It seems that robot dinosaurs are enjoying something of a resurgence in the UK this year. London's Natural History Museum currently has two robo-dino exhibits underway - one in the museum itself and another in a Brighton shopping centre. In addition, they've hired out their old 'Dino Jaws' exhibit to the Thinktank museum in Birmingham, and having looked at the others it is to that which we now turn our attention. (Oh, there's also some nonsense on at the O2. Doesn't particularly look like it's worth the time. But I might go anyway.) I was fortunate enough to tour with the museum's Natural Science Curator, Adam Stuart Smith, who is also a plesiosaur researcher and indulges in certain hobbies we don't mention in polite company. Onwards then (awesome Baryonyx below may look familiar)...
Although the museum - located at Millenium Point, a ten minute walk from Birmingham New Street station - is not free, Dino Jaws is included in your entry ticket (until the exhibition ends on September 5). The exhibition is accessed through a rather unassuming entrance on the third floor, adjacent to an exhibit looking at future technologies that features a wacky robot actor and a robot arm that plays an electronic drumkit. What's striking once inside is how large and open the exhibition space is, which contrasts strongly with the more confined feel in the Natural History Museum. The large amount of floorspace means that one is free to wander at will, rather than being shepherded through in a linear fashion, and it's also possible to view the robo-dinos from a variety of different angles and distances. Apparently this openness was deliberately exploited in the planning of the exhibit to give the dinosaurs suitably dramatic backdrops and plenty of breathing space - and it's all worked very well.
The real 'big spectacular' here is the full-size Baryonyx, and it's an absolute beauty. The robot has superb fine detailing and texturing and wonderfully fluid, naturalistic movement. It even has a convincingly mad, stupid stare in its eyes. Maybe it's not absolutely perfect but damnit, it's near enough. Don't deny me my love affair. I want it in my garden, swiping its giant fish-hooks at passing schoolchildren.
Much as I love the Baryonyx, however, it's important to remember that there were other dinosaurs present. Placed front-and-centre as you enter - deliberately so, I am told - is a disembodied Tyrannosaurus head (and neck). It's easy to see why it earned pride of place - even reduced to just its head, Tyrannosaurus is undeniably impressive, and the robot is extremely lively, to say the least. Again, the fluiditiy and speed of the movements are striking, and also conspire to make sure that it's near-impossible to take a photo that doesn't feature copious amounts of motion blur.
The overall theme of the exhibition is an examination of various dinosaurs' eating habits. The Tyrannosaurus head, as with a nearby Edmontosaurus and "Brachiosaurus" (yeah, Giraffatitan), has one side cut away to reveal the skull. It's an interesting educational idea, but in the cases of Tyrannosaurus and Giraffatitan it doesn't really add much; the life restoration conforms very closely to the shape of the skull anyway, and the jaws only perform simple up-and-down movements (as is accurate). If anything, having one side of T. rex's head sheared away only detracts from what is otherwise a very lifelike robot.
Another issue I have with the Giraffatitan - much as it is superbly made - is that its head is just a 'shrink-wrapped skull' that doesn't conform with modern knowledge of sauropod anatomy.
A better use of the cutaway concept is Edmontosaurus, the fleshy head of which does substantially conceal what's going on underneath. Looking at the skull side, one can see the teeth in the upper jaw sliding over those in the lower jaw as the animal chews its food. Looking at the fleshy side, one is slightly unnerved by a disembodied head that somehow appears almost uncannily alive. I still swear it tracked me across the room, and given that some of the robots these days do track movement I might not have been imagining it. But I probably was.
The two other herbivores on show are Euoplocephalus and Iguanodon, both of which are quite impressive (and large) robots in their own right, but look a little static next to the Baryonyx. The Euoplocephalus, in a rather undignified turn for the mighty ankylosaur, seems to have been appropriated for a display probably best titled 'Dino Bowels'. It also has bad gas. The Iguanodon is somewhat shrunken - it could be considered a juvenile, but it's also a fairly good match for Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, formerly considered an Iguanodon species.
What robo-dinosaur exhibit is complete without some 'raptors'? Apparently, the original plan was to have three of them gathered around a Protoceratops carcass - taking up a significant amount of floor space - and comment on their possible pack-hunting behaviour. Still, Thinktank have made the most of the two they have, and liberally added fake blood to make the scene extra-gory. I'm not a big fan of these Velociraptor robots - apart from the obvious anatomical bloopers (like the hands), they look a little like scaly dinosaurs dressed up in cute fluffy outfits. Sadly, that still makes them the best robot dromaeosaurs I've seen.
Poor old Protoceratops has been torn to pieces. The shredded head is particularly gory/cool.
For remainders, we have an Oviraptor that was rather dead on the day (but still plaintively cried out, rather amusingly) and an iffy Coelophysis that hardly moved at all. In fact, Coelophysis was upstaged by a very impressive taxidermy lynx, mounted as if leaping up to attack an unfortunate blackbird. It's worth mentioning that there are a number of taxidermy modern animals hanging around the dinosaurs, in order to provide a comparison point when it comes to feeding habits and behaviour. Commendably, the Thinktank team went to great lengths to avoid the appearance of the dinosaurs and modern animals being in the same scene, with the latter being obviously separated and only having plain black backdrops.
In terms of the exhibition's educational remit there are none of the obvious howlers that afflict the Brighton exhibition (save a few unfortunate typos). Once again there is nothing that readers of this blog won't already know, but I was happy to see the 'cannibal Coelophysis' idea firmly debunked, as it's something that still pops up in books and even museums. Most of the signage is on loan from the NHM, and features Dr Angela Milner speaking about this-and-that through the medium of text bubbles while clutching a tiny model spinosaur skull. Strange.
Overall I must say I was impressed. The robots themselves are of a very high standard, and excellent use has been made of the exhibition space to present them alongside fossil casts, taxidermy and skulls/skeletons from modern animals. It's great to be able to walk around everything, unpressured and with plenty of room, and take your time inspecting the exhibits from different angles. Well worth a visit if you're in Birmingham and if it's not to your liking then, well, there's always the wacky robot actor.
With thanks to Niroot Puttapipat for supplying some of the photos. That's him on the right, with Adam on the left. Sorry guys...