Arthur A. Jansson’s Blazing the Trail to the Distant Past

Arthur A. Jansson’s Blazing the Trail to the Distant Past

"The dinosaur is... much more important as a cultural object than as a scientific entity. If it were not for popular fascination, dinosaurs would probably have disappeared from scientific discourse in the nineteenth century."

— W. J. T. Mitchell, "Seven Theses on the Dinosaur"

As the above quote from scholar W. J. T. Mitchell reminds us, sometimes a dinosaur isn’t just a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are, of course, real biological creatures that roamed the earth in a multitude of variations, and while most disappeared, bits and pieces of dinosaurs are all around us: in the lived bodies of birds and other animals, in bones in the ground, and of course, on TV screens, books, movies, and in museum halls.

Dinosaurs have always meant visitors and money for museums. Therein lies the tension. On the one hand, museums such as the AMNH have had paleontologists on staff for over a century studying fossils and building our collective knowledge about how dinosaurs lived, what the earth looked like, and how such an incredible diversity of dinosaurs evolved.

Expeditions and digs, however, are expensive and time consuming, and they require a lot of person power. It is equally expensive and laborious to study the bones once they are pulled from the ground. As important as this research is, it is also important to get the public to want to see dinosaurs in the museum and maybe even buy some dino-swag on their way out. Thus, the museum has to do a very complex and delicate dance, promoting one version of dinosaurs to children in hopes of generating income without deteriorating their scholarly mission. Too commercial and too crass, and the museum looks like a joke; too academic, and no one wants to visit.

Still from Central Asiatic expeditions

Still image from an archeological dig

Sinclair's dinosaur balloon

Sinclair's dinosaur balloon

In a way, Arthur A. Jansson’s Blazing the Trail to the Distant Past tries to parse that thin line. On the one hand, the bottom of the image highlights (and certainly heroizes and dramatizes) the work of paleontologists on a dig. Standing over them and watching their work is the ghostly specter of a lime green dinosaur watching as presumably its bones are exhumed. The piece is whimsical, and certainly not realistic or scientific, but it does try to remind the viewer of the real purpose of these digs and all those dinosaur bones in the museum.

This painting was the study for an illustration that ultimately was on the cover of Natural History, the journal published by the AMNH. Jansson was one of dozens of artists that worked for the museum in the mid-twentieth century and Jansson’s work can be seen in countless publications and in the background paintings of dioramas.

Written by Alexis L. Boylan

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