New Gallery: Dinosaur Gallery, New Walk Museum, Leicester
In the company of 165 million-year-old local legend the Rutland Dinosaur, meteorite pieces from the birth of the solar system and a new type of plesiosaur (a sea-going beauty from the Jurassic Period), there was another history favourite in the building for the opening of New Walk’s latest gallery.
“I owe a great deal to Leicester Museum,” said Sir David Attenborough, having surveyed a four-foot long skull of the predatory Liopleurodon, a star of the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs series which is also the largest single object among this reptilian reordering.
“It was there, as a boy, that I first found out the names and the nature of the fossils that I found in the Leicestershire countryside. I even had the privilege of helping there as a volunteer when I was a little older.”
Attenborough called the gallery a “splendid addition” to the museum, singling out its showcase of famous finds from Charnwood Forest, an upland tract in the north-west of the county which has yielded trenches full of fossils.
According to Dr Mark Purnell, the University of Leicester Palaeontologist, these “bizarre” fossils were either early relatives of existing animals or “evolution’s first experiment at building complex bodies” in an experiment which left no survivors.
In any case, the intrigue they inspire in Attenborough remains so strong that the broadcaster made a programme named after them for the BBC earlier this year, recalling his frequent fledgling forays into the forest.
The groups of schoolchildren who attended the launch will hope to follow in his footsteps. “It was great seeing the expressions on the faces of the youngsters,” said councillor Vi Dempster, the Assistant Mayor.
“They were mesmerised by all the different fossils and prehistoric creatures. I'm really glad the gallery is open once more and will continue to educate our young people about all things Jurassic."
The £145,000 investment from the government-run Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund could hardly have helped a more exciting example of history brought to life.
A all-time record count of more than 3,000 people headed to the museum for the opening weekend, almost doubling the numbers witnessed during a typical half-term.
"It wasn't surprising really, given the national and international significance of the exhibits in the dinosaur gallery," says the council's Piara Singh Clair.
"These visitor figures are really impressive - we saw people visiting from up and down the country."
Eight podcasts, made by the gallery and local film-makers to allow those involved with the discoveries to recount their incredible stories, include former curator John Martin’s memories of a trip to the Blue Peter studios with the Rutland cetiosaurus.
Found in a quarry in 1968, it remains one of the most complete dinosaurs found in Britain, and forms a fitting centrepiece for a new space worthy of its towering inhabitants.
Head to The Dinosaur Gallery: Exploring Lost Worlds for all of the podcasts.
Images courtesy Leicester City Council.