In The Pipeline: Museum gets down to the bones

In this column this summer, I've wanted to occasionally focus on a few things slightly outside of Huntington Beach. As a travel writer, I enjoy sharing interesting places, especially for families, and this week provided something special.

By now, you may have heard about the new Dinosaur Hall opening at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park. It's a 14,000-square-foot hall, twice the size of the museum's old dinosaur galleries, and will feature more than 300 fossils and 20 complete mounts of dinosaurs and sea creatures.

As described by the museum, "The hall will rival the world's leading dinosaur halls for the number of individual fossils displayed, the size and spectacular character of the major mounts, including the world's only Tyrannosaurus rex growth series, and the accessible integration of recent scientific discoveries and research into the displays."

Last week, I was given an early tour of the hall, and it was beyond impressive — it was breathtaking. Some of you may know that dinosaurs play a big part in my family's world. At age 5, our son, Charlie, proclaimed that he was going to be a paleontologist, and from there, there has been no looking back.

At 17 years old now, he's put in a lot of field work (and I've had the pleasure of taking part, too). That museum was like a second home to us, both as spectators, and then as volunteers in the lab.

The famed dinosaur hunter, Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the museum, has been instrumental in mentoring Charlie along his path, and so we've heard about these major plans over the years.

But what Chiappe unveiled for us this week was beyond what we'd imagined.

"I'm a bit tired, but otherwise OK," he chuckled last week in the shadow of a looming T. rex skeleton. "This has been a long time coming and lots of work for my team and I, but I think we've achieved what we set out to do — we've truly created a world-class dinosaur exhibit that we hope will thrill visitors. My colleagues will be here next week, though, and of course I'm especially interested in what they think."

I've written about Chiappe before. Both in the field and back in the office, he is a grand thinker, leader and scientist — the "star of the show," as museum President and Director Jane Pisano called him.

"Luis and his team have done a marvelous job," she said. "I think what's most important is how the exhibit inspires young minds, the next generation of scientists. That's an important key to this, and any other great museum — how it influences and inspires youth."

On that important point, the museum delivers in sparkling ways. In the new, spacious, light-filled galleries, visitors come face-to-face — and in some cases can walk underneath — huge prehistoric skeletons, as well as see the dinosaurs as they were in life, illustrated on giant murals and animated in hands-on interactive and multimedia displays.

Plus, folks can also get a detailed, close-up look at fossils — they can touch several, look at many through magnifying glasses as a scientist would, and in the interactive displays, excavate from simulated dirt and rock as paleontologists would.

And perhaps you'll even meet a paleontologist.

Doug Goodreau, a Dinosaur Institute lab supervisor, is a key member of Chiappe's team both in the field and at the museum.

"What's also unique about our hall is that you may see one of us in a video that's playing by an exhibit, then turn and bump into us," he said. "We're right here on site when we're not in the field, and we love answering questions about what we do. We think it will really help personalize what we are doing — make it more human."

There is nothing really static about the new exhibit. The information presented is fluid, cutting-edge and interactive. As Chiappe said, "It poses as many questions as it answers — because there is still so much to learn, still so much to be uncovered."

Now, a tip. This weekend, you're probably aware that the San Diego (405) Freeway will be closed this between the San Bernardino (10) and Hollywood (101) freeways. That means that hardly anyone (I'm guessing) will be venturing down from the Westside to experience the exhibit, which will be officially open for its first weekend. This may be your best bet all summer to enjoy one of the area's hottest attractions in relative calm and peace.

Also, if you get a chance, look for this: By a door connecting two of the rooms in the new hall, there is a large sauropod bone mounted against the wall. This gave me, and Charlie, great pause. See, we helped excavate that very bone several years ago on a very memorable day with Chiappe in the Utah desert.

To illustrate Pisano's point about the power of a museum to influence the next generation of scientists, there is the physical evidence in the form of a hulking, impressive specimen.

Be prepared to be awestruck when you visit this exhibit. These men and women have done a remarkable job, and thanks to them, you may never look at dinosaurs the same way again.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

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