Our planet is 4.6 billion years old and “living things have existed on Earth for more than 3.9 billion years.” I read this at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, 10 days ago and felt like a dust speck.
Drumheller is a city of about 8,000 people way down in a badland’s canyon on the Red Deer River almost 84 miles northeast of Calgary. Drumheller’s fortunes used to involve coal mining, but now it seems to be dinosaur bone excavation.
The Royal Tyrrell (pronounced teer’ ul) is named for Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a geologist who found a dinosaur skull while looking for coal. The Tyrrell Museum opened in 1985, added Royal to its name in 1990 thanks to Queen Elizabeth, and is now Canada’s only exclusively palaeontological museum. Its dinosaur display is one of the world’s largest, and a visit to it is a 5-compass experience.
Before checking out the dinosaurs, Ruth, the cousins, and I watched a 15 minute fun and funny introductory film in RTM’s large auditorium. It gave us a behind-the-scenes look at preservation, and I learned that about half of the displayed bones are plaster casts of real ones for good reasons.
My first museum experience was a room-sized diorama of an Albertan landscape from 69 million years ago containing 4 caught-in-motion theropod dinosaurs. Only one of these thrilling Albertosauri, or Alberta Lizards, had a firmly closed mouth. Its serious overbite made it goofy looking instead of threatening.
In the next area, Science Hall, I got a glimpse into a display preparation lab, learned that we are in the Earth’s Quaternary period, and discovered that herbivorous dinosaurs were far more abundant than meat eaters. Around me were delighted kids pulling knobs, spinning wheels, and learning about fossils in fun ways. I watched a woman pushing a stroller build a ceratopsian dinosaur on a touch screen and proudly show it to her baby. Later, Ruth happily told me she had accomplished this too.
I paused to watch a bone demonstration and learned that local scavengers are in luck. “If you live in Alberta and the fossils have been legally surface collected, you may take them home as custodian of the fossil, but ownership remains with The Province of Alberta.”
I had now seen about, maybe, 1/5 of this stunningly great museum’s displays. Yet to come was a new one called The Last Sea Dragon, lots more learning (taxonomy is the science of naming all organisms), a walk atop a Devonian tropical sea, and watching countless totally involved families. I saw one delighted dad stoop down to tell his daughter, “This is my favorite dinosaur of all time.” He was pointing to a little cutie that looked like it had just deployed a sail on its back and was about to take off.
We browse through some museums and emerge yawning. Others expand our knowledge and change our perceptions while entertaining us. The Tyrrell is such a place.