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Two Tyrannosaurus rex battle over the remains of an Edmontosaurus in the proposed Cretaceous Hall. The flying reptile Quetzalcoatlus soars overhead.

Carnegie's Dinosaurs: A World Treasure

Carnegie Museum of Natural History sets its goal: to be the world's premier place for experiencing "Dinosaurs in their World."

By R. J. Gangewere

What would you do if you had one of the best collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, and other museums across America were drawing record crowds by upgrading their displays of dinosaurs?  And in addition, many of the other museums' displays depended upon replicas, while your research collections and displays were rich with the real fossils? 

In Chicago, the Field Museum recently bought and mounted a newly unearthed Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for $15 million, and then saw its attendance increase from 1.5 million to 2.36 million  people (67%)  in 1999.   In New York, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled a new display of vertebrate evolution, including dinosaurs, and increased attendance by 20% (1994-95).  In Philadelphia, The Academy of Natural Sciences saw a 46% increase in attendance in three months after renovating its dinosaur hall.

The answer to the question is easy. An institution with great fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs should be a national destination for dinosaur lovers.  It should create exciting new displays, and showcase the latest findings of science.  "We have the facts, the raw materials," says curator of paleontology Mary Dawson, who adds that this "brings with it an opportunity and a responsibility."  The dinosaur fossils at Carnegie Museum of Natural History are now, after a century, conservatively estimated to be worth more than $200 million.  Few other museums could match this as a scientific resource, or as a building block for a new dinosaur exhibit.

Dinosaurs became the trump card for Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1899 when Diplodocus carnegii was discovered.  Andrew Carnegie paid expert bonehunters to excavate this specimen and others for his "Home of the Dinosaurs" in Pittsburgh, and he established a collection that included 20 mountable skeletons, represented ten dinosaur species, and was rich in isolated bones and partial skeletons. Before his death in 1919 he had internationalized the museum's reputation by giving replicas of Diplodocus carnegii to nine capital cities around the world. What's more, the fossil-rich "Carnegie Quarry" in Utah became famous, and the United States government turned it into a national park: Dinosaur National Monument. 

The floor plan of the new Dinosaur Hall exhibit shows the new atrium for Cretacious life (transformed from the old Dinosaur Hall).

In addition to great fossil collections from the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous periods (163 to 65 million years ago), today's Carnegie Museum of Natural History has excellent paleontological collections of invertebrates, fish and plant fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs. Even the relatively rare mammals are represented. With these strengths, the museum could realistically create an unrivalled exhibit of the real world in which dinosaurs lived.

With this in mind, director Bill DeWalt and Carnegie Museum of Natural History have made plans to renovate the 1907 Hall of Dinosaurs, and add an adjacent newly constructed atrium to one of America's premier dinosaur displays. This, in turn, could open up a new way of experiencing the entire museum. "The most exciting thing," says DeWalt, "is the real opportunity we have to organize our museum in a way that has never been done before.  We want to 'improve the flow' for our visitors and deliver the key themes of our scientific research in an unforgettable way."  

The major new first floor exhibit, Dinosaurs in their World, would be the catalyst for this major reorganization.  Visitors would gather in an orientation hall at the front of the museum, then take a progressive tour of all three floors, from the ancient past with its dinosaurs (first floor), to biodiversity with mammals and plants, (second floor), to human evolution and cultural diversity (third floor). The third floor rear would also have a new large space for changing exhibitions--a destination for all visitors.

Jurassic Hall model-(at the top) the sauropod Camarasaurus feeds on high vegetation.  Allosaurus (lower left) looks for prey, and the tail of the giant plant-eating Apatosaurus (lower right) extends overhead.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for Carnegie Museums and for western Pennsylvania,” said Ellsworth Brown, president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.  “The discovery and display of dinosaurs are rich parts of our history, and they are among Andrew Carnegie’s most enduring legacies to Pittsburgh and the world.  With this expansion, we will continue to carry out his vision of serving our communities regionally, nationally, and internationally by leading rather than following.”

Dinosaurs in their World will be an important tourist draw for Pittsburgh, with projections that indicate that it could double the number of yearly visitors, from about 300,000 to 600,000.   In addition to tourists, the attraction for children and families is especially strong.  Pulitzer prize-winning science writer John Noble Wilford expressed it this way: "Dinosaurs afford children an early opportunity to triumph over their peers and adults.  Children learn to pronounce the difficult names of dinosaurs, a facility beyond adults, and recite all their vital statistics…This may be the first time the child experiences a sense of grownup intellectual accomplishment,"   (The Riddle of The Dinosaur, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986:67)"

Every museum makes its own interpretation

Museums create their own dinosaur exhibits by building on their own collections. And, when it comes to designing a dinosaur exhibit, each museum has got to "roll the dice, with no guarantee that one approach will be more successful than another," says Christopher Beard, curator of Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Thus, one museum will make its prized specimen an icon in the entrance hall, and another without fossil material will turn to casts and replicas to tell a story. Another museum will specialize in maps of species evolution. 

While some argue that a family tree of plant-eating dinosaurs is the most educational, others say that a display with contemporary plants and animals, showing environmental biodiversity, is much more interesting to the average person.  "I think people want to be transported in time, to have that picture in time," says curator David Berman of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Curator Mary Dawson says that making an icon of a specimen, as Carnegie did with "Dippy" (Diplodocus carnegii), served its purpose at the time for making Pittsburgh known for having the largest reconstructed specimen.  But now, she reasons, with a century's worth of accumulated knowledge about ecology and  past environments, Carnegie Museum of Natural History should take a different step forward.  "Science is not static," she says, noting that in 150 years the notions about how dinosaurs walked changed dramatically.  Today, for example, there is a developing science about interpreting the circumstances of a dinosaur's death.   It does not follow, for example, that an adult female fossil skeleton excavated with its limbs outstretched around a nest of eggs meant that the adult had a maternal instinct to protect those eggs when she died.  Science continues to raise questions, and provide answers.

Dinosaurs: one of evolution's greatest success stories

Dinosaurs dominated the planet for 160 million years--159 million years longer than humans have been on earth.   This is an amazing story of successful adaptation, and it raises many questions. Science strives to know more about dinosaur behavior, about predatory skills and defense techniques, about the feeding habits of giant vegetarian sauropods, and the diet of Tyrannosaurus rex.  Such questions about the world of dinosaurs will be the focus of Carnegie Museum of Natural History's new exhibits on Dinosaurs in World during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

In the Late Jurassic (163 - 144 million years ago), the world of dinosaurs was a huge super-continent called Pangaea, which was beginning to split into separate continents. There were primitive ferns and evergreens, a tropical climate that fostered the growth of insects, and the evolution of  birds, flying reptiles, turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes.  Dinosaurs grew amazingly diverse, from the giant vegetarians Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus, to the meat-eating predator, Allosaurus, the "lion of the Jurassic."

About 30 million years later, in the Cretaceous, their world had changed. The continental landmasses had separated further, the climate was cooler, and flowering plants had evolved. This gave rise to new plant-eating animals, and diverse dinosaurs that could feed on them as well.  North America was divided into two parts by an immense shallow seaway from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, and the seas teemed with life, including giant, voracious marine lizards--mosasaurs.  Tyrannosaurus rex, with longer teeth and a larger head than any other land carnivore, evolved into the top predator about 67-65 million years ago. 

But soon a large extinction event eliminated all dinosaurs and much of their world forever.  This event and the world it ended are perpetually fascinating to  the public.

What are the challenges facing Carnegie Museum of Natural History's new Dinosaurs in their World?  Remounting the old dinosaur specimens, with their marvelously cast steel supports (not to be matched anywhere, say the experts), and presenting them in correct poses is one challenge.  Integrating every dinosaur in a continuous story of evolution is another.  Expanding the first and second floors, where research areas need to be relocated, is another.  So is adapting two open areas--the interior courtyard and the present three-story rear area, into new exhibition space.

"There is no museum in the world more capable of meeting these challenges, " says director Bill DeWalt.  "And the final result  will be an exciting and unforgettable walk through time, on all three levels of the museum. " This could be one of the great achievements for Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in the 21st century."

See the expanded Dinosaur Hall online at



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