DANVILLE — Local dentist Dr. John "Jack" Hankla is pleased as schoolchildren file into the grand hall of the Community Arts Center and marvel at the large collection of replica dinosaur skeletons.
"I just enjoy seeing the kids 'ooh' and 'aah,'" Hankla said. "When they first come in through the door and they see the grandeur of these specimens, and they say 'Wow!' I realize that we have done our job."
That "Wow!" factor, as Hankla calls it, fueled the interest that he and his son, John, shared to acquire the collection over the last 20 years.
The collection — which includes a 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex — does not include original fossils. Rather, the specimens in the exhibit are cast replicas of the bones. The ground floor has fully assembled skeletons, while an upstairs room has skulls and feet.
The original fossils were found in China, Brazil, Germany, North Africa and elsewhere around the world. The skull of a duck-billed dinosaur was found on a site near Lusk, Wyo., where the Hanklas once owned the "fossil rights" for digging specimens.
It was at that site that Jack and John Hankla first got excited about dinosaurs when John was about 8 years old. Hundreds of duck-billed dinosaurs had drowned there in some sort of water hazard.
"They were all washed into one flat lagoon," Jack Hankla said. "The carnivores then came and feasted on all these carcasses, and it was nicknamed 'the T. rex Café,' because we find all these broken teeth of carnivores like T. rex and raptors and smaller dromeosaurs, where they had been there munching."
The Hanklas donated their leases to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, but they are still involved in acquiring or trading specimens. John — who this spring will receive a master's degree in museum studies and paleontology from the University of Colorado — once told his father that the fossils "speak" to him.
"I think they're telling me that I need to tell their story," John told his father.
Jack Hankla initially had doubts about displaying the collection in a museum devoted to the arts.
"I did not feel it was an appropriate venue because we have so many wonderful artists in Danville and the surrounding area, and I didn't want to take away from their venue," he said.
But Cynthia Frye, a board member of the Community Arts Center, asked him to reconsider. And through the use of various activities, the museum has tapped into ways to excite children about art, science and learning in general.
Students are encouraged to draw dinosaurs or to sculpt a dinosaur with modeling clay. They can search for bones in a mock "dig" in the center's basement. They can make a mask of a triceratops, a horned dinosaur, or throw three die to create a new dinosaur name and then draw the animal that the name suggests.
"It does my heart good to see a kid with a sketch pad sketching a dinosaur," said Mary Beth Touchstone, executive director of the Community Arts Center.
Dinosaurs: The Big Picture was originally scheduled to close Feb. 25, but its popularity has prompted the center to extend its run through March.
"We anticipated a big response, but we have been really floored," said Amy Wise, director of marketing for the Community Arts Center. Visitors have come from Louisville, and school groups are arriving from throughout the region to see the collection.
Getting the collection through the center's front doors, piece by piece, was a task in itself. It took four days to get everything inside the center, once a federal courthouse and post office. The Tyrannosaurus rex, mounted on a platform, is positioned so its back just touches the 14-foot ceiling of the center's grand hall.
Museum officials had hoped to put a triceratops on display as well, but Hankla said that specimen "is the size of a dump truck" and would have taken too much space away from others. So they brought in a smaller cousin called Utahceratops.
Jack Hankla said the collection — which has been displayed locally and at museums in Wyoming, Montana and Florida — affords an opportunity for students to see something tangible and not just pictures in textbooks.
"When you experience the tangible, I think it inspires you to take it to another level of understanding," he said.
He nodded to the students filing through the exhibit and getting their dose of the "Wow!" factor.
"If you can inspire these guys to read and to maybe pay a little bit of attention in school, and to learn a little bit about what they've seen today, that's a good thing."