Friday, December 28, 2012

Dinosaurs in Oxford

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is one of the best in Britain, housed in a glorious, soaring Victorian neo-Gothic building. What's more, there are a number of skeletal mounts of dinosaurs ranging from Tyrannosaurus to Hypsilophodon, with many historically important British specimens also on show (by jingo). And entry is gratis. It's a must-visit if you're ever in the city, and Niroot and I just so happened to pop up there earlier in the month.

Although they are both grand Victorian museums built for the purpose, the OUMNH has a very different atmosphere to London's Natural History Museum. It's much smaller, of course (and has a different architectural style - Gothic as opposed to Romanesque Revival), but is also illuminated far more by natural light inside, giving a much more open, airy and less stately feel. It also doesn't receive the preposterously huge hordes of visitors that the NHM has to deal with, and as such allows visitors to get closer to its mounted skeletons.This, combined with the lighting conditions, makes it fantastic for photography.

The first thing every kid's eye is drawn to upon entering is a cast of BHI 3033, or 'Stan', the relatively small but big-noggined Tyrannosaurus rex. Of course, it's only 'relatively small' for an adult T. rex, which still means it's pretty bloody huge. The mount displays a fairly unusual 'rearing' posture, with the front end sloping upward, which makes it appear suitably imposing. Although standing on a wooden plinth, there's no glass in the way, so it's still possible to get up close to Stanny boy and take in that crazy tyrannosaur anatomy from all sorts of angles. I have a particular affinity for feet, apparently.

The head model is a little derptastic (they were probably better off displaying it separately, as they used to), and there's something off about that right forelimb (that one's for the nitpickers), but you can't go far wrong with a T. rex mount. The animal's just too awesome.

Directly in front of Staniel stands an Iguanodon bernissartensis cast in a classic Dollo-style 'kangaroo' pose. Much to the museum's credit, a nearby sign points out how this posture would be quite impossible for the living animal, even including a diagram with a dirty great arrow indicating where the tail has been broken.

Surrounding this enormous pair are the assorted remains, safely ensconced within glass cabinets, of British dinosaurs and others of particular historic interest. It's here you'll find Cetiosaurus, Eustreptospondylus and Megalosaurus, alongside the British "Camptosaurus" (Cumnoria) and more Iguanodon. It's a fascinating glimpse into the earliest days of palaeontology, and a wonderful opportunity to look at animals that are seldom seen in museums.

The Eustreptospondylus mount (a juvenile specimen) is accompanied by a model head, apparently fished out of the bins when Walking With Dinosaurs was completed.

The Cetiosaurus remains from Chipping Norton are helpfully labelled...

...While Megalosaurus jaw bits are assembled according to their positions in a (slightly speculative) restored skull. Just visible here is a reproduction of a restoration from 1854 (which the signage drily describes as a "slightly overweight quadruped"), which shows just how little they had to go on back then.

Cumnoria is yet another dinosaur with a tangled taxonomic history. In the museum it's labelled as "Camptosaurus" prestwichii, and (predictably) it was dumped into Iguanodon before that. The animal's lumping into Camptosaurus was accepted for decades, but recent studies have supported its generic separation.

Just around the way, there's a wonderful array of mounted skeletons and skulls from various Late Cretaceous North American dinosaurs, including Edmontosaurus, Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, a truly superb Struthiomimus, and, again. Thanks to the lack of protective glass (for all but the T. rex skull cast), it's possible to poke one's camera lens into all sorts of improbable places (ooh er). If you enjoy inspecting every last minute little nodule on Pachycephalosaurus' preposterously adorned cranium, then you're in for a treat.

There's also this little fellow...why, it's Bambiraptor feinbergi! Or at least, that's how most of us know him - of course, the person who writes the signs at the OUMNH has taken it upon themselves to sink it into Velociraptor (nice 1990s-style illustration too). I believe it's known as 'doing a Paul'. It's a very minor nitpick, of course, but worth bringing up 'cos it's amusing, and also because I'm not aware of anyone else having proposed this lumping (but feel free to enlighten me if you have [And right away, someone did - see Alberta Claw's comment]).

Speaking of, er, maniraptors, Archaeopteryx gets the life restoration treatment too, and just for a change the model's actually very good, rather than being a hideous lizardy freak with miniature hands. There's also an excellent cast, of course. Compsognathus gets a similar deal, and the model's very lovely, although advances in palaeontology have dated it a little more. Nevertheless, it remains admirable for its high level of craftsmanship and stunning, intricate attention to detail.

On the other hand, it's pretty safe to say that Utahraptor didn't look like this. At all. Of course, this isn't entirely the model makers' fault - rumours abound that new(ish) material, yet to be published, indicates that this animal was a lot weirder than previously thought. Actually, I'd be very interested to learn where this model came from - it looks like it might be another Walking With Dinosaurs artefact (the 'raptors' in said show were also buck-ass nude), but the strangely allosaur-esque head and colour scheme don't seem like a good match. Any ideas?

I'd like to round things off - for the time being - on a pleasant note, so just take a good gander at this lovingly sculpted Iguanodon head (below and, if you squint a bit, above). It's a seriously impressive work of art and no mistake - the subtly rendered skin folds and bony nature of the face remind me a great deal of modern ungulates like horses and giraffes. Er, except for the beak. Entirely too rarely for palaeosculpture (if I may call it that), this has the appearance of a living animal rather than a monster or an inert, clinical restoration. Just excellent.

That'll be all for now, but there's far too much great stuff in the OUMNH to contain in a solitary post, no matter how photo-laden. We will return!


  1. Bambiraptor was initially identified as a specimen of Velociraptor prior to its official description, if that explains anything.

    1. That explains a lot, thanks. Does make me wonder how old that sign is (that and the illustration)...

  2. Please make sure you include your sketches in your next post. Yes, I'm being a pain about this.

    (Oh, look, I appear to be lurking in the back of the Triceratops beak picture.)

  3. Pretty sure the iguanodon head is from "Walking with Dinosaurs".

    Either an ex prop or based on one of the practical prop heads they used.

    1. Certainly many of the models there seem to have been salvaged from WWD, including the very distinctive pterosaurs.

  4. "...but is also illuminated far more by natural light inside, giving a much more open, airy and less stately feel. It also doesn't receive the preposterously huge hordes of visitors that the NHM has to deal with, and as such allows visitors to get closer to its mounted skeletons."

    Given my... anticlimactic first visit to the NHM last year, I think I'd most likely get more enjoyment from the dinosaur exhibits of the OUMNH.

    But... Waitaminnit... Argh!

    1. Ah, damn and blast! We did notice partitions and bits of scaffolding here and there and realised they were doing some restoration work. But I hadn't supposed they would be closed for the entire year, crikey! Just as well we made it before they did.

      I'm sorry to hear your NHM visit was anticlimactic though. Was there a particular reason?

    2. Whoops, I didn't realise that! Oh well, you'd better get down there tomorrow ;)

    3. It wasn't so long ago I had to wait for the Ulster Museum to reopen, too. :)

      Niroot: partly the crowds, as Marc mentioned. Although I suppose that was to be expected, and the main point was that it was difficult to pause or backtrack on some of the tight, twisting corners and walkways on the route through the dinosaur hall. The dim lighting, awkward angles, and layers of dust didn't help the funfair haunted house impression (or the sketch/photography situation), either.

      Maybe my memories are a bit hazy, made worse by high expectations and an early plane flight that morning; but I went to the marine reptile hall across the way and it was wonderful. Spacious, with everything well lit and displayed. (and with seating!) The photos and description of the OUMNH here brought me right back.

    4. Ah, yes. The dinosaur gallery at the NHM suffers from all those things. During busy periods, one simply gets herded through it almost by default. It's a real shame. I hope you still managed to enjoy the rest of the museum though. The marine reptiles gallery is good for the reasons you mention, though some of the displays are poorly appreciated with too many reflections on all the glass.

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