When I first started writing reviews of dinosaur museums, one of the first questions I received from a reader was “what do you think are the best dinosaur displays?” It is a difficult question, and as I make this list I realize that if I was asked this question a month from now, I would probably give very different answers. There are SO many great dinosaur displays at museums around the world that any “top” list is almost entirely subjective as to which ones are “the best.” So instead, I’ll list the dinosaur displays that are among my personal favorites.
As you will quickly notice, not all the creatures on this list are dinosaurs, I include pterosaurs as well, and would have included any other creatures from the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) or before. Here are some of my favorite displays:
(12) Quetzalcoatlus, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, TX
I have seen several Quetzalcoatlus displays in museums around the country, and in every case they have been shown in full flight, suspended from a ceiling well above the rest of the dinosaurs. That all changed the day the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences opened their recently renovated Morian Hall of Paleontology. This massive Texas pterosaur now is displayed in a group of three large adults, shown protecting a nest from an invading Tyrannosaurus. Seeing the Quetzalcoatlus posed in flight at other museums (and prior to the renovation, in Houston) is pretty amazing, their wingspan approximates that of a jet fighter. But seeing the giant creatures posed on land, sitting/standing in their presumed stance, ready to take on the greatest carnivore of the Cretaceous? Wow!
(11) Geosternbergia, Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, KS
One of my favorite Cretaceous fossils to see is the incredible pterosaur Geosternbergia. Formerly a separate species of Pteranodon, a 2010 review reclassified this species as its own genus, Geosternbergia. It was one of the largest pterosaurs, and is viewed as the probable direct ancestor of the more well known Pteranodon. The holotype specimen of this creature is in Hays, and this fossil mesmerizes me every time I see it. The headcrest on the male Geosternbergia is very large and distinctive, reaching up and back a couple of feet, while the lower jaw extends about four feet. The wingspan of an adult Geosternbergia is estimated to range between ten and twenty feet. For comparison sake, the wingspan of an adult bald eagle is about six to eight feet. I see quite a few majestic bald eagles flying here in Nebraska, but I can only imagine what a Geosternbergia might have looked like in the air. Fortunately the fossils at the Sternberg Museum give us a pretty good idea!
(10) Torvosaurus, BYU Museum of Paleontology, Provo, UT
One of the largest predators of the Jurassic period was Torvosaurus, and the cast made from the holotype fossil at the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology is quite spectacular. Torvosaurus was a large theropod, certainly an apex predator during a time period occupied by many very large plant-eating dinosaurs. A huge head filled with very large and sharp teeth, and short but powerful arms distinguish the Torvosaurus, who likely competed with other top predators such as Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Saurophaganax. The skull and teeth of this large carnivore look almost as big as that of Tyrannosaurus, but Torvosaurus lived about 90 million years before Tyrannosaurus appeared in the Late Cretaceous and they are not closely related. If Jurassic Park had used actual Jurassic dinosaurs, Torvosaurus may well have been the star of the show!
(9) Daspletosaurus, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL
I know, I know. Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex “lives“ in Chicago at the Field Museum. And Sue is a wonderful, wonderful dinosaur fossil, no doubt about it. For me, however, I prefer the terrific Daspletosaurus on display in the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit. While Sue is really large and nearly a complete fossil skeleton, the Daspletosaurus display upstairs is more dramatic. I love the pose of this older Tyrannosaurus relative, bending down to rip apart a recently deceased hadrosaur–type carcass. It is a gorgeous mount and certainly deserves its central spot among the many great displays in the exhibit hall.
(8) Appalachiasaurus, McWane Science Center, Birmingham, AL
Dinosaur fossils from the eastern half of the United States are quite rare, and theropods extraordinarily rare. Appalachiasaurus was discovered in Montgomery, Alabama and represents the only fossil of this species, a tyrannosaur that lived in the Late Cretaceous period on the island continent Appalachia, for which the dinosaur is named. The mount is fantastic, showing Appalachiasaurus in a very dynamic and interesting pose. This dinosaur was smaller and more lithely built than Tyrannosaurus with the exception of its arms, which are the longest and most muscular of any tyrannosaur. When you enter the McWane Science Center’s “Alabama Dinosaurs” exhibit, you will soon find yourself staring right into the jaws of this awesome dinosaur.
(7) Stegosaurus, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, TX
Like the Quetzalcoatlus display, the Stegosaurus display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is designed to really challenge visitors and their assumptions about the dinosaurs they know. In this case, the Stegosaurus in Houston is posed standing on its hind legs, the only such pose of a Stegosaurus I have seen. The idea is somewhat controversial, and there is still plenty of debate about whether or not Stegosaurus was capable of this posture. One of the leading advocates for it is none other than Dr. Robert Bakker, the world-famous paleontologist who just also happens to be the Curator of Paleontology at HMNS. Seeing a Stegosaurus posed like this is jarring at first, but it certainly makes visitors rethink the stereotypes about this iconic dinosaur.
(6) Allosaurus, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
Scientific understanding of dinosaurs, particularly their anatomy and physiology, has increased dramatically over the past century. Many, if not most, of the oldest dinosaur fossil exhibits have needed renovation to update the bodies and positions of the creatures to reflect modern understanding of what they looked like and how they lived. One terrific exception to this is the great Allosaurus display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. One of the first dinosaurs ever put on display, and the first carnivore put on display anywhere, the Allosaurus mount is exceptional, especially considering it is well over 100 years old. The display shows the mighty dinosaur ready to chomp down on the remains of a victim. Remarkably accurate given the knowledge we have gained about Allosaurus over the many years since its debut, it is just as powerful today as it was a hundred years ago. Every time I am at the AMNH I marvel at this display, a wonderful exhibit (among many) at that incredible museum.
(5) Titanoceratops, Sam Noble Museum, Norman, OK
There is some debate over whether or not the Titanoceratops on display at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma is actually a Titanoceratops or rather a Pentaceratops (as it is labeled). What is not up for debate is the fact that the skull on this dinosaur is gigantic and incredible to see. The skull itself is proclaimed to be the largest skull ever found for any land animal. Even saying “it is 8.7 feet long” doesn’t really do it justice…when you are standing next to it the size is almost unbelieveable, it is just so massive and impressive. It is hard to believe that Titanoceratops could even lift its own head! But apparently it could, and seeing it up close is worth a trip to this wonderful museum on the University of Oklahoma campus.
(4) Tyrannosaurus family, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA
The recently renovated Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has many fantastic dinosaur displays, including a very large Mamenchisaurus and one of the finest looking Triceratops anywhere. But the stars of the show in Los Angeles are undoubtedly the three Tyrannosaurus fossils that are displayed together, shown circling some remains of an unfortunate hadrosaur. The exhibit shows an adult, a juvenile, and a two-year-old T. rex which is perhaps the youngest Tyrannosaurus on display in the world. This “growth series” demonstrates how quickly Tyrannosaurus must have grown, and how large a young or juvenile Tyrannosaurus still had to go to reach full size. It’s one of the best dinosaur exhibits anywhere.
(3) Tyrannosaurus “Black Beauty,” Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, AB
I absolutely love the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, and of all the great exhibits on display there, the one I love the most is one of the first ones that the public typically sees after entering the museum. “Black Beauty” is the nickname of a Tyrannosaurus fossil that is absolutely spectacular. Displayed in the classic dinosaur “death pose” with its head tilted back, “Black Beauty” is named for the unusual dark color of the fossils which occurred naturally, caused by the minerals present during the fossilization process. “Black Beauty” is not a large Tyrannosaurus, it’s been said to be the smallest adult yet discovered. Nevertheless, the fossil and display is extraordinarily beautiful and is my favorite Tyrannosaurus display anywhere.
(2) Acrocanthosaurus, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC
One of the great large carnivorous dinosaurs in North America is Acrocanthosaurus, a dinosaur that is largely unknown in popular culture, at least compared to other great predators like Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus. But the “Acro” deserves more recognition: it was the apex predator of much of the western United States during the Early Cretaceous period, living approximately 100 million years ago, about 50 million years after Allosaurus and 35 million years before Tyrannosaurus. Acrocanthosaurus had large spines on it’s back which made it seem even larger and more menacing. The Acro on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is the only real fossil of this great dinosaur on display in the world, and the display in the rotunda of the building is really wonderful. The dinosaur is posed in a stalking position as it follows a large sauropod, with a group of pterosaurs circling overhead. I can’t imagine any dinosaur fan that would not love this display!
(1) Utahraptor, Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, Price, UT
Ever since the first Jurassic Park movie came out in 1993, there has been plenty of discussion about how the “raptors” in the movie were called Velociraptors but certainly were not. Anyone who knew about Velociraptors knew that no Velociraptor could possibly be as large as those seen onscreen–in real life they were about the same size as the modern turkey. But a funny thing happened that same year the movie was released…Utah paleontologist James Kirkland and colleagues described and named a fossil “raptor” they had found a couple years prior that was a pretty good fit for the size of the animals in the movie. Thus Utahraptor was born, and once the public found out, it quickly became a favorite for many dinosaur enthusiasts. When you walk into the terrific Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price, the very first dinosaur you will see is this Utahraptor, and it is a real beauty. It just looks active, fast, and very dangerous…a fantastic dinosaur mount for a fantastic dinosaur.