From the vicious Velociraptors of Jurassic Park to television's purple and endearing (or maddening) Barney, dinosaurs are embedded in our culture, at once terrifying and familiar. But what were those beings who roamed the earth tens of millions of years ago really like? The recently restored and redesigned Dinosaur Halls at the American Museum of Natural History in New York give a richly detailed window on that world and entice the visitor to look, touch, and explore.
Designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. in New York, the halls are open and airy. Dinosaurs are mostly out in the open, rather than in cases. Visitors--typically schoolchildren in the mornings, adults in the afternoons--can walk right up to the forbidding Tyrannosaurus rex and sit just below the graceful, long-necked Apatosaurus (popularly but incorrectly known as Brontosaurus).
The exhibit also breaks with the chronological organization of the past, relying on a classification method known as cladistics to group fossils by shared physical traits. "We wanted to lay the exhibit out as if you were moving along a family tree rather than a time line," says Lowell Dingus, project director at the museum.
The idea, says Ralph Appelbaum, was to give visitors a compelling narrative of evolution and provide them with enough information to turn them into "journeymen paleontologists." At various points in the exhibits, the shared characteristics--from grasping hands to three-toed feet--are described and illustrated by specimens. An evolutionary path is traced both literally and figuratively through the halls.
"The beauty of this project was in the way information was presented," says juror Lorraine Justice, professor of design at the Ohio State University in Columbus. A "hierarchy" of information is tied together aesthetically. Younger children will have trouble taking everything in, but there are so many levels of research available that everyone from a novice to an expert can learn something.
Computer stations dot the halls, offering video clips of museum curators describing the bones. Child-height panels pose questions and offer answers. Robotic jaws demonstrate just how these creatures chewed and ground their food. And interesting trivia abounds: It turns out Roland T. Bird, who in 1938 excavated a famous dinosaur footprint path in Texas, cruised Western North America on his Harley-Davidson, searching for fossils. Natural History officials and trustees told Appelbaum they wanted to banish the museum's image as a dusty and musty place. Not to worry. The dinosaur halls are anything but. Viewing these fossils is an oddly revivifying experience.