Chinese museums are noticeably different. Zigong Dinosaur Museum bordered on surreal. If you asked children in the UK to draw a museum many would chose a neoclassical style exterior, all pillars topped with a triangular pediment, which will probably have some fancy carving. Think British Museum, or Greek Parthenon.
This is not what greets you at the entrance to the Zigong Dinosaur Museum, oh no. The architecture of the entrance is built to more than vaguely resemble a dinosaur. Before you even get in you know what they are all about.
Palaeontologically speaking the Zigong Dinosaur Museum is globally important. In the mid 1980’s vast quantities of dinosaur fossils dating from the Middle Jurassic period were excavated from what is known as the Dashanpu Formation. The museum was built over and around one excavation site and you can still see in situ fossils in the large fossil site hall.
But before you get to the hall and exhibition space I feel I should describe what you see once entering through the Dinosaur shaped archway. You basically enter what is essentially an animatronic Jurassic Park – a hillside with moving, roaring dinosaurs – the jittering plastic ones that you sometimes get on crazy golf courses in the UK. There aren’t loads, but there are enough to make you think, ‘yep, I wasn’t expecting that’. And it did make me ponder, maybe museums take themselves a bit too seriously in the UK.
Anyway, on to the museum building itself. This houses the pre-mentioned fossil site, a huge 1500m2 dinosaur burial ground. You can still see the remains of large skeletons overlapping each other. The text panels in this room are pretty good, often with English translations and images so you can see what the dinosaur will have looked like as well as what parts of that dinosaur’s skeleton you can see.
I am no dinosaur specialist, but I am aware that many articulated specimens in museum collections are plaster casts – the originals are often far too precious, or in fact brittle, to go on display. I’m not aware how much of the mounted specimens are real or replica, but still the next hall, known as ‘Dinosaur World’, is impressive. With 18 specimens on articulated display including Omeisaurus, Gigantspinosaurus, Yangchuanosaurus, Huayangosaurus and Xiaosaurus, even if they are casts of the originals rather than the ‘real thing’ they are undeniably spectacular, and HUGE.
On the first floor there are two galleries, the Flora and Fauna of the Mesozoic and the Treasure Hall. However, at this point I should admit my major error. I visited the museum on ‘National Children’s Day’, a delightful celebration that means many of the children get the day off school and are taken out by their doting parents to, for example, one of the best dinosaur museums in the world. Being the only foreigners in the museum that day meant that my partner and I were greatly outnumbered by dinosaurs and therefore by default rarer. This meant that we spent the visit acting like the pied piper, with a line of small children following our every move and adults trying to hand their children over to us for photo opportunities. By this point, it became a slightly rushed experience to escape the hoards. Let this be a lesson to all in China – do not go to a dinosaur museum on children’s day.
The objects that have been discovered at this site are truly eye wateringly special and the displays within the treasure gallery were sublime. I think my favourite was the fossilised skin of a Gigantspinosaurus sichuanensis, a type of stegosaur. You can see its actual scales and they are just like you imagine them to be when you’re young, like the scales of an oversized lizard.
On our way out we saw another bizarre highlight. Small children were taking turns to ride mini animatronic dinosaurs. Imagine the rides that you usually find at the exits of large supermarkets in the UK– but instead of Thomas the Tank, a mini dinosaur with bike handles attached for safe riding. Only in Chinese museums.