SYDNEY // Australia's oldest museum has invited schoolchildren to a giant sleepover at its new dinosaur exhibition, where the prehistoric world has been brought to life in an array of skeletons, life-size models, skulls, teeth and claws as well as hundreds of fossils and interactive displays.
The Australian Museum in Sydney, founded in 1827, is giving youngsters the chance to camp among the stars of a lost age, including the armour-plated stegosaurus; the "tyrant lizard" tyrannosaurus rex; the 228-million-year-old eoraptor; the bird-like bambiraptor and the incredible jobaria, a monstrous plant eater that was 22 metres long. "They are colossal and make us feel really small," observed Eugene Gibson, 13.
His friend, Hector Titterton, also 13, had been eagerly anticipating his night with some of the most ferocious creatures the earth has ever seen. "I know that dinosaurs were around a long time ago," Hector said. "They controlled everything and the carnivores were the main species." As he prepared his sleeping bag beneath a full-sized model of a meat-eating afrovenator, Alfie, 10, had something of a troubled look as he stared up at rows of savage flesh-tearing teeth."Sleeping out here will be scary," he said quietly.
His aunt, Fleur Dickinson, from Sydney, was not expecting to get much sleep in a spacious hall crammed with excitable children and weary adults but said that a bit of fatigue was a price worth paying. "I'm always looking for interesting and fun things for them to do and I really like dinosaurs." she said. The so-called "Dinosnore" nights at the Australian Museum have been a marketing success and have encouraged children to take an interest in science and history.
"We do get a lot of kids coming in who do want to be palaeontologists," said Fran Dorey, the co-ordinator of the dinosaur exhibition, who, like many young visitors, found herself captivated by this ancient world. "I was one of those dinosaur nerd kids," she said. One of the young "Dinosnore" participants, Tristan Levanic, has a similarly precocious interest. "I do know that there was the Jurassic, Triassic and Cretaceous periods," the nine-year-old said. "All of those periods had different dinosaurs."
The Sydney exhibition charts the dinosaurs' journey through many millions of years as they evolved through the Triassic period, became more diverse in the Jurassic period before fading into extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. "Actually, from a scientific point of view, dinosaurs are still alive today. Birds are now classified as a type of dinosaur," said Ms Dorey, who studied archaeology and palaeontology.
The superstar of the big dinosaur sleepover was a large plant-eating beast, muttaburrasaurus - or rather a life-sized puppet of a juvenile that once lived in open woodlands and probably travelled in a herd. Museum staff can operate the life-like 30kg model that can walk, move its arms, open its mouth and growl. "The kids absolutely love it," Ms Dorey said. "And even when they see your legs out the bottom, you still get some of them thinking it is real."
The night at the museum lured about 85 children and adults. There was pizza and cake, as well as arts and crafts and a torchlight trip around other exhibits that drew regular squeals of delight and fright. "Everyone wants to sleep with the dinosaurs, which are still these mystical, magical things. They're just exciting," said Kate Murray, the event organiser, as swarms of eager children rushed past chasing a clearly exhausted muttaburrasaurus.
John Steer had travelled with his family from Port Macquarie and said the five-hour drive was well worth it. "I think part of the appeal for them is the mystery of it that these great big creatures roamed around and that they were so much bigger than the fauna we see now and why did they die out? I think to capture their imagination is the key to learning." As the evening wore on, there were few signs that the younger brigade was tiring. Kimberly Tonkin, seven, was keen to stay up as long as possible. But did she find the muttaburrasaurus puppet scary?
"Not really," she said casually. "It's a herbivore and it's playful and sometimes it walks on two legs, sometimes it walks on four legs and it's very big for just a baby dinosaur." Her mother, Karen Kwok, was equally enthralled, proving perhaps that the grown-ups were just as keen as their youngsters to experience this nocturnal treat. "I think I'm more excited than my daughter," Mrs Kwok said. As proceedings drew to a close, the crowd settled down to watch a movie. It was an appropriate choice, the 2006 film Night at the Museum that starred Ben Stiller and Dick Van Dyke.