Matthew Carrano still has a childhood book that fueled his early interest in dinosaurs, one featuring works by renowned paleoartist Jay Matternes that burst with life from a long-lost world.
Matternes’s work — including six murals at the National Museum of Natural History — captured the imagination of many future scientists, Carrano said. So it’s not a surprise that Carrano, now the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, felt a touch of guilt when the murals were removed in 2014, at the start of a major renovation at the museum. “Like ripping a little bit of your childhood away,” said exhibition project manager Siobhan Starrs.
Flash-forward a few years, and the mood was decidedly upbeat as both Carrano and Starrs were on hand to watch workers install reproductions of two of Matternes’s beloved murals on the walls of the hall, set to reopen next summer.
“They are very beautiful, with an incredible amount of detail. You can tell he spent a lot of time studying and researching,” Carrano said. “If you ask people doing this work today about the people who inspired them, they will give you a shortlist and Jay will always be on it.”
Matternes, 85 and living in Fairfax, Va., expressed his pleasure at the decision to reinstall the works.
“It’s very gratifying to get some recognition of my work this late in my career, to know that people did enjoy it, did notice it,” he said.
The museum’s popular Fossil Hall has been closed since 2014 for a five-year, $129 million renovation. Expected to open about a year from now, the 31,000-square-foot hall has been returned to its original grandeur to showcase examples of the museum’s fossil collection in new and more engaging ways.
A centerpiece of the exhibit will be a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton — dubbed the Nation’s T. rex — that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has lent the museum.
As they planned the new exhibition, museum officials wanted to recall some of the previous displays that were beloved by millions of visitors who have made the museum, at Constitution Avenue and 10th Street NW, one of the most popular in the world. Returning some of the murals helps bridge the past and present, officials said.
“We wanted to keep an echo in there where appropriate,” said the museum’s director, Kirk Johnson. “Jay is one of the grandmasters in the field. These images become burned into the brains of the kids who visited. They are views into these lost worlds.”
Matternes is one of the best-known scientific artists. His work is part of the collection of the American Museum of Natural History and was featured in National Geographic and Time publications. He started working with Smithsonian scientists while serving in the Army, he said.
Matternes created the Smithsonian murals between 1960 and 1975, working with museum scientists and doing his own research to depict specific environments. Each mural was made for a specific space and exhibition, and each was painted on canvas that was adhered to plaster walls, he said. They took years to complete.
“In some cases, I had to paint them while the public was flowing through the hall,” Matternes said.
The museum photographed them piece by piece so the digital images could be stitched together to make large-scale prints. Then the murals were painstakingly removed and conserved and they are now stored with the museum’s collection. They are too fragile to return to view, but they will be featured in an upcoming book, Johnson said.
“These are really iconic images that illustrated the evolution of North American mammals,” Johnson said. “He populated the entire scene. No one had really done that before and he did it so artistically.”
One reproduction is 10 feet by 23 feet and depicts the animals and plants of Idaho between 5 million and 1 million years ago. The other, at 12 feet by 20 feet, shows animals and plants of central Alaska during the last glacial period.
The renovated hall will feature more than 70 murals, Starr said, including new commissions from artist Julius Csotonyi. The artworks are used to showcase the fossil collections, many that have been remounted and presented in new ways.
“A lot of us worked in the old hall,” Starrs said, “Having that past, present, future — it’s the stuff of the exhibition and here it is in the art as well.”