A few months ago, on one of my routine visits to the Royal Ontario Museum, I noticed a small poster with an illustration of an ankylosaur in the middle of the dinosaur exhibit. The writing underneath the drawing advertised a new exhibit at the ROM called “Zuul”. At first I thought little of it; throughout the last few years, the ROM has added small fossils to its dinosaur halls, including a small ankylosaur, Gargoyleosaurus, a new ceratopsian, Wendiceratops, as well as skull fragments from a new Dromaeosaur and Pachycephalosaurid. A new ankylosaur would be interesting, as they are typically absent in museum displays, but at the time, it was not at the forefront of my thoughts. Additionally, I had no idea that the ROM had discovered a new species; I originally thought it was a specimen of either Euoplocephalus or Ankylosaurus that had been named, similar to a fossil like “Sue”, the Tyrannosaurus in Chicago. Fast forward to December 14th; after a particularly long Friday at school, I began to head home in Toronto’s subway system, when I noticed another poster. This once also advertised Zuul; but this time, it said that the exhibit was now open. On seeing this, I raced home, and planned my trip to the museum. Usually before going to a new exhibit I do a bit of research ahead of time, but for this one, I went in knowing nothing.
My largest takeaway on the exhibit is just how beautiful it is. From the start, large murals that depict the location of Zuul’s discovery enable the viewer to feel like they are part of Zuul’s story. The murals, as well as an accompanying mini-documentary narrated by ROM paleontology curator David Evans and Ankylosaur expert Victoria Arbour, help put us in the shoes of the people who found the fossil. Later on in the display, this same sense returns, but in a different fashion; instead of being placed into the paleontologists shoes, we are put into the world of Zuul itself. Beautiful paintings of the world in the cretaceous, as well as the centerpiece showing Zuul in confrontation with a Gorgosaurus gives us the impression that Zuul was a real animal that lived with a range of diverse species in prehistoric Montana. When we look at fossils (and I can say from experience), we sometimes get so caught up in the size or magnificence of the fossilized bones that we forget that this was an actual animal, and had a life of its own. World building isn’t something exhibits do often, so it was something to behold in Zuul.
The next positive comment is that the Zuul exhibit makes it clear that the fossil of Zuul is important to the study of ankylosaurs (and, just a rare fossil in general). When we are introduced to Zuul, we are immediately presented with the fact that this is a once-in-a-generation fossil; the odds of finding it were astronomical. It was completely buried by rock, with no body part above ground. It was only discovered because an excavation of a nearby Gorgosaurus (a mid-sized Tyrannosaur; likely Zuul’s primary predator) hit its tail while clearing rock. Upon further excavation of the site, it was revealed the fossil contained both the skull and tail club, as well as almost all the armored plates in the places they would have been while the animal was alive. This is extremely rare amongst ankylosaur fossils. In this way, the exhibit makes us feel that we are witnessing something special, and as such, draws us into wanting to know more about Zuul. Further, by showing us the key differences between Zuul and other ankylosaurs — by both describing physical attributes and showing the skulls of various ankylosaurs — it makes it easy for us to understand what differentiates this animal from others.
The main reason why Zuul is a good exhibit is that it truly is appealing to people of all-ages. For adults and hard-core paleontology fans, there is plenty of information on Zuul, the science of Zuul’s armour, as well as actual fossil specimens. For the younger audience, there are arcade games, where they can play as Zuul against various Mesozoic era foes, an interactive motion capture game, comic strips narrated by David Evans and Victoria Arbour that help both adults and kids further understand the exhibit, as well as an animated movie that depicts a conflict of Zuul vs Gorgosaurus. The exhibit is one of the few exhibits I have ever been to that is truly inclusive to people of all ages; usually exhibits either lean towards adults or children. Zuul is truly a masterpiece as it can be truly experienced and enjoyed by everyone.
Despite my strong positivity towards Zuul, there are a few minor issues. The exhibit is very small; this both works in its favor and against it, as it is rather fast to go through. At this same time however, there is not a lot of useless information. Also, there is slight repetition when talking about Zuul’s defences, but it does not take away from the exhibit in any significant way.
My conclusive review of Zuul is that it is an exhibitory masterpiece. Combining beautiful art, lots of fossils, informative facts on Zuul and its world, as well as an all-inclusive feeling, the exhibit make it one of the most pleasant surprises I have been to in years. My only question is why can’t all museums be like this? From my experience, museums often just assume that the public is astonished with the thought of “big ancient reptile”, and don’t actually put that much effort in to the rest of the exhibit. Too many times, museum halls are barren of facts pertaining to dinosaurs, or contain the bare minimum information. The plain white walls of museums often leave a disappointing feeling, almost as though there should be more. Zuul is a step in the right direction to correcting this trend; in my opinion, it is done the way that dinosaur exhibits should be done.
Zuul will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum until May 20, 2019 (https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/zuul).