The Field Museum in Chicago is one of a handful of truly world-class museums of natural history in North America. When you think of dinosaurs and The Field Museum, many people immediately think of the world’s most famous dinosaur, “Sue,” the Tyrannosaurus. Stalking the central hall on the main floor, Sue is one of the can’t-miss features of this wonderful museum.
I was born in Chicago and much of my extended family still lives in or near the city. I have visited countless times since moving with my family to Michigan as a child, and I have many fond memories of Chicago and The Field Museum…to quote legendary folk singer (and suburban Chicago native) John Prine, “it’s often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn.” Beyond Little Golden Books, my introduction to the world of dinosaurs came from The Field Museum, and every time we go back I feel an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Luckily, there is always something new to see, and I am always eager to go back!
Before entering the museum, when the weather is nice (or even just tolerable) I would recommend a quick walk around the magnificent building. From the top of the back steps, visitors will get a terrific view of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan. On a clear day it can be spectacular. If you like skyscrapers, sailboats and people-watching, there are few better places.
One of the highlights of The Field Museum is often missed by visitors: to see it, continue outside around the building, and on the northwest corner you will find a sculpture of one of the museum’s most important dinosaur specimens, a giant Brachiosaurus posed facing the Chicago skyline. The sculpture is based on the holotype fossil found by paleontologist Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum in 1903 when surveying near Fruita, Colorado. Because they were only partial remains, the rest of the sculpt is based on a well-known Giraffatitan specimen from Berlin. The Giraffatitan was previously considered an African species of Brachiosaurus until they were placed in separate genera in the past twenty years or so. Before the arrival of “Sue,” the Brachiosaurus in Chicago once occupied the prime spot inside the central hall of the building. You can also see a replica of this dinosaur in the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare Aiport.
Once inside the museum, there is no question about the dinosaur that is on everyone’s highlight list: the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. “Sue” was won at auction by The Field Museum after a lengthy and troubling court case in South Dakota, where the fossil was discovered in 1990. Upon arrival in Chicago, once prepared and assembled, “Sue” took her place at the north end of the large central hall and immediately became the most viewed exhibit at the museum. She remains there today and draws an enormous crowd just about all the time. The fossil is amazing–it is really a beautiful specimen. The skull is enormous, and the teeth are huge and numerous. It is fun to watch visitors young and old have very visceral reactions to “Sue” when they get up close and look into her jaws. She did not have an easy life, though. If you look closely at the skull, you can see numerous bite marks, indicating that the dinosaur may have been killed or scavenged by another Tyrannosaurus. Still, “Sue” has been determined to have died at age 28, which makes her not only the largest and most complete fossil T. rex, but also the oldest at the time of her death.
If you want to see other dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, you will want to take some time admiring “Sue,” and then plan to head upstairs to visit the museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit. The story of life on earth is told in a series of rooms leading to the dinosaur hall. Fantastic specimens of early life from the Devonian and Carboniferous periods highlight the early rooms; later rooms have specimens of well-known creatures from the Permian period such as Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Eryops, and Ophiacodon. I am a big fan of the Dimetrodon at The Field Museum, it is large and a real beauty.
As you enter the dinosaur hall, you are greeted by one of the very early carnivorous dinosaurs, Herrerasaurus. Quite a few museums display a cast of the skull of this animal, but few have a full mount on display. It is a great looking dinosaur–it appears to be very fast and agile, and certainly very active. Herrerasaurus lived about 230 million years ago in what is now Argentina, and it is one of the earliest dinosaurs yet discovered.
Once inside the main dinosaur hall, there are plenty of great dinosaur displays to check out. Some of my favorites include the large sauropod Apatosaurus, posed standing next to a rare juvenile sauropod from Madagascar called Rapetosaurus. Most dinosaur families are represented in the hall, including favorites such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops.
At the far end of the hall is an area that features prehistoric fish, sea reptiles and pterosaurs. The wall displays of sea reptiles are particularly impressive; there are several types including the mosasaur Platecarpus, and the icthyosaur Stenopterygius. Several Pteranodon fly overhead, suspended from the ceiling. A particularly large Xiphactinus hangs from the wall; this awesome bony fish was among the largest predators in the Cretaceous seas.
In the center of the dinosaur hall is one of my favorite fossil mounts. A large Daspletosaurus stands over its’ recent prey. A close relative of Tyrannosaurus, Daspletosaurus lived about 10 million years before T. rex but shares a very similar look. While this creature was large and powerful, and certainly an apex predator, it is amazing how much larger the Tyrannosaurus skull would become in a relatively short period of geologic time. It’s a great display, and worthy of “center stage” in the dinosaur hall.
One of our favorite dinosaurs at The Field Museum is also one of the few Parasaurolophus fossil mounts, although several museums display casts of the unusual skull. This bizarre dinosaur has always been a favorite of my older son, and I suspect it is a favorite of a lot of people. One of the fun things about the exhibit in Chicago is that right near the fossil is an interactive station that allows visitors to try to “create” a sound similar to one that the Parasaurolophus might have made with the trombone-like tubes in its crest. The specimen in Chicago is one of three distinct species of this dinosaur; the Field Museum’s dinosaur is Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus, which is known for having smaller, more rounded cranial tubes than those of the other species.
Among the great highlights at The Field Museum is the series of 28 murals by Charles R. Knight that hang throughout the Evolving Planet exhibit. Commissioned by the Field Museum in 1926 and completed in 1930, the murals represent the various stages of life on earth from before the earliest fish and plants all the way to the most recent megafauna of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. Among them are some of the world’s most famous paintings of prehistoric life, including arguably the most well-known of all dinosaur art, the Tyrannosaurus vs. Triceratops mural. It may not be the Mona Lisa of dinosaur paintings, but it might well be The Last Supper, at least for the hungry Tyrannosaurus!
Dozens of Knight’s paintings have been featured in articles and books, and Knight is considered one of the greatest paleoartists of all time. His impact on paleoart and the public perception of prehistoric life is hard to overstate. Not only do his murals hang in some of the greatest natural history museums, but a century’s worth of dinosaur toys and models have also been greatly influenced by his art. Whenever I am back at The Field Museum, I take great pleasure in spending time admiring these fantastic murals.
After the dinosaur displays, there are still a lot of great fossils to admire. The subsequent halls through the Evolving Planet exhibit contain some terrific prehistoric mammals. A mammoth, a dire wolf, a cave bear, the sabertooth cat Smilodon and a very large giant ground sloth Megatherium draw most of the attention, but my favorite display was a wonderful wall full of ancient birds that lived during the Eocene era between approximately 33 and 54 million years ago. Very few museums have such a nice collection on display, and I thought it was particularly informative and interesting to see creatures closely related to those that survived the great extinction that claimed all the non-bird dinosaurs. There is also a similar display of Eocene fish that is equally well done. Finally, primates and the story of human evolution is presented, marking the end of a lengthy and fantastic journey through the history of life on earth, a fitting end to the Evolving Planet exhibit.
WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS?
If you don’t like dinosaurs, you are still in luck at The Field Museum. There are many excellent permanent exhibits, including a memorable one called Inside Ancient Egypt. The animal mounts from around the world are also amazing, my personal favorites are in the Africa exhibit. The Hall of China is another beautiful permanent exhibit, although it costs extra to see it currently. The permanent exhibit that my children love is called Underground Adventure, where visitors get an up-close look at what the world looks like from a tiny bugs’ perspective. The Field Museum also does a great job bringing in world-class traveling exhibits. We have seen many there, including Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, Real Pirates, China’s First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors, and Chocolate. There is always something to see here…and if you have seen everything you want to see, the great Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium are just a short walk away.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
There is so much The Field Museum does right that I hate to even bring it up…but…I will. I like to see dinosaurs in the context of other dinosaurs when possible, and although “Sue” has a distinguished place in the museum center hall, she feels a little out-of-place to me when all the other wonderful dinosaurs are upstairs in their own amazing exhibit area. I would also love it if there were more information available about each of the Knight murals, or perhaps a pamphlet that was available that describes them in more detail. And while I love the Brachiosaurus outside, I’m sure many museum visitors miss this great dinosaur mount simply because they don’t know it’s there.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My children have been to The Field Museum several times, and they always have a terrific time. “Sue” and the Evolving Planet exhibit are always our first stop, but as my children have aged, they now have more appreciation for other exhibits and we always seem to spend more and more time exploring different areas of the museum. Only the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington can really compare to the breadth and depth of the exhibits at The Field Museum. While some don’t like to see the taxidermic animal mounts throughout the museum, or as some call them the “dead zoo,” many of them are so well done and imaginative that they leave a lasting impression. I remember certain displays very distinctly from my very early years, and I suspect my sons will as well. Then again, I believe a visit to The Field Museum leaves a lasting impression on just about everyone.
OVERALL RATING: The Field Museum, Chicago, IL: 44.0/50
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur/Fossil Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs/Prehistoric Animals on Display: (9.0 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.0 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (9.0 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.0 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8.0 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Exellent, one of North America’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!