Dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum of LA County

The annual meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) usually include an evening reception with a talk open to a wider audience at the local natural history museum. Usually OK food, expensive booze, and a lot of fun is involved – and a cool museum exhibition open only to several hundreds of crazy paleontologists. This year, in Los Angeles, things were a bit different: not only the museum was great, but the food was awesome, too! The talk was also interesting, which is not always the case. (and let me point out that talk and reception can be on the same day, but usually are not, as was the case in L.A.)

Obviously, an evening receptions is not the best time to get a complete overview of a museum exhibit, but I went back twice more, stealing a few hours from conference time. Not to sight-see, but rather to photogrammetrize some dinosaurs, with the very kind permission of Luis Chiappe, curator and director of the Dinosaur Institute at the NHM L.A.

The museum is built around a central atrium, and this atrium already sets the tone the way a dinosaur palaeontologist wants it set. In fact, the dino viewing starts from outside:

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Yes, a pair of mounts: a Tyrannosaurus rex attacking a Triceratops horridus. There even is a bronze version outside the museum, the dinosaurs fleshed-out, but somehow I managed not to take a photo. The shot above was taken through the glass doors (note the “forbidden” signs). More from inside:

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You can walk all around this mount, which is really nice! I didn’t have time to take many photos, though.

After this initial grounding you can lose yourself in a huge and very varied museum. There are 17 different permanent exhibit parts (see website) and plenty of special exhibits. I love how part of the exhibit is outdoors; too few museums actually take botany and zoology out of the building. The NHM in L.A. has beautiful gardens, and makes excellent use of them.

Inside, I quickly walked through a bunch of exhibits including the one on the history of LA – lots of cool stuff to see there. Took a peek into the bird part (lotsa!), but spent serious time only in the dinosaur part. Thus, below, all you get to see is dinosaurs. Let’s start with one of the best mounts they have.

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Yeah, I know: cheap shocker! Birds are dinosaurs, and not “descendants of dinosaurs”. Discussed this recently with TV people, and to their very great credit they not only struck the “descendants of”, but actually asked for an extra sentence explaining things better for the viewers.

Anyway, having real birds skeletons, and in this case not only the obligatory ostrich (Struthio camelus) but in addition a swan (sorry, no idea which, I forgot to photograph the label), allows showing the commonalities and differences between the various groups nicely. And in LA the extant bird skeletons are not shoved into a corner as an afterthought, but a prominent part of the display. I have two more photos of the pair, but they will have to wait for a different post.

So, OK, on for the “real” dinosaurs! The dinosaurs are spread out across two halls, one of them a long rectangle with a gallery covering one narrow end, the other a large hall with a less pronounced difference in length of the sides, and an all-around mezzanine level. What delight! Being able to skeletons not only from the bottom up, but also the top down! Here’s a view down the long hall.

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It starts with a quite majestic Triceratops mount, which you see from an oblique view as you enter, because the hallway comes into the room off-center. IN the background looms a Mamenchisaurs – and that’s at first all you see! Which is good. You’re not confused by tons of different stuff on all sides, but inexorably drawn to the first big mount.

Quite an issue in this room is the lighting. There are two big windows going down to ground level, and in the morning the sun shines in through them. Therefore, there are two big splotches of light in the room, with the rest in shadows. I’ve left the photo above unadjusted, so you can see the darkness that surrounds the Trike, and the left-side-only light on the sauropod. It lends a lot of atmosphere to the room, but it also can make things very restive. What it does beautifully, though, is draw the eye to the giant mural you can see on the left, a wonderful painting by Julius Csotonyi (website; he’s really good!). Here’s another view:

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Yes, it is too big and the Trike too much in the way to photograph it in one go without foreshortening! And it is very impressive, and in the near-ideal spot next to the skeleton Mamenchisaurus.

Here, now, a view from the other end of the hall:

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In the area of the hall I stood in there are some non-dinosaurian animals mixed in, marine reptiles. That’s OK, as they aren’t much in the way and nicely mounted. Still, I fear it will reinforce in the public’s opinion the misbelief that they are also dinosaurs.

Overall, the dino exhibit uses a lot of stuff besides mounted skeletons to teach people about dinosaurs. I must admit that my attempts to do photogrammetry of the mounts didn’t give me much time to check out the rest of the exhibit, but what I saw impressed me. There is, for example, a long wall with isolated bones mounted, in front of which you can find a touch screen that displays information on the specimens. You can see that wall in the background of the Triceratops photo above. There are also TVs around, and lots of graphics that are simple enough to readily understandable, but accurate. I wasn’t too impressed with some of the educational stuff, but then I realized that I was thinking of European audiences. US visitors were very well served, I guess. Three classes with students of varying ages visited while I was there, and I was quite struck by the differences in teaching culture.

OK, enough of that, you want juicy dino pics. Here goes!

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A beautiful specimen, a bunch of articulated sauropod dorsal vertebrae. This specimen fills a spot in the area connecting the two big halls, where there also is a staircase leading up the to mezzanine. Being set in the middle of the room in an all-around-glass case, it became a center of attention for many visitors, who devoted far more time to a much more thorough study of it than they otherwise would have. A lesson to remember: don#t drown people in specimens.

On we go into the big hall. Here’s a view of the main attraction, the tyrannosaur mounts.

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Another big display, which holds an Allosaurus mount and a Stegosaurus mount (yes, the allosaur attacking), as well as an articulated bas-relief Edmontosaurus juvenile, the ostrich and swan, and some other things, was behind me when I took the photo, and to the right there is a big case with ceratopsian skulls (below). Overall, quite a lot of dinosaurs, and with ample space!

Overall, a wonderful hall! I certainly enjoyed the fact that one can walk around all mounts (even if there is some glass and stuff in the way on the far side of the Stegallosaurus mount), and the top views are just awesome. More goodies are also hidden away upstairs; you can just make out a wall mounted hadrosaur in the photo above. The room has excellent lighting, whereas nearly every other dinosaur hall I know has issues. Here, a plethora of windows downstairs combine with the glass ceiling to flood the entire room with light. Spotlights in the bases under the skeletons are used to even the lighting from below.

Oh, by the way: the bases! I love how they have changing heights that allow children to see well, but structure the room as well. Their very simple geometric shapes and dark metal finish makes them unobtrusive, and they provide ample room for texts and figures (all on exchangeable plates) at good angles: not too steep, not to flat, so the lights do not mirror in them.

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The good lighting does in some places bring with it a problem with reflections on the glass used to protect many specimens. On the skull cabinet above you can see that even the use of a polarizing filter can’t amend it enough to get good photos. Thus, you end up waiting for a cloud to pass by, or have to come back later in the day, to get tolerable shots at best. But that’s rare: 95% of all glass in the exhibit does not suffer from this problem.

That’s all I have to say about the halls in general for now. The next posts will address the mounts in detail.

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in Allosaurus, Aves, Aves, Ceratopsia, Conferences, Dinopics, Dinosauria, NHM L.A., Ornithischa, Reptilia (non-archosaur), Sauropoda, SVP 2013, Theropoda, Triceratops, Tyrannosauridae. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum of LA County

  1. The main rotunda with its pair of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops shows up in many TV shows and movies, usually masquerading as a museum other than the LACM (for instance, as the AMNH or the Field).

  2. Pingback: Dinosaur mounts at the NHM L.A.: Triceratops | dinosaurpalaeo

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