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Digging in the Dirt

Vaster than ever before, monstrous in scope and humbling in stature: No, that’s not the actual beasts displayed in Dinosaurs In Their Time, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s newly overhauled dinosaur exhibit. That’s just the statistics.
Three years and $36 million in the making. The largest renovation in the 102-year history of the institution. Over 13,000 visitors during its members-preview opening weekend. Another 12,000-plus visitors in its first weekend open to the public. On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, more than 4,500 people had visited the Museum – setting a new attendance record for the museum’s annual busiest day – five hours before the doors closed.
Such statistics only go to match the new exhibit's Jurassic-sized accomplishment, more than tripling the old Dinosaur Hall's Mesozoic exhibition space, and repositioning and reposing the world-class Carnegie dinosaur-fossil collection into situations that are both scientifically more accurate, and emotionally more dramatic, than the previous display.
But to see the true importance of Dinosaurs in Their Time – both to the Carnegie Museums, and to Pittsburgh – ignore the Apatosaurus louisae and its child, struggling against the Allosaurus. Walk right past the beautiful reconstructions of 125 million-year-old feathered dinosaurs from the Jehol Group in China, creatures sculpted with such care and vision that they could just as easily fit into the Museum of Art. To truly understand Dinosaurs in Their Time as a feather in Pittsburgh's cap, you've got to quit looking up at the fossils and bones, the new video-screen displays and wall murals, and get down to look at the dirt.
“The old Dinosaur Hall had little indication of the other biodiversity of the [age of dinosaurs],” says Dr. Matt Lamanna, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Lead Scientific Advisor for the exhibit. “No one has done a display environment on this scale before, and certainly never with so many real fossils. [The paleontologists] stood here and approved everything that went into the displays – from the plants to the roots to the dirt itself."
The resultant exhibit is one in which, not only are the fossils themselves accurate to the absolute latest in paleontological research, the environment in which they’re displayed – the plants they munch on, the creatures that share their environment, the rocks they stand on – is equally scientifically correct.

Much has been made of some aspects of Dinosaurs In Their Time. When the Dinosaur Hall was first opened, it was purpose-built to house one skeleton – Diplodocus carnegii, the famed “Dippy.” As the Carnegie’s collection grew thanks to the institution’s dedication to in-house paleontology, the space didn’t. By 1941, when the institution purchased the type-specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex, the Hall was already overfull, a situation never rectified until now. What’s more, recent paleontological research has shown much about the Hall’s display to be incorrect, most noticeably the positioning of dinosaurs which misled viewers about how the creatures looked in life.
The new display not only corrects these long-standing problems, but changes the entire vision of dinosaur exhibition. Where once there were fossils set lifelessly against gray marble walls, now there are lifelike skeletons inhabiting reproductions of the homes these once-living creatures actually inhabited, touch-screen displays allowing for interactive learning about the age of dinosaurs, and an entire environment portraying the dust, bark, and scales of the Mesozoic.
It’s a method of display that has never been assembled to this degree before. While most fossil exhibits are displayed chronologically, they frequently ignore the surroundings that comprised those fossils’ environment – such as the old Carnegie Dinosaur Hall. And where such an immersive display has been done – such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – a relatively small collection has hampered the quality of the display.
“The other extreme is an aesthetic one,” says Dr. Chris Beard, Head of Section of Vertebrate Paleontology, “approaching the fossils like works of art, placed in a ‘white-wall’ setting. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City takes this approach,” with its evolution-based approach.
Rather than the usual chronological approach, the American Museum of Natural History arranges its comprehensive fossil collection in an evolutionary display, grouping dinosaurs and their vertebrate relatives together by shared biological traits. It’s a display designed with a very clear, specific educational purpose in mind, a point not lost on the team behind the Carnegie’s revamp.
“We thought long and hard about how to do this,” says Beard. “We took the approach of integrating the dinosaurs – the rock stars of [this period of prehistory] – with everything else from their environments, to show the Earth as dynamic, both physically and geographically. The Earth is always changing, and we live in a time of rapid global change – [notably] in terms of climate.”
When Phase II of Dinosaurs In Their Time opens in the Spring, the part of the display dealing with the late Cretaceous period and the end of the age of dinosaurs – and, notably, containing the Museum’s T. Rex – this educational point will be hammered home with its examination of extinction. “These notions really need to resonate today,” says Beard. “We’re living in the midst of an age of extinction right now.”
Beard gladly admits that any time an institution attempts a new direction such as Dinosaurs In Their Time, there will be criticism. In the Carnegie’s case, the very thing that makes the display important will likely be criticized by purists – obscuring the skeletons and fossils “in with the ferns and ginkos,” as Beard puts it. But rather than poking holes, some institutions may take the exhibit as a model.
“You can’t learn too much from a dinosaur on a platform,” says Lamanna. “I think this is possibly the finest dinosaur display ever done, which is the result of a 100-year history of Paleontology by the Carnegie. From an educational standpoint, we hope and expect that it will be replicated, but because of this history, it probably won’t ever be equaled.”
“If we were a brand-new museum opening someplace with almost unlimited wealth – say, Dubai,” says Beard, “we could never do something like this. It just couldn’t be bought.
“The Carnegie got our dinosaurs the old-fashioned way,” he points out, proudly. They went out and dug ’em up.
All photographs taken at the new Dinosaurs In Their Time exhibit; copyright Brian Cohen

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