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Pittsburgh Museum Reinvents Model of Dinosaur Exhibit

February 21, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh renovated its dinosaur exhibit to provide a more realistic picture of how dinosaurs lived and interacted with one another more than 100 million years ago.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a new look at some very old bones, dinosaur bones. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our Science Unit report.

MATT LAMANNA, curator, Carnegie Museum of Natural History: You guys are some of the first people to see this, other than the people that have worked on it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: Matt Lamanna has been in love with dinosaurs since he was 4 years old. At an age when most kids can’t say “paleontologist,” Lamanna informed his mother that one day he was going to be one.

MATT LAMANNA: They’re all dinosaurs. They’re all plants. They’re all other animals that lived 150 million years ago in what’s now Wyoming and Utah.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When he was just 25, he was part of a team that discovered a giant dinosaur species in Egypt. Now at the age of 32, Lamanna is on the cutting edge of dinosaur restoration.

MATT LAMANNA: My favorite view of the whole exhibit is right here, because nowhere else in the world can you stand between two real dinosaur skeletons of this size and also see this really awesome scene unfolding in front of you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He’s overseeing the $36 million restoration of the dinosaur collection that belongs to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

The new exhibit is drawing worldwide attention because it’s the most scientifically accurate depiction of the giant creatures and how they lived that’s ever been done.

MATT LAMANNA: You walk into this exhibit, you walk into the beginning of the age of dinosaurs, you’ll see plants that look very alien to you. You’ll see all kinds of animals that will look extremely bizarre.

When you see two things exhibited together, whether they’re on the mural, on the platforms, real, reconstructed, whatever, they would have actually lived together.

CHILD: I want to see a real dinosaur, Dad!

Innovations in paleontology

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lamanna says in most museums dinosaur skeletons are shown side-by-side in big rooms. There is no attempt to pose the animals interacting with each other or show what their actual environment might have looked like.

MATT LAMANNA: And this is actually a reconstruction of a plant called archaefructus, which is the oldest flowering plant known.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But now the Carnegie dinosaurs will be posed together in scenes replicating how paleontologists think they lived more than 100 million years ago.

MATT LAMANNA: Back when they were first discovered, dinosaurs were considered very reptilian, sort of cold-blooded, slow-moving, sluggish, probably spent a lot of their time wallowing in swamps. Since then, paleontological understanding, scientific understanding of dinosaurs has changed pretty dramatically.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Andrew Carnegie, whose legacy founded the museum, first sent teams out to look for dinosaur bones in the American West, it was a brand-new science.

Back then, Carnegie took a lot of heat for his dinosaur collection. He was lampooned in cartoons and laughed at for having the first dinosaur they found named after himself, Diplodocus carnegiei.

When first assembled, Dippy, as he's known around Pittsburgh, looked like this: the tail dragged the ground; the chest cavity sloped into a U-shaped fashion, giving the appearance of a slow, loping dinosaur.

This is Dippy after reconstruction. He's posed in an upright, active position, tail in the air, giving the appearance of forward motion.

MATT LAMANNA: People have found literally thousands of dinosaur tracks, and tail drag traces are extremely rare. They're almost unknown. And so if these guys dragged their tails on the ground a lot of the time, you would think that we would often find tail drag traces. I think the answer is we don't.

Setting realistic, active scenes

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lamanna says fossils also show dinosaurs lived in herds and often cared for their young, something captured in this scene from 150 million years ago.

MATT LAMANNA: And the story here is that this carnivorous dinosaur, allosaurus, this 25-foot-long, carnivorous dinosaur, is charging in looking to make a meal of a tiny baby apatosaurus that stands over there.

Now, of course, the mother apatosaurus isn't real excited about this, so she's swinging her tail hoping to knock this allosaurus off its feet, maybe give it a crippling blow, or at least scare it away.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dippy isn't too thrilled to the see the predator coming up on his left, either.

MATT LAMANNA: You know, when it sees this allosaurus coming into the scene, it's interested in getting away.

There's a dinosaur over there called camptosaurus that's hiding in the bushes, because to allosaurus, it would have been -- allosaurus would have made very short work of camptosaurus, would it have seen it. So he's hiding.

Stegosaurus, the dinosaur behind me, is basically saying to allosaurus, "You know, I've got plates, I've got spikes. Come and fight me, you know, because you're going to lose."

Reconstructing dino skeletons

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's not just paleontology on display at Carnegie. It's also engineering.

In this warehouse in Paterson, N.J., museum exhibit specialist Phil Fraley is supervising the placement of every bone. These T-rex specimens are being rebuilt to show one of them attacking another specimen for food.

Every single bone is carefully put back together using high-quality steel that is painstakingly manipulated to create the new active poses. This T-rex head was gingerly lifted by a gantry crane to be connected back with the neck and body of the dinosaur.

Fraley says these new dinosaurs aren't just scientifically accurate; when they're finished, they will also be works of art.

PHIL FRALEY, Phil Fraley Productions: They become essentially a sculpture that's made out of real fossil material, trying to convey an idea of what these specimens, these animals might have been like at one time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When each scene is completed, it has to be taken apart again and shipped back to the museum in Pittsburgh.

Federal Express was glad to see Fraley coming. The shipping bill for this apatosaurus alone was $40,000.

But Fraley thinks the public will be excited with the results.

PHIL FRALEY: What we really want to have happen is that we want to create an interaction between the museum visitor as they come in and they look at this story and that they use their imagination to finish the story.

MATT LAMANNA: No other exhibit in the world that I'm aware of has gone to such great effort to reconstruct environments from the age of dinosaurs, in other words, to portray dinosaurs as living animals, as animals that interacted with each other, that interacted with their environment, and changed over the course of the 165 million years that they were around.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new dinosaur exhibit opened in November.