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Close-up for Rex

The Natural History Museum's revamped, enlarged dinosaur exhibit makes it clear that much remains to be discovered.

July 03, 2011|Sophia Lee

There is nothing juvenile about the three Tyrannosaurusrex skeletons at the heart of the Natural History Museum's new Dinosaur Hall, crouching with their great heads and menacing teeth hovering just above an unlucky duck-billed Edmontosaurus skeleton -- yet one could say they represent the next generation of museum dinosaurs.

They are the youngest T.rex fossils ever found. The oldest, nicknamed "Thomas," age 17, is at the peak of puberty, already 34 feet and 7,000 pounds at full body weight. The youngest is a 2-year-old toddler, but at 11 feet tall, he's no pushover, and neither is the 13-year-old adolescent at 20 feet and 4,000 pounds.

The trio are the centerpiece of the museum's newly renovated 14,000-square-foot hall, which will be open to the public July 16. The permanent exhibition is twice the size of its previous dinosaur galleries and boasts the world's only Tyrannosaurus rex growth series.

The exhibition is an ambitious project by the Dinosaur Institute, a part of the museum that has been collecting and researching for the exhibit since 2005. With its opening, the museum's $135-million renovation is about halfway to completion. Three more permanent exhibitions are expected to be erected by 2013 as well as the finishing touches added to the Otis Booth Pavilion, a three-story museum entrance that will feature a 63-feet-long, 7,000-pound fin whale specimen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 03, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Dinosaur Hall: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, a graphic about the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's new Dinosaur Hall lists the source of its information as the National History Museum. It should be Natural History Museum. The error was discovered after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 10, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Dinosaur Hall: A July 3 graphic about the Natural History Museum's new Dinosaur Hall incorrectly credited information to the National History Museum. It should have said the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Also, a caption under a photo of a Tyrannosaurus skeleton misidentified the fossil as Thomas. It was another Tyrannosaurus.

Unlike the stately erect dinosaur skeletons of many exhibits, the three stars of the museum's hall are caught in a deadly -- and ravenous -- Cretaceous moment. In this exhibit, dinosaurs are not just skeletons. They were once-living creatures, yet still a mystery to scientists who have just the ancient fossils as proof of their existence. Here, visitors are invited to be more than spectators; they are taught to observe these specimens with a scientific perspective: the "how" of discovering and learning about dinosaurs.

That is one way that Luis Chiappe, Dinosaur Institute director and curator of the new exhibit, hopes to distinguish it from other well-known dinosaur destinations -- Chicago's Field Museum, for example, or the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"It's a take that has not been done before," says Chiappe. "We're really looking at the main mysteries or questions around the dinosaurs, and we are explaining to the visitors how we as scientists are tackling the questions."


Fossil premiere

Lowell Dingus, research associate at the American Museum of Natural History (who also directed the renovation of its Fossil Hall), said the biggest challenge of every museum is finding ways to play to its strengths. The New York dinosaur hall, for example, focuses on the evolutionary tree of vertebrates to show how dinosaurs are related to other animals like crocodiles and birds.

"I think it's great that every exhibit is so different because just think of how boring it will be if every museum had the same exhibit," Dingus said. "Museums can provide a greater variety of scientific resources and opportunities for the public when we build it in different ways, depending on the kinds of specimens and research that particular institute has focused on. [The Natural History Museum] is a unique educational resource both for L.A. and the rest of the world."

Many items on display are never-before-seen fossils found and conserved by the Dinosaur Institute in the last decade.

That is critical, Chiappe said, because contemporary technology for conservation is different from that of 100 years ago, and specimens are better preserved now than ever before (according to Chiappe, the T. rex specimens in this exhibit are among the top 10 most well-preserved in the world).

It also adds to the dynamic that the discovery of dinosaurs is still an ongoing investigation.

"The people who are discovering these [specimens] are living in your lifetime," said Jane Pisano, president and director of the Natural History Museum. "We really aim to be the dinosaur hub in the West Coast."

In fact, Chiappe was responsible for leading much of the field work that uncovered the bones and fossils in the new exhibit, such as the T. rex trio. Chiappe said that these fossils were a breakthrough discovery because most of the other T. rex found were full grown, and no other juvenile T. rex fossils are as complete as these.

"We had no idea when we were first called on site to Montana [where the fossils were found]," Chiappe said. "This provides an interesting link in the life history of a T. rex."

Like the dynamic postures of the T. rex fossils, the exhibit is designed to enliven what may otherwise be static, dry information to visitors who may not be particularly interested in science.

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