What makes a great natural history museum? Is it the quality of its dinosaurs? Chicago’s Field Museum, home to the world’s largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex, might win out there (though it loses a few points for calling this magnificent specimen “Sue”). If size counts, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, with 325,000 square feet of exhibits, is a clear contender. New York, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles also host formidable institutions with marvellous collections, housed in suitably vast spaces. But are size and wealth everything? What about history? La Specola, in Florence, a collection that dates back to the Medicis, opened to the public in 1775 and was probably the first of its kind. For architectural grandeur, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna is a must; it also houses the Willendorf Venus (or, more correctly, considering this hauntingly beautiful figurine was created around 25,000BC, the Willendorf Woman).
All these institutions have their merits but, for me, what matters is a sense of intimacy with the collection – a sense of having stumbled upon some 19th-century naturalist’s personal demesne, and the atmosphere that lingers after I leave. In some museums, I’ve almost forgotten that atmosphere by the time I have left by way of the interminable gift shop, recalling only individual items, impressive, often beautiful, but isolated and out of context.
What I want is a vision, a sense of life’s drama, a narrative that continues in my mind long after the tram has delivered me back to my hotel. I don’t want to be impressed; I want to be drawn in.
Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, or Natural History Museum, holds one undisputed gem: a breathtaking specimen of Archaeopteryx, which, it says rather quaintly, “is considered the most famous fossil in the world”. Whether or not this is true scarcely matters: no visitor to the city should miss the chance to view this most beautiful and astonishingly well-preserved fossil. In our imaginations, at least, this is the original bird, the Urvogel; and although Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s great champion and the originator of the term “ecology”, says otherwise (to put it far too briefly, he claimed that the tail was too long for a bird) there is no denying the fascination of this single exhibit.
For me, the Naturkunde’s wet collection is the museum’s most memorable feature. This room, just adjacent to the main hall, contains “around one million zoological objects – from spiders, fish and crustaceans to amphibians and mammals – in 276,000 vials, preserved in 81,880 litres of ethanol”, which is truly impressive. But what matters, as you pass from the airy hall of the main fossil collection into this dim, golden space, is the sense it gives of life’s immense variability and inventiveness.
The “vials” are housed in an immense wood-and-glass block, around which crowds of viewers walk, quite literally stunned into silence, gazing in at wisps of fin, or claw, or alien faces with large, staring eyes, unsure whether they are looking at an artwork or a museum exhibit.
In fact, the wet collection at the Naturkunde is both: a great exhibition that does not seek to burden the visitor with a host of names he or she will forget on the way to the gift shop, but conveys that sense of life as ineffable mystery. This is what a great natural history collection can do, no matter what its resources may be. It reminds us that life, such an unlikely outcome in the history of the cosmos, is infinitely mysterious and miraculous in the best sense. In this, it transcends our definition of “science” and enters into a deeper, less reductive mode of knowing, setting wonder on a par with logic.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food