January 14, 2016
The juvenile Barosaurus had just been laid out on the floor in the American Museum of Natural History when a staff member noticed a piece of candy corn wedged in the creature’s mouth. “So that’s what killed the dinosaurs,” said Alec Madoff, a senior preparator at the museum who had wielded the saw that felled the dinosaur.
Actually, what did in the 24-foot-long Barosaurus replica was not diet but the arrival of an outsize beast that has come to claim its coveted piece of real estate.
On Friday, the museum will unveil the cast of a 122-foot-long dinosaur whose remains belong to a group known as titanosaurs, and that is one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. It is too big, in fact, to fit completely inside its new home.
The museum’s dinosaur exhibition is already one of its biggest draws, luring throngs of T. rex-loving tourists and New Yorkers alike. So how to top what the museum already has to offer?
Perhaps a bigger dinosaur.
The new species, which has yet to be named, was discovered in Argentina in 2014, and Mark Norell, the chairman of the museum’s department of paleontology, knew he wanted the Manhattan museum to be first to present the herbivore to the public.
“It’s an incredible find,” he said, explaining that it will take decades of study to glean its scientific significance but that “what makes it important now is knowing there are really large creatures out there and that research may show how such animals could exist.”
Mr. Norell initially considered putting just some of the dinosaur’s remains on display, but decided that casting the entire skeleton would be far more impressive. Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, predicts that the unnamed titanosaur “will join the pantheon of museum icons,” like the majestic blue whale suspended from a ceiling in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, or the imposing Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs.
The Wallach Orientation Center on the fourth floor was a perfect fit, mostly because it is not; the titanosaur is so long that its head extends six feet out into a hallway, creating a dramatic visual invitation to visitors. The Barosaurus had been the room’s centerpiece since 1996.
First, workers smashed open the Barosaurus’s underbelly with a mallet so someone could get inside to guide the sawing process, avoiding the 24-foot pipe that ran from the head to the tail. “Once we found a bottle of Scotch inside a Tyrannosaurus model,” Mr. Norell said. The Barosaurus’s innards contained just a paint brush and a bucket.
The dinosaur did not go easily. The section including its hind legs and tail became a challenge. It took five people, including one standing inside the cast model, another with a crowbar and a third who made a last-minute run for WD-40, to finally twist and wriggle the piece free.
For the Barosaurus to be lent to other museums, the front two-thirds needed to be carved into two pieces, so Melissa Posen, senior director of exhibition operations, issued a decree: “Off with its head.”
In the Canadian province of Ontario, Peter May, the founder of Research Casting International, was building the new behemoth. Mr. May’s crew scanned digital images of the fossil in Argentina to create a mold, then built a lightweight fiberglass cast, stuffed with foam to hold its shape and held together by an internal system of steel bars. Mr. Norell provided physical and digital models of the room where the dinosaur would be displayed. The doorways were precisely measured.
By Jan. 2, the titanosaur was ready to go, but without a head. With no skull, fossil paleontologists had initially estimated that the head was about four and a half feet long, Mr. May said, but subsequent study led to a last-minute revision, and the skull lost more than a quarter of its length.
Then there was another glitch. The truck carrying the metal base down from Canada was stopped at the border over a paperwork issue, pushing construction back by a day.
Last week, museum workers steered the huge components, like the femur, on wooden dollies, out from a garage and through the museum’s corridors. The pieces on parade were met with expressions of bewilderment and amazement in a variety of languages, though the lingua franca was the quick deployment of cellphones for photos and videos.
Then came an urgent call from the garage. The pelvis would not fit through the doors. “We measured it and there’s an inch to spare,” one of Mr. May’s workers said.
“Better that they scrape it than us,” a museum employee said as Mr. May’s team successfully nudged it through, albeit with one edge brushing against the garage door.
With the frame finally assembled, the hind legs, each 17 feet long and weighing over 700 pounds, were hoisted into place with relative ease. The pelvis again presented a problem. During a trial run in Canada, a crane and forklift had hoisted the piece into place. But Mr. May knew that the approach would not work in New York because the space was more confined; the titanosaur was so tall it had to be posed with its legs bent, as if it were about to sit, and even then it would come within two inches of the ceiling.
He brought in four roustabouts (old-fashioned hand-cranked cranes) to lift the 9-foot-long, 9-foot-wide pelvis but discovered that the light fixtures were blocking their way. The crew members had to move the base they had just finished installing to give themselves the room they needed. Finally, after adjustments lasting 90 minutes, the pelvis could be put into place.
The skull was the last piece to be fitted onto the colossal creature, and David Harvey, senior vice president for exhibitions, had the final say on how it would be positioned.
It was a subjective decision, Mr. Harvey said, a blend of science, art and pragmatism. He consulted with Mr. Norell, who preferred a downward angle, for realism. But “its personality will tell us where it wants to be,” Mr. Harvey said, as workers tilted the skull this way and that and he examined it from different vantage points.
With the visual dramatics satisfied, a final measurement was taken. The skull, Mr. Harvey said, “has to be at least nine and a half feet high because we don’t want high school kids jumping up and slapping it.”
ARTICLE CREDIT – NEW YORK TIMES
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