Even though there are many similarities in the process of making art and making scientific discoveries, Bonaparte was created from the point of view of an artist, not a scientist. Therefore, Bonaparte is not the product of years of scientific study culminating in painstakingly detailed reconstructions as are the other exhibitions on display in this museum. Instead, Bonaparte is a visual manifestation appearing at the intersection of one’s childhood imagination of a dinosaur skeleton and an artist’s admitted fakery of one. The process of “discovering” Bonaparte was designed, in part, to mimic what it might be like to be a paleontologist, to happen upon a single bone, which leads to another one, and so on, until an entire skeleton comes together to form one beast. That must be an exhilarating feeling!
The making of Bonaparte and Phloating Phytoplankton by artist Mark Tucker:
Transitioning from self-admitted “techno-saur” to “digital naïve”, Google helped me figure out what best to create for U-M’s new Museum of Natural History’s Marquee Gallery. For instance, I learned that the third most popular dinosaur is a triceratops. I also loved learning that this particular dinosaur roamed North America which appealed to the locavore in me. Also, not incidentally, the triceratops shape fit the proposed window space proportionally. (Had it been a tall rectangular window rather than a wide horizontal one, I might have chosen a T-rex instead.) It was also appealing that the U-M Museum of Natural History did not own a triceratops skeleton.
Once chosen, the process of creating a larger-than-life-sized triceratops started with making a small model, or maquette, by cutting up a photograph of a triceratops into a series of intersecting puzzle pieces, gluing them to popsicle sticks, and then making a corresponding life-sized set of wooden patterns forming the initial outline from which to sculpt each of the individual bone-shaped puzzle pieces.
As the sculptures were completed, dozens of community volunteers helped cover the more than 1000-pound clay sculptures in papier-mâché. Once dried, the papier-mâché pieces were removed from the clay and placed back on top of the wooden puzzle pieces in the exact placement correlating to the original photograph.
Very carefully, plastic and steel pipe structures were secured inside the “bones”—replacing the Popsicle sticks—and placed in the position they would eventually be when installed upright. The pieces were originally set up off-site and then completely reconfigured and adjusted to adapt to the optical changes and distortions of perspective that occurred in the actual exhibition space.
To make the Phytoplankton side, a large canvas was stretched on the floor, and painted standing up, using long bamboo sticks, to emulate the color, energy, and feeling of something otherworldly and unable to be seen by the naked eye. These large painted puzzle pieces were scaled up from smaller photos of microscopic phytoplankton.
Once the papier-mâché dinosaur bones were painted, the pieces were flipped over and covered with individual pieces of the large phytoplankton painting. These were stretched and glued into place, and finishing touches were done on site in the museum space.
Every part of the process and construction took into consideration the relationship between material, process, and visual result. Even the 5-gallon buckets (filled with sand and plaster) that hold up the entire structure relate to the tools and materials used in excavating, preserving and transporting specimens back to the museum.
Finally, while crossing the footbridge in front of the window that houses “Bonaparte”, all of the pieces begin to come together to form a cohesive, albeit fictional image, made up of newspaper, flour, bamboo and paint.