Here’s part two of my big review of Naturalis Biodivesity Center, the new natural history museum in Leiden! Part one is here. Last time, we visited the stuffed animals of the Life hall and admired the mounted skeleton of Trix and other dinosaurs. I promised you I’d give you a rundown of the rest of the museum as well. This will be a dinosaur-light post, but there’s still a good few palaeontological subjects to cover.
“Earth” is a deceptively all-encompassing name for what turns out to be a rather small exhibition that is mostly about geology and natural disasters. The main hall is themed after four different regions in the world – Japan, Hawaii, Iceland and Brazil – that experience particular geological turmoil. It seems educational content has again taken a back seat to just giving the guests a lot of photo-ops. The back room is filled with nicely-formed geodes and brightly coloured minerals, always a hit at a museum like this. The signage is decent though I couldn’t always tell what name belonged to which rock.
The absolute highlight of this one is the Icelandic house which shows a video that explains geological phenomena such as tectonic movement and volcanic eruptions using food and kitchen utensils (memorably an avocado). It’s all done in the style of today’s slick cooking YouTube videos, and played hilariously straight. Extremely clever and funny, though being so on-trend in 2019, it’ll probably show its age in a few years.
Here’s another room that will satisfy the palaeontology fans. It focuses specifically on the Netherlands during the last ice age. The Dutch Pleistocene megafaunal fossil record is rather more exciting and productive than our Mesozoic one, so there’s tons of fossils and bones here, but that isn’t the main focus. The hall is dominated by a huge, gorgeous diorama in the shape of the Netherlands, showing it as a rough, grassy plain filled with wisent, mammoths, wooly rhinos and wolves, in addition to the early people who are about to mess it all up.
There’s binoculars all around, that show animations of the animals moving, before ending on a depressing note: the plains are replaced by factories and parking lots. “Human Bad” is a hard message to avoid in any nature museum.
There’s some goofs. First: the map of the Netherlands includes the Flevopolder (which, as any Dutch kid knows, did not exist until the 1960s).
Here’s Harry the Half-A-Horse! His lost butt can be found somewhere, too.
Around the diorama, there’s skeletons of a cave bear, an Irish elk and, of course, a mammoth.
The mammoth is a composite skeleton. Next to it is the Olburgen mammoth skull, RGM 154.039, said to be the best-preserved wooly mammoth skull in the world (I couldn’t photograph it because of glare).
The cave bear’s sign innocently asks us to guess whether it’s male or female, drawing our attention to its rather prominent baculum. At least this museum isn’t shy about showing it. Remember the acronym?
On the sides the Ice Age hall are tons and tons of fossils on display. Mammoths, rhinos, deer, the works. Skulls, teeth, tusks, assorted bones. The problem is that they aren’t behind glass, but behind a very dark and heavy mesh, and there’s not a lot of light; you can barely make them out as a result (and you can forget about photographing them). Maybe there’s a better alternative for this?
Here’s the last of the palaeontological exhibitions. This very small exhibition is dominated by one thing only: a few items associated with the first known Homo erectus, discovered on the island of Java and described by Dutch palaeontologist Eugène Dubois. They include a skullcap, a crude knife and a seashell with some scratch marks on it (pointing towards creativity in the species).
The most striking item here is a very beautiful and highly lifelike model of a H. erectus woman, technically the best piece of palaeoart in this meuseum. It was made by Adrie and Alfons Kennis, two brothers who specialize in reconstructing extinct hominins. The short movie playing concentrates mostly on Dubois, and little on the actual early humans.
Designed like an art-deco French boutique, Seduction is hands down the most creatively designed and colourfully exuberant exhibition of Naturalis. Nevertheless, “De Verleiding” (it means both “seduction” and “temptation”) has a number of issues.
The main room inside the boutique is mostly innocuous stuff about things like courtship, nest building, rearing of young etcetera. Lots of things to learn, some interesting specimens to look at, everything presented in a “playful” way that occasionally goes overboard. I appreciate interactive things like a little machine that moves wooden animal puppets around as they perform their courtship dance, or the organ that plays mate-attracting sounds. But the object on display as the plaque explains the “cost” of child-rearing is an old cash register? I think that joke might have worked better in the designer’s head.
More #problematic is the discrete, plush “back room” that delves into the nitty-gritty of reproduction. It’s about animal sex and sex organs. Here, the playful tone and the educational content seem to work at cross-purpose. The big problem with the back room is that it’s all unbearably ooh-la-la coy about sex; human sex in particular. It refuses to talk about human sexuality in a straightfoward way, turning to confusing (and occasionally creepy) comedy metaphors instead. Testes are being compared to a factory, ovaries to a gumball machine (and don’t get me started on the hermaphrodite statue). What’s the message, what do we learn? It felt so much more confusing and uncomfortable than a frank exposition about sex would have been. But then, maybe I’m the puritan one.
In a museum about life, death is one of the more interesting subjects to base an exhibition around. Death, after all, is an indispensible part of the life cycle. As something dies, it facilitates and creates new life.
As you might expect, this is a dark and sombre hall, set up like a dark maze full of skeletons, specimens and interactive exhibits. The subjects range far and wide, from animal growth rates and lifespans, to everything involving predation, to extinction, to the process of decay.
One of the highlights of this exhibit is the interactive projection that shows a piglet carcass as it’s being devoured by maggots in delightfully squishy detail. Concerning extinction, there’s a pretty good model of a dodo next to a pretty awful model of a dinosaur (a stark naked Compsognathus out of JP – I didn’t deign to photograph it). There’s also informative notes on the fossilization process. My companion’s remark was that, if anything, this should have been the start of the tour, as this exhibition gives a lot of background information that would work well as a primer for the rest of the museum. It felt the most like an “old-school”-museum hall, no heavy reliance on gimmicky setpieces or dazzling effects to turn it into an “experience”, just interesting things to look at with informative text to accompany them. I won’t say this exhibition is perfect, but I will leave some nits unpicked. All in all, the Death exhibition was a worthy and fitting end to our Naturalis day.
Exit through the gift shop. The dinosaur gifts are a bit better than last time. There aren’t as many of those cheap, trashy CGI-filled dinosaur books for kids anymore. Instead, we see dinosaur books and encyclopedias with loftier ambitions (if still highly derivative art) and some rather nice children’s ficition books with dinosaurs which might be worthy of being featured here someday.
So overall, what’s my verdict on the New And Improved Naturalis? If you’re a palaeo nerd, a recommendation is of course a no-brainer. The dinosaur hall is really good overall, and will surely satisfy the readers of this blog.
The rest is more of a mixed bag. The Life hall is pretty, but feels starved of content. The Earth and Early Human halls are cool but a little brief. The Ice Age and Death sections are good companion pieces to the dino hall. And there are some parts to Seduction that need to be thought over one more time. But, let’s face it: You come for one reason, and that’s that beauty of a T. rex. What more do you need?
Next time you’re in the Netherlands, consider giving Naturalis a visit. It’s less than an hour from central Amsterdam, a short walk from the Leiden train station. Here’s the web site.