Naturalis – Part 1

Museums

It’s finally done: The new buildings for Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Netherlands’ national natural history museum. Based in the city of Leiden, the museum had been under construction since 2017. The previous incarnation of Naturalis hailed from 1998, after the fusion of some older museums. It was never that heavy on dinosaurs, focusing more on living animals and plants, as well as the rather more recent history of Europe during the last ice age. Dinosaurs made some token appearances, with a Camarasaurus mount being the most prominent saurian specimen. They were never a main focus, however.

That changed in 2013, when Naturalis workers found a remarkably complete – and huge – Tyrannosaurus rex in Montana. Christened Trix, the fossil giant came to Leiden in 2016, one of only two specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex on display in Europe (and the best one – shots fired, Tristan!). I went to see the temporary exhibition at the time, and, even though I loved the mounted skeleton, I was pretty critical of the exhibition as a whole – read all about it on my old blog, and let Google help you with the translation. For the last two years, Trix has been touring Europe, but now, after some delays, she’s home again. Now, she is the most eye-catching specimen in Naturalis’ permanent collection, and the museum has been completely reworked to acommodate her, with dinosaurs now a much more prominent part of the experience. Time to see if and how things in Leiden have improved.

Behind the new building is the taller old building, stemming from the 1990s and now a depot.
Impressive architecture of the main hall

The new Naturalis is a vast museum with seven permanent exhibitions. In the order of my visit, these are: Life, Dinosaurs, Earth, Ice Age, Early Humans, Seduction, and Death. It goes without saying which section I’m going to focus on, but I’ll give you a rundown of the rest of the museum as well. As you will see, things have improved, though inevitably I still have plenty to be critical about.

Life

Giant squid model
The Dutch version of the poem mentions different animals than the English one.

The first and biggest exhibition hall is simply titled “life”. Upon entering a dark hallway, you are greeted by the giant squid, and you’re informed that every living creature is connected, from possums to bacteria to you. The language is more flowery and poetic than scientific, and it turns out that this is going to be the story with this exhibition – which I found to be quite a frustrating affair.

Still life with ratites and big cats

Our “Life” exhibition is mostly a huge parade of stuffed animals, in all their diversity. So here’s the “biodiversity” part of our museum, I guess. I say “I guess” because, bafflingly, this entire exhibition contains absolutely no information at all. There’s no signage. None. All animals have been plopped down in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, but makes very little geographical or evolutionary sense. There’s almost some rhyme and reason to the way some animals have been placed together – for instance, most of the big cats, ratites and primates are grouped – but then it’s broken up with random birds, reptiles or rodents.

What we do get is a scant few of these screens – we counted about five – with one (1) animal on it (always charismatic megafauna) and a little flavour text that is again more kitschy and poetic (we compared them to haikus) than really informative. We also get a lot of mood lighting, special effects and mood music, occasionally of the bombastic kind. Clearly we are meant to stare and stand in awe of all this amazing biodiversity. Look. I’m not saying it isn’t pretty. It’s all very pretty, but we learn absolutely nothing. Nothing about how all this life is connected. Nothing about evolution. Nothing about why biodiversity is important and how it can be preserved. My companion said it was more like an art museum than a nature museum. The “Life” exhibition is a full-on attack on the senses, but it has very little actual substance.

Let’s get to the good stuff.

The caption emphasizes how “for 160 million years, dinosaurs were the the most succesful vertrebrates in the world.”

The Good Stuff

Happily, the dinosaur exhibition is undisputably the best part of Naturalis. It alone is worth the trip to Leiden for. It’s not just the fact that there’s actual signage here so you know what you’re looking at. The whole thing is just well thought out and set up, and there’s some great quality fossils to look at. There’s six featured dinosaur mounts, one from the Triassic, two from the Jurassic and three from the Cretaceous. Each period has some assorted smaller fossils on the side.

Plateosaurus engelhardti mount

Plateosaurus is one of the quintessential European dinosaurs. This one was dug up in Switzerland, with some disarticulated bones that have been replaced by 3D-printed parts. I know all this because the signage here is actually informative. Everything is perfectly bilingual too, surely a huge plus for international visitors. There’s no real palaeoart in the exhibition to liven it up. Instead, the backdrop has a computer effect where there’s an animated CGI herd of the reconstructed dinosaur walking around. It’s quite a neat technical effect, and it’s not so intrusive as to draw attention away from the fossil itself. The smaller fossils on the side are mosly tiny, tiny nothosaurs and come from the Middle Triassic beds of Winterswijk, the only Dutch Mesozoic fossil beds other than Maastricht.

Camarasaurus supremus mount
Sauropod eggs

I’m happy that the sauropod, also featured in the old Naturalis, has made a triumphant return (even though sauropods in low light are a pain to photograph). It’s a rearing Camarasaurus, and even though it’s small as sauropods go, it’s quite the impressive beast. I’ve been told about 60% of this mount is authentic. In addition to the giant mount, there is a replica Diplodocus skull and a real sauropod nest.

Stegosaurus cast

The Stegosaurus, all replica this time, is the dino hall’s most obvious misfire. Not only is the model obviously pre-Sophie, it also seems to be pre-Renaissance. Yep, it’s has a dragging tail, the greatest faux pas in modern dinosaur reconstruction. I gather this is an older dinosaur made by Aart Walen, who’s made much more up-to-date dinosaurs since. I’m sure this was good work at the time, and there is certainly a place for more historic dinosaur reconstructions, but it’s obvious that this modern, immersive hall isn’t it. Can we get a Sophie cast instead?

Dirk, Triceratops horridus mount

On to the Cretaceous, and here’s a big crowd pleaser. When the Naturalis team were looking for their T. rex, they didn’t immediately find one, but they did find a couple of Triceratops instead. This one is named Dirk, after one of the volunteers on the expedition, and it’s made deliberately obvious what parts are real and what parts are 3D-printed. The legs and parts of the skull are real fossil while the rest is 3D-printed after other specimens. Its horns are pointing straight up, something I’d never seen in Triceratops before.

Composite Edmontosaurus annectens mount

Edmontosaurus is also there.

Platecarpus tympaniticus

This squashed, smallish mosasaur is here to represent the mesozoic marine life. I thought initially it was a Mosasaurus hoffmani, but I have since learned it is a Platecarpus, a smaller species. Some actual M. hoffmani fossils do make an appearance as the Netherlands’ most famous prehitoric critter, though those accursed French still have our holotype. Rends-le!

From this big hall, we are led through a narrower, darker hallway where red lights and footstep special effects theatrically hype up the main attraction. We are approaching the greatest terror the world has ever seen! Even here, we’re not quite escaping kitsch.

The Sexiest Rexy.

And here she is. RGM 792.000. The Grande Dame herself (though read on). Everything that was good about the previous exhibition is still good in this one. Trix is still one of the most magnificent fossils I’ve ever seen, beautifully coloured and lighted, and Naturalis makes damn sure you get a good close look at her from all angles. The environment in which she is displayed has lost some of the minimalism I so admired in the previous exhibition (I could do without the jungle backdrop, and especially without the occasional roar sound effect) but the other dinosaurs and fossils, and the overall higher educational value of the exhibition as a whole, make up for it in spades.

Showing off the details
Skull of Trix. Note the hole under the nostril; caused by an infection. The field workers called her “Grandma Pussface”.

I’m particularly fond of the signage here, which points out all the details you might have otherwise missed. Among T. rex fossils, Trix is particularly noteworthy for the many gnarly pathologies in the face, jaw, tail and ribs. The poor thing must have had some rough days. Trix also comes with a very rare preserved furcula (wishbone) and a full set of gastralia (belly ribs). The signs explain everything quite clearly, and help you make out all the wonderful little details yourself. Not everyone is a fan of the low-slung stance Trix has been mounted in, but it does allow us to take a good look at the beautifully articulated skull.

DINOSAUR SEX WARS!

As you can see, Naturalis is all in on Pete Larson’s pet theory that there is a “robust” and “gracile” T. rex morph, and that the robust ones are females (Larson has helped excavate and mount Trix). Being a particularly robust individual, Trix is said to be a female. Make no mistake: this is bunk. Both components of Larson’s theory are based on only the flimsiest evidence, and I wish Naturalis would follow the Chicago Field Museum in admitting they actually have no idea what gender their giant tyrannosaur is.

I love you, Trix, no matter what gender you are!
Confuciusornis fossil
Avian dinosaurs

As we leave the hall, there’s all kinds of birds flying overhead. A brilliantly subtle reminder that the dinosaurs never went completely extinct, and a great thought to leave the guests with.

Of course, that’s the high note our dinosaur exhibition ends on. But there’s a lot of Naturalis left. I’ve split my review into two parts. There will be fewer dinosaurs in part two, but a good number of otherprehistoricanimals, and maybe some more rants. What fun! Naturalis will return. Part two is here.

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