A new old home for the nation’s dinosaurs

The prehistoric creatures at the National Museum of Natural History return to public view June 8 after a five-year hibernation. The architecture is old in the reimagined fossil hall, but the science, the tech — and especially the message — are cutting edge.

In 1911, the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened with Hatcher, the world’s first mounted triceratops, as its centerpiece.

The last complete remodeling of the space in the early 1980s produced a dimmer, busier design just before a burst of new discoveries in paleontology.

The newly renovated fossil hall resembles the airy original. Even Hatcher is back — as lunch for “the Nation’s T. rex.” Here are some of the most noticeable changes.

Humans play a much larger role in the story now. They show up as soon as you walk through the main entrance and find yourself face-to-face with two bronze Homo sapiens.

New technology and mounting advances allow dinosaurs and other animals to be displayed doing things they may have done while alive.

Exhibits reflect leaps in scientific knowledge that have occurred in recent decades. That’s why the diplodocus got 10 feet longer.

Minimalist displays put the fossil front-and-center and suggest the rest of an ecosystem rather than trying to recreate it.

A century or so ago, the message in natural history museums was basically, “Look at all this cool stuff!” said Hans-Dieter Sues, who chairs the museum’s paleobiology department.

Soon thereafter, curators began to focus on educating the public about history and, later on, about the evolution of life. Humans usually played a bit part at the end.

The Smithsonian’s remodeled fossil hall still has the cool stuff, but humans play a much larger role in the story — just as they do in the Earth itself. That’s why, unlike its past incarnation, the hall begins in the more-or-less modern era.

“You are a member of the species that changed the planet more rapidly than anything has ever changed it,” said Scott Wing, curator of fossil plants, about the hall’s overt focus on people and their actions.

The hall covers all the planet’s climate changes — and the extinctions that followed — but it puts special emphasis on the one that is occurring now and what people can do to mitigate it. “We want to leave people interested and urgently hopeful,” Wing said.

Museum director Kirk Johnson said that climate change is controversial now the way evolution was in the past.

“In the 90s, you didn’t want to say the E-word in a dinosaur hall,” he said. Other museums have climate change exhibits, he said, but people can easily avoid them. “Here, the message is embedded.”

That message is interwoven through the myriad hands-on displays.

You can touch the surface of a rock that is billions of years old. You can stand in a fossil-filled replica coal mine and learn how climate change helped form coal millions of years ago and how burning that coal contributes to climate change now. You can play an interactive game to see clever, Earth-friendly ways to grow chocolate, make pizza or tend soccer fields. You can stand in a simulated ice core that looks like a sci-fi transporter tube and shows 800,000 years of temperature changes.

But if you’re just passing through, you get the point in just a few words.

“We went through all of our content for each area, and we said, if a visitor reads nothing else, what do you want them to know?” said Siobhan Starrs, the project manager for the hall. “And we printed it really large, right in front of a charismatic fossil.”

Starrs said curators want to convey to visitors that “we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on a planet that’s constantly changing, and we’re connected to it. Everything’s hitched to everything else.”

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Main entrance

Bronze humans

Start

Mastodon

T. Rex and triceratops

Camarasaurus

FossiLab

Diplodocus

End

View of hall from above

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Main entrance

Bronze

humans

Start

Mastodon

T. Rex and

triceratops

Camarasaurus

Diplodocus

FossiLab

End

View of hall from above

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Main entrance

Bronze

humans

Start

Mastodon

T. Rex and

triceratops

Camarasaurus

and painted tree

Diplodocus

FossiLab

End

View of hall from above

Main entrance

Bronze humans

Start

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Mastodon

T. Rex and

triceratops

Camarasaurus

and painted tree

Diplodocus

FossiLab

End

View of fossil hall floor from above

Main entrance

Bronze humans

Start

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Mastodon

T. Rex and

triceratops

Camarasaurus

and painted tree

Diplodocus

FossiLab

End

View of fossil hall floor from above

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Main entrance

Bronze humans

Start

Mastodon

T. Rex and triceratops

Camarasaurus

FossiLab

Diplodocus

End

View from above

Unlike most fossil halls, this one begins with the age of humans at the main entrance and takes visitors backward through time, era by era, to the dawn of life on Earth. By the time you leave, you will have gone back 3.7 billion years in 31,000 square feet.

Main entrance

Bronze humans

Start

Mastodon

T. Rex and triceratops

Camarasaurus

FossiLab

Diplodocus

End

View of hall from above

Better preservation: No drilling through bones!

In 2014, museum staff and conservators from fossil restoration specialists Research Casting International (RCI) took apart the museum’s huge specimens, some of which had stood for more than a century.

They encountered some known problems and a few surprises.

The woolly mammoth’s pelvis had been sawed apart to accommodate supporting hardware. Metal rods and wires ran through tunnels that had been drilled through long bones. A mastodon kneecap, painted to look like a fossil, was actually made of wood and beeswax.

What appeared to be shocking disregard for rare bits of history was actually just a reflection of a different philosophy, said Matt Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosauria.

“When I look back on the old mounts, you know, it’s really easy to sort of think, why would they do these things?” he said. “I have to remember it’s 100 years ago. … They were inventing techniques as they went along.”

Before the early 1900s, natural history museums displayed fossils individually, Sues said, a giant femur here, a tooth over there. Around the turn of the 20th century, curators decided to show people what a whole animal may have looked like, which raised the difficult mechanical problem of trying to assemble the heavy, fossilized bones into skeletons.

At that time, dinosaurs were considered curiosities rather than subjects of serious scientific research, so preservation of the fossils was secondary to making sure the mount stayed upright.

Over the past five years, more than 90 creatures in the hall were completely disassembled, and most were rebuilt and are held together by intricate exterior armature created by RCI. Each bone is cradled by weight-bearing steel lined with conservation-grade padding. A tail, for instance, consists of a long, curved rod with settings that hold individual vertebrae like stones on an engagement ring.

Custom armature holding each bone ensures that no fossil bears the weight of another fossil. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

This armature helps preserve the fossils and allows for easy removal of a part here or there for research, repair or tweaking based on future scientific discoveries.

The assembly is far from the only improvement in the treatment of fossils.

In the 1800s, stone masons chopped rock from fossils with hammers and chisels, damaging quite a few along the way. In the 1950s and ’60s, scientists found that very dilute acid — about the strength of vinegar — could dissolve limestone away from bone. Now, professional preparators use tiny, delicate, jackhammer-like instruments called airscribes to do fine detail work without harming the fossils.

And that painted kneecap would be obvious now.

Nearly all fossilized skeletons are incomplete, so replica parts are recreated to replace missing bones. Until a few decades ago, some curators didn’t want pesky realism to wreck the illusion of a whole, impressive beast, so they often painted the fossil and cast parts in the same color.

Now, museums don’t want to fool visitors.

Preparator Steve Jabo said the cast parts of all specimens in the new hall are a shade darker or lighter than the natural color of the fossils, so visitors who look closely can tell real from recreated. A key in diagrams that accompany the fossils shows which parts are cast as well.

One specimen’s cast parts are easy to distinguish. A stegosaurus nicknamed “Roadkill” (because it is displayed flat, the way it was found) hangs on a wall across from the fossil lab. Its white-plaster cast parts contrast sharply with its dark brown fossilized bones.

Advanced technology: Way more action

The striking display of the T. rex eating the triceratops, the hall’s most complex mount and star attraction, is the product of a 1970s-era revolution in knowledge and a 2010s-era revolution in technology.

[How a family hike led to "The Nation's T. rex"]

“Until [the 1970s] you had dinosaurs that were kind of like the dinosaurs in ‘King Kong,’ big, lumbering creatures,” Sues said. “But dinosaurs suddenly emerged based on new discoveries as these much more dynamic, active animals. So people said, ‘Okay, how do we reflect that to the public?’”

The answer was to display them doing something they may have done in life. But most fossilized bones are too heavy and precious for precarious poses, and even the old-school plaster casts that supplement incomplete skeletons would be too weighty and unstable.

The T. rex skull that is poised to nosh on Hatcher is a lightweight reproduction, and Hatcher is also a cast replica.

T. rex and triceratops model courtesy of Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office

Then came lightweight composite plastic, computer modeling and, very recently, 3-D printing. Now not only can museums precisely create missing parts — the crushed skull of the crocodile-like smilosuchus was reconstructed using a computer model and 3-D-printed — but they can also print accurate plastic models for testing complex display ideas on a smaller scale before assembling the real thing.

Because of this new tech, the diplodocus’s neck can safely stretch over visitors without a support pole, and the T. rex’s teeth can dangle menacingly close to the triceratops’s frill.

The real T. rex skull and the priceless original Hatcher skeleton (which has a fascinating backstory) reside off display in the museum’s paleontology collection, where researchers have easy access.

Breakthroughs in science: We know so much more

New poses don’t just add action to the scene, they often reflect new science. All kinds of paleontological advances have occurred in recent decades, from the revolutionary — birds are dinosaurs! — to the more mundane details of how a certain species ate or walked.

That’s how the diplodocus grew 10 feet.

Sues said that since the fossil of the massive plant-eater first went on display in 1931, paleontologists have learned more about how dinosaurs probably moved from zoologists, who put elephants and other modern-day giants on treadmills.

They now know that diplodocus had more shoulder bones than previously thought, Starrs said, and that vertebrae were spaced farther apart to accommodate nerves and other soft tissue.

“They used to think that sauropods like this were kind of tank-like, and their limbs would be very splayed out wide, which also made them lower to the ground,” she said. Scientists now know their legs were more vertical, and footprint fossils show that they crossed their front feet as they walked. “Everything got taller and more graceful-looking as you brought those limbs up and under the body, which is all new science.”

The newly remounted diplodocus is almost 90 feet long, its posture is a little better, and its tail is entirely off the ground.

The diplodocus neck stretches across the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils — Deep Time. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Sue, the T. rex at Chicago’s Field Museum, underwent a similar makeover last year when the museum reposed it and added a set of gastralia bones to its chest. Previously, scientists didn’t agree on where those bones went, so Sue went on display without them in 2000.

Many questions remain, of course. For instance, is poor Hatcher already dead or being killed? Scientists don’t yet know whether T. rexes were predators or scavengers, so the exhibit is left intentionally vague.

New exhibit trends: Suggesting rather than depicting

A huge camarasaurus cranes its neck high into the second story to nibble on some leaves, but no one would confuse the flat, painted tree with real-life greenery. Rather than a massive mural depicting the allosaurus among a pantheon of other Jurassic creatures, its backdrop is a small painting of a nest and babies on a forest floor. And fossils are not standing on sand — there is definitely no sand.

Welcome to “deconstructed dioramas“ and a trend toward museum minimalism.

Painted backgrounds in natural history museums date to the early 19th century, Sues said, when Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York started collaborating with wildlife painter Charles Knight. The idea was to show people what the fossil’s environment may have looked like.

Some murals are beautiful and iconic; two such Ice Age murals by paleoartist Jay Matternes that adorned the old hall were scanned and reproduced for the new one.

But often attempts to recreate ecosystems were scientifically inaccurate and sometimes even misleading, Sues said. For instance, dioramas were often full of realistic-looking greenery even though scientists didn’t really know what plants looked like in those eras. Others were simply too full.

“You had this frozen scene that sometimes was kind of Noah’s Ark-esque,” Starrs said. “Where you’d have all of the creatures that never would’ve inhabited the same space in the same moment in time on the same place on the planet. … It gave a false impression of both science and how the world works.”

And she said the sandy, faux-earth floors in many exhibits were supposed to look natural but instead made visitors think dinosaurs lived in the desert. And the huge dioramas were unwieldy to clean and update.

Now museums create exhibits that evoke ecosystems.

The new exhibit hall displays its faux greenery proudly. (Left: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; Right: Aaron Steckelberg/The Washington Post)

“We’ve tried to bring all of those beloved tools back into an exhibit but in a different way,” Starrs said.

Fossils stand on limestone tiles, some of which jut up at angles, as if broken by a giant dinosaur’s stomp. Unlike the faux sand, the limestone is natural material — you can see small fossilized plants and sea creatures in some of the tiles — and it probably won’t lead people to think dinosaurs lived in quarries.

Mini dioramas are sprinkled around the exhibits, showing characteristics of specific geographic areas at specific times They are fully enclosed, no cleaning required.

Many museum regulars — and staff, such as Carrano — loved the old dioramas and were sorry to see them replaced. But updating them would have altered them beyond recognition.

“They are works of art in their own right that deserved to be preserved as they were,” Carrano said.

The most beloved of them didn’t go far. They have joined the real Hatcher, the original T. rex skull, and millions of other fascinating specimens and artifacts in the museum’s massive behind-the-scenes collections — still more reminders that the planet changes all the time.

Aaron Steckelberg

Aaron Steckelberg is a senior graphics editor who creates maps, charts and diagrams that provide greater depth and context to stories over a wide range of topics. He has worked at the Post since 2016.

Monica Ulmanu

Monica Ulmanu is an assignment editor for the Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2018 from the Guardian newsroom in London.

Joe Fox

Joe Fox joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in 2018. He previously worked at the Los Angeles Times as a graphics and data journalist.

Bonnie Berkowitz

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.

Post videographer Lee Powell contributed to this report.

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Sources: 1912 fossil hall photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute; 1987 fossil hall photo by Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution. The T. rex and triceratops model was provided by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, which created the 3-D scan. Source for T. rex: USNM PAL 555000, UUID - 381d4ee9c-91b4-4ce0-89eb-9053746a9351, and triceratops: USNM PAL 500000, UUID - 305d36697-5158-4947-8d0b-521db04bae9b. The hall model was based on a schematic by Reich & Petch.