WASHINGTON (AP) - An energy businessman is donating a record $35 million to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to build a new dinosaur hall on the National Mall, the museum complex announced Thursday.
The donation by David H. Koch, the executive vice president of Koch Industries Inc. of Wichita, Kan., is the single largest gift in the museum's 102-year history. The Smithsonian Board of Regents voted Monday to name the new dinosaur hall in Koch's honor.
Koch, an engineer trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a billionaire who lives in New York City. He was the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980 and has been a major donor to conservative political causes targeting President Barack Obama's policies, as well as to educational, medical and cultural groups.
Since the age of 14, though, when his father took Koch and his brother Charles to New York's American Museum of Natural History, he fell in love with dinosaurs and has visited museums around the world, he told The Associated Press. It's become a hobby, he said, taking him to visit fields in central Africa where paleontologists were unearthing fossils.
"I just was dazzled by the dinosaurs," he said. After serving on the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum board for five years, "it was just obvious to me that the dinosaur halls were incredibly obsolete, and at least one of the exhibits is over 100 years old."
In 2009, Koch gave the Smithsonian $15 million to build a new exhibit hall exploring human evolution over 6 million years. The museum's Hall of Human Origins also was named in his honor, tying in with another area that interests Koch.
In 2006, he gave $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to create the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing. And in 2008, he gave a record $100 million to New York's Lincoln Center to renovate the former New York State Theater.
The Smithsonian's dinosaur hall has remained unchanged for more than 30 years and has grown outdated with advances in paleontology. The current exhibit gallery began as the "Hall of Extinct Monsters" when the museum opened in 1910. Still, the museum has amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of fossils and a well-regarded staff of paleobiologists conducting research.
Museum officials said the renovation will be the largest and most complex overhaul in its history and will showcase its collection of 46 million fossils and current research. Dinosaurs have long been one of the most popular exhibits, said Cristian Samper, the museum's director.
It will take about seven years to overhaul the dinosaur exhibit, museum spokesman Randall Kremer said. The existing dinosaur hall will remain open to visitors until spring 2014. Then more than 10,000 bones and fragile specimens will have to be removed from the current exhibition before construction begins. The project is expected to cost $45 million.
The renovation follows major updates to all of the public spaces in the museum, which attracts about 7 million visitors annually. The museum's halls devoted to mammals and oceans also have been overhauled in the past decade.
During construction, select dinosaur specimens will remain on view in other public areas of the museum.
Some groups have criticized the Koch brothers for funding efforts fighting legislation related to climate change. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has listed Koch Industries among the nation's top 10 air polluters.
Koch said he's fascinated by the subject of climate change and believes the public should learn more about it.
"There's debate, of course, as to how much of the warming is caused by human activity vs. just the natural cycles in the climate fluctuations of the globe," he said.
Koch said his political contributions are completely independent of his gifts to museums and cultural institutions.
"I'm sorry but I have eclectic interests," he said. "I give away a very large fraction of my income to support these worthy institutions, and I'm trying to help in the most important ways that I can to make the world a better place."