Q: What do you get when you cross ancient four-legged creatures and a Scooby-Doo-style haunted park?
A: The ZiGong Dinosaur Museum!
Last weekend, as a part of my ongoing CLO outing series, I spent Saturday about three hours outside of Chengdu in a city known for its spicy food, its salt production and its dinosaurs. (What a combination!) I’d like to report that all three meshed together well, but although we did have spicy bullfrog for lunch, there was no dino meat to be had and spice made much more of an appearance at our table than did the salt.
For a year now, I’ve been hearing about how great the ZiGong Dinosaur Museum is and that I definitely needed to take a trek out there before leaving Sichuan. So, with such strong recommendations to back it up, I planned a Saturday event to go see what all the fuss was about. Our travel group included lots of kids, some of whom were dressed in head to toe dinosaur swag, ready to visit the heart of their obsessions.
As with everything in China, I should have known to take the glowing recommendations with a grain of (ZiGong) salt. The museum is definitely worth the bus ride out and I’m thrilled to have seen all it has to offer, but I will not need to make a return trip before I exit China in the spring. I’ve never been somewhere that so perfectly meshes fascinating knowledge with a creepy park vibe. (Wait. I’ll revise that sentiment. If you’ve been to Haw Par Villa in Singapore, you’ve got an idea of the level of weirdness I’m talking about. While Haw Par Villa centers on Chinese mythology and the tenants of Confucianism, through acres of macabre statues, ZiGong sticks with violent Mesozoic-era dioramas, but they share strong ties in their particularly peculiar takes on these subjects.)
The ZiGong museum is actually a highly rated center, as it holds the distinction of being one of only three dinosaur museums in the world to include a dig site. (The other two are Vernal, Utah and Alberta, Canada.) CNN rated the ZiGong Museum as one of the top ten dinosaur museums in the world, but I think whoever wrote the article did their research from a distance. The thing is, there are some amazing fossils at the site, which sits atop the Dashanpu dig area, including eighteen complete skeletons in a burial site and a huge number of partially intact remains. Plus, having the actual dig site as a part of the museum, where patrons can walk through the area and see the bones still in the ground is awesome.
But, the greatness can be easily overlooked by the other randomness around the fossils. For example, in the fossil hall where the dinosaurs have been recreated in diorama-type exhibits, an inordinate number of them showcase the carnivorous meals of the various creatures. (Yes, I know the killing and eating of other animals is a part of Simba’s Disney-taught “circle of life,” but I’m not sure it needs to be the focal point of so many exhibits! We get it! Dinosaurs ate one another!! At some point, I began to debate the possible merits of dinosaur meat vs. the bullfrog that showed up at lunch…) I had to laugh when I first walked into the hall because I was standing in the doorway, excitedly taking in the huge displays, when I looked straight up to see a dinosaur skeleton dangling from the mouth of another dinosaur, directly above my head. Eww! I also particularly liked the display that had a tiny (in comparison), quick-looking dinosaur speeding away from the one behind it that was baring giant teeth. The sign in front gave information about the time period that these creatures lived in, as well as details about their habits. It then ended with the words, “Speed is life.” Yes! For that little guy, speed is definitely life!
After enjoying the rather grisly displays in the main hall, and wandering through the dig site itself, I spent some time taking in the posters about the discovery of the fossils and the history of the site. The photographs of the paleontologist from the 1980s were interesting, but my favorite part can be chalked up to a translation error. While most of the signs talked about the study of dinosaurs as paleontology, a few instead substituted “dinosaurology” as a synonym. This is my new “when I grow up” goal- to be a dinosauroligist! And really, I have to give them credit, as it does make sense. I actually had to stop and think to make sure it really wasn’t a real word. But no, it’s not. Sadly, dinosaurology is not a real thing. Too bad…
Wandering on from the various displays and digs, I was about ready to call it a day for my inaugural visit, but before I could make my way out of the building, I spotted the highlight of the trip- a dinosaur you could ride! That’s right! It was a rubberish-feeling, horse-sized dinosaur with a metal saddle mounted on its back. With a rickety wooden stepladder as leverage, I quickly clambered to the top for a photo-op to commemorate my fantastic journey through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Because really, what historical museum outing doesn’t end with a ride on a long-extinct giant reptile?
I now have a new museum to add to my “favorites” list:
1) Chengdu Panda Reserve Museum- it includes a diorama display of animals that look like they are made out of my grandmother’s couch, giant vats of panda sperm and an amazing piece of artwork displaying the prowess of the battle panda
2) Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei- Filled with the narrative of how wonderful the sultan has been since birth and a massive amount of gifts given to him by the VIPs of the world
3) ZiGong Dinosaur Museum- See above!
But, the most important thing I learned on Saturday came from one of the younger members of our excursion. As we walked towards the main exhibit hall, through a series of hillsides covered in dinosaur statues, he scurried up behind his mom, exclaiming, “Mom, I need to stay in the middle of the herd, that way I won’t be eaten.” It’s brilliant advice from one so young- if you’re little, stick with the herd, for the young and weak are the most likely to become lunch. When I’m back in the classroom, this will be my new field trip rule- stick with the herd, or be eaten! Easy enough.