Review: The Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition, Natural History Museum

Who doesn't like dinosaurs? But in a museum where you can see some great dinosaur exhibits for free, can the Natural History Museum's Age of the Dinosaur exhibition live up to its blockbuster billing...?

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An animatronic Protoceratops (the 'sheep of the Cretaceous period') guarding its nest at the Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition, Natural History MuseumAn animatronic Protoceratops (the 'sheep of the Cretaceous period') guarding its nest.
Dinosaurs can always be relied upon to pull in the crowds, but I was intrigued to see what the Natural History Museum's summer exhibition The Age of the Dinosaur (running through to 4th September) would offer, that was not already on show in the museum's excellent Dinosaurs Gallery.

The exhibition posters around London look good and promise a 'family blockbuster', and certainly tickets are priced accordingly: Adult 10, Child and concessions 6, Family 28. The optional guide book is a further 5.

The exhibition itself is a bit tucked away at the end of the rather splendid Birds Gallery. Stepping through the doors, the first thing you see is a huge T-Rex footprint, which refreshingly is on open display and can be touched. It is so much more engaging to trace the outline of a print with your finger, than just to look at it! The text nearby suggests counting the toes and comparing the print with the size of your own feet. Obvious stuff, but it caught my boys' interest!

Next comes a giant timeline - well done, but rather lost on my boys, who were of course running ahead looking for DINOSAURS. On their way they were stopped in their tracks by an effective and slightly creepy CGI projection of an ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, with the ichthyosaur dramatically ending up as the plesiosaur's lunch! This section has some impressively large ammonites of different types (not all the usual closed coil shape ones) displayed against a huge image of the Jurassic oceans. A choice selection of fossils - many of which are from the museum's rarely seen research collections - are nicely displayed in cases, together with engaging texts. We particularly liked the jet, and the opal that had formed in a piece of petrified conifer. But as is tiresomely usual in exhibitions (even 'family' ones such as this), the display cases were far too high for my 4-year-old, and rather high even for my (tallish) 7 year old to get a proper view. This could be easily solved by providing stools. I wish museums would think of this kind of thing.

The Animatronics

Please stay on the path - warning sign at the Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition, Natural History Museum"Please stay on the path"... or get eaten by a dinosaur. The sign that stopped my boys in their tracks!
Then come some dinos! To get to them you turn into a dark corridor with a rather clever sign asking visitors to keep to the path. This certainly got my boys attention and gave a nice little frisson of fear. We stepped into a Jurrasic forest, full of ferns and conifer-like trees. A archaeopteryx perches on a rock, and a giant herbivore (just the head and neck, but no less impressive for that) forages among the ferns. The eagle-eyed will spot at least three orange millipede-like creatures, but my boys and I were completely unable to find the dragonfly that the field notes at the entrance listed.

I didn't like the absence of name signs for what we were looking at. The 'Field Guide' posted at the entrance to the display suggests that we try to figure out the names of what we are looking at by matching the animatronics to the fossil specimens in the previous section... But that's simply not realistic for most parents with young children, and it's a nuisance when your child demands 'what's this dino mummy?' and you have no idea. And I have to say that the realism of the scenes was affected, for me at least, by the black curtained back drops!

A big, scary animatronic Tarbosaurus dinosaur at the Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition, Natural History MuseumA big, scary animatronic dinosaur! No, not a T-Rex - but a close relative, a Tarbosaurus.
The second group of animatronics, later in the exhibition, represents the Cretaceous and has five dinos, including Tarborsaurus (a close relative of T-Rex, and - to me at least - indistinguishable). The two nests (one belonging to a Protoceratops, and the other one to a... no idea, there was no label!) are nice, but there's no information on them. Again, the setting is a forest, very similar indeed to the Jurassic one (except for the addition of water lilies). Where are the 'Cretaceous deserts' mentioned in the exhibition advertising? Again we completely failed to find the dragonfly pictured in the Field Guide. However, we did spot several scorpions!

As for the animatronics, well yes the models are life size and yes, they move (and the Tarborsaurus roars and makes the ground shake). Maybe I've seem to many animatronic dinos, but found the movements repetitive - very obviously on a cycle - and unimpressive. Much better is the T-Rex in the museum's permanent Dinosaur Gallery - its 'super senses' mean that it follows your movements and is for more impressive and scary!

Interactive displays

Then come some interactive 'research stations', which are a great idea, but in practice don't quite hit the mark. The 'Changing World' game requires you to scroll back and forth through a time line. It is clunky and unsatisfactory, and when you don't figure it out in time you told you've been eaten by a T-Rex!

The nearby 'Dig It Up' and 'Examine It' screens are more successful. You're taken through the research process using a touch screen to do magnification, 3D scanning, X-Rays and simple comparisons between fossil specimens and modern creatures. Not bad, but I have to say that there's something bloodless and not quite right about using a touch screen to 'excavate' a specimen, when this is something that children SO enjoy doing in reality. A sand pit excavation and a real microscope would have been much more fun and meaningful, for younger children at least.

The biggest problem with the interactive screens is that there are so few of them. We visited on a quiet day and had to wait only a couple of minutes, but I can well imagine how frustrating getting a turn will be on a busy weekend!

The rest of the exhibition

Much more interesting, to me at least, than the 'research stations' was a text on dinosaur colours. Apparently recent research using electron scanning microscopes has discovered pigment cells in several Chinese fossils. These pigment cells correspond to those found in the feathers of modern day birds. From this Sinosauropteryx, a small feathered meat-eating dinosaur, is now known to have had an orange crest running along its body and darker stripes on its tail. How exciting!

My boys and I found the fossils in the next section especially interesting - armoured plates from Ankylosaurus, a beautiful tree fern trunk, conifer-like cones and some fossil leaf prints (from the earliest flowering plants) that looked just like ones we've made at home with sycamore leaves and paint!

All in all, the fossils shown are outstanding - a stegosaurus tail bone, a massive T-Rex tooth, a fantastic duck-billed Hadrosaur skull, and several dino coprolites (that's fossil poo!). The fact that a number of the fossils can be touched is wonderful, and not just for the children. The time lines are great if you have the concentration to read them, and the texts are well written and engaging ("Feel this tooth and imagine a whole mouthful of them bearing down on an unfortunate victim..."). But I'm afraid there's no escaping the fact that the animatronics are disappointing. There just aren't enough of them, or enough variety to justify the 'family blockbuster' label.

Our virtual scrapbook of dino puzzles and info to access at home after visiting the Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition, Natural History MuseumOur virtual scrapbook of dino puzzles and info to access at home. A nice touch at the end of the exhibition.
Right at the end of the exhibition there's another child-pleasing interactive station which enables visitors to drag and drop various dino-themed games, puzzles and information into a personal 'virtual scrapbook'. A quick scan of the barcode on your ticket and the scrap book is yours to enjoy on your computer at home (don't lose that ticket though, as it has the access code!). My boys were very pleased with this, and it means that the fun (and learning) continues at home. Nice touch.

Then we followed the projected T-Rex footprints (fun!) to the end of the exhibition, and step straight into the gift shop. Lovely stuff (especially some of the larger dino soft toys!), a good selection of dino-related books, but all at high prices and I have to drag my sobbing 4-year old away. If ONLY we could choose whether or not to 'exit via the gift shop' rather than having it forced on us (and especially when we've paid a considerable entrance fee). I suppose we could always have backtracked and exited via the entrance.


So, the overall verdict? Three stars out of five. Many of the individual exhibits are stunning and well worth seeing if you have more than a passing interest in dinosaurs. There's plenty of interesting info, and it's refreshing to see prehistory divided into periods rather than dealt with as one homogenous lump. But the advertising is overblown: this is not a 'journey through dramatic landscapes and habitats' and it is not a 'blockbuster' exhibition. As an exhibition for children it simply isn't big or impressive enough, and crucially there are too few animatronic models. Unless your child can read the texts (or has the patience and interest to have them read out to them) you'd be better saving your money and visiting the permanent Dinosaur Gallery* instead.

*Checking the museum's website I see that the permanent Dinosaur Gallery is due to close for over a month (June 6th - July 22nd) for essential maintenance (suggesting that the timing of The Age of the Dinosaur is not coincidental!)

Essentials: The Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition

The Age of the Dinosaur Exhibition
23rd April - 4th September 2011
Natural History Museum, South Kensington

Opening times:
Monday to Sunday 10:00 - 17:50
Last admission is at 17:30.
The Museum is open every day except 24-26 December.

Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD

Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5000

Nearest Tube: South Kensington