In an exhibit ripped straight from the excavation pits, the L.A. County Natural History Museum's new Dinosaur Hall brings inquiring minds up close and personal with some of the newest dinosaur skeletons in the world.
Granted, "new" is a relative term here: These guys are all at least 65 million years old. But they're also among the world's most recent finds, dug up by researchers based here at the museum's Dinosaur Institute, and they're part of a hands-on experience that that aims to help visitors understand what these ancient beasts were like and how researchers study them.
The exhibit, which opens on Saturday, is smaller than some of the country's great dinosaur halls, but it contains the best set of bones (dinosaur and otherwise) this side of the Mississippi. And in contrast to its peers, it doesn't lead you through Mesosoic history with an old-school, timeline-based approach.
Instead, it prompts both kids and adults to think about how paleontologists know what they know. The interactive displays -- touchable and magnifyable, analog and digital -- beg you to explore questions like, Did dinosaurs take care of their young?, Did they get sick? and What kinds of sounds did they make? Did they sing or roar?
The displays give equal time to specimens large and small: An imposing, never-before displayed Triceratops stands beside an extensive fossil wall, which invites you to examine everything from egg clutches and frighteningly large teeth to scaly skin and dinosaur poop. But the true centerpiece of the hall is a trio of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, a striking "growth series" that contrasts a two-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 17-year-old to create a staggering effect -- we discover that teenage T. rexes can nearly double in size in just three years.
The largest of these guys, dubbed Thomas after the discoverer's brother, is the most complete T. rex ever found, and it was excavated less than a decade ago from the badlands of Montana by Natural History Museum paleontologists. This newness, these fresh fossils, are all part of the exhibit's brilliance. A display can only be as current as the science, and science always changes.
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Douglas Goodreau, a paleontologist who was part of the Thomas dig, saw the Dinosaur Hall in its cleaned-up state for the first time last week. Looking around, he was as excited by the empty space as he was by the carefully constructed displays. "Most dinosaur halls are static, filled with fossils collected by people who are already dead," said Goodreau, a lab manager and senior paleontological preparator at the museum's Dinosaur Institute. "But hopefully, as the science changes, we can change the exhibit to match."
Goodreau echoes the exhibit's overarching theme of exploration, and its one that digs its way inside a visitor, too. Rather than walking away feeling as if I'd been formally schooled on dinosaurs -- an incredible feeling I have every time I leave the dino exhibit in New York's American Museum of Natural History -- I left filled with a completely different, equally exciting feeling of engagement. My companions and I kept asking more questions, batting ideas around, thinking about the what, the why and the how of dinosaur research. After hopping like a kid from touchable bones (the horn of a Triceratops!) to interactive touchscreens, I can say the exhibit does just what it's supposed to: It pulls you ever-so briefly into the boots of a paleontologist -- a really fun, really thought-provoking place to be.