The Houston Museum of Natural Science has long been considered a world-class museum, it is one of the largest and most well-attended museums in the United States. Paleontology and dinosaurs, however, were historically good but not great–Houston had a nice collection, but it was not a museum that would be included in many “top dinosaur museum” lists. That changed in the last ten years, however, when HMNS hired world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker as the Curator of Paleontology, and he led the massive renovation of their dinosaur hall.
When it reopened in 2012, the Morian Hall of Paleontology quickly elevated the museum into the top echelon of dinosaur musuems nationwide. Filled with wonderful fossils and terrific paleoart (e.g. paintings by world-class paleoartist Julius Csotonyi), the HMNS is now one of the best dinosaur museums in the country.
One of the best things about the HMNS renovation is the creative way the fossils are displayed–in many cases they are designed to showcase the creatures interacting with others that lived in the same time and place. Some of the displays are truly fantastic and singular: if you want to see the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus NOT in flight, or if you want to see what a Stegosaurus might look like standing on its hind legs, the HMNS is currently the only museum you will be able to do that.
But before you get to the dinosaurs, there are a lot of highlights in the new hall, starting with the wonderful collection of trilobites, those always-popular Paleozoic creatures that look like variations on the modern horseshoe crab. The specimens on display are amazing, and they have a lot of them on display. The labyrinthine hall works in roughly chronological order, starting with the earliest life forms and working its way through the various eras of the Paleozoic, which ends with some really nice fossil displays from the Permian era.
Texas is one of the best places on earth to find Permian fossils and it is no surprise that the HMNS has some great examples. Although not a dinosaur, Dimetrodon is one of my favorite prehistoric creatures and “Willie” the Dimetrodon in Houston is terrific. There are also great displays of other well-known Permian denizens such as Eryops, Edaphosaurus, and Diplocaulus.
The Mesozoic Era starts with some really cool Triassic displays. In one, a scary looking Smilosuchus is seen chasing after the large herbivorous Placerias. In another, a great scene pits the apex predator Postosuchus against a well-armored Desmatosuchus.
As you wind your way through the exhibit halls, you eventually end up in a large open hall that contains some of the most interesting dinosaur displays in the world. A large, beautiful Allosaurus greets visitors, and just beyond is an incredible dinosaur mount of a Stegosaurus rearing on its hind legs. The idea is controversial, but Dr. Bakker maintains that this pose was possible for Stegosaurus. It’s a great display, certainly not what most people are expecting to see. One thing that is really noticeable in the display is how long a Stegosaurus was. At HMNS the skeleton is really stretching and looks very long compared to the usual static display where the creature is generally hunkered down and doesn’t seem nearly as large.
Before the opening of the Morian Hall of Paleontology in 2012, visitors could see a wonderful dinosaur mount before entering the paleontology exhibits. The gigantic and beautiful Diplodocus was mounted in the grand hall, standing stately and beckoning visitors to enter the paleontology area. In the somewhat enclosed space of the lobby, the size of the creature was almost overwhelming. Today, this fossil has been cleaned and restored, and moved into the Morian Hall with the other dinosaurs, and its pose is slightly different as well, now assuming more of a tripod position with its tail so that it could rear up to eat higher leaves. I loved the old display, but I have to admit the new one is even more dramatic.
The great Diplodocus is just one of the MANY dinosaur highlights at HMNS. There is a very nice cast of Acrocanthosaurus, a dinosaur that has been found in the southwest and is one of the most likely candidates for the theropod who left footprints that have been found in Glen Rose, Texas. Anklylosaurs are relatively rare in museum displays, but HMNS has a heavily armored Denversaurus displayed, shown next to a hungry Tyrannosaurus fossil known as “Wyrex.” In addition to “Wyrex,” there is another Tyrannosaurus in the exhibit hall, shown menacing a family of Quetzalcoatlus. The Quetzalcoatlus exhibit is particularly fascinating, the display has three of the huge pterosaurs standing upright on the ground protecting their nest from the T.rex.
Certainly one of the highlights at HMNS is “Lane” the Triceratops, one of the most important of his type yet discovered. “Lane” has the most complete foot bones ever found on a Triceratops, and those help scientists make accurate assessments of how the huge herbivore’s body was configured, how it stood, and how it moved. Perhaps more importantly, “Lane” also was found with preserved patches of skin, which is exceedingly rare among dinosaurs. Visitors can see the preserved fossilized skin patches right near the “Lane” display. Unfortunately the color of the skin doesn’t fossilize, as fossils take the color of the surrounding minerals in the rock. But the skin patches do give us a much better understanding of what Triceratops looked like when it lived.
There are many more great dinosaurs at HMNS, one of my favorite displays shows a small feathered theropod dinosaur called “Julieraptor,” not yet formally named. In the scene, this small raptor is perched on a limb while the Cretaceous mammal Didelphodon harasses it from below. The HMNS fossil of Didelphodon is the most complete such skeleton in the world and indicates this mammal was more like a tasmanian devil than an opossum, as previously thought. With powerful jaws and a lithe, active body that resembled an otter, Didelphodon can now be viewed as much more of a combatant rather than a creature that simply hid during the time when mammals were small and dinosaurs ruled the earth.
Near the end of the Morian Hall of Paleontology, visitors can expect to see terrific mounts of sea reptiles, pterosaurs, and a very beautiful collection of ammonites. Finally, there are a lot of very dramatic post-Mesozoic displays of large mammals, including mammoths fighting humans, a huge ancient bear shown facing off against a saber-tooth cat, an ancient North American camel, and many more.
WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS?
If you don’t like dinosaurs, you will still be in luck at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. HMNS is one of the largest museums in the United States, and has fantastic exhibits on a variety of subjects. The gems and minerals exhibit is one of the very best in the world, only the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington can really compare with it. There is a terrific Butterfly Center, a Planetarium, and regular IMAX movie showings. HMNS also has significant archaeological exhibits, which among other subjects features a large hall filled with ancient Egyptian artifacts. In addition, there are always interesting traveling exhibitions coming through. If you like science you will not have any trouble finding something to enjoy during your visit.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
I absolutely love the new Morian Hall of Paleontology at HMNS. It is full of great displays and was wonderfully designed. The only thing I didn’t like was the lighting. It is really dark in some places, and with the museum’s policy against flash photography in many areas, it is not easy to get great photos of the exhibits. This might just be a “me” complaint, but for me that is a big one! Nevertheless, I would go back to this museum every day if I could!
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My oldest son visited the first time I went to the museum, but that was before the renovation. My children have not been to the newly renovated museum–yet. It is high on my list of places to take them, I know they will love it. Any child that loves dinosaurs will love the displays, some of them are among the most fantastic displays anywhere. But with that said, the dinosaur hall does not really cater to children who want to run, play, dig, etc. There are not any dig pits or areas to play for kids in the hall, so while the exhibits are fantastic, particularly young children might get a little antsy while you are enjoying the displays.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit hall because there are so many wonderful displays at HMNS; if my friends and I didn’t have Astros tickets for later that day I could have easily spent a couple more! Plan to spend at least two hours at HMNS. Even if you hustle through the Hall of Palentology, there are a lot of other great exhibits at this large and diverse museum.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science is now one of the best places in North America to see prehistoric creatures on display. While their behind-the-scenes collections may not yet rival those of the top paleontology research museums, the displays in the Morian Hall of Paleontology are absolutely top notch, as fascinating and creative as those in any other museum. I strongly recommend a visit when you are in Houston, HMNS is a wonderful world-class museum that now has a world-class dinosaur exhibit.
NOTE: This review only covers the main campus of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Although I have also visited the HMNS-Sugarland campus, which features dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, HMNS-Sugarland will be reviewed separately.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs on Display: (9.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (6.5 out of 10)