March 8, 2011
Many years ago, before the major renovation of the dinosaur halls, my parents took me to see the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). I will never forget that visit. Standing below the skeleton of the immense “Brontosaurus,” I imagined what the animal would have looked like when clothed in flesh, and I have to admit that I feel a twinge of nostalgia for the old, inaccurate reconstruction.
Our understanding of sauropod dinosaurs has come a long way since my first visit to the AMNH, and so I was delighted to attend a special behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s upcoming dinosaur exhibit held for selected Twitter users last Thursday. The exhibit, titled “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs,” will highlight some of the latest discoveries about the lives of sauropods, from reproduction to the squishy details of their internal anatomy. From what I saw on the tour, the displays are going to be spectacular.
Although the exhibit will not be ready to open until April 16, the museum staff gave guests a preview in the Exhibition Design Studio. All the displays—from the Argentinosaurus head that will greet visitors at the entrance to a life-size mock-up of a sauropod’s lungs—were laid out ahead of time in miniature, and the show’s Mamenchisaurus centerpiece was being assembled in the next room over. Rather than being a static sculpture, though, the museum’s exhibition team figured out a way to project video directly onto the dinosaur, making it possible to digitally peel away the layers of dinosaur flesh to reveal the internal organs and then seamlessly stitch the skin back on. I can’t wait to see that!
The behind-the-scenes event also gave me the chance to do something that I have always wanted to do: visit the massive collection of dinosaur bones held in museum storage. Our guide, collections manager Carl Mehling, figured that less than one percent of the museum’s dinosaurs are actually on display, and it was wonderful to see the many rows of immense sauropod bones held in the one bone room we toured. I even ran into an old friend. Tucked away on the bottom shelf was the original head of the museum’s “Brontosaurus“! It was a copy of the model that was placed on the skeleton, and there was a short description sitting in front of the sculpture that read:
GREAT AMPHIBIOUS DINOSAUR
Model of Skull
This model, which is a duplicate of the one on the mounted skeleton of Brontosaurus opposite, is based in part on a specimen in the Yale Museum Collection and in part on the skull of the allied genus Morosaurus in this case.
Modeled by A. Hermann, 1905
The model reminded me why I am so awe-struck by museum dinosaurs. Not only do their bones tell stories about the animals themselves—their lives and evolution—but also about the discovery and study of those remains. Many of the bones in the small section we got to see were collected by major figures like Barnum Brown and Henry Fairfield Osborn, and if I had not been told that I had to leave I would probably still be there, poking around in a graveyard of giants.
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