Wollaton Hall is set to welcome some rather large guests to its grounds this summer. From Sinraptors to the mammoth Mamenchisaurus, the skeletons of never-before-seen dinosaurs will be making their way from China to Hoodtown to form the Dinosaurs of China exhibition. We sat down with curators, Adam Smith and Wang Qi, to learn all about it...
Running from Saturday 1 July till Sunday 29 October, the Dinosaurs of China exhibition tells the story of the evolution of dinosaurs; from ground shakers to feathered flyers. The exhibition includes the traditional view of dinosaurs as large, scaly reptiles, but also covers parts of a far more diverse picture such as feathered, flying dinosaurs. Thanks to some of the amazing fossils being discovered in China, we now know that birds and dinosaurs are closely related. Wang Qi explains that “in the last two decades, a lot of feathered dinosaurs have been discovered in China and that has changed the thinking about dinosaurs”. Yes duck; even the duck is related to dinosaurs.
We’re used to larger, earth-trembling dinosaurs – there certainly weren’t any feathered dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – so this is going to be a revelation to many. Why did these dinosaurs have feathers?
According to research, there were a variety of different types of feathers on dinosaurs. “The earliest ‘proto-feathers’ are very fuzzy and they were certainly not used for flight; they just aren’t that sort of feather,” explains Adam. “They were more likely used for insulation or thermoregulation, or maybe for colourful displays.” However, there were also dinosaurs that had more bird-like feathers and could fly. Wang Qi mentions the “Yi qi” as an exciting specimen in the exhibition. Only discovered in 2015, he describes it as having “a membrane so it looks like a bat; it’s a very strange creature.” Looks like there’ll actually be some actual bat-like dinosaurs at Batman’s house then.
The specimens are on loan from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, and it’s the first time that some of the dinosaurs have ever been out of China. Wang Qi tells me about the Gigantoraptor; the largest of the birdlike dinosaurs. “That’ll be the first time that this whole skeleton has been displayed; even in China it’s not been shown in a public building, so we have some exclusive specimens.”
Adam and Wang Qi were personally responsible for selecting the specimens in the exhibition, which wasn’t easy, but they had a very clear narrative in mind. Adam explained that one of the justifications for choosing as they did was a desire to select a wide variety of specimen types. “We’ve got 3D-mounted skeletons,” he says, “but we’ve also got flat, genuine fossils, preserved on real rock.” They want to tell other tales, such as the history of palaeontology in China and the story of how dinosaurs are excavated; Adam describes one of the fossils as still partially encased in the plaster jacket from when it was taken out of the rock in the field.
Of course, any conversation about dinosaurs is bound to come round to Jurassic Park at some point. Adam reveals that the film fuelled his interest in dinosaurs and that he was impressed by its depiction of Velociraptors. “They may not have been feathered, but they were active, warm-blooded and intelligent,” he says. “For its time, it was a step in the right direction and was encouraging people to think about dinosaurs in a new way. Before the film, dinosaurs were thought of as slow, sluggish and inactive creatures. Jurassic Park changed that for the better and depicted dinosaurs like the T-rex, for example, on two legs and balancing without dragging its tail. That was the first time that this [posture] was portrayed in pop culture.”
Wang Qi expands: “Jurassic Park is a very good movie and actually brings in the public interest about the dinosaurs. That's a benchmark. Now, our exhibition could be another. We are changing people’s understanding about dinosaurs’ appearance: the fact that they were feathered; they could be fast and colourful; and they were different to what was shown in Jurassic Park.” The Dilophosaurus, for example, is on display in the exhibition. In the movie, this had a large neck frill and spat venom, but in real life it’s difficult to say whether it really had these structures around its neck. While both Adam and Wang Qi are fans of the film, neither of them think we’ll ever actually be able to clone dinosaurs, so Wollaton Hall may be the closest we’ll ever get to these creatures.
When asked for their favourite part of the exhibition, Wang Qi chooses the Mamenchisaurus, describing it as a “superstar that has travelled around the world from Australia to Japan.” He goes on to explain how he grew up with this dinosaur back in China: “Mamenchisaurus was shown in a lot of children's books and cartoons, so I really grew up with it. It was the first dinosaur that I ever knew, and my favourite dinosaur that I’ll love forever.”
“The dinosaur itself is 26 metres long; it’s huge,” Adam interjects. “That’s too big to fit inside Wollaton Hall in a normal, resting pose on four legs.” The team have had to come up with an ingenious solution; asking the IVPP to mount the beast in a special pose, which means that it’s now going to be rearing up on its hind legs with its head in the air. “It’s going to be about thirteen metres high, and that will make it the tallest mounted skeleton of a dinosaur ever in the UK. It’s really going to wow people.”
Adam chooses the Microraptor as his favourite specimen, describing it as “spectacular, because it’s a real fossil and it’s got all of this amazing scientific importance.” The Microraptor is much smaller than the Mamenchisaurus, but it’s important in the narrative of the exhibition because it has characteristics like a long, bony tail, claws and teeth, but it also has wings and birdlike feathers on its arms, legs and tail. This was a feathered dinosaur that could fly. “It’s a beautiful fossil,” says Adam. “It shows the complete skeleton of the dinosaur, articulated, which is very rare. And it has the feathers preserved.”
The dinosaurs will have someone very special waiting to welcome them to Wollaton Hall; George the Gorilla. He’s already the museum mascot, but he’s been promoted to mascot for the Dinosaurs of China exhibition, too. “He’s got into the spirit by renaming himself George Gorillasaurus on Twitter,” says Adam. Wang Qi even suggests that Wollaton Hall might be coming to life at night like Night at the Museum, and that “George will be teaching all of the dinosaurs to speak English.”
George isn't the only mascot of the exhibition. There is of course Hunter; a life-size, animatronic Sinraptor puppet. The Sinraptor is the largest meat-eating, predatory dinosaur in the exhibition and was one of the largest predators found in China during the Jurassic era. So keep your eyes peeled for Hunter, as he’ll be wandering around Nottinghamshire for the duration of the exhibition.
What’s really exciting is that some of these specimens are holotypes; the original examples that were actually used to name the species. Also, many of the specimens that are coming over to Nottingham aren’t even on public display in China, they’re used purely for research. So, if you want to see these dinosaurs in the flesh – well, bones – it’s Nottingham or nowt.
The Dinosaurs of China exhibition runs from Saturday 1 July till Sunday 29 October at Wollaton Hall.
Dinosaurs of China website