A Review of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Dawn of Life Exhibit

After four years, the wait is finally over. Check out my thoughts about the Royal Ontario Museum’s latest exhibit, the Dawn of Life Gallery

I’ll start this review out with one word:


Unlike the last special exhibition hosted by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), I had known about the Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life for some time. When the museum held small previews of a new exhibit over four years ago, I was there. Two weeks after the museum officially announced the construction of the Dawn of Life exhibit, I wrote my first article on Max’s Blogosaurus, coincidentally about trilobites. As a member of the ROM, I had the opportunity to share input about the galleries’ potential design. And now, I was able to attend it’s opening.

It certainly did not disappoint.

What is it about?

The Dawn of Life exhibit is a sprawling, beautiful exhibit that follows the evolution of life on planet Earth. Starting with life’s beginnings over 4 billion years ago, the exhibit covers everything from the Cambrian explosion to the proliferation of life on land, leading right into the time of the dinosaurs. Through immersive and interesting displays, Dawn of Life feels like it follows the natural progression of life on our planet, resulting in what I consider to be an excellent exhibition.

Time Well Spent

What makes Dawn of Life special? Well, one of the major things is the sheer attention to detail. From start to finish, no aspect of life’s evolution on the planet is ignored. Every major event, both in terms of evolutionary transitions and planetary conditions, is detailed with extreme proficiency. Fossils of even the most seemingly insignificant species are accompanied by detailed explanations of their importance or unique features, helping the audience understand their context within the history of life on our planet. Far more noticeable than the text accompanying fossils is the artistic displays throughout the exhibition. Seemingly every inch of the exhibit contains artwork including sculptures, paintings, videos, and, most notably, a bronze statue of the armoured fish Dunkleosteus:

Some of the artwork jumps out and enthralls the audience (see above). Others are more subtle, and only can be noticed following deep inspection of the exhibit. I went through the exhibit hall about six times, and by trip #6, there were still some small illustrations or models that I had only just noticed.

The best utilization of artistic display are the models of each fossil in the exhibit’s Burgess Shale section. This may be Dawn of Life’s best feature, with each model bringing to life some of the most strange and unique organisms to ever live on Earth. Simply displaying the fossils would be something of a letdown, as many are imprints can barely be seen by the naked eye. The addition of models shows the audience just how weird life was at its beginnings.

Centerpiece City

Every museum gallery needs a centerpiece. Most exhibits have one striking piece, such as the duel between an Ankylosaur and a Tyrannosaur at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Zuul exhibit.  Others have multiple centerpieces, most notably the Royal Tyrell Museum and its various halls of prehistory.

Dawn of Life leans towards the latter, with various fossils and media forms acting as smaller, but no less impressive, centerpieces. Two Dunkleosteus displays are most noticeable, with the previously mentioned bronze replica and a skull that greets the viewer upon entering the exhibit. Other notable displays include a 2-meter-tall sea scorpion, the skeleton of the sail-backed Dimetrodon, a display of the first dinosaurs, and a Gorgonopsid tinted in red, to name a few.

My personal favourite has to be the Trilobite wall. The number and diversity of specimens, combined with the display’s flowing walls, makes it one of the most striking pieces within the gallery. I will say that trilobites are part of what got me into paleontology, so I may be a little biased in their favour. I’ll let you decide.

A Canadian Exhibit, eh?

Canada is one of most productive fossil locations in the world. It makes sense when you think about how large we are (second in the world, woo!!!), yet I am sure most people don’t know that we are amongst the world leaders for fossil discovery.

Dawn of Life understands this fact and makes good use of it. Important fossil sites from British Colombia to Quebec are highlighted and their importance underscored, giving the exhibit a unique feel. Maps detailing the location and types of fossils are presented, giving viewers an opportunity to learn about the country’s vast fossil collections.

The showcasing of fossils from Ontario was special to me. Fossils being found in Ontario is no secret, yet it evades discussion because none of them are dinosaurs. I have spent years searching for – and collecting – fossils within the province, and to see all the remarkable specimens was truly awesome. Though I will admit, none of mine are quite as awesome as some of those on display.

A Whole lot to Digest

I was impressed by the sheer number of fossils. Hundreds of stunning fossils are on display, including those of ancient turtles, sharks, trees, dinosaurs, and much more. This works both in favour and against the exhibit’s effectiveness; on the one hand, the fossils have a purpose, with nothing feeling out of place. Each fossil helps to tell the story of how life came to be what it is today. On the other hand, it felt like almost TOO much at times. Truthfully, I couldn’t go through every detail the exhibit had to offer in one visit. I found this great (the more prehistory, the better), but the casual viewer may be a little overwhelmed.

Final Thoughts:

Like every exhibit, Dawn of Life isn’t flawless. While extinction events are discussed, namely the Permian extinction which led to a loss of over 90% of all life on earth, others aren’t covered in detail. Ultimately, this can be forgiven, as the exhibit focuses on the rise of life on Earth instead of its extinction. Yet extinction is as important to life as evolution, and as such, further discussion would have been helpful.

My nitpick is this: could the rest of dinosaur hall be redesigned to look this good? Dawn of Life is beautiful, vibrant and a pleasure to view and explore. The dinosaur hall has a white, minimalist feel akin to art galleries – but all that whiteness is bland. Especially for children. Recent ROM exhibits feature visually awesome displays, so why not dress up the dinosaurs too?

All in all, the Dawn of Life gallery is easily one of the most fascinating and impressive displays of prehistoric life I have seen in my lifetime. The beautiful use of art and models, in combination with immersive displays, unique fossils and educational information makes it a truly outstanding gallery. Luckily, the Dawn of Life is here to stay, and will become a permanent fixture of the Royal Ontario Museum.

I am lucky to have grown up in Toronto with easy access to the ROM (thank you, family). While I won’t say otherwise until the main dinosaur hall is renovated, the ROM has been giving Alberta’s Royal Tyrell Museum some competition in recent years.

Here’s to the ROM’s continued success!

All Images Found Within This Article are Credited to the Royal Ontario Museum.

3 replies on “A Review of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Dawn of Life Exhibit”

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