Why Did the Dinosaur Cross the Sidewalk?
The U-M moves its Natural History Museum.
by Steve Gilzow
From the September, 2017 issue
John Klausmeyer zips himself into a Tyvek suit, adjusts his ventilator mask, steps into a low-ceilinged plastic enclosure he's nicknamed the "sweat lodge," grips a heavy reciprocating saw called a Sawzall, and, producing a dust cloud deemed potentially hazardous by OSHA, makes the first loud, vibrating cuts needed to eventually separate a dinosaur's head from its neck.
The dinosaur is an Edmontosaurus, a duckbill dead for about 70 million years. For the past seventy-six years its skeleton has rested silently in a mount composed of plaster and chicken wire on the second floor in the U-M's Museum of Natural History. Like thousands of other specimens in the museum, the time has come for Edmontosaurus to move to a new home. The eighty-eight-year-old museum--formerly the Ruthven Exhibit Museum, better known to schoolchildren as the Dinosaur Museum--will close at year's end with an event for kids on December 30, and an adults-only New Year's Eve gala the next day.
Rising directly across from the old museum is its future home, the 300,000-square-foot, $261 million Biological Science Building (BSB). If all goes according to plan, the BSB will open its doors to students in the fall of 2018, phase in other operations, and be fully open to the public by the end of 2019. In addition to the Museum of Natural History, the BSB will house the university's biology departments, and the research museums for the anthropology, paleontology, and zoology departments.
Klausmeyer is an exhibit preparator, but what he and others are doing is oddly similar to paleontology fieldwork--an often laborious, painstaking task of freeing fossilized bones from the grip of the rock in which they are found. Decapitating the dinosaur, and "chunking out" the rest of the skeleton into manageable, undamaged pieces, is just one of countless tasks museum staff are undertaking to prepare for the move.
A key person in that work is Bill Sanders, the museum's chief vertebrate preparator and a research scientist at the Museum
of Paleontology. Sanders has been with U-M for twenty-nine years, following a four-year apprenticeship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"My wife was getting her PhD here, and I came here to follow her," he recalls. "I thought I'd take the job for a couple years. I applied, and they said, 'Why do you want to work here?' I said: 'On the outside of this building, it says, "Go to Nature, take the facts into your own hands, look and see for yourself." I really like that sentiment.'
"So the guy interviewing me says, 'It doesn't say that. I've worked here for forty years. You just stay right here, young man.' So he went outside, and came back kind of sheepishly and said, 'You're hired.'"
Before Klausmeyer started cutting, Sanders made sure the Edmontosaurus would withstand the Sawzall's vibrations. While parts of the skeleton are resin casts, much of it is fragile, original bone and needs to be "stabilized." Sanders explains: "We're treating it with 'consolidant,' a mixture of plastic beads in acetone ... The acetone wicks the plastic into the bone and then evaporates, leaving the plastic in place to harden the specimen.
"It's very strong when it sets. It's archival; it's not going to yellow, crack, or shrink. It has a half-life of a hundred years. No one's been around long enough to check that out. Same stuff, really, you can use to harden an outdoor deck."
When fossils are collected in the field, they are generally still embedded in their rock matrix. Large chunks just small enough to be transported are sent back to the lab where finer tools are used to free the bone from the stone. The same approach is used with Edmontosaurus. As workers deliver the cranium and ribs to Sanders' lab, he uses miniature, air-powered jackhammers called air scribes. The smaller versions of these sound and look like dental tools. "If you have a problem with going to the dentist's office, you wouldn't like these," Sanders chuckles. "Air scribes were originally devised for the tool-and-die industry. Most of what we use in this lab was devised for other industries. The molding material we use to make our casts--that was all made for dentistry. Stuff we use for making our big casts was developed for making car parts and toys. If you wanted to make a Barbie doll or a bumper for a Buick, you'd use the same material we use to make whale bones."
The museum's prize exhibit on whale evolution uses casts. "The original fossils are only slightly stronger than chalk," says Klausmeyer. "There is literally no engineering way you can mount a forty-five-foot-long thing like that, it is so breakable. The Edmontosaurus is a little more stable than that, but its neck vertebrae, you can just pick it up and break it with your hands. So those will all be hardened, and anything that is cracked or coming loose will be glued and secured."
The duckbill is one of hundreds of specimens receiving care in Sanders' lab. "For the move, we're doing what I call 'triage' of the specimens from the basement. The people doing the move will come up and say, 'Hey, there's a whale skull, and the front end is falling off and it's breaking. Can you fix it in the lab?' And we have to do that. We're creating quite a few cradles down in the lab to support things."
A cradle is a custom-made container to hold fossils. "We put archival felt over carefully cut blocks of Styrofoam. We put plaster over that. The plaster will stick to the felt. We turn it over, remove all that other stuff, and the bone will sit in a nice bed of felt. It's the same kind of stuff that costume makers use to create shoulders in dresses."
Anyone who has lived in a house where possessions pile up over many years--perhaps prompting some family member to despairingly call the home a "museum"--can barely begin to imagine the logistical complexity of moving a museum. Your five-piece sofa set is nothing compared to a Noah's Ark of dinosaurs, whales, mastodons, and every bird species found in Michigan--an encyclopedic collection of creatures great and small.
The person orchestrating the move, construction project manager Lynne Friman, is unfazed. "I like to say I'm a museum gypsy. I was the project manager for the DIA--for their reinstallation. I was project manager for UMMA, the Henry Ford, the Detroit Historical Museum, and buildings along historic Fort Wayne." While these are her first dinosaurs, "it's still stuff; it all comes down to just moving stuff."
Just as a family making a move needs to give all their belongings a hard look and negotiate with each other about what comes and what does not, the various departments had to decide where all their stuff is headed--discussions that Klausmeyer characterizes as sometimes being "really difficult and unhappy." Many of the research collections are being relocated to the newly renovated and renamed Research Museums Center (RMC) at 3600 Varsity Dr., off Ellsworth. For the specimens that will move across the sidewalk to the BSB, "I joke that I'm going to set up the staff with little red wagons," says Friman. "But I don't think that's going to really happen. The liability of us moving it ourselves is great."
That hasn't stopped Klausmeyer from wishing they could. "There's that forty-five-foot-long whale hanging here. When we assembled that seven years ago, we knew it was going to move. So it comes apart in five pieces that are bolted or pegged together. We'll be able to unhang it, take the pieces apart, take it over there, reassemble it, and hang it. My argument is," he says, wistfully, knowing it will not happen, "we should walk it over there."
"We're moving in stages," Friman explains. "We're closing the museum at the end of this year. In January of 2018, two mastodons and two whales will move directly into place in a five-story atrium to the new building."
It's fun to imagine--two skeletal mastodons and two skeletal whales sticking their tusks and noses from the doors of the old museum and then, ark-like, two by two, going up a ramp to their new home.
In reality, people from Research Casting International (RCI)--a company based in Trenton, Ontario--will travel to Ann Arbor to disassemble the mounts. RCI workers will shepherd the carefully packaged pieces across the sidewalk separating the old museum from the new. They'll unpack the mastodon kits and the whale kits, reassemble them, and remount them in their new home.
"RCI does this all over the world," says Klausmeyer. "They also sell high-quality casts of prehistoric animals." That's how the museum got its Deinonychus, a raptor the size of an extra-large ostrich. "We contacted them, worked out the payment, and they delivered the thing in a big box. That one came in two pieces, so it wasn't too hard. Bigger things require more assembly."
One such bigger thing is headed to Ann Arbor. "We're getting a big--about twenty-one-foot-long--meat-eating dinosaur called Majungasaurus, originally from Madagascar," Klausmeyer says. "It's a weird-looking thing. It has a short, bulldoggy face, horns over its eyes; it's on its two back legs. It will be made entirely out of casts."
A niche industry has arisen in response to this challenge of moving museum collections. Friman also has hired Great Plains Exhibit Development Joint Venture, comprising a group of companies that offer specialized services for museums looking to modernize or move.
"They are our design/build contractors," Friman explains. "They know what the budget is. So, as we develop the gallery, they are constantly jiggering what we can fit, what we can afford. Great Plains includes Lord Cultural Resources, which is a national company, and Xibitz out of Grand Rapids," she explains. "Taylor Studios out of Rantoul, Illinois, are doing our dioramas. They will be taking apart what we have here, work on them and revise them in their studio, and bring it back and reassemble it here.
"We will be hiring a collections specialist to help us organize. Many artifacts will not go back out on display. Right now, we have what I would call an encyclopedic museum collection. Just outside my door, we have every kind of bird found in Michigan. Not all these are going back out on display. Some will go into storage, and they may rotate back in. You could say that in our new museum we are telling stories. The encyclopedic nature of the collection will happen more at the RMC on Varsity Dr."
Bowen Technovation from Indianapolis is handling the new Digital Dome Theater, which replaces the planetarium. Rising right off Washtenaw, the new theater's dome might be BSB's most eye-catching element. According to the museum website, it will "expand beyond traditional planetarium capabilities into other realms of science such as biology, geology, and archaeology."
Jeff Wilson, associate curator of the Paleontology Museum, is looking forward to the new display for the museum's two mastodons and its accompanying pathway of mastodon prints. "The skeletons represent a dead animal," he says. "Footprints do not--they represent a live animal. It's a completely different way to think about and imagine what they were."
Wilson has a personal connection to another exhibit--he was part of a U-M team that in 2011 discovered a new species of pterosaur in Jordan. "Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that were not dinosaurs, but they're closely related; they represent an independent evolution of flight. You'll see five different pterosaur skeletons posed slightly differently, so it appears a single individual is flying." RCI will use casts of the fossils Wilson collected to construct the five stop-action sequenced skeletons.
Wilson hopes the new museum will stimulate imaginations, but he's not trying to entertain visitors. "My sense is that the more you try to entertain people, the less rich the experience ends up being," he says. "The more open it is, the more levels there are, and the more you have to imagine, the better it is for the visitor."
While primarily a research scientist, Wilson understands the "wow factor" that draws people to museums. He envisions displays that can captivate the attention of a child while addressing the curiosity of a college student. He also hopes aspects of some new exhibits "convey the challenge it is to work on some of these fossils.
"Many people who come to a museum want their children to get a sense of what scientists do and that they can do science, and that it's all around us. Science doesn't only exist in Colorado, Montana, Utah, or Wyoming. It's local.
"These mastodons are from here in Michigan; you can find one digging a pond nearby. That's how one of these was found; because that history is just beneath us. It's all around us. It's waiting for you to find."
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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