The World's Largest Dinosaurs

Review

of an Exhibition

by Debi Linton

Published on May 26, 2011, Modified on June 25, 2011

  • Description:

    When I first realised that the latest exhibition at the American Museum of Natural history was going to feature a video in the centre of an open space, my heart sank. I envisioned a room of noise, with exhibits competing with each other, and the video in the centre always audible and constantly distracting. When The World’s Largest Dinosaurs opened, I was thrilled to find out my prediction was entirely wrong, and the design of the hall would be one of the best I’ve seen in a temporary exhibition in recent years.

    A few months ago, my classmates and I were told in discussion with an exhibition developer that often the walls were the first to go in an exhibition. This has been taken to extremes in the World’s Largest Dinosaurs, with only three walled off areas: the mostly caption-free introduction that presents the idea of size variation; a secluded nest area that discusses egg size and growth, and the final dig-pit that finishes the visitors’ experience of the exhibition. The rest of the hall is dominated by a beautiful life size Mamenchisaurus model, on which is projected the aforementioned video.

    The rest of the exhibition is arranged in stations around the video, so visitors can (and do) float from place to place according to what they find interesting. No other exhibit has sound, so beyond the usual chatter of visitors (and it does get very crowded) the only sound in the room is the voice of one of the AMNH’s scientists as he explains the biological processes that went on inside the giant’s body. Far from distracting from the rest of the exhibits, the narrator supplements them, as what he explains in the video is exactly what is being demonstrated throughout the room, where visitors can feel how light a sauropod vertebrate was, pump an elephant’s heart, or marvel at the movement of air through a unidirectional bird-like lung.

    Sauropods, the exhibition wants us to take home, were unique animals in possession of a number of physical and physiological traits that enabled them to grow so large. Not all of the exhibits were successful – the ‘amount of food they ate in a day’ section fails to mention endo- and ectothermy so stressed at the adjacent station; the locomotion zoetrope rarely works, and when it does it isn’t all that informative, and the “scale” models of various genera are noticeably inaccurate in any number of ways. But the wonder that dinosaurs bring is there: just as people gasp at the Barosaurus and Allosaurus at the museum’s main entrance, so they gasp when they turn a corner to see the life size Mamenchisaurus. The opportunity to touch and compare real fossil teeth and real bones is a draw, and I’ve watched families sit transfixed through several cycles of the central video.

    The science, too, is accurate and up to date: the AMNH maintains a relationship between its research and exhibition departments that other science museums of my past acquaintance would do well to learn from. A fellow paleontologist (who shall remain nameless here) visiting with me even ducked down and was please to see the artist had been accurate in his portrayal of Mamenchisaurus’ cloaca (genital opening). Anatomical accuracy to the fine detail – and you know 7 year old dinosaur experts will be glad to know that as well.

    The World’s Largest Dinosaurs is open at the American Museum of Natural History through January 2, 2012. Timed tickets (including admission to the museum) are priced at $24/$18/$14, and I recommend coming as early as possible, as it does get very crowded indeed.

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