If you have a child who is really into dinosaurs or fossils, you might want to consider a trip to the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford. There, you can get up close and personal with “Jane,” the best-preserved and most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.
From Geneva, it’s just a 90-minute drive up Interstate 90. If you’re in the Elgin area, it will be closer to an hour. Admission is not bad, and unlike visiting a museum in downtown Chicago, parking is plentiful and free! Read on to learn more about this little museum with a big find!
Name: Burpee Museum of Natural History, which was established in the 1940s.
Location: 737 N. Main Street in downtown Rockford, in Riverfront Museum Park on the west banks of the Rock River. Also located in the park is the Discovery Center Museum, which is a children’s museum, as well as the Rockford Art Museum and Rockford Dance Company. The museum’s phone number is 815-965-3433.
Admission: Adults are $10, children ages 7 through 17 are $9 and children 6 and under are free.
Hours: The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Amenities: The museum has four floors of accessible visits. There is a drop-off at the main entrance, and free parking is located nearby. The museum has a gift shop, but it does not have an eatery. I don’t believe there are many restaurants within walking distance. If you’re looking for a casual spot to eat while you’re in Rockford, and don’t mind getting back in your car, I can recommend Beefaroo — it serves roast beef sandwiches like Arby’s, but that’s where all similarities end!
Good for: Preschool-aged children on up, especially kids who love dinosaurs or want to learn more about fossils.
Our Experience: We have family located west of Rockford, so over the long Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I decided to explore the Burpee Museum with our 4-year-old daughter. I had actually visited the museum years ago when I was a reporter to write about the unveiling of the exhibit “Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur.” Museum personnel had discovered Jane in the summer of 2001 in the Badlands of southeastern Montana.
The fossil is now a fully restored 21-foot skeleton that is certainly the museum’s crown jewel. Again, because this is a small museum you and your kids can spend a lot of time looking at Jane and get very close to the fossil, unlike say, during a visit to a crowded Field Museum. There’s a neat touchscreen video that shows how Jane might have died and how her skeleton was preserved for 66 million years, and you can check out what the expedition’s Montana base camp looked like.
But the Burpee offers lots more besides Jane. Museum researchers recently discovered a juvenile Triceratops called “Homer.” On the basement level, visitors can see his skull and through windows, watch Burpee staff members do prep work on his bones and other specimens in the biology and paleontology laboratories.
The 2nd floor is devoted to geoscience, and there are all sorts of cool rocks, gems and minerals (including some that glow in the dark), along with info on plate tectonics and land formations. The 3rd floor houses the Native American-focused “First People,” exhibit, in which there are full-size reproductions of a wigwam and tipi, along with a dugout canoe kids can climb inside. It also has a “Windows to the Wilderness” exhibit about the types of environments and animals you encounter in northern Illinois.
With all the exhibits we checked out, I was impressed by how educational they were. And there were layers of education available: A young school-age child could learn something, but a high schooler or interested adult could dive in even deeper. Many of the exhibits had an interactive component, too.
I left Burpee in November thinking it would be a great outing for homeschool groups, dino-loving families, or just about anyone who is interested in natural history and up for a short road trip. Finally, if your kids really love dinosaurs, check out the schedule for the museum’s 15th annual PaleoFest, being held this year on March 2 and 3. It features a children’s workshop and children’s lectures conducted by Scott Sampson, aka “Dr. Scot the Paleontologist” from PBS’ “Dinosaur Train!”