Telling SUE’s story (part 1)

SUE’s new digs combine immersive media with elegant and austere design language. Photo by the author.

SUE—the Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex—has been busy lately. In 2018, the skeleton was moved from Stanley Field Hall to a dedicated gallery within the Evolving Planet exhibition. A new traveling exhibition about SUE began its North American tour earlier this year. I was involved with both these projects as an Exhibition Developer, and in this post (divided into two parts), I’ll share my experiences and some of the choices I made along the way. Basically, the sort of things I’d want to know about an exhibit at another museum.

Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that authorship of the new SUE exhibits is shared among dozens of talented professionals. In addition to my SUE co-developers Susan Golland and Meredith Whitfield, these exhibits were imagined and willed into existence by a small army of project managers, designers, scientists, mount-makers, programmers, and more. And all of us are standing on the shoulders of the researchers, preparators, artists, and educators who have contributed to our understanding of this incredible fossil since it was unearthed 30 years ago.

Why move SUE?

In January 2018, the Museum held an event for members to say a temporary goodbye to SUE. Photo by the author.

The role of a developer differs depending on the institution, but at the Field Museum we are essentially storytellers (or perhaps story organizers). Working closely with curators (staff scientists) and designers, we craft a narrative that can be expressed through physical space, and write most of the words visitors read or hear. One thing we do not do is decide which projects the Museum takes on and when. As I understand it, however, the decision to relocate SUE was a long time in coming.

After acquiring SUE as a partially prepared skeleton in 1998, Museum leadership decided that the mounted skeleton should be on display within two years. With a large team, that was enough time to prepare the fossil and publish a monograph, but renovating the existing paleontology halls to make room for a T. rex would have been impossible. So SUE debuted in Stanley Field Hall, with an understanding that this was a temporary solution (Edit: The choice to display SUE in Stanley Field Hall was actually a bit more complicated, with many factors besides schedule involved).

Thanks to Phil Fraley’s well-designed armature, SUE was taken down in just two weeks. Photo by the author.

While SUE’s position as a centerpiece in Stanley Field Hall was instantly iconic, the display could provide only minimal context for the fossil. And even though SUE is the size of a bus, visitors were right to point out that the skeleton looked small in the four-story, half-acre expanse. A dedicated gallery would be needed to properly represent SUE’s role as a rosetta stone for dinosaur science, to contextualize T. rex within the history of life on Earth, and to give SUE the presence they deserved.

As it turned out, the opportune moment to create such a gallery wouldn’t arrive until nearly two decades later. A multi-part plan was established in 2016: the SUE move would occur concurrently with a rebranding and redecorating of Stanley Field Hall, with hanging gardens and a Patagotitan cast filling the vertical space better than the Tyrannosaurus ever could. Meanwhile, the temporary (and now traveling) exhibition Antarctic Dinosaurs would keep fossil fans happy during the 9 months SUE was off display.

You can make a dinosaur do anything on paper, but assembling the real bones always comes with unexpected surprises. Photo by the author.

Naturally, any change to a beloved display was bound to be controversial. After all, SUE had been a mainstay in Stanley Field Hall for a generation of visitors (I’m old enough to remember the Brachiosaurus, so SUE always seemed like a newcomer to me). If anything, public relations staff leaned into the controversy, since it was a magnet for media attention. At times, the press generated by the SUE move felt comparable to adding an entire wing to the museum. The team working on the new gallery kept quiet, confident that visitors concerned about the change would come around once they saw what we were up to.

An encounter with SUE

The new SUE gallery occupies a space called Hall 25A, between the two arms of the U-shaped Evolving Planet exhibition. This hall didn’t exist when SUE first arrived at the Field Museum—it was one of four light wells that were original to the building, which weren’t filled in until the early 2000s. Finding space for a new exhibit is challenging in a century-old museum, but Hall 25A’s location was a lucky break. It could be connected directly to the existing dinosaur hall, so that the SUE gallery appeared precisely where it should during a visitor’s walk through time.

Our overall goal with the new gallery was to give visitors a dramatic encounter with SUE, contextualized within the Cretaceous world. Accordingly, designer Eric Manabat arranged the space with drama in mind. Visitors no longer get their first look at SUE from 300 feet away. Instead, SUE is hidden behind a scrim wall—visitors move around the wall and find themselves quite suddenly looking up into the face of the T. rex (SUE certainly doesn’t look small anymore).  Updates to the mounted skeleton—overseen by Pete Makovicky, Bill Simpson, and Tom Cullen—also give SUE a more imposing presence. The addition of SUE’s real gastralia (rib-like bones embedded in the belly muscles) and adjustments to the ribs and shoulders provide a better sense of how massive Tyrannosaurus was. SUE is also standing up straighter, and the jaws are now open.

SUE’s skeleton is visible through the translucent scrim wall, and we made sure the fleshed-out reconstruction was posed and scaled to line up perfectly. Photo by the author.

The look and feel of modern natural history exhibitions often leans toward one of two extremes. They either take design cues from art galleries, placing objects against a minimalist, neutral backdrop, or they are highly immersive recreations of a particular setting. The new SUE exhibition does a bit of both. The physical space is austere and elegant, although the use of wood paneling makes it warmer and more inviting than a typical art gallery. The immersion comes in the form of multimedia. Animated scenes of the waterlogged forests where Tyrannosaurus lived are projected on a staggered row of screens, creating a living backdrop behind the skeleton. A primordial soundscape of birds, frogs, and insects can be heard throughout the hall.

I think this multimedia overlay makes the SUE gallery particularly unique, because it’s constantly changing. The animated scenes take you to three locations in SUE’s habitat on a 20-minute cycle: an upland forest at dawn, the shore of the inland sea during a midday rainstorm, and a lowland river in the late afternoon. When the visuals change, the soundscape and the color of the overhead lights change with them. Visitors are themselves part of the ebb and flow of the gallery. They move among and between the screens, placing themselves in the scenes and pointing out minute details. Every time there’s a bout of dinosaur action, visitors gather to watch, then disperse around the hall once more.

At one point during the light show, all the real fossils included in the mount are highlighted. Photo by the author.

The exhibit’s biggest surprise comes during the “nighttime” portion of the media loop, when a narrated light show provides a tour of SUE’s skeleton. Projection mapping is used to highlight pathologies and other key features, helping visitors see details that they might have overlooked. Media Producer Latoya Flowers’s work on the show is spectacular, and it’s no wonder that visitors sometimes break out into spontaneous applause upon seeing it.

Bringing SUE to life

How could we not pay homage to Charles Knight’s timeless standoff between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops? Above: Artwork by Charles Knight. Below: render by Atlantic Productions, © Field Museum.

As one might imagine, creating the animated scenes was one of the most involved aspects of the project, as well as one of the most fun. These scenes were produced by the London-based studio ZooVFX, known for their work on Flying Monsters and Natural History Museum Alive, among other effects-heavy educational programs. However, this was was not simply a matter of sending the animators some parameters and accepting whatever they gave us. The process was deeply collaborative, and the Field Museum team of scientists, developers, and designers teleconferenced with ZooVFX at least once a week for well over a year.

Like any animation project, the process of creating these vignettes began with storyboards. We settled on the T. rex behaviors we wanted to depict: hunting, scavenging, drinking, defecating, and a standoff with Triceratops (basically, unsuccessful hunting). A scene with SUE sleeping was also considered, but curators decided that posing a sleeping T. rex would require too much speculation. We didn’t want constant, cacophonous dinosaur action in the gallery, so the moments with SUE are interspersed with longer periods of calm.

Next came designing and modeling (Vladimir Venkov was the primary artist at ZooVFX) the ten animal species to be featured. Naturally, the curators led this process. I think it’s fair to say that we strove for “safe” dinosaur reconstructions, insofar that they adhere to what is most definitively known from the fossil record. Your aesthetic preferences may vary, but they work well in the context of this exhibit.

The staggered, two-sided screens allow visitors to place themselves in the scenes, and also recall the ribs and vertebrae of the mounted skeleton. Photo by the author.

Animating SUE was relatively straightforward, but establishing the gaits of Triceratops and Edmontosaurus required a lot of iteration. The first walk cycle attempts were too mammalian, and lacked the bilaterally asymmetrical gait of four-legged reptiles. Edmontosaurus was particularly tricky because its back legs are much larger than its front legs, but its stiffened spine doesn’t allow the body to twist very much. Fossil trackways proved very helpful: when the animators matched the dinosaurs’ footfalls  to the footprints, biomechanically plausible movement usually followed. The folks at ZooVFX were fantastic, providing something like twenty variations on a hurried hadrosaur before we found one that worked.

Once we had basic walk and run animations, it was time to choreograph the action scenes. Once again, the Edmontosaurus scene caused trouble. How do you sell SUE ambushing the herd when T. rex can’t actually run? The finished version reminds me more of a crocodile than a lion—SUE gets really close, ultimately only taking four steps to reach their unfortunate quarry. The audio sells it. Pete Makovicky asked that SUE’s jaws slam shut with a crack you feel in your bones, like a really, really big crocodile. One bite, and “deadmonto” is toast.

Other challenges included designing SUE’s poop (we consulted a Bristol stool chart and decided on a 2 or 3), and staging the fight between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Naturally, we wanted a “Charles Knight moment” where the animals face off, but it had to be believable. I enjoyed the opportunity to script out the fight, move by move. In the final version, SUE’s attack is a moment too slow, so they find themselves temporarily cornered by their prey. SUE limps away with a stab wound in their left leg, matching the fossil skeleton’s infected tibia.

It’s nice in here. Photo by the author.

Susan Golland once called the new SUE gallery an oasis, which I think is a perfect descriptor. By the time visitors reach SUE, they’ve come two thirds of the way through Evolving Planet. It’s an extremely dense exhibition, covering the entire history of life with over 1,000 specimens. But then, they reach a big, open gallery that is all about a single specimen. There’s ample space to sit down and collect yourself. And the ever-changing media overlay means that you’ll actually see more if you take a break, rather than hurrying on ahead. I find the SUE gallery quite beautiful, and I hope that it does justice to such an extraordinary fossil.

Next time, we’ll look at updates to the SUE gallery since 2018, creating the traveling SUE exhibition, and realizing SUE in the flesh.

Awesome. Photo by the author.

1 Comment

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, FMNH, fossil mounts, paleoart, theropods

One response to “Telling SUE’s story (part 1)

  1. Michael Sisley

    I’m so jealous of you Ben!

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