Thursday, June 9, 2011

Naturalis

I've been away in the Netherlands for the past week, and took the opportunity to visit Naturalis in Leiden, the Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum or National Natural History Museum. The museum is the result of a merger between a number of Dutch natural history museums and is certainly unique - to enter the galleries proper, one must first cross an enclosed bridge (populated by model rhinos) from the rather unassuming entrance building over a stream and main road. While the taxidermy displays are absolutely stunning (and I'll come back to those), this is Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, and you're no doubt interested in the more Mesozoic offerings as I was. Although lacking in big dinosaur mounts, it nevertheless doesn't disappoint.



The centrepiece of the museum's 'Primeval Parade' of prehistoric animals is a Camarasaurus mount in a rather unusual rearing position, the likelihood of which remains a matter of contention - which is pointed out on a nearby sign, to the museum's credit. Whether or not you agree that Camarasaurus would have been capable of rearing up in this fashion, it does make a real impression - and its closeness to skeletons and taxidermy of big mammals (extinct and extant) is a great demonstration of just how much bigger sauropods were than anything before or since. Even mid-size Camarasaurus makes the nearby mammoth mount look small. Nearby is Edmontosaurus annectens, a common sight in museums but by no means unwelcome.



Note in the photo above the Triceratops skull, which is being exhibited until July 1. Apparently it is 60% real fossil, 40% reconstruction. Again, it is to this museum's credit that one is almost always told how much of an exhibit is real, and how much of it has been reconstructed/cast; in the case of the Triceratops skull, the reconstructed portions are pretty easy to spot, but on some specimens it can be harder for us laymen/ignorant types, and this information is much appreciated. It's something I wish museums would do more often.

One of the best aspects of this museum is the ability to peer in closely at the many and varied specimens on show. None of the larger mounts are behind glass, and even those exhibits that are shielded still allow for a comfortable close inspection. Everything is also excellently presented. Particularly striking is a mounted cast of the relatively obscure pterosaur Coloborhyncus spielbergi, while I was quite taken with what I believe was a juvenile Platecarpus mosasaur (both below). The collections are diverse even if they lack giant dinosaurs; bits and pieces include a Diplodocus skull cast (as it originally appeared still partially encased in the rock matrix), Archaeopteryx and Pterodactylus casts, a dinosaur nest, and much more besides. The collection of prehistoric mammal fossils is quite extensive and very interesting in itself.



One curiosity came in the form of what looked like an old Dinamation Tyrannosaurus head and cutaway leg, on display near the café and main staircase. Mug in the second picture provided for scale.




By far the most impressive aspect of this museum, however, is the taxidermy. Rather than being housed in glass cabinets down vastly long corridors, this thoroughly modern museum has them standing on platforms that you are able to walk around and view from all angles. Naturally I was particularly taken by the display of birds as it included many of my favourite species, including the southern ground hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri - but sure, the mammals are nice too. (There's even a stuffed dog on the floor next to one of the platforms, seemingly placed there just to trick people.) In the 'Life' gallery, a series of stuffed pigeons demonstrates the flight stroke in a very inventive and visually striking way. There's also a cheetah balancing on one leg, which just looks plain cool.






In all this is a superb museum, and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you happen to visit/live in the Netherlands (which, by the way, is a superb country in itself to spend a week - although my opinions on the matter may not be entirely objective). It's a short walk from the central station in Leiden and you can expect to pay €11 for entry, which is perfectly reasonable. There's an excellent temporary exhibition on whales this year, with skeletal mounts of whales both extant and extinct and fascinating exhibits on cetacean zoology - but that's all rather drifting from the theme of the blog. Go and see for yourself!

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful place. I love the pigeon flight sequence (among other things). I often feel the continental natural history museums are superior to London's NHM in terms of display (although its own collection is magnificent in many ways) and this seems to be another confirmation of it.

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  2. The taxidermy displays do look really impressive.

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  3. Holy &^%$ that cheetah mount is amazing!

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  4. The taxidermy collection is a mixture of the ones held at American Museum of Natural History and the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (long name, I know).

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