Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dinosaur Isle

Dinosaur Isle is a museum located in Sandown on the Isle of Wight (England). Sandown's an odd place - a crumbling relic of a seaside resort with a neglected, abandoned-looking art deco hotel (the 'Grand') and a zoo fronted by the remains of a Second World War fortress (both of which happen to be located very close to the museum). The striking, angular frontage of the museum - intended to resemble a pterosaur - certainly stands in contrast with its surroundings, and on clear days is visible far down the coast.

But never mind all that - we're here for prehistoric beasties, and the museum doesn't disappoint.

Dinosaur Isle's a rare natural history museum in that, while it provides all the eye candy and 'interactivity' that modern museum audiences (and no-doubt adorable sugar-fuelled kiddiwinks) apparently demand, it doesn't skimp on genuine specimens and explanatory labelling. Guests are moved through the first part of the museum, conceived as a 'journey back in time', in a very linear fashion. In spite of the museum's name there is actually quite a large collection of Cenozoic material, which is very fascinating but which I completely neglected to photograph because I'm an idiot.

We are then treated to a life-size model of Ophthalmosaurus, which is seemingly made out of Walking With Dinosaurs leftovers. While this means it (inaccurately) has teeth, it's still a very nicely assembled diorama that also features some freaky 'uncoiled' ammonites (real specimens are on show nearby).

Of course, one really visits a place called Dinosaur Isle for the dinosaurs. The large, spacious main hall is very open, allowing guests to wander around at will and escape small children and their infuriatingly ignorant, confidently-spoken opinions that you really want to correct but daren't because their parents would give you funny looks, and the dad actually looks quite hard. Anyway, the first skeleton on show is this gloriously presented Megalosaurus mount, surrounded by the approving smiles of the pioneers of palaeontology. Love it.

The two best-known Isle of Wight theropods are well represented by both real material and life-size models which - being over a decade old now - are already showing their age (such is the pace of palaeontological progress). The Neovenator mount is impressive and, although behind glass, it is brightly-lit and allows for close inspection. Maybe the right leg is rather too straight, but it's still pretty awesome.

The little model in the case would appear to be a recent addition and shows off the animal's characteristic twin-ridged skull, a trait common in allosaurs but missing from...

...the life-size animatronic model, which also, unfortunately, has bunny hands. It's impressive enough, although the movements are rather feeble and it emits Jurassic Park T. rex roars, which is a bit cringey.

Eotyrannus also gets the life-size model treatment and, alas, also has bunny hands. Not sure if they'd get away with the lack of feathers these days, either, given Dilong and Yutyrannus. (And yes, Heinrich, OMG THE CAUDOFEMORALIS SHRINKAGE!!!11!!)

There's no mounted skeleton, but genuine Eotyrannus fossils are on display nearby, which is very cool and provides the chance to inspect these wicked-looking phalanges.

To Iguanodon now, the most famous English dinosaur that was actually Belgian. Actually, I believe fragmentary remains possibly belonging to I. bernissartensis have been found on the Isle of Wight, but by far the better known iguanodontian from the island is the rather smaller Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis. Regardless, I. bernissartensis forms the basis of an impressively massive life restoration that has a convincingly stupid look on its fern-chomping face. There's also a sculpted complete skeleton and various fossil bits and pieces.

Happily, much love in the museum is given to Hypsilophodon, with a mounted skeleton, various fossil specimens and a life-sized model. The mounted skeletons in London's Natural History Museum are tucked behind a Euoplocephalus and are easily overlooked, but on its home island the little ornithopod gets a chance to shine.

That particular skull is on a turntable. The inclusion of the story detailing its discovery is quite typical, and it's a great touch that really adds a lot of colour. Notice also the diagrams.

The ankylosaur Polacanthus is subject to a life restoration too, and it makes for an hilarious contrast with the Neave Parker-esque monstrosity at Blackgang Chine. Dinosaur Isle presents a rare opportunity to actually see some remains from this beast, which nearby signage commendably notes is quite poorly known, with restorations often based on its relative Gastonia. Check out the fragments of armour, including part of the hip shield (6).

How about some sauropod? The presentation (resembling a dig site, with a hard hat, notepad etc.) is a little twee (although it made me laugh), but once again the detailed description of the discovery and excavation of these fossils is very captivating, and too seldom seen in natural history museums.

There's a lot to see in this museum, and those put off by words like 'interactive' and 'experience' in the marketing claptrap needn't be - there's actually a huge collection of fossils on show, some unusually detailed signage, a bright and airy exhibition space and a very reasonable entry fee. What's perhaps best about this museum is that it successfully aims at the widest possible audience - sproglings and their disinterested progenitors can marvel at life-sized models and skeletal mounts, while dinosaur geeks can spend ages poring over both fossils and the descriptions that accompany them. What's more, its exhibitions change all the time (it currently plays host to part of Mark Witton & Co's Pterosaur Jamboree, originally displayed at the Southbank Centre, London) and there's a lot of surprising stuff squirreled away.

For example, the museum is apparently a retirement home for old Dorling Kindersley models.

...Not to mention John Sibbick's sketches.

Unfortunately, I happened to visit with someone rather nonplussed by dinosaurs who was tagging along through a sense of charity, hence my slightly scanty photographs. It's really worth going with someone who's as happy as you are to stick around and soak up every little detail. Yeah, there's some stuff that's a little awkwardly outdated (Megalosaurus as a - as per usual, but it's definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in that rather faded part of the world.

And finally, it's me with Pteranodon.


  1. 'It's really worth going with someone who's as happy as you are to stick around and soak up every little detail.'

    Is it worth my dropping a sauropod-sized hint in that regard again? (Sorry) ;P

    It does look wonderful. That Iguanodon also looks as though it may be a WWD left over, or at least was inspired by it in terms of colour.

    I keep trying to wrack my brain in vain to recollect where on the Isle of Wight it was that I went to many years ago, which had a few fossils on display. It wasn't this, unless they'd changed dramatically within that time. I don't even remember the pterosaur front of the building. In fact, I remember very little else about the place other than the few fossils and a generally rather 'makeshift' appearance.

    1. If it was during the mid 1990s it may well have been the 'Dinosaur Farm' museum, along the coastal road from Blackgang. I have a couple of photos from there myself, including some of an 'old fashioned' Neovenator skull model and a mural.

    2. Ah, I do remember it being near the coast, so you're probably right.

  2. LOL yes, CFL shrinkage - hope I am not involved in creating an internet meme here ;)
    But it is compensated by the non-bunny hand of the iguanodon and the (too) straight limbs of Neovenator!

  3. I like how the Megalosaurus appears to be having a good laugh with the Pioneers of Paleontology. And also that they gave it what looks like an inflatable globe to play with. But best of all I like the Hypsilophodon skull on a turntable, because when I came to it, I thought immediately you had photographed a slice of chocolate mud pie, and that some joke was coming.

  4. That Megalosaurus' neck looks broken to me. I mean there's just no way it would be able to raise its head all the way up and tilt it forward like that from it's normal position of being in a perfectly straight line with the neck, back, and tail. (An image that will prob remain in my consciousness forever. Damn you, Neave Parker). ;-)

  5. Great post. I've got a lot of affection for this museum as my wife and I have been taking in our bits of rolled bone etc since the days of the Geology Museum above the library in Sandown. We've been lucky to have the patient guidance of Steve Hutt and the team as we've become more familiar with the area over the years; I can recall Martin Munt showing me _Eotyrannaus_ before it was published, which was tremendously exciting (although I guessed wrongly at it's identity of course).

    However, despite the fact we have had our fossils in exhibits there, we've not found anything too exciting. Here's how a visit to Dinosaur Isle normally goes:

    Weeks before trip: Stu studies books and maps, works out tides, decides itineraries etc Books ferries, accommodation etc

    Days before trip: Packs rucksack with field kit. Notebook, scale rulers, compass etc. Charges camera batteries.

    Day of trip: Drives 200 miles to ferry. Crosses Solent, drives to accom.

    During trip: Spends hours in peeing rain, finds nothing in cliff at beach level, rolled bone on beach.

    Results: 20 x bits of rolled bone, a couple of flint sponges, a bad case of 'Cretaceous stoop', a runny nose and mild alcohol poisoning from spending to much time in The Buddle Inn.

    Trip to show experts at Dinosaur Isle finds:

    Stu: (to expert) I've found this bit of bone

    Stu hands over small piece of bone

    Expert: It's certainly dinosaur, beyond that it's too small and rolled to be certain what it is.

    Stu: Is it new to science

    Expert: Who knows? Probably ornithopod

    Door opens: Man with small child following behind enters room. He is carrying a large bone over his shoulder which he places in fromt of the expert.

    Man: We're here for a day out, stopped for an ice cream and found this on the beach outside, is it anything? We've never looked for dinosaur bone before.

    Expert: Great find - it's an entire Iguanodon femur! Congratulations!

    Stu: #Facepalm


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