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'Dinosaurs in Motion' exhibit brings ancient life to struggling MOSI

Using gears and levers, visitors to MOSI's Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit opening Jan. 30 can take control of life-size metal dino skeletons, including a 44-foot-long T. rex.
Published Feb. 2, 2016

The metal dinosaurs look more like pieces of art than the dusty fossils you'd expect in a museum. Controlling the ferocious chomp of T. rex jaws gives the new "Dinosaurs in Motion" exhibit at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry a primal thrill.

The show, which opened Saturday, runs through May 8, with a collection of 14 metal sculptures inspired by actual fossils. They are brought to life in steampunk fashion with modern tools like pulleys, springs, gears, gaskets, using parts of old motorcycles for hip bones and pieces of screen doors for wings.

The exhibit comes as local business and political leaders wonder if MOSI's sprawling science center on Fowler Avenue should face extinction and move to a new development in Tampa's Channelside district.

At the exhibition, visitors pull and twist cables to make a 44-foot Tyrannosaurus rex loudly snap its jaws, or a pair of ornithomimus (cousin to the ostrichlike dinos in the stampede scene in Jurassic Park) chatter.

The sound effects and movements get increasingly complex as you move through the exhibit. Dinosaurs with electric motors, including a plesiosaur (sometimes called the Loch Ness monster), are controlled with a PlayStation remote. There are also stations to sketch, build and learn how pulleys make loads lighter.

"It's wild using something so modern to control something so ancient," MOSI spokesman Grayson Kamm said during a recent media preview.

The show is the work of Imagine Exhibitions, producer of more than 25 exhibitions around the world including Titanic and The Hunger Games: The Exhibition.

But these dinosaurs sprang from the imagination of Asheville, N.C., artist John Payne, who died from a stroke in 2008 at age 58. A trained metalsmith who blended mechanical science and artistic craftsmanship, Payne created sculptures meant to be touched, to move their hinged jaws and poke the springs that turn the head and tail. Before Payne died, he had been transitioning to making intricate sculptures of birds, the dinosaurs' descendants.

The exhibit comes amid discussion of whether the museum itself will evolve into a downtown Tampa attraction or try to shore up its financial troubles. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has interest in relocating MOSI to his redevelopment project in downtown Tampa.

A consulting company hired by Hillsborough County is conducting a feasibility study on whether a move downtown makes sense for MOSI. The study is expected by early April. Then, the MOSI board will decide whether to pursue it.

MOSI, the largest science center in the Southeast, has an aging building and falling revenue, and has struggled with money and maintenance complaints.

Though the museum won't release the details of how it is paying for the dinosaurs, Imagine Exhibitions was "fully aware of our financial situation," Kamm said.

"They worked out a partnership agreement to reduce the risk for us," Kamm said, adding that it would "not impact" MOSI's current cash flow.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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