— JAMES BARTLETT
Dr. Luis M. Chiappe gazes up at the enormous head of Thomas, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever discovered, as it hangs suspended some 30 feet in the air. Above it, a technician on a scissor-li begins the delicate process of reuniting Thomas’ head and body for the first time in 66 million years. When the job is done and the straps flutter free, Chiappe exhales. “That was the riskiest moment,” he says.
Nearly a decade ago Chiappe, the director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Dinosaur Institute, led the Montana expedition that uncovered Thomas’ bones. Now, the dino serves as the centerpiece of the museum’s new 14,000-square-foot Dinosaur Hall, opening this month. The hall, part of the museum’s ongoing $135 million transformation, also features more than 300 fossils and 20 full skeletons, including a triceratops, which was also discovered on a Chiappe-led expedition.
After the Thomas find, Chiappe crisscrossed the country to consult with the armature designers whose steel mounts bring the T.rex to life in a mix of science and kinesiology. This being California, the exhibit was also made “earthquake-ready.” The specimens are welded to the building’s structural floor under the marble, and Thomas is a ached to hanging steel cords.
Standing in the shadow of the complete skeleton, Chiappe reflects on his “once in a lifetime” project. “It’s so dynamic,” he says, “so alive, so magnificent. I’ve seen these bones hundreds of times now, but when I see them like this I can only think: awesome.”