Jurassic Academy

By Carolyn Belardo

After more than a year of planning and anticipation,Dinosaurs Unearthed is here. Real science comes to life through roaring, thrashing, life-size animatronic dinosaurs and awe-inspiring stories of prehistoric earth. On view through March 30, the exhibit also features full-size Jurassic Period dinosaur skeletons, real fossils and fossil casts, hands-on activities, and the latest stories about dinosaur behavior and appearance.

We were curious about what it takes to bring this kind of oversize experience to Philadelphia, so we caught up with Academy Exhibits Director Jennifer Sontchi. It was Sontchi’s idea to bring Dinosaurs Unearthed to the Academy for its East Coast debut. Before Philly, the exhibit proved hugely popular at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

CB: How on earth did you get all those dinosaurs from Texas to Philadelphia?

JS: It took five 50-foot-long trucks, each carrying about 20,000 pounds of dinosaurs, the equivalent of about 10 African elephants. The dinosaurs came in pieces and were assembled at the Academy. The 40-foot-longTyrannosaurus rex outside of our main entrance came in three pieces: the body and two legs. The T. rexweighs almost a ton and a half.

CB: How did you get all of that stuff in the building?

JS: Each truck was backed up to our loading dock in the back of the museum. The crew used three forklifts to unload each piece of dinosaur, and the crates of scenery, backdrops, signage, and all the other components of the exhibit. For the T. rex outside, we obtained permission from the city of Philadelphia to close off Race Street so we could fit in the 53-foot-tall Rough Terrain telehandler forklift and a 45-foot-long aerial boom to put the creature together—at 4 o’clock in the morning!

CB: How long did it take to set up the exhibit and how many people were involved?

JS: It took 13 highly skilled technicians seven 10-hour days and many boxes of pizza to set up the exhibit. That does not include adjusting special lighting, adding sound, and all the tweaking that goes on even after the exhibit opens to the public. The animatronic dinosaurs are handcrafted with steel machines inside and are run by computer programs that we can customize. Their silicone skin is pulled on like a sleeve and then hand-sewn shut.

CB: Why are they called “animatronic” and not “robotic”?

JS: Animatronics is technology used to create machines that represent living things. Generally, plants and animals as well as prehistoric or mythical creatures are brought to life using animatronics. Robotics technology generally applies to automated machines used for industrial or commercial purposes. 

CB: What are your favorite parts of the exhibit?

JS: I love the “Make Me Move” activity. Yangchuanosaurus and Protoceratops have panels where guests push buttons to make the dinosaurs’ eyes blink, tails swing, front limbs move, necks turn, and mouths roar. Families will not want to miss this! I also love the feathers on the MicroraptorVelociraptor, and juvenile T. rex. Visitors will be surprised to see how much new and cutting-edge science the show contains.

CB: Why did the Academy decide to show animatronic dinosaurs?

JS: We know that nothing sparks a young person’s lifelong interest in the earth sciences like dinosaurs do. This exhibit allows us to envision dinosaurs not just as frightful, skeletonized predators, but also as fleshed-out animals—each with a place in the natural world. What a wonderful way to illustrate the fundamental concepts of evolution and biodiversity! We also know that it is dramatic, impactful experiences like this exhibit that inspire young people to ask questions and eventually, to become scientists.

CB: What do you think the mute T. rex fossil skeleton in Dinosaur Hall would say to his new roaring, fleshed-out counterpart outside?

JS: “Slip me some skin!”

Dinosaurs Unearthed will be on view through March 30, 2014. To watch the trailer and for admission information, click here. Better yet, come see the exhibit for yourself.

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