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Dinosaurs get room to grow at Carnegie Museum

Plans call for $37 million expansion

Friday, April 12, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

The Earth once was theirs, but for the past hundred years they've barely had any wiggle room.

Mayor Tom Murphy and Mary Rawson, the curator of verterbrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, got together under a mural showing a giant flying lizard, Pteranodon, for yesterday's announcement. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette)

But the dinosaurs reposing in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History -- both the ones you remember from your childhood and some in the basement you've never seen -- soon will move into more spacious digs and even soak up some sun.

The museum's planned $37 million expansion of Dinosaur Hall will feature a three-story atrium in which dinosaurs currently on display and dinosaurs in storage will be placed under a skylight. The idea is to improve the visual impact of the creatures by creating more space between them and flooding them with natural light.

The expansion, which will nearly triple the size of 95-year-old Dinosaur Hall and create room for 25 dinosaurs as opposed to the current 15, will also allow the Oakland museum to display the bones and fossils of more fish and mammals that lived during the same periods. The museum wants to convey a sense of the ecological landscape at the time the dinosaurs lived.

"We'll be able to use the powerful attraction of the dinosaurs to also introduce and explain issues of evolution and biodiversity," said Sylvia Keller, the museum's assistant director.

The museum's goal is to break ground on the expanded space in 2004 and complete work by the end of 2007. E. Verner Johnson and Associates, a Boston architectural firm, has created designs for the atrium.

The museum expects Gov. Mark Schweiker to release $17 million in capital funding for the project this year. The money has been authorized by the General Assembly with the requirement that it be matched by the Carnegie Museum.

To make the match, the museum will borrow from its endowment and the endowment of its parent company, the Carnegie Institute. The museum will then seek private donations to replenish the endowments.

The project, which will focus on the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the dinosaur age, excites Mary Dawson, who for the past 40 years has worked as a paleontologist at the museum.

"Because of the way the dinosaurs are crowded in here, people can't appreciate their scientific importance or aesthetic value, and they can't be treated as the important individuals that they are," Dawson said yesterday at a news conference announcing details of the expansion.

The museum has long wanted to give its dinosaur collection, said to be the third largest in the world, more space.

Museum Director Bill DeWalt said that when he was poring over museum files, he discovered a 1966 proposal to create a dinosaur atrium. DeWalt also noted that his predecessor, Jay Apt, who left the museum in 2000, approached state legislators about funding for a Dinosaur Hall expansion and got former Gov. Tom Ridge interested in the project.

Recognizing that dinosaurs are a consistent draw for the museum, officials have planned the expansion so that dinosaurs will almost always be visible during construction. The public will be able to watch as they are disassembled and reassembled -- a painstaking process, given the fragility and weight of the bones.

"It's not like you have two guys picking them up and moving them across the hall," said museum board chairman John A. Barbour.

Moving the dinosaurs also will allow the museum to reposition the bones in a more scientifically accurate way. Some of the dinosaurs are displayed with their tails low to the ground, but over the past hundred years, research has shown that some of them held their tails up.

Museum officials expressed confidence yesterday that a revamped Dinosaur Hall will significantly raise museum attendance, particularly among out-of-towners.

"If you create the largest exhibit of fossil fish, no one really cares," Barbour said. "If you do the best exhibit on dinosaurs anywhere, you can double your attendance."

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