The Carnegie Museum of Natural History's big, newly revamped exhibit is called Dinosaurs in Their Time, but inevitably it's also about our time.
Partly, that's because of the new science informing the three-year, $36 million overhaul of the venerable museum's signature exhibit. Along with tripling its original, century-old footprint, the display ups the skeleton count from 10 to 12 (with seven more due when phase two opens next spring). The Carnegie has also posed specimens to reflect the current belief that dinosaurs were active -- birdlike, not sluggish tail-draggers. It's grouped them by time period -- Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous -- so that skeletons from one era no longer fraternize with specimens from eons earlier. And it's placed many of them -- from the relatively petite, 13-foot-long dryosaurus to the collection's founding sauropod, 90-foot diplodocus -- in recreations of their natural environments, to emphasize that these were living creatures, part of their own ecosystems.
"This is meant to be a Mesozoic safari," says the museum's Matt Lamanna, lead scientific advisor for the exhibit. But Dinosaurs is more than arranged for human perusal. [One interactive video display puts the big lizards on super-sized treadmills.] It's about us, too. As the exhibit notes, the age of dinosaurs was also the age of the first mammals. Moreover, the display reflects our endless fascination with how we stack up: Signage accompanying each specimen depicts a nuclear family of human silhouettes -- the woman curiously 1962-ish, with her A-line skirt and flip hairdo -- next to a silhouette of the appropriate 'saur, for purposes of size comparison. Mom, Dad and Skippy are all looking upward -- over the heads, in fact, of the smaller dino silhouettes, as though awaiting something more impressive.
Carnegie-goers will get something impressive, of course. "Monsters of the Past," the title of a 1922 silent film about the museum's dinosaur hunters that you can watch here, may seem dated, but the creatures that interest us most are still those that could have eaten us quickest.
Still, for all the care that the museum has lavished on the exhibit, with its banks of touch-screens, one wonders whether visitors will do more than goggle at the razor fangs on two-ton allosaurus. With all the charismatic megafauna on display, who'll note the display dedicated to the first flowering plant -- archaefructus -- which appeared in ponds during the early cretaceous and "totally transformed life on earth," says Chris Beard, head of the Carnegie's vertebrate paleontology section. (The fruit and sap of such plants might have been what lured primates up trees, for instance.)
Just as relevantly, the diplodocus display includes a look at ferns. The plants might not seem as dramatic as allosaurus stalking the juvenile apatosaurus protected by its 30-ton mother. But neither beast's food chain would have existed without the Mesozoic fern explosion that made possible the dino age. Even the biggest creatures are affected by tiny changes in the environment.
"The history of the earth offers many many insights into problems facing the earth today," says Beard. He notes climate change. The dinosaurs didn't cope too well with that one. Still, their time was when the planet we recognize emerged. "In many ways today, we're still living in the age of dinosaurs," Beard says. "It's just that the dinosaurs are gone."
Dinosaurs in Their Time Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmnh.org