In downtown Portland, a defunct Banana Republic store has been transformed into Dinolandia, a sprawling, two-story pop-up dinosaur museum. Visitors passing through its front doors step into a 22,000-square-foot menagerie of nearly 70 brightly painted, handmade dinosaurs. They include an armored ankylosaurus, impish velociraptors and a swaggering Tyrannosaurus rex towering 15-feet tall.
Dinolandia is the brainchild of Mike Bennett, a Portland-based visual artist and self-proclaimed “Public Joy Creator” who brought together a team of 33 friends, fellow artists and volunteers to help him install, paint and light the prehistoric playland this spring, using 120 gallons of recycled paint and more than 420 sheets of donated plywood. He also had a friend compose a soundtrack and even starred as a mad scientist who needs your help to fix a broken time machine in a series of interactive videos.
Bennett shared his favorite exhibits, the stories behind their creation and how the experience of creating them has inspired his next interactive installation, which he teases will be “less grand but more polished,” and perhaps include a round of miniature golf inside a medieval-themed tavern.
Professor Rex’s Collection Room
“When designing Dinolandia, the first thing that I knew we had to have is a natural history museum-inspired space, and seeing that is the most surreal part for me because it’s kind of exactly what I was imagining,” Bennett said. He also recalled frequent visits he would take as a child with his family to marvel at the Tyrannosaurus rex and other fossil skeletons on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This exhibit of black and white painted fossil bones and skeletons, which he calls “Professor Rex’s collection room,” pays tribute to the natural history museum visits of his youth and seeing it come to life is “the most surreal part for me because it’s kind of exactly what I was imagining.”
Trippy stegosaurus forest
From the fossils room, visitors step onto an elevator that’s been reimagined as a herky-jerky time machine. When the elevator doors open onto the second floor, they reveal a brightly lit forest awash in vivid green hues containing a pair of stegosauruses. “I like to hang out there and greet people and see their reactions and it makes all of it worth it,” said Bennett, who wanted the stegosaurus forest to offer a “shockingly effective” color and lighting contrast to the staid world of black and white fossils.
A towering albertosaurus
The museum features a 15-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling length albertosaurus. In its current incarnation, this fearsome apex predator that lived 70 million years ago is decked out in purple and lavender hues. Bennett said he chose these colors to vary the palette and “that’s the paint I had lying around.” It took five people to cut out, assemble, draw and paint the albertosaurus. As for the dino’s expression, Bennett joked, “He is almost ashamed to be so big squeezed into such a small space.”
A nod to our geographic past
Bennett recruited several artist friends to lend their talents and creativity to make Dinolandia roar to life. One of them is Julia Hunkler who painted over the course of two days a massive mural of the prehistoric Columbia River, with Mt. Hood in the background, breaking through the museum wall and rushing through the hallway. “We thought it would be a cool concept if you went back in time and could see what happened to the rest of the Pacific Northwest,” Bennett said.
Fun dino facts!
When designing Dinolandia, Bennett knew that he wanted it to be a space to not only entertain, but also educate visitors young and old about paleontology. He hired a friend to help him create timelines of when the dozens of dinosaurs on display lived and facts about them, livened with the occasional nod to the most famous dinosaur movie franchise ever created and other pop-cultural breadcrumbs. “The biggest thing for me was putting these timelines together…and seeing how far apart these dinosaurs lived,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy how little fossil evidence we have for some of these dinosaurs. We don’t know as much as we think we know about dinosaurs. That’s the most interesting thing I think.”
Hatching dino eggs
Cretaceous Creations is an exhibit showcasing work from eight different artists and friends of Bennett, each of whom used a space that was once a fitting room to create their own dinosaur-themed immersive experience. One of the participating artists is Chase Castro, who put together an exhibit of hatching baby dinosaurs made out of polymer clay, stuffed animal parts, feathers, styrofoam, bamboo and other materials. The photo of Castro’s display is “incredible but it just doesn’t do it justice, there is so much going on,” said Bennett. “It’s kind of like dinosaurs are stoked to have kids, and look, one is being born right now!”
Floating brachiosaurus canopy
The Jurassic journey winds to an end past a canopy of seven brachiosaurus heads, each painted a different color of the rainbow, that appear to be floating above a curved staircase descending onto the main floor. Bennett said this was the last piece he and his team made when “burnout was hitting hard,” and posed a challenge to install and translate from conception to creation. “It was a mystery hole. I didn’t know how it would fill out,” he said. “It was not what I expected it to look like, but I love it.”
Dinolandia will be on display all summer and is scheduled to come down in September, though that run could be extended, according to Bennett. Still, he thinks the temporary nature of it adds to the appeal. “Dinolandia will never exist in the way that it exists now ever again. And I think that adds some real excitement and magic to a space like this,” he said.
To learn more about Dinolandia and Mike Bennett’s previous art installations, hear his interview on “Think Out Loud” by pressing the play arrow below:
Dinolandia is located at 710 SW Yamhill Street in downtown Portland. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11AM to 7PM, and runs through September 10. Admission is $5 for adults. Children 8 and under are free.