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Museum Reviews

The Royal Tyrell: The Ultimate Museum of Prehistory

Some places have an almost mythic feel to them. The Royal Tyrell Museum of paleontology just might be one of those places. A review of the legendary natural history museum

 

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A pack of Albertosaurus on the hunt

Even though we were still well over 100 kilometers away from the Royal Tyrell Museum, I could feel my excitement start to build as we moved through the Albertan prairies, towards the Badlands. Driving through the prairies can be tedious… But every so often, a sign would appear on the road, advertising the world famous museum. Eventually, the road bends straight into the infamous Albertan Badlands; and that’s when the so called ‘dinomania’ starts to kick in. It’s clear that the small, nondescript town of Drumheller has fully embraced their nearby museum; throughout the town lie dozens of life-size dinosaur sculptures, a few fossil shops, multiples roads named after dinosaurs, and a giant Tyrannosaurus tower aptly named ‘the world’s largest dinosaur’. Everywhere we went, dinosaurs would seemingly follow; it was like something out of a movie, seemingly too perfect to be true. Then, after traversing the town, we finally reached the museum that all aspiring palaeontologists dream of; and boy howdy, it was unlike any other museum I have ever been to.

In order to properly evaluate the Royal Tyrell, I will discuss my observations about the museum using 4 main categories:

(1) The amount of fossil material on display;

(2) The museums ability to convey accurate facts though text;

(3) The creativity and completeness of the displays within the fossil hall; and,

(4) The use of art throughout the exhibit.

Each category will be assigned points between 1 and 10. The amount of fossil material will however be weighted double (i.e., possible total of 20 points). Thus category 1, fossil material on display, is more significant than the other three. Thus, the highest amount of points = 50. I will use this method for all future museum reviews.

Now, shall we get started?

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The Black Beauty specimen of Tyrannosaurus

Amount of Fossil Material

For me, the appeal of a museum is based on the types of fossils it contains. Does it have thousands of specimens lying around, or rather a select few to make it worthwhile for the casual viewer? For the Tyrell, the sheer diversity of fossils on display make the experience truly incredible. After passing through the opening hall, the viewer is presented with some of the most spectacular fossils of Tyrannosaurids known to paleontology; in particular, a fossil of Gorgosaurus in the classic ‘dinosaur death pose’, with an astounding 95% of its bones intact upon discovery. Additionally, the iconic ‘black beauty’ fossil of Tyrannosaurus Rex, called this due to the stained color of its bones. After passing the black beauty, the exhibit presents one of the most beautiful fossils of all time; a mummified Ankylosaur, Borealopelta. The fossil is truly a once-in-a-lifetime find due to the completeness of the armor and skin of the animal; the fossil is so pristine that the stomach contents of Borealopelta can be seen.

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The placoderm bone-bed; likely caused by drought.

Next, the viewer is led to the main fossil hall where the diversity of fossils is incredible. Starting in the Cambrian period at the beginning of multi-cellular life, the fossil hall contains dozens of fossils from each specific period of time; the most intriguing of which include the proto-amphibian Tiktaalik; the skull of the armoured fish Dunkleosteus; and a bone bed containing dozens of placoderms (armoured fish like the previously mentioned Dunkleosteus), accompanied by a single bony fish. Then, after passing through fossils of the Permian period, the visitor enters the main dinosaur hall; the centre focus of the museum. The highlights of the hall include: the giant marine ichthyosaur Shonisaurus; the large sauropod Camarasaurus; fossils of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, side by side; the skulls and skeletons of multiple Ceratopsians, laid throughout the exhibit; as well as different types of Hadrosaurs, Ornithomimids, Pachycephalosaurids, Tyrannosaurs, Ankylosaurs and other forms of Cretaceous life; including Mosasaurs, Turtles,  the primitive crocodile relative Champsosaurus, and the giant carnivorous fish Xiphactinus. The fossil hall ends with a bang; a display of a Mammoth being attacked by two saber toothed cats. From the sheer diversity of life forms on display – and the fact that said fossils encapsulate the entirety of earth’s natural history — the Tyrell gets high praise within this category.

Score: 20/20.

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The odd Skull of the Ceratopsian Regaliceratops

 Descriptions of Material

The ability of a museum to properly describe the fossil material in front of the viewer can make or break a display. Does the exhibit help the visitor understand what they are seeing? Or, does it leave the viewer with only a limited understanding of the material being presented? From the beginning of the exhibit, the Tyrell helps the viewer understand both how all the fossils were found and their significance.

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The skeleton of Chasmosaurus

The second major hall used large expanses of wall to explain a multitude of natural processes, including evolution, fossilization, and how the universe came into existence. Explanations of fundamental processes are often left untouched in most museums, and this is another way that the Tyrell is unique from other museums. In some areas of the hall, the museum points out and describes fossils that have been found in the nearby Alberta Badlands. For displays such as that of Borealopelta and Shonisaurus, the exhibit articulates the importance of the finds; For Shonisaurus the size; and for Borealopelta the extraordinary preservation of the fossil. Throughout the main fossil hall, detailed descriptions of each era and its respective fossils and extinction events add to the quality of the exhibit by highlighting what makes each era unique. Lay language is used, which greatly enhances one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the exhibit.

Score: 10/10

Fossil Displays

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The fossil display of a Gorgosaurus celebrating its kill.

Most museums stick to a formulaic, almost sterile display of their fossils including white walls, glass cases, bland poses, and individual species grouped together. If it hasn’t been made clear by now, the Tyrell is no ordinary museum, and thinks outside of the box with its displays. Does it occasionally use glass cases to protect specimens? Of course it does. Are some species standing in seemingly generic poses? Definitely. However, there are multiple displays of dinosaurs that have them in lifelike positions and encounters. Almost every dinosaur in the main fossil hall is in a lifelike position including a Prosaurolophus feeding; a scene from the interior seaway with multiple different ocean-going reptiles; and other species standing in natural poses. Then, there are a few displays that are done in such a way that it feels like the skeletons have come to life. For example, an Allosaurus brutally killing a Camptosaurus; a battle royal between the armoured dinosaur Euoplocephalus and the Tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus; the previously mentioned Gorgosaurus standing victoriously over the dead body of the ceratopsian Centrosaurus (my personal favourite); then, to finish the exhibit, the saber-tooth attack on a wooly mammoth. The realistic poses go a long way to immersing the viewer in the feeling that they have traveled to the past, an essential element of how entertaining and effective a museum is at engaging the patron.

Score: 9/10

 

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An Allosaurus hunt; accompanied by artwork of the encounter in the backgroun

Use of Art and Models

For our final category, we will determine how well the Tyrell uses art and models to enhance the experience. I like museums that use color, texture and different types of mediums to present exhibits. For the Tyrell, the art comes so easily and smoothly that it is almost surreal. The first exhibit – a pack Albertosaurus — immediately sets the tone. This display uses model dinosaurs, plants and other animals, along with background art and sounds, to make the intro a spectacle on its own. Nevertheless, the use of art within the exhibit does not end there. Comic strips, metal sculptures, blown glass and interactive displays fill the opening hall, eventually transitioning into a hallway dedicated solely to dinosaur art. The start to the fossil hall shows models of the various forms of life at the Cambrian explosion, that the viewer literally walks over, with a detailed narration to accompany it. Next, multiple areas of both the dinosaur hall and within the Devonian exhibit show the viewer what the climate and vegetation would have looked like at the given time. In the Cretaceous garden, real plants are used to depict the extinct (or just older) plants. In the main hall, the entire background to the exhibit is full of beautiful artwork (albeit, some is outdated based on recent scientific evidence) of the animals presented in the exhibit. By using art, it contrasts the bones and shows the animals when they were alive, further immersing the viewer in the exhibit. In addition, fossil trees, fake rocks and fake riverbeds also surround the displayed fossils, further enhancing the idea that the exhibit has transported the viewer back in time. The combination of realistic models and wonderful art help set the Tyrell on another plane of museum hierarchy.

Score: 10/10.

My total Score? The Royal Tyrell most definitely deserves 49/50.

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The Mammoth hunt; a spectacular finish to the Royal Tyrell’s fossil hall

Can one improve near-perfection?

With a near perfect score, it’s hard to establish a way for the Tyrell to improve. Even the gift shop is good! If I had to nitpick, more interactive displays for younger children might be a nice addition, but this does not influence the utter brilliance of the Royal Tyrell Museum. The best way to describe the Tyrell is a work of art combined with scientific exploration. A combination of paintings, realistic displays and spectacular fossils work in tandem to create a unique experience unlike that of any other museum in the world.

That boring ride to the Tyrell sure was worth it.

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