David Layman on situating Field Museum's Sue

Sue

Geologist Bill Simpson, Fossil Collections Manager, carefully feather-dusts "Sue," the 67-million-year-old dinosaur in Stanley Hall at the Field Museum. Her more than 200-bone skeleton is cleaned twice yearly. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / November 11, 2013)

David Layman describes his approach, as Field Museum's lead exhibit designer, to situating Sue, the world's most famous and expensive T. rex skeleton, in the museum for her 2000 debut:

"Sue was to become an institutional icon.

"It needed to generate a high level of excitement when it came into view.

"I wanted the skeleton to be articulated in a dynamic way, not displayed as a paleontological dig or as the typical rigid cookie-cutter dinosaur fossil, but rather as it might have been when it was alive, captured in a moment of lunging at its prey.

"I wanted it to be located in the hall and positioned so that it came face to face (as much as possible) with the visitor; if possible, the position should create a delightful spark between Sue and our visitors.

"This presented some challenges initially. The head was enormously heavy, and the engineering required was complicated and would result in a visually distracting support armature. It also had a number of scientific features of interest and so needed to be made accessible for study. This was resolved by making a lightweight cast of the head and moving the fossil head into a case designed to accommodate future study. I had lobbied to have Sue placed very close to the south entrance so it would dominate the view at the museum's primary entrance point and create a 'wow' effect. While I succeeded getting Sue articulated in its current pose, I was unable to get her located near the south entrance. Standing in Stanley Field Hall, Sue would be approached by visitors from a multitude of secondary directions. Each of these visitor approaches had to be considered so she would pack a punch no matter how the visitor discovered her.

"Sue also had to be positioned to work in the viewscape relative to the two fighting elephants (the patriarchal icons of the Field Museum) and some of the adjacent spaces. The elephants hold a special place in the hearts of many Chicagoans, and Sue had to play nicely with them.

"One of the drawbacks of displaying prehistoric skeletons is that it is hard for visitors to imagine the actual dinosaur. To help bring the experience to life, I arranged Sue's angle of view to align with the upstairs balcony. I proposed a large mural depicting Sue 66 million years ago in the same pose as the mounted fossil down in Stanley Field Hall. Standing in front of the skeleton, the visitor would be able to view Sue fleshed out in living color directly behind.

"The design of the base platform and railing was intended to be very minimal with clean lines. … The expositional information was placed upstairs near the skull. The final design for the base and railing morphed after concept phase away from my original intent, but the content around the base was fortunately held to a minimum."

Steve Johnson

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