Watching the hoopla over the arrival of the Smithsonian’s new T rex skeleton last week made me wonder. How do museums turn a pile of old bones pulled from the ground into standing skeletons that fire our imaginations?
Like many boys, my son finds dinosaurs fascinating. Watching the skeleton come to life in the “Night at the Museum” movies just added to the wow factor. To feed his hunger, we made the trip to join the throngs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the world’s second most visited museum, and spent a few hours roaming their dinosaur exhibit.
But, that was before the Washington D.C.’s newest bigwig roared into town, arriving at its new home at the Smithsonian in a snazzy Fed Ex eighteen-wheeler.
The Nation’s T Rex
The Nation’s T rex may be the new dino in town, but it isn’t a new discovery, according to the Baltimore Sun. Unearthed in 1988 by a rancher hiking on public lands in Montana with her husband, the skeleton has been on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, for decades. The 66 million-year-old, 38-foot long specimen is one of the most complete T rex skeletons in the world. Now, thanks to a 50-year loan agreement, the T rex is taking on the capitol.
Visitors to the National Museum of Natural History will be able observe curators as they scrutinize the fossils until this fall, when the bones will be repacked and shipped to Toronto, Canada, to be prepared for display. But how do museums stage these special bones for display?
Displaying dinosaur bones is a combination of science and art. As the BBC explains, scientists must first clean and identify the bones. Then, experts in dinosaur motion are brought in to make sure the planned pose is anatomically accurate. Since no totally complete T rex skeleton has ever been found, scientists will recreate any missing bones. Then, a custom-made steel frame is engineered to support the bones without damaging them while remaining all but invisible to the museum visitor’s eye. It is literally a massive undertaking; a T rex skeleton can weigh more than a ton.
If the original fossils are too fragile for display, scientists sometimes substitute casts made from molds of the real bones. As the National Museum of Natural History explains, casts can have many advantages. They are less vulnerable to damage and replaceable. They’re also much easier for exhibit designers to handle. Casts are much lighter. They can also be drilled without fear of damage, allowing exhibit designers to insert hardware directly into the bone. This makes hiding the support structure more simple and allows for more dramatic poses.
While the nation’s new T rex is busy getting ready for its close up, the Smithsonian is setting the stage with a $48 million renovation of its dinosaur hall. The new exhibit should open in 2019.
“Building a Dinosaur” — Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
“How Do You Build a Dinosaur?” — BBC
“Rare T Rex Rests its Bones at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History” — BaltimoreSun.com
“Track the Nation’s T Rex as it Arrives at the Smithsonian” — Smithsonian.com