The new exhibit at Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven has a unique premise. It's all about the archaeopteryx, one of the oldest dinosaurs known to have a full wing system, an ancestor to modern birds. Rather than just show fossil casts of the bird-dinosaur, six artists were commissioned to create interpretations of the archaeopteryx. Their work shows a variety of iterations of the creature, which lived in what is now Europe in the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago.
The traveling exhibit originated at Kenosha Public Museum in Wisconsin but is a natural for the Peabody, whose founder, O.C. Marsh, was in the thick of the archaeopteryx research community after fossils of the bird were discovered in a rich limestone repository in Germany in 1861.
Many fascinating casts of the German discoveries fill the gallery, but the charm of the exhibit are the six paleo-artists: Mark Hallett, Dennis J. Wilson, Luis V. Rey, William Stout, Gary Staab and Julius Csotonyi. Paintings, drawings and sculptures show the archaeopteryx in flight, on perches, on the ground, with babies, at the moment of their death in the German limestone.
Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, the museum's assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology, said the artists used what explorers discovered about the archaeopteryx and embellished that with their imaginations, because much is still not known about the archaeopteryx, including what color its wings were and whether it spent much time in the air. However, each artist was chosen, he said, for their devotion to faithful depictions of what dinosaurs are believed to have looked like.
"It used to be open season on depiction of dinosaurs. They looked like people in suits," Bhullar said. "It's grown up now. Now professional artists specialize in the re-creation of lost worlds."
All of the artworks will delight dinosaur-fixated families visiting the exhibit. The compelling centerpiece is a huge wall hanging by Rey depicting all of the creatures in the maniraptor family of dinosaurs, known for their long arms and sharp claws. The archaeopteryx hangs out in the lower righthand corner of the collection, dwarfed by the larger maniraptors.
Along with the artists' archaeopteryx artworks, the exhibit also shows wonderful reproductions of the artists' childhood drawings, which already show a fascination with dinosaurs. These men are living the artistic lives they dreamed of as far back as kindergarten. The drawings may inspire children to grow up and recreate lost worlds, too.
DINOSAURS TAKE FLIGHT: THE ART OF ARCHAEOPTERYX is at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Ave. in New Haven, until Aug. 30. peabody.yale.edu.