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.
How big is the universe?
What is the universe made of?
What is life?
Shanghai’s newly opened Natural History Museum
in Jing'an throws you into a suspended existential crisis as soon as you enter its first exhibition hall. It’s lit by projections of the early universe and fast forwards through the big bang in minutes as these questions drift across. An instrumental of "Oh Shenandoah" plays as you fail to comprehend the meaning of it all. “Why is there life on this planet?” floats over animations of matter forming into galaxies.
This museum comes as a well-funded upgrade of the old Natural History Museum
, which was closed due to its ability to only exhibit one percent of its collection at a time
, and for being at least a century out of date. This new one sprung up in the middle of the neatly manicured Jing’An Sculpture Park, but in a way that makes it look like the park was actually built around the edifice. The architecture gracefully uses elements of earth, wind, water, sun, and, dare I say, heart. Captain Planet would approve.
The museum is home to a taxidermist’s wet dream, robot dinosaurs, and the mainland’s first “no selfie sticks” sign.
It’s also bringing a ton of foot traffic to a once pretty tranquil park, where you’re sometimes even allowed to sit on the grass and play with feral cats. Now the park will see upwards of 3000 people per day.
They are cautious about traffic control, and prepared for hundreds to queue in the ticket and entry lines. Inside, there’s a specific flow and direction that not only takes you on a mostly chronological history of all life and existence, but makes it easier to shuffle through without crowd chaos.
It all starts here: The River of Life. Once past the sensory overload of the exploding universe, after you’ve remembered to put those questions aside and come to terms with your insignificance, you shuffle slowly behind Nainais and Ayis yelling at their kids to stay still for the selfie in front of the stuffed gibbon. If you came loaded and hoping for something trippy, this is where you’ll start getting paranoid and claustrophobic.
The River of Life spirals past taxidermied reptiles, birds, monkeys, through goats and reindeer, underneath models of sea monsters like whales, a giant squid, and an animal that I just learned was real, the narwhal, a.k.a. the unicorn of the sea.
It continues onto land mammals stuffed with varying success. This lion looks like he listens to a lot of grime, and wears a permanent “u fockn wot m8 i’ll reck u i sware” expression.
It’s all leading up to the dinosaurs. Every figure is clearly labeled with Chinese, English, and Latin binomial nomenclatures. But some stuffed creatures have their own special names. Take for instance the saber-toothed tiger, who retired from a professional wrestling career into permanent rest, labeled “Smilodon the Devastator.”
The first robot dinosaur is labeled an Argentinosaurus but I’m pretty sure it’s Littlefoot’s mom. She roars. The animatronics were better in the early Jurassic Parks, but it's still pretty cool.
Keep shuffling and you'll reach a “live” mezzanine. An indoor beehive has a tube for Italian bees to go collect from the garden. A butterfly enclosure allows guests in for only 15 minutes at a time at 10am, 1pm, and 2pm. Petting pools also have varying times, one with fish and amphibians, one with stingrays and starfish. When these are roped off, you can still see the creatures, just no touching. If you really want to wait in line to pet them, best to check the timetables, then go back later to wait a few minutes before the ropes open.
The Way of Evolution is endless fossils and more dino skeletons, but the nearby Theatre of the Cambrian Explosion is worth a stroll through for the feeling of being underwater watching CGI single cell organisms evolve into deep-sea creatures. The single-celled organisms on the floor guide the way.
Further on lies the second dino–bot, the T-Rex, part-mutilated to reveal a crude model of the bones and muscles within.
The best way to look at Reptar is to go to the stairwell in front of his face. Take some time to look him in the eye (only the one) as he roars at you. Wash out all other sounds. Admire his teeth. I felt something akin to fear. I think it was respect.
If you didn’t set aside more than two hours for your visit, skip the next floor: Record of Shanghai Environs. There is a cool stuffed birds of the sea display, reminiscent of Cai Guo-Qiang’s wolves, but the floor shows all the non-exotic wildlife that used to thrive in the region, and confirms that we are living on a swampland.
If you allotted enough time, go ahead and stroll through the environs and smell the donuts. The hall empties into a French cafe. You are now halfway through the tour.
More existential questions appear over skeletons transitioning from ape to man:
What are we?
Where do we come from?
CGI wildlife prance around a pool in the shadow of a smoking volcano. It rains, they die, and sink into the bottom of the pool. It’s real life, man.
In the Survival Skills hall, stuffed animals are staged in varying actions with novella descriptions: “Tool-Making of the Crow,” “Bluffing of the Skunks,” “Disguise of the Crocodiles.” Dramatic descriptions continue on your Walk Into Africa, where you’ll meet “Black-backed Jackal the Opportunist” and “Nile Crocodile, Cold Blooded Killer.”
More real life lessons for the kids on the Walk Into Africa, as Jackal the Opportunist and his scavenger friends feast on a disemboweled antelope.
Africa ends in a hall of beautifully displayed taxidermy -- butterflies and beetles in a case by type, then by color in a spiral. Heads of horned creatures rise three stories mounted on a wall that only Teddy Roosevelt would dream of.
Don’t skip the Arctic Hall, where you can see every type of penguin, walk on top of an encased baby seal, and see the polar bears. It’s easy to miss, so seek it out because its air is cooler and significantly less crowded than the other halls.
But you could skip the Agricultural Hall, unless you’re especially interested in the origins of rice, millet, maize, etc. It leads to a hall of rocks and minerals.
Necessary discussion of the possibility of Transformers coming from space.
This museum made me feel a lot of emotions. Some light annoyance at the crowds, amusement from its creativity, and much appreciation for the research and resources that went into this. More than anything, I loved the questions. We reach dangerous complacency when we cease asking questions. It’s also a good place to instill a sense of wonder and interest in science for children. Go check it out.
Hours And Pricing
: The museum is open Tuesday–Sunday from 9am–5.15pm. They close on Mondays. Tickets are 30rmb for adults, 25rmb for seniors, and 12rmb for students. At the moment they only offer tour guides and audio tours in Chinese, for 200rmb and 20rmb respectively, but they said English is probably / maybe coming soon. Could be a month, could be never. They also offer bag check. Like almost everything else in this place, it looks pretty legit.
: 510 Beijing Xi Lu, near Chengdu Bei Lu. The nearest metro station is Line 2, Nanjing Xi Lu.