Words and photos: Stephanie Breijo
Hundreds of millions of years ago, dinosaurs ruled the earth.
Over 65 million years later, skeletons, fossils and cheap dioramas are all we have to paint the picture of the most mammoth, terrifying and awe-inspiring creatures we’ll (hopefully) never meet. The natural history museums of the world are more than institutions; they’re a window.
Here in D.C. I’ve wandered the Fossil Hall with best friends; I’ve wandered it alone; I’ve wandered it with a significant other. It’s a place to feel dwarfed and humbled–you are a link in a chain, you are glad to be alive now and not then because Jesus fuck those teeth look sharp.
Smithsonian’s collection–an impressive lot of fossilized skeletons, cast models and plastic figurines–is all the District has. It came as a veritable shock, then, when the museum announced it would shutter its hallowed dino halls until 2019. Five years into the future, the beloved Fossil Hall should reopen one new T. rex richer, with roughly $48 million invested into the new exhibits.
The year 2019 sounds nearly futuristic, doesn’t it? Five years feels like an eternity when you’re aching to wander the endearingly outdated halls of Smithsonian’s fossils. In an effort to capture the exhibits as they were, I stopped by over the weekend with camera in tow, though the museum had prematurely closed my favorite exhibit where the skeletons of Plesiosaurs hung from visible string or layed out, bones in order, escaping the jaws of fast-swimming predators twice the size of your car. Behind them sat one large mural reminding us that, yes, the ocean was a terrifying place; it still is. Sadly the mural is gone from public view, probably forever.
The walkways of the halls still open proved nearly impossible to navigate, regardless of how many afternoons you’d spent there, mouth agape at the height of a ground sloth. Strollers, school groups, and families of tourists and locals alike edged slowly past cast molds we won’t see for years, cast molds that will all be dismantled before they can be rebuilt.
So why five years? What could take so long? The museum, apparently, is unsure–it is unsure of the placement of the dinosaurs, though the rough design of the new hall seems to be taking shape; it is unsure of how it will mount the dinosaurs, though it hopes to shift from traditional stance (and 1960s-stylized fonts and colors) into poses and scenes, a bright and modern view into the past. Going forward to look backward.
It would be a shame to lose these murals and outdated qualities entirely; there is something comforting in the inherent and universal cheesiness of a natural history museum’s displays. As a child I would visit the La Brea Tar Pits and stand before an animatronic saber-toothed cat mauling a sloth, its head pivoting as its fangs mock-pierced its victim’s neck on a loop for eternity. I stopped by again last winter, two decades later (involving a cross-country move, college and adulthood) and it was almost a relief to find my childhood memory still intact, albeit a little rough around the faux-fur edges.
Hopefully Smithsonian remembers that looking into the past is also our own past; the display of a natural history museum is its own form of sociological preservation.The next five years will feel long and arduous to the avid museum-goer, but there’s no denying it will be thrilling to see just what D.C.’s dinosaurs look like on the other side.