How to build a plesiosaur, in 836 easy steps

By Rachel Parle, Public Engagement Manager

Fitting together the remains of long-dead sea creatures is no easy job. A brand new permanent display, Out of the Deep, has brought together two Jurassic marine reptiles in the largest new display in the Museum for decades. But getting them out on show was a long, delicate process that took hundreds of careful steps.

The specimens are rare and remarkably complete, and on full display for the first time. The short-necked plesiosaur, known as a pliosaur, was discovered by a former Museum curator in the 1990s in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, just a few miles from the Museum.

The larger long-necked plesiosaur was found in a quarry in Cambridgeshire in 2014 by the Oxford Clay Working Group, and donated to the Museum’s collections by the quarry’s owner Forterra. You might remember this fossil from our excited article when the specimen first arrived at the Museum, back in 2016.

Model of the long-necked plesiosaur, made by Crawley Creatures

Before the fossils could take centre stage, their set had to be built, in the shape of two enormous display cases, designed and constructed to house these special specimens. Every day, for two weeks, the team from showcase specialists Click Netherfield pieced together slabs of glass, built walls, installed lights and fitted portholes. Yes, portholes!

A young visitor peers at the plesiosaur through a porthole

The display is positioned in the south aisle of the Museum – if you know the building, this is on the right as you come in, alongside large dinosaur skeletons. We’d measured and planned the space again and again, with our designers Calum Storrie and Pat O’Leary, but couldn’t quite picture this huge display sitting alongside the other cases. Each specimen is almost five metres in length, so the cases really are whoppers. Once the pieces started to come together, we could see that this was going to a really dramatic addition to the Museum. We chose a clean, contemporary look, with lots of glass and powder-coated steel. The colour of the metal case was carefully chosen to stand out (no oak-effect), but sit well in amongst the warm tones of the stone and brick work – RAL 7032 if you’re interested!

Here’s a time-lapse video to show you how the cases were built, piece by piece over two weeks.

Once the enormous cases were in place, we could start installing the stars of the show – the two plesiosaur skeletons. Museum staff had worked closely with Richard Rogers Conservation to build an intricate web of steel that would hold each fragment of the skeleton in place, showing it off to its full potential. This mount was screwed into place on the acrylic base board then the individual bones were gently slotted into place.

Richard Rogers slots a vertebra into place on the carefully-crafted mount

Richard Rogers and James Dawson position plesiosaur ribs

Here’s a glimpse of the installation process in a handy time-lapse film:

After countless of hours of excavation, preparation, planning, measuring (measuring again) and installing, Out of the Deep is ready! It’s open now in the Museum and the specimens are accompanied by specially commissioned digital reconstructions (more about that soon), videos that share the stories behind the specimens’ discovery and even a touchable 3D print of a plesiosaur flipper. Come along and meet the Jurassic beasts that deserved all this care and attention.

The finished Out of the Deep display is open now

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The project has been generously supported by grants from the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, and WREN’s FCC Community Action Fund.

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