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Photo: American Alliance of Museums.
A young visitor is captivated by Dakota, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s full-suit Triceratops puppet.

When Suzanne was a few months old, John was learning about dinosaurs, and we got into a kind of chanting routine reeling off all the fancy names we knew. Baby Suzanne seemed to think they were hilarious. If she was fussy, dinosaur names would distract her and make her laugh.

Dinosaurs and their names have always enchanted small children. To up the enchantment, a museum in Los Angeles has begun experimenting with bringing dinosaurs to life. Sort of.

Ilana Gustafson writes at the American Alliance of Museums blog, “The anticipation of an imminent transformative journey is palpable in the diorama hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), where a Dinosaur Encounter is about to begin.

“During the show, the audience cheers as a young guest, decked out in a bedazzled dinosaur shirt, is called onstage to feed the juvenile Triceratops known as Dakota. … The audience falls into a quiet anticipation as Dakota’s feet shuffle impatiently, her beak opening and closing, indicating that she’s hungry. The child onstage gets closer to the dinosaur, leaf in hand, and reaches their arm out nervously toward her beak. Slowly Dakota approaches. …

“Dakota opens her mouth and suddenly clamps it closed with the leaf in its clutches and excitedly wiggles her tail. The audience cheers as the child onstage, grinning from ear to ear, watches a dinosaur playfully eat a leaf right at their feet. The host of the show thanks the young visitor. …

“The full-suit Triceratops puppet, created by the fabulous puppeteers at Erth, is made of aluminum and plastic boning, foam, and lycra painted with acrylic, and contains an internal speaker and other mechanisms. Inside is a puppeteer … holding the sixty-five pounds of the weight of the puppet on their back, using largely their shoulders and core strength to maneuver it. Many technical elements need to come together to bring the dinosaur to life, but when they all unify in a performance, the audience forgets to focus on the mechanisms at work. …

“This act of relating to the characters on stage is another thing that make theater so powerful. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers discovered that watching theater can lead to increased empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. … I would make the argument that this empathy toward the dinosaur increases intellectual curiosity about these creatures, paleontology, and other related studies. …

“The father of a dedicated fan shared with us in an email the love his son had developed for our puppet, and in turn for the Natural History Museum.

‘Lev didn’t just watch T-Rex and Triceratops. Lev became T-Rex and Triceratops. After each show, Lev would show us his improvisational reproduction of the show we had just watched. He insisted upon silence while he delivered his performance, mirroring and perfectly mimicking the T-Rex right down to lifting his legs, bending over with retracted arms, and delivering his ferocious ‘roar’ while bobbing his head back and forth seeking his prey.’ …

“The designs of the full-suit Triceratops and T. rex puppets were informed by the museum’s paleontologists, including Dr. Luis Chiappe, Senior VP of Research and Collections, who advised the fabricators on how best to merge entertainment with science. The physical characteristics of our juvenile Triceratops and T. rex puppets were based on our paleontological collections and research. The museum’s scientists were keen to have some of the current research on dinosaurs reflected in these creatures. After a performance with our T. rex puppet, known as Hunter, we often get the question from a visitor (young and adult alike), ‘What’s that fluffy stuff all over his body?’ This opens up a conversation about proto-feathers, and how scientists have been able to make the connection between theropod dinosaurs and modern-day birds. …

“The experts at NHMLAC see the value these puppets have in garnering interest and support for their research. Dr. Nathan Smith, Curator at NHMLAC’s Dinosaur Institute, says … ‘The puppets are a truly unique way where we can envision these species as living animals, but also allow visitors to interact with them.’ “

More at the American Alliance of Museums blog, here. If you missed the giant puppet at the San Diego Zoo, you can read about it here. And here‘s a post from last fall on the one that strode across Europe.

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Photo: Richard Vogel via New York Post.
Percy the porcupine is two stories tall and has 2,000 foam quills.

I finally got it through my head that wild animals want to be in the wild — not in a zoo. But I have lingering ambivalence. The better zoos can keep animals pretty happy while also protecting those that are endangered; they collaborate with other organizations to improve the habitat of animals’ endangered families back home; and they teach delighted children about the importance of conservation.

So you be the judge of today’s story about delighting children at a zoo. No animals were harmed.

Jessica Gelt has the story at the Los Angeles Times. “Boris is not shy, but he is a bit prickly. He enjoys being the center of attention and squeals with indignation if anyone tries to remove him from the limelight. He loves bananas and his large, porcine nose wriggles with contentment as he bites into one.

“A group of artists, designers and fabricators surround Boris [at] Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Burbank.

“ ‘What color is his tongue?’ one asks, leaning in to observe the lithe muscle as it darts out of his diminutive mouth for a taste of fruit.

“Another studies his whiskers, marveling at the way they cover his velvety muzzle.

“Boris … is a 21-year-old Brazilian porcupine — a visiting ambassador to the legendary puppet-making shop as it works to build what might be the world’s largest animal puppet, most certainly the largest porcupine puppet. …

“Named Percy the Porcupine, the two-story creation is covered in 2,000 foam quills and has an articulated nose the size of a 2-ton Volkswagen. And that’s just the arboreal animal’s head. The five fabricators who spent more than 1,000 hours meticulously constructing the fantastical creature decided to leave the body out of the equation. …

“The San Diego Zoo commissioned Percy over the holidays in celebration of the grand opening of a new 3.2-acre attraction called Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, which will welcome families beginning March 11. …

“ ‘Our goal is to inspire the youth of the world,’ says San Diego Zoo wildlife ambassador Marco Wendt, who stands in a conference room beside a small 3-D-printed foam model of Percy’s head that was made to ensure the patterns created for the giant puppet were accurate. ‘Jim Henson’s Creature Shop does the same. So it’s the perfect collaboration.’

“Wendt shares that his parents are from Mexico, and that as a first-generation American, he learned English in part from cartoons and Jim Henson movies.

“Peter Brooke, creative supervisor for the Creature Shop, smiles broadly beneath his face mask as Wendt talks. ‘The reason we said ‘yes’ is that we’ve never had such a challenge,’ says Brooke. …

“Fabricators, including Tina Roland, labor on Percy’s 2,000 quills, which are hand carved out of pool-noodle-like foam using a variety of sharp knives, box cutters and razors. It will take more than 10 gallons of paint to give all of the quills their signature brown stripes.

“ ‘I did get the process down to a minute-and-a-half for each quill,’ says Roland, who uses barge glue (the kind you’d find at a cobbler shop for repairing soles) to attach the quills to Percy’s head. ‘But that was after a lot of practice, and it doesn’t include painting.’ …

“Fabrication supervisor and lead designer Scott Johnson first created the patterns for Percy using a stock photo and a computer program for digital sculpting called ZBrush. The patterns were sent off to a company that turned them into sewing patterns for Percy’s giant head, which was stitched together from inflatable canvas (the kind you’d find on a hot air balloon).

Percy is made large using air blown by a loud generator through a seam at the back of his head. Creators realized this was the only reasonable solution to the problem of the puppet’s portability. …

“Percy’s whiskers are made from a thick monofilament, like fishing line, says Brooke. Those are punched into the muzzle and pulled through. The tongue, which fabricators have identified as pink thanks to Boris, ends up being made from a piece of foam, as do the two beaver-esque front teeth. …

“A few hectic weeks later, Percy is ready for his coming-out party. Dozens of eager elementary kids from schools around the city sit on the grass in Elysian Fields with a stunning view of downtown L.A. behind them. …

“After some inspirational words from San Diego Zoo reps, the kids count backward from five and Percy zooms out from inside the log, his giant head bouncing and bobbing, his liquid-brown eyes blinking beneficently. Rice paper confetti shoots from two air rockets on either side, strains of ‘Going to the Zoo’ by children’s folk singer Raffi blast from speakers, and the kids swarm the massive puppet. They scream, squeal and cheer, petting his super-soft snout and pulling on his fabulous quills.

“ ‘It’s a success; we’re happy,’ says Brooke, proudly observing the kid chaos. ‘It really worked!’ “

More at the Los Angeles Times, here.

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Photo: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock.
A giant puppet representing migrant children, Little Amal, has crossed Europe “on foot” from Syria. She is seen here in Antwerp, Belgium.

‘We’re not politicians, we’re saying to people: remember refugees are people. We hope that the memory of this odd, beautiful child walking through a village or city or over the mountains helps change the weather a little bit.’

I liked this visceral approach to helping those of us who have no need to migrate to feel the humanity of those who do.

Harriet Sherwood wrote about the idea at the Guardian in September, “The transcontinental odyssey of Little Amal will begin its final stage this week when the giant puppet of a nine-year-old Syrian girl reaches the shores of the UK after walking thousands of miles across Europe.

“Bells will chime and choirs will sing as Little Amal appears on the beach on Tuesday in Folkestone, Kent, after making the same cross-Channel journey that has been taken so far this year by more than 17,000 people seeking refuge from conflict, hunger and persecution. …

“ ‘It’s been challenging, it’s been difficult at times, but it’s also been amazing and incredible,’ said David Lan, one of the producers of The Walk, who has been ‘on this journey right from the beginning three years ago, and on every step of the way’ since Little Amal left Gaziantep near the Turkish-Syrian border at the end of July.

“The idea of Little Amal’s journey in search of her missing mother evolved from The Jungle, a highly acclaimed play about young refugees in a camp near Calais that opened at the Young Vic in London in 2017. The play’s producers, the Good Chance theatre company plus Lan, Stephen Daldry and Tracey Seaward, came up with the idea of taking its message of displacement, loss, dignity and hope to villages, towns and cities across Europe.

“Little Amal, whose name means hope in Arabic, was created by Handspring, the company that made the equine puppets in War Horse. She stands 3.5 metres (11ft 5in) tall and is operated by a team of eight puppeteers working shifts to control her legs, arms and facial features. …

“Since leaving Gaziantep, Little Amal and her entourage of about 25 people have navigated Covid border requirements to cross from Turkey to Greece and then through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France to the UK.

“Along the way, they have taken part in concerts, parties and workshops. In Rome, Little Amal was blessed by Pope Francis. In many places, thousands of local people have walked with her through their town or village.

“But the most powerful connections had been with refugees, said Lan. ‘People who are marginalised, shoved to the side, see a representative of themselves or their children centre-stage and being celebrated. That’s very moving.’

“Only in one place has the welcome been less than warm. In Kalambaka, a village in northern Greece, which is home to ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries built into rocks, the village council decided not to receive a ‘Muslim doll from Syria,’ as the mayor described Amal. ‘It’s distressing, but it’s how the world is,’ said Lan.

“In London, Little Amal will celebrate her 10th birthday on Sunday 24 October at a party at the V&A. Children from all over the capital have been invited to join in musical performances and workshops. Yotam Ottolenghi is coordinating a team of chefs to create a giant birthday cake consisting of several hundred cupcakes in a rainbow of colours and flavours.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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