April 18, 2011
The way I look at dinosaurs now isn’t the same way I looked at them when I was five or 10. Like the above video from a Sydney school shows, kids still feel that mix of joy and fright when they get up-close-and-personal with dinosaurs. That kind of interaction can be used to educate—as museums such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Utah Museum of Natural History do with their dinosaur shows—and it can also be tapped for theme park scares.
Though the video shows an actor in a dinosaur puppet costume, it reminds me of the popular robotic dinosaur displays I saw when I was about the same age. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified by them. Years before computer-animated dinosaurs were a regular staple of TV and movies, they were the closest thing to living dinosaurs I had ever seen. I still remember peeking out from behind a wall at the robotic Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in a temporary exhibit at the Morris Museum, fearing that they might snatch me up and eat me if I got too close.
I have mixed feelings about those animatronic dinosaurs. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay “Dinomania” in Dinosaur in a Haystack, the ranks of jerking, growling robots are welcomed into zoos and museums in the hope that visitors will then wander among more educational exhibits and learn something before leaving—but this is more of a hope than a reality. Presented in the right way, galleries of animatronic dinosaurs could be very educational, but often they are more akin to theme park attractions than anything else.
That’s the trouble with dinosaurs. Not only were they living animals that are objects of scientific study, but they are also malleable cultural icons that can terrify as much as enlighten. Mixing the two—using their monstrous appearance to educate—is a tricky act.
[Hat-tip to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs for the video]