Three years in the making and showcasing treasures of prehistoric Britain, Phil Penfold takes a glimpse inside the Yorkshire Museum’s new Jurassic World attraction.
Let’s start with a few facts. It is now a quarter of a century since one of the biggest movie blockbusters of all time was released. It’s also 190 years since the Yorkshire Philosophical Society received a grant of land in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey in York, where it was to build its own grand headquarters, and in which it would house its fine collection of archaeological artefacts and curiosities.
The building would later become the Yorkshire Museum and the four permanent collections (geology, archaeology, biology and astronomy) all have English-designated collection status, which puts them among the finest in Europe.
So where is all this headed? Well, to an amazing new exhibition at the museum. Yorkshire’s Jurassic World will open to the public on March 24, and will feature several hundred of the many precious artefacts normally housed in the basement of the building.
It has been three years in preparation, the budget for it is set at £300,000, and it will stay as a permanent display for at least five years, perhaps more. And that blockbuster film? Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. It starred Sir Richard Attenborough and it is therefore fitting that his brother Sir David, now a sprightly 91 years young, will be the man to cut the ribbon on the exhibition.
“That film, and the sequels, opened the floodgates of interest in all things to do with palaeontology,” says Will Watts, Jurassic World’s associate curator and the man who heads up Scarborough’s Hidden Horizons which runs fossil-hunting trips, rock-pooling sessions and dinosaur footprint walks. “The Jurassic was a golden age for the herbivore dinosaurs, and reptiles, and also so many sea creatures, and we are still learning about it,” says Will. “Opinions and theories are always changing as new data is unearthed and Yorkshire’s coastline, the part from Whitby to Scarborough, has added immensely to what we now know.”
The installation of such a major exhibition, which is being led by curator of natural science Sarah King, has meant that a good section of the ground floor has been closed since last January. The hope now is to give visitors a better understanding of the Jurassic period, which spans a not insubstantial 50 million years.
The new exhibition space will feature interactive areas, audiovisual effects, and the very latest in immersive technology. At one point, with the aid of a headset, you will be able to “feed” one of the museum’s much-loved creatures, Alan the Dinosaur.
Alan is not complete, but one of his fossilised vertebrae was found after a rockfall on Whitby beach by palaeontologist Alan Gurr. He immediately offered it to the museum, where it was studied, examined and displayed. Now all of Alan (he was named after his finder) will be recreated from head to toe and displayed using 3D effects and virtual reality.
“For the very first time, we’ll be able to see this amazing sauropod for what he actually was,” says Will. Rather wistfully, Sarah adds: “The question is, of course, where is the rest of him? His body had an awful lot of bones, and where are they? Some may be still in the cliff. Time alone will tell if any other discoveries are made.”
“Anyone can do fossil hunting,” says Will. “All you need is patience and a keen eye, and for much of the time, you can get to keep what you find. A pair of waterproof shoes, and a tide table also come in handy. And luck – just being in the right place at the right time.
“Once a dad in our bunch got a little weary of the hunt quite early, and just quietly went and sat himself on a beach. A few minutes later, he had been idly sifting some stones, and he lifted one up and asked ‘What’s this?’ He had found a lovely little ammonite. Quite by chance. It happens all the time. Dorset is known as the Jurassic Coast, but in fact, Yorkshire is by far the richer. It covers the three periods that the era is divided into and it offers the explorer far more.”
People are often turning up at the museum to donate their finds, two or three hundred of which will be part of the new display.
“Every new find can tell us something that adds to our knowledge”, says Sarah. “We were looking at a couple of ammonite fossils not so long ago, and we saw that they had tiny bite marks on them, which means that at some point in their lives a squid thought that they might make a good snack. It gives us a clue to what is where in the food chain, and who were the predators and what they wanted to eat.”
For Will, who tends to think in bus sizes when describing the larger animals, one of the premier finds in the collection is a single four-inch-long tooth from a megalosaurus of the Middle Jurassic period. The creature was about the size of a 17-seater minibus and most remarkably of all the tooth is in perfect condition and looks as if it fell out of those massive jaws only yesterday.
Another astonishing find came from a Jurassic fish lizard, known as an ichthyosaur which, it had always been assumed, had produced their young in eggs. However, when researchers took a cross-section of the rock in which it was discovered, again at Whitby, there inside the stomach area were several small embryos.
What Sarah and Will and their team aim to do, they say, is to build a bridge between the experts and the general public, to get people engaged and talking.
“We are delighted that Sir David has agreed to open the exhibition,” says Sarah. “I know three years seems like a long time, but in terms of how long the Jurassic period lasted, and how far it is from us today, it is merely the bat of an eyelid.”
Yorkshire’s Jurassic World opens at the Yorkshire Museum in York on March 24. Yorkshiremuseum.org.uk.