Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sue vs. Mecha-Sue


Entering through the Field Museum's north entrance, you are immediately greeted by the museum's centerpiece, the Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Sue. I'm not going to rehash the story of how Sue ended up at the Field again; instead I'll talk about the exhibits themselves: Sue herself, Robo Sue, and the new Sue 3-D movie.

The original is still the best. Sue is one of the best mounts I've ever seen; you really get a sense of the beast's power in life. There's not much to say. You just have to see it in person to appreciate it.

Sue's Healed Ribs
Her ribs show signs of injury and healing.

Those holes have been attributed to a Trichomonas-like infection.



The Field's dinosaur hall is located on the upper floor as part of the larger Evolving Planet exhibit, and before entering it, you get a chance to view Sue from above. The balcony to Sue's rear holds more of Sue, such as her original skull, which is too heavy to be mounted.

Sue Overhead

It's a clever set-up that allows you to take in the entirety of the dinosaur from a distance, as you check out casts of some of her tail vertebrae and wishbone.

Sue's Caudal Vertebrae

Sue's Furcula

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sue's unveiling, the Field teamed with Kumotek Robotics to create a temporary exhibit called "Robo Sue." As the Sue Escapes website says, "these fearsome dinosaurs will react to your every move, sizing you up as friend, foe--or their next meal!"

There are three main parts to the exhibit: a pack of the dromaeosaur Saurornitholestes, a Triceratops guarding her nest, and Robo Sue herself.

Saurornitholestes Robot

Robo Trike

Robo Trike Hatchlings

Robo Sue

I couldn't help but think of Richard Fortey's Trilobite when I was in the exhibit, in which he longed for the days of simple exhibits that highlighted the fossil above all; he saw the "herky-jerky" animatronics as a mockery, not a tribute. In a recent post on the exhibit, Brian Switek quoted a Stephen Jay Gould passage which echoed these thoughts.

I tend to fall into this camp, to be honest. I appreciated the engineering, but the fleshed out robots didn't do anything to spur my imagination - I find the life-size diorama of a Carboniferous forest in the Evolving Planet exhibit more compelling. The final stop in the Robo Sue loop is a game in which the visitor is tasked with guessing what behavior a Saurornitholestes puppet is displaying: threat, stalking, or calling to his flock. It's purely speculative and not terribly relevant, other than as a demonstration ofwhat the software could do. There was an elderly lady who found the whole thing marvelous, though.

I know that museums are in a pinch, and need to try new ways of engaging visitors. So I don't begrudge their efforts to use technology to do so. And I'm not even sure that it's not educational. Maybe most people come out of Robo Sue with some new knowledge. For me personally, I get my kicks out of the fossils themselves. I'd much rather spend time in a simpler exhibit chock-full with fossils. I'd love to hear other perspectives on how useful these sort of exhibits are. Are they merely ways to bring in money? Are museums acting on research that suggests they provide real educational value?

Museums aren't the problem, of course. Neither are animatronics. Maybe the problem is whatever constellation of social factors leads museums to consider animatronics necessary. That's something they can't really effect. Alternatively, maybe the problem doesn't exist. Would people really stay away from museums if these exhibits weren't put on? In my experience, it seems that what really generates interest are big traveling exhibits that focus on historically significant artifacts or fossils, but that's just my narrow opinion. Maybe we can convince a few museums to act as controls in an experiment to see what would happen if they kept their exhibits based strictly on fossils and other "authentic objects of nature and culture" as Gould writes in his essay. Then we'll see if these flashy "theme park" exhibits have a legitimate role to play, or are simply reactions to overhyped problems.

I'll tell you what I did really like, though: the 3-D movie about Sue's discovery and what we've learned about her life, Waking the T. rex. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did; 3-D doesn't thrill me. But there was a nice amount of time devoted to field and prep work, with a great personal account of what life in the field is like from Field paleontologist Lindsay Zanno. The CG Sue was alright, but it was the real-world story of scientists figuring out how Sue lived that gave the most value, and it seemed that the audience reacted to it enthusiastically.

Tomorrow: The dinosaurs of the Field beyond Sue: The Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall.


  1. I think museums are in the difficult position of trying to perform an academic mission as a commercial institution. If they don't provide exhibits that the public wants to see, they won't be able to afford future exhibits and they won't be able to perform their mission as educators due to a lack of students.

    As long as the science is there, robotic reconstructions are just an evolving part of the package. After all, simply mounting the fossil (or a cast of the fossil) is also just a reconstruction and subject to inaccuracy. At the turn of the 20th century, a mounted fossil, as opposed to just rocks in a drawer, was a state-of-the-art special effect, and if the Hadrosaur's tail wasn't as long, and its butt not as big, as subsequent discoveries have made them out to be, then that display just needs to adapt to keep up with the science. The same principle can be applied to robots or 3-D movies.

  2. Yeah, I agree with you. I guess I just question the assumption that these kind of exhibits are truly what the public wants. I really don't know. I suppose that it's just the way the world works: technology makes something possible, it's tried out, and people either bite or don't. I'm sure that museums don't drop millions of dollars on exhibits without some certainty that they will pay off. And as long as the more traditional exhibits still have their rightful prominent place, I can't argue against robots and 3-D movies and whatever kind of whiz-bang thing is invented next. VR? Holodecks? I think that professionals get involved with museums because at some level, they believe in them, and had formative experiences in them. It's certainly not to get rich. I'm not afraid of the classic museum experience going extinct.

    Heck, if a holodeck happens in my life time, I'll be in line with everyone else.

  3. To me, once you step away from showing just the body block containing Dakota, or photos of the dig site, you are venturing into the realm of edutainment. And dating back at least to the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, what the public has seemed to want is a recreation that will aid their imagination in picturing what these amazing creatures looked like when they were alive.

    The scene from JP where our hero first wanders out and sees the herds of dinos really captures what I think many of us dream of and what the museums are trying to provide us.

    A local children's science museum recently had a travelling display of some of those rubber robot dinos. It was fairly low-budget as these things go, and the 3YO and 12YO with me moved through pretty quickly and were off to other exhibits, but I lingered and let myself by transported by the atmosphere and tried to ignore the part of my brain telling me to notice whether the T-Rex was scavenging or hunting, or whether you could see the rubber joints on the neck of the apatosaur.

    I suspect that the holodeck is pretty close. I just hope they don't develop the code using frog DNA as a tool, or hire that guy from Seinfeld to do the coding.


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