The Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, my host institution, is one of the Big Five natural history museums in the world. And whereas the other four on the list, the AMNH, NMNH, NHM and MNHN, are well known to most people in most parts of the world (educated people, at least), Berlin is something of a nonentity to many.
What makes the MFN (yes, that is the official short, not HMNB, HM, MNB, MNHU or whatever someone may use in a publication!) so important? And what makes it so obscure?
By the way: the full, correct English name is
Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at the Humboldt University Berlin
Yep, that long and cumbersome. I have some horror stories to tell about mail going AWOL because people used the wrong part of the name, Humboldt University, with which there is (today) only a loose association.
One reason for greatness is the sheer number of specimens. Over 30 million are housed in the MFN collections, including the largest collection of specimens preserved in alcohol in the world. Let me quote from the museum’s home page:
The zoological collection comprise
• over 10 million invertebrates (not including insects)
• over 15 million insects, including 6 million beetles and 4 million butterflies and moths
• approximately 580,000 vertebrates
The Museum has an animal sound archive containing approximately 120,000 animal sound recordings.
The palaeontological collections comprise:
• 1.2 million fossil vertebrates
• 1.1 million fossil invertebrates
• 320,000 palaeobotanical collection pieces
The mineralogical- petrological collections contain 312,000 samples, of which:
• 250,000 mineral specimens
• 57,000 petrographic-geographic samples
• 4.900 meteorite fragments of 2,300 different meteorites (most comprehensive collection in Germany)
A glimpse of the MFN Minerals Hall as seen from Dinosaur Hall. The minerals
exhibit is shown in beautiful old-fashioned wooden glass cabinets, and shows a
whopping ~4,500 specimens.
Wowza! Not many places in the world are bigger. For comparison, the AMNH has 32 million*, the NMNH claims 500 million* – but both include human artifacts. For Paris I could not find a number that looked halfway reliable, and it also has human artifacts. Berlin is purely Natural Sciences. Not even palaeanthropology sneaks in, much less archaeology. Thus, the NHM is the simplest comparison, at 70 million specimens. Yes, that depends a bit on how you count, too. In fact, a lot. In any case, if your collections have many millions of specimens, that’s really unusual. But sheer size is just one aspect, the other is how representative the collections are. For example, the MFN minerals collections houses 75% of all known minerals worldwide. That’s not too shabby. And then there is the number of type specimens: you can have a trillion specimens, if you have no types, you’re a provincial collection (exaggerating a bit). Again, the MFN is impressive: the Hemimetabola collection, for example, has 2,000 types and 6,800 paratypes. There are also 6 million beetles, representing 120,000 species, including type material of 30,000 nominal species. I could continue this list for a while – a long while!
Currently, the MFN has roughly 100 research projects running (titles of subpages of this page), and if I was in my office right now I could even tell you how much that is in third party funding. Again, a lot. Add to that the fact that there are all the curators, with their expertise and knowledge. The collection management assistants. And the technicians (why do people always forget how important they are???). And that means that research can be conducted more efficiently than in smaller institutions, simply because you have a lot of synergistic effect. The large library, the foremost in the German speaking world on zoology, play an important role, too.
So why is the MFN not as famous as the other big natural history museum? Why was it only recently (starting in 2007), that the museum averaged half a million visitors a year? Berlin is a city with many famous museums, and the Berliner are avid museum goers, so 500,000 isn’t that much compared to other big natural history museums.
Part of the reason is surely the German Democratic Republic. The MFN is “East”, which has led to some really weird and idiotic differences in payment for MFN employees (not anymore, I am glad to say – I got the wrong end of the stick back then). The GDR was certainly the least inefficient “Communist” and “Socialist” country. But that means that it was only horribly, catastrophically mismanaged, and for almost the entire time of its existence totally incapable to financing science, technology and building maintenance sufficiently. For a natural history museum, this means stagnation. Sure, you can work on the existing collection – provided it still is in good shape. And you can get new material – within limits. But staff shortage, abysmal conditions in collection (no A/C!) and work rooms, politically motivated hiring and firing as well as travel restrictions, lack of modern tools, not to mention overall lack of funds, can quickly combine to slow down science a lot, and hinder renovations of exhibitions. With the MFN, despite the daily struggle of a large number of employees, this is exactly what happened. And even today, large parts of the building haven’t been renovated, so bad was the condition they were in after the Wende. It is simply too much to repair quickly, if you do not simply want to shut the entire organization down for a decade!
East Wing of the MFN pre-2009. I snapped this picture in 2004, during one of my early visits, when being conducted along a back passage. Sorry for the shitty pic. I didn’t want to piss off the veteran curator helping me, especially because he was one of the toughest fighters for improvement before and after the Wende. So I just pointed the camera out the window while walking and snapped a random picture.
MFN East Wing today – but not the view visitors typically get shown.
This is the back, and while you can see part of the renovated tract, the area
outside has remained in its decaying state.
There is more to show, but most of it simply doesn’t come across in the pictures I took. The emergency roof thrown up my Russian Pioneers in 1945. The hastily repaired bomb damage. The soot covering all the bone cellar that had come in from the fires above through a bomb hole in the ceiling (luckily, that bomb was a dud; others took away most of the vertebrate palaeontology collection), the sellotape repaired cupboards, the painted-over windows (protecting the bird collection from sunlight), the dust and dirt on the walls and floor that had not been renovated since before WWII…… and the stopgap repairs, evident on pipes, cables, elevators, doors, all over the place. Stagnation also in the exhibitions:
MFN Dinosaur Hall in 2004, virtually identical to MFN Dinosaur Hall
in 1935 minus the swastika flags. (The Giraffatitan mount [Brachiosaurus,
back then] went up in ’35). Even the lighting looks like something from a
depressive 1970s East German TV drama (i.e., there was practically none).
As a rough and uninformed guestimate, I’d say it would have taken a decade and some 250 million Deutschmarks to clean up this mess after the Wende, including new cupboards and cliamte control for collections. For a variety of reasons, not much was achieved for a long time. The first big change came with the partial renovation of the main building and the exhibitions the renovated rooms contained. Now, the second big part of the renovation is starting (and that won’t be the end!), and the East Wing has been rebuilt, with an up-to-date storage system for the alcohol collections. It even allows visitors in – more on that later.
MFN Dinosuar Hall today, on a Monday (i.e., close to visitors, thus natural light only).
Can you say “dynamic pose”?
I won’t dwell on the many things that went wrong after the Wende. Today, the MFN is going strong, and getting stronger year by year. In contrast to the typical development of visitor numbers in a newly re-done museum, which typically declines asymptotically, a series of special exhibits keeps those of the MFN constant – our Exhibiton Department has very good staff! Also, the MFN left Humboldt University in 2009, which among other things means that is manages its own budget. That is a huge step, because typically, expensive museums are the unwanted, barely tolerated stepchildren of universities. The MFN is now part of the Leibniz Gemeinschaft. One of the biggest results of this change is that the MFN handles its own budget. That requires personnel, and that costs money – but man if that doesn’t cut the bureaucratic delay in half! We can get things done in less than a decade now!
There is much more of an introductory nature to tell about the MFN, but I’ll quit now and stick those things into later posts on the MFN exhibits.