Tyrannosaurs, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Mary Stones is captivated by a theatrical and informative show
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Mary Stones
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The 2020 Tyrannosaurs exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
The 2020 Tyrannosaurs exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
This article was written before the Covid-19 lockdown
Tyrannosaurs is the latest special exhibition to open at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The interactive show, created by the Australian Museum in Sydney, has arrived in the Scottish capital for its only European appearance, having already toured to New Zealand, Canada and the US.
From the outset, Tyrannosaurs is keen to point out that the T rex is but one member of a diverse family that roamed the earth for more than 100 million years. They came in all shapes and sizes, evolving from carnivores only slightly bigger than people to the massive predators we are more familiar with.
To emphasise this point, the first dinosaur visitors come face to face with at the beginning of the exhibition is the Guanlong Wucaii. Presented here with green feathers, this tyrannosaur existed 95 million years before the T rex and is markedly dissimilar to its big, bone-crushing cousin.
Powerful roars and the heavy thud of footsteps draw visitors onwards from the introductory area to the main exhibition space. Dramatic lighting and visual and sound effects are used throughout the exhibition to create a dynamic and spine-tingling atmosphere, which is the perfect backdrop to the showstopper that is the main exhibits.
The complete skeletons on display are nothing short of awesome and their majestic forms dominate the space. The main draw of the exhibition is a replica of Scotty, one of the largest and most complete T rex skeletons in the world. He is surrounded by the complete skeletons of a number of his cousins, including Daspletosaurus and Dilong Paradoxus, from the Australian Museum’s collection.
These are complemented by displays of rare fossil finds and models, which together help build a picture of the appearance and behaviour of these formidable family members.
The content of the exhibition comprises a well-paced combination of text panels, object displays and hands-on interactives that are woven around the impressive exhibits.
The panel content is well written and well layered, combining easy-to-read, accessible content with more detailed, secondary layers of information. The latter is complemented by National Geographic films that provide more detail on the latest scientific investigations, discoveries and breakthroughs.
I was visiting with my young sons and was particularly appreciative of the immediate, shareable bite-size facts and humorous content.

Social experience
The individual and group interactives are another highlight. These include the chance to test your strength against the bite force of a T rex and to recreate the force of a meteor by jumping on a metal plate (my eight-year-old wants this for Christmas).
The aim of some exhibits is more obvious than others. A case in point is the interactive tabletop projection. This invites visitors to hatch eggs and place the emerging dinosaur in their rightful place on the tyrannosaur family tree. This was hugely popular with younger visitors, who mostly enjoyed smashing open as many of the virtual eggs and boxes containing clues as possible.
Meanwhile, grown-ups tried to fathom the purpose of the game, before realising that the older digital native children (those born into an established digitised world), were already on the case. A sociable and entertaining experience followed, as all ages shared ideas and worked together to complete the tree.
As we moved on, I found myself thinking of Malcolm Black’s observations in his book The Engaging Museum: “Exhibits that most effectively engage an audience are those encouraging social interaction, discussion and involvement within and beyond the groups involved.”
Together, we had all learned that the tyrannosaurs’ family tree was complex and extensive, and that the T rex was but one of more than 20 species on it. And we had great fun in the process. Augmented and virtual reality are used to good effect to create the illusion that the tyrannosaurs are alive once more.
This was also effectively used in the marketing material leading up to the opening of the exhibition. Each of the panels interpreting the complete skeletons include a screen containing a 3D rendering that brings the dinosaur to life.
But the pièce de résistance is a large-screen projection that creates the illusion of tyrannosaurs running amok in the exhibition. An image of my children appears on the main screen, while a split screen shows hungry-looking Guanlong making its way up the museum’s internal staircase.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt a genuine sense of unease. The spell was broken by the sight and sound of my fearless five-year-old laughing in the face of a deadly predator.
The exhibition ends with a display on the “bone hunters”, whose adventures and discoveries – both intentional and accidental – are behind our increasing knowledge of this dinosaur dynasty. I was fascinated to learn that there are known to have been 25 species of tyrannosaur – six of which were described in 2010 alone. The latest – Suskityrannus – was named in 2019. Depending on their interest and motivation for visiting this exhibition, people are going to get different things from it. For a family visit, it offered the perfect combination of discovery and entertainment.
My boys were amused and we learned a lot together. For those with a more specialist level of interest and who don’t need to keep an eye on young people, there are deeper levels of content to unearth.
Tyrannosaurs is theatrical, factual and fun. Scotty was named by the excavation crew at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada after they toasted their discovery with a glass of malt whisky. Having visited this exhibition on 25 January – Burn’s Night – I can’t think of a better way to spend the anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national bard, or any other Saturday for that matter.
Mary Stones is an interpretation consultant
Project data
Cost
Undisclosed
Main funders
National Museums Scotland; supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery
Exhibition creator
Australian Museum
Exhibition tour operator
Flying Fish
Exhibition build
Flying Fish; Gallowglass; Eastern Exhibition & Display; Wood Monkey
Exhibition design
National Museums Scotland; Australian Museum
Graphic design, interpretation, interactives, audiovisual and film
Australian Museum
Lighting design
Lex Burnham
Display cases
Australian Museum
Admission
Free entry for Museums Association members

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