Rest in peace, dear Diplodocus. So long, Stegosauruses, you strange, beautiful beasts.
Most of its specimens won’t reappear until 2019, when the massively popular exhibition space is scheduled to reopen at the world’s second-most-visited museum.
“Five years feels short, to be honest,” said Siobhan Starrs, the Natural History Museum’s exhibition project manager, whose team will start taking down the first of more than 2,000 specimens Monday morning.
Before closing time Sunday, a few thousand final visitors squeezed through the hall amid much paleobiological pageantry: “red carpet” photo ops with the fossils, a dino-themed film festival and experts posted everywhere to discuss all things Dinosauria.
“Stand there and look up at his mouth,” a father told his daughter, who obliged by staring — mouth dramatically agape — at the banana-sized teeth of a T. rex cast. She pulled in her arms to mimic the king carnivore.
“It’s an iconic, favorite space,” museum director Kirk Johnson said. “People have made a lot of memories here.”
The Fossil Hall — actually a suite of smaller halls, including the one dedicated to dinosaurs — was “mobbed” on Sunday, according museum officials.
As the clock wound down on the dated hall’s final day, Johnson snapped photos of a soon-to-be-(temporarily)-extinct species.
“Tomorrow, when people come here and try to see the dinosaurs, they’ll wish they came today,” he said. “This is a historic moment.”
And a necessary one, he said. “We’re moving forward and building an amazing new exhibit. You should never dwell on the past — unless you’re a paleontologist.”
Just after 7:30 p.m., it was last call for the old hall. “Folks, we’re closing,” a security officer said, ushering the final few visitors out.
The closing comes as interest in the Smithsonian’s paleobiology department is surging: Two weeks ago, the Natural History Museum took delivery — via a 53-foot-long FedEx trailer — of one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever unearthed. “The Nation’s T. rex,” as Smithsonian officials have taken to calling it, immediately became the most famous fossil in the museum’s collection. But the dinosaur, in Washington on a 50-year loan from the Army Corps of Engineers, won’t be mounted and displayed until 2019, when the Fossil Hall’s makeover is complete.
Johnson acknowledged that the five-year closure “is definitely going to be traumatic for me.”
During the renovation, the rest of the signature items in the museum’s enormous collection will remain on display — including the Hope Diamond, which sits on a rotating pedestal behind bulletproof glass, and Henry, the African bush elephant that towers over visitors in the rotunda.
And there will be some dinosaurs on display throughout the kid magnet on the Mall, which trails only the Louvre in museum visits, according to a 2013 report from the Themed Entertainment Association.
Those include a replica of the Nation’s T. rex skull in the Constitution Avenue lobby and the temporary working space called the “Rex Room” where the newly arrived 66 million-year-old specimen is being examined, cleaned, reinforced and scanned, piece by brittle piece, over the next few months. An interim exhibition, “The Last American Dinosaurs,” is also being planned for the museum’s second floor.
But the total dinosaur experience, Johnson lamented, “won’t be as rich” without the dino-dominated Fossil Hall.
Before daybreak Monday, Smithsonian employees put barriers over each of the 31,000-square-foot hall’s two entrances.
By the time the museum opens at 10 a.m., the hall will have been sealed off from the public and work will have begun on schlepping two massive dinosaur casts upstairs: a replica of the Triceratops named Hatcher and a life-size facsimile of the Tyrannosaurus rex Stan, both of which will be on display by Memorial Day weekend.
They will eventually become a part of the temporary “Last American Dinosaurs” exhibit, which is scheduled to open two days before Thanksgiving.
Moving Hatcher poses particular logistical problems, Starrs said.
“He’s quite big from rib to rib,” she said. “And because he’s a cast, he can’t be disassembled in the same way as real fossil material. He just fits into our widest freight elevator.”
Once the two casts are moved out and up, the project team will move up in time, to the Ice Age exhibit. Enormous challenges await there, Starrs said, in part because some of the specimens — such as the Irish elk, giant sloths and American mastodon — were mounted using out-of-date and potentially damaging methods.
“Those specimens need the most tender love and care, both in terms of removal and stabilization,” Starrs said.
Each of the more than 2,000 specimens in the Fossil Hall will be painstakingly disassembled and then examined and prepared for exhibit using modern techniques. “And some of those 2,000 are comprised of 200 bones,” Starrs said.
The project team is saving the main dinosaur hall for last, she said, because “it’s the most complicated part and will take the most time.”
Johnson, the museum director, joked that breakage of some of the fossils would be inevitable — and that it would be “no problem, because we have this stuff called glue that works pretty well.” But, he acknowledged, “there are some dramatic moments when you take these things down.”
Starrs, the project manager, said she’s especially nervous about dismantling the museum’s Diplodocus, a 90-foot-long plant-eating dinosaur that’s been dead for more than 145 million years and went on display in 1931, when the exhibit space was known as the Hall of Extinct Monsters.
Much could go wrong, she said. Much angst, she has.
“But honestly, it’s all of them,” she said. “It’s the nation’s collection. We’ll take a lot of caution.”
Thus, the lengthy closure.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which broke ground in February 2012, is expected to open on the Mall in November 2015 after less than four years. That museum will be more than 10 times the size of the Fossil Hall, whose makeover will take five years.
But besides the daunting task of removing, then remounting, the dinosaurs, there is work to be done in and around the hall itself, with “construction to the guts of the building,” Johnson said, “and taking the architecture back to its original 1910 splendor.”
He wanted to get it done in less than five years, he said. But his colleagues convinced him that it couldn’t be done.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Starrs said.