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Above: History repeats itself as Brian Reneski (left), working with Phil Fraley Productions, dismantles a dinosaur skeleton put together by welders, artists, and museum scientists 100 years ago (above). PHOTO: Mindy McNaugher








“It’s not just for us, it’s for people who come after us. For the next hundred years, every school kid that lives in Pittsburgh will be coming here and looking at this, and maybe it’ll inspire one of them, maybe it’ll say ‘look, anything is possible.’ To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
-Phil Fraley






A Man of Many Parts

For Phil Fraley, there was no straight line to becoming a master of handling some of the world’s most famous dinosaur specimens.

He carried his California boyhood dream of playing pro football to San Francisco State, where he studied physical education and learned the limitations of his athletic ability. After settling on a life in healthcare, funding cuts ended his job at a community mental health agency in 1980. His desire to keep his house compelled him to take what he intended to be a temporary job in the exhibition department at the California Academy of Sciences. There, he called on the carpentry and construction skills he’d learned from his father, along with his natural talent for art, in work rebuilding permanent exhibits. He discovered that he liked what he was doing. And over the next 10 years, he pieced together a working knowledge of paleontology and other sciences.

He spent another 10 years producing exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he re-articulated the museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex specimen from the typical standing pose to a more accurate, tail-up, horizontal stance. His growing reputation led to an offer from Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History to make over “Sue,” the most complete T. rex skeleton ever found.

Fraley’s not so much self-taught as he is self-motivated to learn from anyone willing to teach him something he doesn’t know. “I just love learning for no other reason but to learn,” he says. “Every day I would go to the museum and I would learn something from the experts—like the curator who’d been studying geology for 50 years. They’d be willing to discuss their research, the foundation of the science. And I learned an enormous amount about the different disciplines required to do a major exhibit for a major museum.

“ You have to understand engineering, the strengths of materials, the principles of display—a tremendous amount of knowledge you can only attain through experience. And the experience for me came from working in museums for 25 years and being associated with people willing to share their knowledge with me.”





Disassembly Required

Piece by piece, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s most famous residents are being prepared for a new home—a process that’s taking a team of artists back to the Mesozoic Era by way of New Jersey.

It’s a familiar story: after going nowhere for ages, she’s finally discovered, given a quick makeover and a catchy name, and thrust in front of the public where she becomes an instant hit, entertaining big crowds day and night. Then one day, when she’s maybe a little long in the tooth, a bit creaky in the joints, the same people who built her up tear her apart and ship her off to somewhere in New Jersey. Which, of course, merely sets the stage for her dramatic comeback on a stage that’s bigger and better than ever. Happy ending.

That’s sort of what’s playing out these days at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where Apatosaurus louisae and her peers are experiencing the most extreme of makeovers. Their skeletal bodies are being painstakingly disassembled and then shipped out—ever so carefully—to be cleaned and preserved before becoming the main attraction of Dinosaurs in Their World, the museum’s new dinosaur exhibits that are scheduled to open by 2008 in a space three times the size of the former Dinosaur Hall.

Driven by more than 100 years of scientific learning, the exhibits will take visitors on
a chronological journey through distinct periods of the 165 million-year reign of the dinosaur: the Late Triassic, Late Jurassic (the exhibit’s highlight, displayed in a new
atrium), and the Early and Late Cretaceous periods. Not only will visitors see specimens depicted in their specific time periods, amid plants and other animals that shared their ecosystem, but they’ll also see dinosaurs positioned in more dramatic and scientifically accurate poses.

“ This is one of the largest dinosaur exhibit renovations ever undertaken,” says Matt Lamanna, the museum’s new assistant curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and its chief dinosaur researcher. “Scientific understanding of dinosaurs has advanced immeasurably since Diplodocus carnegii first went on display in 1907. Dinosaurs in Their World will reflect that enormous body of research.”

It’s a once-in-a-century job that requires only the best in the obscure and hard to
pronounce business of dinosaur “disarticulation.” And the best is Phil Fraley Productions of Hoboken, New Jersey.

“Incredibly Heavy, Fragile, Weak Objects”
Since March of 2005, in a fascinatingly tedious three-step process, Phil Fraley and his team have taken apart, bone by bone, five of the museum’s 15 dinosaur skeletons for refurbishing and eventual re-mounting in their new home. The “disarticulation,” or disassembly, of Diplodocus carnegii (discovered in 1899), Apatosaurus louisae (found in 1909 and named for Andrew Carnegie's wife), Allosaurus, Protoceratops, and Tyrannosaurus rex was just completed in August. Three more specimens—Dryosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Corythosaurus—could also be freed from their two-dimensional wall displays for mounting as 3-D, freestanding skeletons.

Phil Fraley has spent 25 years learning all about dinosaurs—mostly how to dismantle, restore, and rebuild their skeletons. For the past seven months, Fraley and his team of ironworkers, welders, machinists, and riggers have been carefully, meticulously freeing the Carnegie dinosaurs from the iron supports that have held them together and propped them up for the better part of a century.

All told, Fraley’s methodical disassembly line has removed more than 1,000 ancient femurs, fibulas, tibias, ribs, pelvises, and jawbones, and then numbered, photographed, cataloged, and packed them in foam-padded, custom-made crates for shipping to Fraley’s
New Jersey studio. Using everything from a huge hydraulic crane down to precise hand tools, they took apart skeletons whose pieces weighed as much as a ton. And which, although they may look pretty solid, are, according to Fraley, “incredibly heavy, fragile, weak objects. All the glue joints that were put in to replace missing parts are wearing out and need to be replaced.”

Truckload by valuable truckload, all the parts that aren’t missing have been making the journey to Fraley’s 11,000 square-foot, hangar-like studio a few miles outside of Manhattan. There, a team of 15 restoration artists and sculptors has begun the painstaking task of repairing and restoring the artifacts so they will last another 100 years.

Over the next two years, they’ll dig out the epoxies, glues, fillers, patches, and other gunk applied over the past century and then repair, rebuild, re-seal, and re-pack them for shipment back to Pittsburgh. Every step of the restoration is being documented for the benefit of the next team of disarticulation specialists, restoration artists, or whatever they’ll call themselves in the 22nd century.

The project is a true collaboration between Fraley’s crew and the museum’s curators and exhibits staff, all of whom had a hand in choosing the dinosaurs’ new poses. “Phil is a great guy,” says Lamanna, who admits to having been a bit intimidated upon first meeting him. “We see him as a colleague and a friend. He really knows his stuff, and he’s added value from the beginning. He’s so good at what he does, it leaves me free to concentrate on what I do.”

Phil Fraley and his crew have dismantled, bone-by-bone, five of the museum’s 15 dinosaur skeletons; carefully packed each bone; then shipped the precious cargo to Fraley’s studios in Hoboken, New Jersey, for refurbishing and eventual re-mounting.

Handling With Care
Fraley looks more like the pro football player he once aspired to be than the quasi-scientist he’s become. And he’s apt to use the language of carpentry, a skill he learned from his father, when expressing the importance of his work.

“ Similar to how an old house settles on its foundation, to all eyes a specimen looks sturdy and strong,” he explains. “But then you start digging around and you begin to see that as the specimen has settled, the vertical supports have twisted, literally two inches off center in opposite directions.”

While disarticulating a shoulder blade, for instance, Fraley’s team found it was held together by just two threads, literally. “A good jolt by some guy in there with a waxing machine, who inadvertently bumps the base, and….” Fraley knows he doesn’t have to complete the sentence to make his point.

The same care will have to be taken during the rebuilding phase when, Fraley assures, the team will be very aware that they’re “working with specimens that are 160 million years of age. They’re big, they’re heavy, they’re fragile, and even if they’re handled correctly, they can break. And then you have to stop everything and put it all back together again.”

Fraley and his crew did stop everything when they stumbled upon a message from the past. While dismantling the Apatosaurus skeleton, they found a wood plank with the names and ages of the two men who erected it in 1915: L. S. Coggeshall, the 38-year-old brother of Arthur Coggeshall, the museum’s famous then-fossil preparator; and 26-year-old Al Moorhouse. Months earlier, the museum’s preparation staff came upon another message from the past inside the wall-mounted Camptosaurus (still in its stone matrix). The note, rolled up inside a small jar, gave some vital specs: the year of discovery, 1928; the names of the men who prepared and mounted it, which again included L. S. Coggeshall; and the year it had been taken down and lighted, 1934. Matt Lamanna finds these discoveries to be a “cool connection between the past and present.”

Phil Fraley regularly makes his own connections with the past. “I think the animal, in a lot of ways, guides us,” he says. “Someone asked a sculptor once, ‘How do you know what you’re going to carve?’ And he answered, ‘Because it’s already inside. I’m just the instrument that allows it to come out.’” 

He may make his living restoring the past, but Phil Fraley isn’t inclined to look even as far back as his last project. “The satisfaction that I derive from doing this is the process. It’s the getting there. And when you finally get there, there’s no point in standing around looking at what you did.” 

Fraley does allow himself to reflect on those he’s met along the way. People like Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Mary Dawson, curator emeritus, who remains an important fixture in the museum and the world scientific community after retiring from her three decades on the museum’s staff: “She’s a tremendous person, a great scientist…I respect her so much for all she’s been able to do and the obstacles she’s overcome so early on as a woman in this field…” Fraley says, adding, “the entire Vertebrate Paleontology staff here really and truly is exceptional.

“ What continues to make my work exciting to me,” he says, “are the people. The artists, the curators, the scientists, the museum administrators, the architects, all these people with all these wonderful ideas and sense of purpose…moving forward and creating something greater than all of them as individuals, that collectively is worth something.

“ It’s not just for us, it’s for people who come after us,” he says of their handiwork. “For the next hundred years, every school kid that lives in Pittsburgh will be coming here and looking at this, and maybe it’ll inspire one of them, maybe it’ll say ‘look, anything is possible.’ To me, that’s what it’s all about.”  


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