Much like the company’s name, the staff toolkit at Research Casting International (rci) is, at first glance, somewhat mundane. When monocle visits the firm’s vast, hangar-like workshop two-hours east of Toronto, the key implement being used by one employee, as she examines the dusty contents of a crate in front of her, is a humble toothbrush. That’s about as hi-tech a utensil as is required for the task at hand: to gently free fragments of rock from a Brontosaurus’s backbone that has encased it for 140 million years.
This is what an ordinary day looks like at the world’s leading restorer of dinosaur bones. “We try to keep things simple,” says rci president Peter May. He founded the firm in 1987 as a side project while working in the natural history department of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, before quitting in 1990 to focus on rci full time.
To date, May’s 35-strong team – which includes welders, blacksmiths, restorers and preservation specialists – has treated about 1,000 skeletons for natural history museums around the world. The vertebrae being excavated today are part of rci’s latest commission: restoring a collection of dinosaur skeletons that are set to go on permanent display at a museum in Indianapolis later this year. If there’s a display of a dinosaur or the ossified remains of some other massive mammal at a museum near you, it’s likely that rci had something to do with it.
Many of the skeletons that May has worked with have become treasured parts of the institutions – and the cities – in which they reside. So great was the uproar in the UK when London’s Natural History Museum replaced “Dippy”, a life-size replica of a Diplodocus remounted by rci, with the restored skeleton of a blue whale (also rci) that the museum decided to loan the dinosaur to several smaller venues across the country. Visitor numbers at many of those galleries have subsequently broken records, says May, all thanks to Dippy’s arrival. On top of getting the chance to sink their teeth into major films (see box), the restorers have also been involved with exciting new paleontological discoveries. In 2014 a startlingly intact 6 metre-long skeleton with a club tail was unearthed in Montana and later confirmed to be a new species of the herbivorous armoured ankylosaurid dinosaur. Zuul crurivastator (so named in a nod to the main villain in Ghostbusters) was quickly transported to rci’s workshop to be excavated and copied so that a cast of its 75-million-year-old bones could be put on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.
All of this means that the prehistoric-bone business is booming. Commissions can bring in anything up to ca$500,000 (€340,000), depending on the size and state of the skeleton. As several multi-year projects are due to complete during 2020, rci predicts that it will be among its most lucrative years to date: annual revenue is expected to be about ca$6.5m (€4.4m). Part of this is due to older, established natural history museums revamping their exhibits. Last June, for example, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington unveiled 48 dinosaur skeletons, all restored by rci over the course of five years.
Newer markets are emerging too. “In the 1990s, most of our clients were in Asia,” says May, adding that they were mainly museums across Japan, South Korea and in Shanghai during that time. “Now we’re seeing an increase in demand from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf.” When national or regional economies boom, he says, museum budgets often follow suit, creating new clients for natural history exhibits and fresh demand for rci’s work.
“There aren’t many guys who do what we do,” says May, as a blacksmith welds a metal frame on a replica baby Tyrannosaurus rex. “I’m still lost for words by our work. It’s pretty neat.”
In 1991, RCI’s founder Peter May was having his morning tea when he spotted a story in that day’s edition of the Toronto Star: Steven Spielberg had acquired the screenplay rights to Michael Crichton’s fantasy adventure novel Jurassic Park, in which genetically modified dinosaurs run amok through a tropical theme park. “I wrote Steven Spielberg a letter,” says May. “I told him that if he needed dinosaur skeletons for the movie, I could make them for him.” It worked: rci ended up creating several skeletons for the blockbuster film, including the star of the show, the Tyrannosaurus rex.