200 years, WWI & WWII, Communism: The Story of Berlin’s Natural History Museum

200 years, WWI & WWII, Communism: The Story of Berlin’s Natural History Museum


This episode is brought to you by the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois and the Museum Fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. 2018 marks the hundred and twenty-fifth year anniversary of the Field Museum. By 1893 we had raised funds amassed collections from the World’s Fair, developed exhibit cases for display to the public and were ready to open our doors for visitors and researchers alike. But the history of Natural History collections like ours is much older than any one institution. People have been collecting and categorizing objects from the natural world as long as we’ve had a curiosity about our planet, and it’s thanks to museums that many of these collections still exist today. What are you wearing? Lederhosen… Take Germany for example. The Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin opened its doors to the public in 1889 But the history of the museum dates back to 1810, when the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhem III unified three smaller museum collections into Berlin University, and since that time the collections in Berlin have endured major political changes and two world wars. They sustained serious damage from allied bombs in 1945, which left the entire eastern wing obliterated until well after the reunification of Germany in 1990. I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of stories are in a collection like that. I’d love to visit, but it’s not like there’s some secret door that connects us all across space and time. No raccoons allowed. Oh, sorry buddy.. Guys we’re in the museum for Naturkunde! Where do I even begin? Okay, for starters the Museum fur Naturkunde is notable not just because it’s more than 200 years old and houses collections from some of the 18th century’s greatest scientists, like Alexander von Humboldt. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon of human-induced climate change in 1800, and again in 1831. This place revolutionized the museum field by not putting all of their objects on display when they opened to the public in 1889. Before this, museum collections were more seen as cabinets of curiosity places where wealthy people and academics could put out all their amassed materials and charged whomever to come see them. Instead, Berlin recognized the importance of carefully selecting certain items for display while others were intended for scientific research. Even if you’ve never visited, you’re probably familiar with some of the more famous objects in Berlin’s collections — including this incredibly unfortunate but adorable ocelot. To be fair it’s like 200 years old, and it would be many more years before Carl Akeley would show up and revolutionize the world of taxidermy. But, if you can believe it, an even more famous specimen in Berlin’s collection is this Archaeopteryx. It’s actually known as the Berlin specimen and was brought here to the museum in 1880. Today it’s one of the most recognizable fossils ever discovered. Archaeopteryx is remarkable because it’s considered to be a transitional species between birds and dinosaurs Unlike a bird it has teeth, wings with claws, and a long dinosaur-like tail that’s covered in feathers. Between 1909 and 1913 Paleontologists working in Tanzania discovered around 250 tons of fossilized bones that they brought back to Berlin, including one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. At the time it was considered to be a species of brachiosaurs, but today it’s known simply as Giraffatitan. Even though it’s a composite skeleton of two juveniles of about the same size, it still holds the current world record for the tallest dinosaur on display in any Museum in the world. And there are still 30 crates from the Tanzania expedition that have yet to be opened. Not due to a lack of interest, but rather a shortage of funding and trained professionals. But now scientists at the Berlin museum are using non-invasive technologies like CT scans to learn more about what’s inside. Unfortunately World War II brought change and progress to a sudden end. Jewish scientists were barred from working and researching in the collection in 1938 due to a decree from the Nazi state, and in February 1945 a fire bomb destroyed the majority of the eastern wing, taking a thousand specimens along with it. Today you can still see the damage of the attacks throughout the collection – and it’s ironic that most of the items that were evacuated prior to the bombing and subsequent fires were ultimately lost or destroyed, while those that remained in the building could be salvaged. But once the war ended the Museum fur Naturkunde was the first to reopen its doors to the public on the 16th of September, 1945. The eastern wing of the building remained in ruins after the war, and many other projects and programs were discontinued. Ultimately, the museum was geographically located in East Germany and therefore part of the German Democratic Republic, which put it on the eastern side of the Berlin wall when that was erected in 1961. Scientists at the Museum were then limited in who they could collaborate with, where they could conduct work outside of Germany, and in what journals the research could be published. But they found ways to continue their work. One expedition in 1967 involved bringing back tons of corals from a project with Cuba, and then they had to navigate the networks of global political borders to safely deposit the specimens into the museum. Then in 1990 the Berlin Wall came down in the city began its reunification. Reconstruction of the east wing started in November of 2006 and in 2010 to coincide with the museum’s 200th anniversary, the east wing finally reopened. But not wanting to forget the past or the actions that ultimately led to its destruction, the architects designed to the exterior facade in a way that differentiates between the new construction, and the original building through a subtle change of materials and color. But even as the buildings change, the collections remain at the center of the museum. For instance, this is where you’ll find one of the largest and oldest fish collections in the world, assembled by Dr. Marcus Bloch in the mid- to late 1700s. Today it’s one of the most technically advanced Museum collection buildings in any institution, and houses more than a million specimens. And with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, this space is even accessible to the public All our Natural History Museums are basically the origin of the academic enlightenment. That’s what our collections hold. So that gives us some responsibility, doesn’t it? Yeah? This is Dr. Johannes Vogel. He’s the director general for the Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin. E: We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the history and considering the history of this institution. It’s been around for so long, but I’m more interested in your perspective on the future of the Museum fur Naturkunde. What would you say is going to be your primary goal in the immediate future? J: We need to reconfigure how science and society are going to interact to face the challenges of the world. Poverty ,climate security, food security water security, biodiversity security So we need to become organizations that are facilitators of a science Society dialog and that are pacemakers for change. That’s what we need to do. What are some of the discoveries or advancements that you’re looking forward to the most in the future? In terms of like the technology we have now that obviously didn’t exist 200 years ago. This is probably the most exciting time for our type of Institute’s not just that I think Society needs places where it can build community around the issue of nature but also our collections have become immensely valuable suddenly through technological and societal advances to help us not only to Understand it, but also potentially to predict How human actions can impact the environment and in return impact us as humans. The biggest infrastructure to explain the world are the Natural History Museum’s we are still a way off to have others recognizing that And I would argue Change for others to recognize that has to come from us, and then I think eventually They will recognize outside What we are good for the Museum fur Naturkunde has had a long and complicated history And like all museums it can give us a snapshot for what we humans value at every moment in time over the next few episodes We’re going to spend some time talking with scientists at the museum about their research what they value and how the Museum fur Naturkunde has become a part of a global consortium of Natural History Museum’s helping to serve as institutions of knowledge discovery and change in the 21st century So has brains on it

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100 thoughts on “200 years, WWI & WWII, Communism: The Story of Berlin’s Natural History Museum

  1. You always do so well with the dialogue – but I'd love to see the outtakes for this one. Not only are there loads of complex sciency words, but you also had to contend with the German language 😀

  2. Floor to ceiling glass walls! Excellent in real life and a great metaphor. This is a fantastic video sharing yet another great institution's strengths to a larger audience. Thank you!

  3. Hi!
    I've been watching your show since it started. And last week I got a job at the San Francisco Zoo. So now I also get to educate people about the awesome life on our planet, and help them see what we're doing to protect endangered animals.
    Thanks for making an awesome show!

  4. 4:34 I know for a fact that the Smithsonian has a large collection of unopened crates containing fossils as well. Is this a common thing among 100+ year old museums?

  5. NatUrkunde… 😃 Emphasis on the second U.
    And I guess the Lederhosen was a gag, but… that's the wrong part of Germany.

    Other than that, great video. I do like this suspenceful way.

  6. The production for this is soooo good! This is the kind of stuff that SHOULD be on history/discovery channel

  7. As always, FANTASTIC job, Emily. I hope that someday, I get to shake your hand for all the good that you do.

  8. I've always loved biology and paleontology ever since I was a small child and watched my first documentary about lions with my mom. I'm very passionate about those two things and now I am sure I absolutley have to go to that museum. There is so much history behind the building and all it's specimens it almost matches the description of beauty.

  9. Fun fact: Johannes Vogel, the director of the Naturkundemuseum Berlin, is actually married to the great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin!

  10. I happened to stay around the corner from this place last time I was in Berlin, it's a great museum!

  11. What an experience! It’s awesome how no matter where you go in the world, there will always be people who dedicate their lives to studying and preserving life. Can’t wait for the next videos!

    Also, try not to break any more laws. Laws of physics, of course.

  12. I'm screaming my app crashed when you opened the door and for a hot second i thought you'd jump out my phone D:

  13. i am from germany and have been watching this channel since the very beginning and i have to say its still AWESOME!!! i am very exited to see what the scientists have to say.

  14. I wish you had included the name of the architects that designed the renovation of the east wing. So often the architects are not mentioned when talking about modern buildings and renovations, which I find very strange. The designs didn't just appear out of thin air, someone put a lot of time and effort into them and besides hold the copyrights for them. So why not tell who that was? In all other forms of art and design they are always mentioned.
    As I was left disappointed in this, I looked it up. It was made by a firm called Diener & Diener Architekten, they won the competition in 2005 for the best design.

  15. Need to go visit next time I'm in Berlin! Though perhaps the most astounding thing in the Museum fur Naturkunde is the director's mustache!

  16. If it weren't for the conscious counterbalancing of the historical impact of orientalism, and the abuse and disenfranchisement of indigenous populations, I would really miss the Imperial age of exploration when people just went out and spent vast sums of money to one-up their fellow aristocrats. A shame it came at such cost to others. Now we can only hold out hope that governments will see the cultural and potential economic value of amassing and maintaining such collections in the modern age.

  17. I love this! Can't wait for the rest of the series, I love getting to look behind the scenes of museums it's so interesting 👀

  18. I am constantly impressed with how well Emily and the brainscoop team express the awesomeness of natural history. Every time, it gets me so excited to go and see some of these things for myself, and learn more about them!

  19. 00:39 Now there's a man with a firm grasp on reality…and priorities.
    I'm really looking forward to this next group of episodes! Thanks for what you do.

  20. Well played, Emily Graslie. I've lost track of the number of times I've laughed out loud so hard I couldn't hear the science and had to rewind. Poor Soon Raccoon. Next time you see Dr. Vogel can you give him a high five for that sweet stache? Looking forward the next few episodes from Germany! 😀

  21. I love this, I hope you get more opportunities to visit other museums whether around the world or within the US.

  22. Oh Emily, Brain Scoop team, and Museum für Naturkund team… This video made me cry. I absolutely cannot wait to see the rest!! Thank you for all being wonderful and sharing your curiosity. <3

  23. I just visited it last month to see the temporary Ara exhibition. It feels surreal to see you walk through the exact same corridors. The inscriptions in the bird gallery around 2:05 where actually historic themselves, some of them still referencing the Soviet Union. I hope Knut the polar bear will make an appearance in a future episode.

  24. I work in the aquarium/tropical fish and invertebrate trade and we are just now understanding the impact of bacteria and captive breeding on the closed eco system and how it differs from wild caught specimens and bacteria colonies. We are producing captive bred rare species for the very first time, would these fish be something worth preserving and documenting and potentially donating one day?

  25. No mention of the imperialistic history of Germany in Tanzania? Emily, I know you must have thought about how exploitation played into the acquisition of some of these pieces and specimens. It would be nice to see that mentioned here, or at least a response from the museum on how they are addressing their colonial past.

  26. Kudos for that breaking-the-fourth-wall moment early in this video, Emily, when you criticized the boom mic handler's choice of wardrobe!

  27. You standing there with a pullover suddenly reminded me how cold it was in the fish-room, when I was there as a teenager^^
    Pretty cool, that you're visiting many other museums. What have been the reasons for coming to Berlin?

  28. This has me thinking about how science is affected by politics – whether that be a result of colonialism, war, or bigotry. This whole episode is an amazing example of how scientific discovery isn't separate from what is happening in the world.

  29. I’m an Aussie in Europe for the first time, and one of my highest anticipated stops in Germany is this museum because of the series of videos you did in collaboration with them! I just got to Berlin and I’ll be going on Tuesday 😊

  30. I'm going to berlin tomorrow for a week and this museum is the top priority on my list of places I'm going to visit. I'm re-watching this video so I can appreciate it even more when I'm finally there <3 I'm so excited!!

  31. I can see it in your eyes. You want that mustache for the Field Museum's collection, don't you? I would say you need the nose, upper and lower lips and of course the parts of the cheeks on which it grows to make a decent mount. Maybe just do a replica. The Field doesn't have a mustache collection does it? They are natural history (anthropology), aren't they?

  32. This is an amazing video! The intro is fun and engaging, and completely and wonderfully overshadowed by the amazing story expressed in the rest of the video. A triumph!

  33. I got emotional (translation: I cried) when I recognized the Berlin Specimen of Archeopteryx. So proud to be a nerd 😀

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