The proliferation of Chinese dinosaur museums

 This link has been doing the rounds for the last few days. It shows a pair of sauropod models that straddle the Chinese-Mongolian border. I think the author is being a bit disingenuous by castigating this as a failed tourist spot. It’s a decorative border post, if a bit naff, though it likely was done to help advertise the nearby dinosaur localities.

However, the central point it makes (“build it and they might not come”) is very pertinent. China is undergoing a massive economic expansion and they are pushing a vast amount of money into science. Coupled with a general pattern of producing large public works and the obvious rich fossil beds it’s perhaps no surprise that new dinosaur and palaeontological museums and parks are springing up around China. What might be a surprise is just how many there are.

I’m not in a position to even guess at the real number, but I have either visited or know about at least a dozen that have started or opened in the last half dozen years and I’ve been to a fair few myself. Huge buildings and collections are appearing in Tinayu, Zhucheng, Shenyang, Zhengzhou, Macau, Lufeng, Xixia and right across Liaoning. I think there are now about a dozen or more in Liaoning alone (and it’s not a big province). While China is a huge country in terms of population and area, I do find it hard to believe that all of these are going to be viable in the long term. Having visited many of these places they are often are in less than perfect condition despite being new and they rarely have many visitors, this at a height of both novelty and public interest in dinosaurs. If nothing else in places there’s one in each town and it’s hard to conceive of each of them drawing in huge crowds with competition in every town within 50 or 100 km. Even with public funding, I’m sceptical that many of these will still be viable in the next dozen years.

All of this is a worry. At the moment there’s a huge ‘gold rush’ to exploit the available fossils and get things into museums. From at least a couple of places I’ve been to I’d suggest that these may not all be being collected in the best manner they could be and that not everything on display should really be there. Nor for that matter is all of it being kept properly and I fear for some specimens. In short the collections are being assembled and curated by people lacking expertise.

Moreover, what might happen to collections that go bust? I’m not used to the concept of museums housing hundreds of specimens going bankrupt. I’m sure it happens on occasion and material has to be moved on or stored for a bit, but what would happen if a major collection suddenly went under? Or will the local authorities step in and fund expensive but failing institutes, draining budgets for science elsewhere to support them?

Perhaps I’m being overly worried, but while I don’t know that much about the economics of museums and catchment areas, and governmental financing, I have seen how many of these places there are and what they are like and how (some) are being run. Some seem to be running out of investment before they have even been built, so it’s not a major leap of imagination to think some will bite the dust and then, well, I don’t know. But I am a bit worried.

1 Response to “The proliferation of Chinese dinosaur museums”

  1. 1 Zhen 09/01/2012 at 4:10 am

    I got a story to tell. Back when I was a little boy, we didn’t have a dinosaur museum in Canton. It’s hardly a small city, but we didn’t have one where I lived. What I saw was a traveling exhibit that had only 1 skeleton and a few statues. It was a Tsintaosaurus. That was my first dinosaur.

    It’s hard to believe we have such a dinosaur museum boom and the possibility of bubble popping like bad real estate. It’s a very scary thought. China has a lot of unscrupulous businessmen and the like and it scares me what would happen to the fossils if what you say comes true.

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