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At Smithsonian’s renovated Hall of Fossils, dinosaurs are just the beginning

The dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History now boast new accommodations. After a four-year, $125 million renovation, the Hall of Fossils now features state-of-the-art technology and new exhibits housing more than 700 specimens. As William Brangham reports, it also offers lessons about connecting the present to the past.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, they haven't been around for millions of years, but they still inspire wonder. And now the dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History have some new digs.

    The Fossil Hall was a multimillion-dollar renovation that took four years. It's now complete, with more than 700 specimens, multimedia and interactive displays, set to open in a week.

    William Brangham got a sneak peek, and he is here now with an inside look at the dinosaur's new home.

  • William Brangham:

    After a 66 million-year wait, this Tyrannosaurus rex may finally have gotten her prey, taking down a triceratops.

    Discovered in Montana in 1988, this is one of the world's most complete T-Rex fossils, and it's the centerpiece of the new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

    It's just one of more than 700 artifacts on display in the newly completed hall, which is set to open next week, after a four-year, $125 million renovation.

    But the exhibition is about much more than fossils. The exhibit is called Deep Time, which is how scientists describe the 3.7 billion-year story of life on Earth. Describing previous mass extinctions and changes to the climate, showing ancient animals in their habitats, along with present-day environmental issues, the exhibit tries to drive home the connections between our ecosystems and life's evolution, and how lessons from the past might help guide a sustainable future.

    Siobhan Starrs developed Deep Time, and is its project manager. She says dinosaurs are just the start.

  • Siobhan Starrs:

    This story about how, literally, our footprint today is written into the stories of the past.

    So, as you journey back into Deep Time, you can see the same types of things happening on the planet that we see happening today written in the rock, written in the fossils. And it's a great way to start unpacking and opening that book.

  • William Brangham:

    This is the first major renovation of the famous Fossil Hall since its opening in 1911. One of the most important updates was to the hall's architecture and engineering.

    Starrs says the original designers didn't consider the extreme weight of dinosaur bones.

    Most people think of fossils as dried bones, and those are quite light, but I take it that's not the case.

  • Siobhan Starrs:

    No, fossils are actually rock. That's the process of fossilization. All of the organic matter in the bone is replaced by rock, so they're actually quite heavy.

  • William Brangham:

    To help accommodate the weight of the fossils, special metal brackets were designed to support each individual bone. They fit together like a puzzle, and it makes each bone easily removable, so pieces can be accessible to researchers without dismantling the whole skeleton.

    In other paleontology halls, fossils often are supported from wiring in the ceiling, but to maintain and emphasize the hall's original architecture, they anchored all the fossils to a new steel frame that stretches beneath the floor.

  • Pauline Dolovich:

    Underneath all these platforms is the lattice of steel.

  • William Brangham:

    Pauline Dolovich is the lead architect for the redesign.

  • Pauline Dolovich:

    So, it's a beautiful, glorious space. And we didn't want to take kind of that beautiful center, and kind of make the circulation pinch around it.

    And so we found a way to tell the story through this chronological sweep, and then also allow people to flow and kind of live underneath the skylight.

  • William Brangham:

    All of the support structures and exhibit materials are made of custom state-of-the-art fire-safe material. It's to ensure these priceless relics would survive the kinds of fires that consumed Notre Dame and Brazil's National Museum.

    The museum was also careful to design the new hall with what's called universal accessibility.

  • Siobhan Starrs:

    We're designing for literally every visitor who walks in the door, and every visitor is unique. And they're bringing with them their unique understandings of the world and their unique ways of navigating a museum.

  • William Brangham:

    For example, here, you're encouraged to touch fossils, literally laying your hands on million-year-old specimens. There's a mobile app available for visitors that may be visually impaired.

    Even games in the Deep Time exhibit have this inclusivity focus. This one traces the ancient origins of our modern bodies and has a gender-neutral main character.

  • Narrator:

    An opposable thumb allows you to touch your thumb to each of the fingers on the same hand. Go ahead. Try it.

  • William Brangham:

    This inclusivity is also visible in the people who helped bring the hall to life. Back in 1911, not a single woman was on the design team. Today, more than 50 women helped research, develop and create the exhibition.

    All of the project's team leaders and all the writers are women. The museum says there are more women involved in Deep Time than any other exhibit in the institution's history.

    Paleoecologist Kay Behrensmeyer is the head of the fossil lab at the Natural History Museum. She says having so many women working on an exhibit like this is important, not just for her field, but for science more broadly.

  • Kay Behrensmeyer:

    It's very important for there to be opportunities for all the young women, like myself a long time ago, who are interested in science and want to pursue it to have the way open to them as much as possible. And they need mentors. They need people to support them.

  • William Brangham:

    Another way the new hall is different? Deep Time doesn't shy away from addressing climate change and the looming global extinction of plant and animal species, nor does it shy away from acknowledging the role humans play in driving those crises, like in this mock coal mine, where visitors can learn about why coal is called a fossil fuel, and how burning it is warming the planet.

  • Kay Behrensmeyer:

    Humans are in charge of the future and finding the balance with the processes that have come before. That's an incredible journey.

  • William Brangham:

    In the past, critics have blasted museums, including the Smithsonian, for accepting money from the Koch brothers, a duo who made their fortune from fossil fuels and then funded groups that try to deny climate science.

    Whether or not the museum's focus will assuage those critics remains to be seen. The museum told the "NewsHour" that donors have no input whatsoever in the content of exhibits.

    The team behind Deep Time hopes that having a greater understanding of the deep past will help visitors understand the role they play in determining the Earth's future.

    The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils, Deep Time, opens Saturday, June 8.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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