Return to Naturalis


It’s been over two years since I shared with you my first experience of the renovated Naturalis, the Netherlands’ premier museum of nature and natural history. My review, found here and here, was somewhat mixed, and for whatever reason (I forget the reason but I’m fairly sure there was a reason) we missed the Live Science Hall. An egregious oversight on my part, it’s true.

It was for this reason that Martijn “Dinosaurus” Guliker reached out to me. He is the head of Naturalis’ fossil preparation lab, located within the Live Science hall. He was quite keen on showing me the work he and his colleagues do in the lab. We were fortunate to be able to plan our visit early last November, when Marc was visiting me, so we could make it a bona fide LITC event.

The Live Science hall is the first door on the right. It’s the only major exhibition hall on ground floor of the new museum. It consists of an auditorium, a large display of tastefully random looking specimens and objects, some workspaces and, on the upper level, the laboratory.

The dino preparation lab is completely open and accessible to visitors. The main thing being worked on is a massive block from the Hell Creek formation of Wyoming, dug up by the Naturalis team in 2013, containing no fewer than six specimens of Triceratops. This is a rather unique find, as this is the largest amalgamation of Triceratops ever found; Triceratops are usually found in isolation. The bones are being worked on every day, and Martijn hopes to soon co-author the paper. With one thing and another, it’s all taken a bit longer than anticipated and it’s still not entirely clear just how many trikes there are, what age they are, and what implications this group has on how we understand the animal’s behaviour. Martijn and his colleague Yasmin showed us a big storage room full of already prepared bones, shelves upon shelves of them, all meticulously labeled and indexed so that it’s completely clear just what piece is which. Hopefully, a few years from now, Naturalis will have an entire herd of Triceratops on display.

This is the Live Science Hall seen from the dino lab. All the items on display look random but are carefully thought out. Whales, mammoths, a mola, rhinos, a cow, skeletons and fossils, instruments, a meteorite, some items stemming form the foundation of several museums and geological institutions in the early nineteenth century that would eventually become Naturalis in the late twentieth.

Marc holds a Triceratops humerus. I got to hold it, too. It’s much heavier than it looks, and it looks pretty heavy to begin with. It is essentially just a giant, solid chunk of rock.

Yasmin shows off some Triceratops teeth she prepared. We were given a demonstration of ornithischian chewing motion, a fascinating subject. Martijn called ornithischians out for enroaching on our mammal territory for learning to chew.

A collection of Triceratops skull bones, arranged in a recognizable shape. I don’t think any animal has more separate skull bones than a ceratopsid.

Martijn and Yasmin then took us to the dinosaur hall, to show off the one Triceratops already on display. Nicknamed Dirk, after one of the field workers, this was one of the Triceratops found in Wyoming, being at the very top of the block. Some parts are real bone, some parts are 3D printed copies of different, simliarly sized Triceratops specimens. Martijn has made sure the printed bones came in a slightly different colour so the visitors can tell them apart from the real fossils. In a heavily sponsored and subsidized, multi million dollar museum such as this, many people want a say in what is being presented to the public and how. Visions get compromised, politics get involved. Martijn really has to fight for ever shade of colour differentiation on the 3D prints. There are those who would much rather you didn’t see the difference at all, but instead get the illusion that you’re looking at an all real, complete skeleton. And so it goes.

Dirk’s most distinguishing feature is its brow horns, which are pointing straight up. As one of the horns came with a bit of orbit, we can be sure this is how they would have been shaped at the moment of the animal’s death. Somewhere during their development, a Triceratops‘ horns change from pointing up and backwards to pointing forwards, though it is not entirely clear if that is what is going on here. It could all be down to individual variation.

Martijn’s other baby at the museum is ths Plateosaurus, nicknamed Monica and found at Frick in Switzerland. Martijn was involved with the entire process from digging her up to the final mounting. It’s a very complete skeleton, with gastralia and all, and low-key one of the more interesting specimens here.

Marc takes photos in the Dinosaur Hall. It was a lightly attended day. The Edmontosaurus in the background is carried over from the previous incarnation of the museum. It’s a commercially bought composite, with every bone probably from a different individual. It isn’t mounted particularly well, and Martijn hopes to avoid having specimens like this in the future.

Trix is also here. It’s a hell of a specimen but not why we are here. I like this cute photo though.

After our guided tour, Marc and I explored the rest of the museum. The centrepiece Life hall was an exhibition that I was particularly critical of last time, as it presents an enormous parade of taxidermied animals in a way that is visually impressive but remarkably free of context. Some signage has since been added – thank goodness – that tells you the names of all the animals. That was the very least they could have done, but it really is no more than that. The introductory text vaguely alludes to how all life on Earth is connected but there’s never any followup to that, not about ecology or evolution or just the how and why behind it all. A previous version of this post had a bigger rant here, but I’ve said it all before. Bottom line is: Where’s the thesis statement? Where’s the organizing principle that gives meaning to the razzle-dazzle?

One showman to another, I appreciate good showmanship, but as a science nerd, I need more. I am still more critical of Naturalis than I am of any other natural history museum with a considerably less impressive collection, for the same reason I’m more critical of the Efteling than of any other theme park. If you have a higher budget than anyone else and pride yourself on being the best, you’re darn right I’m going to hold you to higher standards than anyone else. That’s just how it works. There is no question that Naturalis is the best, certainly the most ambitious, muesum in the country, with the best collection, the most creative presentation and, indeed, the nicest staff. It sets the standard for what a top-level natural history museum can be. If you are a regular reader of these pages, a visit to Naturalis should absolutely be on your bucket list.

The rest of the museum is the same as it was two years ago. Last time around, I mentioned the Olburgen mammoth skull, said to be the best preserved mammoth skull in the world, but I didn’t get a good photograph. This time I did take a better one, even though you can still see me in the reflection.

Anywho. Both Marc and I would like to extend a warm-hearted thank you to Martijn for making all this happen for us, and to him and Yasmin for showing us around. We can’t thank you enough for this amazing day, and I finally got to see what you people are up to in that Live Science hall. I cannot wait for the uncovering of the Triceratops group, and for whatever is next for Naturalis!

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  • Reply
    January 4, 2022 at 6:57 pm

    Both the vertical horns and the triangular epiocciptals unossified with the frill are juvenile traits, so Dirk was most likely just a young and growing kid.

  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    January 6, 2022 at 7:41 am

    A very good summing up. Much better than I could have managed with my faulty memory. Not sure about some of those photos, though. I am REALLY starting to look like my dad…

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