News Release

Preparing Dinosaurs by Caitlin Donahue Wylie, now available from the MIT Press

Book Announcement

The MIT Press

Those awe-inspiring dinosaur skeletons on display in museums do not spring fully assembled from the earth. Technicians known as preparators have painstakingly removed the fossils from rock, repaired broken bones, and reconstructed missing pieces to create them. These specimens are foundational evidence for paleontologists, and yet the work and workers in fossil preparation labs go largely unacknowledged in publications and specimen records.

In Preparing Dinosaurs, Caitlin Wylie investigates the skilled labor of fossil preparators and argues for a new model of science that includes all research work and workers. Drawing on ethnographic observations and interviews, Wylie shows that the everyday work of fossil preparation requires creativity, problem-solving, and craft. She finds that preparators privilege their own skills over technology and that scientists prefer to rely on these trusted technicians rather than new technologies.

“Caitlin Wylie gives us a fascinating account of the 'preparators' whose skillful work behind the scenes transforms chunks of rock brought from distant sites into the spectacular skeletons that form prize exhibits in our natural history museums,” writes Martin Rudwick, Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

“How workers prepare fossils illustrates how research communities produce the evidence, experts, methods, and perceptions of science that constitute our beliefs about nature,” Wylie writes in Preparing Dinosaurs. “To understand this important work, we must understand the workers.”

Wylie examines how fossil preparators decide what fossils, and therefore dinosaurs, look like; how labor relations between interdependent yet hierarchically unequal collaborators influence scientific practice; how some museums display preparators at work behind glass, as if they were another exhibit; and how these workers learn their skills without formal training or scientific credentials. “We look at fossils in a natural history museum and we see the realities of life's distant past,” said Steven Shapin, Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. “What we don't see is the immense amount of skilled labor done to collect, extract, clean, and assemble. Caitlin Wylie has written a sure-footed and resonant guide to artful technical work done behind the scenes.”

The work of preparing specimens is a crucial component of scientific research, although it leaves few written traces. Wylie argues that the paleontology research community's social structure demonstrates how other sciences might incorporate non-scientists into research work, empowering and educating both scientists and nonscientists.

“This work shapes scientific evidence, in the sense that how we learn about nature depends on who prepares it into evidence, the technologies they select and design, and their judgment of what counts as data,” Wylie writes. “As a form of improved transparency and inclusiveness, thinking about science as the process of preparing knowledge can help encourage broader participation and trust in science.”


About the author: Caitlin Donahue Wylie is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia.

Learn more about the book on the MIT Press website:

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