“Field Museum Profiled by Museum Access for the First Time,” by S.M. O’Connor

In the second episode of Museum Access, which W.T.T.W. aired on Sunday, April 8, 2018, producer-hostess Leslie Mueller profiled SUE the Tyrannosaurus rex at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  This episode, “The Field Museum; Tyrannosaurus Rex, ‘Sue,”’ aired for the first time anywhere on Friday, January 5, 2018.  The series is in syndication, so P.B.S. stations are not airing it at the same time.  At least at the time the episode originally aired on W.T.T.W., Comcast viewers were able to watch episodes on the On Demand Service.  Museum Access also profiled The Field Museum in a second episode, Episode 8 of 10, “The Field Museum; Installation of Terra Cotta Warriors.”   The sponsor of the show is the marketing firm TFI|Envision, Inc. (“The Connection to Conversion Agency”).

Museum Access producer-hostess Leslie Mueller interviewed William (“Bill”) Simpson, Head of Geological Collections, who cleaned SUE twice a year.[1]  She also interviewed Jaclyn Johnston, The Field Museum’s Director of Public Relations.[2]

Ms. Johnston wanted to make it clear for viewers that The Field Museum is both a museum and a research institution.  She said, “At The Field Museum, we are all about looking to the past to understand the future, and… we have incredible exhibition spaces that tell the story of life on Earth for our visitors, and, at the same time, we have a world-class collection of over thirty million specimens and artifacts, so at any given time, when you’re coming through the building to see our exhibitions, we have over 150 scientists that are using our collections for cutting-edge research, we have scientists that are also out in the field all over the world, and it’s really our collections that allow us to do this type of research that is really problem-solving for the issues that we have out in the science community.”

Ms. Mueller asked her, “Didn’t you have a little… research news this last week?  Could you tell me a little bit about that?”  The Tully Monster is the State Fossil of Illinois, and Field Museum scientists had a letter published online by Nature on March 16, 2016 about their determination the Tully Monster was an vertebrate (rather than an invertebrate).  This tells us the episode was filmed during the fourth week of March in 2016.

When Ms. Mueller asked Ms. Johnston about what there was to see at The Field Museum, Ms. Johnston mentioned the exhibit Evolving Planet, the diorama collection (in particular the renovated hyena diorama), and the botany hall.  Ms. Mueller talked about the gems.  Ms. Johnston talked about the jade and meteorite collections.   She said, “The Field Museum has the largest… private meteorite collection in the world, and when our guests are able to come and these really, really rare meteorites in the building.”

Ms. Mueller next interviewed Bill Simpson in the Fossil Preparation Lab.  He said, “Let me put it in context.  Most of our collection is research-driven.  We go out in the field and we collect fossils that we want to study, and we bring them back, and then the first thing that needs to be done to them is the rock needs to be taken off of them.  That’s a process we call preparation.  I was in charge of the preparation of SUE. She took twelve person-years to take all the rock off of.  This was built by McDonald’s for the SUE project.  I think people have seen – a lot of people have seen – the Jurassic Park movie where they’re out in the field and they’re just using a little brush, and brushing the gravel off the fossil, and there it is fully prepared.  Yeah.  No.  It’s not like that… Most of our preparation is done under binocular microscopes, so that we can really see what we’re doing, and… get only the rock off and not damage the fossil as it’s prepared.”

Mr. Simpson showed off Green River specimens found in “south central western Wyoming.”  A lot of the Green River specimens are 100% complete.  He explained “They’re freshwater limestone, so a mineral calcium carbonate precipitate out of the water just like snow precipitates out of the air, and so it rained down and covered these dead fish very quickly, so scavengers didn’t have time to get to them and separate them.”  In some cases, soft tissue was preserved, including “birds with feathers.”  He showed off a shark specimen found in Iowa at a site with tetrapods.

SUE, he explained, was collected in a five-ton field jacket.  A field jacket is made of aluminum foil as a separator and plaster formed as a custom-made carrying case to bring the fossils back to the lab.   SUE was, of course, still standing in Stanley Field Hall when this episode was filmed in 2016.   They posed SUE so it would look to visitors like her attention had been drawn to something so visitors could more readily imagine what it would be like to look a T-rex in the eye.  SUE is 70% complete.  Simpson said they still do not know SUE’s gender.  SUE was named after discoverer Sue Hendrickson (and she likes SUE “could be a boy named Sue.”)  That was a reference to a Johnny Cash song.

Simpson explained the mounted skull is a hollow plastic cast that weighs about 100 pounds, while SUE’s real skull in a separate display case (on the Upper Level overlooking Stanley Field Hall) weighs about 600 pounds.  The real skull is the most-studied part of SUE and if it was thirteen feet in the air on the mount, it would be difficult to study.

SUE was twenty-eight or twenty-nine when she died and is the oldest known T-rex specimen.  Scientists now believe a T-rex reached maturity around eighteen or nineteen years of age (not unlike people today).  SUE had a difficult life.

A fibula that bulges in the middle in a way that indicates an infection.  Two tail vertebrae “completely fused together,” Simpson related.  This is probably a sign of injury.  Extra bone grew over a joint.  SUE had three broken ribs.  Two healed over, but one never healed.  The suture between SUE’s scapula and coracoid in SUE’s right shoulder blade is “covered with extra bone growth.”  The humerus of SUE’s upper right arm bone, where the triceps muscle attached there’s a spur of bone, indicating the triceps ripped off the arm.  The muscle and bone grew toward each other in SUE’s body in an attempt to reattach the two.

“For most of the history” of paleontology, scientists estimated a T-rex weighed six tons, but they estimate SUE weighed nine-and-a-half tons.  It is unlikely that SUE could run.  With SUE’s long legs, though, SUE could walk most expeditiously.

Simpson cleaned SUE twice a year instead of having exhibit staff do it.  He used a scissor lift and a vacuum hose operating in reverse to blow instead of suck air.  He blew off the dust, and then used a giant bottle brush.  Sometimes, he had to clean off bird droppings because birds occasionally fly into Stanley Field Hall.


EA478D96-BC0B-440B-A954-FD5FB9975C67Figure 1 Credit: Photo courtesy of Museum Access. Caption: This is Museum Access creator and hostess Leslie Mueller on the Upper Level of The Field Museum, with her back to Stanley Field Hall.

IMG_6353-1-nlvdvod4oybhm134g5jsmbw5zkvadjbixl8jlev9a8Figure 2 Credit: Photo courtesy of Museum Access. Caption: This is a close up of Carl Akeley’s African Elephant Group (two stuffed African elephants, one charging the other’s midsection) in Stanley Field Hall at The Field Museum.  Carl & Delia Akeley killed these elephants before he stuffed and mounted them.

Sue_Cropped-nmk2u0lx773ysjwh9caweng3w9eovqe46gt9vsogqoFigure 3 Credit: Photo courtesy of Museum Access. Caption: This is a close-up of SUE the Tyrannosaurus rex as she appeared in Stanley Field Hall of The Field Museum before she was dissembled to be reassembled upstairs.

Shortly after the episode was filmed, The Field Museum announced SUE would move from Stanley Field Hall to Evolving Planet, as I wrote about last year.  An addendum with Simpson speaking, video, still pictures, and concept art about SUE’s new pose and the Titanosaur replica going into Stanley Field Hall with voiceover by Ms. Mueller brings matters up-to-date.


[1] Bill Simpson is Head of Geological Collections and Collections Manager, Fossil Vertebrates.

[2] Note that as of this writing, Ms. Johnston’s title is Public Relations and Community Awareness Director.

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