From the Black Hills of South Dakota … to the black mugs lining the shelves of the Field Museum gift shop … the world’s most popular T-Rex leaves a lasting impression.
"Millions of people come to Chicago every year just to see Sue," said Hillary Hansen, senior project manager at the Field Museum.
Sue is the name affectionately bestowed on the Field Museum’s star attraction, the world’s largest and most complete fossilized example of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
She was named after the woman who discovered her, paleontologist Sue Hendrickson. When she discovered the dinosaur emerging from obscurity in the rock formations of South Dakota in the early 1990s, it was only the beginning of the T-rex’s long journey that included seizure by federal authorities and ultimately an auction at Sotheby’s in New York.
Chicago’s Field Museum won the bidding at that auction in 1997, spending more than $8 million to bring Sue to Chicago.
And that is where she has been for the last 18 years.
But Hansen says Sue’s popularity transcends her physical home in Chicago.
"Sue is known the world over also, because we have two casts of Sue that travel around the world, so we take Sue to other museums, as well as people coming here to take a look at Sue," Hansen told VOA during a recent press event at the Field Museum. "Those casts of Sue have been traveling for 15 years or so, so in the aggregate, millions of people have come to know about Sue, and they didn’t even come to Chicago."
"People that haven’t seen her have a relationship to Sue through social media, and she’s a great ambassador not only for Field Museum but natural history museums in general," said Japp Hoogstraten, Field Museum’s director of exhibitions.
Despite that popularity, Hoogstraten says Sue always seemed dwarfed by the 21-meter-high ceiling of her home in Stanley Field Hall. "A lot of visitors come to the Field Museum to see Sue and feel that she is a little smaller than expected, the buildup is too big, because this is such a huge space."
Hansen says the museum has received plenty of feedback about it over the years.
"We know from a lot of visitor studies that people want to see Sue in Sue’s natural environment. You really can’t do that in an environment like Stanley Field Hall where she is now."
So for the first time since she was unveiled in 2000, Sue is moving to her new home in the museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit in the second floor galleries, which Hansen says will provide a better space to explain Sue’s story.
"We are going to be using multi-media in order to put people in the Cretaceous era where Sue lived. We’re able to take the time and space to flush out the full story of where Sue lived, how she lived, and what her daily life was like," said Hansen.
And, as Hoogstraten explains, all of this informs what Sue actually might have looked like. "We’ve learned a lot about the science, the biomechanics of T-Rex's by studying Sue. Her gait, her bite force, and all kinds of things. And we’ll be adding new research to the display in changing her pose slightly."
But first comes the hard part … taking Sue apart … bone by bone.
"The way that she is mounted on the metal armature allows us to remove every bone individually, every piece of rock," Hoogstraten told VOA. "And that will be really interesting because we haven’t de-installed significant portions of her since she was installed in 2000."
Sue will reach her new home, in her new pose, in mid 2019, along with some new, and some other familiar pieces, according to Hansen. "We are going to be putting more specimens on display, specimens that were found with Sue when Sue was discovered back in the '90s."
"We keep the skull separate from the rest of the body, because it’s the main thing people want to research," said Hoogstraten. "So even when she is reinstalled, we’ll keep the skull in a separate case for easy access."
While Sue leaves a large space to fill in Stanley Field Hall, it’s already spoken for. A cast of the world’s largest dinosaur, the titanosaur, found in Argentina, soon will cast its gaze over future visitors to the main hall of the Field museum.
"It’s 120 feet (36.6 meters) long. Sue is 40 feet (12 meters). So three times as long," but according to Hoogstraten, not three times as popular as Sue. Not yet.
"She’s the icon. She’s our biggest attraction."