Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Children's Museum

Working in Dinosphere lab painstaking, but rewarding

August 6, 2007

Working three years on one project can be tedious, but Mark Sims enjoys every minute he spends preparing dinosaur fossils for display at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

Sims, 44, works in the Paleo Prep Lab at the museum's Dinosphere exhibit, picking away at the dirt left on 65-million-year-old fossils. Once a year, he travels to South Dakota to dig for bones he can bring back to the museum.

"It never occurred to me that I would do this, but life takes turns and I sure enjoy it," he said.

Before moving to Indianapolis in 1990, Sims was a historian at Ohio's Dawes Arboretum. After moving, he settled for jobs in retail and hospitality sales. In 2003, he decided to volunteer at the Children's Museum and the following year joined the Paleo Prep Lab's staff.

Although he had no formal training, he has learned how to meticulously scrape dirt off fossils without damaging the bone. His arsenal of tools includes knives, brushes, glue, paint, putty and pressurized air.

For eight hours a day, Sims sits on a stool with a light shining on his work. He scrapes off the dark pieces of dirt with Exacto knives as he looks for a lighter-colored, grain-textured fossil. A toy dinosaur sits in front of him, next to a black-and-white picture of it--with the bones that have been discovered colored in with crayon.

As he clears the dirt, Sims fills cracks in the fossil with glue. Once the bone is clean, he puts putty into holes and uses paint to make sure everything matches the bone's color.

While he works, he answers visitors' questions about what he is doing, the piece he is preparing, and how long it takes him to do his job. He also often gets visitors who ask about the fossils they bring to the museum.

Sims isn't a paleontologist, but every July he goes to a 4,800-acre ranch in Faith, S.D., to look for bones. There are no computers bouncing X-rays into the ground like in the movie "Jurassic Park," though. Sims and other excavators get on their hands and knees with knives and brushes, working carefully.

His most exciting dig was this summer, when he found a Duckbill dinosaur's leg bone. Sims found small bones on the first day, but he backed up a few feet the next day and heard a crunch.

Once the fibula was uncovered, he and others dug a trench around it and covered the fossil with aluminum foil and plaster--a protective cast called a field jacket.

He left a few days later, but his colleagues removed the specimen and brought it back to the museum. The fibula is almost 3 feet long and weighs about 10 pounds--twice as much with the field jacket.

It took about a month to clean and prepare that bone. In contrast, Sims and museum paleontologist Victor Porter have spent years working on a Triceratops skull the museum acquired in 2004.

The Paleo Prep Lab allows volunteers to help prepare the fossils and also allows visitors to ask questions while the employees work.

"Some labs have windows to see the people working but not discuss with them," said museum CEO Jeff Patchen, 53. "We wanted a working lab where people can go in small groups and ask questions."

Most major natural history museums have paleontologists on staff, but they typically do not talk with visitors, Patchen said. The Indianapolis museum's paleontologist is one of few in Indiana.

Of the 1,394 professional and student members of the Kansas-based Paleontological Society, just 27 live in Indiana, said spokesman Derek Gates.

"Nobody's ever found a dinosaur bone in Indiana," Sims said. "Now maybe tomorrow we'll find one, but if you want to be a paleontologist, you have to go where the jobs are and Indiana isn't one of them."

Even so, the Children's Museum is not without help from dinosaur experts.

Some of the world's leading paleontologists serve on its advisory board, Patchen said. Members were captivated with the exhibit's concept and wanted to help determine which fossils would be in the museum and how they were displayed, he said.

Three years after opening, Dinosphere still attracts visitors. The exhibit helped the museum's 2006 attendance increase 7 percent to about 1 million, Patchen said.

"It's still fascinating, because kids know that while [dinosaurs] don't exist now, they existed and were real in the past," he said. "It goes toward immersing children and families in real arts, science and humanities. Dinosphere is real science ... and it surrounds them in the real world of paleontology."

Sometimes, the real world is not all it's cracked up to be. Sims has glued his fingers together more than once and sometimes cuts his hands, but hasn't suffered any serious injuries. On occasion, he also accidentally has chipped away pieces of fossil, but he said he lives and learns.

When he started, he had difficulty painting and placing putty because he said he had to match the colors and texture to the original bone--over time, he got better.

The care it takes to prepare just one fossil can be time-consuming. Sims said he sometimes loses patience, but the number of fossils the lab has to prepare keeps his job fresh and exciting. Generally, he works on four or five bones at one time.

"It never gets old and each fossil project is different with challenges to each one," Sims said. "I might get tired, but I'll switch to a different one."

Although he enjoys his job, he said he is happy to leave his work at the lab.

"I do not go on vacations and dig or have stuff around my house," Sims said. "My wife would kill me. I work with bones eight hours a day here; I don't feel a need to have them at home. Plus, I don't have any room."

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