I am usually pretty excited whenever I am about to visit a museum with a lot of special fossils on display, but honestly, some museums get me more excited than others. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is one such museum: I have been several times and every time I am headed there, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Fortunately, the museum always lives up to the anticipation, and there are a lot of good reasons that the Carnegie Museum is considered one of the top natural history museums in the world.
While the Carnegie Museum is one of the oldest natural history museums in America, in 2008 the museum opened up a new and wonderful renovation of their dinosaur galleries. The exhibit is called Dinosaurs in their Time, a commitment by the museum to display dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in chronological order and in exhibits that reflect accurately the flora and fauna of each period of the Mesozoic era.
One of the first things that many visitors notice about Dinosaurs in their Time is that the exhibits are so green! Compared to typical museum displays, the Carnegie has done an incredible job making their exhibits look lifelike by situating them in front of large, appropriate murals, and covering the floor space with plants and trees that would have been living during that time. I don’t know a lot about paleobotany so I can’t really comment much on the greenery, but there are a lot of plants that look like ancient ferns and cycads throughout the exhibit. It is a beautiful and immersive environment to display dinosaurs, and it truly sets the Carnegie apart from most of its peer institutions.
As one might expect of such a well-regarded museum, there are a LOT of highlights at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM). CM is home to many thousands of fossils, and some of those on display are among the best of their type in the world. When visitors enter the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit, one of the first things they might see is a large window into a laboratory where they can observe researchers cleaning and preparing dinosaur fossils. I have visited CM numerous times, and every time I go I see a lot of people, particularly children, staring with great intensity through the window and watching the scientists do their work.
At the beginning of the dinosaur halls, the Triassic dinosaurs feature some of the earliest dinosaurs known. Herrerasaurus comes from South America and is a very early carnivorous, bi-pedal theropod. A Triassic fossil that is eye catching is the fantastic mount of the phytosaur Redondasaurus. The huge jaws are very impressive, and the mural behind presents a beautiful Triassic scene.
As visitors move through Dinosaurs in their Time, they will soon encounter creatures from some of the Carnegie Museum’s early 20th century dinosaur digs out west. One of the more important finds in paleontology history, the Carnegie Museum’s Camarasaurus was the first largely complete sauropod ever found. Although it is not a huge specimen like many sauropods are, the fact that it was articulated almost perfectly makes it such a valuable dinosaur fossil. Paleontologists have been able to learn many important things about sauropod anatomy and physiology from this particular fossil.
Many of the Carnegie Museum’s best fossils, including the Camarasaurus, come from the original quarries of what is now Dinosaur National Park, near Vernal, Utah. The huge boneyard there was first discovered by researchers working for the Carnegie Museum, and they collected hundreds of dinosaur fossils at the site, including many that the museum was eventually able to mount for display.
For me, the highlight of the museum’s amazing collection of dinosaurs is the nearby Jurassic gallery, which is absolutely amazing. It is easily one of my favorite dinosaur galleries anywhere. Not only is the Carnegie’s collection of Jurassic dinosaurs the envy of every other museum, but the displays are terrific, also. A background mural wraps around the exhibit, which displays wonderful fossils of Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, Allosaurus, and the real jaw-droppers in the room: two giant sauropods, the holotype Diplodocus “Dippy,” and a very large Apatosaurus. The plants and the mural do a great job of immersing visitors in the Jurassic environment on display. Without question, it is one of the great dinosaur rooms in North America.
The Diplodocus mount is huge and also world-famous, quite literally. “Dippy” is one of the most visible dinosaurs in the world: Andrew Carnegie himself decided to have numerous copies made of the fossil and sent to museums worldwide. There are at least a dozen casts gracing national museums across the world, including London, Paris, and Berlin. The “Dippy” at the highly regarded Natural History Museum in London was put on display shortly before the original was shown in Pittsburgh, as construction of the new Carnegie building was still in progress. The London fossil welcomed visitors to that museum in the main lobby from 1905 until 2017. The mount at the Carnegie Museum was the second put on display, in 1907, although it was originally assembled before 1904 by none other than John Bell Hatcher, a former assistant to O.C. Marsh of “Bone Wars” fame. Hatcher had made quite a name for himself in paleontology, discovering the first Triceratops in 1888 and Torosaurus a year later. In 1900, he took the position of Curator of Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum. His work was cut short, unfortunately, and he never lived to see his beautiful Diplodocus mount displayed, due to his untimely death in 1904 at the age of 42.
Across the walkway from “Dippy” is the scene featuring a large and menacing Allosaurus stalking a juvenile Apatosaurus who is under the protection of an adult, presumably its mother. The Allosaurus on display is one of the best specimens of its kind, and the young Apatosaurus is a very interesting and important fossil. Not only is it an incredibly rare fossil, it is one of the few juvenile sauropods on display in North America and the only of its genus.
I usually find it difficult to leave the Jurassic gallery at the Carnegie Museum, but when I do, at least I know I’m heading for another great dinosaur exhibit in the museum’s Cretaceous gallery. Filled with interesting fossils, the Cretaceous gallery has some fantastic specimens. One very recent example is the discovery of a North American oviraptorid named Anzu. Oviraptorids are well known from Mongolia and had been known to exist in North America due to occasional fragmented remains, including some named genera such as Chirostenotes. In 2014, Matt Lamanna from the Carnegie Museum was the lead author of the paper describing Anzu, and the specimen on display in the Cretaceous gallery is a composite of several animals that assembled make a largely complete dinosaur.
One favorite in the Cretaceous gallery is the Triceratops. At the Carnegie, the Triceratops is a wonderful looking fossil; I love the way the head is posed looking up, with its front legs ready to spring into action. A dinosaur that is related to Triceratops and is a another highlight at Carnegie is a beautiful cast of Psittacosaurus. A ceratopsian that lived in the Early Cretaceous, Psittacosaurus has a set of bristles on its tail, and these are very clear on the display. More ceratopsian relatives can be found at CM, one of my favorites is a great little full skeletal mount of Protoceratops. There are also several interesting skulls of various ceratopsians displayed together, including Diablosaurus, Zuniceratops, and Pachyrhinosaurus.
Other Cretaceous dinosaurs in the gallery include a beautiful Corythosaurus mount, shown walking on all four legs which is somewhat unusual for a hadrosaur display. Nearby on a wall is a display showing a large patch of fossilized dinosaur skin that belonged to a hadrosaur, probably Edmontosaurus. Another favorite is a handsome Pachycephalosaurus mount, the “bonehead” dinosaur is shown running through a Cretaceous forest.
The undeniable stars of the Cretaceous gallery, though, are the two large Tyrannosaurus rex fossils facing off against each other. The important holotype specimen of T. rex is shown with it’s head lowered in a defensive position over a hadrosaur carcass, the other Tyrannosaurus appears to be approaching and looking to take a piece of that meal away. Despite all the museum displays pitting Triceratops against Tyrannosaurus, there is a decent amount of evidence that the most dangerous creature to Tyrannosaurus was probably another Tyrannosaurus. Several Tyrannosaurus skeletons show injuries that look suspiciously as if caused by another very large carnivore, and Tyrannosaurus is really the only candidate that could do that during the time period. The T. rex display is a crowd favorite, though many visitors come and go without noticing the giant Quetzalcoatlus “flying” well above the scene.
While the dinosaur exhibits at Carnegie are amazing, there are other prehistoric animals on display whose fossils are equally terrific. Pterosaurs abound throughout the galleries. The Quetzalcoatlus is certainly the largest on display at the CM, but there are plenty of smaller pterosaurs for visitors to admire, including beautiful examples of Rhamporhyncus and Pterodactylus. Also, Cretaceous era birds such as Confuciousornis and dinosaurs that are closely related to birds like Sinosauropteryx help illustrate the now widely accepted theory that all modern birds descend from a lineage of small theropod dinosaurs.
If the swimming reptiles of the Mesozoic era are your thing, the Carnegie has a nice collection of those, too, among them several types of ichthyosaur. Good examples of Cretaceous fish like Xiphactinus and Pachyrhizodus hang in a glass wall display, and a beautiful fossil plesiosaur named Dolichorhynchops is shown chasing down the aquatic bird Hesperornis. There is also a cool ancient turtle Protostega, whose very large fossil was quite popular with my children.
WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS?
If you aren’t interested in dinosaurs, the Carnegie Museum of Art is literally on the other side of the massive building. It is one of the oldest contemporary art museums in the nation, and it has many wonderful exhibits. The area around the museum is lively as well; it is in the middle of the busy Oakland section of town, and very close to the campuses of both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
I’m thinking…I’m thinking. Boy, I don’t know. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a world-class dinosaur museum that has so many great displays that are interesting, important, and visually appealing that it is hard to think of anything that could reasonably be better. The museum has created a wonderfully immersive environment in which to display their great collection, and it is a memorable place to visit.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
The displays at Carnegie are awesome to young guests: few museums display not one but two giant sauropods. Some museums have a T. rex, few display two of them. And they look like they are fighting! For my youngest son, this scene is re-enacted virtually every time he plays with his dinosaur toys. In short, the Carnegie is the type of dinosaur museum that a lot of children dream about. In the dinosaur hall is a space called Bonehunters Quarry, a large dig pit that children can spend time hunting for “fossils” with brushes and small shovels. The first time we went to the Carnegie Museum, we had a very difficult time getting my oldest son to leave it and go see the dinosaurs. But once he saw the dinosaurs, he quickly stopped complaining about having to leave!
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
We have been a few times and although we have been in and out in about two hours once, we felt rushed. I would recommend three hours, that will give you plenty of time for the exhibits plus the dig pit, or other art exhibits in the museum.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is without a doubt among the top five musuems in North America to see dinosaurs and other prehistoric fossils. The variety of ancient creatures on display is wonderful and the displays are beautiful.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs on Display: (10 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (9.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8.5 out of 10)