Alison Laurence

Ph.D. Candidate Department of History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2016 to 2017
Research Fellow

An Unnatural History of Deep Time: Extinct Animals and the Politics of Place in the Modern United States

During the twentieth century, the American public came face to face with dinosaurs and other extinct animals in natural history museum fossil halls. These newly iconic megafauna were drawn into urgent public discourse including debates about citizenship, anxieties regarding technological innovation, and concerns over environmental exploitation. To understand how these animals and the idea of deep time became meaningful to Americans, I will study the spaces in which people encountered them. Based on a close reading of natural history museum fossil halls, my dissertation will reconstruct how the spatial arrangement of these exhibitions shaped their temporal narrative and the meanings that were attached to their displayed inhabitants. Celebrities of Stone will introduce an ecological perspective to the historical analysis of fossil halls, demonstrating that not only the specimens themselves but the relationships among specimens were fundamental to museum narratives about the earth's history and to visitors' understandings of deep time.