Just outside the small town of Boxtel, close to the city of Eindhoven in the South of the Netherlands, lies the Oertijdmuseum, or the Museum of Ancient Time. It’s been on my radar for some time as a destination for all things palaeontological.
In 2018, the Oertijdmuseum received national media attention thanks to their acquisition of a Diplodocus skeleton. It is actually a composite of three subadult individuals, collectively named “Kirby”, after their discoverer, Hans-Jakob “Kirby” Siber. The associated information event was my first visit to the museum. The fossil was still in its unprepared state; all the work associated with preparation and mounting was still ahead. Once mounted, Kirby should be over 20 meters long and 70% complete.
Last month, news came that a second sauropod, named “Aurora”, had also arrived in Boxtel. Now is as good a time as ever, not only for a new visit, but for an interview with the founder and director of the museum.
I meet René Fraaije at the Oertijdmuseum’s canteen, behind the entrance hall, where the bones of Casper the sperm whale hover over the heads of the visitors. “I call this my living room,” he says. “I have a house around the corner, but I’m here most of the time.”
The Oertijdmuseum is Fraaije’s life’s work. Among dinosaur-themed museums in the Netherlands, Boxtel’s Oertijdmuseum is second only to Leiden’s Naturalis in terms of attendance and the importance of its collection. Still, Fraaije is an unlikely spokesperson for dinosaur enthousiasts. He is an invertebrate palaeontologist, whose main contributions to science include the description of a good number of new species of crustacean. “We have dozens of holotypes in our collection,” he tells me, not without pride. By his own admission, he isn’t that into dinosaurs. So how did he get here?
René Fraaije was born in 1959, to well-travelled parents. An outdoorsy kid, René found his true calling when he and his sister found some fossil sponges and ammonites in a quarry on vacation in Overijssel, in the East of the Netherlands. “I was 10 or 11. Kids make better fossil hunters than adults, because they’ve got better eyesight, and they’re closer to the ground! We showed the fossils to a local professor, at the Natura Docet museum. He told us they were – not incredibly rare – but still quite rare! From that year, we went fossil hunting every summer. The whole familiy was into it. First all over the Netherlands, then came Germany, France, England…”
Needless to say, the Fraaije fossil collection, which after that first summer fit inside a little chest, quickly expanded. “Soon, it didn’t fit inside our home anymore. So we made the decision to sell our house and buy a plot of land nearby to build a farmhouse on, which became the Ammonietenhoeve (ammonite farm, NH).” As Fraaije made his living throughout the 1980’s organizing fossil hunting trips, the idea grew to finally give his enormous collection a bigger, better purpouse. “Fossils in a private collection aren’t alive. You want people to see them, you want people to come in and do research on them, so that something happens with them, they come to life.”
In 1999, after many legal struggles, the Oertijdmuseum finally opened its doors. Its ambitions soon stretched much wider than just showcasing the fossil collection.
“It was my idea from the start to have dinosaurs. None of the museums were doing anything with dinosaurs at the time. Naturalis had that Camarasaurus, that was it. When Naturalis were making their own dinosaur exhibition, they came to us to see how we did it.” Fraaije downplays the role of the Jurassic Park franchise in the popularity of dinosaurs. “All kids love dinosaurs. You don’t need a movie for that. 50% of all our visitors are aged 4 to 12. I don’t know many museums who can say that.”
It took a while before the museum really took off. “The first couple of years, we were clutching at straws. There were only three of us, we did everything, and we barely made our money back.” But, steadily, the museum grew. Now, the Oertijdmuseum has a conservator, and Fraaije hopes to employ another one in the future. Students come here to do their PhD’s and get laboratory experience. There is a large outdoor area, featuring an arboretum and a piece of forest. The outdoors premises are filled with fibreglass dinosaur models, of varying quality. Fraaije shrugs. “Most of it isn’t great. The German stuff (from Wolter Design, NH) is the best, quality wise.” He has no plans to buy any more, though. Clearly, the Oertijdmuseum’s attention is shifting away from ropey dino models, towards being an institution of science, punching above its weight.
A recent addition in that direction has been the fully-functional preparation laboratory, where volunteers are currently working on Kirby the Diplodocus. “I hardly ever prep fossils myself anymore. You need to empty your mind for that, and I’m always busy these days!” For guests, there’s another big draw. “The great glass hall, which we call the Dino Parade, that’s our main attraction. We got a lot more visitors after we built that.”
He shows me around the Dino Parade, which was added in 2007 and is completely crammed full of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. I count no less than eight full-sized dinosaurs, plus a ton of models and smaller skeletons. Most have been made by Fraaije’s main collaborator, dino reconstruction expert Aart Walen. These include a Giraffatitan, Diplodocus, Carnotaurus and, of course, a T. rex. The latter is an unorthodox composite: It has Sue’s body, but Stan’s skull.
“We could get a Stan skull cast on the cheap. There weren’t any on the market for Sue. I don’t think it’s a big problem, as long as the sign says it clearly. It looks good enough to me! The kids love it. And we definitely didn’t pay for our T. rex what Naturalis paid for theirs!”
Fraaije knows where to get his dinosaurs. “That Chasmosaurus comes from the collection of another museum, when they went bankrupt. They reopened later.” What about that old-fashioned, Dollo-style Iguanodon? “It was used in a car commercial, orginially, before we got our hands on it. It looked awful, it was all white. Aart did what he could to make it look as nice as possible. I admit, that one’s the first to go once I clean this place up.”
He wants to empty the museum out a little. It’s too crowded with stuff now, there is, again, not enough space. He shows the plans for a second building, on the grounds of the current arboretum. “The glass hall has too much UV radiation and temperature fluctuations. You can’t exhibit a real fossil there.” The second building will contain a depot and a workshop on one end, and the dinosaur exhibition hall on the other. “That way, the guests can see every step of the process. The preparation of the fossil in the lab, the mounting and creation of the missing pieces in the workshop, and the finished mount in the big hall.”
So how’s Kirby coming along? “It’s been going a little too well! At this rate, preparation work should be done a year from now. That’s one of the reasons we got Aurora, that second sauropod. I have a whole team of volunteers now, it’d be a shame if they had nothing more to do!”
Aurora is currently in a pile of boxes in a corner of the Dino Parade hall. Like Kirby, Aurora was unearthed by René’s good friend, Swiss fossil hunter Hans-Jakob “Kirby” Siber, from the Morrison formation of Wyoming. Aurora is a yet unidentified sauropod, estimated to be around 15 meters long. “It could be Diplodocus, it could be Kaatedocus, it could be any Morrison sauropod. We’ll have to wait and see. It’s even more complete than the first one.” Fraaije is optimistic that all will go well, and there will soon be two fully mounted sauropod skeletons on display in a brand new hall at the Oertijdmuseum.
But Fraaije is far from finished. “Soon, we’ll be organizing our own expedition to the Morrison. It’s at the same quarry that Big Al came from. There’s probably more sauropods there. Maybe we’ll find an Allosaurus, too. I’d love have that on display here.”
At the end of the day, after exploring the museum and the forest for myself, I find René again in the gardens. He’s looking after his guineafowl, that roam around the terrain freely. “I used to have seven peafowl roam free, but after one night the foxes had gotten four of them! Guineafowl are up in the trees at night, so they’re safe. I felt we should have birds here. ‘Cause they’re dinosaurs, aren’t they?”
My genuine thanks to René, Aart, Dmitry, Ole, Chris and all the other personnel and volunteers at the Oertijdmuseum who so generously lent me their time and knowledge. I will certainly be back. Who knows, I might even pay the admission fee one day.