Some of the specimens in the National Fossil Halls have been displayed nearly continuously for a century or more. Among them is a papier mâché model of a dinosaur, Stegosaurus, shown below in a recent photo. Raymond Rye, a retired member of the Department of Paleobiology, writes about its history.
This life-like restoration of Stegosaurus, catalog number USNM 5794, was prepared for the United States National Museum and the “Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition” (officially the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition). It was commissioned by George P. Merrill, Head Curator of Geology, in a letter dated June 22, 1903, to F. C. A. Richardson, president of the Milwaukee Papier Mache Works, Inc. The Museum furnished a small model on a scale of 10 ½ to one, along with a life-sized sculpture of the head and neck in plaster. It was up to Mr. Richardson to scale-up the rest of the animal to match the proportions specified.
Milwaukee Papier Mache Works, Inc., made a full-scale model in clay, subject to approval by Frederic A. Lucas of the Museum staff. Once the life-sized model was accepted, a cast prepared in papier mâché was made from a mold of the clay sculpture. This was a far cry from ladies’ hat boxes and fancy candy boxes that were the Papier Mache Works’ usual stock-in-trade. When Stegosaurus was done to Mr. Richardson’s satisfaction, it was loaded onto a railroad car and readied for the trip. The contract prohibited the making of any duplicates. True to his word, both the original sculpture and the mold were sent to the Museum upon completion of the work. Not one to be shy about his accomplishments, however, Mr. Richardson engineered a magnificent send-off by arranging for the pealing of all the church bells in Milwaukee as the train left the station.
The beast was shipped from Milwaukee on Saturday, March 12, 1904, and arrived in St. Louis on March 30. The contract called for it to be delivered, ready for installation, not later than April 1, so Mr. Richardson gauged his work well and even had some room to spare. No part of the contract price was to be paid until the restoration was delivered and accepted. Oh yes, that meant “painted in such colors as the Museum may indicate, finished ready for setting up on base, F.O.B. at St. Louis, for the sum of $930.00.” The fair officially opened on April 30, by a telegraph signal from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Even if Mr. Richardson was on time, the fair itself was one year late. It was supposed to open its gates on April 30, 1903, exactly 100 years to the day of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase agreement. However, the fairgrounds were not ready, a situation that was apparent the year before. So in 1902, Congress allowed the fair committee to open the gates a year late.
After the St. Louis fair closed on December 1, some of the exhibits were transferred to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair, 1905. From opening day on June 1 through the close on October 15, Stegosaurus was part of this international exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest. From Portland it came to the Smithsonian, where it has been on display ever since.
After 110 years of exhibition, the papier mâché Stegosaurus will be removed from the National Fossil Halls during our ongoing Deep Time renovation, making way for new specimens and updated exhibitry. But since it clearly was built to last, the model isn’t being retired. Instead, it is moving to the Paleontological Research Institution's Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York - another stop in its continuing journey.
Read earlier posts about the Fossil Hall renovation.
All photos from the Department of Paleobiology archives unless noted otherwise.