Toronto is a very large cosmopolitan city with an almost endless supply of things to do. When we visit, one place we like to go is the great Royal Ontario Museum, one of the best places to see dinosaurs and other prehistoric fossils in North America.
On the northeast edge of the University of Toronto campus, the world-class Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. The venerable building was originally part of the University and remained so until 1968. Today, the main visitor entrance is through an amazing, angular addition, named after major donor Michael Lee-Chin and opened in 2007. The Crystal is made mostly of glass and steel with silver-brushed aluminum strips helping to create the unique design by Daniel Libeskind.
While the Crystal is very futuristic, inside the museum, treasures from the world’s past abound. It doesn’t take long to see some wonderful dinosaurs at the ROM. Inside the main gallery just past the entrance is one of the largest sauropod dinosaurs on display in the world: a nearly 100 ft. long giant from Argentina named Futalognkosaurus. Bathed in colorful light, this is a fantastic dinosaur to welcome museum visitors. Nearby are two skeletal mounts of dinosaurs from the museum’s amazing hadrosaur collection, including a Prosaurolophus. After you enter, take the stairs to the second floor to see more of the great collection.
The very first fossil we saw once we entered the dinosaur area was the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus hanging from the ceiling. My younger son spent a solid minute just staring at it in amazement. Just beyond is a large section featuring ancient sea reptiles, and the ROM collection is very good. There are a number of sea creatures throughout the display area; our favorites were the mosasaur Platecarpus and the plesiosaur Trinacromerum. The angular shapes of the building in the Crystal section create interesting spaces, and ROM fills those nicely with a variety of displays. Hanging near the sea reptile display is a good-sized Xiphactinus and a very large turtle called Protostega.
The first large hall features mostly Jurassic period dinosaurs, including another huge sauropod. Barosaurus, a dinosaur closely related to the more well known Diplodocus, is the centerpiece of the gallery. With the Futalognkosaurus downstairs, this great fossil makes the ROM one of very few museums in the world that displays two different 90-foot-plus sauropods. On the sides of this huge animal are Jurassic favorites Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. The Allosaurus is particularly attractive posed in a hunting posture.
Many of the ROM’s dinosaurs come from the fossil-rich badlands of Alberta, and on display here is one of the world’s best collections of hadrosaur (duck-billed) dinosaurs. Full skeletal mounts of these dinosaurs abound, including a great Corythosaurus, its close relative Lambeosaurus, and possibly the most beautiful Parasaurolophus skeleton in the world. In glass cases below the skeletons are fossil skulls that show the growth patterns in Corythosaurus and Lambeosaurus. It is amazing to see how the crest shape on the skull changed over the course of an animal’s lifetime.
There are two large galleries housing dinosaurs at the ROM. The second contains many dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period, and the highlight of this collection is the variety of horned dinosaurs, or ceratopsians, that are displayed in this gallery. The largest mount is a huge Chasmosaurus. It was a large animal, and it certainly looks strong and powerful–like a significantly larger rhinoceros. Since 2015, the ROM also displays a full mount of one of the newest-described (2015) members of the ceratopsian family, Wendiceratops. A number of ceratopsian skulls are displayed near ground level, including Anchiceratops, Arrhinoceratops, Centrosaurus, and Triceratops. There is also a great little fully mounted Protoceratops, the small Mongolian ancestor of the larger ceratopsians.
There are a lot of other dinosaurs at ROM to enjoy, including a number of theropods ranging from huge (a cast of Tyrannosaurus) to very small (a cast of Bambiraptor). One of our favorite displays during one visit was in a special section called “Out of the Vaults” and featured one of the earliest dinosaurs ever described, a bipedal prosauropod from South Africa called Massospondylus. Sir Richard Owen, who coined the term “dinosaur,” first described the remains of Massospondylus in 1854.
Science has learned a lot about Massospondylus since Owen’s time, and more recently a clutch of eggs and hatchlings attributed to this dinosaur have shed considerable light on its behavior. Seeing the tiny dinosaur hatchling was pretty impressive; we spent quite a bit of time looking at that fossil and trying to make out the various parts of the baby dinosaur.
While the ROM has a world-class dinosaur collection, it also has a terrific gallery of prehistoric mammals. Some of the largest include a mammoth, a prehistoric rhino called Teleoceras, the huge “Irish Elk” Megaloceras, and a marine mammal known as Desmostylus. Among the large carnivores are a Smilodon and Arctodus, the giant short-faced bear. Some of the smaller fossils include the early horse Hyracotherium, and a fossil I had not seen before, the ancient saber-tooth Dinictis. Dinictis lived in North America about 30 million years before Smilodon, and the two were not related. It was much smaller than Smilodon, as were its saber-teeth. It’s one of my favorite fossils at ROM, and it’s displayed beautifully, posed as if leaping after its prey.
If you love dinosaurs, the Royal Ontario Museum is a must-add to your bucket list. It has some fantastic specimens, particularly the hadrosaurs and ceratopsians, but also two huge sauropods and plenty of other dinosaurs as well. The galleries are clean and neat, with lots of natural light (on a sunny day) and displayed in an impressive futuristic wing of the museum.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
The Royal Ontario Museum is a great dinosaur museum, but it has much more to offer than just fossils. We spent almost an entire day here and yet felt like there was so much more to see. The two exhibits that we spent a lot of time in besides the dinosaurs were (1) the various ancient cultures on the third floor, including a large section on ancient Egypt, and (2) the various galleries in the Earth’s Treasures exhibit. In the Earth’s Treasures area, the collection and displays are fantastic, and we saw some incredible gems, gold, and minerals. The museum displays a huge variety of objects relating to native cultures of the Americas as well as elsewhere around the world. One of my favorite things about the museum was the small horizontal displays of insects that wrapped around the stairways–a very creative use of space to make more display area and give visitors something to admire as they go up and down the stairs.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The ROM is such a great museum, it’s hard to imagine it getting much better. But it does! Recent additions like the Futalognkosaurus and Wendiceratops have kept the dinosaur displays fresh and updated, and I am really looking forward to a new exhibit coming soon called Dawn of Life, which will feature the ROM’s incredible collection of Burgess Shale specimens from British Columbia. This fossil deposit contains some of the oldest fossils on earth at around 508 million years old. Otherwise, the only minor complaint I have is that the dinosaur exhibit relies heavily on light from the huge windows around the galleries. The last time we visited it was a rainy, cloudy day and the lighting inside was tolerable but not particularly good for taking dynamic pictures of the wonderful collection inside.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My children enjoyed their visit to the ROM very much. We were at the museum for the better part of a day and they showed no signs of wearing out–every exhibit offered something new and exciting. My older son spent quite a bit of time looking at the collection of dinosaur eggs; my younger son liked the horned dinosaurs the best, particularly the Chasmosaurus. Both boys loved the Earth’s Treasures exhibit where they liked seeing so many beautiful gems and minerals, but they also really liked some objects from other exhibits. A large totem pole was particularly memorable as was a Chinese Qing Dynasty tomb mound.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
We spent about four hours at the museum during our most recent visit, and that felt about right. We spent a little less than half that time looking at dinosaurs and other fossils, the other half looking at other exhibits in the museum. One could probably get in and out and see the fossil collection in about an hour, but…why would you? There is so much more to see!
The Royal Ontario Museum is one of the best natural history museums in North America, and the terrific fossil collection is among the many highlights of this remarkable place. Unlike some museums, the building itself is an architectural marvel, particularly on the inside. There is so much natural light, interesting and sometimes odd angles, and creative use of space that it makes a trip here even more fascinating than it would if we were simply admiring the great collection.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (9 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)