Real fossils or fossil casts: Do visitors care? #TBT


Argentinosaurus: real, cast or a bit of both?


Been tooling around some of my old evaluation reports and came cross a 2007 study conducted at the Australian Museum, Sydney, in partnership with the Natural History Museum, London, asking the question: What did visitors feel about displaying cast vs. real fossil material?

Seventy visitors were interviewed in-depth at each institution (n=140), asked to look at a fossil skeleton and then answer some questions about it. For good measure, they were also asked how they felt about displaying human skeletons.

Research findings

The key finding from the Australian Museum (AM) study was that the clear majority of visitors surveyed:

  • understood that museums cannot always display real fossil material, AND
  • this didn’t bother them, as long as it was made clear they were seeing a cast, UNLESS
  • it was a human skeleton, then they would expect it to be real

Respondents were interested in the object (fossil skeleton) in terms of:

  • what it told them about the dinosaur (the context) AND
  • what it told them about the actual object and how it is displayed

Some comments after revealing the object was a cast:

  • Don’t mind – better to see a cast than nothing at all. Real fossils are rarely complete. (aged 35-44)
  • Still cool it’s a cast – gives the idea of exactly what it looked like (aged 25-34)
  • OK, still impressive, actually didn’t expect to see a real one … (aged 45-59)
  • OK, understand the value of displaying the real thing. It’s great that it is touchable and is more interactive than the real thing. (aged 60+)
  • It would be good to have a real fossil on display but it is rare to find intact skeletons. You can still learn from viewing a cast. (aged 17-24)
  • Would be nicer if it was real but I realise it would need protection if this was the case. (aged 45-59)
  • Waste of time seeing it – why are we here? I want to see a real one! (aged under 16)

And, on cast or real human skeletons:

  • Don’t really mind, as long as it’s a true representation. (aged 35-44)
  • No, I’d just like to see human skeletons – real or replicas! (aged 60+)
  • It would need to be real unless it was a rare type of skeleton. (aged 35-44)
  • It would be easier to get a real skeleton. (aged 35-44)
  • Real human skeletons are more sacred than animal skeletons. I would prefer them to be buried and not put on display. (aged 45-59)
  • A real skeleton would make me feel uncomfortable. … People should have a choice to see it or not. (aged 45-59)

General findings from the Natural History Museum (NHM) study were that:

  • the most common questions were about the authenticity of the skeleton (whether the skeleton was real or not) or the animal’s physical characteristics (size, weight, height, etc.)
  • half believed the skeleton to be a cast
  • over half were not bothered whether the fossil was real or cast
  • almost half of the visitors did not care whether the human bones were casts or real
  • the vast majority of the visitors mentioned that it was very important that the Museum stated whether the skeleton was a cast or not
  • most could explain why a cast was displayed – over half talked about conservation and preservation-related reasons
  • approximately two-thirds of those sampled preferred a real bone or fossil in a display case or another cast or copy that they could touch

The NHM also sought advice from staff and colleagues who gave their professional response based on experience working with visitors and collections. The overwhelming feeling from this group was that visitors would only be interested in real material, and that museums must show real objects. This is interesting given that both studies found visitors to be more accepting of displaying cast material. Could be seen as another case of staff being out of touch with visitors, as per the study reported in Great Expectations: do museums know what visitors are doing?!

What does this mean?

These results suggest to me that visitors:

  • have sophisticated understandings of both the practicalities and the logistics of displaying real fossils, knowing that fossils are hard to acquire and often too precious to exhibit
  • want to know whether they are looking at a cast or real fossil
  • still want to touch a real fossil if possible
  • are quite open-minded when it comes to displaying real human skeletons
  • seem to be more accepting of displaying cast material than are museum staff

So, real fossil or fossil casts? It doesn’t really matter – the context of the display and the accompanying explanations of the exhibit are of critical importance to visitors. I’m doing  some more work on this over the next little while, so will update if I find anything new…


Many staff at both museums worked on this project – Bliss Jensen and Trish McDonald (formerly of the AM), along with G. Gina Koutsika, formerly of NHM, who originally posed the question. Happy memories of some productive, and fun, times!


2 thoughts on “Real fossils or fossil casts: Do visitors care? #TBT

  1. Chris Lang says:

    That’s what I’ve understood from my research too. Particularly with dinosaurs they appreciate getting a sense of scale and the ability to replicate rare and fragile objects over multiple institutions.

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