Monday, March 9, 2009

Museum of Natural History, Berlin

Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History) documents more than two centuries of collecting and displaying specimens from the natural world. The museum’s galleries are packed with fossils, stuffed animals (including extinct ones), geological specimens (such as prismatic columnar basalt – a favorite in our family!), and animal specimens preserved in glass jars. There is one room devoted to anthropology, which displays remains and re-creations of all the known hominids up to and including homo sapiens. The homo sapiens display case contains just a few examples of material culture – objects that were made by early man – but these are very famous artifacts, including the so-called Venus of Willendorf (which I was surprised to find here rather than in an art museum).

As the mother of a four-year-old I have seen more of this museum than I probably would have otherwise; my son calls it “the dinosaur skeleton museum.” Its centerpiece is the dinosaur room, boasting the tallest dinosaur skeleton in any museum in the world, as well as the finest fossil specimen of the archaeopteryx in the world (of the 10 known specimens). The archaeopteryx is the first known bird, and is considered the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds.

Although the museum is worth seeing just for the rich and varied collections on display, it does make effective use of 20th-century technology in a few cases, including a video presentation of the solar system, which is projected onto a circular screen that slowly drops from the ceiling while you are watching it; viewers lie on their backs on an enormous round sofa. The video uses the “powers of ten” technique of zooming away from the earth and then zooming back towards it to create a sense of the enormity of space. Another neat technological display is a video screen that travels around an enormous globe, showing how plate tectonics work through a video recreation of the shifting of plates to create the continents as we know them.

The museum is housed in a late 19th-century building, which, though beautiful, has many rooms that are not safe and therefore cannot be opened to the public. This limits the amount of the collection that can be on display, yet even those rooms are used effectively as pedagogical tools. A sign on the door of one such room reads as follows:

“Part of the bird collection is kept in this 480 m2 hall. The historically furnished room documents bird biodiversity, with examples from all known families of birds. Among the most valuable objects are specimens from famous explorers, collectors and researchers, such as James Cook, Simon Peter Pallas, Alexander von Humboldt, Christoph Ludwig Brehm and Alfred Edmund Brehm. Like many rooms in the museum, this hall cannot be opened to the public due to its poor state of repair. We plan to use the room in future as an example of how a classic ‘show-collection’ was presented.”

(All text in the museum is provided in English as well as German, which I greatly appreciate.)

As you can gather from this quotation, the museum in some ways thematizes the history of collecting and the history of display. Even in the parts of the collection that are open to the public, there are some rooms where the 19th-century style of “show collection” is in evidence: specimens are lined up in glass-and-wood cabinets that stand in the room like stacks in a library. The ways in which scientific knowledge has been created and disseminated over the centuries are presented to visitors in an interesting way. One room shows not only how animal specimens are preserved through taxidermy, but also some older, less life-like examples that demonstrate how greatly these techniques have improved over time. This room contains a dodo bird – probably my favorite thing in the whole museum! – and the preserved remains of Bobby, a mountain gorilla that lived in the Berlin Zoo in the 1950s.

Currently the Museum für Naturkunde has a temporary exhibition on Charles Darwin marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth AND the 150th anniversary of the publication of his earth-shattering book, The Origin of Species.

1. My own photographs of the collection, a few of which you see here, are inspired by the work of artist Rosamund Purcell, whose museum photographs I greatly admire.

2. Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde reminds me a bit of the Horniman Museum in London, which I recommend for those interested in such collections. The Horniman has a greater emphasis on anthropology, but does include animal specimens collected in the 19th century. We visited the Horniman in August 2007 – with two two-year-olds – and it was a great family excursion. My only regret is that I was not blogging in 2007 so I don’t have a blog entry about it!

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