The Museum of the Rockies is one of the great dinosaur museums in North America. Nestled in the beautiful college town of Bozeman, Montana, the MOR has an outstanding collection of dinosaur fossils and some wonderful displays that any dinosaur enthusiast will enjoy. Dr. Jack Horner is the man behind the paleontology collection here and he is one of the world’s leading paleontologists. Over the past 30 or so years he has: made and written about numerous discoveries; proposed interesting and highly debated theories; published several books; served as a consultant to all of the Jurassic Park films; and helped build one of the best dinosaur museums in the world. This great museum is only about 80 miles northwest of the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and if you are visiting Yellowstone and like dinosaurs I highly recommend you make a side trip up to Bozeman–you won’t be disappointed.
There are plenty of highlights at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR). This museum is ground zero for research on two of the most iconic dinosaurs of all: Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. Montana is a great place to find dinosaurs, and the Hell Creek formation of the late Cretaceous period that is exposed in the state has provided a vast array of fossils, including numerous specimens of these two great dinosaurs. Both have amazing exhibits on display at MOR.
Before you even enter the museum you will certainly see one of its highlights: the sculpture of “Big Mike” the Tyrannosaurus rex, sculpted from the cast made from the “Wankel Rex” that was displayed at the museum for many years. That Tyrannosaurus has since been loaned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Smithsonian, where in 2019 it will become the centerpiece of the renovated National Museum of Natural Science. That dinosaur will then be referred to as the “Nation’s Rex”, but his fossil cast will still remain vigilant in front of the Museum of the Rockies and is certainly one of the greatest dinosaur sculptures to be found anywhere.
The star of the museum’s exhibit space is definitely one of the most recent additions, “Montana rex”, a large and fairly complete Tyrannosaurus rex that was first displayed in 2015. The fossil is very impressive; one of the things I like most about it is that it intentionally shows the parts of the skeleton that were recovered fossil and parts that were created from other specimens to complete the skeleton. In the display, the created casts are shown in white, the recovered fossils in the more natural brown. “Montana rex” is a great dinosaur display, with plenty of interesting information on signs around the exhibit. As great as it is, it is only part of the wonderful T. rex exhibit at MOR.
Nearby “Montana rex” you can find another Tyrannosaurus display that is just as wonderful and amazing: a series of skulls from other Tyrannosaurus rex, displayed according to their size. Few museums have more than one fossil Tyrannosaurus skull, and seeing four or five side-by-side is memorable and perhaps slightly terrifying, if only in one’s imagination.
As wonderful as the Tyrannosaurus exhibit is, the Triceratops exhibit is equally impressive. Just about every visitor marvels at the display of the amazing growth series of skulls that demonstrates the remarkable changes that Triceratops went through at various life stages. One of the more hotly debated topics in paleontology lately has been the status of various dinosaurs that lived in the late Cretaceous period. Dr. Horner has demonstrated how some dinosaurs changed significantly over their life course, particularly in their skulls, and one of the implications of this research is to question how many currently named dinosaurs from this time period are actually different dinosaurs rather than simply old or young stages of one dinosaur’s natural development. This has led to some disputes among paleontologists about dinosaur ontogeny. One such dispute involves the Triceratops versus another similar dinosaur from the same time period, Torosaurus. The growth series of skulls at MOR demonstrates the amazing changes that a Triceratops goes through during its lifetime and suggests that a Torosaurus is really just a very large, probably very old Triceratops. That debate is certainly not settled yet, however.
Similar arguments are made for other dinosaurs as well. Is a Nanotyrannus simply a juvenile T. rex? Are Dracorex and Stygimoloch simply stages of development of the dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus? The Museum of the Rockies displays certainly suggest as much. The debates still linger on, but the evidence at MOR is quite powerful.
If you want to learn more about the shape-shifting dinosaurs and the implications for dinosaur research, I recommend the 18-minute TED talk by Dr. Jack Horner. I have linked it here.
There are quite a few other highlights in the museum. There are a lot of nice skulls and teeth, other assorted bones on display of a variety of dinosaurs, including Daspletosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Edmontosaurus, and Maiasaura. One of the more interesting dinosaurs that is rarely displayed is the dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes. At MOR, this mount is very dynamic, showing the creature leaping with claws extended.
Two dinosaurs that get a lot of attention together are shown in a fossil at MOR, the ornithopod Tenontosaurus and the dromaeosaurid Deinonychus. Some of the known Tenontosaurus remains are found alongside scattered teeth from the Deinonychus, suggesting a prey-predator relationship. In the MOR exhibit, the Deinonychus teeth can be seen in and among the Tenontosaurus fossil.
WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS?
Even though this is a world class dinosaur museum today, the museum did not start with a focus on paleontology. Instead, the Museum of the Rockies focused on Montana history and Native American history and both topics remain important to the museum, there are nice displays about these subjects. The museum also has an interesting living history farm, representing the homesteading era in Montana, with a genuine 1890’s garden and blacksmith shop. The museum also does a nice job of bringing in national exhibitions, the last time my family went we spent some time enjoying the touring exhibit “Chocolate.”
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
Every time I have gone to the Museum of the Rockies it gets better and better. The displays are some of the most educational you will find in a dinosaur museum; the fossils on display are more numerous and fantastic. If I could change one thing, it is probably that there is too much reflective glass around some of the best fossils which makes photography really difficult. Still, this is a very minor quibble. I completely trust the MOR to continue to improve the museum, they have been improving for a long time and have made themselves one of the most important bucket-list museums for any fan of dinosaurs.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My sons have been to MOR twice, and each time they have gone they have had a really good time. My youngest was quite taken with the baby Triceratops skull, it is a rare fossil and such dinosaurs are not often seen depicted in books and art. Downstairs by the rest rooms the museum has a cast of an adult Triceratops skull that is very popular with children, every time we have gone there have been kids climbing all over it! (I assume that is allowed…?). Mine were no exception. While there are some things that could be added for children, like a dinosaur dig pit, or a program for making fossil casts, MOR is one of the best museums in North America for education in the exhibit halls. Not only is there great information next to each display, but the displays are organized so that visitors will get a much better idea of some of the current debates in paleontology, and how the fossils on display fit into those debates. The majority of dinosaur museums could learn from their approach.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
There are a lot of great dinosaurs to see at MOR, and both times we visited we spent a little over two hours. I would plan for two hours and depending on how much of the museum you want to see besides prehistoric fossils you may spend a little more or less time than that.
At MOR there are plenty of dinosaurs to see, some of which are quite rare. The displays for Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops are certainly among the best in the world for these iconic dinosaurs. The educational material at the museum is top-notch, very few museums do this nearly as well. The Museum of the Rockies is a wonderful dinosaur museum, sure to delight adults and children alike.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs on Display: (9 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (9 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (10 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)