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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Natural History Museum: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

The Natural History Museum is a surprisingly extensive trove of treasures, yet it is not without its flaws. Welcome to the land of dinosaurs and preserved species.

Why the Natural History Museum Deserves Your Attention

The modern era has bestowed upon Western civilization an array of scientific discoveries, leading to philosophical attempts to redefine humanity. The Copernican revolution revived the heliocentric theories, and a century later, British scientist William Harvey revealed the circulation of blood. This movement was propelled by an increasingly accessible world map and a revolutionary invention: the printing press.

Each scientific breakthrough challenges the creationist myth. While renouncing faith is not yet a widespread option, scientists are reevaluating their relationship with God, no longer viewing humankind as the center of the biosphere.

Botany and biology show interest in other organisms, the results of which contribute to a larger dynamic: the development of a natural history of life. In Europe, modern science advocates for the identification of unique natural phenomena.

By 1810, the University of Berlin had established a research center with various collections. The establishment of a colonial empire in East Africa provided German scientists with a remarkable opportunity. Between 1906 and 1911, paleontological expeditions unearthed the Tendaguru site in present-day Tanzania. Almost 250 tons of fossils were returned to Germany. These dinosaur skeletons, among the largest and most complete known in the world, are now the pride of the Berlin Natural History Museum.

Stepping into a Fascinating Natural Laboratory

Upon entering, visitors are greeted with superlatives and thrust several million years into the past. In the center of a vast hall, the reconstructed skeleton of a Giraffatitan (a relative of the Brachiosaurus) towers 13 meters high, overshadowing the other six skeletons of Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and others, despite their considerable size.

The initial impression is awe-inspiring. The space is well-organized, allowing for easy movement despite large crowds. Visitors are then offered various paths.

One leads to the magnificent Tristan, a reconstructed Tyrannosaurus Rex displayed in a setup favoring movement and darkness. Other rooms are devoted to geology and minerals, as well as to billion-year-old meteorites. An exhibition on the formation of the solar system and a ceiling projection area provide abundant information, although the presentation could be more comprehensive and well-developed.

Further on, in the east wing of the Natural History Museum, is an extraordinary wet collection. Hundreds of jars contain animal specimens preserved in alcohol. This beautifully arranged space provides a fascinating glimpse into fetuses and fish. They are cultural assets collected globally by previous generations of explorers.

The museum feels delightfully retro, like stepping into a 1930s laboratory. This sentiment is amplified by the displays of preserved species. The taxidermied animals are haphazardly arranged with no apparent theme. This improbable collection, acceptable in pre-war museography but less so in the 21st century, continues with the reproduction of biotopes using paper and cardboard. The excellent first impression gradually shifts to a curious feeling.

Uneven and Ambiguous Museography

The history of the Earth is so complex and multifaceted that it's impossible to compile all the knowledge and discoveries made by human societies over the centuries into one place. However, the museum is not immune to criticism regarding its outdated museography, lack of inspiration, and outdated design in some areas that could benefit from modernization to meet current standards.

The debate would differ if the aesthetic choice had been a retrospective look at how natural history has been studied, not the natural history itself. However, the task would have been significantly more difficult since the accumulated collections are inherently from another time. For instance, while taxidermy is a crucial practice for preserving threatened or extinct biodiversity, the public no longer appreciates it in the same way.

This leads to the question of exhibit curators. The Berlin Natural History Museum is gradually modernizing, room by room, keeping in line with scientific discoveries (e.g., the reassembly of the Giraffatitan between 2005 and 2007), concerns about the preservation of collections (e.g., the rearrangement of the wet collections in the east wing in 2010), or economic imperatives linked to the cultural industry.

From a strictly visual perspective, the displays are breathtaking, but they cater more to an impressionistic relationship with a novice audience. The emphasis is on visual sensation and the instantaneous expression of light effects. While striking, it also raises the question of how natural sciences are represented in museums and the value of a sensationalist approach. Nonetheless, the Natural History Museum remains a fantastic destination for exploration, especially for children.

Reasons to Visit

  • Often stunning visual effects

  • Dinosaur skeletons

  • An affordable entrance fee

Reasons to Skip

  • Unevenly highlighted spaces

  • Little interactivity for young visitors

  • Inconsistent interior signage sometimes leading to dead ends

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