I grew up in L.A., but 25 years ago I sold my car and moved to Paris. I’ve had few regrets since, although I do return every year to see my old friends. Each visit reminds me that Angelenos don’t have much to be proud of, especially when they have to sit in traffic for hours to get to those places that still are worthwhile (like the excellent restaurants.) True, transportation officials are currently widening the San Diego Freeway at a cost of 1 billion dollars, but the project seems to promise little more than an increase in drivers’ choices of what lanes they want to be stuck in.
So it was a great pleasure to find something an old Angeleno really can get chuffed up about: The new 14,000 square foot Dinosaur Hall at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. As a paleo writer for Science, I was treated to a tour of this terrific new exhibition by the museum’s head dino guy and director of its Dinosaur Institute, Luis Chiappe, who is also one of the world’s leading experts in the evolution of the first birds. (I think every town should have a Dinosaur Institute, don’t you?)
As Luis explained, the new hall doubles the amount of space previously available for dinosaur explorations, and thus the museum was able to pull a lot of its never-before-displayed specimens out of mothballs and proudly present them to a dino-hungry public. Indeed, on a lazy Wednesday afternoon, the place was packed with school kids who really did seem to be having fun while being educated at the same time.
The new hall has profited greatly from the revolution in multimedia technology, which allowed its designers to include large interactive touch screens and lots of other user-friendly displays that allow curious visitors to access a ton of interesting information, more than I’ve seen in any other dinosaur exhibition (and I’ve seen most of the major ones.) Moreover, instead of putting barriers or guard rails around the spectacular displays of Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus fragilis, Triceratops and Stegosaurus, these huge skeletons are mounted on raised platforms just out of reach of both adults and children. So there is nothing between the visitor and these prehistoric creatures but his or her imagination.
Luis also gave me some insights into the hall’s unusual organization, which follows various themes rather than a chronological tour of dinosaur evolution. While the museum’s collection is pretty good—thanks in large part to a series of recent excavations it has carried out in North America and Asia—it can’t compete for completeness with those at the American Museum of Natural History in New York or the Field Museum in Chicago. So the displays lead visitors through a series of research questions, starting with “What are dinosaurs?” and including “What was ancient life like?” “How did dinosaurs stand and walk?” and “What did dinosaurs eat?” I particularly liked the detailed interactive display that compared the features of theropod dinosaurs and early birds, showing the many features in common—such as wishbones, S-shaped necks, lopsided eggs, and even feathers in the case of some dinosaurs—that have convinced nearly all paleontologists that birds are not only descended from dinos but actually are living dinosaurs. They still walk (and fly) among us!
Along the way, the hall does proudly display some of its unique treasures, such as the pregnant female plesiosaur whose baby would have been 40% of its mother’s size had it been born, which made headlines when it was pieced together a couple of years ago.
And for me, there were some unexpected pleasures as I toured the exhibition. As I gazed at a Stegosaurus, a pretty blond dino geek named Ashley, one of the museum’s educators, approached to ask if I had any dino questions, proudly holding a cast of a T. rex claw in her hand. I don’t recall any pretty blond dino geeks ever approaching me at the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History; in fact, David H. Koch has never approached me either, but that’s really okay. It turned out that Ashley’s fiancé is also a dino geek, and proposed to her last year in the badlands of Montana. The whole thing is on Youtube, of course, and I guarantee you it’s very, very romantic.
There’s so much more I could tell you about L.A.’s great dino hall, but I will leave it to you to fight your way through the traffic and see for yourself (or to take the new Expo Line which stops right in front of the museum, although that could actually take you even longer.)
I will also leave you with a quote from Marcel Proust inscribed over a long panel of videos depicting Luis and the museum’s other scientists at work on various excavations:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons