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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Natural History Museum: When dinosaurs ruled the earth

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Le musée d'histoire naturelle est un lieu où il fait bon s'y perdre.
The museum offers extraordinary visuals.

The Natural History Museum is surprisingly well-stocked. But it is not without its faults. Welcome to the land of dinosaurs and naturalized species.

The Natural History Museum deserves your attention.

The modern era has brought to Western civilisation its share of scientific discoveries leading to philosophical attempts to rethink Humankind. The Copernican revolution revived the heliocentric theories. A century later, the British scientist William Harvey demonstrated the circulation of blood. This movement was driven by cartographic knowledge of an increasingly accessible world, and also by a revolutionary invention: the printing press.

Every scientific breakthrough undermines the creationist myth. While apostasy is not yet an option, scientists are rethinking their relationship with God. They no longer consider man as the centre of his biosphere.

Botany and biology are interested in other organisms. The results obtained are part of a wider dynamic, namely the development of a natural history of Life. In Europe, modern science is pushing for the identification of original natural phenomena.

By 1810, the University of Berlin had established a research centre with various collections. The setting up of a colonial empire in East Africa offered German scientists a formidable outlet. Between 1906 and 1911, palaeontological expeditions ransacked the Tendaguru site in present-day Tanzania. Almost 250 tonnes of fossils were brought back to Germany. These dinosaur skeletons are among the largest and most complete known in the world. They are now the pride of the Berlin Natural History Museum.

A fascinating natural laboratory at times

As soon as you pass through the entrance gates, you are confronted with superlatives and plunged several million years into the past. In the centre of a huge hall, the reconstructed skeleton of a Giraffatitan (of the Brachiosaurus family) towers 13 metres above a strange court of miracles where six other skeletons of Diplodocus, Allosaurus and others suddenly seem tiny, despite their imposing size.

The first impression is fantastic. The space is ideally laid out, making it possible to move around without jostling despite the crowds. The visitor is then offered various paths.

One of them leads to the magnificent Tristan, a Tyrannosaurus Rex reconstituted in a staging that favours movement and darkness. Other rooms are devoted to geology and minerals, as well as to meteorites dating back several billion years. There is also an exhibition on the formation of the solar system and a projection area on the ceiling. There is a lot of information, but it is not very comprehensive or well developed.

Further on in the east wing of the Natural History Museum is an extraordinary wet collection. Here, hundreds of jars contain animal specimens preserved in alcohol. A beautifully appointed space provides an intriguing visual of fetuses, fish. They are the cultural assets collected around the world by the adventurers of the world before.

The whole place is delightfully outdated and takes the form of a 1930s laboratory. This feeling is reinforced by the displays of naturalised species. The taxidermied animals are piled up in an ensemble with no real thread. This improbable accumulation, justifiable for pre-war museography but much less so in the 21st century, continues with the paper-cardboard type reproduction of biotopes. The excellent first impression gradually gives way to a strange feeling.

Uneven and ambiguous museography

The history of the Earth involves so many factors and approaches that it is unthinkable to bring together in one place all the knowledge and discoveries accumulated by human societies over the last few centuries. However, the museum cannot escape criticism about its outdated museography, its lack of inspiration and relief. In some places, its design would need to be modernised to meet current standards.

The question would be different if the aesthetic choice had been that of a retrospective look. Not natural history as such, but the way it is studied. But the task would have been much more difficult because the collections that have been built up are already intrinsically from another time. For example, although it is an ancestral and necessary practice for the conservation of threatened or extinct biodiversity, taxidermy is no longer appreciated in the same way by the public.

This raises the issue of exhibition curators. The Berlin Natural History Museum is gradually being modernised, room by room, in line with scientific discoveries (cf. the reassembly of the Giraffatitan between 2005 and 2007), concerns about the conservation of the collections (cf. the rearrangement of the wet collections in the east wing of the building in 2010) or the economic imperatives linked to the cultural industry.

From a strictly visual point of view, the achievements are breathtaking. But they are more focused on an impressionistic relationship with the neophyte audience. The emphasis is on visual sensation and the instantaneous expression of light effects. The effect is striking, but it also raises the question of the representation of natural sciences in museums and the usefulness of a sensationalist approach. In any case, the Natural History Museum remains a wonderful option for discovery, especially for children.

Reasons to go

  • Often stunning visual effects

  • Dinosaur skeletons

  • A democratic entrance fee

Reasons to avoid

  • Spaces unevenly highlighted

  • Little interactivity for young visitors

  • Shaky interior signage sometimes leading to dead ends

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