Posts Tagged 'museum'

Dinosaurs Monster Families

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Even people living in London may not know the Horniman Museum which sits in south east London, just a few miles from the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs. The Horniman is a small museum with an excelletn and old-fashioned natural history section full of bones and taxidermied material but with some great illustrations of development, variation and evolution. There’s a section on human cultures and especially tribal artefacts, a small aquarium in the basement and  a petting zoo and gardens. It’s well worth a visit anytime, but they also regularly have special exhibitions and right now it is the above titled one on dinosaur eggs, nests and babies.

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The exhibition is not large but it is excellent. I’ve only included a few snapshots here but hopefully it’s clear that there’s some wonderful specimens (almost all casts, but very few are of specimens or even species I have seen before and none will be well known in the UK), with interesting mounts, excellently presented information and lots of detail. There are some looped videos of researchers talking about major discoveries like the brooding oviraptorosaurs and also lots of top Luis Rey artwork. Luis was actually integral to the origin of this traveling exhibit (it’s also been in Spain and Italy but I don’t know where it’s headed next) and hence the liberal splashing of his works.

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Given the theme it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the material is based on Mongolian and northern Chinese specimens – Protoceratops and oviraptorosaurs feature heavily as does Tarbosaurus and innumerable eggs and nests. Again though, while this might in one respect be a bit same-y, you’d have to pay close attention to notice and it’s not played as a central point, merely that so much accessible material is from there so it features. Still there’s stuff from Argentina and North America and lots of key sites and specimens get a mention.

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In a nice touch, the last case is a collection of modern specimens from the Horniman’s own collections showing off various bird and their eggs and some other goodies. There’s also a very special ‘guest’ that is quite remarkable to see but I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone going.

The museum also has an excellent record of using these temporary exhibits to carry out additional activities and outreach events, bringing in artists and experts to talk about them to various groups and creating extra activities and presentations. Somewhat inevitably therefore I got roped into this and in the opening week look along a gang of students and colleagues to talk dinosaurs and their biology and evolution and I’m back again in a couple of weeks for another talk.

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Overall this is a superb little exhibit, there’s a lot to see, it’s well laid out and there’s some interesting and exciting specimens. It’s well labeled and there’s a lot of information to potentially digest and I can highly recommend it.

Near perfection with Gorgosaurus

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This is the famous Gorgosaurus specimen at the Tyrrell that is pretty much perfection when it comes to tyrannosaurs. It’s as complete a skeleton as you are every likely to see, in wonderful condition, articulated pretty much perfectly and in an iconic posture. I loved simply looking at it, and it’s a hell of a thing.

I did not however love taking a photo of it, the position it has been put it, combined with the lighting in the hall makes it extremely hard to photograph. Now while museums can’t cater to the requirements or demands of every single visitor (some want it light, some dark, some want things high up, others low down, some want chairs, some want spaces etc.) it is frustrating that what is possibly their best specimen on display is annoyingly hard to photograph and hence this single decent shot which really doesn’t show off the feet properly, or indeed the complete (yes, actually really complete) tail.

Even so, it’s a magnificent specimen and I think the photo does it a decent amount of justice and at least lets you see the real quality of the preservation and indeed the preparation to get it out like this. Enjoy.

Black Beauty

IMG_2084So here is one of the absolute classics of palaeontological mounts – the Tyrannosaurus specimen known as ‘Black Beauty’. Actually from a scientific perspective I don’t really like these panel mounts, they tend to cover up too much of the actual details of the bones, but to be fair, from the point of view of a visitor and the display aesthetics, they can be spectacular and this one certainly is.

IMG_2085Obviously a fair bit of this is not original and is reconstructed material or casts (I didn’t look close enough to check which) and most notably while there is a good skull it’s not stuck way up there. That’s obviously a good thing from a safety perspective, a fall would utterly destroy it, but what is odd is that while the skull is on display, it’s not next to the mount. Instead, it’s currently in the next gallery in the series and sits alone in a rather fetching ‘picture frame’ case with some of the museum’s other prized specimens.

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Naturally those producing displays need to be mindful of a great many things and it’s understandable (if frustrating) that researchers are not closer to the top of that list. However, given the amount of Tyrannosaurus material available at the Tyrrell and just how good this looks, I have to admit, I’m pretty much giving this one a pass.

Tyrrell educational displays

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These are almost the first things in the Tyrrell once you have made it past the opening tyrannosaurs, and it’s a great set-up for the main exhibitions. Obviously kids will want to run through and see the skeletons, but from the educator’s point of view, you do want to maximise their enjoyment and appreciation of the material, and well, if you can get them to learn something too that’s obviously a bonus. In this case these two stands are pretty simple in design, but obviously do their jobs well – they are clear and stark and use very obvious examples which should be easy to understand for young kids, and of course lean heavily on things featured in the galleries (tyrannosaurs and hadrosaurs are plentiful to say the least), but without resorting to huge numbers of primary colours and cartoon-like illustrations which I think can be rather unnecessary. In short, great stuff!

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More Tyrrell Tyrannosaurs

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As you might have already guessed, the Tyrrell is not short of tyrannosaurs and this blog is going to be heaving with them by the end. I mean, this is the second post and I’m still on all the life reconstructions! (and no, we’ve not got to the murals yet, let alone the actual mounts and specimens). First off is this great rendering which stands outside at the main entrance, and it’s one I really like and probably prefer to the set I covered in the last post. The pose is really cool and a colours are great (though perhaps a bit faded in the sun), but it really is a great way to welcome people to the museum and stands atop the Tyrrell logo which is, well, you guessed.

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The second one is not easy to see as it’s in the education centre and so not always visible to the average visitor, which is a shame as it is absolutely great. It looks like a bronze statue from a distance, but in fact appears to be made of metal plates welded together, with the details picked out with blobs of metal that I assume were welded or soldered on. It’s mounted on a plinth with seats built into one side, and a glass case containing a partial skull on the other. While it’s a shame not everyone gets to see these, I’m sure it’s a real thrill for the kids that they get to see some bonus stuff the adults can’t and it’s a superb sculpt. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and welding can’t be the easiest medium, yet the result is brilliant.

IMG_2408Coming next? Oh, I don’t know. I still have several hundred images to sort through and much exam marking to complete. I’m sure I can find something exciting though. Probably with tyrannosaurs, whether I intend to or not.

Tyrrell tyrannosaurs

And so to the Tyrrell. Well, there’s really quite a lot to come here, from the setting of the buildings, the collections and of course the galleries. As with the Carnegie, it’s going to take quite some time, and so I really do hope people don’t get sick of it, but well, for those who have never been and may never go, I’m sure it’ll be something of a delight, and even those who know the museum well, I hope I can add some new thoughts.
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Although there are life reconstructions outside the museum and various details of the building and so on, I’d though I’d begin with what is effectively the start of the museum and the entrance hall which contains four life sized reconstructions of various Albertan tyrannosaurines. They are certainly impressive, and rather appropriate, and the setting is rather well done, though I have to be picky and point that they all have rather odd heads, and given that these are (as far as I could tell) supposed to represent two or three different species, the fact that they are all the same colour and pattern is rather a disappointment.

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Nitpicking aside, they really do dominate the room and are beautifully made. Everyone I saw who entered stopped to have a good look and the effect on the kids was obviously superb. They do have problems, but as an introduction to a dinosaur museum, I thought they were superb.

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Berlin spirits

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So a last look at some of what is on show in the new Berlin halls. These are a couple of shots of their new spirit room, a climate-controlled room to protect all of the various pickled specimens in jar upon glass jar that line the shelves. The Natural History Museum in London have also relatively recently renovated their spirit collection and moved it to not just a better environment for the material, but also opened it up to the public in a similar manner and the effect in both cases is superb.

These are parts of collections rarely seen by visitors to museums and they are difficult to display and are probably seen as something of a turn-off since it does tend to be lots of very bleached and slightly decayed bodies crammed unceremoniously into jars, and it’s often pretty tricky to tell what’s in there. However in both cases I think the point is less about exactly what is there, and more the “look at all this stuff” effect of the whole collection. You are there to see the forest, not the trees, and so it’s a demonstration of just what material and information is there and what this means for both the museum collections and science as a whole. When that is offset by the aesthetics of all that glass in a glass-fronted room and clever lighting, the effect is quite wonderful.

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Berlin exhibitions

I started looking through the huge collection of photos from the Tyrrell and realised that I’d never finished covering all of the Berlin Museum that I started back at the end of Jan. I really don’t want to leave that hanging on till after we’ve trawled through huge amounts of the Tyrrell, so it’s time to try and polish them off. I had planned to spin these out a bit, but with plenty more pressing, I’ll have to keep it down. If you want more, I guess you’ll just have to go and visit.

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Much of the museum has been renovated and updated in relatively recent years and this was my first visit since the big update of the dinosaur hall in 2007. There are some lovely new displays and cabinets and in particular, some great little pieces that demonstrate key features of biology or evolution. Above we have a diversity wall, an increasingly common introduction to biology halls, something like this is present in many museums. Still, it is wonderfully done and well-lit and there is a lot to take in.

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This case is a great one about convergence, but sadly was hard to photograph so doesn’t really show it off well. As you can see, there’s a variety of aquatic vertebrates here, both extant and extinct, and the text explains the convergences in form of both body shape and fins / flippers etc. Each skeleton is apparently backed in black, but the other side shows the ‘fleshed’ out forms, with taxidermy skins for the extant animals, and well-made models for the extinct ones.

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And on the subject of taxidermy, here’s a great series of displays on the construction of museum-quality exhibits, covering all the issues of drawings, sculpture, skin preparation and the rest. While many places discuss casting and mounting skeletons, model making and the like, I can’t think of another set-up I’ve seen covering this aspect of curation. I suspect the reason may be a bit of anticipated squeamishness on behalf of the public, museums won’t want to draw attention to the killing and skinning of animals, even if it was done decades, even centuries ago, but it shouldn’t be ignored and this is a hell of a skill and should be celebrated.

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Though here is that almost inevitable (but again, very well done) case on casting and replicating materials, and for once not just dinosaur bones but other hard pieces and even a mounted fish. Again, clearly laid out, but concise, and well thought out.

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This one was really impressive: so simple and so effective. We have a nice relief map of New Guinea, with various skins of birds of paradise laid out, and then a map to show how the different barriers (mountains etc.) have led to reproductive isolation and the development of the different species and subspecies. It ties together wonderfully easily and it’s quite clear how they are all similar, but still different. A wonderful example of biogeography and evolution and presented very simply and clearly.

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And finally yes, some fossils. This is part of the Solnhofen display and does a nice job of showing off a lot of material, but without it being too crowded. It gets across the real diversity of species there and indeed the different modes of preservation (there’s some 3D bits in there).

Overall, the new material is really pretty good. There are some niggles and inevitably compromises, but there’s an awful lot of material to see and it’s well displayed. While I do really like exhibits and cabinets that show off the mechanics of museums as it were, these are especially good here and there’s a lot to be gained from them, and in particular how compact many of them are. And of course, really quite a few big dinosaurs as well.

Berlin Sauropods

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As briefly mentioned before, I’m just back from a week long trip to Berlin and the Museum fur Naturkunde (better, but now incorrectly known as the Humboldt museum). The last time I was there was around 2007 and the main dinosaur hall was empty with the material having been taken apart for remounting. So while I was there to dig into the collections and check out the material available, it was a chance to see how the new exhibits (plenty more than the dinosaurs have been done) look. I’ll stretch it out a little and break this up into various small slots covering different aspects of the exhibits and first off let’s not sidestep the obvious – they have a full sized, mostly real bone, mounted Giraffatitan. Yes this is a far from tiny mount, it’s absolutely colossal and that’s most apparent when you see that it’s next to Diplodocus (also shown at the top) – the sauropod that most people have probably seen in a museum and are most familiar with. Giraffatitan simply *towers* over this and in every dimension except total length is clearly a much, much larger animal.

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The remounting here gives both of these animals a more ‘modern’ look and less tail-draggy and generally upright. One really nice addition is the cervical ribs being added to the G. mount, giving it a much more accurate neck and showing off this often missing (or badly handled) feature of sauropod necks. The third in the sauropod trio is the fascinating and short-necked Dicraeosaurus. Indeed, between the three, you have a really classic in Diplodocus, a real giant in Giraffatitan (and a very upright one to boot), and then a relatively small and short-necked animal in Dicraeosaurus. This guy does have a short neck, but look at the height on the cervical nerual spines and that lovely bifurcation into pairs of spines.

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And finally as a little bonus, I took this one as it looked like a nice novel view, but on reviewing it in hindsight, it’s clearly in ‘Luis-Rey-O-Scope‘.

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The Grant Museum of Zoology

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing some on-and-off work in the Grant Museum of Zoology in London. I had dropped into this place a few times before in the past, but recently the collection has moved (all of about 100 yards down the road) to a new and more spacious setting. The museum was started, and remains, a teaching collection for comparative anatomy and as such is devoted to zoology alone and retains a great many and varied specimens on display.

As with the traditions of older museums (like Oxford and Dublin for example), material is everywhere and there’s a lovely cluttered feel with every cabinet and shelf full of specimens. While it can be a nightmare to photograph in situ, each specimen can be see quite clearly so as a visitor it’s fine. A lot of the material is grouped taxonomically providing great opportunities for comparing details (and there are some fossils in there too), though there are small asides for relevant collections such as a case devoted to dissected heads, or one comparing different ways of preserving zoology specimens, or recently extinct taxa (featuring a quagga and thylacine skeleton, and a skin of the latter).

The vertebrates do especially well and there’s a super skeletal collection of the mammals in particular. There’s a nice line in having skeletons next to taxidermy or pickled specimens too which is great, and all manner of odd and unusual pieces that are rarely seen on displays. If you want to see a leopard seal skull, pickled baby aardvark or stuffed golden mole, this is the place for you. All in all this is a superb little museum and for those like me who do like their anatomy and simply want to see lots and lots of specimens, this really is a must.

Horniman cabinets

Having muttered about the aquarium and some of the model archosaurs, it’s time to turn to the actual displays. I’ve mused a fair bit on the past on signs, displays and exhibitions in museums and generally advocated more information, more basics to biology and more attention to putting things in context. All of this is done superbly here (despite the rather venerable nature of much of it) and is put nicely in the context of diversity as a whole. So while there is a gallery devoted to diversity and classification, and cabinets that show key groups like parrots and carnivores, a lot of space is given to presenting fundamentals of biology.

This is done well though, so that not just the key point is made simply and effectively, but that more information is available if you delve into the details, and there is much to look at and enjoy, even if you don’t read a word. There are displays dedicated to sexual selection, convergence (spines in one case, moving in water for another), crypsis and display colours, flight and more. Below are some of these to give a flavour of the kind of thing that is on show, though a bit of the context is lost as several of these were part of a series, the point should be quite clear.

Dogs: A clear a simple display of skulls and heads (mostly cut off). Domestic animals are a great way to introduce ideas about variation and what can happen with selective breeding as they are so familiar, and in dogs you have perhaps the most familiar and most varied animal.

The embryological sequence is superb and mapped out from a single-celled zygote upwards, showing the whole pattern and process of vertebrate embryology.

Skulls: A nice display to show the number and diversity of bones in the skull and their consistency across many differnt groups.

More on skulls: this follows the previous display and shows more explicitly how certain changes occurred and clearly the coloured bones helps show the changing shapes and emphasise the positions of the fenestrae in the skull.

Evolution of the elephant: Mammoths aside, many people might not be aware of other fossil elephants. Here we see skulls, teeth (key characters for this clade), and life restorations.

Modifications: birds are highly derived animals specialised for flight, but here we see how penguins have reversed or modified some of these traits for swimming.

All in all this is superb stuff. There’s lots of little features here which will grab attention and answer questions and prompt thought – just the kind of thing you want from a museum. Moreover, the design is superb – in pretty much every case, a 5 second glance is enough to convey the really basic and essential message (skulls have the same bones but are different, you can breed lots of variety from a stock ancestor) but that taking time will unveil greater depth and detail.

The Horniman dinosaurs

The Horniman museum is rather bereft of dinosaur material. There are some Igunaodon vertebrae in rather poor condition, there’s some trackways hanging around, and though I missed it, I’m assured there is a Triceratops rib on display. Given the size of the museum vs the style of the collections that’s not a criticism, but no real natural history museum can really count as such without at least a token effort at some dinosaur display and this is no exception. There are several small life reconstruction models of dinosaurs dotted in the halls to illustrate various issues and here they are.

Yes, they are rather out of date to say the least, and it’s quite a surprise that there’s no theropod or sauropod at all, just ornithischians. Still, they are rather endearing and I really like them in terms of style, though obviously from an educational standpoint they could do with being a bit more up to date (and how long as Scolosaurus been sunk into Euoplocephalus?). The detail is nice too, though the Stegosaurus is probably the best (and appears to have walked straight off the set of King Kong) and I only find now that my photo is rather out of focus, sorry about that.


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