'I love finding art in science': Go behind the scenes of dinosaur restoration

From an Apatosaurus rib cage to a prehistoric whale skull, these fossils reveal the art—and science—of building a museum exhibit.

Photograph by Craig Cutler
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Full skeletal mount of a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil.
Photograph by Craig Cutler

Craig Cutler’s passion for dinosaurs roared to life 10 years ago, at a warehouse in New Jersey. Inside, technicians were restoring a Tyrannosaurus rex for a museum exhibit. Cutler, a professional photographer, had been commissioned to document the process—and what he saw transfixed him. Throughout the warehouse, all kinds of ancient, invaluable bones stood frozen mid-assembly like prehistoric actors not quite ready to take the stage. Cutler recalls standing before the disembodied legs of a dinosaur, its fragile bones cradled in a metal rig and affixed with blue tape.

“I thought it was so beautiful,” he says.

Cutler was under the spell of a man named Phil Fraley, a self-described “jack of all trades and master of none” who at the time owned Phil Fraley Productions, an exhibit fabrication company. The firm’s sculptors, jewelers, and other artisans were renowned for their creative and scientifically accurate approach to mounting—and sometimes remounting—fossils. Museums across the U.S. display the company’s work, including the American Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, where Fraley worked for nine years as a coordinator. (Read about the latest dinosaur fossil discovery here.)

After Cutler’s first trip to the Fraley workshop, he was hooked, visiting the warehouse whenever he had free time to photograph whatever Fraley and his team were working on. “They’d have all these crazy things set up to go to museums,” he says. The dizzying variety of fossils, though, never broke Fraley’s attention to detail. Cutler recalls the time Fraley had completed a whale fossil and shipped it to Los Angeles, only to ask for the fossil back, to bring the mounting up-to-date with new research findings.

Fraley, who now works as a consultant, says museum visitors who see his dinosaur exhibits are seeing the work of committed artists. On average, Fraley estimates it took him and his team five to six years to complete a project, no matter the cost.

“It was the transference of their energy into putting these specimens back together that brought life to them again,” he says. “These are the building blocks of science—the building blocks of how we as a civilization are moving forward, and to me that’s priceless.” (Meet the Mongolian paleontologist who is repatriating fossils to her home country.)

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Too huge for a single frame, a mount of the immense sauropod Apatosaurus looms large at an exhibit installation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

After years in each other’s company, Cutler continues to visit Fraley and his specimens, in an ongoing photographic project called Bone Tales. And just as he was a decade ago, Cutler remains enchanted with the forms of ancient creatures.

“I love finding art in science,” he says.