BOOK REVIEW: The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

By Mark P Witton and Ellinor Michel; published by The Crowood Press, 2022.

To anyone interested in palaeontology, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs need no introduction. They were created in the Crystal Palace Park, in south London, as part of the development of the new park that housed the relocated Crystal Palace itself from its original site as the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1852. As the building itself was relocated, the surrounding parkland in Penge was developed, including ‘courts’ – themed areas showing different cultures in history – and one of these was the Geological Court, a display of British geology and palaeontology. This included life-size statues of prehistoric creatures, of which four are dinosaurs.

This book, published June 2022, is a comprehensive history and discussion of the models, the Geological Court and the background to the park. It is written by Mark Witton, palaeontologist, palaeoartist and author, and Ellinor Michel, evolutionary biologist, ecologist and taxonomist at the Natural History Museum, London*.

It is sumptuously illustrated, from photographs to maps to plans, in colour and with full annotation; it also includes Mark’s exquisite, contemporary new colour illustrations of the creatures as they are envisaged today.

The authors examine the science of the 19th century, the understanding of concepts such as Deep Time and explore the reasoning behind the planning and execution of such a grand project; throughout the book, detailed and thorough referencing support the discussion. This not a “dry” academic book, however, the writing is engaging and clear and the story is well structured and told. There is new material here, including a revision of the perceived wisdom around the influence and involvement of Richard Owen, and the contributions from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and others working alongside him.

This is an important volume, not only for palaeontologists, but for historians and philosophers of science and art. The Victorian mindset, perceptions of new science concepts and consideration of public engagement of science form the backdrop to the discussion of the statues themselves. The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are listed on Historic England’s National Heritage List for England as a Grade 1 site, and also on the Heritage At Risk Register. They remain a site of international importance.

*Ellinor is also co-founder and Chair of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs,, a charity founded in 2013 to promote the long-term conservation of the statues and geological site and to engage the public with the history and science of the park. All proceeds of the book will go to supporting their aims.

Review: T. rex ~ Back to the Cretaceous

This 1998 film was made for Imax, and the DVD version has been remastered from the original 70mm stock. It maintains the 4:3 Imax format and runs at 44 minutes. Directed by Brett Leonard.


The film is voiced by Ally Hayden, the dinosaur-loving teenage heroine, who works as a museum guide but really wants to be out in the field with her palaeontologist father, Dr Donald Hayden. In an early sequence, she is in the museum, she is talking to visitors while information screens play behind her (she refers to cladistics, and birds as dinosaurs to the visitors). This is intercut with scenes of her father at his dig, in which he and his assistant find some interesting fossils in a crevice exposed when his assistant has an accident and loosens some rock. They turn out to be dinosaur eggs.

When she is at home her father phones her – from the “Dinosaur County Store” complete with model T. rex with flashing eyes – to say he has been delayed but when she asks to join him, he refuses. We are then back in the museum in her father’s laboratory, and she wants him to look at her science project, about parental care in T. rex, but he rejects it, as he thinks it is based too much on speculation. He leaves her at his desk where one of the new dinosaur eggs is resting on the table; she accidentally breaks the egg and a brown gas escapes.



What happens next is unclear whether it’s a hallucination or time travel, but Ally wanders through the museum alon and the exhibits seem to come alive, including a roaring T. rex skeleton. She then finds a doorway into a forest where she meets a group of Parasaurolophus, complete with colourful crests. Back in the museum again, she is looking at some paintings and one – Knight’s ‘Leaping Laelaps’ – comes alive, taking her into the forest where she meets a figure sitting at an easel, painting.

It is Charles Knight himself. She points out that his T. rex was “a bit off”, he had given it three fingers when it had two and he replies that Barnum Brown had brought back an incomplete skeleton so they had made an educated guess. She does ask, however, why he had called Archaeopteryx a “little dinosaur” and how did he know? He talks about anatomy, understanding skeletons, watching animals – and imagination.

Back in the museum, her father is now looking for her and they can hear each other but he can’t find her. She is in the Ladies, runs the tap to wash her face and is again transported back in time.

This time she emerges in what seems like a tent and meets Barnum Brown. They are on the Red Deer River, on a barge, drifting down the river while on the shore, the dig goes on. He explains the principle of sediments and dating fossils, and when she asks him why the dinosaurs disappeared, he thinks it could have been volcanic eruption or earthquakes creating conditions on the planet that the dinosaurs could not have survived. The layer of ash they can see in the cliff marks the end of the Cretaceous.

She is back in the Ladies’ room but another door takes her into a misty primaeval forest. And there are T. rex footprints.

She is seen by a Pteranodon who hovers, then flies away. Following a mountain stream deeper into the forest, she hears a deep roar and tries to escape through the vegetation, catching her silver locket on a bush as she does so. This is intercut with her father and museum guard trying to find her in the museum.

Ally then finds a nest with eggs, recognises it as a T. rex nest but as she checks it, a Ornithomimus is trying to steal one of the eggs. She defends the nest but then the mother T. rex appears. There is much roaring and the Ornithomimus takes an egg, chased by the T. rex. In the struggle, the egg is thrown clear, and Ally catches it – and presents it back to the mother.

The mother recognises her help and Ally is able to stroke her nose. Just then, the sky is filled with falling meteors, then a huge flash, more roaring from the T. rex and a massive wall of ash is approaching… Ally is thrown clear and is back in the museum with the T. rex skeleton, and her father.

Her father now compliments her on her project and promises to read it properly, and they leave. He gives her back her locket… when she asks where he found it, he replies enigmatically “the late Cretaceous”. As they leave, the egg on the desk starts to shake and split open… and a T. rex chick hatches out.


In the film’s favour, the protagonist is a teenage girl who loves dinosaurs, and it isn’t the scare-fest of other dinosaur films; she sympathises with the mother T. rex, and the human figures she meets in the past are sympathetic – Charles Knight and Barnum Brown are able to give background information and interact with her, giving a sense of them having the best knowledge of their time.

It was filmed in the Dinosaur National Park in Canada, and credits the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and Phil Currie as Curator of Dinosaurs, and the NHM LACM, with Lawrence G Barnes as Curator of Palaeontology.

It’s a fun way to spend 45 minutes with the DVD, although it was clearly designed for a 3D Imax experience, with the dinosaurs appearing in the audience space. The story works, although the switching between the museum and the forest feels a bit choppy. Some of the CGI is a bit strained, but then, the film is over 20 years old.


Animating Aardman Animations’ “Early Man”: An interactive exhibition in Bristol’s M-Shed

Aardman Animations‘ feature film ‘Early Man’ was released in 2018 – a very funny, beautifully animated story of how cavemen invented football. Now, Bristol’s M-Shed museum, is showing an exhibition revealing how the film was animated.

If you haven’t seen the film, the exhibition is still worth a visit. Aardman’s method of stop-frame animation is better known for the characters Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep but ‘Early Man’ introduces new characters. The exhibition is full of fascinating exhibits such as the models of the characters, the storyboards, the sets and plenty of interactive activities to try for yourself.

Without giving away the plot, there is a pre-title sequence that shows life before the asteroid arrived and a fight between a  Ceratosaurus and a Triceratops; the dinosaur film fans among you will recognise this as a nod to the same fight in the 1966 film One Million Years B.C., animated by the great Ray Harryhausen.

‘Ray’ and ‘Harry’, a tribute to Harryhausen’s scene from ‘One Million Years B.C.’

In a video interview Nick Parks, creative director discusses his admiration for Harryhausen and the exhibition shows the two dinosaur models for the Aardman film – they are named in the final credits as ‘Ray’ and ‘Harry’ –  alongside two of the original models, on loan from the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (the terms of loan request that these models aren’t photographed, although photography is welcome in the rest of the exhibition).

The museum has lent the exhibition some original Stone Age and Bronze Age artefacts and objects, with background information on the objects. If you feel enthusiastic, you’re invited to try out creating a live sequence using a green screen background and explore the world of the Foley (sound effect) artists who create the sounds effects on the film, making noises with the various materials and tools.

The football stadium… look familiar?

Also not giving the plot away, an unusual mammoth features in the film and the exhibition features the original model and shows how it was designed and made.

The cast of characters

I loved this exhibition and for me, personally, it was great to see the storyboards and to find out that most of them are drawn in traditional materials such as marker pens, ink and wash. I did watch the film again after the visit which was magical having seen how the animation was made.

The exhibition is on at the M-Shed, Bristol, until 3 November 2019 and the film is now on download and DVD. Very highly recommended!!

A trailer for the film can be seen here.

A Tyrannosaurus rex in Scotland: “Trix, the Grand Old Lady”

In the summer of 2019, the city of Glasgow was home to a spectacular dinosaur. “T. REX in Town” was an exhibition of a fully mounted T. rex skeleton, on tour around Europe, with Glasgow the only stop in the UK.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was ‘Trix: the Grand Old Lady’, a well preserved specimen that was excavated in Montana, in 2013, by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. The team was led by Anne Schulp from Leiden and Pete Larson from the Black Hills Institute. Early in the excavation, palaeontologists realised this was a large T. rex with a relatively complete skeleton, and while it was being prepared in the Black Hills Institute, several unusual features were found that made it a special and important fossil.

The T. rex was identified as a female because the skull had thick protuberances over the eyes which is thought to be typical of the female and continued to grow throughout life. The protuberances on this skull were very developed which also implied she had lived to a ripe old age. She was an old lady.

Another unusual feature was the number of injuries on the skeleton, including broken ribs and a line of five holes in the jaw that were inflicted by another T. rex, as well as an injury to the tail and clear evidence of scars on the fossilised bone caused by infection, scars that showed some evidence of healing so the injuries and infections were suffered during her life.

And the name? Initially referred to as ‘Grandma Rex’, the specimen was eventually named ‘Trix’ after Beatrix, the former queen of the Netherlands, and given the additional label of ‘Grand Old Lady’ as a reference to her size and age. Her lifespan could be estimated by counting the growth lines in the bones, rather like growth rings in a tree can give its age, and the researchers think that Trix was around thirty when she died.

The exhibition was held in a large hall with the specimen as the centre piece and various panels surrounding her pointing out the features and injuries on the skeleton.

Several additional, generally interactive side exhibits showed features of the dinosaur such as an animated hologram of a T. rex hatching from an egg, interactive screen/movement centres allow visitors – particularly energetic children – to find out if they could outrun a T. rex or make a T. rex move.

A fun exhibit allowed visitors to “spray paint” a T. rex with different colours and patterns and two videos showed details of the excavation and the scientists preparing the specimen.

There was an addition to the exhibition in Scotland, including a dinosaur footprint from Skye with explanatory material from the Staffin Museum, on Skye, about Scotland’s own dinosaurs.

I visited in early July and certainly felt the a sense of awe in standing next to such a magnificent dinosaur. She was mounted as if lunging forward, so the skull was at eye-level and the signs clearly explained where the injuries were. Mounted in the centre of the hall meant she could be viewed from all angles and the additional exhibits around the side meant visitors had plenty of room.

The exhibit had its own shop and café, and the shop sold a range of merchandise from children’s toys and books to local themed merchandise such as bags, t-shirts etc, but didn’t have much in the way of adult books on dinosaurs. It did, however, sell a sumptuous exhibition guide book, with background material on the dig, the people involved and the science used; my only frustration with the guide book was the printing of large, dramatic images across two pages yet the binding meant that the centre spine ran down the centre of the image.

If you still want to see Trix, her European tour is now finished and she has gone back to Leiden, but will be on permanent display at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in a new purpose built museum, opening later in 2019.


  • ‘Trix:The Grand Old Lady’, Marijke Besselink, published by Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, 2016.