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Dinosaur fossils will be seen in a better light

A new exhibition space at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County opens in July.

November 19, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • A rendering of the T. Rex area in Natural History Museum exhibit.
A rendering of the T. Rex area in Natural History Museum exhibit. (Evidence Design / NHM )

When the new dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County opens in July, the most striking and transformative change will reflect a famous command from the Book of Genesis: "Let there be light."

No, Luis Chiappe, the museum's top dinosaur scientist, and his colleagues at the Exposition Park museum's Dinosaur Institute have not adopted biblical creationists' belief that the creatures they study lived and died out no more than 6,000 years ago. Chiappe is quite certain that Dinosaur Hall's denizens range in age from 65 million to 220 million years old.

But museum leaders have decided that, after decades of showing eons-old bones in halls that were dim and dimmer, illuminating the story of the dinosaurs would be better accomplished by shedding a lot more light on the subject.

There was no practical reason to have kept the bones in the dark, Chiappe said, as dinosaur fossils are not light-sensitive. "It was just poor lighting, period. The one we had before was not a really great dinosaur hall, to be honest. It didn't have a lot of story line and it was dark. Now we have windows all over the place, and we're told we're getting the Cadillac of lighting systems."

There will be a lot more to see in that improved light, the museum announced Wednesday. The exhibit figures to be most crucial for its goal of boosting annual attendance to more than 1 million by the time its ongoing $135-million makeover is finished in 2013. (That's not counting about 300,000 visitors a year drawn to the ancient mammals on display at the sister Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.) The first phase, the Age of Mammals exhibit that opened four months ago, already has driven a 41% boost in visits since its debut; if that pace were to continue, annual attendance would be about 650,000.

Dinosaur lovers will have twice as much to enjoy as in the old halls — a total of 14,000 square feet of exhibition space encompassing two two-story galleries. More than 300 fossils will be on display, 20 of them full-body mountings.

In place of the static old approach, where visitors were cordoned off from the critters, many of the dinosaurs will be mounted so that viewers can walk around and beneath them — or ascend to a mezzanine perch for face-to-face encounters with the likes of a long-necked vegetarian veteran of the old dinosaur hall, mamenchisaurus, or the already-anointed star of the new one, Thomas the T. rex.

Like all true stars, Thomas will have an entourage: This 30-foot young adult dug up by Chiappe and his staff will be joined by a 10-foot kiddie T. rex and a midsize juvenile. They'll be shown near the carcass of a duckbill dinosaur in a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of T. rex growth, while also exploring the recent hypothesis that they were not loners, but group-oriented. The allosaurus, a fierce forebear of T. rex, will be an action figure, locked in combat with a worthy foe — a stegosaurus. Triceratops serves as the Dinosaur Hall's official greeter — the first behemoth visitors will meet.

The museum traded for or bought some new specimens, Chiappe said — the head of a horned dinosaur, einiosaurus, with "an enormous hook on its nose like a giant can opener" as a key new purchase. But the great majority of fossils are from the museum's own collection and have not been previously displayed. Some specimens, including what Chiappe considers "the best preserved mosasaur [a giant sea reptile] in the world," have long been in the collection, but there wasn't room to show them until now.

The mosasaur is especially noteworthy because fossilized fish bones — its stomach contents — were found with it.

The hall's organizing principle is Socratic: It will pose a series of questions about dinosaurs, and present the answers researchers have discerned from the fossilized evidence. Chiappe said that considerable emphasis will be placed on the fact that dinosaur paleontology is an evolving science, with large gaps in our knowledge yet to be filled. Those mysteries should not be daunting for visitors, Chiappe said, but "inspirational."

"Someone may dream of finding the clues in the future," Chiappe said. "That's the nature of science. There's a lot to be discovered."

Indeed, over the last 13 months, the Los Angeles Times has run 14 articles about new discoveries about dinosaurs and their reptilian contemporaries. When he arrived 12 years ago from New York's American Museum of Natural History, Chiappe first focused on field work to invigorate the L.A. museum's dinosaur research and expand the collection; he said the new dinosaur halls represent the culmination of about five years of intensive planning, construction and exhibit design work, while drawing on the past decade's digs for many of the specimens displayed.

Most of the big critters will stand on the main floor, with smaller exhibits upstairs in the mezzanine "where people can examine things more closely," Chiappe says, while learning about the scientific process that dinosaur researchers carry out — from excavating fossils to examining their finds with high-tech scanners and microscopes.

Though there will be video and interactive features and illustrations of how living dinosaurs may have looked, Chiappe said the exhibit won't incorporate the kinds of computer-generated dramatizations popularized on television series such as the BBC's "Walking With Dinosaurs."

"We don't put a lot of emphasis in animating dinosaurs," he said. "You can watch a film for that. You come to the museum to see the real thing."

Chiappe is eager to present the oldest show on Earth, not just to visitors who want to learn about dinosaurs, but to museum professionals. "It's an iconic exhibit that I expect will be a reference for the future."

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