaur expertise of Charles Gilmore and fossil horses which, thanks to several productive expeditions to Idaho in 1929 and the early ‘30s, we had in abundance. So a plan was hatched in 1933 between the Director of the Carnegie and the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian to trade one skeleton of Camarasaurus (valued at $6000) for 5 months of Gilmore’s time ($2080), a skeleton ($1000) and 8 skulls ($150 each) of the Pliocene horse Equus simplicidens (aka Hagerman horses) and $1720 in cash. The skeleton of Camarasaurus, “complete from the skull back to the beginning of the tail and all articulated,” was logged into the Smithsonian collections in 1935, and, made its appearance in Dallas with Norman Boss in 1936. A year later, $950 of Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition funds were used to purchase another Carnegie Camarasaurus specimen (USNM 15492), this time “a nearly complete tail… in the rock.” The tail was shipped by rail directly to Dallas on June 7th, 1937, just in time for opening of the Exposition on June 12th.
After the second Exposition wrapped up in November of 1937, the Smithsonian’s newly-acquired materials were shipped to the museum, and space was found within our exhibits for the paintings, the diorama, and, eventually, the skeleton of Camarasaurus. The photos below show, left, Garnet Jex’s reconstruction on the wall above a skeleton of Dimetrodon, and, right, the skeleton of Camarasaurus (with the 1937 tail added!) as it was displayed, until recently, in “death position."
Today, the Camarasaurus is being conserved as part of our ongoing fossil exhibit renovations. When the National Fossil Halls reopen in 2019, visitors will, for the first time, see this large skeleton mounted in a dynamic, upright pose. But they'll have to come to Washington, D.C., not Dallas, to see it!