Scott Hartman posted the above image to his DeviantArt page the other day, comparing the Tyrannosaurus specimens Sue and Stan side by side. For those unfamiliar, Hartman is known for his rigorously measured skeletal diagrams of dinosaurs (and sometimes other animals) that are crucial references for many artists and paleontologists. I’m always impressed by Hartman’s work, but this new comparative image really floored me. I knew that Sue is the largest and most complete rex yet found, but I had never properly appreciated what a monster she is. I’ve seen the mounted Sue skeleton at the Field Museum several times, and I’ve seen at least four casts of Stan in various locations, but I never realized what a significant size disparity exists between the two.
It’s not a groundbreaking discovery by any means, but I’m struck by how important the museum environment is when exhibiting a mounted skeleton. I mentioned yesterday that exhibits are never neutral, and this is a particularly clear example. Sue is exhibited in the gigantic central hall of the Field Museum, and in this open, grandiose environment, her size is actually deemphasized. By comparison, the presence of the Stan mount at the National Museum of Natural History was not anticipated during the 1981 renovation of the dinosaur hall (it was added in 2001, I believe) and is sort of crammed into a corner. In the cramped space, Stan looks pretty big, and it’s little wonder I had never appreciated the marked difference in size between the two mounts.
The takeaway, I guess, is that it would do us well to pay careful attention to the design choices (or constraints) in a museum exhibit. We’d like to think that a rare and important specimen like a Tyrannosaurus skeleton speaks for itself, but visitor impressions of even these fossils are shaped by the context they are placed in.