New Digs for Old Bones

The most scientifically ambitious dinosaur halls in the world open this week in New York, with interactive displays, fossils that visitors can touch and skeletons posed correctly ..MR0-

The exhibit people thought the 86-foot Apatosaurus should face west rather than east in the new dinosaur halls at New York's American Museum of Natural History. So the great critter had to be dismantled, cleaned and reconstructed. And one more thing. The 22-ton bed of dinosaur footprints (called a trackway) that trails the beast had to be moved down the hall. That's harder than it sounds. So one day, Steve Warsavage and his installation crew attempted the equivalent of slipping a tablecloth back under the china. To spin around the 25-foot-long fossil bed and move it down the hall, they drove thick steel plates underneath the irreplaceable footprints--with-out shattering them. Then what? They flooded the floor with Ivory Liquid and slid the trackway to its new place of honor.

It took more than $10 million, scores of workmen and craftsmen, 400 tons of terrazzo (and 25 bottles of Ivory), but the American Museum is now ready to open the doors on the largest and most scientifically ambitious dinosaur exhibit in the world. For three years its old, dark, claustrophobic temples to the extinct thunder lizards have been locked. Behind the faded murals, masons and electricians, sculptors and paleontologists lugged the galleries into the 21st century, architecturally and scientifically. This week "one of the most anticipated exhibits in New York history," as museum president Ellen Futter put it, debuts with a flourish.

With 120 specimens, 85 percent of them real fossils rather than the plaster casts that many other museums exhibit, the new 18,000-square-foot exhibit is packed with the most dino fossils anywhere, at any time. It's only 5 percent of the museum's collection (the rest lies on dusty metal shelves in basement storerooms), but what a 5 percent it is. See Coelophysis-under-glass, a birdlike denizen of New Mexico whose last meal 220 million years ago is visible under its ribs: a juvenile coelophysis. Walk the transparent bridge over the 50-foot-long spine of a Barosaurus, and keep the kids' fingers away from the two robotic heads that demonstrate dine chewing. (If an infrared beam senses little hands, it shuts off the mastication.) View specimens like Velociraptor, of "Jurassic Park" fame; its deadly cousin Deinonychus, which sparked the theory that dines were highly intelligent; and a baby Stegosaurus. These three specimens are new to the halls. Cower under the menacing Tyrannosaurus rex. Since 1915 he had anchored the old halls like a lumpen Godzilla. But now, with his tail in the air, he seems to be stalking visitors like a megaton roadrunner from hell. As Futter says, the dines are "lean and lively and ready for the millennium."

The museum expects even more than its usual 8,000 visitors a day for the new halls (suggested museum admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children). It has full faith and confidence that fossils will pull in the crowds but has taken out a couple of insurance policies. In a break from the past, 11 specimens will be out in the open. Visitors can touch the rocklike skullcap of Pachycepha-losaurus, a lithe 30-footer that may have used its built-in helmet to butt rivals or impress potential mates. They can finger the plate of a Stegosaurus, and decide for themselves whether the lumbering herbivore used it for air conditioning. And if that isn't interactive enough, they can play at computer stations, clicking on time periods or species, or hearing curators talk about dinosaurs. Some of these stations also have video monitors, in which fleshed-out dinosaurs stalk and run. These are for the kids who complain, as one did at last week's sneak preview, that "the dinosaurs aren't alive."

In paleontology, where 65 million years ago is considered recent, "new" is a relative term. In fact, the discoveries that Apatosaurus held its tail in the air as a counterweight, and that T.rex walked with its spine parallel to the ground, have been reflected in children's books since the 1980s. (Paleontologists figured out the postures when they failed to find furrows, which a dragging tail would make, among dinosaur footprints.) But it's not easy overhauling an 8 1/2-ton skeleton. Dismantling and reposing Apatosaurus, once called Brontosaurus, took weeks of calculating forces, assessing metal fatigue and constructing a two-story house to keep the bones in place. Apatosaurus got a new skull from the museum's basement (the wrong one had been on for decades), four extra neck vertebrae (recent finds showed that the neck was longer than originally thought) and a 20-foot tail lengthening (ditto). T.rex was also completely dismantled, bone by bone.

Though some dinosaur experts assert what color dinosaurs were and what kind of family values they held, the museum takes a humbler approach. Green boxes--the curators call them surgeon general's warnings--dot the Plexiglas display cases. They acknowledge that, sure, some scientists may make these mediagenic claims. But in fact the evidence is indecisive. "The main point is to help visitors tease apart what we do and do not know," says Lowell Dingus, director of the renovation. "We leave some questions open and are honest about the limits of our knowledge."

In its boldest move, the museum east its lot with a controversial model of evolution called cladistics. ("Cladistics" is derived from the Greek klados, for branch.) This school of thought infers family trees from the presence of "advanced" features (diagram, page 57). Cladistics says that birds are--not "are descendants of," but are--dinosaurs. ("Discovering Dinosaurs," the $35 Knopf coffee-table book accompanying the reopening, has dozens of neck-wrenching references to "nonavian dinosaurs." That's plain-old dinosaurs to most readers.) The last time clever curators tried to inject cladistics into an exhibit, at the British Museum in 1978, the show closed amid accusations that cladistics was a Marxist conspiracy. The American Museum isn't cowed. To emphasize cladistic relationships, it has arranged the new galleries like "a walk along the family tree," explains Dingus, rather than the walk through time they used to be. Follow the wide black stripe embedded in the terrazzo and you're ambling along the trunk of the genealogy. Related dinosaurs are now roommates. The four-legged giant Plateosaurus and the ostrich-size Oviraptor, though separated by 148 million years, share the Hall of Saurischians, for instance. Both have a grasping forefoot and an S-shaped neck, the defining advanced characteristics of this group.

Give the museum credit for not underestimating the intelligence of its audience. Eugene Gaffney, who curated the Hall of Ornithischians but whose true passion is ancient turtles, mutters, "Exhibit people say you can't put out anything that takes more than 15 seconds to look at." The museum didn't buy that. The information ranges from toddler-high panels addressing such questions as "Did dinosaurs eat each other?" to the now obligatory interactive displays. The chewing robots, which one curator derisively calls "Moe and Curly," will be a crowd pleaser, but the real lure is real specimens. The curators are always asked, "Is that fossil real?" Gaffney thinks he knows why. "Why do people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa? They know what she looks like," he says. "It's because she's the real one." Look closely, and those menacing teeth on T.rex are almost an enigmatic smile.

Can't get to New York? Here are some of the other premier dinosaur exhibits in North America.

(Atlanta, Ga.). "Great Dinosaurs of China" features 75 fossils from Inner Mongolia.

(Washington, D.C.). Among the largest collections of fossils in the U.S., with over 13 complete dinosaur skeletons.

(Bozeman, Mont.). "One Day, 80 Million Years Ago" re-creates the famous dinosaur-nesting site at Egg Mountain, discovered in 1978.

"Prehistoric Journey" opens in October with nearly 360 dinosaur specimens and the oldest rock on earth.

(Drumheller, Canada). Main gallery boasts 35 complete dinosaur skeletons, most found in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.

(Toronto). Starting June 13, visitors will be able to watch researchers free a pair of 80 million-year-old Maiasaur skeletons from the rocks in which they were found.

(Vancouver). Summer '95 home to the Dinosaur World Tour, the largest traveling dinosaur exhibit in the world.