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Big dinosaur = big museum attraction

Scott Tong Jan 14, 2016
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Big dinosaur = big museum attraction

Scott Tong Jan 14, 2016
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Mark Norell and Peter May inspecting the casting. 

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City opened a new “Titanosaur” exhibit featuring a whopping 122-foot long dinosaur skeleton.

That’s longer than the museum’s famed blue whale. In fact this giant herbivore, from the Argentine section of Patagonia, is so long it can’t fit in its exhibit room. It sticks its head and neck around the corner and into the hallway to greet visitors.

But does more dinosaur mean more money? More visitors? More tchotchkes sold?

“It’s not just a dollars and cents kind of thing,” said Mark Norell, chair of paleontology at the museum.

Still, the museum does conduct “market evaluations” of visitors.

“The great majority of people when they identify this place with something is identified with dinosaurs,” Norell said.

This main attraction is what brings people in, at $22 per adults and $12.50 per kid (that’s the suggested general admission price). The museum did not provide budget information, but the exhibit has a special foundation grant.

The massive fiberglass cast was created over six months.

The museum is not raising prices. Still, it’s worth asking whether one more giant creature will bring in additional visitors.

“What they have already in their showroom is already pretty amazing and world class,” said Stephen Meier of the Columbia Business School and co-author of a paper on museum economics. “Whether just a bigger dinosaur will draw many more visitors, I doubt it.”

The museum challenge is part of a bigger story of financial survival for a field of scientists bringing fossils to life.

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno said it takes years to find a dinosaur, and then half a million dollars after that – to clean fossils, cast, mold, model, transport, explain and exhibit. The key to making the money back is films and public exhibits.

“The public and their interest plays a big role,” Sereno said. “So bringing it to them through films, through exhibits is the motor that ultimately makes it possible. Is it generating tons of money? Uh, no.”

And yet paleontologists and museums can’t sit still. Families visit museums to see something new. 

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