Monday, April 18, 2011


Most people see the great wall of dinosaur bones at the Monument as what it is: a great wall of dinosaur bones. However, some see our fossils in other ways. I once had a crank tell me that the bones had been placed in the sandstone by Satan to deceive us. However, here I am more interested in writing about how some artists look at fossils, especially those at and from Dinosaur.

Allan McCollum is a contemporary American artist who has been “exploring how objects achieve public and personal meaning in a world constituted in mass production, focusing most recently on collaborations with small community historical society museums in different parts of the world.” (1) He has been exploring exhibits using replicas, both natural and man-made, of various sorts for a number of years. However, here we’ll just look at his project Lost Objects which involves fossils from Dinosaur National Monument.

McCollum was involved in a project at the Carnegie Museum of Art when he became aware that the art museum was affiliated with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The latter houses one of the great collections of dinosaur bones and so the artist approached the museum with an idea he had been thinking about for some time, a project that became Lost Objects.

Lost Objects is an exhibit involving 750 replicas of 15 original sauropod bones in the Carnegie’s collection (technically enamel paint on glass fiber-reinforced concrete). The exact locality for all 15 originals is not known to me, but many, if not all, of them came from the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur. These 750 replicas were painted a variety of earth colors that could conceivably be seen in real dinosaur bones. No bright primary colors!

Actually, the exhibit is similar to how one might find collections of large sauropod bones in the non-public museum collection storage areas. Given that a large sauropod femur can weight 500 pounds or more, such a storage approach would make them easy to study and photograph. For those who care, the casts in the photos are from both adult and juveniles sauropods and include humeri, radii, ulnae, femora, tibiae, and fibulae. At least some of them are from Camarasaurus.

The casts were laid out in groups on bases. As recounted by the art critic and historian W.J.T. Mitchell “The installation of these bones in the neoclassical atrium of the Carnegie Museum is … an uncanny resurrection of Thomas Jefferson’s lost ‘bone room’ in the East Wing of the White House, as if we were privileged to go back in time and see the mastodon bones replaced by their cultural descendants, the dinosaur.” (5 p.270).

What is the artist exploring with such exhibits? McCollum talks about fossils as symbols of enormous absence and loss and how what we produce and collect displaces our fears of death, etc. I’m not about to try and explain what the artist is communicating through his work, that is best understood by reading what  McCollum himself has to say in interviews in print and on video (2, 3) and at his website (4). Mitchell (5 p.269) writes that “Traditional notions of the relation of copy and original, not to mention the status of the artists ‘authorial’ function are clearly under considerable pressure in these works…” I guess I see that.

A Note on Sources

For this blog I have drawn heavily on the chapter entitled Coda: PaleoArt in Mitchell 1998. A reader interested in exploring the artistic themes of Lost Objects  and dinosaurs in modern art would do well to read that chapter in full.


(2) Excerpts from an interview with Allan McCollum by Lynne Cooke, curator at large for the Dia Art Foundation in New York, and chief curator at the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

(3) A 4 minute video interview with McCollum. Although he talks mostly about Natural Copies, an earlier fossil exhibit involving dinosaur footprints from coal mines in Price, Utah, those concepts and ideas also lie behind Lost Objects.

(4) Allan McCollum’s website:

(5) Mitchell, W.J.T. 1998. The Last Dinosaur Book. The life and times of a cultural icon. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 321 pp.

Photo Credits
Lost Objects

Allan McCollum

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