Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: Sue

Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found, has been a big draw at the Field Museum for seventeen years. Last year, she was taken off display and her place taken by Maximo, a replica of the skeleton of the largest dinosaur ever found. But, Sue is back, in her very own new quarters on the second floor in a side gallery in the “Evolving Planet” exhibition.

As one enters Sue’s new quarters, one is surrounded by a mural depicting a forest that might have existed 67 million years ago. The first point of interest is a photo panel showing Sue Hendrickson, the fossil hunter who discovered the dinosaur in 1990, posed beside the site in South Dakota. (Guess who Sue, the T. rex was named for.) It’s next to an animation showing how the dinosaur became a fossil. This is on a wall that includes a large rendering of the “quarry map”, the plot of the locations of the bones on the site.

The first part of the exhibition is a large case containing Sue’s skull, with descriptions of the damage, whether before or after death, and what we’ve learned of its hearing, eyesight, and the like.

As we walk past a large rendering of what Sue probably looked like in life (hint: “friendly” is not on the list), we encounter a timeline, starting with 1997, when Sue was purchased at auction by the Museum. 1998-2000 were occupied with preparation: separating the fossil bones from the matrix, cleaning, scanning, etc. In 2000, Sue finally went on display in Stanley Field Hall.

Next is a large area with the skeleton itself, with descriptive panels placed along the circumference of the display, which tell us Sue’s age at death (30 years), which bones are real and which are reconstructions (it’s 90% real), how the display has been updated to incorporate new information, and the evidence of wounds and disease. These panels also include bronze casts of some of Sue’s bones showing details of injuries and/or disease. There is also a broadcast narrative, with titles shown against the wall, with further descriptions of the areas covered, with lights highlighting areas of the skeleton as each is discussed.

And right there is a large, multi-panel animation (with sound) which shows a T. rex hunting, a fight between a T. rex and a Triceratops, and a T. rex scavenging a dead dinosaur. (If you look carefully, you can see a small mammal scurrying from the lower left up to the carcass, and then running off as the dinosaur approaches.)

Past that is a series of cases providing some context to Sue’s environment, including fossils of plants (and what appears to be an actual piece of wood), along with fossils of mammals (which weren’t very big at that point); fossils of other dinosaurs; and fossils of other reptiles, including a very complete soft-shelled turtle.

Next we come to a case containing a Triceratops skull; against the wall are panels describing some of Sue’s likely prey.

Past Sue again (the gallery is laid out so that the traffic flow is circular, leading back to the entrance), we come to Sue’s skull once more. Against the wall on this side are, first an interactive “Sue quiz”, and then photo panels that describe some of the studies done on Sue.

The Museum has gone all out on this one – the design is well thought out, and although I could wish for more detailed labels in the “context” section, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. Also note that the signage and labels are in English and Spanish, a practice the Museum is following more and more as sections are updated.

And a side note: If you happen to visit before roughly mid-February, 2019, you’ll have to get tickets for a specific time to view Sue. That’s how popular it is.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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