I moved to the Chicago area a couple months ago, and yesterday I witnessed a very important event that only happens twice a year. I am referring, of course, to Field Museum Collections Manager Bill Simpson dusting the mounted skeleton of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex.
It’s unusual for a collections manager to personally perform this sort of basic maintenance at an institution the size of the Field Museum, but Simpson makes an exception for Sue. He has been in charge of the dinosaur’s well-being since the half-prepared fossils arrived in Chicago in October 1997, and has been cleaning the mounted skeleton twice a year since it was unveiled in 2000. The cleaning schedule is a compromise between the exhibits and geology departments. Exhibits would have Sue polished up more often, but the collections staff advise that the delicate fossils be touched as infrequently as possible.
The cleaning process took about 90 minutes. Simpson accessed the mount by way of a scissor lift, about six feet off the floor. With the help of two assistants (one to man the lift and one to keep track of an extension cord), he used a portable vacuum to blow air on the fossils, unsettling any dust that had accumulated. Notably, Simpson took care not to bring the vacuum within twelve inches of the specimen, and never touched the fossils directly. After repeating this process eight or nine times from different vantage points around the mount, Simpson exited the lift and climbed onto the platform, going after some of the harder-to-reach crevices with a feather duster.
Truth be told, the process isn’t that interesting. I was a little embarrassed to stand around watching for as long as I did. Like most things with Sue, T. rex cleaning day is an example of really good marketing on the part of the Field Museum. Dusting is pretty standard upkeep, and I’m aware of no other museum that puts it on their public calendar. But for the fossil the world knows by name, even this basic maintenance is newsworthy. Indeed, Sue’s semiannual dusting seems to generate a major news story almost every year.
As the most complete Tyrannosaurus yet found and the onetime subject of an ugly four-way legal battle, Sue has been been famous since its discovery in 1990. The Field Museum won the specimen at auction in October 1997 and has been leveraging its star power ever since. A frenzy of reporters greeted the truck delivering Sue to Chicago a few days after the auction. Millions of visitors watched the fossils being prepared in a windowed lab at the Field Museum and a satellite facility at Disney World in Orlando. A naming contest (for a time, it appeared that the name “Sue” might not be legally available) generated an overwhelming 6,000 entries. And when the mounted skeleton was finally unveiled on May 17, 2000, 10,000 visitors came to see Sue in a single day. The week-long press junket saw visits from Bill Clinton and Steven Spielberg, and the Field Museum’s annual attendance soared that year from 1.6 to 2.4 million.
Sue remains a media magnet to this day. Headlines about the dinosaur are common, even outside of Chicago, and the Field Museum’s increasingly avant garde @SuetheTrex twitter account has 30,000 followers and counting. Sue has been the subject of more than 50 technical papers, several books, and hundreds of popular articles. When the Field Museum’s corporate partners paid seven figures for Sue, they weren’t just buying the museum a display specimen, they were creating an icon. Sue is a blockbuster attraction that brings visitors in the door, and the dinosaur’s name and likeness is continuously marketed for additional earned income. For example, there are now two different Sue-themed beers available!
As I’ve discussed before, fossil mounts occupy a tenuous middle ground between conflicting identities. These composites of rock and plaster and steel are at once scientific specimens, works of art, and cultural touchstones. Sue takes this contradiction to previously unseen levels. On one hand, Sue the specimen is the subject of more scientific papers than any other Tyrannosaurus, and has contributed enormously to our understanding of dinosaur life history, histology, and pathology. On the other hand, Sue is a towering icon seen by 25 million Field Museum visitors of all ages. Its likeness appears on shirts, snow globes, and the aforementioned beer. And on the third hand, the Sue twitter account is, at this very moment, posting pictures of Jeff Goldblum for some reason. And that’s not even getting into Sue’s pre-Field Museum identities. Depending on who you ask, Sue could be the one that got away, a close call, a symbol of government overreach, or a harbinger of the fossil poaching crisis.
As former Field Museum president John McCarter put it, “we do dinosaurs…so that we can do fish.” Natural history museums hold immense collections in the public trust that record the world’s biodiversity. This task is neither simple nor cheap. Leveraging star attractions like Sue generates income and perhaps equally important, public interest and goodwill, which makes the less overtly captivating functions of the museum possible. The Field Museum has a great thing going with Sue, and I’m all for pushing it even further. Vials of Sue dust bunnies in the gift shop, anyone?
Fiffer, S. 2000. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. rex ever Found. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Grande, L. 2017. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lee, B.M. 2005. The Business of Dinosaurs: The Chicago Field Museum’s Nonprofit Enterprise. Unpublished thesis, George Washington University.