An ancient, dinosaur-eating crocodile exhibit is coming to Elgin this spring. Learn how this unique library exhibit integrates museums, learning and amazement for children and adults.
More than 110 million years ago, an enormous, ferocious crocodile roamed land that is now Niger, Africa. This 40-foot-long crocodile was feared among other living animals, because it ate dinosaurs. Scientifically, it’s known as Sarcosuchus imperator, Latin for “flesh crocodile emperor,” but nowadays, it’s simply called SuperCroc.
The SuperCroc is coming to Elgin, in an impressive exhibition that will debut on May 4 at Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., and continue through the summer. The free exhibit features several different components and displays that will be set up in various parts of the library.
“I’m excited that we’re bringing an exhibit like this to downtown Elgin, especially for many people in the area who wouldn’t otherwise have this type of experience,” says Carole Medal, the library’s executive director. “An exhibit like this will enable us to bring new visitors to the library and to the community. They may not have the resources to visit the wonderful museums in downtown Chicago. The best part is the amazement, wonderment and awe of the children, knowing that it’s right in their own backyard.”
The exhibit is presented as part of one of the programs offered by Project Exploration, a nonprofit science education organization that works to make science accessible to the public through personalized experiences. Project Exploration was cofounded by Dr. Gabrielle Lyon and University of Chicago paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno, who both joined an expedition to Niger in 2000, in search of the ancient crocodilian.
The exhibit, which includes a life-size reconstruction of the SuperCroc skeleton, engages visitors in the step-by-step research that brought this creature back to life. Various components highlight the team’s discoveries and allows them to explore the process of uncovering fossils and examine how scientists pieced them together using knowledge of modern alligators and crocodiles. The display even includes a tent that was used in the expedition.
The Gail Borden Library is an extraordinary site, even without a museum-class exhibit. The 140,000-square-foot building in downtown Elgin is the third-largest public library in Illinois, and its Rakow Branch, 2751 W. Bowes Road, is a 10,000-square-foot LEED gold-certified green building.
The combined facilities welcome one million visitors a year and have 180 employees, 300 volunteers and 450,000 materials. The downtown branch also includes a restaurant, a room dedicated to activities for teenagers and a River Room with breathtaking views of the Fox River.
“The best fit for an exhibit of this magnitude is a place like the Gail Borden Library,” says Lyon. “Our mission is to make science accessible. We love that it’s in a free location, and that the library reaches out to the community. They’re very welcoming.”
Construction of the exhibit begins April 29 and will take staff and volunteers between three and five days to assemble. The work will be done during regular library hours, so that guests can view the process firsthand. The library also is planning smaller exhibits throughout the building. Putting together an exhibit of this scope is intense for the library staff and requires long hours working with partners and the community. Library officials say it’s worth the extra effort. More than 160,000 visitors are expected to see the SuperCroc exhibit.
“People are going to be amazed,” says Denise Raleigh, development director for the library. “It will be incredible to walk into this library and encounter this huge replica of this 110 million-year-old SuperCroc.”
This isn’t the first time the library has partnered with Project Exploration. In 2005, the two organizations collaborated on an exhibit called “Giants: African Dinosaurs,” which 14,000 school-aged children toured during class field trips. Two years later, the library hosted another successful exhibit, “Space: Dare to Dream.” Plans for the SuperCroc exhibit began in earnest six years ago, following the success of the dinosaur exhibit.
The partnership between the library and Project Exploration is a natural fit. The latter reaches underserved children through youth development programs, school services, exhibits and online programs. The organization was founded 13 years ago on Chicago’s South Side, when Lyon and Sereno realized that kids who were struggling in school had a dearth of opportunity for positive hands-on science experience.
“We’ve spent the last decade working hard to change the face of science,” says Lyon. “The heart of our work is engaging Chicago Public Schools students, who are in middle and high school, from Latino and African-American communities, with science. We’re working with kids who are least likely to get involved with science, and putting them in programs where they’re working with scientists who make great discoveries. Exhibits like SuperCroc help to ensure programs are free to students. We have more minority students in science programs in Chicago than just about anywhere else in the country.”
Lyon was part of the team that traveled to Niger in 2001 to discover and unearth parts of the SuperCroc skeleton. Excavation took just one visit, Lyon says, but the exhibit’s storyline was developed over a series of expeditions. When the team returned home, Sereno and Lyon co-wrote and designed the exhibit, which first appeared at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 2003, and now travels all over the world. Lyon and Sereno designed all of the interactive and paleontology exhibits for SuperCroc and other dinosaur exhibits, all of which are based on original fossil material.
“‘The Science of SuperCroc’ focuses on an incredible animal that had been known for awhile, but had never been pieced together,” Lyon says. “It’s a way to get people to wrap their heads around how big this crocodile is. SuperCroc is as big as a city bus, and the skull is six feet long. The fun is in trying to figure out what’s cool and interesting to people, and come up with examples that will bring that to life.”
Sereno and Lyon believe they know how SuperCroc behaved, based on what the fossil records indicate and observations of modern crocodilians. They amassed about 50 percent of SuperCroc’s skeleton, enough to assemble a life-size model. The swollen end of the snout has a large cavity under the nostrils, which means the croc may have had an enhanced sense of smell. Its eye sockets project upward, for scanning the river’s edge while submerged. While the SuperCroc grew to 40 feet long, it weighed about 10 tons. Sereno will make an appearance this summer at the Gail Borden Library to talk more about the team’s findings.
“What I find interesting is the story in the bones,” says Lyon. “It starts with the skull. You can get a good look at the shape of the teeth, which tells us a lot about what that animal was doing. It was eating dinosaurs and dragging animals bigger than itself into the water. Those rounded teeth are designed for crunching bones. The second thing, where the science comes to life, is how we can learn a lot about what this ancient animal was like – even though it went extinct millions of years ago – by looking at living crocodilians. We’re learning from animals that are alive today. The best part of this exhibit is it’s a life-size skeleton – you can get up really close. They’re really neat creatures.”
Library officials believe the SuperCroc exhibit is important to Elgin for several reasons. It has broad appeal and connects people of different ages, backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. It also enhances summertime educational programs, and motivates young people to read and learn about science.
“The reason we do an exhibit like this is because people want to know more about it,” library director Medal says. “It’s visual and it sparks imagination. Right here under the same roof are materials for them to explore, read and check out. The basis for all of this is to improve literacy.”
The library has taken pains to mix the SuperCroc exhibit with additional learning materials. “This exhibit will help to tell a story about what was happening in Niger or Africa many years ago,” adds Raleigh. “We have many resources – DVDs and books – that can immediately be taken off the shelves and checked out, or you can sit down in a chair and read them here. It’s a super-powerful educational opportunity. This exhibit is another way to engage students and nonstudents alike.”
The cost to bring the SuperCroc to Elgin was approximately $100,000, about a quarter of which the Library Foundation paid. The Grand Victoria Foundation, the community grant-making wing of Elgin’s casino, contributed $25,000 and is matching another $25,000. The remaining funds will come from a variety of library supporters. “It’s wonderful that people in the community have confidence in what our library can do,” says Raleigh.
The Grand Victoria Foundation helped to fund the dinosaur exhibit eight years ago, and was eager to join the library’s latest project.
“It’s been the foundation’s experience and observation that the Gail Borden Library is a dynamic anchor in both Elgin and the surrounding areas,” says Nancy Fishman, the foundation’s executive director. “Elgin is our hometown, and we’re a statewide grantmaker. One of our goals is to help communities to be great places to live and work. For Gail Borden to step outside the library box makes Elgin a great place to live and work.
“It’s more than just a library,” she adds. “We see people lined up in the morning, before the library opens, and we see the creative ideas the library comes up with. With the ‘African Giants’ exhibit, we saw how the library rallied the community to be supporters and participants. We expect the same great energy will take place with SuperCroc. For me, what’s most exciting is how excited everyone else is. That tells us that everything we believe in, about the library and the city, gets manifested in this high level of energy around these events. They do amazing things.”
Library officials believe that SuperCroc will increase reading participation, especially in the summer program. In 2012, the City of Elgin, the Elgin Housing Authority, School District U-46 and the Boys & Girls Club worked together to boost the library’s summertime youth reading program to an all-time high of more than 8,500 registrants and more than 3,700 finishers.
“It’s our plan that this SuperCroc exhibit will enable us to take the reading successes of last summer and build significantly based on this world-class scientific display,” says Medal. “We hope we can galvanize all of our partners and add new ones to maximize this educational opportunity. The goal is to keep students reading all summer, so they can dovetail right back into school in late August.”
Medal has been in the library field for more than 30 years, but since joining the Gail Borden Library eight years ago, she’s experienced things she’s never seen before. The most apparent difference is how this library has become a destination point. A couple of months ago, she overheard a conversation among three 10-year-old boys. One turned to his friends and said, “That’s where the dinosaur was standing.”
“I realized he was talking about the exhibit from 2005,” Medal says. “He was probably three or four years old at the time, but that exhibit left an impact on him. It was very telling on the impression we made on that child and that’s just one example.”
In addition, exhibits like SuperCroc help to educate young and old about the fascinating world we live in – both present and past. “This exhibit is a great reminder that we live in a wonderful natural world,” says Lyon. “It reminds us that humans aren’t the only things on earth.”
Although she’s well familiar with SuperCroc, Lyon looks forward to revisiting it this spring.
“One of the greatest pleasures in the world is to see a young child whose eyes light up when they see the exhibit, and the ways adults and kids come up with questions about something that inspires curiosity,” she says. “I love going to the exhibit and seeing these creatures on display, because I remember them when they were in the ground. I was part of the team that had to figure out how to tell their story. It’s a privileged experience. This will be like seeing a member of your family that you haven’t seen in awhile.”