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Goings-on at the Field Museum, with emphasis on a (supposed) gal named Sue.

Below article from the Chicago Tribune reprinted for fair use purposes only -- copyright acknowledged.

This Megalania page has been visited times since April 27, 1998.

Chicago Tribune
Copyright 1998 Chicago Tribune Company



By William Mullen, a Tribune writer

Early in June, in full view of the public, technicians and scientists at the Field Museum will be stripping 67-million-year-old rock from the fossilized bones of the Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur it bought for $8.4 million last October.

The skeleton that emerges from that work is primed, for a number of reasons, to become the most famous dinosaur in the world. Some of those reasons have to do with science, some with the commercial potential of the fossil that stems from public fascination over its being the biggest, most complete T. rex skeleton ever found.

Under what name the dinosaur will become famous remains to be seen. It was originally known as "Sue," after the woman who found the skeleton in South Dakota in 1990. Later seized by the federal government for being found on federal land, the fossilized bones ever since have been steeped in a stew of controversy. After the Field bought the fossil in a federally mandated auction, trademark disputes have left it nameless for months. For this story, the fossil will be called Sue.

The fossil is a genuine coup for the Field. Sue already is the benchmark T. rex fossil by which all others must be measured, making it of inestimable value scientifically. It fits very well, too, in the Field's century-old tradition of mounting blockbuster exhibits that spike up attendance figures which, in turn, lure in the sort of funding that enables its researchers to travel to the far corners of the globe.

There seems little doubt that Sue is going to be a blockbuster. Ever since the first T. rex, the biggest, fiercest meat-eating animal ever to walk the Earth, was found in 1900, there has been a mythic, almost fairy-tale quality surrounding the species. It is a quality so transcendent that T. rex has become as familiar as a character in popular culture as it is as a museum artifact. Its history in the movies, stretching from silent films to its appearance in the 1930s in "King Kong" to its fearsome, ground-shaking presence in "Jurassic Park," attests to that.

Even in the world of business, such star quality is hard to ignore. And the business world will play a big--perhaps the biggest--role in making Sue world-famous. That is because the Field, in bidding on the fossil at the auction, relied on two immensely wealthy commercial superpowers, McDonald's and Walt Disney World Resorts, to add to its own bankroll it amassed to bid on Sue.

McDonald's and Disney didn't supply the money entirely out of altruism. They will use Sue's image and reproductions of its skeleton in their own promotions. That means the worldwide reach of the publicity operations at the two consumer-savvy corporations will soon be singing Sue's praises.

"And we won't mind a bit," says Field Vice President Laura Gates, smiling like the cat who ate the canary, "when (McDonald's and Disney) mention that the real bones are at the Field Museum in Chicago."

The deal the Field made with the corporations, surprising at the time of the purchase, is generally praised in the museum world as a groundbreaking innovation in financing and education, one sure to be copied widely.

But even without all the hoopla and commerce that have accompanied the fossil, Sue undoubtedly would have been world-famous anyway, because it is such a remarkable specimen.

"New things are going to be learned from this specimen," promises John Flynn, chairman of the Field's geology department. "For the first time, we're going to have a complete skeleton to see what a T. rex looked like when it became really huge. It's going to take us into terrain that has not been looked at before."

Was T. rex a savage hunter-killer, as is popularly believed? Or was it simply a scavenger that followed more able hunting species, dining hyenalike on leftovers, as many leading dinosaur experts have begun to suspect? Why were the arms on T. rex so short in relation to the rest of its massive physique? Was it a warm- or cold-blooded animal? How much did it rely on its eyesight, hearing and sense of smell?

Scientists already have recovered bones of other animals in the same rock encasing Sue. Some may be remains of something Sue had eaten just before dying. Others appear to be gnawed-upon juvenile T. rex bones. Were they those of Sue's offspring? Plant fossils, leaf impressions of hardwood trees similar to modern elms, oaks and birches, and fossilized pine cones and needles in the rock describe the physical setting of Sue's life. Pathological studies of the remains may tell a lot about Sue's life and behavior as an individual.

Nobody knows, in fact, if Sue was a male or a female, but there are some clues that it was female. The shape of Sue's pelvis, Flynn says, suggests room for passing eggs. The females in most predator bird species, the closest known living T. rex relatives, are always bigger than the males. Because Sue is the biggest T. rex ever found, that, too suggests it's female.

Sue's bones show she lived a difficult, violent life. Many healed broken bones in her body attest to that. Her crushed skull bears many tooth marks, most probably from another T. rex. Was she killed by a rival in a fight, or was she simply being dined upon by a scavenger after she died in some other fashion?

In truth, many questions probably will never be answered. Sue and the other fossilized creatures and plants preserved with her evidently died during horrific flooding of an ancient river. Each of them may have died at a different time and place along the river. Their remains then simply may have been swept together and lifted over the riverbank, coming to rest in a fine silt that formed the rock that encased them.

But with those kinds of storyline possibilities, Sue promises to be at least as entertaining as she is educational. That's something the Field is counting on.

"This institution's mission is to explain the Earth and its people," Gates says. "We have more than 20 million artifacts that form the bases of all these concepts that we want people to understand. But we can't explain anything unless we get people to come through the door and come inside to look around and listen.

"This (T. rex) artifact will be at the center of our mission going into the next millennium. We think it will bring in a lot of people who have never come here before, and once they've seen it, they'll stick around to see what else we have here."

Last year, the Field had 1.4 million visitors, up from 1.2 million in 1996. Part of that increase was due to the surge in publicity about the museum when it bought Sue, mounting a six-week exhibit of her skull and a few of bones at the end of the year.

Statistics like those don't hurt the museum's cause when it is applying for government, foundation, corporate and philanthropic funding. It costs $31 million a year to operate the museum. It costs $9 million a year to underwrite the worldwide expeditions and research work done by its 33 Ph.D. scientists.

Admission fees and memberships fall far short of paying the bills, bringing in less than $4 million a year. So the museum has to rely on other revenue, especially funds from outside agencies, both government and private. That funding comes much easier when the museum can show a lot of public enthusiasm and support for its exhibits and its scientific work.

In a big city like Chicago, major museums are major cultural draws not just for local residents, but for an increasingly important tourist industry.

The Field, however, is different from the other big Chicago museums in one significant respect. While the others primarily center their activities on display of objects, much of the Field's work is not public. Its collections, scientific staff and research facilities are world-class, but maintained in non-public areas, mostly on the museum's third and fourth floors.

Field scientists work in four areas: zoology, botany, anthropology and geology. Their discoveries, beginning with Field paleontologist Elmer Riggs' dinosaur fossil finds at the turn of the century, have put the Field in the same, rarefied air as only three other great natural history collections: the British Museum in London, the American Museum in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Sue's purchase nicely illustrates how the Field's scientific enterprises merge with the education and entertainment ends of its business.

"It's a very powerful thing to have this specimen here, both in the public and the research realm," says William Simpson, chief preparator for fossil vertebrates. "It will underline this place as a research institution. Our collection is really a research collection. People from all over the world come to study it, and we constantly send parts of it all over the world on loan to other scientists."

The opening of the preparation laboratory (officially the "McDonald's Preparation Laboratory") will mark the formal beginning of the Field's scientific work on Sue. The lab is on the Field's second floor near the entrance of its present dinosaur exhibit, "Life Over Time."

The museum hired five preparators to assist those already on the staff to help remove the rock from Sue's bones. Three preparators also are being sent with some of Sue's bones to a second laboratory, already in operation at Disney's new, 500-acre Animal Kingdom park in Orlando.

At Disney, as in Chicago, the public will watch as preparators and scientists work on the fossils, and even talk with them at scheduled times in the day. The preparators are working with Chris Brochu, a recent University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. who the Field hired early this year to do the major research work on Sue and to write the first definitive monograph ever compiled on Tyrannosaurus rex as a species.

The paleontologist will examine Sue's huge skull in the only CT scanning device large enough to do the job, an industrial device normally used to inspect aircraft and spacecraft components. In doing so, Brochu will be looking for evidence of how acutely developed T. rex's senses of eyesight, hearing and smell were.

The preparators and Brochu are on a strict, two-year deadline to finish the bones and put Sue together as a finished skeleton, in time to be unveiled for millennium celebrations in the year 2000. It will be done in a way that the skeleton can be admired by the public and still allow scientists to take away individual bones for research.

"First and foremost, the bones have to be available--removable--for study," Simpson says, "so that means we will have to place the bones on some sort of iron framework that will be visible. The skull will be too heavy to mount, weighing a ton, so we'll place the head on the floor and mount a much lighter copy on the skeleton."

Doing preparation work on fossils in public is nothing new, Simpson says, but putting the entire research laboratory in public view, as the McDonald's lab in Chicago will be doing, has never been done before.

"Our lab in Chicago will be a permanent installation used for all research fossils that we work with every day, from now on," he says. "People love dinos, so we hope, by showing the science in progress, it will raise the popularity of paleontology."

As a masterpiece, Sue's exhibit is expected to be one of the biggest attendance magnets in the Field's history. John McCarter, president of the Field, has said Sue might double the number of children who go to the museum on school field trips to 500,000 annually.

Just how Sue will be displayed and what will surround the skeleton in the exhibit still hasn't been decided. Much of that planning is contingent on what scientists find after all the rock is stripped from Sue's bones.

Translating the skeleton and the scientific data it generates into a museum show falls to Richard Faron, a Northwest Side native and associate director of exhibit development.

Faron says he has been a Tyrannosaurus rex fanatic since he made trips as a schoolboy to the museum in the 1960s. He was, he says, awed by the dinosaur skeletons found and mounted by Riggs, even though the collection had no T. rex. What it did have is a much-reproduced Charles Knight mural, still displayed, depicting a confrontation between a T. rex and a tanklike Triceratops dinosaur.

"It's a fabulous, mythmaking painting for every kid who loves dinosaurs," says Faron. "There you have it. Triceratops squaring off with T. rex. It's the ultimate battle.

"To me, T. rex wasn't created by a novelist or a Hollywood screenwriter. This thing is real, the biggest carnivore that ever roamed the Earth. It's an eating machine with 12-inch teeth, a land shark that has always appealed to little boys. But we know they lived in families, too, and they traveled in herds, and we've noticed that these animals are just as appealing to little girls."

Faron and his staff are just beginning to brainstorm with the scientists on how they can use Sue's skeleton to tell the larger story of dinosaur society and T. rex's place in it.

"I'm exploring ways to create theater around the skeleton," says Faron, whose background is in art history and sculpture. "I'm the director, and the curators are the playwrights. You have to take an artifact and stage it, give it energy and motion and dynamics. You enter an exhibit like you would a theater, ideally. There should be anticipation and an unfolding for the visitor, a story that should build toward some sort of conclusion--an Aha! moment. If you get people to that point, you are teaching them something."

However he and his staff try to accomplish that will be a well-kept secret, Faron says, until the full skeleton is unveiled in its exhibit in 2000.

An 18-year veteran at the museum, Faron has helped shift its exhibit philosophy away from static display of artifacts. He has helped transform exhibitry into interactive shows that invite visitors to push buttons, turn cranks and immerse themselves into the lessons the exhibits are supposed to be teaching. With Sue, Faron says he's looking at ways to use new computer and laser technologies to tell the story behind the skeleton.

When the exhibit does open, McDonald's and Disney will see to it that its impact won't just be local, but national and international as well. Disney will place a full-size replica of the Sue skeleton as the centerpiece in Disney's new McDonald's-sponsored DinoLand attraction in its Orlando Animal Kingdom park. McDonald's is going to ship its two copies all over the country on goodwill tours, creating special, limited-engagement displays that will be mounted at local museums and colleges.

Even before that happens, McDonald's will be promoting its involvement with Sue. This winter it has been working with Field's educational staff, developing a series of school curriculums and videotapes on Sue and dinosaurs in general. The first one will be shipped this spring to 50,000 public, private and parochial schools around the country. Other educational materials are being sent to local McDonald's franchisees to distribute to schools. Two later segments in the curriculum will be shipped to schools in the next two years.

The practice of corporations buying public goodwill by underwriting the cost of museum wings or exhibits is a time-honored practice. After all, with the Field Museum, that's just what department store magnate Marshall Field had in mind in 1893 when he decided to spend millions to get his name hung on the front of a great natural history institution.

But commercial enterprises buying an artifact in partnership with a museum in order to use copies of the object for commercial benefit is a new wrinkle. It's one that might raise the eyebrows of those who worry that museums are becoming too dependent on corporate money. Most museum administrators, however, see the Fields/McDonald's/Disney partnership as an innovation bordering on brilliance.

"The Field put together a very, very creative partnership in acquiring (Sue)," says Betsy Bennett, making it clear that she thinks other museums should consider the Sue deal as a future model. Bennett is director of the North Carolina State Museum of Sciences and a board member of the biggest museum trade organization, the American Association of Museums.

"Where this is different," she says, "is that, not only did McDonald's and Disney help fund a T. rex exhibit, they helped purchase it. This will end up being a long-term relationship (between the Field and the corporate sponsors), which is good for all concerned. They will all educate the public about dinosaurs, using supporting education programs developed by the Field."

Others, however, are less certain if the commercial aspects of the Sue deal are entirely harmless.

Tracy Lang Teslow, a Chicago writer who studies museum exhibitry and science education, sees much to laud about the Field's plans to use Sue for public education through the two corporations. She also, however, voices concern that museums generally are becoming overly eager to reach for corporate money.

"Doing conservation work on the fossil at DinoLand in Disney World is a great idea," says Teslow, who recently completed her Ph.D. work in the history of science at the University of Chicago. "There is a trend to let people into the back rooms of museums and see the scientific process that goes into making exhibits that seems good to me. It demystifies where knowledge comes from and gives people some idea that we don't rely on nature to tell us truths; we have to work hard to find it, and there are no infallible conclusions."

But trends in museum exhibitry seem to be following a Hollywood model of films as blockbuster events, she says, with every new exhibit having to be bigger, louder and faster-paced, with interactive and three-dimensional special effects.

"You have to wonder," she says, "as museums rely more and more on corporate money, if they are climbing out on a slippery slope.

"A museum can use any sponsorship it can find, but with this corporate reliance is the worry of corporate leveraging. Will corporate sponsors to some degree push for control over how things are done, or over what the information content is in the exhibits or educational packets the museum creates in relation to its exhibits?"

That could not happen at the Field Museum, says museum Vice President Gates. The museum clearly stipulates its control over educational materials that it develops in relation with any outside groups, including corporate sponsors. It maintains strict control over all information content of its museum exhibits, she says, and prohibits the display of corporate-sponsor logos on the exhibits they underwrite, such as the McDonald's Preparation Laboratory.

Expensive as Sue's bones were, they didn't cost as much as the $10 million exhibit the Field is busily readying to unveil in March 1999, "Life Underground." The permanent installation will take visitors on a simulated journey beneath Illinois prairies.

"That one," says Field President McCarter, "will shrink you down to the size of a beetle and take you underground, where you'll meet animatronic ants, wolf spiders and crayfish. It'll bring you back to life size and take you on a tour of world ecology in rain forests, prairies and deltas, showing the problems presented by salinization, drought and soil erosion."

With a price tag that size, "Life Underground" has corporate sponsors, too, as do most major exhibits in most museums these days. In fact, one of the donations is the biggest individual gift for a single exhibit the museum has ever received, $4 million from Monsanto Corp.

Having taken over the Field two years ago, McCarter has a background that is well-suited to schmoozing corporations for funding. He had spent much of his career as a top executive and consultant in the world of international agribusiness research and manufacturing. He modestly declines the credit, but his business connections probably were crucial in bringing Disney and McDonald's into Sue's purchase.

Buying Sue's bones was a bold move, but no more so than many other blockbuster exhibits the museum has acquired through its history. The Field is chockablock with artifacts and items acquired over the last 100 years that, in their day, drew people by the hundreds of thousands and were ballyhooed as much as Sue is today.

The first such blockbuster artifacts the Field acquired, in fact, were also dinosaurs, and they still thrill visitors. In 1898, the Field was envious of museums in New York and Pittsburgh that were bringing in unprecedented crowds with recently discovered skeletons of Brontosaurus, a 75-foot-long plant-eating dinosaur. The Field hired Elmer Riggs, a young paleontologist, to find a Brontosaurus for Chicago.

Riggs in 1900 brought back bones of something even bigger than Brontosaurus, the first remains ever found of a 90-foot-long Brachiosaurus. With only 20 percent of the skeleton, he stored them away. In 1901, he found a Brontosaurus, which still is a centerpiece artifact in the museum's "Life Over Time" exhibit, although, through Riggs' scholarship, the Brontosaurus family has been renamed Apatosaurus.

As part of the museum's 100th birthday in 1993, the Field made a magnificent skeleton of Riggs' Brachiosaurus, cast from the bones he found and those of more complete skeletons in Europe. It is a soaring, monumental display in its own right at the north end of the museum's main, Stanley Field Hall.

Not far from Brachiosaurus are two enormous bull elephants that have been locked in combat for 90 years. The two animals were shot in Africa in 1905 by Carl Akely, the Field's pioneering taxidermist and diorama artist. Like Marshall Field's clock on State Street, the elephants are a sort of city landmark in themselves, a place to meet.

Most exhibits don't have such a long shelf life. Indeed, the rule of thumb nowadays is that a "permanent" science exhibit is good for about 10 years before research and new discoveries render it obsolete.

The blockbuster mentality was much in evidence at the museum during the Great Depression, when it commissioned two sculptors to create special exhibits on the evolution of man for the 1933 Century of Progress world's fair, held practically across the street.

Malvina Hoffman, a protege of French sculptural genius Auguste Rodin and of Gutzon Borglum of Mt. Rushmore fame, agreed to do 91 sculptures representing average humans around the world for a Races of Mankind Hall, most of them in bronze. It was a five-year project, costing about $1 million. For about the same amount, New York sculptor Frederick Blaschke built a series of dioramas for the Hall of Prehistoric Man, showing exquisitely rendered, life-size representations of early humans and prehumans in naturalistic settings.

Both exhibits were popular, but neither aged well. The scientific thinking that went into Hoffman's sculptures was eventually discredited, so her works, artistically brilliant, now are scattered through the museum as decorative pieces.

Blaschke's prehistoric people are hardly in evidence anymore. Until recently one Blaschke figure, a Neanderthal cave boy, had been standing in a small glass case on the museum's second floor for several years.

Blaschke had based the stoop-shouldered, slouching boy's physique on bones uncovered at a European archeological site. He had consulted the world's leading authorities to capture the best thinking of what Neanderthal people looked like. Unfortunately, the experts unwittingly based their knowledge on the few bones then available. Years later, as archeologists found more complete skeletons, it became obvious that Blaschke's Neanderthals had been based on a specimen that had been grotesquely misshapen in life by severe arthritis.

"Fossils show only fragments of life's history; sometimes we misinterpret their meaning," said the sign the museum had placed next to the Neanderthal boy, explaining the mistake. Experts today think the extinct Neanderthals didn't have thick, squat Alley Oop bodies like the boy in the museum, but looked much the same as modern humans.

The Neanderthal boy was removed from exhibit early this year to make room for Sue's fossil preparation lab. No doubt her bones, as they come together, will overturn some current scientific thinking and theories on Tyrannosaurus rex and dinosaurs in general.

And, no doubt, someday new fossil finds will alter the theories and thinking generated by Sue's bones. That's the nature of science and the scientific method. But it's unlikely that Sue will ever be discredited as an artifact, like Blaschke's gnarled Neanderthals.

Sue may well turn out to be the dinosaur's permanent name. The private fossil dealer who discovered the skeleton, citing trademark laws, tried to retain ownership and licensing rights to the name, believing it to be worth millions in the hands of McDonald's and Disney. Recently the dealer signed over all those rights to the Field, which reconsidered using the name, but had made no decision when this article was written. By whatever name, as Tyrannosaurus rexes go, Sue represents such sensational perfection that, until dinsosaurs cease to fascinate humans, she seems certain to be a major attraction.

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