TRENTON, Ontario — A team of dinosaur specialists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History drove down a tree-lined road outside Toronto, past a Carquest Auto Parts store and up to a gray, aluminum-sided building that held a spectacle 65 million years in the making.
Then they stepped inside and finally saw it: the “Nation’s T. rex” standing upright for the first time since the Cretaceous Period.
One of them gasped. Arms crossed, another quietly circled the 12-foot-tall, 35-foot-long skeleton. A third — the one who almost always has something to say — could say nothing at all.
“A rare moment,” dinosaur curator Matthew Carrano recalled that afternoon, “when I’m not talking.”
In what may be among the most dramatic fossil displays on earth, the beast was posed looming over the fiberglass body of a triceratops collapsed on its side. With one foot crushing into the horned herbivore’s ribs, the Tyrannosaurus rex’s head — which is the size of a riding lawn mower — was bent down, appearing as if a moment away from decapitating its prey.
Discovered in Montana in 1988, the dinosaur had been exhibited in pieces until last year, when the Smithsonian Institution took possession of the coveted fossil on a 50-year loan from its owner, the Army Corps of Engineers.
Last fall, the animal’s bones were shipped to Ontario’s Research Casting International, a renowned firm of experts that has assembled dinosaurs for museums all over the world.
The Smithsonian team had imagined the ambitious presentation two years ago, first through Carrano’s hand gestures, then in pencil on sheets of paper, then on computer screens, then in a miniature 3-D model. But none of that would matter if the real-life display didn’t work.
For one of the world’s most-visited museums, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. The dinosaur has been given the grandiose title of the “Nation’s T. rex,” after all, and it will serve as the gem of the Natural History Museum’s fossil hall when the space reopens in 2019 after a $48 million renovation.
One day, the team knew, this T. rex may become the most viewed in history.
The dinosaur builders
The blowtorch hissed as its blue flame licked a blackened section of the T. rex’s steel tail.
With his colleague applying the heat, Garth Dallman stood on a nearby ladder and stared through clear safety glasses at the glowing metal. On the back of his tan T-shirt was the cartoon image of a blowtorch-wielding human skeleton riding the back of a T. rex skeleton.
Dallman and others from the casting company had worked through the weekend, adding to the more than 4,000 man hours they had spent on this project in preparation for Monday’s big unveiling. They had attached the T. rex’s rib-stomping foot just moments before the Smithsonian team arrived, and by afternoon, Dallman looked very much like a man who needed a nap. His black-circled eyes were bloodshot, and behind his ear was a pencil with an eraser rubbed down to the metal casing.
But rest would have to wait, because on Tuesday they were raising the tail five inches. The museum wanted to be sure that its lowest point hung at least 10 feet off the ground, to prevent visitors from reaching high enough to damage it.
But no alteration could make the T. rex’s pose unrealistic. Using a green laser pointer, Carrano explained that the back tip shouldn’t be raised higher than the base.
“Gravity,” he said.
The casting crew arrived at 7 a.m. Tuesday to heat a section of the steel to 2,100 degrees and shift it up. That process caused one of the bolts that support a vertebrae to seize up.
“Are they all stuck, or just that one?” said Matt Fair, a 25-year veteran of the company and its production manager.
“Just that one,” Dallman told him.
With the aid of an angle grinder and a drill, a new bolt was soon installed, and Dallman was on to the next challenge.
The dinosaur is one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever unearthed, with more than 130 original pieces. But that still required the casting firm to fabricate 96 others, including the head, because the real one is too fragile to exhibit. They’re all held together by more than 1,000 feet of steel that pushes the total weight beyond 4,000 pounds.
The company is being paid $6 million to assemble 52 Smithsonian specimens over the next four years. (The T. rex and other fossils will eventually be dismantled, shipped back to Washington and reassembled at the Natural History Museum.)
At first glance, the RCI crew members don’t seem like the kind of people who stitch together ancient and delicate bones for the world’s most prestigious museums. Voices subdued and personalities mellow, they wear boots and jeans and flannel. With hands coated in black, they work beneath a clock that instead of numbers lists letters that spell “GUINNESS TIME.”
Their even keels and mild senses of humor are, in many ways, ideal for this line of work, which has no room for people who succumb to pressure handling priceless pieces of natural history.
Each crew member must be part construction worker, part sculptor, part scientist, part mechanic, part anthropologist and part engineer.
Dallman, a gray-bearded master blacksmith with a background in museums, designed more than 100 unique mounts (known as armatures) that attach to the frame and hold the bones in place using thin, metal tentacles meant to integrate with the dinosaur’s form. Many are so elegant that they wouldn’t look out of place on display at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
Fair, who also tends a farm of chickens and goats, built a 23-foot gantry crane this summer with the help of his sons. His yellow behemoth was used to hoist the T. rex’s 1,200-pound hip into place.
“You can’t buy one that big,” said Fair, who spent so much time prepping fossils in Washington for shipment to Canada that he still has a Giant grocery store card on his key chain.
Peter May, the business’s owner, studied sculpting in college and fell into the field after responding to a museum’s newspaper ad. He founded the company in 1987 and has grown it into a firm of 20 employees who work with clients as far away as Germany, Japan and Australia.
For May, 60, his day job stopped feeling surreal long ago, but few things give him more pleasure than when a stranger asks what he does for a living. He grins through his salt-and-pepper goatee and says, simply, “I build dinosaurs.”
Designed by the inch
Steve Jabo cut a slab of cardboard with a box cutter, then used duct tape to attach his tracing of what looked like a crocodile skeleton.
“It’s very low tech,” said Jabo, a Smithsonian fossil preparator. He and his colleagues had come to Canada not just to gawk at their prized monster, but also to determine precisely how the T. rex, and everything around it, should appear.
Jabo brought the champsosaurus model and two other small cutouts to museum project manager Siobhan Starrs and Pauline Dolovich, a Toronto-based designer who is helping to plan the layout.
“Where’s champsy going to go?” Jabo said.
Starrs and Dolovich needed a minute. The pair had spent much of the prior 36 hours consulting a book of designs thicker than a dictionary.
“This is two volumes,” Dolovich said later, “of nine.”
Most buildings are designed by the foot, but not the fossil hall. It’s being designed by the inch, which means that 4.5 million presentation decisions have to be made — and that’s counting only the floor space.
In the District three weeks earlier, museum director Kirk Johnson stood in the empty hall and detailed its future, his voice echoing through an expanse that felt far more like a tomb than it ever had when it was filled with dead animals. Lights flickered, yellow caution tape hung from columns and sections of walls were gashed, as if an actual T. rex had chomped into them.
Like clearing plaque from an artery, the museum’s staffers will dismantle decades of incremental additions and clutter. Many of the 2,400 now-removed specimens also won’t be brought back as the space — once dubbed the Hall of Extinct Monsters — returns to its 1910 design, a much more open layout that will be partly lit by sunshine.
Though the museum’s attendance is only slightly behind last year’s pace of 7.3 million visitors, Johnson had once hoped that the renovation wouldn’t require five years. He now knows that it will take every bit of it, and, in Canada, the museum’s team seemed acutely aware of the time crunch.
They settled on a spot for the champsosaurus and its companions. They discussed how to depict the triceratops cast, deciding that its frill could have puncture wounds but no claw marks, because Carrano had never seen such a wound on an actual fossil. They debated how high they should place the tail of what will be the T. rex’s neighbor, an edmontosaurus that the cast company’s technicians had found was covered, in part, by a 1903 copy of The Washington Post (“BUY A HOME In Washington’s Most Popular Residence Section, COLUMBIA HEIGHTS,” an ad urged).
They asked Fair if he knew what the current plan suggested for the edmontosaurus.
“I would guess it’s about 8 or 9 feet, eh?” he said, adding a touch of Canadian to his answer.
And as the afternoon waned, and the museum team’s flight back to D.C. approached, Starrs sat cross-legged on the floor, jotting down notes with her back to the Smithsonian’s most important dinosaur.
She paused and looked up.
“It gives me goose bumps, literally, to think about how many children and their children and grandchildren will remember the moment,” she said, pointing over her shoulder. “And the moment is in front of the T. rex.”
Then Starrs stood, brushed the brown dirt off of her jeans and got back to work, because 2019 isn’t as far away as it sounds.