Sue gets her twice-yearly 'bath'

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The idea of poking a Tyrannosaurus rex with a pink-and-purple feather duster sounds a lot better today than it would have 67 million years ago.

"I'm not sure I would've survived that," said William Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at the Field Museum.

Things are a lot different these days because Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex is a fossil in a museum and not a living, breathing monster roaming the lakefront.

It is Simpson's job to keep the old girl looking her best.

"Most of the fossils on exhibit are cleaned by exhibit staff," he said. "This is the only one that geology cleans personally. That's just a reflection of the high value of this specimen."

Once every six months or so, he'll get onto a hydraulic lift using tools you likely have around your house to give Sue the touchup she needs to retain her good looks.

"We use a duster, sort of like a great big bottle brush to take the dust off the bones, but we also use a vacuum cleaner run in reverse to blow dust off as well so we try and touch the bones as little as possible," he said. "It's great because we don't have to touch the skeleton as much as we would otherwise."

Simpson starts with the head, which is actually not Sue's actual head but a replica. The real deal sits on display in a balcony overlooking the rest of the body.

"The skull isn't nearly as fragile as you might think it is because it's plastic," he explains.

He'll then move around the base, using a hose attached to a vacuum cleaner to blow little white clouds of dust off Sue's fragile bones and into the air, occasionally bringing out the duster to get into other nooks and crannies.

Because she's so old, Simpson can't dust her in the same way Chicagoans dust around their houses.

"The bones obviously are fragile," he said. "They're not as strong as they would be if they were recent bones. Much of the strength has been lost but there's a lot of weight, much more weight than original. It's sort of a bad combination of not as strong as original but heavier than originally."

A museum staffer helps navigate the hydraulic lift around the length of the skeleton, helping Simpson see things that few others will get to see and allowing him to live every 6-year-old's dream of feeling like a dinosaur, if only for a brief moment.

"You get to look Sue up close and up high," he said. "It's like you might be another T-rex. You're up at about the same height and close to it. You get some views that you might not otherwise get."

While the procedure does help Sue look nice, if Simpson had it his way, he'd just as soon leave her alone.

"It's sort of a compromise between wanting to keep it as clean as possible but not wanting to expose it to too much risk," he said. "If we had our druthers, we probably wouldn't clean it at all but then it would look really awful but it would be safe that way. It's also a display. We want it to look presentable and so we clean it so it looks presentable to the public."

Depending on your age, watching Simpson work his magic with a feather duster on a fossil is either the coolest thing in the world or remarkably ordinary.

Over the course of the hour-plus that Simpson spends working on the dinosaur, dozens of schoolchildren gather around to "ooh" and "aah" at the spectacle. At least one visitor, 24-year-old Joel Everson, was not impressed.

"It's pretty non-eventful, I guess," the Brisbane, Australia resident shrugged. "They're just cleaning a dinosaur."

While Simpson could just as easily take care of this when the doors are closed so he doesn't have to navigate the crowds on a hydraulic lift, he said he'd rather do it while the museum is crowded for the educational value.

"I always think it's good for (visitors) to see how a museum operates rather than doing it all after hours," he said. "I think it gives them some appreciation for what it takes to maintain a specimen of this sort of complexity and value."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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