Sue was underwhelming, her
size largely squandered
With only two days in Chicago, I faced some difficult choices how to best use the time. News that the Chicago Wolves were in town to defend the Turner Cup tempted me with a lowbrow hat trick of minor league hockey, Rush Street pubs, and the latest Jerry Springer cage match. But my cerebral side won a rare victory, and I headed to the Field Museum of Natural History instead.
Specifically, I went to see Sue. The marquee exhibit at the Field Museum, Sue is the world's largest and most complete T. Rex skeleton, named after Sue Hendrickson, the woman who found her. (An androgynous name like "Chris" or "Terry" would have been more fitting, since experts cannot determine Sue's gender.)
The Field Museum is milking Sue as aggressively as they can. They have billboard ads throughout the city displaying just an animated T Rex skeleton, "Sue," and the name of the museum. A gigantic banner with the same image hangs along the front of the building. The weekend I visited, the musuem threw a Sue birthday party to celebrate the date its Sue display opened to the public.
Before my visit, I'd seen a "Nova" special about Sue that showed her remains being hauled aboard a flatbed tractor-trailer as though she were several tons of steel. I'd also heard that the Field Museum (backed by a coalition of corporate benefactors) paid $8.5 million at auction for Sue, easily a record price for a dinosaur, and then needed to develop a new mounting technology to safely display her heavy bones. All of this history helped push my expectations extremely high. Perhaps Sue wouldn't reach the awesome-yet-feasible height of, say, Godzilla (1960s version) or the prehistoric predators on "Land of the Lost," but certainly she'd be capable of peering into third-story windows.
As I walked into the Field Museum's main concourse, a room the size of a football field and open to skylights six stories up, I spotted the dinosaur skeleton immediately. "Is that Sue?" I wondered. I had to check the signage to make sure.
Even factoring for the visual relativity of the concourse, Sue was underwhelming, her size largely squandered in deference to the current theory that T. Rexes stood with a horizontal posture rather than a vertical one. Her frame is displayed lengthwise, chest and arms near the ground and tail extending out straight behind her. Her highest point (her head) reaches maybe 18 feet high. Her body probably never breaks the 14-foot mark. Meanwhile, what would have been Sue's height under the past theory of vertical alignment is now her length, which the Field Museum says runs 42 feet from nose to tail - just enough that, if Sue were rotated 90 degrees, she'd be able to peer into third-story windows.
After my disappointment waned, I moved in for a closer look. One area where the Field Museum cannot be faulted is the detail work done on Sue's skeleton. The completeness of Sue's skeleton is amazing, and the museum did a commendable job of cleaning and displaying each individual bone. The museum also deserves praise for making Sue so accessible. Surprisingly, she stands behind museum ropes rather than glass, allowing visitors unobstructed viewing from as close as 6 feet.
Sue herself is complemented by an exhibit detailing Sue's history and - of course - a shop full of Sue-themed apparel, kitchenware, and other souvenirs. My favorite touch, though, is a corps of "Sue experts" who circulate the crowds around Sue sharing tidbits about her. "Are there any questions I can answer for you?" one of the experts asked me.
"Why, yes," I replied. "Do you know what time they start taping Jerry Springer?"
Article copyright 2001 Jeff Mulder