Westfalen in October can mean only one thing: rain, rain and more rain. But nothing is to spoil my mood today: I’ve come to Münster, more or less on a whim, for this lovely natural history museum (as well as the zoo next door). The museum is currently undergoing partial renovations, but no matter; I’ll come back again next year to see what they made of it. A planetarium is also housed in the building at an upcharge. It’s worth mentioning I’m here with my friend, illustrator and Münster local Sara Otterstätter!
These two handsome Triceratops stand guard before the entrance, giving a glimpse of what might be inside… One speaks only the truth, the other tells only lies. No word on who produced these. They look monumental and bronze, but I suspect they’re made of fibreglass.
The museum is housed in an unflashy building from the 1980s, but the interior is spacious and modern. This nice modern solar system enlivens the ceiling. From this central hall, you are also offered a glimpse into the under construction section of the museum. It already looks intriguing… but that’s for next year.
In its current, under-construction form, the museum houses two permanent exhibitions: local Westphalian nature past and present, and, of course, dinosaurs. In addition, there’s a temporary exhibition on climate change. The museum also has a large, almost suspect, amount of stuffed kingfishers, of which this is merely one. This one is immortalized in a diorama along with a fellow kingfisher and some other birds, but they are on display throughout the museum. Where did they get all those kingfishers?
This large parade of animals represents the extinct and extant fauna of Westphalia. A European buffalo (Bubalus murrensis) leads the parade, which includes otters, hyenas, musk oxen, wolves, bears, wisent, beavers, rodents, deer, lions, birds, aurochs and the inevitable mammoth, while, surprisingly, a flamingo brings up the rear, adding a splash of colour to all these brown animals. It all serves as a reminder of just how little of the European megafauna has remained.
Here’s a closer look at the mammoth, for you mammoth fans out there.
One thing this museum does very well is dioramas. This badger diorama is merely one of many. There’s otters, bats and birds of all kinds in cozy little scenes like this. Taxidermy is one thing; putting the stuffed animals in their naturalistic context adds a layer of liveliness.
Let’s move to the dino hall. That’s what we’re here for! There’s several larger spaces here. This one is dominated by three Jurassic dinosaurs: Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camarasaurus. They’re all replicas. I don’t know who made them – Aart Walen is probably not the only one who can make a dinosaur skeleton. As you can see, they are a little outdated. The Allosaurus looks oddly hunched and its shoulder girdles are up way too high on its ribcage. But it’s all good, they are big crowd pleasers that add some spectacle to a museum.
This Stegosaurus is interesting. What immediately struck me is how short its neck is, even for a pre-Sophie reconstruction. Another interesting thing is that thing on the bottom of the neck, a piece of gular armour consisting of tiny osteoderms protecting the throat. This is a little known feature of some dinosaurs but it’s been found for Stegosaurus, so it’s great that this model has it too. The museum signage is upfront about what is real and what is a reconstruction, which I always appreciate. You’d be surprised how many museums don’t tell you.
Camarasaurus is a museum favourite: not only is it well known from several specimens, it’s also a small enough sauropod to fit in most spaces while still being impressive. Again, there’s some errors in the smaller details. I’m pretty sure its toes are broken. But again, it adds spectacle and atmosphere. In the background, no doubt you’ve recognized the print of Mark Hallett’s drop-dead stunning sauropod masterpiece, Crossing the Flats (in mirror image!) This one seems uncredited. Elsewhere in the museum, pieces of art by people like Stephen Czerkas, John Sibbick and Inga Krause have been credited to their proper artists, making this stick out all the more.
Here’s a display cabinet full of skulls. This encourages us to do some comparative anatomy. The museum invites us to compare herbivores to carnivores, mammals to reptiles, extant animals to dinosaurs. The dinosaur skulls are models, sometimes obviously so.
That’s especially obvious with this hadrosaur, which is only half a skull. Another companion to that half-tyrannosaur that they used to have at the NHM in London?
Here’s a cool piece of plesiosaur artwork. Very classy. It’s made by Inga Krause, who is from the same art school as Sara! Good to see some representation of local talent. You don’t always have to go to America to find good palaeoartists.
The museum is also home to a large number of life sized dinosaur models, mostly of coelurosaurs. Many of these models are made by the late Stephen Czerkas and his wife Sylvia. This one stems from 2014, a mere year before his untimely death. Czerkas deserves credit for being one of the first 3D model dinosaur sculptors to seriously incorporate feathers into his maniraptorans. That makes his work stand out against your standard Wolter Design fare. By today’s standards however, this one looks a bit shaggy and scruffy.
Next to the 2014 Deinonychus is this one from 1997, also by Czerkas, illustrating just how much our understanding of these animals has evolved since then. Interestingly, they are in the very same pose; Czerkas must have intentionally revisited his Deinonychus to achieve just this effect.
I don’t know if this Velociraptor is also a Czerkas (read the comments). Compared to the Deinonychus, it seems to represent a further stage in understanding how feathered dinosaurs work.
That is especially apparent when compared to this Epidexipteryx, reconstructed before anyone knew what the deal was with scansoriopterygids. To those who don’t know, these were gliding animals with a wing-like membrane on their arms, a highly unexpected adaptation that only came to light with the discovery of Yi qi. This model was doubtlessly built before anyone was to know about this. The result is an underfeathered animal with very long arms that looks curiously monkey-like. Our attention is meant to be drawn mostly to the tailfeathers, the most notable aspect of Epidexipteryx at the time.
Completing the set of notable feathered and fuzzy dinosaurs, here’s Sinosauropteryx. I was mildly surprised that we’re not looking at the famous German dinosaur Compsognathus, but this one was found with feathers and therefore gets the attention in this exhibit highlighting dinosaur feathers. Not that Compsognathus wouldn’t be equally fuzzy.
This is one of Czerkas’ most famous pieces, a near-life-sized Allosaurus. Awesome. I love how much he emphasized the neck, which was very powerful in allosaurs. Although it does look monstrous and intimidating, especially with those big claws raised like that, fine details such as the wrinkling on the skin, the very reptilian bumps and spines and the birdlike eyes and feet make this feel like a believable creature. Incidentally, I love how all dinosaur models here have round pupils.
With all those model animals and skeletons around, you might be forgiven for wondering where all the actual fossils are. Here is one of the main attractions: the holotype of Wiehenvenator, also known as Das Monster von Minden! Though I guess it’s the Monster von Münster now. It’s a Middle Jurassic megalosaur, the biggest predatory dinosaur from this part of Germany. We knew that it was known from skull fragments, but there’s also a number of vertebrae.
Gotta have a T. rex! Again, it’s not the best replica skeleton I’ve ever seen, but it does its job well, and it satisfyingly towers over you as you walk past. I believe the skull replica by its feet is based on the AMNH skull, while the skull on the mounted skeleton looks little like it. Next to Rexy, the whales are pulling rank on the dinosaurs: the sperm whale skeleton is much bigger than the T. rex. The whale had beached on northern German shores, a rare occurrence in Germany.
Rexy even has a little pleasant pheasant phriend! You can see that, as with the Allosaurus, the T. rex‘s shoulder girdles are way too high up. They are supposed to almost touch at the bottom. That’s how you get all those reconstructions with humanoid arms and shoulders, a pet peeve of mine.
Behind the sperm whale, there is a wall dedicated to whale evolution, showing four increasingly aquatic prehistoric whale skeletons. This is the most famous one: Ambulocetus, the Whale that Walks. I never knew it had such a weird, intense skull! What a phenomenal monster. Modern cetaceans are known, deservedly or otherwise, as friendly creatures, but its ancestors look anything but.
More dinosaurs. This sculpted Parasaurolophus looks a bit funky. No less lovingly detailed than Czerkas’ work, but less realistic and more stylized, with all those spiky and rugose ridges and that eye that almost evokes Egyptian hieroglyphics. I’m okay with that, though it does stick out a bit in this museum.
This wall shows features of birds. Another kingfisher shows up. This Anchiornis model seems to take its cues from the hoatzin, the most prehistoric-looking (though not necessarily the most primitive) of all birds. Nice one. I don’t know if this is by Czerkas or someone else.
After looking at the dinosaur exhibition, Sara and I sped through the climate exhibition. Neither of us felt up for a dose of climate anxiety, and we figured it was preaching to the choir anyway. On that side of the museum, there were a number of cool fossils including ammonites and a marine crocodile, and there was another wall of taxidermy including, of course, another kingfisher.
If the museum was in any way disappointing, it was in the fact that its gift shop only sold Papo dinosaur toys. Oh well. I’ve been to enough shops that sell only Sleich, so I guess it could be worse. More museums need to learn from the Vienna NHM, that’s for sure.
Thanks to Sara for showing me around in her home town! Sara took this photo of me with the giant ammonite Parapuzosia and her own dinosaur mascot. Despite the Westphalian rain, we had a great time. For a bonus, we went to the zoo next door that also housed the horse museum, which had some interesting pieces concerning fossils and speculative zoology, but that is another story, to be told another time. The Münster museum of natural history gets a thumbs up from me, and I can’t wait for the construction works to finish so I can return.