Following the stunning coup that was the Dinosaurs of China exhibition, the Nottingham Natural History Museum – located in the former stately home, Wollaton Hall, in Nottingham – has opened another temporary dinosaur display of a dramatically different nature. Whereas Dinosaurs of China was stuffed with a wide range of different fossil animals that are seldom seen in the UK (or even Europe), the museum’s latest big-ticket attraction is entirely centred on a single specimen. Of course, it does happen to be a specimen of the most (in)famous dinosaur of all.
“Titus: T. rex is King” is an exhibition all about Tyrannosaurus, and in particular the privately-owned specimen nicknamed “Titus” (after the Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, apparently, and not the Roman emperor). From Wollaton’s grand central hall, guests are ushered up a staircase and, taking a left turn, are immediately confronted by what will be, to dinosaur enthusiasts, a rather familiar ‘face’. It’s the unmistakable dangly-toothed maw of BHI 3033, also known as “Stan”. That’s because “Titus”, at least in mounted form, is mostly Stan – although relatively complete by fossil animal standards, Titus is very far from being among the most complete T. rex specimens. As such, the mount is essentially Stan with Titus parts inserted here and there (including in the skull, as it happens).
Naturally, the marketing doesn’t mention this, preferring to focus on Titus being “the first real Tyrannosaurus rex to be displayed in England for over a century” – a slightly dubious claim, if one considers the former Natural History Museum half-a-mount, which I believe was also composed of real fossil and cast elements (but do shame me in the comments if I’m wrong – it was before my time). Stan is also not mentioned on any of the signage, which is a bit strange – the mount being a composite of different individuals isn’t anything to be ashamed of (in fact, it’s pretty much the norm for dinosaur mounts). Although the Stan-bits and Titus-bits aren’t clearly differentiated by colour, it’s possible to spot Titus’ bones among those borrowed from Stan – notice the metatarsal in the above photo. They consist of a good range of elements from different parts of the body, including the skull, neck, legs and tail. While the real fossils are (mostly) displayed as part of the mount, 3D-printed recreations are shown in display cases alongside – an excellent idea that allows for a discussion of the individual bones, and what evidence scientists can glean from them.
Although, on the face of it, Wollaton’s grand hall would appear to be the obvious place to display a mount like this, placing it in a smaller (but still very large!) space upstairs does allow this impressive mount to absolutely dominate the room. Stan/Titus is posed as if simply taking a step, a pleasingly neutral and dignified choice, and its central position in the room allows visitors to get very close and take it in from a large range of different angles. The mount also includes the gastralia, which really helps fill out the animal’s bulk and given an idea of just how massive the living creature must have been. I’ve seen several T. rex mounts now (most of them Stan casts), but never get tired of looking at them. It’s my favourite dinosaur, after all, and an undeniably awesome beast.
The mount on its own is suitably impressive, but the Titus exhibition continues in the surrounding rooms and corridors. One room is dedicated to the story of its discovery, preparation, shipping to the UK, and mounting, and includes a superbly edited video featuring all the key players – including commercial fossil hunter Craig Pfister, conservator and palaeontologist Nigel Larkin, and Dave Hone (for it is he). Given that Dave advised on all the exhibition’s signage, it is, unsurprisingly, very concise, accurate and informative. Dave knows his tyrannosaurs – I mean, he literally wrote an entire book about them. Aspects of tyrannosaur anatomy are explored, along with pathologies peculiar to this specimen (one caudal vertebra has what is almost certainly a puncture mark from a tyrannosaur tooth in it). Obviously, there was no room to discuss the controversies surrounding commercial fossil hunting and the sale of specimens to anonymous very rich people. Ahem.
Elsewhere, a model Tyrannosaurus skeleton is used to highlight its similarities with a chicken, and there’s a case containing a cast of a different T. rex‘s skull (the “Wankel rex” I believe) alongside a model of a juvenile’s skull, which is a fantastic way of seeing how the animal changed as it matured (and also just looks really cool). Finally, there’s a room containing a number of nifty interactive screens that utilise touch-free technology to track your hand movements. Here, visitors can uncover Titus’ fossil bones at a virtual dig site, see where they fit into the skeleton, explore a (very good) 3D model of the animal’s musculoskeletal anatomy, and have a go at colouring and applying feathers to (or not) a full 3D life reconstruction. It’s the sort of trendy interactivity that’s so often lambasted by more ‘discerning’ museum-goers, but is implemented extremely well here, managing to be both irresistibly engaging and highly informative.
Just as with Dinosaurs of China, I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the exhibition by Adam Smith, museum curator (and plesiosaur expert, and Dino Toy Blog founder, which is how I first got to know him). Thank you very much once again, Adam (and Marlies)! We were joined for the afternoon by snouty-bird supremo Jed Taylor, and so much dinosaur nerdery ensued. I had a wonderful time.
Titus is hanging around at Wollaton Hall until August 31 next year, so you’ve plenty of time to pay a visit. There’s an awful lot to enjoy in the Nottingham Natural History Museum besides the T. rex, with the rejuvenated Earth and fossil galleries due to open to the public in the very near future, alongside a fantastic range of superb bird taxidermy and, of course, Wollaton Hall itself (and the deer park). It’s a beautiful and unique setting for a truly superb natural history museum.