BRANFORD — Matthew Carrano learned about dinosaurs back in the days when books were the main source of information, visits to the Blackstone Memorial Library were essential and writing down facts and details was the only way to keep the information at your fingertips.
To some that may seem like a trip back more than 230 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, yet it was actually was about 45 years ago when this Branford boy was so mesmerized by the prehistoric reptile that he devoured every piece of information he could get his hands on.
“It’s very hard, I find, to convey to people under like 25 just how scarce things were before “Jurassic Park,” before the internet, when you liked dinosaurs,” the 49-year-old recalls.
Today, that little boy who grew up in Pine Orchard, is now the curator of Dinosauria at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, leading the seven-year, $125 million renovation of The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time, that opened Saturday, June 8.
“He really is the guy,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History. “Tons of people worked on it, but he was the one who integrated all of the input and was peacemaker and the person who made the compromises and absorbed the slings and arrows of differing opinions to pull it together.”
Johnson talks about the 31,000-square-foot exhibition.
“This is not just a dinosaur hall, it’s a hall about all history of life on earth,” he says.
“It is much more relevant to today’s people than any previous dinosaur exhibit has ever been,” he adds. “It’s about them and it’s about their future, as well as about being about cool fossils.”
Matthew Carrano talks about the monumental process of working with 700 of these “cool fossils.”
“We took all of the fossils, all of the skeletons, we took them apart, bone by bone, and they’re all reposed, they’re all doing new things,” he says. “Hopefully they look a lot more lively and realistic.”
Johnson talks about how Matthew Carrano accomplished this feat.
“The dinosaurs are doing things,” Johnson says. “They’re fighting, they’re eating, they’re climbing, they’re sleeping, they’re guarding their nests. They’re doing things that animals do. The way I describe it is that Matt made his dinosaurs into living animals,” he says.
Talking with Matthew Carrano, and those who know him, you quickly learn that dinosaurs have been a constant for most of his life.
“I remember him, probably he was 8 years old, sitting on the couch with eight or nine different dinosaur books spread out in front of him, copying all the drawings and listing all the names,” says Matthew Carrano’s brother, Frank Carrano.
Matthew Carrano’s dinosaur drawings are remembered fondly by his father, Frank Carrano.
“When he was 5 and 6, he would draw these pictures and ask my wife and I to identify them. ’What is this?’ ‘Triceratops,’ ‘No, it’s a Diplodocus.’ ‘No, it’s a whatever,’ ” his father recalls of the family lessons.
Matthew Carrano remembers those days.
“You go online and there’s like 100 websites that list every dinosaur that’s ever been found, now” he says. “There was a book that came out in the late ’70s. I remember getting this book and it was like the Holy Grail. It was called The Dinosaur Dictionary. It had hundreds of dinosaurs, I couldn’t believe it.”
He explains his very own system of cataloguing.
“I had these sheets of paper where I just sort of write down every dinosaur name I’d ever encountered and then I remember having like a box of 3x5 cards where I would put a dinosaur on every card,” he remembers. “It was like a manual database.”
In addition to books, Matthew Carrano insisted on family outings to Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where dinosaur fossils loom large.
Matthew Carrano’s brother remembers these family visits.
“When I was a kid, we went many, many, many times,” says Frank Carrano. “I have vivid memories of even like how it smelled.”
“They have a very famous mural painting in the dinosaur hall (Great Hall) that I remember him naming everything on it and explaining later, as people learn different things, what was no longer accurate about it,” Frank Carano says of his brother’s burgeoning knowledge of dinosaurs.
“The mural is one of the largest in the world, measuring 110 feet (33.5 meters) by 16 feet (4.9 meters). It required more than 4.5 years (1943–1947) to complete,” according to peabody.yale.edu.
Matthew Carrano credits his many family excursions to the Peabody for keeping his interest to the forefront.
“It’s fine to have the books and all the exciting pictures, there weren’t even dinosaur movies really when I was a kid, so mostly that was it,” he recalls. “Then you’d go to the museum and there’s this 70-foot dinosaur in front of you and all of your imagination gets tied to a real thing.”
Matthew Carrano’s father, Frank Carrano, talks about his son’s dinosaur fascination.
“With Matt, he just decided this was going to be something he could learn every possible thing he could learn about it and that’s essentially what he did,” he says. “He just moved and moved and moved with it. It was obvious, early on, that there was a deep love for what he was doing.”
After attending Branford Public Schools through sixth grade, both Carrano brothers matriculated at Hopkins School in New Haven. Matthew Carrano’s higher education took him to Brown University where he received a B.S. in geology. In 1998 he received a Ph.D. in organismal biology and anatomy from the University of Chicago.
It was during in 1987, the summer after his senior year in high school, that Matthew Carrano called the Peabody to inquire about an internship. While the call was intended for the entomology department, an incorrect phone number brought him to Johnson, a paleobotany graduate student at the time.
This connection took the 17-year-old to Marmarth, N.D. for a week of searching for fossils. While Johnson’s focus was fossil plants, he made sure his young intern found some dinosaur fossils.
“I found little pieces of things, piece of a triceratops, and you’re like, ‘Holy Cow, I just picked up a piece of dinosaur bone,’ ” remembers Matthew Carrano, laughing.
“Even now, it’s obviously something I’ve done many times and to some degree you get used to looking for and finding fossils and sometimes not collecting the fossils you find, but every time you find a fossil you’re the first person who’s ever seen that thing in 60 or 80 or 100 million years. That doesn’t really stop being amazing.”
Fast forward 32 years and Matthew Carrano feels fortunate to have landed his dream job with Johnson as his boss.
Does he feel like he’s at the pinnacle of his career? “In some way, I hope not, because I’m not done,” he says. “But, I know this exhibit is certainly the most impactful thing I will ever do.”
It was while working on the exhibit that Matthew Carrano met his wife, Diana Marsh, an anthropologist who studies museums and how people work and use them. They now have 10-month-old son, Max.
Asked if Max shows any interest in dinosaurs, his father says, “Max likes a lot of things right now, so we’re just going to let him figure it out. I’m trying to not put not too much pressure on him.
“How sad would that be if he gets sick of dinosaurs?”
Matthew Carrano’s father, Frank Carrano, talks about his son and his passion and commitment to pursue his dream.
“A kid who was just so passionate about something and decided in his own mind that he was going to take it as far as he could and it happened for him and I wish and I hope that other kids who maybe are dreaming about something, who also want to pursue that dream and hopefully it’ll happen for them, too,” he says.
“It’s not to say that everyone who works hard always gets what they work for, but there’s that possibility that your dream can come true.”