This summer there were prehistoric rumblings across Nottingham. And no, these weren’t Notts Forest fans reminiscing about the glory days of Brian Clough, the Dinosaurs of China arrived in the Midlands.
The Dinosaurs of China exhibition has been open to the public and promoted through schools across the county, giving children and adults alike access to a stunning collection of fossils from China, some over 150 million years old.
Ever keen to road-test a public exhibition on my unsuspecting children, I took the family with me.
But before I regale you with a tale of a family day out, the question that needs answering is where did the idea for this exhibition come from? Well, buckle into the De Lorean because I’m going to take you back in time a few months to the Vat and Fiddle pub in Nottingham, home of the Monday night Cafe Sci group, a weekly meeting place where a group of like-minded people meet to discuss a variety of scientific topics.
Dinosaurs of Gotham
I’d been put in touch with Dr Adam Smith, responsible for the collection of Natural History at Wollaton Hall, and one of the driving forces behind the exhibition. He was there to talk to the Cafe Sci group, along with the Chinese team who made the discoveries in the first place. Having missed the bus I turned up just as the talk started and, pint in hand, I was directed to a small backroom where everyone was settling in.
The projector displayed an astonishing collection of photos from dig sites, all of which was narrated by the Chinese palaeontologists, and fortunately for the residents of Nottingham, translated. The exhibition had been 5 years in the making. Dr Wang Qi, an architecture graduate of Nottingham University and a huge fan of palaeontology had combined his ideas for an exhibition with Dr Adam Smith using the space at Wollaton Hall (already well known as a Deer Park and Batman’s house) to provide a narrative led journey.
In December 2015 the idea was approved by the City Council and the work began in earnest. The goal was to promote understanding of the evolution of Dinosaurs and birds, something that has been under-represented in palaeontology in recent years. This in particular challenges the traditional view of dinosaurs as scaly creatures, and in no uncertain terms, it was pointed out that Jurassic Park has had a lot to do with the current thinking (shame on you Spielberg!).
Many of the exhibits would appear outside of China for the first time, including the Gigantoraptor which, as its name suggests, was rather big and the centrepiece of the entire exhibition. This was entirely planned as a further goal was to provide the public with a “wow” factor, to get them excited with spectacular exhibits and examples.
So with all this background information in hand, all that was left was to take the family!
Tired Child Syndrome.
It’s worth giving a bit of context before I continue, my oldest son had previously seen this exhibition with school a couple of weeks before we went. And he’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The night before we went he was at a sleep-over at a friends house and when we picked him up on the morning of the exhibition it transpired he’d only slept for 2 hours. Optimistically, we assumed this would be fine so we bundled him into the car with his sister and forged onwards.
So, we arrived at Wollaton Hall. We’re lucky to have this place on our doorstep, it’s a beautiful place with stunning architecture, fantastic grounds and lots of deer. And, as previously mentioned, it’s where Batman lives (at least in the Christopher Nolan movies). It’s a fair old walk from the bottom car park to the hall, and already the boy was showing signs of tiredness. But we pushed on regardless, eager to see what prehistoric delights awaited us.
As we got to the entrance there was quite a queue already forming, so we waited our turn all the while propping the tired child up in a manner reminiscent of getting your drunk mate through the doors at a nightclub. Once inside we were impressed by the ease of passage to the exhibition itself via a variety of signage on the walls and raptor footprints on the floors. The signage was big, bright and informative which is just what every parent needs. And it did a great job of encouraging the children to read it whilst also making you feel like an expert after reading a few lines (in the same manner as when you watch any Olympic event and become a master of the rules after a couple of viewings).
This way to the past.
The immediate layout in the first hall was wonderfully simple and built around the feet of the Gigantoraptor that dominated the entire exhibition space. Everywhere you looked there were things to read, interactive displays for the kids to take part in, height charts that every parent measured their children against. The hall was filled with the hubbub of excited children and parents who may have been overly worried about their kids accidentally removing a load-bearing bone from a dinosaur skeleton. Meanwhile, in the Murray family our daughter was capering off with mum in tow whilst I had to shepherd the rapidly sleepy boy around an exhibition he’d already seen.
The link between birds and dinosaurs was elegantly put together throughout, and it’s amazing to think that in some way we still have dinosaurs on this earth. As we wound our way upstairs we saw a selection of fossils that provided evidence of bird-like behaviour in dinosaurs. Equally impressive was the detour through the Wollaton Hall bird display, complete with mounted Bison head and other animals gazing rather furtively from their places on the walls above us. A consistent theme amongst all of this was the continual use of signage to highlight pivotal facts, as there was so much to see this really helped to pull the overall themes of the exhibition together. And in every room, we entered there was another fantastic example of the work the Chinese team had done to preserve these artefacts.
The journey of the exhibition culminated in coming face to face with the Gigantoraptor as we wound our way up the stairs and onto a balcony we realised just how big this fella was. It was a great use of the space, and really brought to life the vision Dr Wang Qi had all those years ago.
Exit Via The Gift Shop.
We suddenly realised we’d reached the end when we found ourselves in the gift shop. When I’d first met him, Dr Adam Smith had promised that the same attention to detail that had been evident in the exhibition would be manifest in the gift shop too (“we will hand-pick the types of dinosaur toys we stock”). And he wasn’t wrong, this is one of the few gift shops I’ve been in that doesn’t just cram the shelves with any old tat. Everything in there was geared towards the interest in dinosaurs.
As a parent of two children, I often find myself exasperated at the crap I have to trawl through in gift shops, but this was on a different level altogether. However, taking one look at our son we both realised that he really was about to fall asleep on his feet, and with the plaintive cry of “I’m so tired” ringing in our ears we took him into the fresh air and found a bench for him to crash out on. Our daughter had no such tiredness issues and while she kept mum busy I popped back into the gift shop and bought myself a mug to remember our day out. It really was the least I could do, this was an exhibition that was at once fun, informative, innovative, eye-opening and challenging to the assumptions we have of dinosaurs. It was a great day out and I hope it comes back to these shores in the future.