Qi Wang knocked on the door of Nottingham Natural History Museum and said: “I have some dinosaurs from China – would you like to show them?”
China, he explained, was keen to show its remarkable dinosaur fossils to the world and was looking for a venue with the ambition to host a collection never seen outside Asia.
Dr Wang’s research into architectural language and how buildings ‘speak’ to visitors had come to the attention of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing.
And he persuaded both parties that the natural history museum at Wollaton Hall, one of the great houses of the Elizabethan age but as yet not on the international exhibition circuit, was the ideal home for the world-exclusive Dinosaurs of China show.
Dr Wang said: “I knew Wollaton’s central Great Hall had something rare in museums: the space to show something really big and impressive.”
So it was that the towering Mamenchisaurus, a dinosaur that lived in China up to 160 million years ago, formed a stunning centrepiece in the Great Hall. Around this Dr Wang helped design a narrative, guiding visitors from ground-shaking lizards to the feathered dinosaurs (including the Gigantoraptor, the largest ever found) that evolved into birds.
Possibly the greatest achievement for an English natural history museum…Nottingham one, the rest of the world zero
The exhibition opened in the summer of 2017, attracting a record 130,000-plus visitors to the city council-owned venue and envy from the global community of paleantologists.
New Scientist said it was “Possibly the greatest achievement for an English natural history museum…Nottingham one, the rest of the world zero.”
And in June 2018 Dinosaurs of China: Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers was a finalist in a prestigious UK award for knowledge transfer.
Dr Wang’s Minds-On Spatial Narrative research had previously come to the attention of academics in China, which has an astonishingly rich fossil record and world-renowned research expertise.
Fossils in the finals
Dr Wang’s success in sharing knowledge with international partners brought the exhibition to the attention of judges of two prestigious awards.
In June 2018, as Vision magazine went to press, Dinosaurs of China was a finalist in the Knowledge Exchange/Transfer Initiative of the Year category of the THELMAS, Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards.
And in spring 2018 the exhibition was runner-up in the final of the Guardian University Awards’ Internationalisation category.
Judges heard how media coverage reached 45 million people.
Arts Council England said: “This major event must be considered a triumph… [and is] a model other museums should look at.”
His postgraduate students had helped design a dynamic new layout for the Paleozoological Museum of China, marking the start of a collaboration with the IVPP that led him to the Wollaton museum’s door.
“By the end of 2016 there are 4,873 registered museums in China,” Dr Wang said. “It’s the fastest growing market of its kind in the world, with 150 museums built a year over the last three decades. That means there is a lack of trained curators and our professional expertise can fit into this gap.”
The establishment of the University’s China Cultural Visiting Hub offered Dr Wang’s research a wider platform, and led to a series of presentations for the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as establishing the role of the curator in helping scientists engage museum visitors.
Dr Wang, together with colleagues from the University’s Nottingham Lakeside Arts, and Research and Innovation, has since helped deliver training for scores of museum staff from across China, and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China is planning to co-run a Master’s Course in Critical Curatorship and Display.
Thanks to Dr Wang, the translation of ‘curator’ is now a recognised term in China.
Dr Wang is currently back in China, invited by the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology to help design a new museum in Hunan province, and is also investigating a joint research institute for fossil culture in China.
“The feathered dinosaurs of China are national treasures and my colleagues in China were very excited by the project at Wollaton Hall. It was a huge responsibility and all started with me literally knocking on the door.”