Get ready for Twinky & friends (The Sunday Times, 4 December 2011)

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Get ready for Twinky & friends
Two of three dinosaur fossils Singapore bought could arrive next year

Tan Dawn Wei
The Sunday Times
December 4, 2011

Singapore’s heftiest immigrants are moving here as early as next year – two years before their new home will even be ready.

The team behind the Republic’s new natural history museum hopes to have two of the family of three dinosaurs here first, as soon as their “citizenship” papers are settled.

Between now and then, the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum needs to sort out the legal papers, collect the money pledged by donors and authenticate the bones.

The last involves a health check by palaeontologists to verify they are no fake fossils. To be sure, the dinosaur fossils will also have to go through CT scans and carbon dating.

“Once you’ve bought something, you want to own them as soon as possible. So the faster we can have them, the happier we’ll be,” said Professor Leo Tan, 66.

He is the chairman of the museum’s fund-raising committee and the driving force behind the setting up of the museum. He was speaking to The Sunday Times last month in the small town of Orem in Utah, on his first trip to see the museum’s big ticket purchase.

But the museum is still unsure if it will unveil the dinosaur fossils to the public ahead of its opening in 2014, he added.

“This is always the question: If this is the ‘wow’ factor, do you want to show it off and dilute the impact?” asked Prof Tan, who is also the director of special projects at the National University of Singaopre (NUS) Faculty of Science dean’s office.

So for now at least, it seems the idea is to continue building interest and keep the big bang for the big opening.

The three dinosaur fossils will be the star attraction at Singapore’s first purpose-built natural history museum, which will house plant and animal exhibits from the current Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research under NUS.

A team from NUS led by Prof Tan went on an intensive fund-raising drive in 2009 and collected $46 million to build the 7,500 sq m, six-storey green building.

It will form part of a cultural hub that includes the University Cultural Centre and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Museum on the university campus.

The largest donor was Lee Foundation, which gave $25 million.

The museum then launched another fund-raising effort to buy the three dinosaur fossils in July this year. Mrs Della Lee, wife of Lee Foundation chairman Lee Seng Gee, emerged the largest donor.

The fossils came with a price tag of $8 million, but it is understood the final price is still being negotiated.

Discovered in a quarry in Wyoming between 2007 and last year by fossil company Dinosauria International, the three are now being prepared in a lab in Orem, Utah.

The first time you set your sights on the fossils of these colossal animals is an awe-inspiring moment – they are so big it is impossible to take everything in at once.

Apollo, which is fully mounted, stands magnificent with its neck and head extending to nearly the top of the two-storey-high ceiling and a tail that seems to run on and on.

Apollo’s legt alone is about 1 and a half times an average person’s height.

Hundreds of pieces of bone of varying shapes but with the same worn-down texture are assembled in steel brackets that have been painted a dark, dull brown so they blend in with the bones.

Getting them show-worthy takes years. And sometimes, it involves the most low-tech of methods.

When the bones are found in the ground, they are wrapped with paper towels and then encased in a protective plaster and burlap cast called a jacket, so they can be transported without being damaged.

Each jacket is marked for identification and moved to the lab where it is removed using a cast cutter. Once the bones are exposed, workers painstakingly chip the rock away using an air scribe to liberate the bones. A consolidant, or a strengthening liquid, is then used to preserve and harden the fossils.

And then the fun begins: piecing the puzzle together and deciding how best to mount it.

“The discovery really happens in the lab,” said Mr Joe Gentry, 57, a palaeontologist on the project who has been discovering fossils for 20 years.

Missing pieces of the puzzle are filled in with resin parts made from casts and painted to match the rest of the real bones.

The bones are then placed individually on a custom built welded steel frame, designed to give the dinosaurs the most “oomph”, that is, the greated visual impact.

The three Singapore-owned dinosaur fossils are more than 80 per cent complete, a rarity in dinosaur discoveries where 60 per cent is considered a palaeolithic coup.

The trio are diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, among the biggest animals to have trod the Earth some 150 millions years ago.

Two of them – nicknamed Apollo and Prince – measure 24m in length, while the baby dinosaur Twinky, is 12m.

The remains of Prince still reside in hundreds of jackets in the Utah lab Fossilogic. It was the last to be excavated and will need at least another year to be ready.

To accomodate the fossils of three long-neck dinosaurs, some of the beams in the new museum’s central gallery may have to go. Its architect Mok Wei Wei from W Architects, is studying how that can be done without compromising the structure’s stability, said Prof Tan.

But it is on track to laying the first bricks next July.

The museum toyed with the idea of offering the dinosaur fossils as a loan to other foreign museums in the interim.

“But if you’re a custodian, you don’t want to take the risk,” said Prof Tan, who was recently anointed a fellow of the Singapore National Academy of Science, an umbrella organisation that represents the scientific community here.

Now he has his babies, he may not stop at three. Prof Tan said the museum is considering having a few smaller dinos – not necessarily real fossils – that can creat a diorama.

But he emphasised that the museum will still be dedicated primarily to teaching and research.

“Most museums are display museums and they don’t grow. As a teaching museum, we go on expeditions and we add things.”

As for who will be the director of the new museum, an advisory board will decide in due course.

While the dinosaur fossils get ready, the team is already looking at the next stage of funding that will deal with manpower costs.

Prof Tan said that mustum would like to have curatorial postitions, fellowships as well as professorships. It will also need money to keep the exhibitions fresh.

“We have plenty of work to do,” said a happy but tired-looking Prof Tan.

Scientists first, Businessman Second

It might as well have been the Little Shop of Horrors to some.

For nearly 20 years, Mr Henry Galiano’s store in Manhattan’s West Side was a treasure trove of Palaeolithic curios that drew artists, scientists and wide-eyed dinosaur-loving children.

In fact, the shop Maxilla and Mandible and its skuulls, spines and other assorted skeletons have become quite a New York institution, and Mr Galiano, 59, quite a celebrity in his home town.

He made the news in The New Tork Times and on television when he gave a prized find – a fossilised skull belonging to the pre-human species Homo erectus – to a grateful Indonesia, the country of its origin in 1999.

Over the years, he has gifted hundreds of specimens to museums and institutions, because the self-taught palaeontologist considers himself a scientist first and an ethical businessman second.

Not everyone is convinced.

Scientists such as those ensconed in ivory towers and with PhDs to show for, turn their noses up at what Mr Galiano now does – selling dinosaur fossils.

“There’s professional jealousy. And yes, there is a problem with commercial dealers, but I don’t identify myself with them,” said the art schoold dropout, who worked as a curatorial assistant at the American Museum of Natural History’s department of vertebrate palaeontology for 10 years, before starting his own business in 1984.

“Yes, we’re profiteers but we’re also scientists and we care.”

Since 2006, he and his business partner, geologist Raimund Albersdorfer, have been digging at Dana Quarry in a tiny town called Ten Sleep in Wyoming, in the United States.

The two had discovered a rich mine of fossils, including dinosaurs, in the 152m by 152m quarry, and decided to lease it from its rancher-owner.

They successfully sold one dinosaur fossil complete with a skull – nicknamed Einstein because it had a brain – to Mexico’s first natural history museum.

Then, they hit the palaeontological jackpot – they discovered three complete dinosaur fossils buried close together; two had skulls. Studies of these bones would mean much for the scientific community.

“One thing clear was that we couldn’t sell these to just anybody. They had to be properly housed in a recognised institution.”

They started using their network of contacts to spread the word and the National University of Singapore got wind of it.

“We’ve been happy, but the greatest pleasure has been selling it to Singapore. You have a university. And when we met Leo and Peter, we thought, these guys are real researchers.”

He was referring to Professors Leo Tan and Peter Ng, the two key figures behind the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, where these dinosaur fossils will get top billing.

Part of the money Mr Galiano makes from the sale – about $8 million – will go back to research, he said.

“The perception is that I’m getting rich. I tell them, if I’m rich, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be fishing,” he said, of his detractors. ” We work on small percentages. It’s very expensive what we do.”

Just a few months ago, he shuttered his much-loved shop. The bones business was not spared the economic gloom and he also needed to focus on his work at the Dinosauria.

Now that these dinosaur fossils have found a good home, he wants to make sure they are properly documented and rigorously studied.

“That’s beyond the money, beyond the jealousy.”

Breathing Life into Old Bones

Every little boy in this world wants to be in Mr Brock Sisson’s shoes.

He has a job very few people in this world have, and many can only dream of having.

The 27-year-old is a “dinosaur builder” – he excavates fossils from the ground, restores them, moulds them, designs their “pose” and brings them back to life.

Right now, he is on his biggest and most exciting project yet – breathing life back into not one but three dinosaur fossils that will form the star attraction at Singapore’s new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, when it opens in 2014.

Mr Sisson’s love affair with fossils started early. As a boy, he would go fossil-hunting in the many mountains in the area near his home in Utah in the United States.

And in Utah, it is probably not a stretch to say: Throw a rock and you will hit a fossil. Or rather, a rock containing a fossil.

“It’s like treasure-hunting. You never know what you’re going to find,” said the unassuming American.

“I can take that and hide it away. And I can be the only person who has ever seen it.”

He wanted to pursure archaeology in school.

“But I got into dinosaurs, and there are so many in Utah. It was just a better fit,” said the fossil reconstruction expert.

“It wasn’t just pottery or arrowheads or mummies.”

When he was 16, he worked for a company called Western Palaeontology where he started out sweeping floors, then graduated to helping the workers prepare fossils.

He also spent two years studying geology at the Brigham Young University but dropped out when he got too busy with fossil work.

Four and a half years ago, he started his own company Fossilogic, and now hires 13 people working on about 15 projects at any one time.

There are between 10 and 15 companies like his in North America.

Dinosaur fossils are not only relics he puts together. He works on trilobites – extinct marine arthropods – and other marine fossils, and his clients include private collectors and investors as well as museums.

His interest led him to fossil shows, where he met Mr Henry Galiano, a professional palaeontologist who later sold the three dinosaur fossils to Singapore.

“You must have a vision of what the end product is like. If you can’t see where you’re headed, you don’t know what to do,” said Mr Sisson about the design of a mounted dinosaur.

“You have to make it aesthetically exciting. And that requires artistic vision.”

That is probably more important than a university degree in a related field.

“You can go out to a quarry and learn everything in a week. Otherwise, it’s just practice.”

He bones up on anatomy, does research into comparative skeletons for modern animals, and yes, puts in many man hours in practice.

He is excited that his current three pet dinosaur fossils are going to a museum halfway around the world, where millions will get to see them.

“It’s nice to say I had a part in that.”

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