As I walk into the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s partially reassembled dinosaur hall, the first thing I notice is a Diplodocus peeking out at me. Its long neck cranes out from behind a cutout of a Jurassic tree, and its 150-million-year-old skull is angled in an almost cheeky way. “Oh hi,” it seems to say. “It’s you. Welcome.”
The famous 107-year-old hall closed down in 2014 for a five-year renovation, and is set to reopen in June 2019. When I visited it a month ago, it was cavernous and mostly empty. Now it’s a hive of activity, and a labyrinth of boxes, ladders, and paint pots. Stacks of ancient bones and steel brackets dot the space. Three dozen crates sit in a corner with “T-REX” stamped on them in a bold, aggressive font.
This is the fun bit, when the hall starts coming to life—when long-imagined exhibits are finally constructed, and when the museum’s specimens come home to be reassembled. A mammoth, a mastodon, and a giant ground sloth are already complete. The enormous, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs, including the Diplodocus, are next in line.
When I walk under the dinosaur’s neck and around the tree, I find that the animal is very much a work in progress: The skeleton is missing its front legs, ribcage, and shoulders. This is fairly typical. When assembling a dinosaur, you almost always start by building up one hind leg and down the other, before extending forward to the head and backwards to the tail. “Everything flows from the pelvis,” says Siobhan Starrs, who works at the museum and has been managing the renovation. It provides stability, and is often the heaviest bone; a tyrannosaur pelvis can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds.