This list of museums is in no particular order - just a description of some of the finest bone houses on Planet Earth for us all to enjoy. There are more than 10 here, so see the extra as a bonus!
The Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University
Ah, the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Here because of a palaeontologist – none other than Othniel Charles Marsh of Bone Wars fame – who pestered his uncle, George Peabody, to stump up the money for the museum. So uncle George did exactly that, achieving immortality in process, Marsh got the job of being the director and we got an amazing museum stuffed full of some of the most important palaeontological specimens ever found. Not to mention a pile of other non-palaeontological artefacts which are worth a look when you get to the museum.
More seriously, the Peabody is one of the oldest and largest natural history museums on Earth and is attached to Yale University. It has a Great Hall of Dinosaurs including a baby Brontosaurus and a 110 foot (34 metre) long mural called ‘The Age of Reptiles.’
It is home to one of the largest and most extensive collection of fossils in the USA, important not only from a palaeontological point of view but also historically, as many of the fossils were collected during the golden age of American palaeontology. Other famous names in palaeontology attached to the museum are R.S. Lull, George Gaylord Simpson, John Ostrom, Elisabeth Vrba, and Jacques Gauthier are attached to the museum.
It is located at 170 Whitney Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut, United States in a more modern building than that built by Mr Peabody, having moved there in 1925.
American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) features large in many of the DinoZone’s write ups on fossil hunting expeditions and dinosaurs. It is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York, and is one of the largest museums in the world. It has 45 permanent exhibition halls, a planetarium and a library. We are here of course for the fossils – of which the AMNH has more than a few. In fact there are over 32 million specimens of plants, humans, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites and cultural artefacts on display or stored in their collections.
The museum was founded in 1869 by some of the most famous and richest men in America, and some of those names are still familiar to us nearly 150 years later. It also fulfilled the dream of naturalist Dr Albert Bickmore who had been campaigning tirelessly for years for the establishment of such in institution in New York.
His proposal, backed by those rich and famous men, eventually won the approval of the Governor of New York, John Thompson Hoffman, who signed the paper that officially created the museum. Every one of them a man of genius and vision.
Construction commenced in 1874 for the museums first building, a Victorian Gothic building which opened 3 years later.
Of interest to us is the fourth president of the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was appointed in 1906, and who oversaw the development of the museum into one of the world’s foremost museums of natural history. Osborne is famous for his fossil collecting expeditions in the US, and the Gobi Desert. Another famous name is Roy Chapman Andrews, who supposedly was the inspiration for the movie hero Indiana Jones.
Many of the fossils on display were collected during the museum’s golden age of exploration which stretched from the 1880s through to 1930. The AMNH also houses specimens collected by that ever so famous and fiery tempered palaeontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, flamboyant adventurer Barnum Brown, and the gentle and placid bone collector CH Sternberg. Perhaps the most famous of the three is Cope, who sold his collection to the Museum in 1895 for a sum of $32 000.
The museum houses the largest collection of dinosaurs in the world, although most of the fossil bones aren’t on display to the public. Ongoing research is conducted on this treasure trove of fossil bones by an army of vertebrate palaeontologists. There is even a room with its own winches suspended from the roof which the palaeontologists use to move the bones around.
Those fossils that you and I can go and see occupy the entire fourth floor of the museum as well as a separate exhibition in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. The display is set out so that walk a path of evolution of vertebrates through the museum, which takes us along the tree of life, with branches to show the familial relationship between vertebrates.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History
However it does have the largest collection of Jurassic dinosaurs anywhere, so the museum is well up there in terms of its dinosaur collection. In 1899 a collector working for the museum, Jacob Wortman, found a nearly complete specimen of Diplodocus which was named after the founder of the museum, Andrew Carnegie, hence the name Diplodocus carnegiei. This discovery made the museum famous, and diplodocus too, as Carnegie ordered that casts be taken of the skeleton, and distrusted to museums around the world.
Dippy, the famous skeleton in London’s Natural History Museum, is one of these casts. (As an aside, Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish born, American steel magnate who donated much of his fortune to museums and the setting up of libraries both in American and the land of his birth – an enlightened man indeed). D. carnegiei is considered to be the type species for Diplodocus.
Other notable specimens include the world’s only specimen of a juvenile Apatosaurus, the world’s first specimen of a Tyrannosaurus rex (found and described by the AMNH but sent to the Carnegie Museum during World War II as they were worried about it being destroyed in air raids) and a recently identified species of oviraptorosaur called Anzu wylliei.
The museum is founded in the Oakland neighbourhood of Pittsburgh in 1896 and is ranked among the top five natural history museums in the USA. It comprises 10 700 square metres of floor area housing 20 galleries, office space, research areas and a library. There are 22 million specimens stored in that house of wonders, with only around 10 000 on display for the likes of you and me to marvel at. There is the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition which is the first permanent exhibition anywhere to present dinosaurs in scientifically accurate displays within a reconstructed Mesozoic environment. The fossils are arranged chronologically and actively posed to bring them to life, so to speak, just as they would have been over 66 million years ago.
Dinosaur National Monument
This place is pure genius. Instead of digging up all the bones and dragging them halfway across America to mount in some museum, they have left some of the bones in place and now visitors travel half way across America, and some half way across the world, to see them. Dinosaur National Monument is a US National Monument located on the border of Colorado and Utah where the Green and Yampa Rivers meet. Most of the park is in Colorado, but the important bit for us – the Dinosaur Quarry – is located in Utah.
The park contains in excess of 800 palaeontological sites and famous dinosaurs include Allosaurus, Deinonychus, Abydosaurus and various long-neck, long-tail sauropods. It was declared a National Monument on October 4, 1915, which makes the park over a hundred years old.
The rocks underlying the park are part of the ever so famous Morrison Formation, which has been a treasure house of dinosaur bones of Jurassic age – i.e. 150 million years old. The dinosaurs and other fossils were carried by river systems and eventually buried in the sands and conglomerates, to be dug up millions of years later by us humans, and put on display for us all to see. The first bones were discovered by Earl Douglass back in 1909 who was collecting fossils for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He and his team dug up thousands of fossils and shipped them back to Pittsburgh for further study. It was President Woodrow Wilson who proclaimed the bone beds a national monument back in 1915 which was a visionary step so well done to him.
Dinosaur National Monument
The quarry or Wall of Bones is housed in the Dinosaur Quarry building. The rock face comprises a steeply dipping rock layers in which are embedded literally hundreds of dinosaur bones. The surrounding rock has been patiently chipped way by palaeontologists to expose the bones for us all to see.
The Field Museum, Chicago
The Field Museum of Natural History, or Field Museum for short, is famous for being home to Sue, the largest, the most complete, and the most expensive Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. It is one of the largest museums in the world and attracts up to 2 million visitors a year. There are over 24 million artefacts stored within those sacred walls, looked after by an army of professional staff.
The museum was founded in 1893 when the World’s Columbian Exposition came to an end and a home was needed for the artefacts on display. A certain Edward Ayer managed to convince a rich merchant Marshall Field to fund the establishment of the museum for the purpose of “accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of artefacts illustrating art, archaeology, science and history.” And there you have it – something they have managed to do for over 120 years.
It was first known as the Columbian Museum of Chicago, but had its name changed in 1905 to honour its first major benefactor. However from 1943 to 1966 it was known as the Chicago Natural History Museum. It is one of the three premier museums in the USA, the other two being the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.
We of course want to know about dinosaurs and ancient life, so the Evolving Planet display is all about the evolution of life on Earth over the last 4 billion years, and particularly relevant to today’s environmental issues when it discusses mass extinctions. There is also a fantastic dinosaur hall with dinosaurs from all the geological eras.
Returning to Sue the T Rex, the skeleton is named after Sue Hendrickson who discovered the animal. Sue (the dinosaur) is 67 million years old, but died at the age of 28 years which is pretty ancient for a dinosaur. She is 12.3 m (40 feet) in length and stands 3.66 m (12 feet) high at the hips, so this is one big brute. She cost the museum $7.6 million dollars to purchase on auction – a small fortune that changed the way bone collectors everywhere look at the value of fossils.
Sue, the largest, most complete and most expensive T rex ever found.
The Smithsonian. Words possibly are unable to describe such a place – it is indeed a house of wonders. It is the third most visited museum in the world, the most visited natural history museum in the world, and the most visited in North America. There are over 126 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, human remains and cultural artefacts. And it has more than its fair share of dinosaurs too, which is why we are here. That said, its central dinosaur hall is undergoing a revamp and will only open again in 2019 but rest assured, it will be showstopper. The upgrade is thanks to a $35 million donation by billionaire David H Koch.
The museum has over 570 000 reptiles from around the world, and the Hall of Dinosaurs has fossil skeletons and skeleton casts, which includes a wonderful exhibit of two T Rexes in a face off. There is also a Triceratops exhibit which shows the first accurate dinosaur skeleton in virtual motion. There are 46 “complete and important specimens” of dinosaurs in the collection.
The best attraction is a T Rex fossil on lease from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Smithsonian has never had a genuine T Rex skeleton in its collection, those they had were casts of other famous fossils. The Wankel Rex, as it is known, was found in 1988 on Corp –owned land, and was displayed for many years in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
The 35-foot (11 m) long skeleton will be the centrepiece of the dinosaur hall when it re-opens in 2019. It took 16 crates to pack up and transport the T Rex to the Smithsonian, arriving there on April 15, 2014. The skeleton stood in the Rex Room, while scientists scanned and digitised each bone to create a 3D model for research purposes. Ah, the marvels of modern technology.
So go and see the dinosaurs, but perhaps you should wait until 2019 when the doors reopen. Perhaps you should go now and again in 2019. Decisions decisions!
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Alberta
Wow, this place is really famous, and really amazing for it sits slap bang in the middle of the fossil bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formation near Calgary, Canada. Pure genius, much like its US counterpart at the Dinosaur Monument National Park. It houses a collection in excess of 130 000 fossils, many of which are of flagship dinosaurs which we all love so much.
A geologist, Joseph Burr Tyrrell accidentally discovered the first reported dinosaur fossil in the Red Deer River Valley in 1884 while hunting for coal, and the museum is named in his honour. It is a young museum, having opened in 1985 and was given ‘Royal’ status in 1990.
More than 4400 square metres of the museum’s total area of 11 200 square metres is given over to exhibits, which is wonderful for us dinosaur fans. There are a number of exhibits, which included a chronological ordered display of life on Earth stretching over a period of 3.9 million years. There are over 40 dinosaur skeletons on display in the Dinosaur Hall, with specimens of T rex, Albertosaurus, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. Moving away from dinosaurs slightly there are also thoughtful and wonderful exhibits on the Burgess Shale, a Devonian Reef, a Cretaceous Garden with plants of that age, as well as a display Ice Age animals and the Age of Mammals. Then there is a 21 metre ichthyosaur north-eastern British Columbia which was collected by the museum. So much to see – where does one start?!
They also have a beautiful website so well done to them. This one is on my bucket list, so heading there as soon as I can get to Canada. If you get there before me, send the pics please.
Natural History Museum, London
The Natural History Museum is one of the world’s finest, housing an enormous range of specimens from all over the world, some of which date back to the early days of scientific enquiry, some even collected by the great Charles Darwin himself. There are 80 million specimens in five main collections, botany, entomology (study of insects), mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology. For over a hundred years the central hall has been dominated by a giant (32 long) diplodocus which is in fact a cast taken from the original Diplodocus carnegiei which is housed in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. After discussions with King Edward VII, who was a trustee of the museum, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American industrialist arranged for a cast of the skeleton to be made at a cost of £2,000, which was then shipped in 36 crates, and was unveiled on the 12 May 1905 to great acclaim by both the public and the media.
Now, Dippy, as she is known, is moving out, to be replaced by a skeleton of a blue whale which will dominate the cathedral like space of the main hall. Too bad, say some, but what is one to do? Whether Dippy is there or not still doesn’t detract from the fossil collections and displays in the museum. They have built a wonderful dinosaur display which takes visitors on a bridge over a Mesozoic world, where dinosaurs hang suspended in space in lifelike poses – lit to emphasise the beauty of these ancient bones. Away from that central display are more amazing specimens, including the plesiosaurs excavated by Mary Anning from the cliffs along the Dorset Coast – what is now known as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
The building is a cathedral to nature, with a vaulted central hall, ornately carved pillars and a sweeping staircase to carry visitors upwards into the rarefied air of science and reason. Sir Richard Owen, the preeminent natural scientist of his day, campaigned ardently for the construction of a building to house the specimens that were being collected by naturalists and geologists both at home and abroad and eventually his dream was realised when funding was approved and this the most beautiful pile of Gothic brickwork was constructed and opened in 1881. It used to be part of the British Museum, but separated in 1963 although still called the British Museum (Natural History) until 1992 when its current name was adopted.
The original core of the museum’s collection was that of the Ulster doctor Sir Hans Sloane who sold his collection to the British Government, which was then stored in Montague House, Bloomsbury, in 1756. This was the home of the original British Museum. However this collection was open to abuse by the various directors and staff of the museum, who sold specimens to other museums, threw out or burned specimens and made dodgy appointments of incompetent staff. Collections were abused, robbed, taken hostage and lost.
Then along came Richard Owen, who was appointed superintendent of the natural history departments in 1856, and who turned everything on its head, leading Bill Bryson to write that “by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for”. Owen realised that they all needed some additional space, and so land in South Kensington was purchased, a competition run for the best design, which was won by a certain Captain Francis Fowke who then promptly died. The work was taken over by Alfred Waterhouse who revised the plans and got on with the job. Construction began in 1873 and was completed in 1880, with the museum opening in 1881.
The terracotta tiles, which are a feature of the museum, were made by a Tamworth-based company called Gibbs and Canning, and they certainly did a great job in the way they depicted flora and fauna with extant and extinct species within the west and east wings of the building respectively.
Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris
The National Museum of Natural History, perhaps more romantically known as Muséum national d’histoire naturelle is to be found in Paris and forms part of the Sorbonne Universities. There are 62 million specimens housed in that museum, which is a great store of treasure indeed. It was founded in 1793 during the French Revolution, but has its origins way back in 1635 which sees off most of the competition in terms of age. It was started as a royal botanical garden, the Jardin royal des plantes médicinales (royal garden of medicinal plants) created by King Louis XIII in 1635 which still forms a central part of the museum. It was the royal decree of the boy king Louis XV in 1718 which removed the medical function of the garden, allowing it to focus on natural history.
The Museum was under the direction of famous naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, one of the leading naturalists of his time, and recognised throughout the known world, including Britain. Georges Cuvier, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire were also professors of the institution – all of whom were famous naturalists. It also was a leading light in the study of physics at one stage but in 1891 the museum turned its attention back to the study of natural history.
We of course want to know about fossils and ancient life, so the museum has a Gallery of Mineralogy and Geology, a Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, and the famous Grand Gallery of Evolution (Grande galerie de l’évolution).
I haven’t been, but from the pictures it has to be a house of wonders, and I would also go and look at that magnificent garden housed in its own glass palace. Whoever gets there first, please send pics!
Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
So where is the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton on earth? In the Museum für Naturkunde (MfN) in Berlin, Germany. It is but one of 30 million zoological, palaeontological and mineralogical specimens stored with the walls of that grand institution, and scientists come from all over the world to study the collections. Almost as famous as the massive Giraffatitan skeleton is one much smaller – a perfectly preserved specimen of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx.
The museum was established in 1810 although the mineral collection dates back to 1700. It contains other important zoological specimens from German exhibits from 1898 to 1931. The magnificent dinosaur skeletons come from the fabulously rich bone beds of Tendaguru of German East Africa, or what is now Tanzania, at a time when it was a German colony.
The Dinosaur Hall houses Giraffatitan brancai which is the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world. It was found by German palaeontologist Werner Janensch between 1909 and 1913. The skeleton you see is mostly from one animal with a few tail bones borrowed from another Giraffatitan. To find such a large and complete skeleton is almost unprecedented and as such needs to be on display to the general public, and we dinosaur fans need to make an effort if we can to see such an animal. It reaches a height of 13.27 m and has been estimated to weigh in as much as 55 tonnes. A Diplodicus carnegeii is mounted next to it – a sister copy of the one that stands in the British Natural History Museum, which allows for comparisons in height and stature.
Another fossil from the Tendaguru is Kentrosaurus which is a genus of stegosaurian dinosaur with spikes rather than plates on its back.
The University of Berlin was founded in 1810 and in 1857, the palaeontology department was founded. By 1886 the museum was overflowing with specimens to the design for a new building was drawn up which opened as the Museum for Natural History in 1889. It was built on the site of an old iron works and being civilised men they incorporated tow magnificent cast iron staircases into the structure.
Allied bombs severely damaged the building during WWII with some of the rebuilding work only being completed as recently as 2011.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History or OUMNH for short, is a great techno-gothic cathedral of science and reason, filled with fantastic specimens of life past and present.. Steel arches reach for the sky, supporting a glass roof that lets in the illuminating light while arrayed around the hallowed cloisters stand sentinel statues of the Knights of Reason – Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei, William Smith, Aristotle and Hippocrates amongst others. Occupying the central spot is Tyrannosaurus Rex which attracts the usual attention. Great to see that British restraint has prevailed and it has not been given a name – no Stans or Sues in this place. Iguanadon also occupies a place of honour next to T Rex – the second ever dinosaur to be officially described back in 1865. The first one ever officially described, Megalosaurus, is there too. Then there are other flagship species such as Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, and lesser-known specimens including Struthiomimus and Cetiosaurus. There are also ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs and dinosaur skin to be seen, along with shed loads of other non dinosaurian artefacts to further your education on all things natural. There are also some shrunken heads in the adjacent Pitt Rivers Museum which seems to hold the public in a thrall.
It was in this museum that Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Benjamin Brodie, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Robert FitzRoy debated the new theory of evolution back in 1860. Fitting that this debate took place in this recently completed, way over budget, beautiful techno gothic church of reason built by men of science in an age of enlightenment. The debate took place seven months after Charles Darwin had published his earth-shattering book “On the Origin of Species.” The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.
There are amazing specimens, some dating right back to the first documented dinosaur discoveries, and then there is all of that beautiful detail on the cast iron pillars, the amazing roof and the intricate carving of the stonework.
For those who are able, get down to the OUMNH for an afternoon of dinosaur fun, and of course don’t miss out on those shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum next door, which have been peering out of a glass cabinet at the likes of you and me for the last 100 years, no doubt wondering what all the fuss is about.