Sea Rex museum to shut for a month as crowds flock to Purbeck

A Purbeck fossil museum has set a staggering new record for visitors since the BBC screened a documentary about its new star attraction – but is now about to close for a month.

The David Attenborough effect has seen interest in The Etches Collection at Kimmeridge skyrocket with more than 12,000 visitors walking through the doors since the giant skull of a new species of pliosaur – nicknamed Sea Rex – was unveiled there on Tuesday 2nd January 2024.

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The pliosaur skull is at the centre of the main gallery

The pliosaur skull from Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster is the new star attraction at the museum

Lifeline for The Etches Collection

The village of Kimmeridge, just along the coast from Swanage, has been heaving with cars every day since and a 2,400 percent increase on visitor numbers over January 2023 has thrown the small museum a financial lifeline.

But while the Etches Collection will remain open over February’s half term holidays, it will then close its gallery between Monday 19th February and Monday 25th March 2024 for a major refit made possible by a £220,000 government grant.

The award from the Department of Culture will be spent on climate controlled cabinets to keep the nationally important displays of Jurassic fossils in top condition and to allow more unseen treasures to be displayed.

But it has also left museum staff urgently trying to spread the word to stop hundreds of people arriving in Kimmeridge only to find that they are unable to see the fossil exhibits.

The two-metre skull of the giant sea monster is now on display at Etches

A £220,000 Government grant will help to make the gallery bigger and better – but also means a four week closure

A chance to display new fossils

Carla Crook, operations manager for The Etches Collection, said:

“We are going to replace one side of our gallery, which will mean more space and better access to the cabinets, and give us the chance to bring out some more fossils from the reserve collection that people won’t have seen before.

“It will also mean that we can rotate some of the displays – when you buy a ticket for the museum it is valid for an entire year, so our visitors will be able to come back and see new things all the time which will be wonderful.

“In the meantime we are trying to let everyone know about our temporary closure, through email and on the website and social media channels, though there’s always a concern that you will miss a certain demographic of people.

“However, during the shut down period we will still have the museum shop open and we are hoping to do some tours of Kimmeridge Bay with either Steve himself or some of our staff to talk about the geology and paleontology of the bay.

“We will also be launching some history walks of Kimmeridge to take in the village and the surrounding area, so that over the course of the four weeks we will still be able to take some visitors out into the field.”

David Attenborough filmed around Kimmeridge as the sea monster was excavated from a nearby cliff in August 2022
BBC

David Attenborough filmed at Kimmeridge as the sea monster was dug out from a nearby cliff in August 2022

TV show about to get its USA premiere

The BBC documentary starring David Attenborough and Kimmeridge fossil expert Steve Etches followed the discovery of a pliosaur snout on the beach near Kimmeridge by Purbeck artist Philip Jacobs and the subsequent operation to dig the rest of its skull out of the cliffs.

Because the remains of the apex predator from the Jurassic ocean was resting halfway up a 25 metre cliff, it required a precarious dig by abseilers to free the skull, and meant that they had to leave the rest of the 12 metre skeleton behind – for the time being.

The show was the highlight of BBC One’s New Year’s Day schedule and created such interest in the find that thousands of people from all over Britain have since flocked to Kimmeridge to see the monster skull for themselves.

Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster is going to be broadcast for the first time in the US on Wednesday 14th February 2024, which is expected to reignite global interest in the museum, especially online.

Clavells Restaurant at Kimmeridge is planning an extension for its extra visitors

Clavells Restaurant at Kimmeridge is planning an extension for its extra visitors

Annual visitor target may be met by Easter

The Etches Collection has always aimed to get 20,000 people a year through the doors to secure its future, but has been failing to hit that mark for several years.

In 2023, around 17,500 visitors looked around the museum – but with the 2024 total standing at 11,710 as of Thursday 1st February and an average 400 visitors a day coming through the doors, the annual target is likely to have been met by Easter.

That is already having a knock-on effect for the village, where Clavells restaurant has seen so much extra trade that it has submitted a planning application to extend the building and increase seating by 24 spaces to 72, with up to 12 more seats outside.

The car park at The Etches Collection has been full every day since the new exhibit was unveiled

The car park at The Etches Collection has been full every day since the new exhibit was unveiled

“A lot of museums are in trouble”

Carla Crook said:

“In January 2023 we had a total of 488 people, but throughout January 2024, we have been exceeding that figure almost on a daily basis.

“That just shows how amazing it has been and what a lifeline it has been for us as a small charitable museum – we rely on visitors coming through the door as we don’t receive any operational grant funding.

“A lot of museums are in trouble at the moment with a drop in numbers and income because of firstly Covid and then the downturn in the economy.

“It was especially difficult for us because generally visitors have to drive a long way to see us and a lot of people have been choosing not to do that because of the cost of fuel.”

David Attenborough and Steve Etches examine the pliosaur skull at The Etches Collection
BBC

David Attenborough and Steve Etches examine the pliosaur snout at Kimmeridge

“The Attenborough effect has been amazing”

Carla added:

“It is wonderful for us to have had this boost in visitor numbers, the Attenborough effect has been amazing for us. We will be able to put the money we make from admission fees back into the museum, to build our reserves and hopefully fund more discoveries.

“The other great side effect is not just for us but for the whole of Purbeck and tourism throughout Dorset because it has really boosted the economy for the area, especially for Clavells, the little restaurant opposite us in Kimmeridge.

“We are aware of lots of people wanting to travel down here to see the pliosaur skull, so that means they will be wanting to stay locally, and it will be really interesting to see what our Sea Rex can do for tourism across the whole of Purbeck this year.”

A payment terminal has been set up to raise enough money to excavate the rest of the pliosaur

Plans to dig out the rest of the fossil

Interest in the sea monster has been so huge that a donation point has been set up in the main gallery to take card payments for a new project specifically to dig out the rest of the pliosaur fossil from the cliff face near Kimmeridge.

Museum curator Steve Etches said:

“We would love to be able to excavate the remains and display the complete pliosaur in all its glory. The task won’t be easy due to the location, terrain and the heavy equipment needed to extract the body in its entirety.

“The collection of fossils in this museum is probably the most comprehensive of Kimmeridge clay fossils displayed anywhere in Britain, mostly collected by myself over the past 40 years.

“This museum was opened in 2016 and in fairness it’s probably not the right place for a museum as the middle of Kimmeridge is a very difficult place to find.

“But it is in exactly the right area for the geology and paleontology and it’s important that this is conserved in this particular place for this very reason.”

Declare your love of the Sea Rex with a T-shirt, on sale in the museum's gift shop

Declare your love of the Sea Rex with a T-shirt, on sale in the museum’s gift shop

Further information

Watch video of the local man who found Sea Rex

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