Durant, John. +quot;It's a Fake! It's Genuine!You Decide+quot; [Review of] The Feathers Fl
Durant, John. "It's a Fake! It's Genuine!--You
Decide" [Review of] The Feathers Fly: Is
Archaeopteryx a Fake? A special temporary
exhibition in the British Museum (Natural History),
London, UK. Opened August 18, 1987. The
Scientist, November 2, 1987.
[John Durant is a staff tutor in biological
sciences in the Department for External Studies,
University of Oxford, Wellington Square, OX1 2JA,
In 1985, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra
Wickramasinghe wrote an article in the British
Journal of Photography claiming that Archaeopteryx
is a fake. An ordinary dinosaur fossil, they
suggested, had been treated with a paste of
powdered limestone, into which bird feathers had
been pressed in order to create the illusion of an
extraordinary, dinosaur-like bird. Despite a swift
rebuttal by British Museum staff in Science
magazine (Charig et al, vol. 232, May 2, 1986, pp.
622-626), Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have repeated
their claim in a popular book (Archaeopeteryx, The
Primordial Bird, Christopher Davis, 1987), and now
the museum has put on an exhibition setting out
both sides of the dispute.
This exhibition bends over backwards in an effort
to be seen as fair to its critics. Its entrance
looks rather like a polling station, with a red
rosette on one side labelled "It's a fake!" and a
blue one on the other labelled "It's genuine!"
Thereafter, arguments are color-coded and presented
in parallel. Throughout the exhibition, visitors
are encouraged to make up their own minds on the
balance of the evidence presented. I decided to do
The exhibition begins with a 4-5 minute videotape
of a recent television news item. Fred Hoyle comes
across as very self-assured and trenchantly anti-
establishment--no real suprises there. The museum
representative, in contrast, is altogether more
reserved--quietly confident, perhaps, but certainly
indignant at Hoyle's suggestion that the museum's
first superintendent of natural history, Sir
Richard Owen, knowingly bought a fake in order to
discredit Charles Darwin and his early supporters.
I scored this exhibit 50:50.
After the video, there is a collage of relevant
newspaper and journal articles. This gives a sense
of the public ocntroversy, but most of the
headlines appear to be of the museum's side.
Either this reflects a real lack of support for
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe in the media, of else it
is a slip in the museum's posture of political
balance. I found this exhibit impossible to score.
The next exhibit deals with the five known
Archaeopteryx fossils, represented by casts (exact
copies) and photographs. The first two specimens,
found at the same site in 1861 and 1877, both have
feathers; the red label says they were faked by the
same people. The third specimen (1950) has no
feathers, but the blue label claims you can see
where they were. The fourth has feathers, but the
red label says the specimen is too poor to count.
The fifth specimen (1970) produces the most
straightfoward disagreement: the blue label says it
has feathers and the red label said it does not. I
looked hard and thought I saw feathers, but
couldn't be sure. I ignored specimens one and two
pending further evidence about faking and three
pending further evidence about feathers; I awarded
number four to the museum, and five was a draw.
All in all, 60:40 to the museum.
This left just the star of the show, the 1861
specimen itself, on display again for the first
time in 20 years. The fossil is in two halves--
slab and counter-slab. Red labels claim that: (1)
the two halves don't match properly; (2) the
feather impressions are too good to be true; and
(3) sticky deposits on the exposed surfaces are
remnants of glue used by fakers to doctor the
surface. Blue labels reply that: (1) the two
halves do match properly, but the surface of the
slab has been excavated to reveal more details of
Archaeopteryx's tail; (2) the feather impressions
are no better than many other fossils obtained from
the same rock; and (3) the sticky deposits come
from legitimate scientific work on the fossil. I
scored points 1 and 2 to the museum, and point 3 a
draw (how do I know what the sticky deposits are?).
Overall, 60:40 to the museum again.
By the end of the exhibition I had come down
clearly in favor of the museum. But what does this
really mean? After all, the British Museum is
itself one of the protagonists in the dispute, and
presumably it wanted the balance of the evidence in
its favor. The real question for me (and, I
suspect, for most visitors) is this: whose
judgment do I trust more: the British Museum's or
Fred Hoyle's? As it happens, I came to the
exhibition with some prior knowledge of Hoyle's
biological and geological writings (though not
those on Archaeopteryx), and this certainly
prejudiced me in favor of the museum. Most
visitors will not have this background, and for
them the judgment will be trickier.
I spoke to a man who had just finished taking his
family around the exhibition. Like most visitors I
saw, he appeared to be trying hard to weigh up the
arguments. His reaction?
"Well, I think it's helpful. I mean, it brings
home to the man in the street the problems they're
got in sorting out a famous thing like that. Maybe
they've got it wrong; but then again, maybe the guy
just wants to make a name for himself. I really
Science in public really is quite a bit like
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