Royal Terrell Museum

I have always had an interest in paleontology.  Even as a child I was very interested in dinosaurs, so my parents decided to take my younger sister and me to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.  I have so many fond memories of that trip, and how the museum captured my imagination as a child, that I always wanted to return.  After taking an Earth Sciences course on the subject last semester and being assigned this project, I finally had an excuse to make the three-hour trip back there.

Royal Terrell Museum

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is located just a few kilometers north-west of Drumheller, Alberta, in the heart of the Canadian Badlands.  Housing one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur fossils, Royal Tyrrell is a world-renowned scientific and publicly accessible museum that seeks to educate through the concept of bringing the past to life.  From the moment one enters the musem, they are surrounded by fossils of creatures that roamed the Earth millions of years ago, transporting them back into a world they could only dream of.

History of the Museum:

Joseph Burr Tyrrell (1858-1957), the museum’s namesake, was a geologist who worked for the National Geological Survey of Canada.  Along with his team, he discovered significant coal deposits in what is now the Red Deer River Valley, and in August 1884 he made his famous discovery.   The huge skull of a 70-million-year-old dinosaur was found and sent first to Calgary, and then later to the Ottawa Museum of Natural Sciences, to be studied.  Many years later it would show up at the American Museum of Natural History and be named Albertosaurus sarcophagus,  meaning“flesh eating lizard from Alberta”, coincidentally in the same year that Alberta became a province.  This find was significant because it triggered interest in the area and established southern Alberta as one of the richest fossil regions in the world.

Joseph Burr Terrell

The museum was a project that was undertaken in the 1980’s as a way to revive Drumheller’s economy after the coal industry collapsed.  A new research facility was to be built that would also be accompanied by a gallery and display area.  Open since September 1985, the Royal Tyrrell Museum continues to attract tourists from all over the world almost thirty years later.

Museum Layout:

The Royal Tyrrell is quite large, although well organized in thematic format. The first displays are right behind the admissions counter .  Immediately upon entering, you leave life as you know it and are thrust into Alberta during the Cretaceous period 69 million years ago.  A towering Albertosaurus stands before you, accompanied by representations of flora and fauna that lived during the time period.  After rounding the corner, you enter an interactive area where interesting facts are displayed such as information about the different geological time periods and dinosaur life cycles, as well as fun games to assist children with learning about paleontology. 

Albertosaurus Display

Interactive learning stations

Dinosaur Hall 

View from the second floor

This exhibit is the largest part of the museum and holds most of the dinosaur specimens, including the Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Euoplocephalus.  I was pleasantly surprised when I rounded the corner and found a little enclave containing some fossils of marine vertebrates that lived alongside the dinosaurs.  Trinacromerum osbornii was displayed, which is a species of the Plesiosaur order, my favorite extinct creature.  The museum interacted with the visitor in an interesting way.  The displays in this section were nothing too elaborate and the way they engaged patrons was through the sheer size and presence of the fossil specimens. 


Some of the exhibits included braille on the placards which described the display, and this was the first time I had ever seen that in museum before.  Although not every display included this feature, it was nice to see the museum making an effort to make the displays interactive for everyone. 

Terrestrial Paleozoic/Cambrian Explosion:

 Although the Paleozoic was not home to species as great as dinosaurs, some interesting developments occurred during this time period, and the museum did a wonderful job recreating them.  During this period, plants and animals began to make their way from the oceans onto land.  The advent of terrestrial arthropods also occurred during the middle of this era.  The museum did a great job of combining all of that history into one display which spanned the length of the room.  Around the corner was a display dedicated to the Dimetrodon, a “mammal-like reptile” commonly mistaken for a dinosaur, which lived during the Permian Period.  On the second floor of the museum a whole room was devoted to a Burgess Shale exhibit.  The specimens were about 12x their original size to show the intricacy and wonder of these ancient creatures.  The floor was of glass and underneath were more specimens.  This created the feeling of being in a underwater environment not unlike the one the specimens would have existed in while still alive. 

Evolution of Plants display

Burgess Shale Exhibit


To finish off the tour, the last exhibit was of the Age of Mammals.  Complete with a sabre tooth tiger, woolly mammoth, and other lesser known species, the mammal exhibit showcased the breadth and diversity of the Cenozoic period.  It was a great finish to a very well-done museum, which is truly deserving of its status as a world-renowned facility.

Sabre Tooth Tiger

A unique feature of the  Royal Tyrrell Museum which adds to the experience is their public and school programs.  Children are able to register in a variety of programs designed to allow them to experience the past firsthand.  Instead of just viewing a fossil, they can go on an actual dig to complete the experience.   Some interesting programs include DinoSite, where one can examine real dinosaur remains, The Dig Experience that allows patrons to go on an actual dig, and Fossil Casting which allows visitors to cast a fossil.  For children, these programs add a hands-on element that complements the visual aspect of their museum visit.

The Dig Experience

Fossil Casting
Overall, the Royal Tyrrell is a fantastic museum that was fun and interesting when I went as a child; however, as an adult I was left wanting more.  After learning a good portion of the basics of paleontology in university, I was looking to expand my knowledge on the subject.  The displays are well-done, and the museum does a great job of relating the information in an accessible manner to those who are not knowledgeable in the field or are new to the subject.  As for or myself, I would have preferred some knowledge beyond what was given.  This is not necessarily a criticism of the museum, but rather attests to the audience that Royal Tyrrell is designed for.  It is a family-based museum that does a magnificent job of entertaining children and adults with wonderful displays of their favorite dinosaurs, and teaching them about lesser-known specimens along the way.  By including hands-on displays, life-sized fossil recreations of extinct species, and many detailed placards to aid in educating, Royal Tyrrell educates by bringing the past to life.

As I went through the museum, I overheard two interesting things from other people that caused me to think about the museum’s overall effectiveness and about the differing ways we all experience history.  Firstly, within the main section containing the huge reconstructions of the dinosaurs, a separate enclave exists which showcases some other interesting fossils of marine vertebrates.  For me it was easy to tell that they were not dinosaurs because of my outside knowledge, but to some of the other people in the area, judging by the conversations they were having, they thought these specimens were dinosaurs—even though every display in the museum is clearly marked with a name and description of what the specimen represents. 

Secondly, I was observing a display that showcased the evolution of land plants which ultimately lead to forests and the like.  To me, it was very interesting because the display was well done and very informative.  But to younger children, it seemed as if the whole display was lost on them.  One girl, maybe ten years old, was more interested in the dragonfly that was sitting atop one of the plants than the real message behind the display.  This made me think about how we interpret history and what it means to us at different stages in our lives.  As a child, when I visited Royal Tyrrell the first time, I would have done the same thing and overlooked the bigger picture.  I would have focused on what made sense to me at that age.  When it comes to how effective the museum is at achieving its goal--to educate and bring the past to life--it is necessary to examine situations like this.  Since the museum is very family-oriented and the target audience is younger children, I cannot help but wonder if the museum is ineffective, or simply whether different people of different ages and educational backgrounds will choose to take away whatever is meaningful to them from each display, regardless of the main message.

After all is said and done, I did enjoy my trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, although for different reasons than when I was a child.  The museum did fall short of my academic expectations, but nevertheless was still a fun and exciting foray into a world that existed millions of years ago. The dinosaur displays were awesome and really allowed me to picture the magnitude of what these creatures were like when they roamed the Earth.


Timestamped pictures from my collection.

Royal Tyrrell Information & all other pictures:


  1. This museum is so great! Dinosaurs are the most mysterious creature that lived in Earth long time ago. To find out more about their lives is good for us to study them and dig out the real reason they disappear from the surface of Earth. Personally speaking, I really would like to go to the museum. It is fun to closely observe the fossil. If the dinosaurs did not disappear from the Earth, would there be the human civilization?! or would another specise dominate the Earth.

  2. I've always wondered that myself and I really have no clue what would happen if dinosaurs never went extinct. I would highly recommend this museum if you interested in learning more. It is the type of museum that you have to experience in person to get the full effect of the dinosaur recreations. The only downside is that Drumheller is about 3 hours away from Edmonton.

  3. Your post was very entertaining to read. I can remember going to the museum as a small child, and was absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs upon returning home. The pictures you posted were incredible, and I enjoyed the picture of the dimetridon fossils the most as they seemed so unique.

    I found it interesting how you investigated who the museum caters to, and what impact it had on your experience (as a child, as compared to currently). The general theme I get from other's posts in addition to yours is that museums only really present an small snapshot of a more thorough history that exists. For those seeking greater knowledge really have to go beyond what is offered to the general public.

  4. Loved reading your post, it brought back so many memories. I was curious if you felt much of a connection to the history in a way it does relate to Alberta but it is also so distant so I'm not sure if there would really be that same sort of tangible link to it.