Arts center presents exhibit with a sense of humor

Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2000

WILMINGTON, Del. -- As they enter the ''Discov-ering Dinosaurs'' exhibit, visitors get the first indication this is not your usual museum display. They come upon a cordoned-off work area with broken ceiling tiles and a hard hat on the ground.

''Beware -- dinosaur damage above,'' warns a nearby sign.

Poking through the ceiling above is the grinning skull of a mamenchisaurus, the longest-necked animal yet discovered. The 70-foot Chinese plant eater's neck breaks a second hole in the ceiling, leading down to a bulky body standing yards from the work site.

Robotic dinosaurs that spit water and spring up beside startled viewers join

reconstructed dinosaur skeletons and rare fossils to create what organizers say is currently the largest traveling dinosaur exhibit in the world.

More than 50,000 people have visited the exhibit since its March 10 opening at the First USA Riverfront Arts Center. Organizers predict attendance will surpass 100,000 by June 4 when the display ends.

The exhibit includes serious scientific artifacts and information. An extensive display of drawings illustrates the progression of life on Earth, from the time before dinosaurs had evolved until long after their mass extinction.

The 25,000-square-foot-exhibit, which encompasses seven galleries, includes several reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. The bones are exact casts of actual dinosaur bones. A sign explains that mounting real bones is bad science, because iron supports can damage the rare finds.

But serious science aside, the accompanying signs are often tongue-in-cheek. Next to a massive foot planted on the floor with leg bones running up to the ceiling is a sign declaring it ''the biggest drumstick.'' The bone belonged to an ultrasaurus, a large form of the plant-eating brashiosaurus.

Throughout the exhibit are attractions for children: a digging pit filled with sand and imitation dinosaur fossils, a mechanical Dimetrodon that children can move by remote control, and a ''Dinosaur Theater'' with an oversized bone where children can sit.

A favorite attraction has been a quizzical-looking robotic dilophosaurus, which cocks its head as it regards its audience, then spits a stream of water. A line of children, who have caught onto the game, often stand directly in front it, screaming their approval each time they're hit with another spray.

''Beware of spitting. This dinosaur has no manners,'' says an adjacent sign.

''I've worked a lot in museums, and the frustration is that there's not enough for children to do and play with,'' says the exhibit's creator, Don Lessem.

One young visitor, preschooler Danny Raffa, is hesitant as he enters the robotic dinosaur exhibit, whimpering, ''I'm scared.'' His brother, Andrew, a first-grader, scoffs at Danny's cowardice and strides into the display.

Suddenly, a fierce-looking, tyrannosaurus-like dinosaur springs up beside the two boys. Danny is unfazed, but his older brother runs, shrieking.

''It came up on my side -- that was the scary part,'' Andrew says.

Another preschooler, Patrick Thomas, cringes and backs against his mother as they walk through the exhibit. But when they reach the end, he declares, ''Mommy, I want to go back there again,'' sticks his thumb in his mouth and marches solemnly back.

Lessem says he spent a lot of time trying to determine the exact fright component of the exhibit.

''Kids want some thrill,'' he says. ''But you don't want to terrorize them.''

Lessem says he hopes to take the exhibit to Niagara Falls, N.Y., Mobile, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., after the Wilmington run.

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