Museums! Museums rock. Entire buildings dedicated to mankind's insatiable need to tag and label the universe. There's a museum for everything, but if you want to a solid day of self-education, why not start at the primordial ooze? The prehistoric seas and all the things that climbed, slithered, swam and flew out of it, only to be captured, stuffed and put on display for generations of bored schoolchildren.
That's right, the Shanghai Natural History Museum. It turned five years old this month. We haven't been back in a couple of years, and there are zero crowds now, so why don't we see how it has held up?
History of the Natural History Museum
Shanghai's Natural History Museum used to be in Shanghai's old Cotton Exchange Building near the Bund. It wasn't great, but it was an interesting historical artifact in its own right. They had mummies and human embryos on display.
In 2015, the museum moved into this gigantic custom-built seashell in Jing'an Sculpture Park designed by Chicago firm Perkins + Wills. It's huge. It's sleek. It's modern. It doesn't have mummies and embryos on display anymore, but it does have 45,000 sqm of learning fun to display some of their 240,000 specimens.
How To Enjoy The Museum:
Don't ignore the small script: Read voraciously. Among the English / Chinese / Latin names are tidbits like "are whales a type of fish" and "the pioneers, lichen."
Thought-provoking captions help frame the displays.
Get the audio guide: The entries veer wildly from "play a game by choosing which animal breathes with lungs!" to "the morphological taxonomy of carnidae is determined by blablabla" but it's 20rmb and provides lots of trivia and conversation starters. Did you know a Nile crocodile only has to eat once a year? How do they do it!
Explore the floors thoroughly: The flow start out well on the top floor but disappears by B1/F, as you end up either walking backwards through the Shanghai Environs, or hitting the soul-searing Darwin Center (more on that later) before you get to the dinosaurs. Mind you don't miss the arctic section on B2/F.
Block out about two and a half hours: Skip the mineral bits and the anthropology sections on the bottom floor, and spend any left over time revisiting a part you like for little details.
tl;dr, give me the highlights, nature guy: THIS ARTICLE IS LONG. The Natural History Museum is big and full of treasures. But if you only have time for five, head to: River of Life; Dino Fossils; Butterfly Room; Savannah; and Ape Descendants.
We Begin With The Greatest Questions
The Natural History Museum starts with the biggest bang. Section one out of the gates is the creation of the universe, a little bit about astronomy, and a level of introspection I was unprepared for.
Unfortunately, the 4D cinemas are currently shut. But the "Familiar Aliens" section on the touchscreens are still there!
The River of Life
A two-story snaking pathway takes you through the museum's largest collection of stuffed animal specimens.
Amphibians, apes, birds, deer, bovines, wolves and big cats crowd either side of the pathway under ocean-going leviathans and creatures that look like rejects from Rob Bottin's special effects labs.
The animatronics on Littlefoot's mom still work.
It's a huge variety of life, and worth a slow walk as you read the labels and listen to the audio guide. Did you know that Komodo dragons live in trees until they're eight months old? If they come down before they're big enough, the other Komodos will just eat them. Sounds like middle school.
The River of Life is a good chance to play a little game I like to call "Mummy or Model." Many of the specimens on show in the museum are actually models. The name plaques will specify, so see how many you can get right. For example, the hunchback whale is clearly a model. The Pygmy Byrde's Whale, meanwhile, is not.
The path ends at the megafauna. I like this section.
Put yourselves in the footwraps of our stone-age ancestors as you stare up at these giant apex predators. Imagine thinking you'd finally found the perfect cave dwelling for your caveman family, then finding out it's already occupied by a short-faced bear, which stood four meters tall on its hind legs. Or dire wolves. Or Smilodon the Destroyer. Yeah, he's still here, and labelled as such!
Thankfully, it's not all claws and giant fangs. The woolly mammoth is still there, and so is the glypodont, which looks like a Pokemon, and the giant ground sloth, aka megatherium, which was six meters long and, unlike its helpless modern descendant, could cleave a man in two.
My favorite is the Irish Elk (not actually Irish), possibly the most majestic thing that has ever lived. Two meters tall at the shoulder and sporting a pair of antlers that could grow to over three meters from tip to tip, it looks like it should be carrying Oberon the Forest King on its back. You could comfortably sleep in a hammock suspended from those antlers.
Isn't nature amazing?
So... this has been the good stuff. Didn't want to scare you off on the first floor. But we all know what's coming.
Interlude: Why Does Taxidermy Fail
Because taxidermy is hard. It's really hard. Taxidermy (lit. "the arranging of skin," ew) can take years and requires a deep knowledge of biology, chemistry, arts and crafts, wirework and a bit of artistic flair. "If it's so hard," you might ask, "why do we even bother with this ghoulish, outdated practice?" Probably because stuffed alligators are cheaper than live ones.
Plus, we already have so many of them! Observe the soft, doleful gaze of this buffalo.
We could never get this close to the real thing to admire it, but a skilled taxidermist has taken a creature, inconceivably complex in even its most basic functions, and frozen it in time like a wizard.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, like this gorilla, it's almost too real.
And then sometimes they go "eh, fuck it, good enough" and take off for lunch.
The Carnival of Nightmares
STRAP IN, CHILDREN.
Shanghai Natural History Museum has some doozies. In fact, one of them is their actual mascot. Meet Meng the Lion.
Look at him.
Look at him! He's magnificent.
They have an entire product line dedicated to him in the souvenir shop, so you know they get it. They get it, right?
Moving On - 1st Floor
The River of Life ends on the first floor mezzanine. There are some fish tanks and little pools where kids could play with starfish and amphibians, but the only part of the museum to house living creatures is currently closed to the public.
Hope they're all doing okay in there.
B1/F - Dinobots and Unrelenting Body Horror
Floor B1/F roughly follows the evolutionary chain from the Cambrian explosion to— oh rad! Dino bones!
Zombie T-Rex continues to roar at the crowds, five years on, despite zero evidence that they made any more noise than a lizard does now.
Thanks Steven Spielberg.
Beyond that is what I call the Hall of Bones, because it is that. Highlights include the mammoth skeleton and the skull of a brontotheriidae aka definitely a Kaiju.
Quality cinema entertainment here too, with a double feature on homo sapiens as they wipe out the Neanderthals (there are some theories that they may have actually integrated), and actors in excellent prosthetics playing homo erectus running from crowned eagles, swooping down to steal their babies.
If the specter of gruesome death bothers you, you don't really need to go any further. Seriously, don't.
You were warned.
The Darwin Center
The Darwin Center is a parade of eldritch terrors that will sear themselves into your mind and no educational merit is worth knowing that there is a deer in the museum that has been surgically bisected and posed in an eternal struggle against itself.
The Way Forward
The last bit of B1/F floor is a small section dedicated to the so-called Anthropocene, the name for the geological era where mankind is the dominant factor in the development of the climate. There's a pledge to stop wildlife trade and halt pollution, and a population counter ticks ever, ever upwards.
B2M/F - The Shanghai Environs
The middle mezzanine floor between B1 and B2 is host to a section dedicated to Shanghai. It's still just confirmation of two things:
1) Shanghai's immense variety of animal species is basically gone.
2) Shanghai is a swamp.
It's all right, but I wouldn't linger. Ogle the birds, read a bit about about the wetlands, check out the — does that deer have fangs?
It does! That's a Chinese Water Deer and it actually has giant fangs instead of antlers. They exist today! Nature! Amazing.
Moving on we find — psyche! One last bit of body horror at the very back!
Why do we flay sunfish? For the kids.
B2/F - Arctic, Africa, And The Man Who Made All This Possible
The lowest floor in the bottom of the light well might host an even bigger collection of taxidermy than the River of Life. The path forks here: one path leads to the polar area, and the other to the survival methods segment.
Still asking the important questions, like what would it look like if we could distend our jaws like snakes, or the vampires from Blade II.
Through that, and you get to the African Savannah. Do them in whatever order, but don't miss either.
The Walk Through Africa is a giant space dedicated to African wildlife. Every once in a while, they'll dim the lights and project a panorama of savannah life on the entire wall, set to orchestral music. You'll probably be surprised by the soaring brass fanfares and the roar of a thousand wildebeest from the balcony in the Hall of Bones. Unfortunately, the projection isn't visible from there, so you'll have to rush down if you want to catch the show.
See if you can spot the aardwolf. Sounds like a gang from Newcastle, but it's actually a canine related to the hyena that relies entirely on the reputation of its more fearsome cousin for safety. In reality, it just eats bugs.
Who's this interesting fellow?
The automobile magnate donated something like a thousand specimens to the Shanghai History Museum, including many of the big ones in the Africa section. He's done the same for a bunch more cities across China. The statue in commemorates his efforts to bring wheelchairs to disabled children across Southeast Asia, and he got an entire wall dedicated to his "Life of Purpose" in the museum. A philanthropist, educator and disability activist.
He was also a big game hunter, and at one point, owner of the Seattle Seahawks. Eventful life. We can thank him for the museum being the way it is today. He passed away in July, 2019.
The End - Butterflies, Family Trees and Gift Shops
The museum saves the most visually stunning displays for last. A giant wall of butterflies, moths and beetles and an even gianter wall of hunting trophies.
The wood paneling is a little weird. Feels like your weird uncle's mobile home, but this final area has literally hundreds of specimens arranged in family trees. It's the nicest looking part of the museum, and a great way to end the visit. Smart move, whoever put this here.
Make sure to stop by the souvenir shop.
Get a Meng tote bag on the way out. If you forget, it's okay, there's another souvenir shop by the 1/F exit.
So How Does It Hold Up?
Yes, some of the collection looks a little dated in 2020, some of the language is weird and yes, some of the displays are goofy-looking. But on two separate occasions on the same day, I saw small children tilt their heads back to look at a stegasaurus or a polar bear and loudly explain "wow!"
On the day I can't muster even a fraction of that joy in front of some rad dinosaur bones, then put me up next to Meng because I, too, will be dead inside.
Worth a day trip. Take the kids. Go with friends. Try it when you run out of date ideas. SmartShanghai's seal of approval.
Tickets can be purchased by scanning a WeChat QR code outside the venue. You will have to enter the real name and passport number of the ticket holders, as well as the person buying the tickets. Adult tickets are 30rmb, students and children under 1.3m tickets are 12rmb.
The Shanghai Natural History Museum is at 510 Beijing Xi Lu. Click here for the full listing.