According to a statistic I’m pretty sure I read somewhere but don’t feel like digging up, most blogs never get updated after their first month, and a substantial portion of those don’t make it past their first post. In order to ameliorate the risk of adding to that possibly real statistic, I’m going to start a thing that will give me something to keep writing about: reviews of the great many paleontology museum exhibits I have visited in my lifetime. And by review, I mean a stream-of-consciousness ramble with no attempt at meaningful quantitative comparison. But since I know some stuff about dinosaurs and museums, and since I’ve been to a great many paleo exhibits, I’m hoping I’ll have something to say nonetheless.
I’m starting with one of my favorite exhibits, the Dinosphere at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which I (re)visited on December 24th, 2010. Since I forgot my camera, the following pictures are all stolen from flickr.
The Museum and the Exhibit
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the world’s largest children’s museum, and is to my knowledge the only children’s museum to maintain a collection of artifacts and research specimens. It has been in its current five-story building since 1976, and has apparently been profitable enough to undergo several major renovations since then. One of these renovations saw the old Imax theater gutted and replaced with the substantial Dinosphere exhibit, which has been open since 2004. The exhibit’s main concept is that its mounted dinosaur skeletons and other displays are presented as part of an immersive Cretaceous experience. The Imax screen is used to great effect by displaying an ever-changing sky, while sound, light and even smells are used to simulate dawn, a thunderstorm and more. Mounted skeletons of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Hypacrosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Maiasaura, Bambiraptor, Leptoceratops, Pteranodon, Sarcosuchus and Dracorex are included, often with multiple individuals of varying ages displayed together. The exhibit is supplemented by a gallery of original dinosaur artwork from the Lazendorf collection (!!!) and a life-size Alamosaurus sculpture outside, created by Gary Staab and Brian Cooley (above).
Most everything in the Dinosphere exhibit is extremely cool. The “immersive” gimmick is fun, and it’s worth noting that mounted skeletons look really nice against a blue or purple background. I like that the mounted skeletons are all in dynamic poses, such as the drinking juvenile Hypacrosaurus or the leaping Bambiraptor. Even the ubiquitous Stan the T. rex (casts of Stan can be found in many places around the country, including a few corporate buildings) is posed with his head turned and one foot in the air (above). As part of the engaging, often interactive signage, there are helpful diagrams showing which bones are fossils and which are casts.
Apparently the Dinosphere has the world’s largest display of families and juvenile dinosaurs. One of the two Tyrannosaurus mounts is Bucky, a “teenager”, and this is one of two places in the world where you can see a young Tyrannosaur on display. Easier to overlook but no less awesome is Baby Louie, an Oviraptor (Citipati?) chick preserved with its nest. There’s also a case displaying casts of pretty much every sort of dinosaur egg ever found.
Interpretive staff seem to be continuously patroling the gallery, and are quite knowledgable, able to answer questions from both kids and adults. A well trained corps of interpreters is a great addition to most any science exhibit, especially one that sees a lot of family traffic. I’ve noticed that families tend to ignore posted signs, but typically respond well to a good Explainer.
Overall, there are two things that really stand out about Dinosphere. One is the focus on living dinosaurs in their environment. Rather than presenting a “walk through time” in broad strokes, Dinosphere’s designers have selected a single age (the Cretaceous) and have elected to show visitors every part of it. The exhibit covers not only dinosaurs, but the mammals, insects, plants and other organisms that made up the total ecosystem, emphasizing the fact that this world was as complete and real as the one we know today. Second, I really like that the exhibit encourages exploration. A cursory walk through the gallery is not enough to get the total experience. You have to look low and high to find all the specimens on display. For example, there is a Didelphodon jaw in simulated burrow close to the floor near the Tyrannosaurs. You could spend hours in this exhibit, and hopefully some enthusiastic kids make their parents do just that on a regular basis.
Not part of the Dinosphere exhibit proper but no less exciting is the Paleoart gallery, displaying a sampling from the Lanzendorf collection. The gallery includes original pieces by Mike Skrepnick (who also did a series of murals for the main gallery), Luis Rey, Michael Trcic, Gary Staab and more. For somebody like me, that list is like a celebrity role-call, and I might actually die if I were to encounter them all in the same room. Even their original paintings gathered like this gave me a mild heart attack. Seriously, this is incredible and should be seen by all. Rather then going off on a tangent about why paleoart is the most amazing craft on earth, I might just save it for another post.
What’s Not So Cool
There’s a reason I mentioned this is one of my favorite paleo exhibits. It is well designed, well researched, and features some truly unique specimens and displays. Some might be put off by the prominent names given to each of the dinosaurs (Kelsey the Triceratops, Bucky and Stan the Tyrannosaurs, etc.). I would argue that these names contribute to the exhibit’s theme of exploring the biology of living dinosaurs, as opposed to showcasing old bones. And if these names help kids (or adults) understand and identify the exhibit content, then all the better. My primary gripe about the Dinosphere is that with so many interactive displays, the exhibit turns into a
germy playpen when it gets crowded. I suppose that is unavoidable in a children’s museum, however. Just wash your hands if you touch anything.