Face to Face with Dinosaurs

Visitors to NHM’s Dinosaur Hall will find themselves up close and personal with some of prehistory’s most commanding and beguiling creatures. An enormous Triceratops stares down visitors upon entry. A long-necked Mamenchisaurus, which stretches longer than a city bus, looms overhead while a flock of chicken-sized Fruitadens haagarorum scurry at its feet. The spectacular T. rex growth series – an installation that exists only at NHM – shows a baby, juvenile, and young adult T. rex specimen hovering over the remains of their prey.

A total of 20 complete skeletons, installed on freestanding sculpted platforms – or hung from the ceiling – provide a glimpse of the extraordinary diversity of life that existed in the Age of Dinosaurs. Dr. Luis Chiappe, Dinosaur Institute Director and the hall’s lead curator and Dr. Karen Wise, NHM’s Vice President of Education and Exhibits, insisted that the exhibition’s layout allowed visitors to get close enough to specimens to see the telltale signs of the ancient animals’ life on Earth.

Teeth marks on an Edmontosaurus’ skeleton are speculated to have come from a nasty encounter with a T. rex. An ancient ammonite has bite marks that scientists think were caused by a marine reptile. Visitors can stare right into Thomas the T. rex’seyes and admire his multiple rows of teeth, while they ponder what it might have been like to encounter the massive carnivore in life.

“The things that interest every four-year-old – What is a dinosaur? How did they live? What happened to them? Where do you find fossils? – are the same questions that drive scientists,” says Wise. “We help visitors follow their curiosity by organizing the exhibition around these major questions. We want them to identify with dinosaurs as living animals, and we want them to understand that NHM’s scientists are doing real science in real time.”

The hall, filled with over 300 fossil specimens, is designed to allow visitors to chart their own path. The curious can move from the major skeletons to more intimately scaled displays, and from information conveyed through text to graphics to sensory experiences. At a densely packed fossil wall, for example, 98 individual specimens present a universe of fragmentary evidence that scientists use to solve dinosaur mysteries. Instead of traditional text panels, there are two interactive digital catalogs programmed with 3-D renderings that allow visitors to “turn” fossil bones 360 degrees to see how they might fit into a skeleton.

Mindful of the fact that some of the hall’s most avid visitors will be children – some of whom will be far more knowledgeable than the adults accompanying them -curators have made an effort to speak their language. One item is labeled “Fossilized Poop,” featuring exactly the terminology that a preschooler would find engaging. Expository text is more technical: “Coprolites sometimes contain evidence of food eaten by dinosaurs.”
Large fossil plaques – immense slices of stone encasing fossilized remains in dirt and rock- offer stunningly beautiful and extremely informative glimpses of these animals at the time of their death. A plaque of the ancient sea monster called a Platecarpus reveals traces of a partial body outline, skin color markings, external scales, a downturned tail, and branching bronchial tubes. It also provides evidence of the animal’s last meal, 85 million years ago: small fish.

Like many of the specimens in the hall, the Platecarpus was the topic of recent and important scientific research. Chiappe and a team of paleontologists determined from this fossil’s highly specialized tail fin that the animals were better swimmers than previously thought – they swam more like sharks than eels. “It’s the finest preserved mosasaur in existence,” says Chiappe. “Getting this close to such an important specimen is one of many things that is unique to NHM’s Dinosaur Hall.”

In addition to the fossils, enormous murals of dinosaurs and marine reptiles show these animals as they were in life. Videos and interactive touch-screen stations show what they might have looked like as fleshed-out creatures. Graphics featuring singular boldface words like “Touch” or “Listen” direct visitors to sensory experiences such as the feel of a Stegosaurus’ spike, a Triceratops’ frill, an imprint of a Corythosaurus’ bumpy skin, or a recording of what scientists speculate a Parasaurolophus, or long-crested duck-billed dinosaur of the Cretaceous period, might have sounded like based on CT scans of its skull. A cast of a dinosaur trackway installed in the floor allows visitors to compare their foot to a dinosaur imprint.

There are also several exhibits and videos devoted to the behind-the-scenes work of field expeditions and paleontological labs where visitors can see the real tools of the trade. Hands-on experiences also promote a deeper understanding. Visitors can peer into peepholes to look at microscopic evidence, manipulate tumblers to piece together fragments of bone, or crouch beneath a platform to feel fossils embedded in simulated rock. Multiple players can work on a virtual excavation using a touch table to play the parts of prospector, geologist, paleontologist, and excavator.

“This is a very interesting time for paleontology,” says Wise. “We’re making startling new discoveries, but there are still major mysteries to be solved. We want to inspire the next generation of scientists to continue this work.”
Source = Natural History Museum
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