Surrounded by the skeletons on his walls, Lee Post turned off the local radio station and explained that it’s always hard to describe his job.
“I’m just a bone builder, but more technical would be an osteology specialist,” Post said.
Balancing his part-time bookselling job in Homer, Alaska, Post visits schools to help students build skeletons and writes bone-building manuals — some of the only guides out there. He spent 15 years adding to the animal skeleton collection at Homer’s Pratt Museum.
The bookstore brought Post to Homer when he and his mom bought it, but he spent every moment he wasn’t working in the bookstore at the Pratt. The museum had a beaked whale skeleton they had collected, and he asked if he could help them put it together. The museum didn’t have the time, resources, or expertise to do it, and asked if he would take it on. It was his first skeleton since high school.
“I had put one rabbit skeleton together as an anatomy class in high school and that was a classic perfect example of exactly how not to do something like that. It was everything you could do wrong on one little skeleton,” Post said. “I got it together long enough to get it to school, it’d fall apart any time it was bumped, I’d glue it back together, I was walking around with a tube of cement, which is the wrong stuff to be using on bone anyway, and I got it together enough to get a grade on it, but that was my only experience with bones.”
With a 20 by four-foot space to work on a 17-foot skeleton, he started looking for books that might teach him how to put the whale together. With no luck finding books, he contacted museums with whale articulations.
“I’d usually get a hold of somebody who’s a curator or somebody in charge of answering stupid questions from the public,” Post said. “They would explain the whale skeletons were done over 100 years ago. Nobody left any instructions on how they did them. There’s no paperwork, there was no manuals, the ghosts weren’t talking. I didn’t get very far doing it that way.”
Eventually, he found three people in the country (one in Canada), who had worked on large skeletons. None of them articulated the skeletons in the same way.
“I’d done some carpentry work, and through my work as a bike mechanic I realized that they were doing it in ways considered janky,” Post said. “Realizing that nobody was doing it the same way, told me that there was no gold standard for how these things were done, that there was no right or wrong way.”
Post ended up finishing the skeleton with the help of the town. At the time, Post says Homer was filled with young people. Land was fairly cheap, there was a public radio station, the Pratt Museum, and a lot of commercial fishing.
“I’m not sure if they had escaped or they had evolved from the real world, to get away from civilization, to get away from the rat race, or to get away from whatever they wanted to get away from,” Post said. “It was kind of a lifestyle where people did whatever they needed to do to get by.”
When neighbors visited him at the bookstore, he’d tell them what he was stuck on, and found that the community was willing to help.
“People would throw out suggestions because they were craftsmen or artists, just intelligent people. Boat builders, carpenters, a lot of people were just doing whatever their fantasy always led them to, what they wanted to do and never had the chance.”
The whale was successful, and he started articulating one to two more skeletons a year. One year, they collected a sperm whale skeleton and received an invitation from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to run a museum and high school collaborative project. The sperm whale became a Homer High School project, and students weighed, measured, drew scientific illustrations, and did metal work. The whale was hung in the school by spring break, and after the second year of the project, there were about a dozen skeletons around the school.
“They had just about filled their high school, it was like an extension of the Pratt Museum,” Post said. “The students who worked on the projects, they were so proud of that stuff that they did. We had money to use real museum products, they weren’t using crayons and posterboard anymore.”
Teachers who saw what the students were doing started contacting Post about how to do those projects in their classrooms, and he worked on guides that would eventually become his bone-building books. The students all called him Bone Man.
“One of the teachers at the high school called me the pied piper of bones, wherever I went I had people who were following me and they wanted to do more skeletons,” Post said.
Since the project, he’s been invited to schools and museums mostly on the West Coast, including Port Townsend, where he articulated an orca skeleton alongside forty people who wanted to be involved in the project. More recently, he’s been invited to the Galapagos and Mexico. Since a PhD is usually required to articulate skeletons, Post enjoys working with people who have never done it before.
“I had more fun taking people who never dreamed they’d be able to handle marine mammal skeletons,” he said.
Post doesn’t work much with the Pratt Museum anymore, he says a line of leadership changes has led the museum to pursue cultural endeavors over osteology. He still works at the bookstore, though, and doesn’t see his job in bones existing without it.
“I have a desire and a need to have more things going on in my life than just being a bookseller, and if I just did bones the whole time I’d burn out on bones,” Post said.