Friday, April 22, 2016

Monster Families at the Horniman

While everyone knows the few 'big name' museums in London (the NHM among them), the city also boasts a surprisingly large number of more low-key institutions, some of which are well worth seeking out for the nuttier natural history enthusiast. One of these would be the Horniman Museum, located a stone's throw from Forest Hill station in south-east London. Currently the Horniman is home to the travelling exhibition 'Dinosaurs: Monster Families', which is naturally what drew Niroot and I in (for the second and first visit, respectively). Here's the skinny, y'all.

As the title suggests, this exhibition focuses on the ways dinosaurs reared their young, and also on the dinosaur life cycle - from adorable wide-eyed hatchlings to grizzled adults with an alarming tendency to fight each other in primordial battles to the death. Most of the dinosaurs featured are from Mongolia and China, which makes sense given the remarkable specimens that have been unearthed there. Naturally, one of the first mounts to grab one's attention upon entry is this Protoceratops with babies (above), posed ready to defend the smaller animals from a possibly feathery assailant. It's just the first of many wonderful mounts to be found here.

Nearby, a series of skull casts is on hand to display the animal's growth, from innocent youngster to frightening, beak-jawed monstrosity with killer cheekbones. Yikes.

Accompanying the casts is this old Mark Hallett piece, depicting that infamous battle between pointy-faced freak and everyone's favourite comparatively fragile-looking stab-happy bird-o-saurus. That Velociraptor is scaly can be attributed to the age of the piece - more disconcerting is the nearby sign, declaring that this 'really happened 65 million years ago'. Nah, you need to add on a few more million years. (I feel obliged to point out, though, that the signage was generally very good.)

Psittacosaurus is the subject of another beautiful mount depicting a familial group. As with most of the smaller mounts at the exhibition, the mount is positioned to allow viewing from all angles, which is a real treat. Careful attention has been paid to placing the juveniles in subtly varying poses, their heads glancing in different directions. The precedent for such behaviour, of course, has been set by some spectacular assemblages found in China, casts of which are also on display (below).

Of course, the inclusion of a large tyrannosaur is obligatory, and a series of Tarbosaurus skulls gives us a look at how the animal changed as it grew. These are accompanied by a Luis Rey artwork depicting a certain other theropod that every kid visiting the exhibition confidently identified the skulls as belonging to (but they didn't! So there! Take that, small children!). The largest skull cast is actually larger and chunkier than the one attached to the full skeletal mount, indicating that the Alarming One was quite capable of giving Rexy a run for his money.

Even if it doesn't represent the largest Tarbosaurus ever, the skeletal mount is quite something to behold, and can again be viewed from a number of different angles. It's easy to forget just how disconcertingly birdlike tyrannosaur legs were until you see them up close like this. They're really quite elegant, and appear jarringly mismatched with that overbuilt, monstrous, toothy head. But I guess that's why we love 'em, after all.

Nearby is a display on sauropod eggs, the undoubted highlight of which is this life-sized titanosaur embryo model (below), sculpted by William Monteleone. What a gorgeous piece of work.

And on the subject of embryo models - does anyone remember this?

It's a model of the theropod hatchling 'Baby Louie', sculpted by Brian Cooley and featured on the cover of National Geographic back in 1996. At the time, 'Louie' was thought to be a therizinosaur, and this model depicts it as such; more recently it has been re-identified as an oviraptorosaur. Consequently, it is featured in the context of a display on oviraptorosaur eggs and nests, which again features spectacular artwork by Luis. A nearby table is entirely occupied by a replica of a giant oviraptorosaur's nest - a startling reminder of just how large these highly birdlike animals could be.

Around the corner, and here's a skeleton seldom seen in the UK - Probactrosaurus. For someone accustomed to mounts of European iguanodonts (like Mantellisaurus and Iguanodon itself), it's fascinating to be able to make comparisons with this Asian animal. While I hadn't seen it before, it seems that this cast has popped up in a number of different places around the world (so hey, feel free to share any photos you've taken of it...preferably cheesy ones).

A display nearby contrasts the skulls of an adult Saurolophus and a juvenile Arstanosaurus (controversial taxonomy alert). Niroot remarked that of all the 'duck-billed dinosaur' skulls he'd seen, this one seemed most strikingly ducklike. I'm inclined to agree, although you've got to wonder what was going on in terms of soft tissue either side of that great big ridge running up the midline. The baby, on the other hand, is just plain cute. Sorry: cuuuuuute. The skulls are accompanied by another artwork by Mark Hallett, namely his Hypacrosaurus nesting scene. It's dated a little, but remains very lovely all the same. I do love me some Hallett.

Circumnavigating the exhibition in an anti-clockwise fashion, the final case one comes upon is filled with specimens of modern animals from the Horniman's collection, all of them either dinosaurs (i.e. birds) or their nearest living relatives (i.e. crocodilians), the better to place dinosaurs' parental care into an evolutionary context. Among these is a wonderful display of skulls from crocodilians of different ages (below). I'm going to christen the juveniles Nanocrocodylus and you can't stop me. David Attenborough's very own elephant bird egg is also on display, except when I visited it wasn't. Wah!

And's Niroot with a dirty great Apatosaurus femur. Can you imagine how intimidating it must have been to run into a beast of this colossal height? And the Apatosaurus cast's impressive, too. (Ithankyou.) If you should travel to London this side of September, do drop in on the Horniman and check out this exhibition - it's well worth the trip!


  1. I'm torn... if I had gone to a nerd convention in London last weekend, I would've been able to see this (and I would have very much liked to - it looks fantastic); but on the other hand, I wouldn't have known about it 'til I read this blog post. Either way, I'm kicking myself.

  2. I was fortunate enough to see this exhibit (then called "Hatching the Past") when I happened to be in Las Vegas at the same time it was at their otherwise terrible natural history museum. The version I saw included a cute, fuzzy oviraptorid hatchling model, and a play area where kids could dress up as Gigantoraptors and play with large eggs in nests, set against a Luis Rey mural of the same scenario. It didn't have the Tarbosaurus series, though! I wonder what determines which items they show when they're on the road?

  3. "Accompanying the casts is this old Mark Hallett piece, depicting that infamous battle between pointy-faced freak and everyone's favourite comparatively fragile-looking stab-happy bird-o-saurus."

    "The skulls are accompanied by another artwork by Mark Hallett, namely his Hypacrosaurus nesting scene."

    I'm surprised they didn't use Rey's version & Gurche's Saurolophus nesting scene, respectively. Then again, I get why they'd want a version w/Protoceratops defending its nest.


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