Picture an archaeological dig: People armed with chisels and brushes, knee deep in a pit, painstakingly removing the dirt around a fossil — then putting on lab coats and goggles, examining their discoveries under microscopes.
Now imagine that these curious paleontologists are elementary school children — and their lab coats have dinosaur patches sewn into the bottom right corner.
That’s the view at the new ‘I Dig Dinos’ exhibit on the third floor at the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, in downtown Salt Lake City. Children get a chance to perform like actual paleontologists, extracting bones from a dig site, processing them in field tents, carting them off to match to a replica of Utah’s state dinosaur, the Utahraptor. They also get to observe other fossils in a laboratory, under real microscopes.
Kathleen Bodenlos, the museum’s executive director, had the idea while daydreaming during a flight. “The first image I had in my mind was of a little kid holding a gigantic fossil,” she said. “I started thinking about that process of paleontology and how it could be so great for an interactive exhibit.”
Less than two years later, the museum has built an interactive exhibit that, as the museum describes it, “takes a child through the whole experience of being a paleontologist.” A small in-house exhibition team formed a task force of parents and museum board members, who gave suggestions on how to make the exhibit as accessible as possible to children.
“Unlike in other exhibits, where the fossils are very separated in the museum, behind glass, real far from the child, our little ones will come up and they’ll slobber all over them,” Bodenlos joked.
Interactivity was the goal for the exhibit, Bodenlos said. Throughout the exhibit, signs are posted encouraging children to “please touch” certain fossils. The language is straightforward, telling children they can look at the fossils they dug up under the microscope.
To simulate the experience of being in a lab, the museum called in paleontologist Joe Dabelko, who is on the board of directors of the Western Interior Paleontological Society and is the state secretary of the Utah Friends of Paleontology.
“When they first approached me, they asked if I could give them a few fossils that they could use for touch exhibits,” Dabelko said.
Exhibit creators visited Dabelko, and got to see his extensive collection of fossils — some 20,000 pieces, amassed over the last 61 years, ever since Dabelko started collecting fossils when he was 5.
Dabelko told the exhibit makers to make a wish list of fossils they wanted, and he’d see what he could do. Dabelko ended up giving Discovery Gateway about 200 fossils — many of them unearthed in Utah and Wyoming. Not all of them can be seen by visitors yet, because the museum is adding more display cases..
Donating a portion of his life’s work to the museum is “a dream come true,” Dabelko said. Discovery Gateway reminded him of his own childhood, when his parents took him to the now-shuttered Petrified Sea Gardens in Saratoga, in upstate New York.
The place was “a bunch of chicken wire and cement dinosaurs,” Dabelko said. Still, “I was in my glory, walking around those dinosaurs,” he added.
Dabelko recalled he was too young to hunt for fossils in the limestone exposure pit at the site. But outside the dirt parking lot, Dabelko found a massive piece of limestone. He looked carefully, he said, and saw the imprint of a clamshell “half the size of his pinky.”
He wanted to take the limestone home, he said, but his dad took one look at it and said “no.” Dabelko said he countered with a five-year-old’s only tool of persuasion: Tears. His father chiseled the rock on the spot, and Dabelko had his first fossil: A devonian brachiopods. He still has it.
The experience made Dabelko a lifelong fan of children’s museums, because of exhibits that “inspire kids and [offer] an incredible opportunity,” he said.
Bodenlos said those childhood experiences are crucial. “Kids respect that exposure early and it gets in their blood,” she said. “Then they want to go to museums when they’re an adult.”
‘Fossils tell stories’
Dabelko said he visits the “I Dig Dinos” exhibit at least twice a month. He works with the museum’s employees, preparing them for questions kids might have when they visit.
“There is nothing more exciting than being engaged by a 10-year-old about a spinosaurus and them wanting to know more,” Dabelko said. “Odds are the kid knows more about it than I do.”
Ultimately, the joy of paleontology comes from a simple place for Dabelko. “Fossils tell stories, if you take the time to look at them,” he said.
In the exhibit, he points out a rock that is 240 million years old. It came out of Sardine Pass in 1990, from blasting done when crews were widening the road. He points out small details in the fossils in that rock — like bird tracks — that people might miss without a microscope and experience.
While children interact with the exhibit, Dabelko stays close by. He sits and watches, then walks through a tiny aisle in the laboratory area — answering every enthusiastic and curious question sent his way.
When one little girl asks him when a “90 billion-year-old dinosaur egg will hatch,” he laughs, bends down to her level and tells her they’ll have to wait and see, since it hasn’t hatched yet.
“Paleontology is one of the things that children, particularly young children, get into,” Dabelko said. “Kinds are amazed with monsters. Dinosaurs are real life monsters. We’re providing a thing that teaches them, as well as entertains them.”
“I Dig Dinos,” an interactive exhibit, can be experienced at the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, in The Gateway, at the corner of 100 South and Rio Grande St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday (closed Tuesdays), and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $12.50 for children (ages 1 to 17), $13.50 for adults, $12.50 for people 65 and older, and free for museum members and babies less than a year old. Go to DiscoveryGateway.org for details.
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