The Go-To Guide: Dinosaur Gallery at COSI

Julanne Hohbach
A mechanical Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton shows the dinosaur's movement at the new American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery at COSI.

COSI’s latest exhibition has been in the works for two years, but the subject matter is millions of years in the making.

The widely anticipated American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery at COSI opens Nov. 18, 14 months after the project was officially announced. Most visitors will likely agree it was worth the wait.

The permanent first-floor exhibition, which boasts 130 specimens from the venerable New York City museum’s collection, showcases dinosaurs on a scale that’s never been seen before in Columbus. The gallery’s curator, Mark Norell, who is the chairman of the AMNH Division of Paleontology, said there’s nothing like it in the Midwest outside of The Field Museum in Chicago—home of Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered.

“There was a need here, and we were excited to be able to reach a new audience,” said Sharon Stulberg, senior director of global business development with AMNH.

As visitors travel through the 13,000-square-foot gallery, they will be wowed by numerous life-size specimens, including a cast of a T. rex skeleton, a wire-frame apatosaurus, a velociraptor, a yutyrannus, skulls and more. The exhibition—AMNH’s first partnership of this type with a science center—contains a variety of real and cast fossils (some of which can be touched), a collection of fossilized amber, multimedia components and interactive stations. Items represent dig sites across the globe, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Canada and Asia.

Frederic Bertley, president and CEO of COSI, calls this “a momentous time in COSI’s history.”

“I’m in the business of trying to raise awareness of science literacy,” Bertley said. Regardless of age, culture, race or religion, he said, “Dinosaurs resonate with people.”

As they travel through the exhibit, guests will learn about dinosaur biology, behavior and extinction. “It’s more than just going to see the specimens,” said Norell, a 28-year AMNH veteran.

A 10-by-15-foot re-creation of a fossil bed of dinosaur tracks found at the Davenport Ranch in Texas in 1940 uses colored lights to show the movement of sauropods and theropods during the Cretaceous period. “By the pattern of overlap, you can tell the order in which they walked through here,” Norell said. “Just like African elephants today, all the big ones are out on the edges and in the front and all the little ones are in the middle.”

A highly detailed 700-square-foot diorama—an exhibition style for which AMNH is well-known—rewinds the clock 130 million years to a forest in what is now Northeast China.

A back section of the gallery explores how birds’ biology, traits and behaviors (think feathers, eggs and nesting) are shared with dinosaurs. “We talk about how birds are not only related to dinosaurs, but they’re kinds of dinosaurs,” Norell said. A corner of this area houses a full-size model of a gigantoraptor nest on which kids can climb. “There’s some pretty remarkable-looking animals that we made models out of that will really change people’s idea that dinosaurs were just big scaly giant lizard-looking creatures,” Norell said.

Be prepared to devote a healthy chunk of time to explore Dinosaur Gallery. There’s a lot to take in. “Our institutional philosophy is to give people more than they want because, too often, I think that a lot of museum shows are just kind of dumbed down. And people say, well it’s for kids. But I think they really do underestimate children,” Norell said. “They can learn a lot in a hurry and they actually do read.”

What does the curator hope visitors will get from the experience? “I want people to come out of the show learning at least three or four things that they didn’t know before.”

One of those educational facets is that “Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. We just call them birds now. And also that a lot of the characteristics that are in modern birds that we think are bird features like colored eggs or wishbones or hollow bones, they were present in lots of dinosaurs way before birds even existed,” Norell said.

Dinosaur Gallery soon will be joined by a companion American Museum of Natural History Exhibition Gallery inside COSI—a 9,000-square-foot space will host rotating content from AMNH. The first of those, “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathways to the Modern World,” will focus on that well-known ancient trading route and the migration of people between Asia and Europe. It runs March 3 through Sept. 3 and will be followed by “The Power of Poison” and “Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids: Mythic Creatures.” Both “Silk Road” and “Mythic Creatures” will be curated by Norell.  

Of Note

Credit a multipronged civic and private partnership for bringing dinosaurs to Columbus. Discussions to bring a satellite of the renowned American Museum of Natural History to Central Ohio started about two years ago. The Columbus Downtown Development Corp., COSI, AMNH, a $5 million investment from the state and a $2 million donation from Abigail and Les Wexner all came together to make the vision a reality.

The partnership is one piece of a broader plan to redevelop the Scioto Peninsula. That effort is well underway with the new National Veterans Memorial & Museum just across West Broad Street, as well as a new parking garage at COSI topped by a park with a wide expanse of grass, foot paths, tables, playground equipment and musical instruments.