By Timothy Gillis
A new dinosaur exhibit at the Portland Science Center combines childhood wonders with an art show for the grown-ups. Dinosaurs Unearthed has enough life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, skeletons, and fossils to keep busloads of kids entertained and enthralled for hours. And a decades-long painting project by artist Philip Carlo Paratore will keep the chaperones from getting restless.
Powered by customized mechanical technology and a dynamic jointing system, the dinosaurs, ranging from a Velociraptor to a Triceratops to a juvenile T-Rex come to virtual life in the exhibit, which places each creature in naturalistic indoor landscapes.
Thirteen of the dinosaurs are fully animatronic, and more recent research has led exhibitors to add feathers to several of the creatures.
A couple of short films help ease the introduction for timid youngsters and provide elementary content for teachers to consider adding to their lesson plans.
“We did a teacher preview and the response was phenomenal,” said Matt Stone, sales and marketing director at the PSC on Commercial Street. “Some of this curriculum has been dropped (in schools). The teachers were talking about how they can bring it back.”
The hour-long tour has parents and educators giving hands-on guidance, making sure the youngest of their entourage don’t get frightened by the sights.
“Some kids are a little bit scared to go in. Kids under six – I’d say about 25 percent of them are nervous. But going in, only 10 percent needed to be calmed down,” Stone said. “It’s noisy. There’s lots of growling.”
The PSC says their show challenges beliefs about how dinosaurs lived, looked, and sounded in pre-historic times. “In relatively recent years, paleontologists have come to believe that some dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds – leading to the hypothesis that some dinosaurs may have been feathered.”
They hope this new angle will add to the attraction for grade school students. They offer a guide to help educators make connections between the material presented in the tour and national curriculum standards for STEM (or science, technology, engineering, and math) goals.
Students (primarily K-8) can participate in activities, games, puzzles, and six different lessons plans including Mesozoic Math and Dinosaur Detectives, where junior paleontologists dig into a sand pit for skeletal remains at the “Kids Dig Table.”
They can also take in genuine fossils like the egg of an Oviraptor, which is Latin, ironically enough, for “egg stealer.” The most bird-like of the non-avian dinosaurs, its nesting position found in one specimen suggested the presence of feathered wings. The PSC’s exhibit also includes a feathered T-Rex.
Students can check out coprolite, or dung stone, a deceptively valuable item in the exhibit since animal excrement is easily fragmented or destroyed and whole fossilized remains are rare. In addition to the animatronic creatures, the exhibition will feature full-sized skeletons: a Yangchuanosaurus and a Tuojiangosaurus.
Dinosaurs may seem like familiar fodder for museum exhibits, but this is the first time Dinosaurs Unearthed has made it to New England, and perhaps the biggest addition to the show is a powerful series of paintings by Philip Carlo Paratore. As a ten-year-old boy growing up in Manhattan, he loved drawing pictures of animals and taking trips to the American Museum of Natural History.
“I clearly remember that first visit,” he said from South Portland this week. “When I returned years later, I sought to turn it into a project as an adult.”
The resulting decades-long artistic venture is called The Dinosaur Portfolio, with more than 100 paintings rendered primarily in oil paints while some of the works were started in acrylic for the foundation. The exhibit has been shown at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Canada.
Paratore, who teaches art classes at the University of Southern Maine, said his personal work and public teaching allow him “ways to discuss several big ideas – extinction, evolution, even global warming.” His art and educational experiences have informed his research, leading to journeys to Stonehenge, the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux and Fonte de Gaume, and the Olduvai Gorge (in modern-day Tanzania).
The most recent and exciting aspect of The Dinosaur Portfolio, he says, occurred when he made the connection between landscape paintings inspired by satellite photographs of earth and his earlier work depicting fossilized dinosaur bones.
The images “strive to make a connection between science and art, but they are essentially metaphorical and poetic rather than explanatory. Each painting may be viewed as a visual experiment: an interplay of technical symbol, diagrammatic schema, naturalistic representation, and artistic metaphor,” said Paratore, who used to have occasional shows at Davidson and Daughters Contemporary Art Gallery, but has focused on teaching more lately. With huge prehistoric beasts and the fine, delicate lines of art, the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibit has exciting sights and lessons for all-aged students.
For information on the exhibition and to purchase tickets, visitportlandsciencecenter.com.