Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dinosaurs of China in Nottingham: part 1 - Ground Shakers

Have you ever wandered among the imposing corridors and grand halls of an historical stately home and thought about how much they could be improved by the addition of dinosaur skeletons? Then boy, do I have an exhibition for you. But more importantly, it's a showcase of numerous impressive skeletal mounts of Chinese dinosaurs, many never seen before outside their native country, along with an array of breathtaking original specimens. Dinosaurs of China is a huge coup for an obscure museum, a wonderful achievement of international co-operation, and a unique opportunity for British dinosaur enthusiasts - and Natee and I were fortunate enough to tour with curator Adam Smith.

Adam works as a curator at the natural history museum based in Wollaton Hall, a 16th Century manor house a short distance from Nottingham city centre. He's also a palaeontologist (specialising in marine reptiles) and set up the Dinosaur Toy Blog and corresponding forum, which is how I ended up meeting him originally. He's justifiably proud of this exhibition, having had a hand in pretty much every aspect of it, and was keen to explain all the careful thought that went into what we were seeing.

Rare photo of Adam in casual garb
Subtitled 'Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers', the idea is to lead the visitor from a 'traditional' (read: expected) display of large, impressive skeletal mounts in spectacular surroundings, on to a more low-key exhibition of some of the most beautiful (real) fossil feathered dinosaurs found in China in the last few decades. Visitors enter via a side entrance, and must walk up a fairly nondescript corridor and staircase into the main hall, where the space instantly opens out and they are greeted by a stunning rearing Mamenchisaurus, in addition to a beautiful wall-filling artwork by Zhao Chuang. It's an effective way of immediately grabbing a visitor's attention. You won't see a Mamenchisaurus posed in front of a fanned-out array of guns anywhere else...

The large skeletal mounts were provided by the IVPP, and the casts do vary somewhat in quality. One of the best is a lovely Sinraptor, posed almost as if cowering or skulking around the rearing sauropod. Although space can be tight in Wollaton Hall (it wasn't designed to be a museum, after all), it's still possible to view the skeletons from multiple angles and take photos largely unimpeded by barriers. Adam mentioned this as being quite deliberate. The accompanying signage strikes a perfect compromise between relaying the necessary information, and not overwhelming the more casual visitor; I overheard a number of actual parents relaying information that they'd read on the signs quite accurately to their children, which is more than I can say of many museums I've visited.

While one might expect a heavy emphasis on 'birds as dinosaurs' in the floof-o-saurs section, the link is made throughout the exhibition. Consequently, a Guanlong mount is presented next to an ostrich from the museum's collections. The skull on the Guanlong is notably peculiar, with the orbit and temporal fenestra seemingly being combined; it may be a result of the original being crushed and distorted, but it's a little strange that it wasn't 'fixed' for a mount like this. Still, it's a treat to finally see a mount of this tyrannosauroid, which is seldom seen outside of China.

Behind Guanlong, and utterly dwarfed by its much larger, later relative, stands Lufengosaurus. The forelimbs are rather strangely mounted, but this is otherwise a pleasingly modern, horizontal, but bipedal take on the animal. A nearby display explains the history of its discovery and classification; the palaeontologist who described it, Yang Zhongjian, was tutored by Friedrich von Huene in a lovely early example of palaeontological East meets West. His contemporary reconstruction of the animal, much like Von Huene's of Plateosaurus, is strikingly forward-thinking and has held up incredibly well.

There's a Protoceratops in the main hall too because, hey, you've got to have Protoceratops. I've seen plenty of excellent Protoceratops casts, including those used in Dinosaurs: Monster Families, so it's very strange that this one is so poor. In particular, the head looks like a sub-par sculpted copy, and is really lacking in detail. I think the wee fellow slapped on too much foundation.

But that hardly matters when, in a case immediately adjacent, you have an original juvenile Pinacosaurus fossil, with a beautifully preserved skull. Perhaps more important even than being a gorgeous genuine specimen, it's quite simply utterly adorable. Bless its petrified spiky chops. As the specimen is still embedded in the matrix, it's surrounded by 'excavation tools' in typical natural history musem stylee. They're from Adam's cupboard, by the way.

Coming up next: a trip upstairs to see the feathered flyers! (And gliders. And freakishly big, long-armed, pin-headed monstrosities.)


  1. Some of those look like the dinosaurs shown at the Chinese dinosaurs exhibition in Cardiff back in the 1980s, although that didn't have the feathered component and the mounts are more spectacular this time.

  2. Yes, we had Mamenchisaurus, and Lufengosaurus as well as 4 or 5 others, in Cardiff in 1986-1988. We had the actual specimens too - not casts. Ok they weren't posed as exotically, but it was quite something for its time. And of course they hadn't found any of the feathered ones back then. I'm looking forward to seeing this exhibition! Well done Adam!

  3. I recall seeing the Chinese dinosaurs exhibition which came to York twice in the early 1990's - very likely the same one as the Cardiff exhibition.

    To the best of my recollection the species displayed were:



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