If you have children, one of the best museums in North America to spend a day is The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Widely considered the top children’s museum in the world, there is such a wide variety of activities available that almost any child (or adult) will find something to love here. I love dinosaurs, and fortunately, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has a great collection.
Having lived in Indiana for the better part of a decade during my years in graduate school, I have long been familiar with The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCMI). The museum will always hold a special place in my heart since it is the place where my wife and I first spent a day together. We have been back a few times since then, but just recently were able to bring both our sons there. My youngest son walked past the giant Brachiosaurus sculptures on the way into the building, immediately saw a statue of the character “Bumblebee” from the Transformers series, and announced “This is my favorite place in the world. Well, besides Disneyland.” And that was before he got to see many of the great exhibits. As a children’s museum, TCMI is particularly hands-on and geared toward young guests, but this is one children’s museum that adults also love. There is so much to do here beyond looking at dinosaurs that it is almost impossible to do it all in one day, but fortunately for this blog, I will focus on the dinosaurs.
When I first went to the museum in the 1990’s, TCMI had some dinosaur sculptures and footprints, but nothing like they have today. In 2004 the museum opened the acclaimed “Dinosphere: Now You’re In Their World” exhibit that has continued to add new and exiting dinosaur specimens for visitors to marvel at. TCMI has also committed to growing the dinosaur collection, as they have built their own paleo lab (which visitors can see), and are actively searching for fossils through museum-sponsored digs out west. One very clever thing that TCMI has done is focus on young dinosaurs; they claim to have the largest collection of juvenile dinosaurs on display in the world. As a children’s museum, it’s a great idea and helps differentiate the museum from others that display similar animals.
As you walk into the Dinosphere (a huge, round exhibit area that was formerly an IMAX movie theater), you start to hear noises and see lights flash, and you know that you are not about to enter an ordinary dinosaur museum. Sure enough, when you get inside, you see an exhibit that is truly immersive: two Tyrannosaurus rex fossils surround a Triceratops fossil. The smaller T. rex attacking the Triceratops from behind is called “Bucky,” named after the man who discovered it. It is one of the more complete specimens of Tyrannosaurus, and while it is considered a juvenile, it is quite large and not far from adulthood in size. “Bucky” is important for a couple of reasons. For one, he was the first T. rex found with a furcula, or “wishbone.” This bone highlights the ancestral connections between dinosaurs and modern birds. “Bucky” was also found with a complete set of belly ribs, or gastralia, that very rarely fossilize in dinosaurs. Upon death, scavengers would be likely to tear the belly open, and those bones are commonly scattered and lost.
The other T. rex in the scene is a cast of “Stan,” a famous Tyrannosaurus whose cast can be found in many museums around the world. The Triceratops in the scene is nicknamed “Kelsey,” and she is a beautiful specimen. The really great and unusual thing about the Tyrannosaurus/Triceratops display is the impressive environment it is displayed in. The plant life is abundant in the display, and a large and bright moon hovers overhead while the sky changes colors. The light reflections off the fossils create amazing colors as the sky changes, and the former IMAX screen that the Dinosphere was built in is smartly used to provide changing backdrops and immersive noises. Every once in a while you will hear thunder and see lightning in the “sky,” and occasionally the dinosaurs roar. Everyone in the exhibit hall looks up!
The highlight exhibit is fantastic, but there are other important and interesting dinosaurs to see in Indianapolis. One prehistoric dinosaur-era reptile that drew a lot of attention from the children was a very large cast of Sarcosuchus, one of the largest crocodile-like reptiles to ever exist. It was about twice the size of a modern saltwater crocodile, and it was easily capable of preying on a fully-grown adult dinosaur that was unlucky enough to be getting a drink when Sarcosuchus was nearby and hungry.
There are quite a few other dinosaurs in the Dinosphere; one of my favorites was a beautiful Gorgosaurus, an earlier relative of Tyrannosaurus. The Gorgosaurus at TCMI is one of the most complete such specimens found, with the skull over 90% complete. It suffered numerous injuries while it was alive, and it may have been the first dinosaur ever discovered with a brain tumor.
A number of plant-eating dinosaurs can also be found in the Dinosphere, including several that are rarely displayed in museums. There are four specimens of Hypacrosaurus, a duckbill dinosaur closely related to Corythosaurus and Lambeosaurus. One is an adult, one a juvenile, and two are small infants. A lot of children enjoyed seeing the baby dinosaurs; children come to the museum expecting to see the giant ones, but there are not often so many babies on display, and they drew a lot of interest.
One of the most important dinosaur fossils yet discovered can be seen at TCMI: “Leonardo,” the Brachylophosaurus. Why is “Leonardo” so important? This fossil hadrosaur is considered one of the most well-preserved dinosaur fossils ever found. Not only is the skeleton over 90% complete, but it is also covered in skin impressions, and even some muscle impressions. There are a handful of “mummified” dinosaurs that were fossilized in a way that some skin impression has been preserved, but none have been nearly as complete as that found on “Leonardo.” Paleontologists have already learned quite a few new things about hadrosaurs from this fossil and will undoubtedly continue to learn more as new studies examine these important remains.
One dinosaur that has received a lot of attention since it’s discovery is a pachycephalosaur named Dracorex hogwartsia, after its dragon-like appearance and the beloved Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. The skull of this animal is very interesting: flat on top but, like other pachycephalosaurs, full of unusual bumps and knobs. The specimen that was discovered is a juvenile and has been the source of some interesting theorizing. Paleontologist Jack Horner noticed that there have been no adult specimens of Dracorex or Stygimoloch discovered, and no juvenile specimens of Pachycephalosaurus, and yet they all lived in the same time and roughly the same place. Horner theorizes that the two genera of juveniles are really just younger versions of Pachycephalosaurus. The matter is not entirely settled; new specimens that have yet to be discovered may well change what we know about pachycephalosaurs in general and Dracorex in particular. I have linked a TED Talk on the subject by Dr. Horner, the pachycephalosaur discussion starts around the 8:00 minute mark of the video.
Beyond the fossils on display, there are plenty of other dinosaur-related activities to keep you and your children busy in the Dinosphere. On the day we went, an actress playing the part of famed early paleontologist Mary Anning came out and spoke with a large group of children for ten or fifteen minutes. She had fossils, drawings, and was attired in period wear and spoke with an English accent. My youngest son attended this and enjoyed asking her questions about her discoveries; she was very kind and spent time after her presentation talking with a lot of children individually. This was a great idea and very well done.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of our favorite dinosaur sculptures: outside the Dinosphere are sculptures of an adult Alamosaurus and two juveniles who appear to be breaking out of the building. It is an awesome display and really adds some life to the street around the museum. In fact, on Meridian St. on the east side of the building, there are now two astronauts floating in the air attached to the building, beckoning the public to come and visit the new (and fantastic) Beyond Spaceship Earth exhibit. The sculptures outside the museum had my kids excited…they were thinking that if the outside is this cool looking, imagine what’s inside!
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Absolutely. Dinosaurs are a big part of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, but they are certainly not the only thing to do there. In fact, most people could easily spend an entire day having a great time at this museum and never even explore the Dinosphere. The exciting new exhibit Beyond Spaceship Earth is an immersive area for children to learn a lot about astronauts in a simulated space station. Pirates and Princesses was another great area with displays from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as well as a really fun pirate ship to play on. Honestly, my boys pretty much ignored the princess part of this section, but there were a TON of young girls obviously enjoying it. Other highlights at the museum include: a wonderful train exhibit; an exhibit that has guests “fly” to China and then explore many elements of Chinese culture; some fun archaeology rooms featuring Egyptian mummies, Chinese terracotta warriors, and sunken pirate ships. It is Indianapolis, so naturally they have a racing exhibit, and children can sit in an actual Indy 500 car. There are so many things to do at this fantastic museum, I can’t imagine anyone getting bored.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
As the paleontology section grows, there is certainly more room for adding dinosaurs. I love the idea that TCMI will specialize in exhibiting juvenile dinosaurs, it’s a great concept for a children’s museum. Right now there are some great dinosaurs on display, but there is still plenty of room to add more. In fact some of the hallways in and out of the Dinosphere currently display fossils, but those seem a little lonesome because there is still a lot of room for more dinosaurs. The dig pit was very popular but is relatively small given how many children are visiting, so the line was quite long. Still, this is a really great museum, and now the paleontology/dinosaur section is a big part of it.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My children had a wonderful time at the museum. They really enjoyed the light and sound effects in the Dinosphere. We spent a couple hours in that area of the museum, with much of the time spent on fun activities like playing in the dig pit, watching the Mary Anning “show,” and watching and talking with the paleontologists at work in the lab. After the dinosaurs, the family favorite was definitely the Beyond Spaceship Earth exhibit; it is really, really good. My younger son particularly enjoyed the pirate area; my older son enjoyed the sad but memorable and educational trip through the Anne Frank annex. I haven’t been to that many children’s museums, but I can’t imagine any being bigger or better than The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis!
OVERALL RATING, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN: 42.0/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (6 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (10 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of North America’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!