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Re: The Field Museum dino murals get a cleaning...

Dear Guy and List,

    Wasn't it just a few years ago that the Field museum was planning on
mothballing the murals? Thank heavens that there was such a public outcry,
and that these masterpieces are getting their due respect.

bows to the alter of the paleo god Charles R. Knight Cliff

> Cleaning of Field murals shows off real dino might
> Sue gets all the attention now, but wait until lifelike murals of her
buddies are restored
> By William Mullen
> Chicago Tribune staff reporter
> Published April 28, 2005
> Realizing that sunlight coming through gallery windows was damaging the
Field Museum's renowned collection of dinosaur fossils, curators hit upon
what was, for 1926, an extravagantly expensive solution.
> They spent $140,000 to commission the world's greatest painter of extinct,
prehistoric animal life to create a series of huge murals of dinosaurs that
would cover the exhibit hall windows and block the light.
> Today, dinosaur cognoscenti say, the Field's 28 murals by New York artist
Charles R. Knight may be as famous and valuable as any fossil in the
museum's collection, including Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, acquired for $8.36
million in 1997.
> >From the time the paintings were hung in 1931, many of them have been
recognizable around the world. Photos of them have been printed in science
textbooks and periodicals, helping inspire some paleontologists to enter the
> Next March, the museum plans to open "Evolving Planet," an expanded,
27,000-square-foot display on the history of life on Earth that will feature
state-of-the-art, razzle-dazzle, computer-based exhibit tools.
> But Knight's elegant and surprisingly accurate murals will be there, too.
An art-restoration firm has spent nine months cleaning and repairing the
artwork, and the project is nearly done.
> After 70 years, Knight's interpretations "of how animals looked and moved
aren't always perfect, but to an amazing degree, given all the new knowledge
we have gleaned about dinosaurs since then, his paintings hold up extremely
well," said William Simpson, the museum's fossil vertebrates collections
> The murals--some 25 feet long by 9 feet high, others 11 feet by 9
feet--depict dinosaur life as it evolved from its beginning 225 million
years ago to extinction 65 million years ago.
> The most famous is a painting of a fierce T. rex approaching a heavily
armored, three-horned triceratops for a showdown. When Knight painted it in
the 1920s, professional paleontologists theorized that T. rex sat and walked
bolt upright, body perpendicular to the ground in a tripodal position, feet
and tail on the ground.
> The painting of T. rex with triceratops, said Simpson, "shows how Knight
hedged his bets" on the prevailing theory of dinosaur physiology.
> In the background, Knight included a T. rex portrayed in the upright,
tripodal position, but the main T. rex figure is portrayed far differently.
> "It is actually in a modern pose, fairly close to how we now think they
actually moved around, with tail in the air and head and neck parallel to
the ground," said Simpson. Its stance is close to how the Sue fossil is
posed in the museum.
> "He knew animals well and carefully thought through how extinct animals
behaved. ... It certainly wasn't how most paleontologists in those days
thought T. rex moved about."
> Many of today's great dinosaur paleontologists bow deeply to Knight's
imagination for inspiring them to their life's work.
> Philip J. Currie, a paleontologist at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum whose
work strongly links the ancestry of modern birds to dinosaurs, has written
about when he was 11, he received a book of stickers that were
"reproductions of the stunningly beautiful color paintings that Charles
Knight had done for the Field Museum."
> "Such was the power of those images that they worked their way into my
dreams and started to shape my understanding of how dinosaurs interacted
with each other and their environments," Currie said. "To this day, those
paintings are burned deeply into my memory."
> Great science-fiction author Ray Bradbury and prominent science-fiction
filmmaker Ray Harryhausen also have acknowledged they used Knight's
paintings as inspiration for stories and as models for animals they created.
> "No one shaped the public vision of extinct mammals and dinosaurs more
than Charles R. Knight," according to a National Geographic essay two years
ago on the 50th anniversary of Knight's death.
> Describing him as "an artist who though legally blind had limited vision
thanks to thick glasses," the magazine said "Knight's work has a
believability few others have been able to equal."
> Other artists who had attempted the same subject relied mostly on their
own imaginations for their depictions, resulting in error-ridden
> But Knight gleaned his ideas from paleontologists who were digging up and
studying fossils and from studying the physiology and behavior of zoo
animals that most resembled prehistoric creatures.
> In his studio, he constructed small skeletal models, building them up with
simulated musculature and flesh and posing them for his painting.
> "Knight's ability to make long-extinct creatures come alive helped
transform vertebrate paleontology from a hobby akin to philately [stamp
collecting] to an interpretational science that added a time dimension to
biology," said John Harris, a paleontologist at Page Museum in Los Angeles.
> Having long ago recognized that the Knight murals were masterpieces of the
genre, last July the Field commissioned Parma, a Chicago
fine-arts-conservation company, to restore the murals in time for the new
> "These murals are Knight's magnum opus," Simpson said last week as he
watched the restorers put finishing touches on the paintings.
> They also served their purpose. The fossils the museum sought to protect
from sunlight 80 years ago will be in the new exhibit's huge dinosaur
section, as will fossils the museum has added since.
> The last mural being worked on depicts a scene of giant, long-necked
plesiosaurs and dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, both nasty fish-eating marine
serpents that dominated the oceans in dinosaur times. Knight imagined them
swimming and eating fish in a shallow sea near a shore.
> "You can almost hear these things hissing and screaming, they are so
animated and lifelike," Parma structural conservator John Salhus said of the
plesiosaurs as he cleaned the mural's surface. It had darkened years ago
with the aging of a starchy solution applied during an earlier, ill-advised
> "One of the problems we had with all of the murals is that they had been
cleaned once before non-professionally in the past with something caustic,
leaving the top layer of paint in very delicate, flaking condition," said
Elizabeth Kendall, owner of Parma.
> "You can see they are much brighter now that they're cleaned. They're so
compelling, making the animals come alive. We're sad it's coming to an end."
> ----------
> wmullen@tribune.com