LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
(NHM) opened its all-new, 14,000-square-foot Dinosaur Hall, marking the halfway point of the Museums seven-year transformation. Twice the size of the Museums old dinosaur galleries, the new permanent exhibition features over 300 fossils and 20 complete mounts of dinosaurs and sea creatures. The hall rivals the worlds leading dinosaur halls for the number of individual fossils displayed, the size and spectacular character of the major mounts, including the worlds only Tyrannosaurus rex growth series, and the accessible integration of recent scientific discoveries and research into the displays.
In the new, spacious, light-filled galleries, visitors come face-to-faceand in some cases can walk underneathhuge prehistoric skeletons, as well as see the dinosaurs as they were in life, illustrated on giant murals and animated in hands-on interactive and multi-media displays. In addition to views on this grand scale, visitors can also get a very detailed, close-up look at fossilsthey can touch several, look at many through magnifying glasses as a scientist would, and in the interactive displays, excavate from simulated dirt and rock as paleontologists would.
Throughout the exhibition, visitors will encounter science not as static information, but as a vibrant, ongoing investigation into dinosaur mysteriessome resolved, and some still being explored. They will learn that the investigations are still taking place today, reinforcing the fact that discovery is not just something that happened in the past; it is work that is happening now, all around us.
The new Dinosaur Hall is an exciting realization of the goal of our institution-wide transformation, which is to bring the Museums research and collections vividly to life for a public that is hungry for the real thingan encounter with authentic fossils and with the genuine, fascinating process of scientific exploration, said Dr. Jane Pisano, NHM President and Director. This exhibition will emerge as one of the great dinosaur experiences in the world, and a major reason why NHM is one of Americas leading natural history museums.
To provide insight into how scientists puzzle out answers to questions about dinosaursto reveal the stories behind these astonishing specimensthe exhibition draws from the ambitious discovery and research programs of the NHMs in-house Dinosaur Institute (DI), directed by world-renowned paleontologist and exhibition lead curator, Dr. Luis Chiappe. The DIs field research program has located key specimens all over the world, from the dinosaurrich badlands of the American West to remote parts of South America and Asia.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the T. rex growth series, containing an extraordinary fossil trio of the youngest known baby, a rare juvenile, and a recently-discovered young adult, one of the ten most complete T. rex specimens in the world. The Dinosaur Halls other standout exhibits include an imposing new Triceratops; the armor-backed Stegosaurus; the predator Allosaurus; a 68-foot, long-necked Mamenchisaurus; and giant marine reptiles that swam in the oceans covering what is today California. Two-thirds of the full fossil skeletons have never been displayed before. Specimens that were previously seen have all been re-articulated into more dynamic new poses based on recent scientific findings.
We hope to inspire new generations of scientists, since this exhibition highlights the experience of going outdoors and finding treasures, and then understanding how they fit within the current scientific record, said Dr. Chiappe. Most dinosaur exhibitions are organized around specific types of dinosaurs or by periods of time. Our approach is to use new discoveries and research findings to bring visitors into the world of dinosaurs, exploring the great questions of how they lived, behaved, and died, and whether they still exist.
The Exhibition Experience
The Dinosaur Hall extends through two conjoining two-story galleries. One is a part of the recently restored 1913 Building (the Beaux-Arts structure that was the Museums original home). The second belongs to the newer 1920s Building, which has been seismically renovated and outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows that give passersby in Exposition Park a peek at the giants inside.
One of the exhibit goals was to bring visitors closer than ever to the real specimens85 percent of the exhibitions fossils are the real thing, not casts or reconstructions and remove barriers whenever possible. To accomplish this, the major fossil skeletons were placed on special platforms that allow the fossils to be shown without glass barriers, and to pass directly underneath a dinosaur neck and stand under a T. rex skull.
This is a key to the exhibitions visitor experience, as many of these fossils were prepared and articulated in recent years, using modern methods that forgo the thick layers of shellac used by paleontological conservators of decades past. Never-before-seen details of the fossils are revealed. Some specimens have rich red and green hues, colored by the minerals in the lands where they were found. Some contain visible traces of skin textures, respiratory systems, and in one instance, the stomach contents of a last meal.
The Dinosaur Hall is organized around a series of questions: What is a dinosaur? What was their world like? How did they live, grow and behave? And finally, what happened to them?
A quick walk through the exhibit reveals these main ideas, as they appear on large, colorful mural illustrations. For visitors who crave more background, context, and stories of discovery, multi-layered content is available for readers in text and in touchscreen kiosks, and for young non-readers, in simple mechanical, manual games.
Upstairs on the mezzanine are displays about the lab and field aspects of paleontology. These are hands-on experiences, with touchable specimens, magnifying glasses, and a look at the tools and tricks of dinosaur researchfrom a camping supply list for a fossil hunting expedition, to Dr. Chiappes hand-written field journals.
As visitors enter the exhibitions first gallery, they are immediately greeted by a magnificent, never-before displayed Triceratops, mounted on a contoured platform with details of the new research that has re-interpreted, via the animals forelimb, how this huge creature walked in life.
Framing the gallery is a 40-foot fossil wall showcasing 100 diverse dinosaur specimensan artful take on traditional paleontological display, with bones, teeth, eggs, footprints, skin patches, and coprolites (fossilized droppings). Two touchscreen kiosks work as virtual catalogs here, allowing visitors to explore what each bone is, and in some cases, turning them around 360 degrees on the screen.
The exhibitions largest specimen, a 68-foot Mamenchisaurus, stands in front of the gallerys large central windows with its long neck and tail sprawling throughout the gallery. This is one of the exhibits few castsmost other mounts include real fossils.
Suspended from the ceiling overhead, and also viewable from the gallerys new mezzanine, are marine reptiles that lived in the warm sea that once covered California. Here, visitors will come face to face with the exhibits marine monsters. The mosasaur Plotosaurus and the plesiosaur Morenosaurus are both cantilevered over the main floor in a breathtaking, gravity-defying scene. In some cases, large fossil plaques show animals still encased in that dirt and rocka display method that offers staggering glimpses of prehistory. There is a mosasaur plaque, for instance, that reveals traces of a partial body outline, skin color markings, external scales, a downturned tail, branching bronchial tubes, and evidence of the animals last meal 85 million years agofish.
At the end of Gallery One, visitors will get an insight into the field experiences and work done by the Dinosaur Institute expedition teams, led by Chiappe. On five synced screens, video from a recent field expeditions in Utah shows the often grueling conditions and exciting moments of discovery that characterize Dinosaur Institute excursions. Nearby, a specimen is displayed, in the plaster jacket with which it was transported out of the quarry it was found in.
Gallery Two 1913 Building
The T. rex Growth Series
The show-stopping centerpiece in this gallery is the platform featuring a very special trio: the young adult Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Thomas after the discoverers brother (34 feet, and approximately 17 years old) joined by a 20-foot juvenile (approximately 14 years old) and an 11-foot baby (2 years old). The growth series is a fascinating look at the ways that T. rex specimens grew, a process that included incredible growth spurts and body changes. After hatching as a 2-foot, 6-pound baby, for example, a T. rex could reach 30 to 35 feet (10,000 to 12,000 pounds) in less than two decades.
But the growth series is also a snapshot of dinosaur life: the terrain on which they are mounted finds Thomas and the baby standing on one side, while the juvenile lurches toward the carcass of a duck-billed Edmontosaurus. Though nearby content is careful to point out that theories about a long-extinct animals behavior are just that, the scene intends to raise questions about the behavior of the T. rex.
In another panel, the mystery of how and when the large dinosaurs died out is introduced, with evidence for a mass extinction event at the end of the Mesozoic. This section also highlights the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds, providing compelling evidence about why the latter should be considered living dinosaurs.
The second level of the exhibition takes a closer look at the science behind these specimens, from how we know where to look for specimens to the work we do in paleontology labs. One area focuses on field work and the surprising data that a quarry can reveal in addition to its fossil treasures and examples of excavation methods (which, unlike lab work, have not changed drastically over the last several decades). Multi-media interactive kiosks allows visitors to excavate specimens and investigate the finds. The companion area focuses on laboratory discoveriesresearch tools that have evolved to include high-tech microscopes, CT scans, and genome studies.
Behind the Scenes of the Exhibition
Many of the Dinosaur Halls specimens were discovered by the Museums in-house Dinosaur Institute (DI), whose staff, volunteers and graduate students are under Dr. Chiappes direction. The DIs ambitious field research program has located key specimens all over the world, from the dinosaur-rich badlands of the American West to remote parts of South America and Asia. Notable accomplishments include sauropod discoveries (including Gnatalie, named for the biting gnats that pestered her excavators) and dinosaur trackways in Utah; research that reveals a relationship between North American and Iberian dinosaurs; the discovery of an extraordinary dinosaur nesting site, with thousands of fossil eggs, in Patagonia, Argentina; and the identification and naming of North Americas tiniest dinosaur, the Fruitadens haagarorum.
But perhaps the DIs biggest success story is Thomas the T. rex, one of the most complete T. rex specimens in the world, and for NHM visitors, the most familiar. Excavated by DI paleontologists in Montana from 2003 to 2005, the specimen was brought to the Museum and prepared in a working paleontology laboratory in full view of the public.
Like Thomas, many specimens in the exhibition made their way from fossil fields to the Museum, to undergo conservation work and to be researched by DI staff. Footage from DI expeditions will be used in the multi-media components of the Dinosaur Hall, revealing the challenges of working in fossil bedshardships like piercing sandstorms and the dilemma of transporting thousand-pound fossils out of remote badlands are dramatically juxtaposed against the thrilling moments of discovery.