Dinosaur Digs

A fossil hall undergoes a complete renovation with the goal of telling the story of our planet's past while helping set the stage in determining Earth's future
history, nature
Written By Patty Jensen
Photography By Matthew Stephan
Image Courtesy Of Smithsonian Institution

The backbone of the Smithsonian’s new Deep Time experience will display fossils as never before.

Predators require patience.

The Tyrannosaurus rex knows this. For 66 million years he has lain silent, stealthily hidden from all eyes. Now, finally, the stirring has begun. It is time for him to make a move.

He’s coming. He’s coming soon. And he’s coming for you.

The National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution headquartered in Washington, D.C., is recognized internationally as the premier museum of science, research, collections and educational outreach, all dedicated to the exploration and understanding of the natural world. One of its most important and popular exhibitions had been the fascinating Fossil Hall, a trove of displays that included Life in the Ancient Seas, Dinosaurs, and Ice Ages, delighting and enthralling millions of visitors for more than three decades.

But despite its success, the museum’s leadership recognized that the Fossil Hall and its displays had, ironically, become old themselves. Expanding knowledge in the field of paleontology, new scientific discoveries and increasing technological advancements demanded that the exhibits and the stories they told about ancient times be shared in a new and modern voice. In the spring of 2012 the National Museum of Natural History announced it would construct a new dinosaur exhibition, scheduled to begin in 2014. The new hall—Deep Time—will explore the history of life on Earth buried in the geologic record below our feet. Like chapters in a book, the history of life is laid down in layers of rock called strata. The deeper you dig, the further back in time you travel.

The ambitious five-year project will completely renovate the halls and exhibits, changing not only the physical space but also the manner in which the museum fulfills its mission as steward of the world’s largest fossil collection.

“Since opening to the public in 1911, the architectural bones and underlying fabric of the old Fossil Hall remained virtually untouched and could not service a modern exhibition or the millions of visitors attending the exhibition annually,” says Kirk Johnson, Sant director for the National Museum of Natural History. “Scientific understanding of these past worlds has grown dramatically over the last century. This fossil hall will be unique in that its content will not end in the past, but will include the present day and project into the future.”

Extinct Monsters

Image Courtesy Of Smithsonian Institution

A miniature model represents the terrifying tableau of a life-size T. rex and a Triceratops that will greet visitors as they enter the new fossil hall.

The National Museum of Natural History’s official dinosaur display began more than one hundred years ago as The Hall of Extinct Monsters. Photographs from the time, viewed in century-past shades of black, white and gray, picture a massive hall with a fascinating yet eerily frightening assemblage of skeletons—skulls and teeth, fingers and toes, ulnas and vertebrae, femurs and fibulas—all representing creatures that before could often only be imagined.

The dinosaurs on display represented the acquisition of numerous paleontological finds, including Triceratops, the first mount of this taxon in the world and a museum visitors’ favorite; Camptosaurus, a 500-pound beaked plant eater whose name means flexible lizard; Stegosaurus, a 25-foot armored dinosaur with 17 bony plates along its spine; and Ceratosaurus, a predatory carnivore with pointed eye “brows” and a large horn nose.

The culmination of the original collection occurred in 1931 when the imposing Diplodocus mount was completed. Upon entering the hall, visitors’ heads would simultaneously swivel and mouths gape at the sight of the 90-foot long,15-foot tall, plant-eating dinosaur that dominated a section of the cavernous viewing area.

“Generations of visitors—too many millions to count—encountered the museum’s iconic fossils and then started wondering, imagining and asking questions,” says Siobhan Starrs, senior project manager, National Museum of Natural History. “Fossils are so important because they spark questions and inspire wonder about the natural world—the bedrock of science, learning, and invention.”

The creatures that inhabited The Hall of Extinct Monsters, later renamed Fossil Hall, had long represented our planet’s past. Now they were examples of a different past—the museum’s former way of displaying these extraordinary specimens and the methods of educating the public regarding their place in our history and our future.

On April 27, 2014, Fossil Hall closed to the public in preparation for the space’s planned transformation. For the museum’s professional staff, it was a moment of exhilaration, anticipation and, perhaps, a touch of apprehension. All these exhibits now needed to be disassembled, photographed and transferred to storage areas. The incredibly long Diplodocus skeleton, which had not been moved in 85 years, was just one example of the challenges that lay ahead.

Nevertheless, it was time to start packing.

Watching the renovation take shape is almost like watching the fossils come back to life

Old Specimens, New Space

The job of dismantling and conserving the extremely delicate skeletons and vast exhibits was not for the fainhearted. Thousands of fragile specimens needed to be removed from the halls before construction could begin. And, as irreplaceable national treasures, it would be best if none were dropped or broken.

“Everyone at the museum understands the importance of the collections’ objects placed in our care as part of the nation’s collection,” explains Starrs. “Staff from all around the museum spent thousands of hours preparing a space perfectly engineered to house the specimens during the hall renovation and planning each step of their deinstallation. It was a huge undertaking and reminded me how seriously we all take this responsibility of collections care.”

The undertaking of a project this immense is time consuming. For those eagerly looking forward to the opening of the new hall, several more years sounds like a long wait. But for staff members working on the renovation, used to an environment where time is measured in hundreds of millions of years, two more years seems merely a—perhaps reptilian—blink of an eye.

Scheduled to open in the summer of 2019, the new hall’s construction plan is comprised of three phases: deinstallation of the current specimens and displays; demolition and renovation; and installation of the new exhibition. At this point, the first two phases are nearly finished and phase three is about to begin. When completed, the 31,000-square-foot dinosaur hall will include infrastructure improvements as well as bringing the space back to its Beaux-Arts architectural roots, restoring decorative beams, columns, balconies and moldings, and once again incorporating natural light into the environment.

“Watching the renovation take shape is almost like watching the fossils come back to life,” Starrs says. “The bones and details of the classic architecture once revealed are really the perfect pairing to our stunning new dinosaur skeletons washed in natural light.”

The hall will present a seamless journey from the present day back to the earliest origins of life on Earth, more than 3.5 billion years ago. Along the way, visitors will encounter several especially prominent displays. The dinosaur displays will feature the museum’s most spectacular specimens updated to reflect current scientific understanding about how these amazing creatures lived and functioned in dynamic and diverse ecosystems. The Age of Humans Gallery will be a “vibrant, multimedia gathering place engaging visitors in conversation with scientists, educators and each other to connect Earth’s past, present and future.” The FossiLab will feature a working laboratory where visitors can “watch real-time care and study of new fossils from the field and the museum’s more than 42 million fossil specimens.” Finally, Strange Forests of an Ancient Ice Age will be an immersive, underground environment where “a paleobiologist helps visitors uncover ancient landscapes buried deep underground for more than 300 million years.”

“One thing that amazes me about the potential of this new exhibition is, that because of its topic and its central location on the National Mall, it will be seen by more than 50 million visitors over the next decade,” says Johnson. “That represents a significant proportion of our nation’s population.

The Nation's T. Rex

Image Courtesy Of Smithsonian Institution

Frozen in time, a fossil is preserved in its “death pose.”

When the new dinosaur hall opens, a terrifying tableau will take center stage. Caught in the act, a 38-foot-long T. rex triumphantly looms above its victim, a Triceratops helplessly crumpled beneath. Straddling the body with one massively clawed foot on the ground, the other firmly gripping the conquered creature’s rib cage, its stubby arms hanging uselessly, the T. rex is poised to use its banana-sized teeth to savagely pull the skull from the rest of the Triceratops’s carcass.

Displays didn’t used to be like this.

For more than a century, natural history museums exhibited dinosaurs and other fossils in static mountings, with little hint of how they lived or interacted with each other in their prehistoric world. When a smaller skeleton was discovered intact, the bones were often in a contorted position—known as the “death pose”—typically with the mouth wide open and the head, neck and tail unnaturally curled back. These specimens were frequently presented as they were found, often hanging encased in gilded frames on museum walls. Large dinosaurs were usually reconstructed standing still or in mid-stride.

“It’s especially important to show what we know about the living worlds these animals were part of,” says Matthew Carrano, curator of Dinosauria, National Museum of Natural History, “because it creates connections between these ancient times and our own. Despite the dramatic differences between dinosaurs and ourselves, they were still flesh-and-blood animals like us, breathing and eating and moving, and just as dependent on their ecosystems.”

When the museum’s new Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, called the Nation’s T. rex, is unveiled at the fossil hall’s 2019 reopening, it will be the end of a long journey for the behemoth. This “King of the Tyrant Lizards” last roamed the Earth at the close of the Cretaceous Period, when what is now the Western United States was a muggy, swampy forest teeming with abundant plants and other edible life forms. Weighing an estimated 5 tons and measuring 38 feet long, the Nation’s T. rex was a carnivore, likely both an accomplished predator and opportunistic scavenger.

Discovered accidently on federal land in 1988 by Montana rancher Kathy Wankel, it was the first T. rex specimen to have preserved the tiny forearms intact. After securing a 50-year loan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, T. rex was shipped in April 2014 from its former home at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, for its six-day trip to Washington, D.C. Upon arrival, museum staff inventoried the contents of the 16 crates holding the skeleton and conducted a conservation assessment. Then it was time to send the Nation’s T. rex off again, this time to Research Casting International in Trenton, Ontario, to be assembled in preparation for its grand debut.

“We were able to laser-scan the entire specimen, which makes it accessible for future research—and let us build a 1/10 scale version of the skeleton,” Carrano says. “That meant we could try out different poses, and turned out to be crucial in allowing us to design such a dynamic mount.”

Making a Difference

Image Courtesy Of Smithsonian Institution

An anatomical blend of art and science.

Admission is free for every person who enters the National Museum of Natural History. Operating the world’s largest and most prestigious natural history museum, on the other hand, is a very expensive endeavor.

The institution employs a professional staff of more than 450 and maintains over 145 million specimens and artifacts—the largest collection at the Smithsonian. The museum’s impact in other areas is equally compelling. Annually, nearly 9,000 researchers draw upon the museum’s collection to make scientific discoveries, more than 750 students from hundreds of colleges and universities are trained, and museum scientists conduct investigations in over 60 countries and publish their findings in more than 800 studies.

While public funds ensure free access to the museum for more than 7 million visitors a year, operating costs continue to rise. Additionally, fundraising continues in support of the new dinosaur and fossils hall.

This is where Sandra Lovinguth, chief development officer for the National Museum of Natural History, helps lead the museum’s efforts.

“People can contribute in so many different ways to advance the museum’s mission. Their personal support helps bring our work—and the thrill of science—to larger and more diverse audiences,” Lovinguth says. Whether joining the Leadership Circle, making a philanthropic investment, participating in after hours and family programs, or volunteering in the galleries and behind the scenes, the results help create exceptional exhibitions, send scientists around the globe, and provide students a portal to academic opportunity, according to Lovinguth.

“This is your National Museum of Natural History. Whatever your passion, we urge people everywhere to get involved and make a difference,” says Lovinguth.

While scientists have discovered a lot since the exhibition first opened in 1911, there is so much we still don’t know and so many fossils still buried, just waiting to be found.

Shaping our Future

Image By Washington Post/Getty Images

Kirk Johnson, Sant director for the National Museum of Natural History, is leading the museum’s mission of learning and understanding our planet’s past in an effort to help determine Earth’s future.

When Johnson was appointed Sant director of the National Museum of Natural History in 2012, he already had begun creating a vision for the museum, one that involved not just studying the past but also focusing on the future. The outcome was a thoughtful, carefully crafted and collaborative five-year strategic plan that will carry the museum successfully into 2020 and beyond.

Johnson’s credentials for the position are impeccable. He was previously chief curator and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Among his academic degrees is a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale University. Yet to really understand the man’s commitment to the museum is to know that Johnson’s passion for natural history goes back to when he first began discovering and collecting fossils at age four.

“My mom gave me a glass museum case to store my finds. That became my personal fossil museum,” Johnson remembers. “Forty-nine years later, until my parents moved, that collection still existed. Think of that—my tiny museum was almost half as old as the Smithsonian’s natural history museum.”

Fossil exhibitions and the role they play are evolving into a greater understanding of the importance, contributions and global responsibility natural history museums hold, not only serving as custodians of the past but as leaders and beacons lighting the way to our planet’s future.

“Humans are having an increasing impact on the natural world as our population grows,” says Johnson. “In studying the past we can discover ancient analogues in stories of climate change, extinction, geological change and ecosystem fragmentation, and these analogues help us understand the changes happening around us today and how to prepare for the future. In many ways, studying the past is more important now than ever before.”

According to Johnson’s strategic plan, titled Natural History in the Age of Humans, progress will be made on two critical fronts. First: The museum’s impact will be increased by strengthening science, collections and education, and through service to a global network of natural history museums. Second: The museum will inspire its stakeholders to better understand the science of our rapidly changing planet and their connection to it.

“Deep Time is as much about what we don’t know as what we know. While scientists have discovered a lot since the exhibition first opened in 1911, there is so much we still don’t know and so many fossils still buried, just waiting to be found,” says Johnson. “And it is also about legacy—the Earth’s evolutionary and geological legacy that we have inherited and what legacy we are leaving for future generations of people and other species of life on our planet.”

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