Jurassic Lark Everyone knows kids love dinosaurs. These museums make you remember why.
By Paul Lukas

(MONEY Magazine) – When I was in the third grade, my class took a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. We'd been learning about dinosaurs, but nothing our teacher had told us--not even when filtered through our youthful imaginations--prepared us for what we saw at the museum. Those huge fossilized skeletons of the brontosaurus, the stegosaurus, the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex--hearing about them in a classroom was one thing, but seeing them in person just blew our little minds.

Everybody studies dinosaurs in grade school, which perhaps explains why so many of us end up thinking of dinosaurs as kid stuff. If you fall into this camp, think again--a good dinosaur museum is every bit as capable of blowing your mind today as it was when you were nine. Fossil exhibits take dinosaurs from the realm of fantasy to reality. No matter how well you think you've come to grips with the fact that these creatures once walked the earth, seeing them up close is a staggering experience. Moreover, prevailing theories on dinosaurs have changed a lot since you were in grade school, so it's a good time for a refresher course. And since dinosaurs continue to captivate children of all ages, fossil exhibits make excellent family travel destinations. (See the box on page 178 for inexpensive, kid-friendly hotels and restaurants.)

Happily, just as America was once teeming with dinosaurs, it's now teeming with dinosaur museums. They can generally be divided into two categories: the older, hallowed science museums of the East, and the newer, usually smaller facilities of the West, many of which offer hands-on interaction with the fossils. Examples from both regions follow. I've tried to focus on exhibits of particular historical significance and entertainment value. But you can be sure that they all have high "Ooh!" and "Ahh!" factors.

American Museum of Natural History Central Park West at 79th St., New York City; 212-769-5000; www.amnh.org

Still the quintessential dinosaur collection, with the grand exhibit halls housing about 100 specimens, an impressive 85% of which are real (most museums' displays are made from casts). The exhibits recently received a $48 million overhaul and now reflect current scientific theory--tails, which once dragged, point upward, and the brontosaurus skull, which was found to be from another species shortly after my class visit, has been replaced with a correct one.

Peabody Museum of Natural History 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven; 203-432-5050; www.peabody.yale.edu

It was here that paleontologist John Ostrom helped develop the now respected theory that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded ancestors of birds rather than cold-blooded reptiles, as had previously been thought. The deinonychus skeleton that spurred Ostrom down this road is part of the museum's spectacular collection, which is among the largest in the nation.

National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution 10th St. & Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C.; 202-357-2020; www.mnh.si.edu

Seven of the Smithsonian's dinosaurs are "type" specimens, which means they are the original fossils scientists used to name a species. The museum's collection includes the world's only public display of a horned beast called a ceratosaurus, and also features an allosaurus that served as the model for a "Far Side" book-cover illustration by cartoonist Gary Larson.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh; 412-622-3131; www.clpgh.org/cmnh

Andrew Carnegie became obsessed with dinosaurs around the turn of the 19th century, and the result is a massive collection of over 500 specimens. Like most of the grand eastern museums, the Carnegie feels a bit stuffy but contains all the classics: a stegosaurus, a brontosaurus (or apatosaurus, as the species is now known) and a terrifying T-rex, found in 1902, that served as the animal's type specimen.

Academy of Natural Sciences 1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., Philadelphia; 215-299-1000; www.acnatsci.org

A 42-foot giganotosaurus looms over the reception desk, but this museum offers much more than just skeleton exhibits. There's a working paleontology lab where you can see staff members preparing fossils for future display, and a popular video attraction called the Time Machine, where you can confront surprisingly realistic animations of the creatures from Jurassic Park.

Field Museum of Natural History Lake Shore Dr. at Roosevelt Rd., Chicago; 312-922-9410; www.fieldmuseum.org

The Field Museum is about to become extremely popular, thanks to Sue, the largest and most complete tyrannosaurus rex ever found. Sue will make her highly anticipated debut in May, but if you want to beat the crowds, the museum already has an impressive fossil collection, supplemented by some clever use of audio: Thundering footsteps simulate what an approaching dinosaur must have sounded like, and each sign with a dinosaur's name has a button--push it, and a recorded voice gives the proper pronunciation.

Dakota Dinosaur Museum 200 Museum Drive, Dickinson, N.D.; 701-225-3466

Although the more celebrated dinosaur exhibits are located in the East, the most fertile fossil beds are out west. This small, well-designed space, with a huge T-rex skull in the main lobby and a nice mixture of skeletons and brightly colored models in the main gallery, is a fine example of how the smaller western museums honor their regional fossil heritage.

Dinosaur Valley Museum Fourth & Main Sts., Grand Junction, Colo.; 970-241-9210; www.mwc.mus.co.us/dinosaurs

Another good example of the western museum style, this facility supplements its skeletons with innovative displays such as robotic dinosaurs and the hands-on Kids' Quarry, where youngsters are encouraged to handle real fossil bones.

Black Hills Institute of Geological Research 217 Main St., Hill City, S.D.; 605-574-4289; www.bhigr.com

Not truly a museum, the Black Hills Institute is a commercial paleontology operation that doubles as a gallery. Its founders, who have a reputation for supplying first-rate specimens to other museums, are best known for excavating Sue, the massive T-rex that was later acquired by Chicago's Field Museum (see page 178). Exhibits change fairly frequently as work progresses, and the gift shop is practically a museum in itself, with drawers full of real fossils right there for the handling (and buying).

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History 1501 Montgomery St., Fort Worth; 817-732-1631; www.fwmuseum.org

Texas has proved to be a good source of dinosaur fossils, and several of the skeletons on display in Fort Worth were found near the museum site, including two that were discovered by local youngsters. For children who aspire to similar paleontological glory, the museum features a "color a dinosaur" touchscreen video and an interactive dinosaur quiz.

Tate Geological Museum 125 College Drive, Casper, Wyo.; 307-268-2447; www.cc.whecn.edu/tate/webpage.htm

This museum, the smallest on the list, makes up in intimacy what it lacks in scope, with an extremely friendly staff that encourages hands-on interaction with the collection. Visitors can also view the prep lab, where scientists work on the latest finds from Wyoming.

Utah Museum of Natural History University of Utah, Salt Lake City; 801-581-4303; www.umnh.utah.edu and

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles; 213-763-3466; www.nhm.org

Unlike most western dinosaur facilities, these urban museums are big and fairly comprehensive, more like their eastern counterparts. Both offer a wide array of skeletons and models, and the Utah museum has an intercom connected to the prep lab that enables visitors to ask the scientists questions as they work.

Most of these museums, and many more, are profiled in the excellent book Dinosaur Digs, edited by Blake Edgar. And for the latest dinosaur information, just ask some third-graders what they've been learning in school lately.

Award-winning travel writer Paul Lukas missed his class trip to the Bronx Zoo.