Peter May builds dinosaurs for a living, and museums just can’t get enough
Canada and the World
Peter May builds dinosaurs for a living, and museums just can’t get enough
It's the smell that hits you first—a peculiar mix of epoxies and resins with a whiff of welding torch. And there is something else—something fishy. “That’s probably the whale ribs over there in the tub,” says Peter May, whose dark goatee and baggy red sweater make him look like a jazz musician. He motions toward an enclosed tank. Inside, dozens of Flintstone-sized ribs, from a 40-ton right whale, are soaking in water to leach the oil from the bones.
The odd odours and marinating whale ribs aren’t the only curious things in the old shoe warehouse on the edge of Beamsville, Ont., 50 km east of Hamilton. May’s company, Research Casting International Ltd., is the pre-eminent builder of dinosaurs for museums around the world. This year, as well as reconstructing the odd whale, the company will earn more than $2 million making fibreglass casts of fossilized dinosaur and prehistoric mammal bones and then building life-sized models of the beasts for more than a dozen museums around the world. Off in one corner, a technician— one of 20 employed by the company—is putting the final touches on a mastodon skeleton that will go to the Indiana State Museum. Next to it is an ambulocetus, a 40-million-year-old, four-legged ancestor of the modern whale, which is bound for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
The reconstruction techniques developed by May, 46, and his team allow them to replicate a dinosaur down to the tiniest bone. About 10 per cent of May’s business involves constructing dinosaurs from original fossils. But due to the scarcity of the real thing, and the cost of making new finds, May’s main focus is on recreations. Curators from around the world can’t seem to get enough. The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Oklahoma City is among the institutions that have come calling. Curators there asked May to build their centrepiece exhibit for the institute’s
official opening in 2000. The 27-m-long apatosaurus took IV2 years to construct; two years later it continues to attract thousands of visitors a month. “We looked at a few other people,” said Noble curator Nick Czaplewski. “But we knew of Peter’s work. He did a fantastic job.”
May’s threadbare office is decorated with posters of old dinosaur movies-—The Lost World, One Million Years B. C. and others. Poking out of a box on top of a filing cabinet is the cast skull of a sabre-toothed tiger—one nasty looking incisor curling over the edge. Mays laptop sits on a desk in the centre of the room. As a screen saver, he uses a picture of his two daughters, Amelia, 19, and Jacqueline, 11, dressed in their hockey uniforms. (His son Alex, 17, also plays hockey.) “I think we have a real chance this year to win the provincials with Amelias team,” says May, stroking his goatee. He has promised his wife, Terry, that he will lose the chin hair if Amelia wins.
As May considers the fate of his beard, Sue, the world’s most expensive tyrannosaur, stares down at him. At 12.5 m in length and standing 4.5 m high, Sue is the largest T. Rex skeleton ever discovered. She was found in 1990 in South Dakota. In a public auction, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago paid $ 12.5 million for the fossilized bones. McDonalds Corp. and Walt Disney Co. raised the bulk of the money; the Field Museum paid May $750,000 to make seven copies of Sue, including one for Disney, two for McDonalds and another—the one still in residence in Beamsville—for a private collector.
Mays crew took moulds from the original bones and cast them in plastic. Then they spread the pieces out on the warehouse floor and, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, slowly assembled the models along backbones of steel rods. Staring up into Sue’s ferocious jaws—they could crunch 230 kg of meat in a single bite—May smiles wryly and says, “We do get involved in some pretty interesting projects.”
As they come in, his reputation widens. “It’s safe to say May is the best in this business,” says Hans-Dieter Sues, vice-president for collections and research at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “There are two or three other companies, but most museums consider Research Casting the first place to stop.” Since 1990, May’s firm has built over 250 prehistoric beasts. “I think people love dinosaurs so much because they are like mythical creatures, almost like dragons,” says May. “It’s hard to believe these enormous, ferocious creatures once wandered our world.”
Born in Oldham, a village near Manchester, England, May stumbled into the world of dinosaur reconstruction by accident. His family emigrated to Hamilton in 1964. He later attended the University of Guelph, where he specialized in sculpting and earned a B.A. in fine arts. But after he graduated in 1977, one of his professors arranged an interview at the ROM, which had an opening for a junior technician in its vertebrate paleontology department. Within a few weeks, May was out in the Alberta badlands, excavating dinosaur fossils. He turned out to be a natural. “You have to know about paleontology and how the bones fit together,” he says. “But you also have to be a sculptor, a welder and know how to mould and cast.”
After seven years at the ROM, May was offered the chance to help establish the now renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology near Drumheller, Alta., which opened to worldwide acclaim in 1985. As senior technician, he was in charge of moulding and casting bones for almost all of the original displays. He returned to the ROM in 1986, and a year later started Research Casting in his spare time. “I met a lot of people from museums around the world when I was working at the Tyrrell, and they began asking me if I could build them dinosaurs,” May says. “They just didn’t have the facilities or the trained staff to do the work in-house.”
By 1991, he had landed three major
contracts with institutions in Japan, England and the United States. “Suddenly, I had orders for a million dollars’ worth of dinosaurs,” he says. “So I left my job at the ROM and cranked up Research Casting full-time.” One of those contracts was with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which wanted May to build a barosaurus, a giant herbivore.
May and his crew drove down to New York City to pick up the fossilized bones. They were far too heavy for a free-standing mount—the hip bone alone, May remembers, “weighed 180 kg and took four of us to move it.” May took latex moulds and then cast the new bones in fibreglass and polyurethane foam. The five-storeyhigh model was too tall to assemble inside May’s warehouse, and had to be constructed using a crane in the parking lot. The beast was reassembled in the rotunda of the museum, where it continues to be a huge hit. It is the tallest free-standing dinosaur ever constructed, weighing one ton and standing 15m high and 24 m long.
May’s next high-profile assignment came in 1991, when he read that Steven Spielberg was about to make a movie about dinosaurs based on Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. “I sent his company a letter saying, ‘Here is what we do. If you need a skeleton, give us a call’—and they did,” May says. A month later, May flew to Hollywood, and ended up helping mount a scene in which a marauding T. Rex destroys a museum-style display— complete with T. Rex skeleton. With Spielberg’s cooperation, May also put together an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History that included dinosaurs, props and clips from the movie. It opened on June 11,1993, the same day as the film, and attracted more than 400,000 people within three months.
May’s company has branched out into other areas. Throughout 1998 and 1999, working under contract to the American Museum of Natural History, members of his crew travelled to Pompeii to make casts of a column in the city that was engulfed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago. For the same museum, May’s company also made moulds of geological formations in Hawaii and on the coastline of Scotland. The Scottish assignment was particularly gruelling: May and his crew rappelled down the side of a cliff and, suspended 30 m above the ground,
applied rubber casts to sections that reveal 20 million years of geological history.
May recently expanded his horizons again, this time with the modern world’s last great giant, the whale. Working for the ROM, he travelled to Prince Edward Island last December to haul away a 24-ton sperm whale. “According to the necropsy,” says May, “it was just a teenager with raging hormones that went barrelling up the beach and got caught on a sandbar.” The bones were brought back to Beamsville to be cast, and the model will eventually be mounted at the ROM. As well, in November the ROM sent May to the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to salvage a right whale, of which there are only 300 left in the world. With a heavy storm brewing, May had mere hours to work. “We arrived at 3 p.m. and by 6 p.m.
the storm hit,” he recalls. “Luckily we got the skeleton off in time. Otherwise, it would have been washed out to sea.”
New opportunities are waiting. When the first phase of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River is completed in 2003, many artifacts will be lost as the dam begins to fill. A Chinese archaeology institute invited May to visit the area in January and examine a poem etched into the rock above the river about 300 years ago. The institute asked him to make a mould of it before it is submerged. “But I think we can actually cut away the rock and save the original,” says May. “That’s why I love what we do so much. Every day we do something new, try some kind of new challenge.” And museums from around the world just keep calling.
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