Reconstructed down to the very last detail with leathery skin and sparkling eyes, a carnivorous Allosaurus bares its bloodthirsty teeth. The beasts jaws protrude into the foyer of the Berlin Museum of Natural History, as if it wants to break out of its prison. Yet behind the glass its torso consists only of a fossilized skeleton. Springing forward and yet trapped in the past, the creature offers an appropriate analogy for the museum itself.
"Welcome to Jurassic Park," says Reinhold Leinfelder, a well-groomed, white-haired man who speaks with a pronounced Bavarian accent. One and a half years ago, the geologist and coral reef specialist came to Berlin to take over as general director of the museum. He immediately overhauled the museums structure, reorganizing it into three departments: exhibition, collection, and research. This Friday Leinfelder is presenting the future face of the time-honored institution with a brand new permanent exhibition. The programs slogan: "Evolution in Action," or "Eva" for short.
Eva comes off as modern and fresh, and that's a welcome surprise. Until now the defiantly Wilhelmine building on Invalidenstrasse has been viewed by many as an outmoded curiosity cabinet. But the new show, in contrast, is designed to seduce without being pushy.
The exhibit climaxes with the giant Brachiosaurus skeleton, its skull perched 13 meters (43 feet) high upon its long neck, just below the glass ceiling of the atrium. The prehistoric giant is the tallest dinosaur specimen in any museum in the world, and has been a favorite with the public since it was first exhibited here in 1937. And even it has been spruced up: no longer waddling on bent legs like a crocodile, instead it stands tall like an elephant, all in keeping with the most recent scientific research.
Leinfelder points proudly to the supports that span the entirety of the colossal skeleton, comprising a metal framework that, like a gigantic orthodontic retainer, encases every one of the beasts bones, including the 300 kilogram femur. "Until now the skeleton was firmly fixed at all points," he says. "With this new construction we can remove any individual bone that we wish to examine." It is a fitting innovation, as Eva is meant to not only shed light on the provenance and extinction of animals and plants, but also on the future evolution of the natural history museum itself.
Exhibition, collection, and research: These three steps dominate the whole of the exhibit. The atrium surrounding the Brachiosaurus offers little in the line of films, buttons, or interactive gadgetry. Instead, fossils from the Jurassic period prevail. "We cannot and do not wish to compete with films like 'Jurassic Park,'" explains Leinfelder. "Wed rather concentrate on our strengths: instead of simulations, we offer the original itself."
In this way, the exhibition deliberately presents research as a subject matter in its own right. The museums second centerpiece, a skeleton of the prehistoric bird Archaeopteryx, is shown in a kind of cross between a display window and a laboratory, allowing the public to observe paleontologists at work through the bulletproof glass.
After the dinosaur hall the exhibit turns to more general themes of evolution. Climate change, mountain formation, and the impact of meteorites are presented as the formative powers of life. The message is clear: everything is connected. For those overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, a stroll into the neighboring hall reveals a four meter high "biodiversity wall," where it's possible to gaze in wonder at the variety of form and color of hundreds of stuffed zoological specimens. Or visitors can simply lie down on the spacious round sofa next to the staircase, and watch the emergence of the universe on a giant screen.
At the end of the exhibit, Leinfelder climbs the broad staircase, unlocks an enormous door, and is suddenly standing in the middle of the 19th century. This is where the museum's bird collection is housed and it's as if nothing has changed since Emperor Wilhelm II opened the building in 1889. Dust-covered wooden closets are visible in the half-light, into which 130,000 stuffed birds have been squeezed, representing about 90 percent of the world's species. It smells of dust and the distinctive floor polish that was exclusive to the former East Germany.
Visitors to the museum only get to scratch the surface of this Berlin treasure trove. The richness of the collection is only revealed to those who manage to stray into this labyrinth of staircases and subterranean rooms. More than 30 million objects are archived here -- minerals, skeletons, and stuffed animals specimens preserved in alcohol. "Berlins collection is one of the five most important in the world, together with London, Paris, New York, and Washington," says Matthias Glaubrecht, who heads the mollusk department, which houses the collections of snails, mussels, and squid.
"Our museum is like an enormous research machine with over 30 million parts," he says proudly. As well as from being a mollusk specialist, Glaubrecht is also the museums research director, supervising six professors, some 60 scientists, and 40 doctoral candidates and students. A genetic laboratory is located in the so-called "New Building" (built in 1917), and a modern IT equipment station with electron microscopes can be found on the second floor, right at the Brachiosaurus eye level.
Strolling through Evolution
Still, the conditions under which research is carried out here are often quite hair-raising. A visit to the research director entails traversing a confusing tangle of stairs and hallways, passing turtle skeletons and preserved snakes along the way. And the office itself is in a room with decayed window frames, with puddles forming beneath them on the floor. Glaubrecht has been forced to jack up his computer on small blocks of wood to prevent water damage.
The chemical compounds also suffer, due to a absence of an air conditioning system. On hot days the smell of alcohol pervades the halls -- as it evaporates from the quarter of a million glass jars holding conserved animals, 130,000 of them containing fish alone. Yet the sheer age of the collection also allows room for new discoveries. Glaubrecht opens a drawer and dozens of snail shells tumble out, all from an African expedition that took place over 100 years ago. "There is enough material in this drawer alone for a doctoral thesis," he explains. And 6,000 of these drawers full of mollusks comprise his kingdom.
"Our collections are not ends in themselves," Glaubrecht says. One could, for instance, use the reconstruction of fossils to trace the climate change that took place in prehistoric times. "Or we could assist in the development of new painkillers, by investigating the varieties of neurotoxins in the bevel worm." He loves striding through the collections, taking his own private travels through time. And as he moves along the narrow, kilometer-long rows of cabinets, he is also strolling through German scientific history.
For example, in one showcase a yellowed note bearing the handwritten name "Adelbert von Chamisso" lies next to a group of guillemots, whose black and white mantel of feathers brings penguins to mind. The Prussian poet and nature lover brought the birds to his homeland in 1818 after his circumnavigation of the globe. Other collection pieces derive from the scientific expeditions of the famous German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The dinosaur discoveries, made in the German colony in East Africa, came later: 250 tons of fossilized bones which now provide the core of the dinosaur exhibit on the first floor.
World War II brought the museums decline with the east wing being struck by American bombs on February 3, 1945. And these proverbial "last ruins of the war" are still being renovated today. In 2009 the "wet collection" will be unveiled -- this time, finally, with an air-conditioning system. Although Berlins Humboldt University, to which the museum belongs, was supposed to pay for the renovations, the school is hard up at the moment. Instead the Eva exhibit is being financed by the state-run lottery and European Union funds for economically underdeveloped regions.
Glaubrecht hopes that in a few years the museum will finally be accepted by the state-funded Leibniz Association as an independent research institute. For over ten years the absorption has been hindered by a problem that could actually be solved by being in the association: the crumbling parts of the buildings structure. Even after the reconstruction of the east wing, Leinfelder says, €100 million is still needed for further restoration. Yet for Glaubrecht, it is not so much the alcohol fumes and leaky windows that are cause for concern, but rather the public perception which dismisses taxonomists like him as outdated counters of bristles and legs.
"Many people think that the period of taxonomy ended with Charles Darwin or Ernst Mayr, but we are only at the beginning," says Glaubrecht. "We dont even know how many species there are. There could be 13 million, but there could also be 30 million." German universities, however, seem only interested in supporting molecular biology. "Germany has no single chair of pure taxonomy," laments Glaubrecht. The "Evolution in Action" exhibit is also meant to address this issue by recruiting new researchers in the field.
Seen in this light, it doesnt seem coincidental that the busts of three legendary natural scientists -- Carl von Linné, Darwin, and Mayr -- are so prominently displayed in the exhibit, next to dinosaur bones and birds of paradise. "Of all things," Glaubrecht says, "it is experts in the study of animal and plant species who are facing the threat of extinction."