Summer hits: 'M:I-2' vs. 'A T. rex Named Sue'

It's a rule that dates from the vaudeville days: When you take a show on the road, you've got to have a big name if you want to draw the crowds.

Think T. rex Sue is big enough?

That's the name on the marquee of a traveling dinosaur show that debuted this week in Boston. With it, organizers hope to lure the Sega generation away from their television screens and into the halls of natural history museums.

The exhibit - complete with three-dimensional puzzles, moveable anatomic dinosaur parts, and interactive displays - is the most recent example of just how much museums have changed in the age of MTV and theme parks.

Once content simply putting specimens in a jar, the nation's repositories of bones and artifacts are trying new methods to make science more accessible to the public.

They are building IMAX theaters. They are putting on laser shows at planetariums. They are staging blockbuster traveling road shows with names like "A T. rex Named Sue."

"There are more things vying for peoples' attention in a modern community," says John Flynn, curator and chair of the geology department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. "Twenty years ago, we didn't have cable television, and all of the other kinds of entertainment venues that exist out there."

The approach is working. In the past decade, museum attendance in the United States has doubled, according to Ed Able, president of the American Association of Museums.

The Field Museum in Chicago, for instance, which houses Sue's real skeleton, has seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in attendance over the past five years. Since the T. rex's unveiling in May, the number of visitors is even higher.

"So far, it's had a dramatic, visible impact," says Dr. Flynn. "People come to see Sue, then they explore the rest of the museum." Which is exactly what exhibit planners had hoped for.

T. rex Sue is an exceptional case, however. Her fame is derived not only from the fact that she is the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimen ever found, but also from her recent history.

Sue's origin

Discovered on private land by amateur fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson - the skeleton's namesake - Sue was at the center of a bitter struggle among the landowner, the institute that dug her up, and the government. Eight years ago, she was seized by federal agents and later auctioned at Sotheby's for a record-setting $8.36 million.

But the Field Museum's winning bid was only possible through the help of two corporate sponsors: McDonald's Corp. and the Walt Disney Co. Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, notes that "several museums found sugar daddies to try and bid for the specimen."

Corporate sponsorship

While corporate sponsors haven't been used in paleontology before, they likely will in the future. "Whenever there's enough money and interest, you'll see corporate sponsors," says Kevin Padian, a curator at Museum of Paleontology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Because the skeleton is so complete, it offers a unique opportunity for scientists to learn more about the T. rex. At the time, however, paleontologists worried that putting Sue up for auction would result in the skeleton falling into the hands of a private collector, inaccessible to scientists and educators alike.

This is not only an issue in museums, but one that plagues the entire field of paleontology. A growing market for fossils, both within and outside the United States, is driving a boom in fossil collection.

Commercial fossil hunters - those who collect fossils to sell for a profit - argue that there are so many fossils that US museums couldn't possibly house them all. Museum and university scientists, however, believe that rare and valuable fossils should remain in public repositories, available for research and education.

"No one is happy about the price paid for a specimen like that," says Flynn, referring to the price Sue fetched in the auction. Flynn, who is also the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, believes that "it emphasizes the growing prices that exist out there for fossils in general."

These rising prices spell trouble for professional paleontologists. The more fossils are worth, the more people are interested in collecting and selling them. And in today's booming economy, more people can afford to buy them.

At the same time, however, "very few museums could afford something like Sue," says Richard Stucky, the chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Scientists do see a distinction, however, between corporate money and individual bidders.

"One is bringing education to the public by collaborating, the other is taking them out of the ground, away from science, away from education, and selling them to the highest bidder," says Dr. Padian.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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