National Museum Cardiff: A Review

Article by: Lauren Malin and J. D. Dixon
Edited by:
Harry T. Jones

Dippy standing tall in the museum’s foyer. Image by Lauren Malin.

This incredible museum is in the heart of Cardiff City centre, South Wales. The museum itself hosts a large range of exhibits, ranging from geology to the arts. Upon arriving, the foyer was packed with visitors due to the arrival of Dippy the Diplodocus, who spans overhead as visitors enter the galleries. There’s a large staircase leading to a walkway above the foyer, with areas dedicated to Welsh Ceramics and Historic Art. However, since this is a palaeontological and geological blog, we’ll jump right into our field.

A New Welsh Dinosaur
Within the foyer, there is a new exhibit focused on a Welsh dinosaur. This is the first theropod dinosaur skeleton found from the Jurassic of Wales; it’s been cleverly named Dracoraptor hanigani, which means “Hanigan’s Dragon Thief”. The dinosaur was first discovered in 2014, by fossil-hunting brothers Nick and Rob Hanigan. This exhibit showcases actual specimens and artworks of the creature in life.

Dracoraptor hanigani skeletal reconstruction and some displayed fossils in the exhibit. Image by Lauren Malin.

The Evolution of Wales
The geological and palaeontological zone of the museum begins with the Evolution of Wales, with each time period clearly indicated by time markers. These have a time scale, a description of key events, past climates, and a map of Earth’s changing continents with Wales highlighted, showing its journey through time.

A time marker for the Early Cambrian. These were scattered throughout the Evolution of Wales. Image by Lauren Malin.

Cleverly, throughout the Evolution of Wales displays, the lighting changes to highlight different areas for the visitor who wishes to comprehensively progress through time. The exhibit is extremely fascinating as the journey through time covers a range of subject areas, such as geology, biology, tectonic processes and climatology. Due to the walkway being so diverse, it allows different interests to intertwine. It’s informative and inclusive for everyone. This exhibit explains scientific processes very well, with good samples to demonstrate. Another bonus is that the visitors can’t skip through periods of time, and so can see the story as it is meant to be told.

One of the trilobite specimens. Image by Lauren Malin.

The journey begins with the early Earth and some of the oldest rocks, then links to how the first organisms may have evolved, with examples of stromatolites and the Ediacaran biota. This area is full of glass cases, all brimming with fossils and descriptions of what they are and how they may have used certain aspects of their anatomy in life. The Cambrian begins with exhibiting some of the museum’s finest trace fossils, trilobites and other invertebrates. The subsequent Ordovician houses a huge volcano exhibit focussing on mineralisation and making metals, with a large cinema room showing volcanos in action.

The volcano room near the Ordovician section. This room contains igneous rocks and informative videos. Image by Lauren Malin.

The Silurian reveals a history of underwater avalanches, a crisis for life, and a new ice age, long before the famous Pleistocene freezing. This area is completed by a reconstructed aquatic environment, depicting how the Silurian seas may have looked. The Late Silurian is separated into its own key area, with the development of the placoderms and other fish as well as eurypterids and land plants. Strangely, the Devonian seems to be missing its own distinct area, and instead is bundled with the Late Silurian.

The Silurian sea reconstruction. Image by J. D. Dixon.

The Early Carboniferous covers the development of plants, corals and Crinoidea, along with a continuation of volcanism in Britain. There is a large and impressive reconstruction of the Carboniferous rainforest ecosystem with a vast array of organisms such as the enormous Griffinfly. The Late Carboniferous is separated out, and information about coal balls and seed-bearing plants can be found here. For the more Wales-focused visitor, the story of coal mining in the country and a map showing where certain coal and limestone deposits formed and were mined can be seen.

The Mid Permian commences the start of the VR experience which can be hired in the shop, but this area primarily focuses on Dimetrodon, Mesosaurus, and the End-Permian Mass Extinction. The first signs of the outlines of modern Wales also appear during this period. The Late Triassic covers the development of plants and information on early terrestrial mammals.

A plethora of Mesozoic animals, including Neovenator, Plateosaurus, and Rutiodon. Image by Lauren Malin.

The section featuring dinosaurs seems to be organised by the animals themselves rather than divided into the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which is unlike the rest of the Evolution of Wales journey. This particular area features fossils and casts from all of the Mesozoic periods together, such as a Triceratops horn; Polocanthus back bones and bony plates; and remarkable skeletal casts and fleshy models of Hypsilophodon, Coelophysis, Plateosaurus, Neovenator, Rutiodon, Archaeopteryx, and Dracoraptor. A monstrous Tyrannosaurus rex skull hangs from the wall, as if the creature itself has ripped into the building.

Polocanthus bony plates and back bones. Image by Lauren Malin.
A life-size (2.2 m) sculpture of Dracoraptor hanigani made by Bob Nicholls. Image by J. D. Dixon.

The Early Jurassic appears after the Cretaceous dinosaurs, and mainly explores the marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, with numerous encased fossils. Some beautiful plesiosaurs swim high, as well as a fierce mosasaur. This area not only addresses these impressive vertebrates, but explores the gastropods, bivalves, ammonites, and other invertebrates.

The Marine Reptiles swimming high above the Jurassic fossils. Image by Lauren Malin.
A Jurassic Icthyosaur skull. Image by Lauren Malin.

Because of the earlier appearance of the Cretaceous dinosaurs in the museum, the Late Cretaceous area just features one video on the mass extinction, so this is seemingly limited even though the animals of the time have already been covered.

The Mammals Take Over section begins straight after the K-Pg extinction, and talks about the diversification of mammals following the extinction event. Numerous skeletons and fossils are here, including a Hyaenodon cruentus skull, and Palaeochiropteryx tupaiodon, an extinct Eocene bat.

This is followed by a massive time jump to two million years ago, so a vast expanse of time is missing, however this is probably due to a lack of space and doesn’t take away from the overall tour. Visitors can journey into a vast artificial cave system and find a massive woolly mammoth and its infant. Continuing will reveal the laughing hyena, and after leaving the cave visitors can see some hiding wolves and a ferocious feline lurking on the rocks above.

The two mammoths in the cave. Image by Lauren Malin.

The Late Quaternary (Pleistocene) section begins with an imposing Megaloceros giganteus skeletal cast. The history of 18, 000 years ago focuses largely on climate and the animals that survived during this time. A massive woolly mammoth skeletal cast and woolly rhino model mark the exit of the area, and a timeline exploring the years of human breakthroughs after the ice age links to the final chapter of the exhibit.

Megaloceros giganteus skeletal cast and a bison life sculpture. Image by Lauren Malin.

The final room covers early humans and how they would’ve lived, ending back in the present day. After this tour through time, visitors are given questions to think about. What will the climate be like in the distant future? Will the landscape and environment continue to change? The time tunnel then finishes with the reality of humans, and how we overexploit natural resources: a great way to highlight how we are causing massive problems for the animals alive today.

The Natural World
The next section of the museum is broken up into separate rooms that are great to explore. Throughout the Natural World, there are large displays filled to the brim with taxidermy organisms such as fish, crustaceans, bats, cats, deer, birds, plants and insects. To top it off, they have a giant worm model sat right at the entrance of the room. The adjacent area is the mineral room, which is filled with a variety of minerals and rocks, and has information explaining how they formed. These rooms are linked with a sundial-like structure that has various drawn pictures indicating the layout of features within the room.

The natural woodland environment model and overhead walkway. Image by Lauren Malin.

Continuing through into the natural history galleries, there stands a huge model of a tree that is surrounded by birds, badgers, squirrels and foxes. Towards the edge of the room, there’s a contrast to the wooded land with a coastal model depicted. Above this, an immense basking shark hangs with its mouth wide open, which can be seen at a better angle from the overhead walkway. This walkway talks about conservation and the natural woodland ecosystems, whilst also discussing basking shark fishery.

The basking shark hanging above the coastal scene. Image by Lauren Malin.

As visitors wander up the stairs there is a big hanging jellyfish, as well as a sword fish, sirenian skeletal cast, and some impressive shark teeth. As visitors walk through the room, they follow the story of a Molluscan Feast in Wales, including a strange artefact – a worker’s helmet covered in molluscs. Towards the end of this story, visitors come out at the beautiful humpback whale skeletal model, surrounded by its tale and what became of the whale. Within this section the walls are covered with pictures and a voiceover tells the history of these animals.

The humpback whale skeletal cast. Image by Lauren Malin.

However, not to be missed is the small room opposite the whale, which features a massive skeletal cast and a life size model of a turtle. This tiny room has information on their lives and what conservation efforts are being carried out to save them from modern day threats.

The turtle skeletal cast. Image by Lauren Malin.

The Fossil Swamp
The next room is a child-focused exhibition, The Fossil Swamp. This area explores the Carboniferous, with models of Arthropleura and many fossil specimens such as Meganeura. Even though the exhibition is for children, there is a key focus on climate and the future, such as why burning fossil fuels is detrimental to the future.

The room has a large board with a quote by Sir David Attenborough, stating the importance of future generations in changing the world. This is extremely inclusive as there is an interactive wall that allows anyone to contribute how they will help the future by writing what they will do to save the environment. This wall consists of methods to save the future environment, with ideas such as recycling, walking to school, and not eating meat. This gives us faith in the younger generation. This is an extraordinarily smart way to educate children on the past long before dinosaurs, how we’ve used the fossil swamp as fuel, and what that means for our present and future.

An Arthropleura model. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Insight
This section can be found back down the stairs and in the back room. The Insight displays feature all aspects of the natural world including the locust war, many stuffed parrots, Welsh snails, as well as numerous insects. This area is heavily influenced by biology, with skeletons, taxidermy and diagrams across the walls. The room has a small selection of interesting books that children can read and learn from. At the back of this room is the Clore Learning Space for special events and groups.

Overall Review
In conclusion, the National Museum Cardiff is an exciting and enjoyable experience for everyone. The specimens throughout the museum are beautiful and allow visitors to engage with the topics put forward in a pleasant way. There is a great range of display types, encompassing videos, text, and posters, which cater for a vast array of visitors. The child-centric areas such as The Fossil Swamp enable young people to engage with the content as much as their older counterparts. The Evolution of Wales chronology is a great way to introduce the world of palaeontology and geology in a logical and progressive order. Minor improvements could be made to the arrangement of some areas in this exhibit, but overall the journey through time is thorough and entertaining. All in all, this museum provides a fun, interesting and inspiring day out for everyone.

Image References
[1] Dippy standing tall in the museum’s foyer. Image by Lauren Malin.
[2] Dracoraptor hanigani skeletal reconstruction and some displayed fossils in the exhibit. Image by Lauren Malin.
[3] A time marker for the Early Cambrian. These were scattered throughout the Evolution of Wales. Image by Lauren Malin.
[4] One of the trilobite specimens. Image by Lauren Malin.
[5] The volcano room near the Ordovician section. This room contains igneous rocks and informative videos. Image by Lauren Malin.
[6] The Silurian sea reconstruction. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[7] A plethora of Mesozoic animals, including Neovenator, Plateosaurus, and Rutiodon. Image by Lauren Malin.
[8] Polocanthus bony plates and back bones. Image by Lauren Malin.
[9] A life-size (2.2 m) sculpture of Dracoraptor hanigani made by Bob Nicholls. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[10] The Marine Reptiles swimming high above the Jurassic fossils. Image by Lauren Malin.
[11] A Jurassic Icthyosaur skull. Image by Lauren Malin.
[12] The two mammoths in the cave. Image by Lauren Malin.
[13] Megaloceros giganteus skeletal cast and a bison life sculpture. Image by Lauren Malin.
[14] The natural woodland environment model and overhead walkway. Image by Lauren Malin.
[15] The basking shark hanging above the coastal scene. Image by Lauren Malin.
[16] The humpback whale skeletal cast. Image by Lauren Malin.
[17] The turtle skeletal cast. Image by Lauren Malin.
[18] An Arthropleura model. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] BBC News. (2015). ‘Wales’ ‘first meat-eating’ Jurassic dinosaur on show’. Accessed 11th December 2019. Click Here.