Article ID: CBB811343626

‘The Artist’s Piece Is Already in the Stone’: Constructing Creativity in Paleontology Laboratories (2015)


Laboratory technicians are typically portrayed as manual workers following routine procedures to produce scientific data. However, technicians in vertebrate paleontology laboratories often describe their work in terms of creativity and artistry. Fossil specimens undergo extensive preparation – including rock removal, damage repair, and reconstruction of missing parts – to become accessible to researchers. Technicians called ‘fossil preparators’ choose, apply, and sometimes invent these preparation methods. They have no formal training, no standard protocols, and few publications to consult on techniques. Despite the resulting diversity of people and practices, preparators and their work are usually absent from research publications, making them ‘invisible technicians’ in Steven Shapin’s sense. But preparators reject the view of their work as predictable or simple; in particular, many preparators value art training, the aesthetics of prepared fossils, and the process of creative problem-solving in their work. Based on interviews and participant observation and drawing from literature in science studies, sociology of work, and anthropology of craft, I ask why these technicians compare themselves with artists and how this portrayal affects scientific practice and social order in laboratories. I argue that associating artistry and creativity with their work distances preparators from ideas of unskilled technical work and technicians’ low status, thus improving their social role in the laboratory community and preserving their power over laboratory practices.

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Authors & Contributors
Wylie, Caitlin Donahue
Hernick, Linda VanAller
Freeman, Michael J.
Tassy, Pascal
Janvier, Philippe
Tollerton, Victor P., Jr.
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Earth Sciences History: Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
American Paleontologist
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Kritiki: Critical Science & Education
Yale University Press
Wallstein Verlag
MIT Press
The MIT Press
Laboratory technicians
Laboratory techniques and procedures
Hall, James
Hall, Edwin Bradford
Miller, Hugh
Ruedemann, Rudolf
Wedgwood, Josiah
Liebig, Justus von
Great Britain
United States
New York (U.S.)
London (England)
Missouri (U.S.)
19th century
18th century
21st century
20th century, late
20th century, early
17th century
Københavns Universitet (Copenhagen)
Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin

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