A New Golden Age of Dinosaur Museums

When the movie Jurassic Park hit theaters in the summer of 1993, there was no question that the dinosaur renaissance–that had been coursing through the field of paleontology since the late 1960’s–had now, for the first time, really taken a firm grip on the public imagination with its depiction of smart and (very) active dinosaurs.  With public interest in dinosaurs at an all-time high, it was only a matter of time before natural history museums would update their displays and capitalize on their dinosaur collections, ushering in what today is a new golden age of dinosaur museums around the world.

Although separated by over twenty years, the dinosaur renaissance in academia and the very popular film series were actually closely linked: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton was fascinated by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom’s interpretation of the raptor-type dinosaur Deinonychus, and based his Velociraptor characters in the movie on Ostrom’s descriptions.  At the same time, Tyrannosaurus rex was in the news for more than its starring role in the film: in 1990 a team of fossil hunters found the most complete T. rex  ever discovered in South Dakota, and in 1992 the federal government took the fossil from the paleontologist who thought he had purchased it legally, setting off a huge court battle and generating plenty of headlines. While this was a very sad story for paleontology, and Pete Larson at the Black Hills Institute particularly, it created huge interest in the fossil. When this dinosaur nicknamed “Sue” went up for auction, it sold for an unprecedented $7.6 million (over $8.3 million including commission costs) to the Field Museum in Chicago, which had financial support from a variety of backers including McDonald’s and Disney.

"Sue," the most famous dinosaur in the world, on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.

“Sue,” the most famous dinosaur in the world, on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.  Photo credit: John Gnida

Before “Sue,” no fossil had ever sold for even close to a million dollars.  That changed with “Sue,” and many worried that the high value placed on fossils would make it harder for scientists and museums to acquire the best specimens for study.  That fear has been realized, and there is no doubt that the black market for dinosaur bones has indeed been a growing problem in paleontology.  But another thing that changed the day “Sue” went on display in 2000 was the fact that museums re-learned a lesson from a hundred years prior: dinosaurs draw crowds.

The First Golden Age of Dinosaur Museums

Natural history museums started as “curiosity cabinets,” known particularly from the middle-ages but probably going back well over a thousand years.  These were typically collections of specimens kept and displayed in a home, often by eccentric men with a curious interest in the natural world.   Eventually, the dawn of the great scientific age in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the construction of more permanent homes for scientific objects.  Typically, wealthy industrialists funded these buildings, and many of the great natural history museums still bear the names of these people.  The great Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh was funded by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie; the Field Museum in Chicago was funded largely by department store entrepreneur Marshall Field. The Yale Peabody Museum was created by a donation from wealthy industrialist George Peabody; the American Museum of Natural History was supported by a large group of wealthy philanthropists including Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (the president’s father) and the banker J.P. Morgan.

While the British Museum in London opened in 1759, the first great age of natural history museums started in the mid to late 19th century.  In America, the first of these was the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which opened to the public in 1812.  Others followed, including the United States National Museum (which later became the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), which opened in 1846.  Soon after, the famous “bone wars” between Yale’s Othneil Charles Marsh and Philadelphia’s Edward Drinker Cope brought prehistoric fossils and the newly-coined “dinosaurs” to the public imagination, and scientists and their patrons worked hard to establish museums in their cities to display these creatures.  The American Museum in New York first opened to the public in 1877, and by 1925, there would be a handful of spectacular natural history museums across the country, including the Field Museum in Chicago (opened in 1893), the Carnegie in Pittsburgh (1896), and the Colorado Museum (later the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) which opened to the public in 1908.   Other cities soon followed, including Houston (1909), Toronto (1912), Los Angeles (1913), and Cleveland (1920). Meanwhile, several large public universities with significant paleontology collections were also starting to display their prized specimens: by the early part of the 20th century, museums of natural history on college campuses included those at Yale, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, among others.

The original Tyrannosaurus mount at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

The original Tyrannosaurus mount at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.  Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History.

The crowds came, often to see iconic dinosaurs like “Dippy” the Diplodocus in Pittsburgh, the great Brontosaurus at Yale, the Tyrannosaurus rex in New York.  Museums rushed to find the biggest and most impressive fossils and get them on display.  For a great read on this history, I recommend Paul Brinkman’s 2010 book The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Sadly, the horrific events of the first half of the 20th century put paleontology and dinosaurs on a distant back burner.  World War I, the great depression, and World War II stopped the golden age of dinosaurs in its tracks.  Funds for paleontology research dried up and museum crowds dwindled as America, naturally, turned its attention to the weighty matters at hand.  Dinosaurs almost became relegated to history’s dustbin for a second time (the first being the asteroid at the end of the Mesozoic), but for a small and hearty group of researchers that continued to be fascinated by these long-dead animals.

The Dinosaur Renaissance and Jurassic Park

While Ostrom was studying Deinonychus, he resurrected the old but largely forgotten idea that dinosaurs must be related to birds.  Based on skeletal remains of Deinonychus, Ostrom and his students (most famously Bob Bakker) pushed many controversial ideas about dinosaurs: they were likely warm-blooded; they were active, cooperative hunters; they spent time rearing their young; they were closely related to birds and may have been ancestral to all modern birds.  At the time, many of these ideas were considered outlandish.  Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies demonstrated how these ideas were not only possible, but likely.  Soon, fossils from China started to show up and confirmed many of these theories, particularly the notion that birds and dinosaurs were closely linked.

After Jurassic Park hit theaters, the obvious public interest in dinosaurs spurred museums to update their displays and engage this new generation of dinosaur fans that were coming to see their collections.  The rush was on, and when “Sue” went up for auction, it is not terribly surprising that several museums bid at least $5 million on the fossil.  The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences narrowly lost out in the bidding, but later that year won an auction for a fantastic Acrocanthosaurus, purchased at a reported cost of $3 million.

The New Golden Age of Dinosaur Museums

When “Sue” went on display in Chicago in the year 2000, massive crowds lined up to see her and every natural history museum took notice.  Soon, plans were announced to unveil new exhibits at top museums. In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum planned a groundbreaking exhibit called “Dinosaurs in their Time,” a renovation that would not only “fix” dinosaurs that were shown in old, outdated poses, but also display them in temporal context–with the flora and fauna of their particular age.  It’s a beautiful exhibit, and although it’s been open to the public since 2008, it remains one of the few dinosaur exhibits to display lifelike, dinosaur-era plants among the dinosaurs.  The greenery creates an effect that is unique among dinosaur museums.

"Dinosaurs in their Time" at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA.

“Dinosaurs in their Time” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA.  Photo credit: John Gnida

Meanwhile, new museums were opening such as the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, which was founded in 1995 and is now one of the top dozen or so places to see dinosaurs in North America.  The Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, Utah, opened in 2000, immediately becoming one of the largest dinosaur display museums, with over 60 mounted dinosaur fossil casts.  The Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado, opened in 2004, showcasing numerous dinosaur and pterosaur fossil casts and a fabulous room highlighting the creatures that inhabited the Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous period.

In addition to new museums, some well-established museums started to add dinosaurs to their displays.  The best example is probably the world-class Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children’s museum in the world.  In 2004, the museum opened their “Dinosphere” exhibit, which converted an old IMAX theater dome into an immersive dinosaur display presenting some well-known and impressive fossils, including important Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops specimens.  Since then, the museum has added numerous dinosaurs to the exhibit and has become a must-see stop for dinosaur lovers everywhere.

The "Dinosphere" at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN.

The “Dinosphere” at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN.  Photo credit: John Gnida

Since 2011, several major U.S. museums have completed large renovation projects (and even new buildings) to showcase their dinosaurs.  The Natural History Museum of Utah in 2011 moved from its central location on the University of Utah campus to a brand new building on the northeast edge of campus.  The Rio Tinto Center is an amazing building and allows the NHMU to display a much larger portion of their great collection, including several recently-discovered dinosaurs.  That same year, a huge renovation of the dinosaur hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was completed.  The new hall features one of the greatest dinosaur displays anwhere: three different Tyrannosaurus fossils, all of different sizes demonstrating the growth series of this iconic dinosaur.  Texas dinosaurs enjoyed their moment in 2012 as two new dinosaur halls opened.  The Perot Museum of Nature and Science opened a hall of ancient life in the newly constructed building in Dallas.  In Houston, the new Morian Hall of Paleontology houses many gorgeous exhibits that show a series of dynamic dinosaur poses you might expect from their Curator of Paleontology, none other than one of the original “dinosaur heretics,” Bob Bakker.

Amazing Tyrannosaurus exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA.

Amazing Tyrannosaurus exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA.  Photo credit: John Gnida

More Dinosaur Museum Renovations on the Way!

While the new buildings and renovations in many museums have vaulted them toward the top of the dinosaur museum rankings, the present golden age shows no sign of slowing.  Several top museums are in the building stage with new renovations, none more anticipated than the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  The dinosaur hall closed several years ago and is set to open in 2019.  The standard for new exhibits set by Utah, Los Angeles, and Houston is very high, but I think everyone in paleontology anticipates that the Smithsonian’s National Dinosaur Hall will be worth the long wait.

Sketch of the new National Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2019.

Sketch of the new National Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2019.  Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute.

Also in 2019, two new university buildings will house top natural history museums.  In Seattle, the University of Washington will open a new building housing the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures will be prominently displayed.  In 2016, researchers from the university discovered a fairly complete skull of a Tyrannosaurus in Montana and plan to display it in the new museum building when it opens.

Depiction of the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Depiction of the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Photo credit: University of Washington.

The other major university collection to find a new home in 2019 will be in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.  Construction is moving along toward a new biological sciences building which will house the Museum of Natural History.  In addition to more display space for their terrific collection, the university will unveil a new skeletal cast of the dinosaur Majungasaurus. 

Yale’s Peabody Museum is a great place to visit, but the Yale collection is very large and more display space is needed.   The university is currently fundraising to implement interesting new designs for their display area. One of the great challenges for Yale will be to renovate the museum while preserving the brilliant murals by Rudolph Zallinger which adorn the walls in the main galleries.

Over the next ten years or so, more museums will join in with major renovations. For example, the great Cleveland Museum of Natural History will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary in 2020 with a newly renovated dinosaur hall.  More are sure to follow.

Rendering of the new biological science building at the University of MIchigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Rendering of the new biological science building at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.  The U of M  Museum of Natural History will be housed in the new building.  Photo credit: University of Michigan.

Pop culture has certainly seen a renewed interest in dinosaurs again, and it shows no sign of abating any time soon.   Jurassic World was a big hit movie in 2015, and a sequel has been announced for 2018.  For younger viewers, the popular children’s TV show Dinosaur Train continues on PBS.  While we are currently enjoying the second great golden age of dinosaur museums, we are also in the midst of a golden age of dinosaur research.  More discoveries are being made every year, and new technology has opened up broad areas of study that have already offered tantalizing theories that could change much of what we know about dinosaurs.  Just in the past few months we have seen an almost perfectly preserved dinosaur tail discovered inside an ancient piece of amber as well as a research study that could potentially change the entire dinosaur family tree at the very beginning. It’s an exciting time to love dinosaurs and an exciting time to visit the many great dinosaur museums!