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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Museum für Naturkunde

What is the Museum für Naturkunde?

The Museum für Naturkunde is a museum of natural history in Berlin that was founded in the early 19th century, as a research collection at the University of Berlin.

Museum für Naturkunde dinosaur

Anagoria, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Museum für Naturkunde History

The Museum für Naturkunde was founded in 1810, as an institution under the umbrella of the University of Berlin. In its first 80 years this small research collection grew at an extraordinary rate: German scientists travelled the world and returned to Berlin with hundreds of thousands of animal, insect, mineral and plant specimens preserved for classification. It’s easy to forget, after its turbulent recent history, that 19th-century Germany led the world in science as well as in classical scholarship. A dedicated museum building was eventually built, on the site of a former ironworks, to accommodate these seemingly infinite acquisitions. Sadly, all that remains of the museum’s industrial predecessor are two intricate cast-iron staircases.

In the late 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II officially opened the museum building to the public. Wilhelm’s leadership is known for its pompous bigotry and hubristic arrogance, but he also showed surprising and genuine enthusiasm and support for the arts, sciences, and public education. He must have been thrilled by this new civic institution, which was designed to set a new standard for an institute dedicated to scientific research. Ordinary German citizens could come and learn about the latest discoveries and innovations in ‘natural history’, as the discipline from which biology and geography descend was known. The Museum für Naturkunde continues to be one of the most important natural history research centres in the world. Its collection now numbers over 30 million objects, of which fewer than 1 in 5,000 specimens can be exhibited at any one time.

The museum’s flagship permanent exhibits include the world’s largest known piece of Baltic amber, an Archaeopteryx fossil that shows how birds evolved from dinosaur ancestors, and a fascinating ‘wet collection’, which resembles something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory. Thousands of underwater creatures – some captured more than a century ago – are preserved in glass jars and vials.

There’s a growing scientific consensus that we are living in a new epoch, which is being called the Anthropocene. This proposed geological period is defined by the pervasive impact of human activity on earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems. Many exhibits here in Berlin serve as an urgent reminder of the natural world’s ongoing depletion at our hands. The taxidermy remains of the Tasmanian Tiger and the Quagga, a relative of the zebra, are the poignant legacy of two lost species. They were both hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today, the German government understands that natural history museums have an important role to play in how we respond to the environmental crises that threaten life on earth. The Museum für Naturkunde is carrying out essential research into the consequences and possibilities of this new human epoch. We must hope that their findings will help the public to reinterpret their relationship with the natural world.

As you leave the museum, you might decide to turn onto Chausseestrasse, part of which, when the Wall arose, became a desolate no-man’s land between East and West. If so, keep an eye out for a memorial to some of Berlin’s own native wildlife. Brass rabbits have been laid into the pavement, as a quirky tribute to the rabbits that colonized this area during the Cold War. When the humans moved out, rabbits moved in. It’s a humble but hopeful sign of nature’s ability to survive the worst ravages of humanity.

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