The Isle of Wight has long been regarded as a world famous fossil locality. It is now called Dinosaur Island, with no less than 29 different species having been found along the southern coast. Indeed, it has recently been ranked in the top seven dinosaur localities worldwide. On the Island, the Lower Cretaceous Wealden rocks crop out at Brighstone, Brook and Sandown Bays. Many of the first dinosaur discoveries were made here by the pioneer collectors, including William Buckland and Gideon Mantell. It is only right, therefore, that the Island now boasts a £3 million lottery funded museum and visitor centre situated at Sandown. This attraction is called Dinosaur Isle and it represents the official scientific repository for local finds.
However, there is another, quite different museum dedicated to the Island’s geological heritage and this one is situated right in the heart of dinosaur country on the south-west coast near Brighstone, an area known locally as the ‘Back of the Wight’. In 1993, Dinosaur Farm opened to the public with an exhibition built around a recently discovered brachiosaurid skeleton. The original idea was to use the farm buildings as workshops to clean and prepare the bones in front of the visitors, a project which took many months of painstaking work. The find represented approximately 40% of an animal that was something in the region of sixty feet in length. It is now known as the “Barnes High Sauropod”. In 2001, the BBC used the site as a base for their series of programmes entitled Live from Dinosaur Island in which Bill Oddie, Adam Hart-Davis, and Simon King lead a group of intrepid explorers in search of no less than five species of dinosaurs in five days. Needless to say, not many dinosaur bones were actually discovered but the resulting publicity put both the Island and the Farm on the map.
Many thousands of visitors have come to the farm since those early days, but it had recently reached the point of needing updating with fresh ideas and a new look. After meeting the farmers at the end of last season, I was given the opportunity to take over the running of the museum in the spring of 2007. I built on the foundations of the previous exhibition to create a bigger and better fossil centre for all ages. One of the best features of the farm was its friendly atmosphere with an opportunity for the public to meet and talk first hand with the collectors and preparators on site.
I have been around long enough to realise that my own passion and enthusiasm for palaeontology can be infectious and I hope to educate and entertain tourists and geologists alike. I have always had an ambition to run my own fossil museum and I now have an opportunity to clean and display some of the 46,000 specimens that I have personally collected over the last thirty years. After a great start this summer, the public have responded well to my guided tours, fossil hunting trips, children’s activities and special event days. Correspondingly, visitor numbers have increased by 50%.
My plans for the future are to fill the barns with a huge variety of local specimens to demonstrate the sheer variety of the Island’s fossil heritage. More importantly, I aim to intersperse the exhibits with more activities for children. Old favourites, such as gold panning, shark’s teeth sieving and dinosaur rubbing have already gone down well with the younger visitors. As for the future, there is no reason why Dinosaur Farm Museum could not grow and evolve to become one of the Island’s more popular attractions aimed at the family market. The Island itself is well placed to take advantage of the increased interest in all things prehistoric. With the possibility of becoming a World Heritage Site, there is no reason why the Isle of Wight could not be a geo-tourist site to rival Lyme Regis in Dorset – after all it is Dinosaur Island.