Fossil fanatics and dinosaur devotees in Washington, D.C., will have to go elsewhere for their prehistoric proclivities when the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History closes its popular “Dinosaur Hall” for a five-year, $48 million makeover in April.
The renovations, largely funded by a $35 million donation from billionaire and Republican Party donor David Koch, will include the uninstalling and disassembling of the current exhibits for analysis of their current conditions, as well as the introduction of Wankel T. rex to the museum, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world. The donation will help alleviate the museum’s reduced funds in light of the federal government’s budget cuts last year.
“Limited resources and staff are causing slower turnover of new projects and more outside contracting, our funding for temporary exhibitions has been cut and we are more reliant on grants and private fundraising,” Exhibits Director Siobhan Starrs wrote in an email. “When times are tight, we have to be strategic and creative about where we employ limited resources.”
William Hahn, Georgetown evolutionary processes professor and a former Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow, highlighted the conflict of interest and potential politics behind these funding issues.
“They’ve had a number of instances where the support would come from some corporate concern, and that can sometimes lead to conflict of interest, so you have to be careful about that,” Hahn said. “But also, some of them are very political in nature, so they need to be careful about that.”
The exhibit, a hallmark of the museum since its opening, has not been renovated in over 30 years. The renovation will include an update to the hall’s infrastructure, which has been in place since the museum’s opening in 1910.
“The museum is responsible for the care of the national collections, and many of these specimens require conservation if they are to remain on exhibition without degradation,” Starrs wrote.
Although Koch’s donation will give the museum an opportunity to update and improve the hall, the closure of the popular exhibit also brings its own set of problems.
“Closing a major exhibition hall, particularly one with charismatic specimens like dinosaurs, is never a decision made lightly,” Starrs wrote.
According to Hahn, however, the long-term benefits of renovation will outweigh the “Dinosaur Hall’s” temporary closure.
“The new hall will be at a higher level of quality for education and inspiration for decades,” Hahn said.
In addition, the renovations will help challenge the prevailing view of museums as static, allowing the exhibit to accommodate more recent research findings and to add more technology to the exhibitions. This reinvention, however, comes at the cost of denying a generation of children, young and old alike, the opportunity to experience the “Dinosaur Hall.”
“I think that dinosaurs are the one group of extinct organisms that really give a very vivid physical appeal to the imagination,” Hahn said. “They are large, they are complex and they range from the ferocious to the large and lumbering. They are so different from almost anything you could imagine today that they create this sense of wonder and curiosity.”
Georgetown molecular evolution professor Matthew Hamilton agreed.
“I think that viewing those types of mounted and rearticulated fossils brings that home in a very visceral way for an awful lot of people,” Hamilton said.
Sinead Schenk (COL ’17) expressed concern that the exhibit might lose its appeal for children when it reopens in 2019.
“Well, I’ve seen it multiple times, but I feel bad for the little kids who come to the Smithsonian wanting to see the dinosaurs, but now they won’t be able to for five years and at that point it probably won’t be as interesting to them,” Schenk said.
Students also expressed concern over the preservation of the actual fossils, which need to be cleaned and analyzed after years of exposure while on display.
“I think it’s important to preserve what we have so we can continue to educate future generations,” Sven Beer (MSB ’15) said.