Fossil Preparators and Inclusive Science
A DISCUSSION OFWhat Fossil Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science
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In “What Fossil Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science” (Issues, Fall 2021), Caitlin Donahue Wylie makes a compelling argument that fossil preparators can teach us a great deal about how to make science more diverse and inclusive. The study of paleontology rests almost entirely on the examination of physical specimens that survived the wreckages of time. But these rare, fragile, and valuable objects do not speak for themselves. A great deal of highly skilled labor is required to make them amenable to expert examination. That is the job of the fossil preparator.
The work of preparing paleontological specimens requires not only painstaking attention to detail. It also involves profound judgments about which parts of a fossil to highlight, and which aspects to leave in the dark. This is highly creative work, which is why preparators often compare themselves to sculptors and artists.
Given its far-reaching importance, why is the work of paleontological laboratory technicians so rarely acknowledged? As I tried to suggest in my book, Assembling the Dinosaur, their invisibility largely stems from a problem of trust. The hierarchical structure of today’s paleontological community took shape during the late nineteenth century. This period in American history is often described as the “first” Gilded Age, and it resembled our own time in many respects. An especially salient point of comparison is that high levels of economic inequality and political unrest created a deeply fractured society. As a result, scientists could not take it for granted that their ideas would be accepted among a divided public.
At the same time, paleontologists working for civic museums were charged with producing exhibits to inculcate moral lessons of right living and appropriate conduct. These exhibits often invoked a highly speculative narrative of evolutionary progress to naturalize, and thus justify, the economically stratified and white supremacist social order that prevailed at the time. They also featured large and imposing fossils designed to appeal to a mass popular audience. However, to succeed in their pedagogical function, museum exhibits had to impress visitors as a trustworthy depiction of the way life evolved over time. They did so by stressing the idea that fossils provide a direct link to the deep past, an objective window through which visitors could observe a bygone world in which “‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ had lost none of her primitive savagery,” as a visitor’s guide from the American Museum of Natural History put it in 1911.
To bolster the idea that paleontology offered an unmediated account of the deep past, museums made a strategic decision to downplay the creative work of fossil preparators. As the paleontologist and museum director Henry Fairfield Osborn argued, the American museum was “scrupulously careful not to present theories or hypotheses, but to present facts” to its visitors. The profound role that fossil preparators played in shaping paleontological specimens threatened to undermine this claim, and with it, the museum’s ability to discipline an unruly working class.
Wylie is right to insist that we should celebrate the essential work done by fossil preparators, who tend to make up a far more diverse community than research scientists. This should also occasion a much broader discussion about the politics of knowledge. The call to diversify science raises foundational questions about whom the scientific community entrusts with the work of producing authoritative claims about nature. These are old questions. It is about time that we came up with new answers!
Associate Professor of History
Caitlin Donahue Wylie raises several important issues worth in-depth exploration, especially with respect to the role of the fossil preparator within the broader discipline of paleontology.
During my 20 years as a practitioner of fossil preparation, my perspective on the nature of mechanical and chemical interventions in fossil specimens evolved along with my understanding of how other paleontologists interacted with these objects. At first, I accepted the characterization of the role as a “technician.” As I became more aware of the downstream impacts of my decisionmaking on the integrity of the research process, I began to shy away from this historical label and instead view my contributions as an active member of the scientific research team.
As Wylie noted, preparators frequently describe their work as artistic, eschewing the title of paleontologist. Some will say that they are “more an artist than scientist,” often paraphrasing the quote attributed to Michelangelo relating to the sculpting process: “I simply remove from the marble that which is not David.” This self-effacing approach to explaining the work of fossil preparation may insulate the preparator (and audience) from a more uncomfortable examination of their true role (especially as it relates to institutional status, recognition, and compensation), but the subtext also glosses over the underlying joke behind the quote, that Michelangelo was one of the most brilliant artists in history. Is every preparator producing genius-level interpretations of the fossil record? Of course not. But many paleontological insights could never have been achieved without not just any fossil preparator, but rather a specific fossil preparator.
According to Wylie, preparators use “skill and judgment to prepare specimens instead of following top-down instructions from scientists or carrying out predetermined protocols.” Like our apocryphal sculptor, they are not merely removing excess material to achieve a prescribed result. Preparators are combining expertise in multiple domains (geology, biology, chemistry, objects conservation) with skilled mechanical aptitude for handling tools and materials to determine what does and does not constitute scientific data. To be sure, a great deal of preparation requires only basic “cleaning” to expose data, and falls into the historical classification of preparators as technicians. More complex projects require a suite of analytical processes, comparative collections research, and literature review to determine what material to remove or preserve.
In 1804 the paleontologist Georges Cuvier gathered an audience to witness a demonstration. Cuvier presented a partially exposed fossil of a previously unknown animal and anticipated the appearance of the pelvic bones still buried in the rock matrix. He proceeded to remove the matrix using a sharpened steel needle to confirm his prediction. The act of preparation was the test of his hypothesis, the paleontological experiment. I contend that most preparators are actually more scientists than artists, even if they do not recognize or admit it. The notion of preparators-as-paleontologists remains controversial in some pockets of the field, but I believe that Wylie’s research supports this perspective.
Matthew Aaron Brown
Director, Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections
The University of Texas at Austin
Caitlin Donahue Wylie argues that fossil preparators—the lab technicians who painstakingly remove rock from fossils—perform “significant physical and epistemic processing” to make fossils accessible to researchers. The work they do requires great skill and concentration, specialized knowledge, a steady hand, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and monastic patience.
Yet their contributions to the science of paleontology, though essential, are often unacknowledged and even underappreciated. Many preparators are also unpaid. Visitors might be surprised to learn that the fossil preparation labs in many American science museums, including some of the largest and wealthiest, are staffed by legions of hardworking volunteers. Likewise, the handful of paid preparators who train and supervise these volunteers are often working for low wages, in term positions, or both. There is no standardized training for fossil preparators, nor are there regular degree requirements. Preparators learn their craft through experience, apprentice-style. They come from all walks of life: artists, mechanics, woodworkers, and so on. Are you good at puzzles? Then you can learn to be a fossil preparator too.
As Wylie points out, there are advantages to this arrangement. The informal training that fossil preparators receive “dismantles the barriers” to participation in paleontology that are imposed by, for example, stringent degree requirements. Fewer obstacles means more opportunities to participate, which leads to greater inclusiveness. The success of the citizen scientist movement shows that people without science degrees—and this includes many (most?) fossil preparators—can nevertheless greatly impact the production of scientific knowledge through the contribution of their skilled labor. At the same time, broader participation by volunteers and citizen scientists “can help inspire greater public trust in science,” Wylie adds. I think all these claims are probably true.
Still, I can’t help wondering whether the science of paleontology and, more especially, the fossil preparators themselves wouldn’t also be well-served by reforming some of the ways that museums manage the business of paleontology. For example, would greater professionalization, including more standardized training (or even a degree requirement or a certification program), better pay, and more job stability ultimately yield higher-quality fossil preparation? Would this, in turn, lead to greater recognition or higher status positions with less turnover? Ask a paleontologist and they will no doubt acknowledge the essential nature of the lab work that preparators do on behalf of their science. But are they doing enough to help elevate the status of their essential coworkers? Maybe it’s time to start seeing fossil preparators as scientists too.
Fossil preparators in their glass-walled labs are working on the front lines of paleontology. They are often taken for paleontologists. Indeed, they are paleontologists as far as the museum-going public is concerned. Maybe it would be better practice to give them the kind of regular and rigorous training, job stability, and status that their back-of-the-house colleagues enjoy. Higher salaries would no doubt be appreciated as well.
Paul D. Brinkman
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Caitlyn Donahue Wylie’s article is an important reminder of the wide variety of skilled work that goes into scientific discovery. Giving readers the opportunity to learn about fossil preparators in action, she shows that manual labor can be simultaneously intellectual labor, and that what we’ve been taught to consider brain work can’t exist without good hands and a good eye.
Wylie asks us to value the work of preparators because the scientists they work with don’t. Scientists dismiss preparators’ work as mere “cleaning” and render them invisible in scientific publications. These practices are the opposite of inclusive, as Wylie acknowledges. Indeed, they betray a deeply entrenched hierarchy in the sciences, one that elevates people with advanced degrees and marginalizes those without, no matter how necessary or substantive their contributions to the collective work of making knowledge.
Making science more inclusive would seem to require dismantling this hierarchy. Bringing more people without scientific credentials into practices of inquiry, which Wylie holds up as a goal, will hardly result in “more inclusive science” as long as they are regarded as cleaners rather than scientists in their own right. Their “perspectives, creativity, and skills” will not enrich science—at least not to the extent that they could—until scientists and scientific institutions learn to respect uncredentialed workers enough to actually recognize their creativity and skill.
Increasing public trust in science—another of Wylie’s central concerns, and rightly so—also requires rethinking the hierarchy. Mistrust, I would venture, is not based on misunderstanding of how science proceeds or an inability for people without advanced degrees to see themselves as scientists, as Wylie’s argument might suggest. Rather, there is reason to think that people without scientific credentials understand all too well that scientists hold them in low regard. They would not be at all surprised to see fossil preparators being dismissed and disdained by their scientist colleagues. Identifying with preparators would give the public very little reason to change their opinion of science—unless perhaps they saw the skills and experience of preparators become valued to the same extent that those of credentialed scientists are.
Wylie’s study of fossil preparators does a great service to the public conversation on science, by revealing the disparities in how the culture and institutions of science value their diverse workers. In contrast to her optimistic message, however, I contend that part of what fossil preparators can teach us is that until scientific institutions change to promote equality between all contributors to science, inclusion is likely to seem hollow, and trust is too much to ask.
Department of Politics and Center for Science, Technology, and Society
Caitlin Donahue Wylie provides fascinating insights from her fieldwork on the practices of fossil preparation and makes useful suggestions about citizen science more generally.
While preparators spend many hours and deploy dexterity and various skills to prepare fossils, their work is often invisible to the public. It is rarely acknowledged and credited in publications or exhibitions, and within institutions it is often pejoratively called “cleaning.” Wylie’s work makes visible what lies behind the scenes of museums. She thereby contributes to the scholarly debate of the invisibility of work—with scholars having pointed to the problem of “invisible technicians” (Steven Shapin), “invisible work” (Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss) and, more recently, the “in/visibilities” of maintenance and repair work (Jérôme Denis and David Pontille).
But her work does more than make visible the careful and time-consuming practices of preparators. It also shows the creativity of this work. She demonstrates that preparation does not mean just cleaning rocks, but that it requires creative and complex skills and sometimes difficult decisions. I would argue that Wylie shows that preparators’ work is also “ontological,” in that it transforms the status of objects. This transformation is both physical and conceptual. Preparators turn natural objects into “working objects”—that is, objects that are not “raw” nature but the materials from which concepts are formed and stories can be told.
In her article, Wylie also moves beyond her passion and expertise in fossil preparation to make some recommendations for making science more inclusive, for example by undertaking outreach efforts, opening up data preparation for citizens, and recognizing the value of skills rather than credentials. This raises a number of important questions. For instance, how is fossil preparation similar or different from other fields of natural history (including botany, zoology, entomology, ornithology) that have a long track record of being relatively open to amateurs? And how does this difference play out compared with more recent fields such as DIY biology, DIY medicine, or popular epidemiology?
We have seen DIY biologists working with pharmaceutical companies on large data sets on cancer, and developing biosensors to measure the pollution of canals and give communities real-time access to data. We have seen people discovering exoplanets and asteroids through data openly provided by the NASA. We have seen patient organizations producing knowledge on rare diseases that companies and doctors knew almost nothing about. We have, in sum, observed citizens collecting, using, analyzing, and publicizing data. “Preparing” is the term that Wylie adds to this list of verbs—a verb both empirically grounded and theoretically fertile.
Wylie concludes by arguing that participation and engagement efforts might “inspire greater public trust in science.” Another crucial benefit could be this one: it makes scientists trust the public more.
Director of Research
Paris Sciences et Lettres University, CNRS