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King of the Dinosaurs — A new special exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Denmark has a black Tyrannosaurus Rex as its lead act. Even if you, like this University Post reporter, generally get put to sleep by fossils, this dino hits you like a fist in the gut.
There is a bubbly, buoyant vibe right now at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Employees buzz around holding hushed conversations about the last few things that need to be in place before the opening of the new exhibition [now open]. The corner of a photostatted display has curled up, and the glue needs to be strengthened. The group has been working on this exhibition for a long time. During the lockdown, it was with baited breath. But now redemption.
The dinosaurs didn’t stand a chance, but we do.
Museum Director Peter C. Kjærgaard, Natural History Museum of Denmark
And they have a gigantic lead act.
I’m overwhelmed with the museum’s welcoming. The usual press visits, where journalists are channelled through a long queue sausage have been replaced corona style by exclusive guided tours. This means that I have the whole exhibition, the museum director, and the conservator for myself. It is two days before the opening of the King of the Dinosaurs.
This king is interesting, because it is one of the world’s most complete skeletons of a 12 metre long and four metre tall Tyrannosaurus Rex. Because it, due to its provenance, has a heavy metal, matte black, colour. And because it, with its extinction, reminds us of what we are about to do with the planet.
»The dinosaurs didn’t stand a chance, but we do,« says museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard.
It is a hot day, but there are no sloppy shorts or sandals here. The director and the conservator are looking sharp in their nice shirts. The latter, Abdi Hedayat, has chosen a dramatic attire of black shirt and black trousers. A broad black tie with the white skeleton of a long-necked T-Rex signals whose side he is on.
Abdi Hedayet has accompanied the prehistoric giant on its journey from a pedestal in Berlin, where it is normally exhibited at the Museum für Naturkunde, to the rooms in the old mineralogical university museum on Øster Voldgade street. He has dusted off every bone with a soft brush in gloved hands.
Tristan Otto. One of the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons. More than half of the animal’s 300 bones have survived. The name comes from the Greek ‘tyrannos’ meaning tyrant, and ‘sauros’ meaning lizard and the Latin rex, for king.
The heavy skull is a scientific cast. Tristan Otto’s original skull has its own glass display case. The skull consists of 92 per cent original material, including almost all the fearsome teeth – and the remnants of an abscess on the jaw.
Triceratops skull. With its distinctive neck collar and fitted with deadly horns and a sharp beak, this weighty herbivore (plant eater) was a challenging prey for the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Allosaurus. A carnivorous dinosaur with razor-sharp teeth, that like the ‘rex’ ran on its hind legs and was at the apex of the food chain.
Nanosaurus. A successful herbivore. The skull is the most complete specimen of this species in the world.
Deinonychus. The inspiration for the raptors in the Jurassic Park films. The name is Greek and means terrible claw.
Zephyrosaurus. Perfect prey for a Deinonychus. Photo: Natural History Museum of Denmark
»It’s really fascinating to be doing, but it’s also a bit scary,« he says in a Facebook video, where he is brushing a vertebra before the skeleton was wrapped up for freight:
»I have done lots of skeletons from modern animals, from tiny shrews from Æbelø to stranded whales. But what is fascinating is that this is 70 million years old – I actually mostly want to retire after this,« he says in the video and laughs.
The cautious reopening of Denmark comes after the national museum has taken a corona hit. But it is the same for everyone, says museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard without a hint of bitterness despite the high expectations for the exhibition:
»Of all the things that attract people to a museum like ours, dinosaurs and butterflies are the biggest draws to the audience. It should have been our greatest year ever. If the borders were open, our exhibition would have been one of the top attractions in Copenhagen in 2020. Something that tourists would come to Copenhagen to experience,« he says.
And that these expectations were not unfounded, can be seen from the dinosaur’s own track record:
When the T-Rex was exhibited in Berlin, it doubled the museum’s attendance. The last weekend in January before it was packed down in lined boxes, 25,000 people shuffled past by to say their goodbyes to what they perceive as »the city’s T-rex,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard.
The prospect of loads of visitors from both Denmark and abroad had the National Museum of Denmark investing in a new ticketing system, like in the most popular museums in the major metropolises, where visitors book online to avoid huge queues. The new system is still useful, not because of the numbers of visitors, but because the museum has had to adjust its audience flow to the corona crisis. They are allowed to let 20 visitors in, every quarter of an hour.
»You can still just show up. But if you want to avoid waiting, you can book a time online. So it was lucky that we got the system in place before corona,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard.
We go from the courtyard out to the exhibition.
»We are now going to do some time travel,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard. »Natural history museums can bring you back to worlds that have disappeared, and that’s what we want to do. We want to give people the feeling of something familiar and yet different. And it takes something to have people coming in from the street in Copenhagen and being brought back 100 million years in time.«
The first sense that is activated is your hearing. Someone has turned on an audio track. It is the sound of deep forest buzzing with life and the sounds of insects. The soundtrack is the result of a collaboration between a sonic artist and the museum’s researchers, says the director:
»We do not know what dinosaurs sounded like, but we know what it sounds like when a branch breaks, and we have created a sound universe, that pretty much matches the species that existed at the time, so you, also emotionally, can be drawn in,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard and makes a programmatic statement:
»We want to be the people’s museum. We would like to find the right balance, so no matter how much you know, and whatever your background is, our exhibition will speak to you.«
You can say a lot about the rhinoceros, but it doesn’t have a sense of humour.
Conservator Abdi Hedayat, Natural History Museum of Denmark
I confess to the museum director and the conservator that distant natural history doesn’t really interest me. I don’t really resonate with animals, and nicotine-yellow remains of very old animals seem irrelevant and tend to put me to sleep.
For someone ignorant like me, the sounds work. Tantalizing. The lighting is cool too – subdued, almost dim, as in dense vegetation. And there – what! – two dinosaurs.
»Apart from the T-Rex, we present five other dinosaurs that have never ever been exhibited to the public,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard. »A world premiere! We have set them up in pairs, a predator dinosaur and a prey dinosaur,« he says, taken over by enthusiasm:
»You have the hunter and the hunted facing off. Just like today on the savanna, for the predator it is about being as effective and fast a killer as possible, and their strategies were similar to those we see today. The dinosaurs adapted so they became superior at hunting, fleeing and surviving. Animals today are dependent on the same adaptations.«
This continuity is illustrated in the museum by a scattering of current species throughout the exhibition. From the museum’s own collections we meet, for example, crocodile, spotted hyena and clouded leopard, the killers (this is how they are referred to on the signs), which prevail today, and have similar strategies. There is a straight line from the exhibition’s Allosaurus to our present-day Komodo dragon. And from the exhibition’s Triceratops to the temperamental black rhinos.
»You can say a lot about the rhinoceros, but it does lack a sense of humour,« jokes Abdi Hedayat, who has joined us again.
Then something happens to the sounds. Like in a film, when the music is building up to a climax. We have moved down a corridor with giant dinosaur footprints on the floor. There are impressive facts about the T-Rex on the walls that will even astound the dinosaur connoisseurs (which are often to be found among 6-12-year-old children).
And at the end of the dark corridor, the eye catches a big round spot of light, and inside is the iconic, sharp, silhouette of the king’s skull. The deranged jaw, the terrible teeth. It is an elegant and efficient teaser, and you would like to get there in a hurry once you have seen it.
»It does not get crazier than this,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard, and then with dramatic intonation: »We are about to see the most notorious predator that ever walked on the planet. And it’s not just a T-Rex, it’s a black T- Rex,« he says. He whispers the colour black.
We have spread across the globe, and we are one of the most fearsome things the planet has ever experienced. We are able to hunt and kill all life around us.
The director and the conservator let me go first. They want to see how I react. They have talked about how important audience feedback is to them.
»Damn! Holy shit! Jesus! Wow! Goddammit!« I do a lot of cursing. I apologise. I am overwhelmed. Everyone laughs.
There it is: the wildest creature I’ve ever seen. No comparison. The dull, matte black colour is from the minerals in the Montana earth that surrounded the skeleton 66 million years ago. I am completely bowled over. Go quiet. Almost reverent.
His name is Tristan Otto. That the old T-Rex has a name that also figures on the charts of popular boys’ names this millennium is because its – Danish – owners have named it after their sons.
Think about it! It is privately owned – and this goes for all the six dinosaur exhibits, according to Peter C. Kjærgaard. This is a special niche in luxury living. Just like you can buy a Mark Rothko at an art auction, you can acquire an Allosaurus at a fossil auction. Or one of the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons in dull black.
»This is quite normal. That everything is financed from discovery to excavation to preparation,« says the museum director. This goes for Tristan Otto too.
In the US, you have the rights to the things you find on the land you own. If you find a dinosaur, you can sell it to anyone who wants to – and can – pay, according to Peter C. Kjærgaard. This is not the case in Denmark, where unique fossils are considered to belong to society.
»It’s like art collectors, some keep their treasures to themselves. But there are also some who – as cultural patrons – want to share it with as many people in the rest of the world as possible,« says Peter C. Kjærgaard.
The dinosaurs dominated the earth for many millions of years until a huge meteor 66 million years ago, bang, killed at least 75 per cent of all species. We call it the fifth mass extinction.
Today, some people speak of a sixth mass extinction. But it’s not some super power that is coming to us from the outside. It is mankind.
Museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard is a professor of evolutionary history, and he says:
»I really hope that Tristan Otto can help start a conversation about how we can take care of our planet. Homo Sapiens has been incredibly successful as an invasive species. We have spread across the globe, and we are one of the most fearsome things the planet has ever experienced. We are able to hunt and kill all the life around us.
He hopes that Tristan Otto can be an effective ambassador, because, as he says:
»When you face a T-Rex, you can instinctively feel that you are the prey.«
That was it. The reverence. Tristan Otto teaches you, through the resounding echo of millions of years, humility. That you have to spend your time wisely, because you’re just a little shit. That you should respect all species, even the most disgusting ones. That you should fly less, sort your garbage, and stop buying more of the clothes you don’t need. That you should finish what is on your plate. Because the planet can only take so much.
Translated by Mike Young