How Jurassic Park Has Changed the Way We Exhibit Dinosaurs

At the American Museum of Natural History, the T. Rex is a resurrecting showman

The American palaeontologist Barnum Brown, also known as ‘Mr. Bones’, unearthed the first Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil in 1902 in Hell Creek, Montana. At the time, the American Museum of Natural History in New York had no dinosaur specimens in its collection. Barnum and his team spent three years disinterring the T. Rex’s remnants, which they had yet to name. It was brought back to the museum and, following a similar discovery with better skull preservation in 1907, was named the Tyrannosaurus Rex – ‘King of Tyrannical Lizards’. By the end of Brown’s lifetime, the museum had amassed a world-renowned fossil collection. The T. Rex is the largest and fiercest Tyrannosaur; the holotype – a single type organism upon which a species is formally based – came to define the legacy of the New York Institution.

T. Rex: The Ultimate Predator’, which celebrates the 150th year of the museum and runs through August 2020, brings advanced visualization techniques and behavioural research to the celebrity dino. Division chair and curator of palaeontology Dr Mark Norell and his team have made several findings in the past years that link the T. Rex, and several dinosaurs like it, to birds in the evolutionary chain. They both laid eggs, had feathers, guarded their nests. Maybe dinosaurs honked, or even chased after scraps of bread in a park. The exhibition only looks into the feathers.

Charles Lang and Barnum Brown working in lab with the T. rex skeleton, 1942 Courtesy: © American Museum of Natural History Library, New York

Charles Lang and Barnum Brown working in lab with the T. rex skeleton, 1942. Courtesy: © American Museum of Natural History Library, New York

We don’t really know about the daily routine of dinosaurs, how they walked or the fine-print of their appearance. It’s a nagging anxiety which seems to advance on pace with science; they’ve been, for the most part, struck from the planetary record, as we ourselves might be soon enough. Dr Norell has noted this fascination himself: ‘If I were working on lizards, no one would care. But it’s dinosaurs, so it’s the cover of The New York Times.’ The long-standing obsession with these creatures feels bound up with a narrative of redemption, of coming back from God’s smite, rising from the ashes of the meteor strike and thriving against all odds – at least digitally.

After an introductory hallway of Tyrannosaurs and adolescent T. Rexes, each of which is larger and more monstrous than the last, ‘T. Rex: The Ultimate Predator’ opens onto three realizations of the fully-grown dinosaur. The first is a standard cast-skeleton, hunching down to show off its sizable molars. Across from it stands a 3-D model of the adult T. Rex, complete with alligator skin, grey muppet feathers that line the crest of its back and untrustworthy amber eyes. While the skeleton has become a staple of the museum, the fleshed-out model gives the exhibition its novelty. It’s the big reveal. One step closer to being next to a living, breathing T-Rex.

The exhibition concludes with a computer-generated animation of the Lizard King thumping through the forest. He (or she!) meanders around like they’ve been waiting at a bus stop. It takes a sip of water, shuffles about, silently stalks behind a tree for a little bit until eventually its routine loops. There’s some smaller, anonymous dinosaur in the foreground at one point, which everyone desperately wants the T. Rex to eat, but the little guy just loiters and wanders off. Maybe he was at the wrong bus stop. It hits me, two loops in, that this rendering is most likely set in present-day Montana, near the Hell Creek formation where T. Rexes were so densely populated they ran in packs like hyenas. I then interpret this isolated scene that plays out between the tiny dinosaur and the lonesome T. Rex under the timeless Montana sky as a forbidden, brooding love. Never touching, ever-quiet, together in their coy ballet of longing.  

’T. rex: The Ultimate Predator’,  2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: © American Museum of Natural History, New York; photograph: D. Finnin

’T. rex: The Ultimate Predator’,  2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: © American Museum of Natural History, New York; photograph: D. Finnin

I don’t mean to ‘give notes’, but besides my Brokeback Mountain (2005) projections, the video has zero narrative arc, never mind character development or thematic structure. In the 25-year-long shadow of prime dinosaur special effects, since Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) roared onto the scene with its mix of CGI and animatronic dinosaurs, the grand finale of ‘The Ultimate Predator’ feels especially disappointing. But the attempt highlights something vital: that the exhaustive process of visualizing these dinosaurs and their movement stems from a Hollywoodization of these creatures. The American Museum of Natural History has to deliver a cinematic experience. While re-igniting curiosity around dinosaurs, the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise, which now includes a ‘World’ and ‘Kingdom’, has splintered the science into a relentless pursuit to conquer extinction-anxiety. Though palaeontology concerns itself with the past, the pedantic biology of visualizing these animals feels all too focused on mankind’s future. That is to say, the dinosaur in cinema has come to represent conquering extinction against the long odds of history. Time and time again, the dinosaurs in the Jurassic franchise resurrect and depose. It’s the kind of miracle that makes Christ look like an amateur, and in our own moment of planetary crisis, it provides a potential success story.   

The constant moral tension to keep or destroy the dinosaurs across the Jurassic franchise has kept the story afloat but more importantly, mapped onto a moral discussion for our own ecosystem. The unlikely survival and revival of entire epochs of animals pervades the franchise. There’s an underlying hope for countless brutal extinctions to be undone, not only through stiff Natural History Museum recreations, but in vibrant cinema – and even life. Not just the king predator, but everything below it. Dinosaur-empathizers in the francise’s biggest blockbuster, Jurassic World (2015), see the creatures as dangerous and destructive, but deserving of another chance. The only solid reason anyone gives for yet another chance at survival is the little girl who declares at the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), ‘They breathe, like me.’ I’d love to see that little girl apply her radical empathy to incarcerated people or dying orangutans but instead, in that film, she sets a pack of killer dinosaurs free onto Northern California. When we get down to it, the forgiveness these dinosaurs deserve can only be justified because it mirrors our own situation. Humans want a second chance, a second planet, a second eco-system, regardless of how terrifying and violent we’ve become.

And what brings dinosaurs back to life better than Jurassic Park, itself a franchise that resurrected after a hiatus. The remakes and reboots have a similar aim: to recreate an ecosystem of film-going on par with the 1980s and early ‘90s, when cinema’s power was undiluted by competitive programming on television. The dinosaurs here just keep coming back, bigger and better, as only the big screen can show them. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth movie in the Jurassic Park franchise, boasts a dinosaur called ‘the Indoraptor’, an indomitable, genetically patchwork weapon of warfare. Not only have dinosaurs conquered a war against extinction again, this time they are optimized. Maybe with a little more science humans can CRISPR up and figure this climate change thing out. We can bring them all back, I’m sure. We’ll come back ourselves, even.

Olivia Rodrigues is a comedian and writer based in New York.

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