In yesterday’s Tarbosaurus post I noted that the Institute housing the specimen may not be much longer for this world. This is a serious and deeply unfortunate turn of events with major consequences for dinosaur palaeontology that could last for a very long time. I’m somewhat personally involved too as I have friends and colleagues based there and have collaborated on research with them (like this famously ‘gnawed’ bone) and have more things lined up.
So what’s happening and what does it mean? (Note this is my interpretation of events based on my conversation with friends and colleagues in the know or whoa re directly involved, I may have got things wrong with the specifics, but in general I believe this is all accurate. There’s a mail archived here from some of the people involved). The short version is that the Hayashibara Museum of Okayama, Japan was ultimately funded mostly by it’s parent company Hayashibara. Despite being a multinational company (they manufacture sports drinks, medicines and other things) they have recently gone bust. The museum was founded and sponsored by the company because the chief executive / owner had an abiding passion for dinosaurs and anthropology and so paid for a museum that did just that (and in that respect it is really rather odd, they work on chimp behaviour and Asian dinosaurs and basically nothing else). Though additional funds were also present through research grants from various bodies.
While considered a museum, the ‘galleries’ as such never really materalised owing to planning issues. However, hordes of schoolchildren and other visitors were still welcomed through the doors to see various display specimens and the prep labs at work. There’s no doubt that this was a valuable educational tool, but the research side of things were especially important.
The Hayashibara had a superb working relationship with Mongolian researches that was of great mutual benefit. The Japanese provided funding and expertise and of course Mongolia (unlike most of Japan) has great fossils. Thus the Japanese teams would go prospecting in Mongolia with their local colleagues to collect material which would be taken to Okayama and prepared and studied on long term loans before the material was returned. Thus the museum got access to great research materials and the Mongolians got funding and exhibition quality specimens. In addition, the museum was building up quite a collection of specimens of North American specimens that had been purchased.
However, with the parent company going under (and still great economical issues with the recent natural disasters in Japan) the museum is under dire threat. They are likely to have their funding pulled from a company who (understandably) don’t necessarily see the value in paying for a dinosaur museum when they are bankrupt. If they do then things get really bad really fast.
For a start the partly prepared and unprepared materials will be going back to Mongolia, but of course to a place that largely cannot afford to prepare them themselves and (I would guess) might not even be in a position to take a warehouse full of material at short notice. Then there’s the question of the North American material with a less certain fate, but it’s equally likely to be at best inaccessible for a long time and not useful for research. With that owned by the Museum (unlike the Mongolian material) it may even be sold off (there’s not much point in keeping it if the museum is forced to close).
We then risk losing specimens, outright research being put back years or even decades and the loss of a superb collection, as well as the human cost of jobs for preparators, curators and researchers. The loss of a great education tool and of course one of the few really successful partnerships between a real philanthropist and palaeontology, and a long term commitment between two countries and research teams.
All is not yet lost. No formal decision has yet to be made about the future of the museum, and under the threat of closure, many researchers rallied and wrote appeals to the company to save the museum. However, dark clouds are hanging over it and it would be true shame if this ultimately ended the place. Even the threat is causing problems as the researchers struggle to deal with the possibility of closure and contingency plans have to be made about the removal of material when of course more research is exactly what they need to be doing right now. There is hope, but the situation is very far from rosy.