Mongolia says goodbye to Lenin and hello to dinosaurs

Ulan Bator museum cuts its links to former Soviet Union leader and turns itself into a home for 70 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus fossil

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 2:18am


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 fossils, including a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar.

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.

In the building's new incarnation, the centrepiece is likely to be the seven-metre long Tyrannosaurus bataar which prompted a dispute when it was put on sale in New York 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 him 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."

Minjin said: "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 the dinosaurs."