Friday, May 27, 2011

I Want Your Job! Media Producer, American Museum of Natural History

Mindy Weisberger recently gave us the inside scoop on the Museum of Natural History’s new show—Think BIGGEST: The World’s Largest Dinosaurs—that you can still read right here. It left us wanting to know more! For instance, what’s it like to be a producer with the media team in the Exhibitions Department at the Museum of Natural History? That’s the museum in New York City with (among other treasures) the extraordinary dinosaur skeletons, a whale suspended from the ceiling, and recently revamped planetarium.

We sat down with Mindy to find out what a week in her life is really like. The Natural History Museum is a favorite destination for people from all over the world, but children especially find an accessible, welcoming experience that never talks down to them. We wanted to find out how Mindy (a parent herself) and the rest of her department manage to find the “sweet spots” that keep patrons of all ages engaged and excited.

Mindy’s department creates temporary exhibits addressing diverse scientific topics. New discoveries in paleontology, the evolution and functionality of the human brain, and the race to discover the South Pole are a few recent examples of exhibits where Mindy’s group contributed to the creation of engaging interactive exhibition materials. She works with writers, exhibit designers, graphic designers and artists who create models, casts, and dioramas. They all work under the scientific direction of AMNH curators.

Media Darlings: How do you ensure that content can be enjoyed by the maximum number of museum goers?
Mindy Weisberger: We keep the media activities and narratives focused and straightforward, with a clearly defined goal or conclusion. That makes it more likely that visitors will not only appreciate and understand the content no matter what their age or background, but will retain the information when they leave the exhibit. From a physical standpoint, we accommodate large numbers of visitors with multi-user interactives, multiple stations of single-user experiences, and ample seating and/or standing room for video displays.

MD: How do you address the needs of children in your creations?
MW: Even though exhibits often tackle complex subject matter, we have to make the science easily understandable for a range of ages. Children tend to naturally gravitate toward screens and interactives, so that makes the media team’s job easier! We design media to deliver content on several levels; even the youngest visitors should learn something from the experience. For example, a stacking game produced for the Brain exhibit challenges you to move blocks from one stand to another in the fewest possible moves. By playing this game—using forethought and planning—visitors as young as pre-schoolers can learn something about how their own brains work. Our more sophisticated computer interactives and videos reach younger kids through their visuals, while still providing appeal to older children and adults.

MD: What are some of your department’s/the museum’s educational goals?
MW: As media makers, our main objective is to communicate scientific content in a fun, entertaining way that engages people intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Our narrative videos, atmospheric installations, computer games and hands-on activities are designed to encourage visitors to interact with the science directly—we’ve found that participation greatly contributes to understanding the science. Exhibits should inform and educate, but we want visitors to leave with their curiosity fired up to learn even more—their visit should be like a window opening into a fascinating new world that they want to continue exploring on their own.

MD: How do you make the exhibits more accessible and fun for kids?
MW: Sometimes kids fly through an exhibit and hardly read anything at all, but they’ll certainly stop and look at every screen and try every game. And if they find it interesting, they’re more likely to read a label deck or graphic panel, spend a little more time looking at a fossil, or even look something up when they get home. Ideally, all the parts of an exhibit work together to make the science—whatever it is—more accessible, especially to kids, and ultimately more fun.

MD: You mentioned interactives. How important is interactivity in your department and in the exhibits?
MW: It’s absolutely essential! People love to DO things in an exhibit; an activity can make the science easier to understand. It can sometimes be difficult for visitors to connect to the science if it isn’t a topic they’re already interested in. Interaction puts aspects of the science in their hands, and suddenly it all becomes a little more accessible.

MD: Are there rules when it comes to creating support media for kids?
MW: When we create a media piece, part of the prototyping process is trying as hard as we can to break it. Kids can be very, very hard on exhibit media; since we know they won’t hold back, we need to make sure that everything we build is durable enough to withstand the abuse it’s going to get in many months of exhibit display. During this testing stage, we also check that buttons, joysticks, and other controllers can be easily and comfortably manipulated by little hands as well as big ones, and that heights and viewing angles allow children to experience the media without adult assistance.

MD: Who comes up the ideas for the different media associated with your exhibits?
MW: It’s a very collaborative process. All the groups in Exhibitions work together to figure out the best ways to present the main messages and the big stories. We propose media ideas based on the overall needs of the exhibit, but we also take into account what topics would best be represented by media, rather than, say, objects or graphics and text.

MD: What new technologies have you incorporated into exhibits?
MW: We have large and small-scale media interactives that respond to gesture or touch (screen-based and projections on walls and tabletops) as well as audio input; we’ve created multimedia displays that combine video, animation, lighting and sound delivery; we’re currently developing an augmented reality experience for an upcoming exhibit that will add media overlays to physical spaces and objects.

MD: What’s the most exciting “shoot” you’ve been on?
MW: For the exhibit “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries,” I traveled to England to interview paleontologist John Hutchinson for a video on the biomechanics of T rex. He took us into the elephant enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo so we could shoot footage of running elephants; the zookeepers had them running right at us. Elephant locomotion was an important part of his research for determining how fast T rex might have been able to run.

Just for fun:

MD: What was your favorite t.v. show when you were a kid?

MW: I really enjoyed shows where the characters were in a band—The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, The Banana Splits and The Monkees. When I got a little older, it was all science fiction—Star Trek, Space 1999, and Battlestar Galactica.

MD: What character would you like to be?
MW: Xena, Warrior Princess!

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
MW: Kay Thompson’s Eloise. She was a little brat, but such an interesting brat, and with a great imagination.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Favorite book from that era?
MW: I think I did all my own reading from a very young age. I loved (still do, actually) The Story of Ferdinand; it’s a great book—and wonderfully illustrated—about a bull that preferred flowers to fighting.

MD: Favorite character from a t.v. show or cartoon?
MW: Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the best female characters in the history of television, period.

MD: What’s in your dvd player right now? Your iPod?
MW: I’m halfway through Season 1 of Firefly. I’ve been listening to Wanda Jackson’s new album “The Party Ain’t Over”, Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric’s “Two-Way Family Favorites,” and Amanda Palmer’s ukulele covers of Radiohead songs.

MD: What’s your favorite smart phone app?
MW: I love, love, love the photo app Hipstamatic. The lens, flash and film options deliver terrific images; I shoot with it every day. I barely use my iPhone’s regular camera anymore.

MD: Who’s your favorite animated character, show, or film?
MW: Gromit, of the Wallace and Gromit films. He’s pretty darn expressive for a claymation dog with no eyebrows.

MD: Thanks, Mindy!
MW: No problem.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I Was Adopted?

Children’s Books that Open Up the Discussion
Whether your child has always known she was adopted or you’re planning the proper moment for your talk, you may find it helpful to supplement your discussion with one of several children’s books created specifically for this reason. I take a look at several, and you’ll be surprised at the subtle but significant differences you’ll find.

One of the first authors to take on the subject of adoption with a sense of openness and honesty was Linda Walvoord Girard, who had carved out a niche for herself in the 1980s by taking on weighty topics and making them approachable for children. Her 1984 book, My Body is Private discussed the issue of sexual abuse. She also wrote about divorce in 1987’s At Daddy’s on Saturdays as well as the needs-no-further-explanation title, 1991’s Alex, the Kid With AIDS.

Her two books on adoption, 1986’s Adoption Is for Always and the nearly identical 1989 book, We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo are classics on the topic, are still in print and active circulation. This might lead one to believe that these books are tried and true, but I found them filled with assumptions that it’s “normal” to feel hurt and angry at the idea of being adopted. If an author uses loaded, culturally potent language like birth mommy, you have to be ready to expect your child to feel upset at the idea of having another mommy out there somewhere. Girard’s philosophy seems to be that it’s inevitable to feel sad and angry, but you need to face it so you can work through it. I think if you don’t want your child to feel hurt and angry, don’t frame the topic and discussion by focusing on the absent birth mother. Likewise, the maudlin 1994 book, Did My First Mother Love Me? By Kathryn Ann Miller and Jami Moffett seems to percolate and inadvertently encourage uncomfortable, unanswerable questions. This book does have a very specific usage, though. It covers the topic of open adoption where the birthmother has communication with the adopted child. But if your child does not specifically fall into this camp, it seems much wiser to steer the focus of the discussion to the many positives connected with adoption.

Which leads me to another older but widely read book by the late Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, his 1994 book, Let’s Talk About It: Adoption. In his adoption book, he proves himself to be a savvier communicator than Girard in that he relates the adoption story as an origin story that begins at the moment of adoption, not at the moment of birth; the emphasis in on the family rather than the individual, “When you were born, you were ready to live and be loved, just like every other child in the world. You could belong in your family by being born into it, or you could belong in your family by being adopted into it.” Rogers does not use the term birthmother at all in the book, and only uses the term birthparents once. His emphasis is on the sense of love and security within the family unit. I think it is much more palatable than either of Girard’s books.

The 1996 book, Happy Adoption Day, sees adoption as a cause for celebration and singing. The book is actually a song by John McCutcheon and Julie Paschkis and the last page of the book contains the sheet music for the melody, “All of a sudden this family was born. Oh, happy adoption day!” The terms birthmother, birthparent, mother, mommy, or father do not appear in the book at all. It’s a joyous celebration of family.

In a different, more situation-specific vein, 2003’s My New Family, by Pat Thomas tries to take an honest look at combinations of foster care and adoption and uses the terms birth parents and foster family, but the book does not use the terms mother, father, or birthmother at all. It does acknowledge the contributions of both birthparents and adoptive parents, “Remember that both of your sets of parents have given you something special. Your birth parents gave you life. Your adoptive parents gave you a home and family and the love you need to grow up healthy and happy.” For the specific circumstance of foster care to adoption, this book is sensitive and caring.

1995’s How I Was Adopted by Joanna Cole and Maxie Chambliss employs a knowing use of language to position the adoption story as the origin story in a similar fashion as Fred Rogers’ book. Warning: it goes a step further than the other books on the topic of birth by introducing real biology. Accompanied by illustrations that show a woman with an “x-ray” image of a baby inside her, “Every baby grows in a special place inside a woman’s body. That place is called her uterus. When a baby is ready to be born, the woman’s uterus squeezes and squeezes and the baby comes out into the world!” In its own way, this book doesn’t romanticize birth; it tells it like it is. This book uses the terms mommy, daddy, and mother, but only in relation to adoptive parents. If you’re comfortable with your child knowing where babies come from, this book is positive and supportive, a refreshingly modern take.

Children model their behavior on us and take their cues from us, even in regards to how they’re supposed to feel about being adopted. I don’t want to inadvertently give my child the signal that it’s natural to feel bad about being adopted. In certain respects, it’s simple: if you think that being adopted is nothing to be ashamed of, then don’t act like it IS something to be ashamed of. Put the focus on your values of family, security, and love, and leave the obsession on what’s not there to the distant past. I’m glad we’ve moved past the era of shame. I hope my daughter reads that message in me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Heart the Tinman—“The Wizard of Oz” on Screen and Stage

The Wizard of Oz has been everyone’s favorite movie since its debut in 1939. We’ve all seen it. It’s one of those rare, ambitious films where the whole is greater than the sum of its admittedly extraordinary parts. At its best it is—simply—the best: the best performance (and singing!) by Judy Garland; the best fanciful costumes by the genius Adrian; the best music by Harold Arlen; the most talented ensemble cast; the most imaginative art direction and scenic design. And the best use of small people as the citizens of Munchkinland, the gamest, most talented, and generous supporting cast in cinema history.

I have a curious observation to report: every little girl under seven loves the Tinman. What is it about him? I suppose he’s the relatively macho one of the Oz bunch: the knight in shining armor; the axe-wielding, bust-down-the-witch’s-door guy who’s all heart. He’s not a klutz like the Scarecrow or a scaredy-cat like the Lion. And he’s got that cool New York accent as he sings, “If I only had a haaahht.” I guess if I were seven, I’d swoon.

In the final scene, the film attempts to deliver a message similar to the original L. Frank Baum book, that a young girl’s place is at home and if she strays, she could end up doomed in terms of turn-of-the-last-century morality. The great or perhaps lucky thing about the film is that this “explicit” message is so garbled, it ends up having little to no impact on the film. I for one still can’t make heads or tails of it when Dorothy announces, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” When the Scarecrow replies, “But that’s so easy,” I want to tell him, “then explain it to me.” That’s the difference between the book and film: the character of Miss Gulch who was out to “destroy” Toto is an invention of the screenplay, which undermines the book’s plot and ending. In the film, Dorothy didn’t leave home to go looking for her heart’s desire. She left home to protect Toto. And the use of a triple negative in her statement doesn’t help. The viewer is free to evoke their own meaning, which adds to the film’s universal appeal. This movie is not about its end; it’s about Dorothy’s brilliant and colorful journey.

Parents can share this film with their kids with few worries, though younger children could use some guidance during scenes involving the Wicked Witch. And the flying monkeys scare some kids, so an explanation that they’re just costumes could go a long way to calming fears. And I think part of the fun of sharing The Wizard of Oz can be pointing out the obvious, low-tech movie “magic.” The lion costume looks like a … well … costume. And the wire holding up his tail shows—a lot. Even the youngest child can spot the painted backdrop in the shallow soundstage. This movie wasn’t created with a computer program. It was created by hand and looks it. It’s the stuff of life. And if the past is any indication, it’s eternal.

Recently, this film has inspired a theatrical adaptation in London’s West End. Guest blogger Casey Brienza shares her review:

We’re Off To See the Wizard (at the London Palladium)

The classic 1939 film, reinterpreted by Andrew Lloyd Webber for West End musical theatre? Starring Michael Crawford as the Wizard?! Somebody get me a front row seat to so that I can see that!

Fortunately, front row seats are easy to acquire if you show up at the London Palladium at 10:00 am or shortly thereafter, and you’ll only have to shell out £25 (approximately USD $40) per ticket for that evening’s performance.

Unfortunately, what I—or anyone else who sat in the front row—could not see due to the angle of my line of sight was the Yellow Brick Road, which promotional footage on YouTube records spinning around in one direction while other pieces of the set spin around in the other in a complicated whirly-gig mechanism which is probably a musical theatre first.

Not that it or any of the rest of The Wizard of Oz’s technical wizardry feels particularly magical. Instead, you find yourself feeling for the stiff, scared-looking Glinda (Emily Tierney) dangling a couple dozen feet above the stage, or feeling annoyed when there are technical difficulties during the Wicked Witch of the West (Hannah Waddingham)’s climatic melting scene, as there was the night I was there…or just feeling downright disappointed by this soulless musical theatre machine.

Sure, The Phantom of the Opera “phans” will feel a bit of tingle when they hear Crawford belting “Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West!” as loudly as artificial amplification (or was that pre-recorded?) allows. And those who were rooting for Danielle Hope on the reality competition Over the Rainbow are surely pleased to see her on stage as Dorothy. But nowhere does the musical ever become more than a second-class shadow of its Hollywood source material.

With one exception. Hannah Waddingham. Blessed with an A-plus belt and a strikingly tall stature, she towers over the rest of the cast as well as the rest of this production. If you’re even remotely tempted to head off to the West End to see Wizard again, it will be thanks to her sequences. “Red Shoe Blues,” an original number, is darkly magnificent and perhaps a smidge too sexy for the elementary school set.

But will the kids be entertained? Possibly. There’s plenty of pageantry. But you’d still be better off sitting them down in front of the television with a holiday broadcast of the movie. You could even buy them a complete set of the L. Frank Baum novels. Or you might take them to one of the many productions of Wicked worldwide—it’s one of those rare musicals which actually, in my view, improves upon its Ozian source material. — Casey Brienza

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fly To See This “Peter and Wendy”

For as long as I can remember, the well-known characters created by James M. Barrie over a hundred years ago—Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook and the Darling family—have been tangled up with my sense of self. That may sound dramatic, but hear me out. At age four, in what must have been one of my earliest public performances, I played Tink in a pre-school version of Barrie’s play. Just a few years later, I saw Sandy Duncan play Peter in a revival of the Broadway musical. I’ve seen several film adaptations—Disney’s cartoon, a 1924 silent, the 2003 version and, of course, Spielberg’s “sequel,” Hook—and was even a devoted fan of the animated TV series, Peter Pan & the Pirates, which ran in the early 1990s. And have I mentioned the book? Published in 1911 after Barrie’s stage play made the title character a household name, Peter and Wendy, later re-titled simply Peter Pan, is arguably among the funniest and yet most poignant novels ever written. Reading it as a teen, when I thought I already knew everything there was to know about the story, was a revelation. For kids, it’s magical; for adults, it’s like being allowed back into childhood again, just for a moment.

Despite my fondness for the flying boy and his crew, I acknowledge that not all versions of his tale are created equal. That said, I am sure I will never see a finer adaptation of the material than Mabou Mines’ Peter and Wendy. Using the novel (and its original title) as their starting point, this illustrious New York-based theater collective began developing the show in the early ‘90s (around the same time I was religiously videotaping Peter Pan & the Pirates) and first presented the finished product in 1996. Since then, they have performed it around the U.S. and internationally; it’s enjoying a much too brief return engagement at the New Victory Theater in Times Square. Original cast members and collaborators Basil Twist, Lute Breuer, and Karen Kandel are back as well.

Kandel, who has won numerous awards for her portrayal of the Narrator, gives a performance that is nothing short of miraculous. On stage for the entire running time (a whopping 2 ½ hours), she not only tells the story, but voices every character—yes, every one: Peter, Wendy, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, Hook, Smee, and even Nana the dog. (As usual, Tinker Bell is just … well, a bell.) The only other voices we hear are those of the off-stage singers who perform the original songs created for the production—simple, beautiful tunes that draw on author Barrie’s Scottish heritage. Interacting with Kandel, who embodies Wendy, the Darlings, and Indian princess Tiger Lily, is a company of astonishing puppeteers who bring to life all the other residents of Neverland, including a Captain Hook who closely resembles Lex Luthor, a tangoing Crocodile, and Peter himself, who here looks much more like an ordinary boy than the leaf-clad lad other versions have shown us. They also help create the many locations of the story, from the Darling nursery to the Jolly Roger and back.

At the Saturday matinee I attended, I was amazed at how little noise there was in the house during the show. After all, we were at a children’s theater, and the performance is on the long side. Either the kids in the audience that afternoon were extraordinarily mature and well behaved, or they were as entranced by what was happening on stage as I was. It’s obvious that the piece remains fresh for the company, despite the many years they have been performing it; as the play reached its bittersweet conclusion, Kandel’s voice broke, and tears ran freely down her face.

Maybe, like me, you have an extra-soft spot for the conceited, forgetful boy who would not grow up, or maybe Sleeping Beauty or (heaven help us) Spider-Man is more your speed. In either case, you owe it to yourself, and any youngsters you have lying around, to catch this unique and extraordinary production before it leaves us (again) on May 22. Like Peter himself, it may be back again one day, but who knows when? — Regina Robbins

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinema Moms Who Never Complain, Never Explain

In honor of Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to a baker’s dozen of cinema’s strong, self-sacrificing but never self-pitying moms. These women aren’t on a pedestal and wouldn’t want to be. They live, they love, and they keep the home in every sense of the word. These kid-friendly films portray moms who put themselves out for their children because it goes with the territory of being a devoted parent. All the thanks they need is for their kids to live good and happy lives. These actresses represent an honor roll of great acting through the decades:

Stella in Stella Dallas, 1937,
directed by King Vidor.

Barbara Stanwyk is able to let her natural-born Brooklyn accent out of the bag as this working-class good-time gal who has a daughter with an upper-crust ex-husband. Stella’s not willing to lose her daughter to her ex but she hasn’t the slightest clue as to how to break into the upper echelons, and her attempts are pitiable. When she realizes she’s endangering her daughter’s chances of being accepted into polite society, she steps aside, though it breaks her heart. Her “tough gal” façade can’t hide it, but she never lets on.

Apple Annie in Lady for a Day, 1933,
directed by Frank Capra.

May Robson stars in this Damon Runyan story of a street peddler with a secret: a daughter she’s supported long-distance for years. When daughter Louise visits New York with her wealthy fiancé and would-be father-in-law, Apple Annie marshals her resources and puts on a masquerade that ensures her daughter’s long-term happiness. As her daughter’s boat disappears from view, Apple Annie gets back to work without missing a beat. Remade in 1961 by Capra himself as Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis as Apple Annie, both are satisfying renditions of this unlikely but entertaining New York City tale.

Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield, 1935,
directed by George Cukor.

When little Davey’s mother dies leaving him at the mercy of his cruel stepfather, Edna May Oliver’s Aunt Betsey steps up, the savior of every child’s dream—strong, wise, and kind. She raises David with an almost modern appreciation of the importance of fun. And she diplomatically holds her tongue when David’s hapless wife is the worst housewife ever. There have been several filmed versions of this Dickens tale, and the 1999 television adaptation with Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey runs a close second.

Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947,
directed by George Seaton.

Mom’s a great looking, confidant, no-nonsense woman who has the ultimate glamour job. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris, the Macy’s special events director who runs the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. She’s a modern single parent to her daughter (introducing Natalie Wood!) but she’s not too proud or stubborn to change her mind on the issue of the existence of Santa Claus, and let’s her daughter know she was wrong. Let’s hear it for communication, for whimsy, and for having a mom who’s boss in every way, shape, and form.

Martha in I Remember Mama, 1948,
directed by George Stevens.

Irene Dunne claimed this was her favorite role in her long and enviable career. Dunne also plays the memorable, quirky mother Vinnie Day in Life With Father, but it’s in I Remember Mama that Dunne gets to sink her teeth into a complex role as the strong and loving matriarch of an extended Norwegian immigrant family. She shields her children from the harsher realities of life while she encourages them to dream big. When she’s asked if she’d like to be rich, she replies, “I’d like to be rich like I’d like to be ten feet tall. Good for some things, bad for others.” Amen.

Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame, 1958,
directed by Morton DaCosta.

When her nephew is orphaned, party gal Mame Dennis played by Rosalind Russell becomes the kindest, silliest, most replete substitute mom in cinema. She’s a very forward-thinking woman and enrolls her nephew Patrick in a progressive school and takes him traveling around the world. They ride a rollercoaster of good times and bad, but Mame is always devoted. With her, life is a banquet.

Maria in The Sound of Music, 1965,
directed by Robert Wise.

Julie Andrews as Maria starts as a governess and ends up a beloved stepmother. In the meantime she brings joy and yes, music back into the lives of her charges. She’s fun, inventive, she never says die. She’s not afraid of the bullying captain and even defies his orders when she thinks she’s right. Yes, captain, your children were parading around Salzburg in window curtains. Deal with it.

Rose Castorini in Moonstruck, 1987,
directed by Norman Jewison.

Olympia Dukakis as Rose is a mom who’s honest and strong. She supports her daughter through her decisions, good and bad. She’s not afraid to lay down the law with her philandering husband and she’s wonderfully unromantic when she warns her about-to-be-married daughter, “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.”

Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot, 1989,
directed by Jim Sheridan.

Brenda Fricker as the mother of cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown quite literally carries her son since he can’t walk himself. She supports him and facilitates him, enabling him to become one of the voices of his generation. Helping him learn to write with his foot, she encourages him, “Go ahead, Christy. Make your mark.” Thanks to her, he did.

Jules and Nic in The Kids Are All Right, 2010,
directed by Lisa Cholodenko.

It’s a bit of a drag for moms Julianne Moore and Annette Bening when their teen kids invite sperm-doner “dad” played by Mark Ruffalo into their lives. The moms deal with the situation with grace and a smile for the sake of the kids, because that’s how they roll. Welcome to 21st Century parenting.

Juno in Juno, 2007,
directed by Jason Reitman.

Ellen Page’s Juno is wise enough to realize that she’s not ready to be a mother and unselfish and gutsy enough to make someone else’s dream of motherhood come true. Second set of kudos to Allison Janney as Juno’s step-mom Bren, who makes the case for speaking your mind and being the tiger step-mom with a heart.

Honorable mention goes to Anne Revere who played Elizabeth Taylor’s mom in National Velvet. I’ve already extolled the virtues of this performance—one of my favorite cinema moms—in the piece, Remembering Elizabeth Taylor In National Velvet.

So happy Mother’s Day to moms, step-moms, and not-ready-to-be moms everywhere. I know you’re not in it for the thanks, but thank you just the same.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Think BIGGEST: World’s Largest Dinosaurs Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History just opened their exciting new show, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, which will be on display through January 2, 2012. Guest blogger and AMNH employee Mindy Weisberger shares the inside story of this exhibit and these fascinating dinosaurs.

Giants in life and in children’s imaginations, sauropod dinosaurs are a source of awe and wonder. It’s been millions of years since the last Apatosaurus went extinct, yet sauropods still make regular appearances in mainstream media. And why not, when they’re naturally “larger than life”? These gargantuan four‐footed herbivores stood tall on legs that resembled tree trunks in height and girth. Their heads—and brains—were tiny, seemingly better suited to animals a fraction of their size. They sported necks and tails that were impossibly long and tethered to massive bodies, the skeletons of which dwarf the largest land animals alive today. Small wonder that these enormous dinosaurs are a perpetual subject of fascination for old and young alike. And now, sizable sauropods are the main attraction at the American Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs.

From the moment you step into a reconstructed Jurassic forest and meet the gaze of an Argentinosaurus peering down through the trees, you are face‐to‐face with sauropods as the living animals they once were. Sauropod biology is introduced and explained through a combination of traditional museum displays—dioramas and fossils—and media elements that engage you visually, intellectually, and physically. Unusual specimens, comparisons to living animals, and hands‐on activities all encourage even the youngest visitors to look at dinosaurs in a new way.

The biggest star of the exhibit is the 60‐foot model of a female Mamenchisaurus that occupies the center of the gallery. Projected on her flank is a video of her internal organs at work, while a paleontologist’s voiceover explains how she ate, breathed, digested her food and reproduced. All of these biological systems make up the “big picture” of sauropod gigantism; many physical features working together is what made it possible for sauropods to grow so big.

There are numerous interactives that help you become more closely acquainted with sauropod biology. An arcade‐style computer game lets you feed a sauropod while learning about their food intake and metabolism. You’ll have the opportunity to measure sauropod femurs and use your findings to calculate the animal’s weight.

Animations guide you in a pumping exercise to understand how difficult it was for a sauropod’s heart to circulate blood around its massive body. A spinning zoetrope depicts sauropod locomotion, bringing tiny 3D models of a sauropod family to life in a stop‐motion walk cycle. A glance through 3D viewers reveals different colors and patterns that sauropods may have sported. And you can channel your inner paleontologist by excavating sauropod bones in a sandy dig pit, while a nearby video introduces several of the scientists who contributed to the exhibit.

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs certainly brings the “Wow!” but it wouldn’t be a science exhibit if it didn’t address the “How?” How fast did sauropods grow? How could they eat enough to survive? How did they raise their young? And HOW did they get so big? These questions and many more about the biology of these amazing animals are asked and answered; visitors will find insights aplenty as they “dig in” to the subject of sauropods, and uncover the smallest details in the big picture of these giants from the past. — Mindy Weisberger

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs is on view at the American Museum of Natural History through January 2, 2012. To learn more about the exhibit, visit the museum’s website:

This 11-foot-tall, 60-foot-long model of a Mamenchisaurus is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Approximately the size of a tractor-trailer, the life-sized, fleshed-out model of a young adult female Mamenchisaurus, distinguished by its remarkable 30-foot neck, features skin texture on one side and video projections on the other side that provide a look inside the dinosaur’s body.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Free-standing Food Cube
A 5½-foot cube of foliage on display represents how much plant matter—approximately 1,000 pounds—a Mamenchisaurus ate in a single day. To survive, a Mamenchisaurus needed 100,000 calories a day, which it got from a leafy diet of horsetail, ginkgo, conifers, and ferns. In contrast, the average adult human male needs just 2,200 calories per day.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Measure a Femur
In this interactive exhibit, visitors can estimate the body weight of two different sauropods by measuring the length of their thigh bones.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Dig Pit
This dig pit inspired by Howe Quarry in Wyoming—an excavation site where over 4,000 sauropod fossils have been found—allows visitors to unearth and examine “fossils.” Measuring 11-by-15-foot, the fully-interactive dig pit features sauropod femurs, ribs, skulls, and more.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Mamenchisaurus Heart Model
A Mamenchisaurus heart moved an estimated total of about 635 quarts of blood through its body, compared to the 7 quarts circulated by the human heart.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

PLEASE NOTE: These images are supplied free solely for one-time use by print, broadcast, and online media for publicity purposes related to the exhibition The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. No other use of these images is permitted without the express written permission of the Museum and/or the owners of the images.