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Once he bestrode his world, lending his name to more museums, streets, monuments and public institutions than any other 20th-century figure. But in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, at least, it is goodbye Lenin, as a political dinosaur makes way for the real kind.
Mongolia is to transform a museum once dedicated to the Soviet dictator into a centre for its wealth of fossils, including a 70m-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar specimen.
The grand building in Ulan Bator, which still boasts a giant bust of Vladimir Ilyich, has been used as offices for several years. The government has now earmarked the complex for a new dinosaur museum.
“Mongolia has been sending dinosaur exhibits abroad for 20 years, while not having a museum at home,” said Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, the minister for culture, sports and tourism. “We have a wonderful dinosaur heritage but people are not aware of it.”
She said that fossils lent to overseas institutions, and specimens smuggled abroad illegally, would fill several facilities if they were all brought home.
The centre will also be home to a new register for Mongolia’s dinosaur finds, allowing proper tracking of discoveries.
The minister said she hoped that education via the Ulan Bator museum and other new exhibits around the country would help turn people into protectors of Mongolia’s heritage, and deter smuggling. The government also hopes to encourage tourism.
The Lenin Museum opened in 1980, when the country was a Soviet satellite. “It was a very grand museum with Lenin’s statue, everything embellished with red flags and with pictures of Lenin’s childhood and history,” said the minister.
She learned more about Lenin when glasnost began as she was studying in the Soviet Union, and, like many of her compatriots, “started thinking Lenin was not such a great figure and had caused so much misery to his own and other people”.
Since the transition to a multiparty democracy in 1990, the Mongolian People’s party has been based in the building, which has also housed a bar and restaurant; at one stage Lenin’s bust gazed down over pool tables.
In the building’s new incarnation the centrepiece is likely to be the seven-metre long Tyrannosaurus bataar – also known as Tarbosaurus bataar, because experts dispute its taxonomy – which prompted a dispute when it was put on sale by a New York auction house last May. In December, prosecutors in the US said Erik Prokopi, a fossils dealer from Florida, had agreed to surrender the nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar and other fossils – paving the way for their return to Mongolia – after pleading guilty to smuggling dinosaur specimens into the US. They described Prokopi as “a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils”.
Bolortsetseg Minjin, the New York-based founder of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, said the case had proved a turning point, raising awareness among the Mongolian public and officials. “Mongolia is known to have many different species and the preservation is unique: you find complete skeletons in the Gobi desert, which is very rare.”
International palaeontologists and the public have been interested in the country’s treasures, but many in Mongolia had been unaware of them, she added. She described running an outreach programme for children who lived next to fossil sites in the Gobi but who thought dinosaurs were mythical creatures.
“They should know what they have in their backyard … [but] there were no books they could read in their language and no toys or TV programmes to learn about their inheritance.”
The paleontologist has been at the forefront of efforts to promote public interest in dinosaurs and protect specimens such as the Tyrannosaur bataar.
She added: “If they decided to use it as a permanent museum, I would think Lenin’s head would need to be removed because in terms of content it doesn’t really go. I suppose some people might be against that.”
But, she added: “Both are part of our history. Dinosaurs go back millions of years; Lenin was [decades] of history under the Soviets. I don’t think there will be strong objections from the public, because they are excited about what’s going on with the dinosaurs.”
The government has called a new dinosaur centre as an urgent priority because the natural history museum is in a state of disrepair, and other specimens are due to return home soon.