Much of this is crossposted from a shorter article on Exhibitfiles. And geez, my language when writing for exhibit developers is overly formal. I’ll work on that. For more information on any of the science I allude to here, check out my post How the Biggest Dinosaurs Became
When I first realised that the latest exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History was going to feature a video in the centre of an open space, my heart sank. I envisioned a room of noise, with exhibits competing with each other, and the video in the centre always audible and constantly distracting. When The World’s Largest Dinosaurs opened, I was thrilled to find out my prediction was entirely wrong, and the design of the hall would be one of the best I’ve seen in a temporary exhibition in recent years.
Argentinosaurus greets visitors to the World's Largest Dinosaurs
Sadly, though, the exhibition starts with one of my pet peeves: a dark ominous entry that’s no doubt supposed to be apprehensive and awe inspiring, much in my experience, alternates between pointless and downright scary. The entrance is so dark I’ve seen at least one child burst into tears and demand not to go in, just as my two year old niece became terrified and back out of the dismally dark permanent dinosaur exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum.
Mamenchisaurus dominates the main exhibit space - behind her you can see the model lungs and neck, mirroring the pose of the centerpiece and demonstrating the movement of air.
A few months ago, my classmates and I were told in discussion with an exhibition developer that often the walls were the first to go in an exhibition. This has been taken to extremes in the World’s Largest Dinosaurs, with only three walled off areas: the mostly caption-free introduction that presents the idea of size variation; a secluded nest area that discusses egg size and growth, and the final dig-pit that finishes the visitors’ experience of the exhibition. The rest of the hall is dominated by a beautiful life size Mamenchisaurus model,with her head turned to greet you as you enter the space.
The left hand side of the center Mamenchisaurus is cut away, revealing her musculature, throat anatomy, and a constantly repeating movie projecting on her abdomen, which shows the many physiological features that enabled her to live at such a large size.
This beast’s left hand side is cut away like an anatomical model, showing her musculature and the many long long pipes that connect her tiny head with the rest of her massive body. Onto the side of her torso is projected the aforementioned video; gentle rhythmic motions in the picture make her look like she’s breathing, as we’re taken on a tour of her respiratory, cardio, digestive and reproductive systems. Around this video, two rows of benches accomodate a decent crowd of people both actively watching the vidoe or just pleased for a place to sit in the middle of a large museum.
The rest of the exhibition is arranged in stations around the video, so visitors can (and do) float from place to place according to what they find interesting. No other exhibit has sound, so beyond the usual chatter of visitors (and it does get very crowded) the only sound in the room is the voice of one of the AMNH’s scientists as he explains the biological processes that went on inside the giant’s body. Far from distracting from the rest of the exhibits, the narrator supplements them, as what he explains in the video is exactly what is being demonstrated throughout the room, where visitors can feel how light a sauropod vertebrate was, pump an elephant’s heart, or marvel at the movement of air through a unidirectional bird-like lung.Sauropods, the exhibition wants us to take home, were unique animals in possession of a number of physical and physiological traits that enabled them to grow so large.
Not all of the exhibits were successful: a zoetrope supposed to show sauropod locomotion has been broken more times than it’s worked while I’ve visited, and even then it’s never successfully communicated what about the locomotion we’re supposed to be looking at. Meanwhile the bright flashing lights have made me very worried for any visitor who might have sensitivity to this kind of strobe effect. Scale models of various genera are noticeably inaccurate to anyone who cn do the maths between the quoted actual sizes and the given scale and realise the models don’t add up. Visiting with paleontologists brings more inaccuracies to light, as none of the body plans are to scale either.
Comparative eggs of a range of birds and dinosaurs. While it is a draw to touch real objects, the point is often lost on kids too young to understand relative sizes. The label text explains that while the sauropod egg (second from the left) is 1,700 times smaller than the adult that laid it, the tiny hummingbird egg on the far right is a massive 1/8 of the adult's body weight. Most children just see big eggs and small eggs.
Secluded behind a wall to the side of the exhibit is a model of a sauropod nest, illustrating not just bird like nesting behaviour but the reproductive strategy of many small eggs. The trouble is, it’s very hard to get across the idea that these eggs – which are large on an absolute scale – are actually tiny compared to the size of the adult that laid them. A line up of comparative egg sizes including those of the elephant bird, arguably the largest single cell that ever existed, and the ruby throated hummingbird, shows the range of sizes, but the children I’ve brought up have not been able to read the numbers given and realise that, compared to the size of the adult that laid it, the hummingbird’s egg is a whooping 1/8, compared to the elephant bird’s 1/33 or critically, the sauropod’s 1/1,750. We see big eggs and small eggs, and the dinosaurs clearly laid big ones.
One of the specimens on display - the femur (thigh bone) of Camarasaurus. With the knee end not quite on the ground, but very near, this bone's hip joint towers over most visitors
But the wonder that dinosaurs bring is there: just as people gasp at the Barosaurus and Allosaurus at the museum’s main entrance, so they gasp when they turn a corner to see the life size Mamenchisaurus. The opportunity to touch and compare real fossil teeth and real bones is a draw; and a Camarasaurus makes a great photo opp, being as it is, approximately man sized, despite being just the thigh bone of the animal. I’ve watched families sit transfixed through several cycles of the central video, which may be because they didn’t understand it the first timme around, or because they’re welcoming the opportunity to sit. Either way, they’re always engaged.
The word "touch" is written on the other side of a pane of glass behind these Diplodocus and horse skulls, so it appears backwards when you're with the skulls. That doesn't stop visitors, however, from getting their hands on early in the exhibition experience.
The science, too, is accurate and up to date: the AMNH maintains a relationship between its research and exhibition departments that other science museums of my past acquaintance would do well to learn from. A fellow paleontologist (who shall remain nameless here) visiting with me even ducked down and was please to see the artist had been accurate in his portrayal of Mamenchisaurus’ cloaca (genital opening). Anatomical accuracy to the fine detail – and you know 7 year old dinosaur experts will be glad to know that as well.
The World’s Largest Dinosaurs is open at the American Museum of Natural History through January 2, 2012. Timed tickets (including admission to the museum) are priced at $24/$18/$14, and I recommend coming as early as possible, as it does get very crowded indeed. For more reviews, see: SV-POW, Pseudoplocephalus and Dinosaur Tracking.
Stay tuned here for my write-up of my tie-in biomechanics lesson for 5th graders.
This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.