Dinosaurs find a new home at the ROM

Gordo the Barosaurus, stretched out in all his 27-metre glory, looms over and dominates everything – humans, display cases, and dinosaur skeletons – in the new James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of the Dinosaurs at the Royal Ontario Museum. Standing along most of the far wall of the larger of the two galleries, its neck curves gracefully upward until its head almost reaches the high ceiling above. Under its long, extended tail stand two other dinosaurs from the same era, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. And there would be room in its vast shadow for several more.

These galleries open to the general public tomorrow, but the ROM favoured its members with a private preview today. The unveiling of the new home of the dinosaurs has been highly anticipated ever since the completion of the Michael Lee Chin Crystal, part of the museum’s extensive renovation of the past few years. So even on a members-only day, the two galleries were full of people. Older, long-time members mingled with students, parents, and young children darting from display to display, while ROM staff provided plenty of information and history about each specimen.

The dinosaurs’ new abode is a great improvement over their former dark, very linear, rather cramped space. In fact, something as vast as Barosaurus could never have been exhibited in the old gallery. Each upright specimen in the new gallery has “breathing room,” standing in lifelike pose, its skeletal articulation and detail clearly visible. Overhead, two pterosaurs fly freely, wings outspread, every bone revealed. There is room before almost every display to stand back and contemplate, getting the whole picture at once.

The curators have gone to great lengths to help visitors learn about the creatures represented in these two galleries. In addition to the staff members explaining the history of each dinosaur, there are also touch-screen education sites in each gallery, where visitors can choose among several short informational video clips.

If there are drawbacks to this new space, they stem not so much from the exhibits as from the deficiencies of the new Crystal itself. The white walls, white ceiling, and even white floors of the display areas are very…white. This lends a stark, almost sterile feel to the gallery, which is never mitigated by anything. The solitary skeletons are bolted to the floor, and there are no props or other items in the cases to soften the starkness. Granted, such “context” items were probably overdone in the previous dark gallery, but the pendulum may have swung too far in the “minimalist” direction in these new galleries.

Add to this the angles of the walls, which set up annoying echoes that reverberate with every voice and footstep in the room. The touch-screen video stations might as well not be there, because most videos are not loud enough to hear over the echoes.

Because the walls angle as they do, there is simultaneously a lot of wasted space, and not enough space. The walk between the two galleries is a large, open, empty area that merely contains two walkways that overlook another large empty space on the floor below. Yet because of the wall angles and structure of the crystal, the dinosaur galleries themselves are actually smaller than they look. In the larger gallery, the curators must be commended for their efficient use of space along the walls, since there is not much floor available for exhibits in the middle.

In the second, smaller gallery, the walls lean inward enough in some places that the curators chose the opposite strategy, putting most of the specimens in cases in the centre, leaving room to walk around and view them from all sides. This gives patrons the chance for a captivating, thorough study of the other behemoth that dominates these galleries: Tyrannosaurus Rex. He looms above, glaring and gnashing his formidable teeth at people as they enter the room. He is accompanied by a menacing Triceratops with its high, bony neck crest and three horns, standing below him, and just past T-Rex is another crested specimen from the last era of the dinosaurs, the Chasmosaurus.

The rest of this gallery is devoted to ancient sea creatures and some plants, and also to several of the mammals that eventually supplanted the dinosaurs. Here, for example, we find a mastodon specimen, the skeleton of a vanished type of moose, and an extinct species of beaver that is believed to have been the largest type of rodent that ever existed.

While it is exciting to be able to walk around the displays and see every aspect of these long-extinct creatures, having them in the centre of this smaller gallery means that the cases feel a bit crowded. Things need to be in more of a bunch, since they can’t be displayed as separately and cleanly as in the other room. Yet there is a more intimate, “close” feel here, possibly because of the more inward-leaning walls. And sounds do not echo nearly so badly in this gallery, probably for the same reason.

So there is something of a tradeoff: the smaller gallery echoes less and has a more intimate atmosphere, yet the specimens feel slightly crowded together. Whereas the larger gallery, while having more room to exhibit the dinosaurs clearly, feels more sterile and suffers from excessive echoes. With the walls and ceilings of the Crystal leaning at all angles and producing varied effects of lighting and sound, it has to be difficult for the curators to place the displays in a way that will counteract these problems.

Given those difficulties, they have done a masterful job. The galleries are bright and clean, and each animal is beautifully displayed and easy to view. The plaques for each specimen provide plenty of historical data, and the ROM staff who constantly hover nearby seem to have an infinite store of information at their fingertips. (For example, ask one of them how Barosaurus relates to Brontosaurus. Go on, ask.)

These new galleries will make the long-lost dinosaurs more accessible to visitors than they’ve ever been before. It’s very likely that one visit won’t be enough – people will want to visit again and again, getting to know these magnificent creatures better each time.

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