By Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosauria
Big changes are coming to the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History. During an upcoming renovation, thousands of fossils will be taken off display, conserved, remounted, and reinstalled in updated exhibits. They will be joined by a brand new mount of a Tyrannosaurus rex that will arrive - in pieces - in October.
So what happens once a T. rex arrives at your doorstep? We have a few things to take care of, by way of welcome, before we can put this fine specimen on display.
First things first: The crates will arrive by truck and get brought into the fossil preparation laboratory. But shortly after that, we’ll set up a public area where visitors can watch us work on the specimen.
Although the Museum of the Rockies has taken excellent care of the Wankel Rex, we still need to make our own assessment of its condition. This is especially important because we’ll be displaying it, and therefore subjecting it to vibrations, humidity variations, and other hazards (read: people). It will take a while to check each bone for cracks and deterioration, make any repairs that are needed, and photograph everything. We’ll also sculpt the missing bones (such as those from the end of the tail, which was not found with this specimen), based on examples from other T. rex specimens.
Then comes the fun part—when we get to decide exactly how to pose the skeleton for the new exhibition. The finished display needs to be dramatic but realistic, so we need to think about what a T. rex could (and couldn’t) do. We also want our exhibit to be distinctive, something you’d remember after you left. Should T. rex be hunting? Scavenging? Sleeping?
Of course, we can’t just hold up the bones and move them around to try out our ideas; they’re too big and heavy, and there are too many of them, for that. Instead, we’d like to make 3D scans of the bones and manipulate them on a computer, much as we did with our Triceratops “Hatcher” several years back. This will let us try out a bunch of different poses and “view” them from different angles to see how we like them.
Once we make a decision, it’s off to the races. Mount-making is a complex process that can take many months for a large animal such as T. rex. The metal armature that holds the bones in position will be custom-built so that individual bones can be removed if necessary—a crucial feature because the real bones will be on display. In the past, many museum mounts were drilled right into the bones, which damaged them and made them impossible to remove. We still use this technique for casts, but not for the real thing.
After the mount is completed, it’ll be time for installation in the renovated dinosaur hall, and a truly grand opening in 2019!
Read a more recent post about the Nation's Tyrannosaurus rex.