Thursday, 6 January 2022

Visiting the Sauriermuseum Aathal - Part 4: The Main Hall

Kept you waiting, huh? Yes, I admit last year was not really productive, at least when it comes to this blog, and that was down to various reasons, but let us just hope this year will be better. For Part 3, go here. We finally return to the Sauriermuseum Aathal one last time to finally look at the main hall…

… which is either the best part about the museum or the most lacking. The reason is that this part of the museum seems to be the oldest and has undergone very little change since the 90s. I can personally attest this, as I remember almost every detail here also from my visits as a child during the early 2000s. For people who do not know much about dinosaurs, this is likely detrimental, as much of the information and especially the depictions are outdated (though most of the plaques go with the Dinosaur Renaissance approach of saurian biology, so the reader at least does not leave with a completely wrong vision of dinosaurs as big dumb lizards). For people like me, who are very much into old paleoart and nostalgia, this is pretty much heaven, since literally everything here still reeks of 90s Dino-Mania. In a meta sense, this part of the museum becomes in itself a (perhaps intentional) exhibit of the state of dinosaur science and pop culture from around the time the museum was first opened. I personally love this, perhaps because it is comforting knowing that at least one part of my childhood is still intact and well, but maybe also because of the fact I now know so much more about paleoart and history than I did back then, so I can appreciate all of this much more. Just look at the image above! You get Burian’s classic Tarbosaurus, right next to allosaur-style Spinosaurus and naked Struthiomimus. It is like seeing old friends again.

Two other old friends, “gumby-style” Therizinosaurus, as the authors of All Your Yesterdays call Ely Kish’s particular reconstruction of the animal, and naked Deinonychus. The latter’s appearance is especially funny, since, if you remember, the same museum also has an exhibit on feathered dinosaurs, with a fuzzy Velociraptor model. As the Natural History Museum of London has shown, however, even the big name museums seem to have trouble updating their resident Deinonychus. For what it is worth though, judging by the standards of when this model was likely made, it is pretty good. Especially the closed-mouth, lipped expression and bird-like gaze help make it look less monstrous and more like a normal animal. Regarding the outdatedness on Therizinosaurus, paleoartist Mark Witton has fairly recently kicked off a debate over whether particularly big coelurosaurs, such as this one and Deinocheirus, really would have had feather-coats, even if their ancestors evidently did, as they might have easily ran the risk of overheating. Make of that what you will.

This low-roofed part of the hall (a bistro is right above it) it mostly filled with general dinosaur-information and skull- and bone-replicas. You were even allowed to touch a real Triceratops bone while Burian’s rendition of the animal judges you (making this the second time I got to stroke a dinosaur bone). Having skull-replicas so close-up is always fun, because A) You get to stick your head inside a T. rex jaw, which is always great fun, and B) You can really appreciate the oddness of some of these anatomies. Just look at the freaky jaw-apparatus on Edmontosaurus at the bottom.

Also endearing are these wax models, showing paleontologists at work. I strongly suspect that the appearance of the one on the left is based off (young) Kirby Siber himself, while the one on the right is meant to be Ben Pabst, who still works at the museum as a preparator. Imagine you yourself are part of an exhibit in your own museum while you are still alive. I do not think I have ever seen that one before.


The biggest skeleton of the museum (apart maybe from one of the whales that Siber dug up and also exhibited) was of course the sauropod under the glass-roof. It is a replica of the real one in the Berliner Naturkundemuseum, which I believe is to date still the largest (nearly) complete dinosaur skeleton ever exhibited in a museum. Unfortunately, here the main hall also shows its age again, as the replica is still labelled Brachiosaurus. This was still seen as mostly correct in the 90s, but since 2009 the main consensus has become that the Berlin-skeleton is actually Giraffatitan. What is notable about the Aathal-replica is the posturing. Obviously, they had to lower the neck down a fair bit, as otherwise the skeleton would not have fit into the building, but the tail is notably raised above the ground (and has been that way since the very beginning). Compare this with the Berlin-original, which had its tail dragging on the ground all the way until its remounting in 2009. Another thing you can see here, which I also really like, is the usage of plants (real and plastic) which the museum lavishly uses to decorate many sections and exhibits. It makes the whole atmosphere feel much more organic and prehistoric, rather than the quite clinical look of some other museums.

Standing underneath the sauropod’s neck like squabbling children were these skeletons of Carnotaurus and Gastonia. Surrounding them were smaller fossils of petrified wood or the tail-club of Ankylosaurus. I do like the dynamic posturing of the skeletons here, though it kinda looks like the Carnotaurus is about to attack the Gastonia, which would be temporally and geographically impossible, as one animal lived in Late Cretaceous South America, while the other one lived in Early Cretaceous North America.

As you may have noticed in some of the pictures before, many of the bones and species plaques are accompanied by glass vitrines with life-models of the dinosaurs in question. While some, like this “Dracorex” (really just a young or female Pachycephalosaurus, let us not kid ourselves) seem to have been made more recently, others I remember standing here since time immemorial and preserve all of their outdated charm. I really want to know who made them.

Just look at this extremely retro Parasaurolophus for example. Not only does it stand upright like a man in a suit, it also has that membrane between its crest and neck. This was a somewhat popular interpretation during the 80s and earlier, I imagine because it gave the animal more of an aquatic look, to reinforce the stereotype that these duck-billed dinosaurs also lived like big ducks. This idea has mostly died out (last time I remember seeing this was in Disney’s Dinosaur from 2000), perhaps because this structure would have made it difficult for the animal to turn its head.

The other models are also really interesting to look at. I especially like the Apatosaurus miniature, because it accurately shows how strangely wide and robust the neck was, compared to older reconstructions that just made it a big, grey tube. Today there is even serious speculation that those bony protrusions on the underside of the neck may have had keratinous bulbs or even spikes, which the dinosaur then used for inter-species combat (or, in short, Bronto-Smash!).

And then there is this Camarasaurus, whose facial expression just keeps cracking me up. Seriously, does it not look like it is letting out a stoned Seth Rogen-laugh?

Out of the Howe-Quarry corridor, one comes to the outside area of the museum. Apart from a grilling area, a sand-pit where children could dig up a dino-skeleton and some photo-posing options, one is also greeted by an outdated, but nonetheless imposing T. rex enjoying his meal. Surrounding the model were various labelled plants from groups that have existed since the Mesozoic.

In fact, there would have been a small paleobotanical garden, but it was unfortunately not accessible that day due to Covid-restrictions. This also means I could only photograph these two life-sized sauropod models, an adult and a baby, from afar. They were actually animatronics that swung their heads and neck around. What species they were exactly I also could not find out, as their info-plaque was in the restricted area. All I found out is that they are meant to be turiasaurs.

Finally we come to the marine reptiles, starting off with this very retro family-tree. The mosasaurs seem to not have changed much since Charles R. Knight. Also there of course is Walking with Dinosaurs' oversized Liopleurodon, who, let us be honest, is still family, so his presence is always welcome.

Hanging from the ceiling are of course the three superstars from the Western Interior Seaway, Elasmosaurus, Mosasaurus (or maybe it is Tylosaurus, I am not actually sure anymore) and Archelon, which I photographed here from the upstairs dining area. Accompanying them were also fossils of various smaller ichthyosaurs, pliosaurs and marine crocodilians.

The Archelon in question is, by the way, a replica of the one in the Vienna Museum, or in other words the same one Kirby Siber dug up all the way back in the 70s. The turtle, which so many decades ago planted the seed of an idea for this museum has, at least in one form, found its way back into Aathal and I think that is a nice note to end this visit on.

I hope you had a fun time reading and I hope I inspired you to visit the Sauriermuseum Aathal yourself one day. It is an over all very enjoyable experience, which I recommend to everyone. Minor outdated stuff (which pretty much every museum has) do not distract from the great, charme, passion and love this museum has for its subject matter.

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:

Online sources/Further Reading: