Matt Phillips, far right, and the Museum of Natural History village, including key players (front row, L to R) Alan Tabrum, Chris Smith, Diane Grzybek, Chris Beard, Matt Lamanna, acting co-directors of the museum Zhe-Xi Luo and Dave Smith, Carol Fuller (back row, L to R), Steve Salisbury, Amy Henrici, Mindy McNaugher, Cathy Klingler, Jim Senior, Allen Shaw, Dan Pickering, Dave Berman, and Mark Klingler. Photo: Josh Franzos
It takes a village to raise a dinosaur
…and other lessons learned on the road to Dinosaurs in Their Time.
By Matt Phillips, exhibits developer
Dinosaurs in Their Time is a story with a cast of thousands, including dinosaurs, mammals, birds, plants, sea monsters, and flying reptiles. It covers seven different environments and 150 million years of Earth history.
So how, exactly, do you write a significant chapter of the biography of the planet? As exhibit developer for Dinosaurs, I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma for the past several years. It’s been quite the experience, and my colleagues and I have learned many valuable lessons.
1. It takes a village to raise a dinosaur.
A noisy, squawky village with an opinionated populace! An army of exhibits staff, educators, and scientists arose from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History ranks to create this exhibit. Everyone had their own opinion on what the exhibit should be. Some scientists saw it as a three-dimensional term paper on vertebrate paleontology. Some educators wanted an authoritative dinosaur almanac that could be used effectively by all visitors, from preschoolers to pensioners. We in exhibits development wanted to create a memorable experience that was different and fun. This village also extended beyond the city limits with fabricators located in New Jersey, artists in Philadelphia, and multimedia specialists in Boston.
We all really wanted the same thing: to create an unforgettable exhibit.
2. You can’t put 50 pounds of dino dung in a 25-pound bag.
That’s a paraphrase of a quote by Jim Senior, chair of exhibits for Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Dinosaur skeletons are blueprints from which scientists have built their theories, and there are as many stories as there are bones of these amazing creatures. We hit the information jackpot with paleontologist Matt Lamanna, our resident slot machine of dinosaur knowledge. And staff photographer Mindy McNaugher tracked down archival images from a century of our museum’s history, as well as from museums around the world. However, we only had a five-foot label rail to tell each dinosaur’s colossal tale. This led to the creation of interactive touch screens to house deeper dinosaur discussions. Thankfully, electronic real estate has few limitations—just what we needed to do justice to complicated topics like evolutionary relationships! Online developer Cathy Klingler whipped these stories into shape, taming a tsunami of topics into manageable categories.
3. We blinded them with science.
Visitors had a major role in creating the exhibit, as well. At the onset, we were shocked to learn we were overwhelming our visitors with facts. So my creative partner in crime, graphic designer Chris Smith, and I applied the Goldilocks-and-the-Three-Bears approach to the labels and eventually came up with a bowl of informational porridge that was just right. As a result, Chris and I have a stack of rejected labels large enough to construct an origami Apatosaurus!
Armed with the knowledge that less is more, however, we learned it was just as difficult to organize a smaller amount of information. We turned to the granddaddy of natural history interpretation, the field guide—a combination of visuals and text. By trimming the text and increasing other visual elements, we slimmed down our bulky labels. We allowed anatomy to act as an author, with body features called out on a dinosaur illustration. Pittsburgh-centric global maps permitted visitors to situate themselves geographically, both before and after the continents did their Mesozoic mambo.
4. Not all dinosaurs are he’s.
This savvy piece of advice was offered to me early in the project, after I continued to refer to Tyrannosaurus rex as “he.” It wasn’t intentional—it just seemed that Tyrannosaurus and other fisty dinosaurs seemed very male. Little did I realize I was reinforcing negative gender stereotyping, and that a simple two-letter word could alter people’s perceptions. This is a major problem in the world of science education, as an alarming trend finds girls not being encouraged to pursue their interest in the sciences as they grow older. From that point on, all dinosaurs were referred to as “it.”
This lesson applied to the creation of Tracks Tracey, a dinosaur character that appears throughout the exhibit to explain dinosaur mysteries. Originally, Tracks was an over-coated tough guy that would have made Bogart beam. After our committee perceived it as too male, we transformed it into a Carmen Sandiego-like detective, complete with red hair cascading from her fedora. But after further testing, Tracks evolved into a simple, gender-neutral tyrannosaur sporting a deerstalker cap and a magnifying glass.
5. Kill your darlings.
William Faulkner coined this phrase, which is a mantra of writers everywhere. It means we should cut to the chase and eliminate elements that we love, such as overly clever turns of phrase, insignificant trivia, or funny anecdotes that don’t really relate to the topic at hand.
This serial killer of prose is the reason why you won’t encounter “Triassic Block Party,” “Lifestyles of the Long and Lumbering,” or “Love in the Time of Chimera” in the exhibit.
As the Continental Congress squabbled over revisions to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson sat quietly as his words and ideas were ransacked. John Adams urged Jefferson to defend his writing, “Well, man, you’re the one who wrote it!” To which Jefferson replied, “I wrote all of it, Mr. Adams.” There you go: That’s a darling. Not necessary for this discussion, but a cool story about the foibles of writing by committee nonetheless.
6. T. rexcetera.
There are more lessons I could share. I could tell you how Andrew Carnegie didn’t become a touch screen icon because his face was unknown by many of our visitors, some of whom confused him with a more well-known whiskered philanthropist: Santa Claus. Or that nesting dolls or eggs with jigsaw puzzle shells do not scream evolution to visitors.
I’d like to tell you that all our problems were solved and we all lived happily ever after, but that would be a lie. Even now, we continue to learn from our visitors and their experiences.
I hope, however, that the lessons we learned in creating Dinosaurs have resulted in an experience that’s both entertaining and informative. And that it’s obvious by visiting the new exhibit that this village really does care about its subject.