Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was the main reason I wanted to visit eastern Canada, and I had intended to drop in on Friday afternoon when it would be reasonably quiet. Instead I ended up going Saturday morning. Unfortunately this particular weekend Toronto was hosting its Santa Parade, one of the largest Christmas parades in the world, so you can imagine how large the crowds were during my visit. It also didn’t help that the museum was displaying the Dead Sea Scrolls as well at the time.

Always keen to try the public transport of a city I caught the Toronto subway system, which I have to say is easy to use. Working out how to catch a train or bus can sometimes be a pain in a foreign country as you’ll usually find yourself staring at some automated kiosk that requires a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics with a minor in international diplomacy to figure out how to obtain a single daily pass ticket. Toronto has kept it easy for the infrequent traveller as, just before the subway turnstile there’s a little ‘bubble-gum machine’ that takes change (something you always end up accruing and have trouble getting rid of in a foreign country) and spits out tokens. The added bonus is you get to use a subway token- how ‘quaint’ is that?

The ROM has its own station on the network and oh what a station it is. Much like the American Natural History Museum in New York, the platform has been ‘themed’, with all of the columns holding up the tunnel roof turned into Mayan, Egyptian and Native American totems and statues.

The museum itself is a little odd as the older building has recently had a bizarre extension added to expand the original floor space. Called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the building now looks like it has one of those old Rubik’s cube snakes bundled up in the middle of it. This extension is all odd angles and weird protrusions jutting out in the strangest places and I don’t mind it per say, but it must be a nightmare to work in as you’d be in constant fear of smacking your head or shin if your mind wanders off for even a second.

 I wasn’t all that interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls but did have a quick look. As you can imagine there wasn’t a lot to see as the light levels have to be low to save the ancient parchment, and each little display was behind some very thick safety glass and surrounded by about a thousand onlookers. This was definitely not a display to see with a large crowd. What I did find fascinating was that the museum rotated the scrolls on display every few weeks, I guess ensuring those Dead Sea Scroll groupies out there get a chance to see their favourite proverb or ancient Hebrew shopping list at some point.

Because the ROM is basically now a building inside another building it can get a little confusing, so my advice is make sure you grab a map (it has 6 pages, so that alone should tell you things can get a little confusing inside), and to quote one of my favourite horror movies, ‘stay on the path’.

Things are set up that you have to go through some galleries to get to others so there isn’t any sort of central corridor that I could see. This means make sure you’ve got plenty of time as I don’t think this is a museum where you can skip in, see the dinosaurs, and skip out again.

First you’d have to find them, and this actually took me a few goes as the prehistoric gallery is through a weird little corridor that, at the time, held a kiddies colouring in station and a small room full of bird display cases. If I didn’t have the map I doubt I’d have ever investigated the area beyond this point and may have missed the dinosaurs all together.

So…through the room, around the Australian bird display, turn the corner, down the ramp and you’re now in the first of three prehistoric galleries containing the ROM’s mammal and Cretaceous displays.

Here you’ll see some museum staples like an Irish elk (which I think every museum I’ve visited in the last 3 years has had) as well as a Mastodon, Giant Sloth, Short Face Bear and Phorusrhacos.


Each Cenozoic era seems to be represented by a little island-of-a-display that you can walk around and view from all four sides. With the largest animals in the middle and smaller species on the outside, this method allows for more specimens to be shown then you’d get with just a flat display along a wall. The negative is it makes the actually viewing of each animal hard as there’s almost always going to be something in the way of what you’re looking at.
For the general public this isn’t such a big deal, but for paleo-fans, well it’s impossible to get that isolated photo of an animal without something else’s hoof, horn or tail getting in the way. I found myself working pretty hard to get any sort of descent photo of individual animals, and any group photo quickly merged into a jumble of brown bones and glass reflections.

As for the dinosaur displays in the James and Louise Temerty Galleries, well this may sound weird but I found myself feeling a little sorry for the museum here.
They had a grand T-rex, a charging bull-like Chasmosaurus, a few ceratopsian skulls and a Protoceratops, but I found myself wanting something new. I mean if you go to any natural history museum in the world you’re going to see most of these species. For all the richness of the Canadian dinosaur fields they’ve unfortunately exported so many of their iconic dinosaurs to the world that most native species have now become a little old hat. This feeling certainly isn’t helped by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of patriotism involved with the display either. I never really found myself looking at anything that was displayed as ‘local’; the fossils were just displayed and you were left to work it out for yourself… but I’ll talk more about this later.

My growing disappointment wasn’t helped by two things. The first was that, as I’d been so focused on looking and photographing the animal displays I never really gave the blank Rubik’s wall behind me a close look. All those angles and protruding triangle walls meant I’d missed the tiny, almost hidden corridor from the Cretaceous display into the Jurassic, and I honestly almost walked away at that point shaking my head thinking ‘is that’s it?’

As it turns out it wasn’t.

The Jurassic room through that little cubby-hole (and across a weird walkway) is stuffed with dinosaurs, including a 27m Barosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, numerous hadrosaurs, ichthyosaurs, an Albertosaurus, one huge Acheron stuck hanging in mid-air in one corner, and one of those new oviraptorids called Chirostenotes.

I know, I know, much like Jurassic Park, many of the species I just mentioned were in fact Cretaceous.

Due to the way the display is currently set up I think its organisers have at some stage made a really big boo-boo and are currently trying to figure out how to fix it. To me the second gallery was supposed to hold all the dinosaurs, while the first was supposed to be just mammals, but when they reorganised the museum they realised they couldn’t fit all those dinosaurs in the one room so they were forced to compromise. Again, no real proof of this, its just that’s what it feels like and could explain the jumbled way the dinosaurs are displayed.

Further evidence of this is that this new gallery is huge, yet for the most bizarre reason the exhibition’s planners have decided the best place to put their dinosaurs is next to or behind the roof’s support columns. There’s ample free floor space, yet everywhere you look a column seems to get in the way, and the reason I found this so frustrating is that there just isn’t that many columns in the room to begin with. Surely the fossils could have been arranged in a way that gives you an uncluttered look at them?

On the far side of the Jurassic display is the Triassic gallery; well that’s just a white walled corridor with bare floorboards next to the toilets. There’s very little colour throughout the three prehistoric galleries to begin with and, with so much to show, that’s kind of understandable. Yet in this little corner where there isn’t that much on display you’d think the ROM could really have designed a display full of colour and life. Instead it’s a featureless alcove that hardly anybody enters unless they’re dragging a waddling child by the hand that’s desperate for a pee.

Having done a little research, later I discovered the ROM’s prehistoric galleries used to be full of murals, placing many of the skeletons in more life-like settings. They looked fantastic in the few pictures I’ve managed to find, and this goes back to one of my earlier points. This type of display really allows you to tell a story, not only of the animal but where they came from. By placing them in an environment you get to talk about that environment and can wave a little patriotic flag at the same time (i.e. this is what Canada used to look like).

I’m not sure what it is, but many museums seem to be moving away from this more realistic style of display into the more open, window filled galleries you can see at the ROM and AMNH, and I personally think it’s a mistake. Cold displays of naked skeletons that become mashed together with whatever other fossils are nearby is certainly not an attractive way to look at something that should be instilling the spectator with jaw-dropping awesomeness. There’s little or no context with an open display like the ROM’s… and as for this need for modern curators to have natural history displays in rooms full of windows…STOP IT!
With the sun beating through glass (that’s all too often dirty on the outside), the display becomes little more than washed-out black and white skeletons in a room that’s stinking hot during summer and freezing cold during winter. In the ROM, thanks to all those angled windows, there literally wasn’t a single display case that didn’t have a dirty big, sun-filled window reflected in it…and due to the angles of all those weird windows this isn’t a problem that will go away as the sun moves throughout the day.

Brick up those windows, splash some paint on those walls and let’s get back to the way we used to present our dinosaurs shall we?

As for the rest of the ROM, well it seems to be a cross between a natural history museum and the New York MET. The remaining galleries were mostly human cultural displays from around the world.
There’s a great ancient Egypt display and a nice little room of Art Deco objects (a favourite of mine). There’s also a large collection of ancient Asian artwork (mostly from China and Japan) that was fantastic.
I may be a little unfair here but the ROM also has potentially the worst museum gift shop I’ve been to in my life. I mean, there wasn’t a single dinosaur book for anyone with a reading level past a kindergartener (I can only hope I perhaps missed another museum store in the kaleidoscope building).

Also keep an eye out for a number of other fossils hidden throughout the building. Soaring high above through one roof space is a skeleton of Quetzalcoatlus, while one wall in the main entry hall had a large hadrosaur. There may be others, so watch out for them.

Still, despite my misgivings about the building, the ROM has one of palaeontology’s largest exhibits of prehistoric creatures…if only they were given a little bit of character it would easily rank as one of the world’s greatest displays!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The National Opal Collection

Opal- there is no precious stone in the world that catches the eye the way these stones that Shakespeare called the ‘Queen of Gems’ do.
 On a continent known for its mineral wealth, Australia’s national gemstone it seems is not a mineral at all as it has few of the characteristics true minerals possess (such as a uniform crystalline structure). Instead Opal is considered a mineraloid, and for dinosaur fans it could be argued it’s the gemstone that could represent the Mesozoic.

Opal requires very specific geological conditions to form and Australia produces over 95% of the world's opal because in the Late Cretaceous the middle of the continent sat under a warm, shallow ocean.
The Eromanga Sea lasted for around 80 million years and produced fine sand rich with silica- a strange substance that can be considered a mineral, but also is produced synthetically and biologically. This silica rich water seeped deep underground (helping form the Great Artesian Basin) and filled any void and coated any fossil it encountered. This silica then took several million years to harden and form opal.

This isn’t the only way opal forms, only the most common. Sometimes bacteria slowly dissolved away biological material such as leaves and shells and left behind silica in the exact shape as the original material.
Because the Eromanga Sea covered such a large distance, the opal it would eventually produce is as diverse as the locations where it can be found. In the flat, hot South Australian town of Coober Pedy (where the vast majority of opal is mined) most of these stones are considered ‘light’ opal and the fossils found here are almost all marine. Lightning Ridge in NSW is not only the birthplace of Mr. Crocodile Dundee himself, Paul Hogan, but the most fantastic ‘Black’ opal. Its fossils seem to suggest the region was a forest with large rivers running down to the inland sea. Queensland has not only the most productive dinosaur fossil fields in Australia, but also produces ‘boulder’ opal. Both marine and terrestrial fossils are found in this location, indicating this part of Queensland might have once been a series of islands

In Australia it’s possible to see great examples of all three types, along with a number of fantastic opalised fossils at the National Opal Collection. This has two localities, one in Melbourne (which I visited years ago) and the second in Sydney. Both have free entry and are attached to a large opal showroom where visitors can purchase their own gemstone to take home.
Though not the largest museums in the world, they are well presented with both life-like models of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and the world’s most famous opalised fossil, Steropodon. These are great to see, but in this museum it’s all about the opals, and Sydney’s National Opal Museum has plenty to see.

 There are the usual opal shells, a few starfish and the long, tooth-like inner guards from the extinct cephalopods called belemnites. The museum also has a large number of turtle fossils, along with crocodile scales and the teeth of large lungfish, all opalised.

The most famous fossil on display is ‘Nessie’, a near complete juvenile plesiosaur (possibly a pliosaur) found at Andamooka, South Australia, in 1968 and has been placed under Australia’s National Heritage Laws. 50% of Nessie’s fossils have opalised, and in the marine reptiles stomach were discovered gastroliths, belemnite guards and fish bones- many of which had opalised too.
Though far from complete, the museum hosts a large number of opalised dinosaur fossils as well. Amongst the ribs, vertebra and a possible dinosaur claw are a number of large theropod teeth. These were from a medium size carnivore, though due to the nature of the opalisation these fossils do not contain many details to let us work out exactly what sort of theropod they came from.

Though far from the only museum hosting opalised fossils (Bathurst, the National Dinosaur Museum and the South Australian Museum has opals on display), Australia’s National Opal Collection contains a number of great specimens and well worth a look.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Utah Part one. Vernal— Utah's Dinosaur Land

There is a dying art in the US, one that I personally feel will be missed once it’s gone. Being an outsider watching a lot of American TV and movies, one of the things I thought I’d be able to see a lot of would be roadside attractions. Now In Australia we have our fair share of big things. We have the Big Banana, the Big Pineapple, the Big Merino, the Big Prawn etc., so driving around the US I was looking forward to seeing some of the old time roadside attractions there- especially the dinosaur ones.

Sadly over the last few years these kooky, kitschy attractions have started to disappear. Sure many were made of chicken wire and plaster and were held together with a thick layer of pigeon poo that had been accumulating over the years, and most were about as accurate as something you’d see on the Flintstones- but they were made out of love. Love of dinosaurs, love of giant turnips or love of the local community, hoping a giant thimble was just the thing to bring the tourists in and help the local economy.

There are a few left I must admit, but there is one place in the US where the streets are gilded by dinosaurs of every kind. Driving up and down the main street you will see all the greats. There are concrete dinosaurs, fluro dinosaurs, plaster dinosaurs, fiberglass dinosaurs, painted dinosaurs and tin dinosaurs. I feel very confident in saying that Vernal in Utah is the world leader in roadside dinosaur attractions.

Though we were only passing through and managed only a few drives up and down the main street, I noticed most hotels and businesses had some form of dinosaur hanging out the front beckoning the wary traveller to stop by. There were even dinosaur hotels, though if these were for actual dinosaurs or just joining in the fun I could not say.

The star of the show (street) is the 40ft ‘Dinah the Pink Dinosaur’. Built in 1958 and originally advertising the Dine-A-Ville hotel, when this went bankrupt and then entire building was pulled down, Dinah was saved and moved to a small park along the town’s main road.

These dinosaurs are not the only reason to visit the town for a dinosaur lover, however. Vernal is home to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (which will be featured in a later blog) and is the gateway to the Dinosaur National Monument.
Also check out the Bank of Vernal. This building is likely the first (and certainly the last) building to be mailed entirely through the post and was built in 1916-17. Its owner, noticing that postal rates were going to be cheaper than transport rates for all the building's materials, managed to send over 80,000 items, including all the bricks, through the US postal system. This triggered a change in the law so that today there is a maximum weight that can be sent by an individual everyday through the US post.