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Shanghai Natural History Museum

Sam Gaskin spends an afternoon in the Shanghai Natural History Museum, which, come to think of it, probably belongs in a museum itself...
2014-05-05 17:35:25

SH101 is an ongoing column on SmartShanghai, in which our writers actually visit tourist destinations in Shanghai we’ve all heard about, ignored, driven by, or thought about going to but never did. Until right now.

Once the city’s cotton exchange, the Shanghai Natural History Museum is a beat up 1920s building perpetually banging its shins on the Yan’an expressway where it begins its descent to the Bund. It’s also the most atmospheric, unusual and best place in the city.

This is an old-style museum full of dinosaur skeletons, mummies and taxidermy animals. Everything is singlemedia and nothing is interactive.

It’s what London’s Natural History Museum would look like if it hadn’t been renovated since 1950.

Sunlight struggles through filthy corrugated plastic roofing in the main hall.
Bubbles in the lamination further distort bleached out posters of poisonous snakes. Inexplicably, a few of the windows are spattered with gore.

But holy shit look at this whale shark! Anime-eyed Rhincodon Typus Smith is posed in front of a pale blue silk curtain like a burlesque dancer. The sea bed beneath it is a Gondry-esque improvisation of what looks like unspooled VHS tape. This museum is like an elephant’s graveyard of analog.

There are hundreds of creatures crammed into glass vitrines: a big-nosed moose in an institution-green box, giant sea turtles riding the ocean currents past an upright air conditioner, sea birds with wires showing through their decomposing bodies. This place has everything from pandas and parasitic worms to emus, lions, and a dead eyed coelacanth, the zombie of the sea, once thought to be extinct since the days of the dinosaurs.

Then there’s this Indian tiger, burning dull in front of a hand painted backdrop. “Himalayan Pine Forest at Sunset” is one of the better attempts to situate a stuffed specimen in a realistic environment. It’s much less ridiculous than the pane of grubby glass used as the surface of a pond, with a circular hole in it for a croc to stick its head through, and the tiny plasticine models used to suggest an entire colony receding far into the distance behind the museum’s few taxidermy seals.

Some of the paintings in the museum are not just backdrops but the exhibits themselves. This murky prehistoric fish masterpiece was dashed off so quickly the artist didn’t even bother to clean up those dribbles of paint in the lower middle of the frame.

The Natural History Museum’s requisite dinosaur skeletons include a seven-meter-long stegosaurus and a 22-meter-long sauropod called mamenchisaurus, both of whom lived in Sichuan in the late Jurassic period. There’s also an ornithischia, a beaked herbivore that lived in Shandong province during the Cretaceous period and never missed a Qingdao beer festival. That’s him above, posing oppa Gangnam style.

Another star exhibit is the Ming dynasty mummies discovered in Shanghai in the 1990s. This guy was found on Xietu Lu in ’92. His lips and gums have receded into a buck toothed caricature, but the teeth themselves look great. There’s even a color chart alongside him to show how white they are.

This paper-skinned chap was found in nearby Dapuqiao in 1993. Chinese people will sleep anywhere, amiright?

On the subject of dubious stereotypes, the museum has a jaw-droppingly naive, insensitive introduction to the evolution of different races, which it divides into the Caucasoid Division (orators)...

...the Mongoloid Division (pottery makers)

...and the Negroid Division (drummers and dancers).

The museum also has a series of fetuses in jars, and, under the label “Atavism of Humans”, pictures of people with hypertrichosis, also known as werewolf syndrome. Science!

Shanghai’s new natural history museum is scheduled to open at the end of this year in the Jing’an Sculpture Park. The 45,000 square meter building, designed by Chicago firm Perkins + Will, is impressive in that generic contemporary way — bright, outsized, with a cellular glass “sunscreen”, and ramps leading crowds to well thought out viewing points. You can see a video of the new museum here. It will have everything but charm.

(We get that you’re philosopher pharaohs and shit, but architects, it’s okay to build museums that service the exhibits, as well as your clients’ egos.)

The Shanghai Natural History Museum is itself a relic, whereas the new museum is sure to be a safe contemporary simulacrum of the past. Go see the real thing while you still can.

For a full listing of The Shanghai Natural History Museum click here.