When the Jurassic World trailer appeared, experts instantly complained about its scientific accuracy. So yesterday I visited London's Natural History Museum for a more scientific view, and what I found there will surprise you.
This journey begins with Jurassic World, which looks like it'll be a lot of fun, but that it might have a problem with scientific accuracy. I went through some of the main issues revealed in the trailer in my last article. But it's just a movie, people watch it for fun, not to learn stuff. If we wanted to learn, we may as well go to a museum.
So that's what I decided to do. I took a trip to the Natural History Museum, to get the real facts about prehistoric monsters.
The Dinosaur Exhibition draws in hundreds of people, and is the most popular attraction at the museum. One of it's biggest fans was the dinosaur crazy ten year old who would eventually grow up to become me. Dinosaurs were my first taste of science. When I visited there yesterday, it was a deeply nostalgic experience. Everything was exactly as I remembered. That was the problem.
When you first walk into the exhibition, you are greeted with a number of impressive dinosaur skeletons, such as this Triceratops. Except this skeleton reinforces one of the oldest dinosaur misconceptions. This Triceratops is dragging it's tail on the ground., like a sluggish lizard.
Not a great start. But there is more to come.
Over the past decade, scientists realized that Deinocheirus wasn't that closely related to Gallimimus at all. Even so, children and adults looking at this exhibit still pondered the great arms of Deinocheirus. When will this mystery be solved ?
Last month actually. Allow me to show you what this mysterious "Fearsome Hunter" really looked like:
According to the latest research, Deinocheirus ate mostly vegetables and fish. It was massive, but not exactly the fearsome giant that the Natural History Museum seems to think it is.
Sure, these might be poor mistakes, but at least they don't get the names of their dinosaurs wrong. They would look really stupid if they made a mistake like getting a Deinonychus and a Velociraptor confused.
Allow me to introduce you to this wonderful specimen. This dinosaur is Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis. But you would never know that from reading the sign accompanying it. To all of the visitors to the Museum, it's called Iguanadon.
How could this happen ?
Iguanadon was one of the first dinosaur species to be discovered, and during an era where people weren't all that discerning about the bones they found. A lot of very different dinosaurs were grouped together, and modern day scientists have been working to untangle that mess ever since.
In 2007, they recognized that an entire species had been misidentified as Iguanadon, and rectified that by giving it its own group. Hence the creation of Mantellisaurus. Unfortunately, in the intervening seven years, no one has changed that sign. Many seem to just assume that this is a baby Iguanadon rather than its own species.
So yes, even the Natural History Museum has Taxonomy fails as bad as Jurassic Parks.
Remember in my last article when I ripped on Jurassic world for the way it depicted the hands of the dinosaurs ?
The hands of dinosaurs like Velociraptor, Deinonychus and Dromaeosaurs (shown above) are all suppose to have the palms of their hands turned inwards, to allow them to grab stuff. But the skeletons you see at the Natural History Museum all have "Zombie hand syndrome". They have their palms turned down. It's even the same with the animatronic dinosaurs. But this brings me to my biggest gripe with this exhibition...
There are absolutely No feathered dinosaurs in this exhibition. I went through it twice just to see whether I had missed anything the first time around.
That's not to say they didn't make any references to the fact that dinosaurs were related to birds. They did point out that Archaeopteryx was quite closely related to dinosaurs. But in the opinion of the museum, was Archaeopteryx a dinosaur ?
So there are NO feathered Dinosaurs in this modern day 21st century Dinosaur exhibition. But the fail didn't stop there, it continued after I left the Dinosaur Exhibition...
The Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs have their own separate gallery. Mostly, they show off the gigantic bones these behemoths left behind, with only a few silhouettes to give visitors a clue as to what these creatures looked like. So there's not much room to squeeze in any inaccuracies.
Yet, they still managed it, giving their silhouette a line of frills down their spine. Which is inaccurate, and one of the major things paleontologists have been complaining about in the Jurassic World trailer.
As stupid as the films got, they didn't have dinosaurs dragging their tails around. Most of the errors these exhibits make are those made by Jurassic Park. They made them for the same reasons. When this exhibition opened some twenty years ago, it was at the cutting edge. But the cutting edge moved on, and this exhibition stayed in place, unchanging.
Let me repeat, this is the Natural History Museum ! This isn't some po-dunk roadside attraction. It's a world class museum and a center for scientific excellence. If there is anywhere that is close to the cutting edge of science, surely it should be this museum ?
Yet it fails to meet the standards that scientists would judge a movie, a work of fiction. Surely an institute dedicated to communicating science to the public should hold itself to a higher standard than a glorified B-movie. The public deserves better education than this.
EDIT: After posting this article, I had a Twitter-versation with Brian Switek and the Natural History Museum
For those of you who don't know who Brian Switek is, and why his opinion matters, he's an experienced paleontologist whose written some great books (such as Written in Stone) and he does a lot of science blogging. He knows his stuff about museums, and can provide a different perspective.
His main points are that Museums and film are fundamentally different, and that a museum can't simply turn on a dime and change their exhibits to fit the latest science story *. By museum standards, everything brought up to critique the new Jurassic park movie is too "new" to include in exhibits. They are meant to last for many years, so it takes time , deliberation and expense to make any significant changes, which can be in short supply for museums.
I can see where he's coming from. He's a working paleontologist who himself probably spots issues like this in most museums he comes across. Attention to detail comes with the territory of Science. His main point is that the strength of museums is in bringing people face to face with significant objects that can inspire them further down the rabbit hole of science, and we shouldn't nitpick them in the same way that we would nitpick movies.
But my main issue comes from the perspective of someone who only really views museums from the outside, who trusts them to educate and provide context for the items they show. If we are shown misrepresentations of Dinosaurs in the films, I feel that we should be able to trust museums to set us straight. That we should be able to hold museums to at least the same standards that we hold our movies. It may be really excruciatingly difficult, but I believe it would be worth it in the end.
If you are regular visitor to the Natural History Museum, Donate money Now. Support it. Museums are what we make of them.
*Unless you're the Science Museum, who have tonnes of industrial sponsorship.