Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Into the Dinosphere
My main reason for visiting the Children's Museum this time around was to tour the Dinosphere, and the exhibit's manager Josh Estes didn't waste any time in submerging me in the Mesozoic. The museum has made it pretty easy to find the Dinosphere: Once you get your ticket and give it to the ticket-taker... walk forward.
What follows next is a literal descent into the past, a ramp from the lobby down to the Dinosphere itself that effectively sets the mood. Josh pointed out that the windows above us were "dimpled," and as you proceed down the ramp, the light gets dimmer as the dimples get larger and more tightly packed. As the insect sounds of a twilight forest progressively increased in volume, Josh pointed out the model pterosaur skeletons hanging above us. Since the PBS Kids series Dinosaur Train caught fire among the elementary school set, Josh has noticed that use of the word "pterodactyl" has steadily dwindled, replaced by Pteranodon, as they're some of the main characters.
A pterosaur glides by a giant Doug Henderson painting of a Cretaceous forest.
At the bottom of the ramp is an incredible cast of Sarcosuchus, which gives visitors a preview of what they'll see inside the exhibit, and provides a less-imposing setting for kids to get used to being in the presence of immense predators: they're seeing it from above, diminishing the threat it may pose, and the light is softer than it will be inside. It's also a great chance to point out that the bestiary of the Mesozoic consisted of more than just dinosaurs.
The famous SuperCroc, Sarcosuchus imperator, greets Dinosphere visitors.
The center of the Dinosphere is made up of three displays. The first is the "T. rex Attack," featuring Kelsey the Triceratops, who is set upon by the famous Stan the T. rex and a subadult T. rex called Bucky, named for rancher Bucky Derflinger, who discovered the young tyrant's skeleton in 1998 at the age of twenty.
Bucky, the teenage tyrannosaur. Photo by Brandy Schaul, via Flickr.
The ever-popular Stan.
Children, or adults nimble enough and willing to crawl around, can also see the displays from within through bubble windows. Here's my wife, Jennie and my niece, Molly, checking out Stan and Kelsey.
And here's what that looks like.
Before it became the Dinosphere, the space was a theater called the Cinedome, and rather than getting rid of the sound system, the museum put it to use in a simulated thunderstorm which comes around every 22 and a half minutes to throw the dinosaurs into even more dramatic relief. Though the "T. rex Attack" gets the lion's share of attention from visitors and photographers, the Dinosphere's other two setpieces are just as impressive.
The Dinosphere's Gorgosaurus is a very cool display, especially because its environment includes other dinosaurs found alongside its bones when they were were originally discovered - a Maiasaura and Bambiraptor. They were found by a family of fossil hunters named the Linsters, who serve as good role models for parents who don't just want their kids to learn stuff and ace tests, but who want to participate in the learning process.
A Bambiraptor, in the foreground, waits for a turn at a fallen Maiasaura.
The Linster dig site is also the inspiration for the Dinosphere's interactive dig feature. Far cooler than pretend digs using kitty litter and paint brushes, this one uses the Children's Museum's own home-made recipe for overburden, a tough, pebbly, rubbery concoction that chips away slowly but steadily enough to feel like you're actually getting somewhere. Uncovering these fossils is a team effort, and takes far too long for one child, or even a group, to complete in a visit.
Below, ace interpreter Mookie Harris discussed the logistics of a dig with a young prodigy. Seriously, this kid was smart as a whip!
If you're into duckbills, the Dinosphere has a nice display of a watering hole featuring four Hypacrosaurs at three different ontogenetic stages - an adult, a juvenile, and two infants - as well as a Prenoceratops, included to help counter that age-old canard that dinosaurs were all giants.
Hypacrosaurs in the Dinosphere. Photo copyright The Children's Museum.
Under Frannie, the Prenoceratops.
The whole time I was in the Dinosphere, the interpreters were busy explaining the skeletons to visitors, and not just the younger ones. They took on questions about the dinosaurs from anyone, questions they'd undoubtedly heard a thousand times already. It was pretty cool to watch, more engaging than a display like Sue, who inspires plenty of gawking and shutterbugging, but might not be as accessible. Josh and his team do a great job of translating the language of science into stories that help Dinosphere visitors appreciate nature's simple profundity.
An avian theropod's eye view of the Dinosphere.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at a controversial pachycephalosaur that is another of the Museum's centerpieces.
All photos taken by me, unless otherwise credited.