Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Field Museum of Natural History

Field Museum of Natural History, Illinois

The Louvre has the Mona Lisa, the Smithsonian Institution has the Hope Diamond, and the Field Museum, as every fossil aficionado ought to know, has the most famous dinosaur in the world. When Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex went on the auction block at Sotheby's in New York in October 1997, the museum teamed up with McDonald's and Walt Disney World Resorts to place a winning bid of $8.4 million, thus scoring what they hope will be the fossil coup of the century.

At present, Sue is a dinosaur in the rough, but visitors to the Field will be able to glimpse only bits and pieces of the First Fossil, but they can still enjoy all the museum's other dinosauriana, an up-to-date but not-too-glitzy display that gives a big-picture view of the Age of Dinosaurs.

The exhibit starts near the entrance in the cavernous Stanley Field Hall, where you can stroll between the femurs of a 40-foot-tall Brachiosaurus.

The next stop for a dino-tour is the museum's upper level. There, in the glass-walled McDonald's Preparation Laboratory, you can watch technicians painstakingly chipping fossils from the rocks with dental picks, air-powered engraving tools, and dabs of polyvinyl acetate, a bone-hardening acrylic. It's a paleontological Truman Show with every move visible. Preparators are working on chunks from the front half of Sue. Then they'll shift to other fossils from the Field's vast holdings.

A few steps away you enter the corridor leading to the main dinosaur display. To get there, though, you'll have to walk through another exhibit, one spanning more than three-and-a-half million millennia. Life Over Time gives a refresher course in the history of early life on Earth, starting with a reminder of the sheer vastness of prehistoric time (while a recorded chorus intones the names of the geologic eras) and continuing with the saga of the planet's changing life-forms, landforms, and climate. Even if you don't need to be reminded why DNA is important or precisely when plants colonized terra firma, it's worth pausing to drink in the shadowy serenity of a 300-million-year-old club-moss forest, or to watch one of the video screens that flickers to life as you pass. On the "LOT News," television newscasters, obviously relishing a chance for self-parody, read evolutionary bulletins (including a heart-rending obituary for the trilobites) before signing off with a peppy, "Thanks for watching, and have a nice era." It's great fun and a good orientation to what follows.

What follows, of course, are the dinosaurs. You hear them before you see them: a pile-driver-like Boom Boom Boom of immense footsteps echoing throughout the 9,000 square feet of the Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall. The displays begin at the beginning, with one of the earliest known dinosaurs, Herrerasaurus, a 10-foot-long, 220-pound predator that topped the South American food chain 225 million years ago. The skeleton (another plastic replica; the real bones are in Argentina) and two life-like models at the Field Museum are the only mounted displays in the world.

Next, a ramped walkway takes you halfway round the room and down onto the main floor of the hall. On the left, a bank of small, colorful dioramas illustrate the perils of Mesozoic life. On the right loom the skeletons, real ones this time: a 72-foot-long Apatosaurus (the one Elmer Riggs dug up in 1901); a fearsome Albertosaurus, smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus, hovering menacingly over a duckbilled Lambeosaurus; a spiky-headed Triceratops (also found by Riggs) near its smaller ancestor Protoceratops; and another duckbilled herbivore, the crested Parasaurolophus. Behind them, on the far wall, hang two classic paintings by the famed dinosaur artist Charles Knight. In one, apatosaurs wallow in a Jurassic swamp; in the other, a Triceratops faces down a Tyrannosaurus.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Field Museum of Natural History, Part 2

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