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A new exhibit at the American History Museum explores the technological strides the inventor made in his DC laboratory. By Tanya Pai
An 1880s disk recording, made of tinfoil over plaster, and a photograph of Bell. Disk photograph by Richard Strauss/Smithsonian; Bell courtesy of Smithsonian archives.

It’s common knowledge that Alexander Graham Bell created the technology for the device now glued to most people’s hands (or ear) 24-7. Perhaps not as well known is that he was instrumental in improving Thomas Edison’s design for the phonograph, which allowed sounds to be recorded and played back for the first time—and that the breakthrough happened at Bell’s Volta Laboratory at 1537 35th Street in Georgetown, now a National Historic Landmark. “ ‘Hear My Voice’: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound”—opening January 26 at the National Museum of American History—brings this legacy to light through artifacts from the inventor’s experiments in the late 19th century, including some of the earliest voice recordings in history.

The exhibit comprises two tales of innovation and invention, says curator Carlene Stephens. The first involves developments in recorded sound in the 1870s and ’80s; the other is decidedly more modern. “In the 2000s, a technique was developed at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for recovering sound without touching some of the really early, damaged, otherwise silent records,” Stephens says. This method allowed scientists to retrieve sounds from a handful of 1880s recordings, among them the only confirmed record of Bell’s voice and one featuring his father, Alexander Melville Bell.

Visitors can hear Bell speak—“It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up to hear the sound across the centuries,” says Stephens—as well as learn about the new technology that makes the experience possible. Other items in the exhibit include Bell’s handwritten transcript of his recording and a hand-drawn map of DC’s Scott Circle, a reproduction of the original housed in the Library of Congress. Stephens hopes visitors’ eyes will be opened not just to Bell’s work in Washington but also to the idea that the ability to play back sounds, now so commonplace, is a fairly recent development. “It’s impossible for us to think of a world where there is no recorded sound and how incredible that was,” she says. “If people come to reflect on that path from then to now, I think we will have done something good.”

Through October 25;

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:50 AM/ET, 01/21/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The galleries are the first Smithsonian museums to put their entire inventories online. By Tanya Pai
Photograph courtesy of Smithsonian.

One of the big positives of living in Washington is the wealth of world-class art available to see—for free—364 days a year. Beginning January 1, anyone with internet access will get a taste of what that’s like when the Freer and Sackler galleries unveil their entire collections as completely digitized archives. This means the more than 40,000 objects that make up the galleries’ collections will be catalogued online with high-resolution images, more than 90 percent of which will be available to download for non-commercial use.

With the January launch of the “Open F|S” initiative, the Freer and Sackler will become the first Smithsonian facilities and the only Asian art museums in the United States to have fully digitized collections. Currently, only about 14,000 objects have images available online, and not all of them are high-res, says Courtney O’Callaghan, the museums’ director of digital media and technology. The new collection will more than double the number of images and will include everything from large-scale works such as the Peacock Room, which the Freer Gallery was built around, to “tiny unnamed ceramic shards that mean a lot to archaeologists but aren’t exactly fan favorites,” O’Callaghan says.

But why is this digital collection necessary? Can’t you just see most of this stuff by going to the galleries in person? Actually, no, explains O’Callaghan. Only a fraction of the collected objects is viewable to visitors at any given time, and “78 percent of the collection has never been publicly displayed.”

As you might guess, photographing and scanning such a large trove of objects is no small feat; O’Callaghan estimates the project took some 4,000 hours in 2014 alone. But the results, she says, will be worth it: “The primary aim is to democratize the museum experience. Not everybody can visit the Smithsonian to see the objects; not everybody will have the level of knowledge or scholarly credentials to go into the archives; and some of the objects will never be displayed because of their sensitive nature. This removes those barriers.”

The number of museums that have opted to digitize their collections is still small, both because of the scope of undertaking and because some are concerned about the possible drawbacks of releasing their full inventory—that it will discourage people from actually visiting the museum, for instance, or that it will hurt sales in museum gift shops. But O’Callaghan has a rosier outlook: “This is not going to limit who comes to our museum—it may grow the audience, because people will be able to see the details of the amazing objects we have on screen and want to come experience that in person.”

Posted at 01:54 PM/ET, 12/31/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Cast and crew from the classic TV series have donated personal items to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. By Tanya Pai
The two-piece outfit worn by Norma Arnold (Alley Mills, second from left) is among the Wonder Years memorabilia now on display at the American History Museum. Still courtesy of the museum.

Nostalgia for childhood—whether our own or the idealized version we see in TV shows and movies—is practically its own industry today. Which makes the latest objects to land in the National Museum of American History especially fitting: Thanks to donations from cast and crew members, the museum has added several items from The Wonder Years, the television series that itself mythologized the 1960s, to its permanent collection.

On Tuesday afternoon, several actors from the show—including Fred Savage (who played Kevin Arnold), Jason Hervey (Kevin's brother, Wayne), and Josh Saviano (friend Paul Pfeiffer)—along with Savage’s mother, Joanne, and costume designer Scilla Andreen contributed various items they collected during the making of the show and have held on to since it ended in 1993. Each made brief remarks about what their involvement in the show meant to them before signing over their memorabilia under the watchful eye of curator Dwight Blocker Bowers.

Among the items that will go on display are Kevin’s favorite New York Jets letterman jacket, a floral two-piece outfit worn by his mother, Norma, in the pilot, and a hippie-ish dress worn by his sister Karen at her wedding, as well as scripts, stacks of Polaroids from the set through the years, and tapes Saviano saved—slightly water-damaged from their time in a Manhattan storage locker that flooded during Hurricane Sandy.

The Wonder Years stars Fred Savage, Jason Hervey, and Josh Saviano with the American History Museum's new collection. Photograph courtesy of the museum.

During his remarks, Savage lauded the show for celebrating the “achievements and heroism of everyday life” and credited his mother for holding onto so many artifacts throughout the years, even though he and his siblings teased her about her pack-rat tendencies. Joanne Savage, in turn, thanked the Smithsonian for “turning me overnight from a hoarder into a preserver of national treasures,” and shared an anecdote that served as a great reminder of just how awkward adolescence really is: that during the famous scene of Kevin’s first kiss with his childhood dream girl Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), both she and McKellar’s mom were on set—along with a crew of about 100. (She also jokingly offered up the jacket her son wore in Little Monsters and a script from The Princess Bride—apparently her garage is the pop culture equivalent of Antiques Roadshow.)

The whole thing had a bit of a surreal, Matryoshka-doll feel as attendees watched the now-adult actors watching clips of their younger selves onscreen, working through the small-scale dramas of an era they were too young to actually live through. Adding yet another layer was the presence of Savage’s and Saviano’s children, likely too little to understand why people are so interested in their parents’ old stuff and definitely too young to relate to either the era The Wonder Years covers or even the more recent decades during which it was filmed. Then again, no one ever said the warm glow of nostalgia requires something as prosaic as real-life experience.

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

Posted at 04:53 PM/ET, 12/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The museum defends—sort of—its decision not to alter its current exhibit of Cosby's private-collection works. By Tanya Pai
Photograph by Randy Miramontez/

Things have gone from bad to worse for Bill Cosby in the past few weeks: No fewer than 17 women have now accused the 77-year-old comedian of various acts of sexual abuse, spread over nearly five decades from 1965 to 2004. While Cosby remains stubbornly silent about the allegations, his stock continues to plummet: Netflix has postponed the release of his latest standup special, NBC has scrapped plans for his new sitcom, and TV Land pulled Cosby Show reruns from its lineup.

This portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby by Simmie Knox is one of the works on display in the "Conversations" exhibit. Photograph by David Stansbury.

One organization that has not rushed to distance itself from the disgraced comedian: The Smithsonian. The National Museum of African Art earlier this month debuted the new exhibit “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,” which features 62 pieces from the private collection of Cosby and his wife, Camille (whom he met in DC). The decision drew criticism even before the latest accusations surfaced, but the institution has stood firm on the matter and has not altered or pulled the exhibit, scheduled to be on display until 2016. On Monday the museum released a statement addressing the issue, which somewhat snippily denies the idea that Cosby's alleged misconduct should have any impact on how the exhibit is perceived. "Exhibiting this important collection does not imply any position on the serious allegations," it reads. "The exhibition is centrally about the artworks and the artists who created them."

That's a tough leg to stand on, as art critic Tyler Green pointed out to the Atlantic: “When you choose to launch a show about a collector, rather than a show about art, you’re putting the collector on the pedestal, rather than artists and art and its history." The Cosbys' involvement is still front and center in the marketing of the exhibit, which could not only dissuade people from visiting the exhibit on principle, but also sets up the Smithsonian to be very much on the wrong side of history. In 2010, a barrage of phone calls to the National Portrait Gallery claiming a video piece by David Wojnarowicz was "anti-Christmas" (it depicted ants crawling over a crucifix) led to then-Secretary Wayne Clough pulling the work from the exhibit. It's unclear why the specter of serial sexual abuse—or, on a more self-serving note, the stench of scandal—fails to warrant the same consideration.

Read the museum's full statement below.

The National Museum of African Art’s mission is to inspire conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures. We began planning for the “Conversations” exhibition two years ago to help showcase the history of American art created by persons of African descent. It brings the public’s attention to artists whose works have long been omitted from the study of American art history. We are aware of the controversy surrounding Bill Cosby, who, along with his wife Camille, owns many of the works in the “Conversations” exhibition. Exhibiting this important collection does not imply any position on the serious allegations that have been made against Mr. Cosby. The exhibition is centrally about the artworks and the artists who created them.

Posted at 02:15 PM/ET, 11/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The exhibit, opening November 25, shares a glimpse into the past of our own continent. By Hallie Golden
Meet Hatcher the Triceratops in the Natural History Museum's new exhibit. Photograph courtesy of the museum.

While “Stan” the Tyrannosaurus rex and “Hatcher” the Triceratops certainly tower above all the other creatures in the National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World, they are only the tip of the ecosystem on display. The new exhibit, which opens Tuesday, November 25, seeks to give visitors an in-depth look at not just dinosaurs but all life in that existed in western North America between 66 and 68 million years ago—the years immediately preceding the deadly astroid that wiped out the giant lizards.

“People always think of the dinosaur world as just dinosaurs, but there were lots of other animals,” says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology and lead exhibition curator. The goal of the exhibit was to explore the whole ecosystem, from the smallest to the largest creature: “We wanted to embed people in the landscape,” he says.

Stan the T. rex. Photograph by Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution.

The result is an exhibit that showcases organisms as seemingly insignificant as leaves alongside creatures as small as salamanders and as large as the Edmontosaurus annectens, the “cow of the Cretaceous.” While this helps illustrate the variety of life millions of years ago, it also serves to show that the world actually wasn’t wildly different from present day. The piece of the exhibit that made this most apparent was a detailed mural by scientific illustrator Mary Parrish depicting a forest transforming from 66 million years ago to the modern age.

The animals and plants on display were discovered in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, and will likely remain in this second-floor exhibit for the next few years (the main dinosaur hall is closed until 2019 for a $48 million renovation). Dr. Sues worked with a team of specialists to get the Last American Dinosaurs exhibit up and running, including exhibition curator Kay Behrensmeyer and exhibition project manager Sally Love.

Another great find at this exhibit was a retro video game reminiscent of Pacman, which allows you to “see if you have what it takes to become a fossil.” Dr. Sues says it was made in the 1980s and refurbished for use in this exhibit, since the science hasn’t changed. The game is a simple yet effective way for the public to understand just how difficult it is for remains of organisms to become fossilized. “Becoming a fossil is kind of like winning the lottery,” Dr. Sues says.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the exhibit is the windows in which visitors can peer into a working fossil lab, along with signs explaining what it takes to separate the rock from the fossil. When I visited, there were two women behind the glass, and one was working with a high-tech telescope that reflected its images onto a large screen, so everyone could see exactly what she saw—a glimpse of yet another unfamiliar world.

The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World opens November 25 at the National Museum of Natural History. For more information, visit the museum's website.

Posted at 04:45 PM/ET, 11/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The museum debuts a fresh look and two new exhibits. By Tanya Pai
Ernesto Neto, “The Dangerous Logic of Wooing,” 2002. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

On Wednesday morning, before the rain and tornado warnings descended on DC, the Hirshhorn hosted a preview to show off its new look to donors and members of the media. The museum, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has for the first time redone its third-floor galleries, and introduced visitors to the changes—as well as to new director Melissa Chiu, just three weeks into the job. (She formerly served as the director of New York’s Asia Society Museum.)

The major changes to the third floor include removing the carpeting, along with some drop ceilings and spur walls, to return to the openness originally intended by architect Gordon Bunshaft—and to allow for installation of more contemporary sculptures, many of which are designed to rest directly on the floor. The impact can be seen in one of the Hirshhorn’s new exhibits, “At the Hub of Things,” which comprises 50 rarely displayed works from the museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art. The show adopts a “choose-your-own-adventure” structure, grouping the works by theme rather than by artist or time period, as co-curator Melissa Ho explained. The works include Ernesto Neto’s “The Dangerous Logic of Wooing,” a massive installation involving bulbous swoops of rice-filled fabric suspended from the ceiling; Yoko Ono’s “Sky TV for Washington,” which relays a continuous video of the sky over the Mall via closed-circuit camera as a contrast between the natural world and technology; and the piece that gives the exhibit its name, Anish Kapoor’s blue resin sculpture inspired by Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and change.

The other exhibit is well worth a visit by stressed-out Washingtonians. “Days of Endless Time” is a collection of 14 moving-image works by 13 artists, all created in the past decade and sharing a single theme: the suspension of time and the importance of solitude and contemplation. Israeli artist Sigalit Landau’s “DeadSee” features her floating naked in emerald water amid a spiral of watermelons, juxtaposing the womblike calm of the sea against the violent red of the broken fruit. Clemens von Wedemeyer attended the preview to explain his “Afterimage,” an eerie and slightly vertigo-inducing 3D walk-through of an old sculpture and prop warehouse. Especially intriguing is Robert Wilson’s portrait of Lady Gaga, almost unrecognizable in period dress and subdued hair and makeup. What at first seems like a static image over time gives way to movement, subtle at first and then more noticeable, rewarding the patient viewer with a new dimension of the work.

“At the Hub of Things” is an ongoing exhibit; “Days of Endless Time” closes April 12. See images from both collections below.

From left: Robert Rauschenberg, “Dam,” 1959; Anselm Kiefer, “The Book,” 1979-85; Yinka Shonibare, “The Age of Enlightenment—Antoine Lavoisier,” 2008. Photograph by Cathy Carver.
Su-Mei Tse, “L’Echo,” 2003. Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York. © Su-Mei Tse.
From left: Jan Dibbets, “Tide,” 1969; Richard Long, “Norfolk Flint Circle,” 1992; Brice Marden, “Cold Mountain 2,” 1989-91. Photograph by Cathy Carver.
Sigalit Landau, “DeadSee,” 2005. Collection of Lizbeth and George Krupp. Image courtesy and © Sigalit Landau.
Guido van der Werve, still from “Nummer Negen (#9) The Day I Didn’t Turn with the World,” 2007. © Guido van der Werve.

Posted at 02:20 PM/ET, 10/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The room is only open to the public twice a year—including Columbus Day. By Tanya Pai
Photograph by Flickr user Jiuguang Wang.

If you’re one of the lucky folks to get this rainy Columbus Day off work, you could spend the time diving to the bottom of pitchers of mimosas (no judgment)—or you could indulge your inner history nerd and head to the Library of Congress’s open house. During the event, from 10 AM to 3 PM, the ornate Main Reading Room, on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, will be open to the public, with the aim of teaching visitors about how to use the library’s resources year-round. Librarians will be on hand to provide walk-throughs of online tools and the physical collections.

Once you’ve checked out the Main Reading Room, you can head to the Northwest Gallery’s second-floor “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibit, where at 11 AM John Hessler, who coauthored the book Christopher Columbus Book of Privileges: 1502 The Claiming of a New World, will discuss his work. Small visitors can visit the Young Readers Center between 10 and 3 for activities, crafts, and book displays themed around “exploring our world.”

For more information about the Library of Congress fall open house, visit the library’s website.

Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 10/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new exhibit, opening in March, commemorates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. By Tanya Pai
The silk top hat (size 71⁄8 Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The hat was purchased from Washington hatmaker J. Y. Davis and personalized by Lincoln with a black silk mourning band in memory of his son Willie. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

April 15, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. To commemorate the occasion, Ford’s Theatre's Center for Education and Leadership has planned several special exhibits and events themed around Lincoln’s life, presidency, and legacy, including the world premiere of James Still’s The Widow Lincoln and around-the-clock programming on April 14 and 15.

Also on the schedule is the debut of a new exhibit, “Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination,” which runs March 23 through May 25. Ford’s partnered with the National Park Service and museums around the country to collect items present in the theater the night of President and Mrs. Lincoln’s ill-fated visit, including Lincoln’s top hat and the contents of his pockets, and John Wilkes Booth’s pistol.

Tickets to “Silent Witnesses” go on sale Monday, October 20, at 10 AM. In the meantime, read on for a look at some of the objects included in the exhibit.

Objects found in President Lincoln’s pockets: two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a sleeve button, and a brown leather wallet containing a $5 Confederate note. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The .44-caliber Deringer pistol John Wilkes Booth fired at the President from six to ten inches away. The gun discharged a ball of lead less than a half-inch in diameter, which entered Lincoln’s head near his left ear. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith/courtesy of Ford’s Theatre.

Lincoln wore this custom Brooks Brothers wool overcoat for his second inauguration. The wool is reportedly finer than cashmere, and the coat includes embroidery of an eagle on the inner lining, along with the words “One Country, One Destiny.” Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith/courtesy of Ford’s Theatre.

President and Mrs. Lincoln, along with Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, took this barouche to attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14. The Lincolns may have also taken the carriage to visit the USS Montauk on the afternoon before the play. Image courtesy of Studebaker National Museum.

Mary Todd Lincoln wore this black velvet cloak to Ford’s Theatre on the night of her husband’s death. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Posted at 02:15 PM/ET, 10/07/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Museum exhibits, gallery shows, and more to see this month. By Tanya Pai
See winning photographs from the Windland Smith Rice International Awards at the Museum of Natural History beginning October 24. Photograph of booted racket-tails by Mark J. Thomas.


“Richard Estes’ Realism” at the American Art Museum comprises nearly 50 pieces by the photorealist painter showcasing his technical skill and the changing face of America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. October 10 through February 8.

“Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips” at the Sackler Gallery collects photographs, video, and found objects that illustrate the experiences of the paleontologist/geologist during his travels in South Arabia (now Yemen) between 1949 and 1951. October 11 through June 7.

Beginning October 12 at the Hirshhorn is “Days of Endless Time,” an exhibit of works by artists who eschew the freneticism of digital life in favor of a serene, timeless vibe. Through April 12. 

The National Geographic Museum presents “Food: Our Global Kitchen,” an interactive look at global agriculture, food production, and cuisines. October 16 hrough February 22. 

Along with its renovated third-floor outer galleries, on October 16 the Hirshhorn debuts “At the Hub of Things,” an ongoing retrospective of works created over the past 75 years, chosen to highlight the museum’s commitment to pushing boundaries. 

In 1887, Charles Lang Freer bought 26 etchings by James McNeill Whistler. Known as the Second Venice Set, they encapsulate the painter’s style and the origins of his mutually beneficial relationship with Freer. See these works in “Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice” at the Freer Gallery beginning October 18. 

The annual Windland Smith Rice International Awards whittle down more than 20,000 images, submitted by amateur and professional nature photographers, to 60 or so of the best, which are on display at the Museum of Natural History October 24 through April 20. 

At the Phillips Collection is “Intersections: Bernardi Roig—No/Escape,” an installation of six works by the Majorcan sculptor—including life-size plaster sculptures molded from humans—that suggest the modern dual-edged sword of overexposure and isolation. October 25 through February 15.

In “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art” at the American Art Museum, works by a dozen artists explore a range of portrayals of birds and the themes they’re often used to symbolize. October 31 through February 22. 


At Transformer through October 25 is "Tamar Ettun: My Hands Are the Shape of My Height," a multimedia exhibit by the Israeli artist examining the contrast between sculpture and performance. 

Gallery Underground presents “World Aesthetic,” a showcase of multimedia works inspired by travel, juried by Del Ray artist Alice Kale. Through October 31. 

October 2 through November 1, 1708 Gallery presents “Exquisite Corpse,” an exhibit and silent-auction fundraiser based on a game popular with Surrealists in which artists collectively create a work by contributing a part without seeing what others have done. 

As part of the ongoing celebration of its 60th birthday, Art League offers “Art Now,” a collection of works created in the past year. October 8 through November 3. 

At Neptune Fine Art Gallery October 10 through December 20 is “Out of Bounds,” an exhibit of contemporary abstract paintings by nine American artists. 

CulturalDC presents “Embodying the Ephemeral,” which showcases works by Leslie Berns and Shelley Warren that examine relationships between identity and the environment. October 17 through November 15 at Flashpoint. 


The theme of this month’s Phillips After 5 is What’s the Pointe? Inspired by the museum’s “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” exhibit, the event features Washington Ballet dancers, live jazz, and digital art activities.  

The (e)merge Art Fair takes over Capitol Skyline Hotel October 2 through 5 with performances, art shows, and the chance to buy works by up-and-coming artists. 

Art League hosts Art on Tap, an event that pairs seven paintings by Art League instructors with local beers and appetizers created by various Alexandria restaurants. Friday, October 3, 7 to 10:30 PM.

On October 11, Torpedo Factory’s family-friendly Art Safari returns, offering hands-on workshops to teach kids how to make bottlecap necklaces, draw with crayons, and more. 

As part of the 5x5 Project, on October 17, Iranian-born artist Ali Momeni transforms Dupont Circle into a virtual sculpture garden with a “large-scale projection performance.” 7 to 10 PM. 

The Smithsonian Craft2Wear show at the National Building Museum offers clothing, jewelry, and accessories from artists who participated in the Smithsonian Craft Show. October 24 through 26.

For more arts and entertainment coverage, follow After Hours on Twitter at @afterhoursblog

Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 10/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new exhibit showcases the largest predatory dinosaur ever discovered. By Michael Gaynor
A life-size Spinosaurus replica is on display outside the National Geographic Museum. Photograph by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

When the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum closed this April to undergo a $48 million renovation, Washingtonians lost a valuable provider of their Jurassic fix. That exhibit won’t be finished until 2019, but fear not, dinosaur obsessives—today the National Geographic Museum opens its own exhibit featuring a prehistoric carnivore so ferocious that scientists now say it could tear the Smithsonian’s puny Tyrannosaurus rex to pieces.

“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” showcases a 50-foot-long skeletal model of its eponymous dinosaur, crafted after the discovery of new fossils found in the Moroccan desert and painstaking analysis of past remains and records. It’s the biggest known predatory dinosaur ever, nine feet longer than the largest T. rex on record. Sure, the two species were separated by about 35 million years—but that doesn’t mean we can’t fantasize about a good ol’ fashioned dino brawl, as the makers of 2001’s Jurassic Park III did when they had them square off in that oft-ignored sequel. (For the record, Spinosaurus won.)

But just as impressive as Spinosaurus’s power is how paleontologists found it. That story is also told in National Geographic’s exhibit, beginning with German paleontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach’s naming of the new species in 1915 after its fossils were uncovered in Egypt.

Stromer displayed the find in a Munich museum. An outspoken critic of Hitler, he tried to have his specimen moved to a safer place during World War II, but the museum’s Nazi director refused. The bones were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1944, and Stromer, who also lost two sons in the war, sank into obscurity.

After that, the tale wends from a Milanese museum to the black market fossil bazaars of Morocco as paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim hunted for the most important cache of Spinosaurus fossils since Stromer’s time. “A dinosaur detective story,” Ibrahim called it. The National Geographic Museum’s skeleton is a composite based on the Moroccan bones uncovered last year, smaller remains scattered in museums around the globe, and records of the original Egyptian dig for Spinosaurus more than 100 years ago.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

Ibrahim’s discovery led to a number of revelations about the enigmatic creature that were published for the first time in the journal Science yesterday. The research team revealed that Spinosaurus is history’s only known semiaquatic dinosaur, adapted to spend a large amount of time in the water hunting.

They proved that Spinosaurus’s snout— long and narrow like a crocodile, not fat like a T. rex—had nostrils placed high up on the skull, so the dinosaur could breathe while its jaw was submerged underwater. And it had pressure sensors to detect the movement of nearby fish, just like a crocodile.

The team even solved “the riddle of the sail,” as University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno put it. People have argued about the purpose of the “spine” part of Spinosaurus since its unearthing. Some said it was meant to trap or disperse heat, or was used for fat storage. But Ibrahim and Sereno now believe it was used as a display—as Spinosaurus swam looking for prey, the sail would stick out of the water as a warning to other predators to stay out of its hunting grounds.

It’s clear that National Geographic wants people to get excited about Spinosaurus—the story of the new findings is on the cover of its October issue, and a PBS special will air on November 5. You can also check out a life-size flesh replica of the dinosaur in the museum’s courtyard—and, yes, there are baskets upon baskets of Spinosaurus plush dolls in the gift shop.

“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” runs until April 12. Admission to the National Geographic Museum is $11 for adults. Find dinosaur enthusiast Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor.

Posted at 11:20 AM/ET, 09/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()