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Go Ask Mom

Dinosaurs in Motion melds art, science to create stunning exhibit

Posted May 17, 2013
Updated May 19, 2013

It all started during visits that Asheville artist John Payne made to The Field Museum in Chicago with his own kids a couple of decades ago. They spent hours looking at that great museum's collection of dinosaurs.

Payne, an artist and kinetic sculptor, saw an opportunity to meld science and art. So he got to work, creating dinosaurs that museum goers can not only look at and marvel over, but actually move themselves.

"I was inspired ... and I set to work building dinosaurs that moved," he said.

The result is a stunning exhibit, which opens Saturday at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, called Dinosaurs in Motion. The exhibit, which will eventually travel the world, premieres here at the downtown Raleigh museum. Sadly, Payne will never see the finished product. His untimely death was in 2008. N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Visitors operate dino sculptures at N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

The exhibit features 14 life-size metal sculptures, including a 44-foot-long T. Rex. The pieces can be moved by using either a lever-and-pulley system or remote control. The exhibit tells the story of Payne's work to create the dinosaurs and the mechanics and materials he used, along with information about the dinosaurs themselves. The idea here is to meld art with traditional science, technology, engineering and math (better known as STEM subjects) to create STEAM.

The exhibit begins with static sculptures and then moves along to show how Payne brought them to life – first with cables, then electricity, motors and robotics. The dinosaurs are down to their bare bones, so to speak. These are sculptures of dinosaur skeletons, which allow visitors to see exactly how each moves.

"Everything is exposed so you can see it all," said Tom Zaller, president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, which put the exhibit together. "The simplicity of how it works hopefully will inspire young people."

The exhibit wraps up in the "master studio" where you see Payne's final sculptures – a larger-than-life whooping crane and an American crow. Here you'll see a more complete body, including feathers made from the aluminum mesh of screen doors. Dinosaurs in Motion Dinosaurs in Motion at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

There also are four small tables where kids can work with gears, magnets and other pieces to explore some of the same subjects that helped Payne create his dinosaurs.

Payne called the pieces his "giant mechanical marionettes," and that's exactly what they are. They almost seem to come to life as you pull a lever, turn a steering wheel or push the buttons on a remote control.

My favorites include the twin ornithomimus, which seem to dance together as you manipulate the remote, and the struthiomimus, which moves with motion sensors. Kids will love the giant T. Rex, which clamps its mouth down loudly as you tug on the levers.

And Payne's final pieces – that whooping crane and American crow – are just breathtaking. With a more developed body, they seem to take on their own personalities as visitors move them with remote controls. They are beautiful.

Some cautions here: This is a dark and loud exhibit. There's the T. Rex chomping, the clanging of the machinery, sound and lighting effects. And the sculptures are huge. Some children may find all of this scary. I'm thinking twice about taking my three-year-old, who is skittish in the museum's permanent dinosaur exhibit. If you're not sure if your child is ready, try taking them to the museum's Terror of the South exhibit first to get them used to the idea.

Also, some of the levers are very hard to pull and will be tough for smaller children to do unassisted. This is definitely an exhibit where mom, dad or caregiver will need to help out.

With all that said, Dinosaurs in Motion is a marvel of art and science. It's turned the average static dinosaur exhibit into something truly inspiring.

Dinosaurs in Motion runs through Sept. 8. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday (last entry is at 4 p.m.). It's also open late on First Fridays and every Thursday when last entry is at 7 p.m. and adult admission is discounted. Tickets are $10 for adults; $6 for kids ages 3 to 12; and $8 for students, seniors ages 65 and up and military.

Click here for details.

Full disclosure: Go Ask Mom is an exhibit sponsor.

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