Young museum tells old story
BEIJING, July 5 — Telling the story of the evolutionary history of earth and life is the aim of Nanjing Museum of Palaeontology, but it isn’t an easy task.
The museum, affiliated with the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, focuses on invertebrates and palaeobotany and features tiny fossils often hard to discern without the aid of a microscope.
“Such exhibits, in most cases, can hardly intrigue viewers,” said Sun Weiguo, curator of the museum and a geoscientist with the institute.
Indeed, these types of exhibits seldom take any noteworthy proportion in any other science museum.
But at the six-month-old Nanjing museum, which opened last December, they are dominant.
And they must be arranged in a way that sustains visitors’ interest, said Sun.
Sun campaigned for his post through competition and convinced the panel of his capability with a proposal on how to run the new museum, which is one of the largest exhibition centres of palaeontology in the world.
Following his plan, the journey exploring evolutionary history begins with the dinosaur world composed of the skeletons of three dinosaurs.
“This is just an appetizer to arouse the visitors’ interest,” Sun said.
It is immediately followed by a “road up to the hill,” which is a stairway flanked by model rocks representing stratigraphical sections typical of Nanjing from the Sinian Period over 700 million years ago to the Jurassic Period some 200 million years ago.
“Nanjing is rather unique among large cities in the world as it still preserves a fairly complete system of stratigraphical sequences of various geological eras,” Sun said.
“You can find those sections within an hour’s car ride from our institute in the city proper to any direction.
The region of Nanjing itself is a natural museum of natural history.”
Elsewhere in South China, he said, the strata of some geological eras are missing, while the whole of northern China lacks the strata from the late Ordovician (488 to 444 million years ago) down.
Sun said the facility is “obliged to give a clear account of things at our doorway.”
Although the display in the museum ends when the primitive human being emerges, the curator said it still can hook the visitors’ interests by its presentation of major events in the remote geological eras.
The Cambrian Explosion dating 543 million years ago is an important part in the museum’s storytelling.
Marking an important point in the history of life on earth, the event is regarded as “explosion” as diversity of forms of living creatures appeared in a relatively short time during this period.
The best fossils evidencing the Cambrian Explosion from Chengjiang, Yunnan Province in Southwest China invigorate the exhibition of this part.
The discovery of those fossils by Chinese scientists in the 1980s made a hit in the international palaeontology community as it expanded people’s knowledge of the evolutionary big bang, according to Zhang Xingliang, geological student of Northwest University of China in Xi’an of Shaanxi Province.
Also highlighted is the massive extinction of the Permian Period more than 200 million years ago, and the famous Jehol Biota found in western Liaoning of Northeast China, which refers to over 60 species of fossil plants, some 1,000 species of fossil invertebrates and nearly 70 species of fossil vertebrates dating to 125 million years ago.
Both are hot topics in palaeontology studies in recent years, and have aroused much public interest.
Exhibits of Jehol Biota include the famous Sinosauropteryx, one of several featured dinosaurs first discovered in western Liaoning.
They are believed to have provided new and crucial evidence for some important issues in evolutionary history, particularly the direct ancestors and phylogeny of birds, and the origins of feathers.
These and the others of the 2,000 pieces on display have been selected from the institute’s collection of more than 200,000 fossil specimens, Sun said.
“As a research centre of international palaeontology, the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology has a rich scientific accumulation, which offers good resources for the museum.”
Incorporated into the 4,200 square-metre exhibition area is a “palaeobotanic garden,” where grows some “living fossil plants” such as Ginkgo and Dawn Redwood.