A Conservative History of Deep Time: Learning from Extinct Animals in the Modern United States
Alison Laurence

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Discipline

Long extinct animals have a powerful hold on the popular imagination. They are thus effective, persuasive, and potentially dangerous didactic instruments. My dissertation, based on archival research in museums and libraries across the United States, offers a historical assessment of exhibitions staged from the early twentieth century to the present that featured dinosaurs and other long extinct animals as the main attractions. Scholars of the “animal turn” have argued that nonhumans have long been used as charismatic tutors, imparting scientific lessons as well as social instructions. This dissertation contributes to scholarship that emphasizes the significance of animals as vehicles for education, while shifting the focus to extinct creatures. I examine a wide variety of exhibit settings, including natural history museums, world’s fairs, national monuments, shopping malls, and more to capture the perspectives of heterogeneous communities that have deployed extinct animals—at once mute and mutable icons—to support scientific, nationalistic, commercial, and religious narratives. Of the diverse exhibits considered, I ask two guiding questions. What do these extinct animals teach audiences about a planetary past? And how do these extinct animals simultaneously instill lessons about the present moment? More than a history of extinct animals in popular culture, this comparative study offers a historical perspective on long-contested issues of American identity, heritage, and representation, demonstrating the ways in which extinct animals have been used to weigh in on these entirely human categories.
About Alison Laurence
Alison Laurence is a doctoral candidate at M.I.T. in the interdisciplinary History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society program. Informed by work experience in history and natural history museums, her research focuses on the politics inherent in museum exhibition and similar practices of display. Employing the methods of cultural, environmental, and public history, her work attends to questions of voice, agency, and authority and queries not only what is communicated, but also what is obfuscated through exhibition. Her collaborative work has appeared in the open-access History of Anthropology Newsletter and Anthropocene Curriculum. Prior to doctoral research, Alison earned a B.A. in Classics from Brown University and an M.A. in History and Public History from the University of New Orleans.

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