Masterpieces of Taxidermy 📍Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Hi all,

There are lots of fantastic museums around the magnificent capital of Germany; particularly in Museum Island. But if you venture about 20 minutes outside of MuseumInsel, you will find Museum für Naturkunde. The Museum is integrated within the Leibniz Association – famously one of the most important research institutions in the world for biological and geological evolution and biodiversity. Over 800,000 visitors get to experience the wonder of this spectacular natural history museum and I feel very lucky to have visited this year. Natural History collections are my absolute favourites because I love seeing how nature has developed throughout history, the similarities and differences between species and the ways that biology, geology and taxonomy can be explored in museums.

My favourite gallery by far was named “Masterpieces of Taxidermy”; where unique specimens are displayed and the museum gives a great insight into the inner workings of a natural history museum. The gallery displayed a huge range of taxidermy specimens alongside highlights of preparation cases which showcased how different species are prepared for display or storage. The Museum für Naturkunde is a leader in the field of taxidermy preparation with professionals at the museum developing innovative methods, sharing best practice through workshops and setting high standards for other institutions.

The gallery, as the name suggests, exhibits examples of masterful taxidermy prepared in Berlin. Bobby the Gorilla who had died at Berlin Zoo in 1935 is still regarded one of the best examples of taxidermy in the world. Prepared by German taxidermists Karl Kaestner and Gerhard Schröder, Bobby is still a highlight specimen for visitors 80 years on!

Another spectacular display is the model of a Dodo, an extinct flightless bird that was native to the island of Mauritius. Taxidermists’ used biological model building to reconstruct the Dodo, a technique traditionally used specifically for extinct species. The model was created by Karl Kästner in 1949 who used basic information collected from other skeletons, observations and drawings to recreate the realistic model. The body was  created using clay and plaster whilst the feathers were a mixture of chicken, duck, sawn and ostrich feathers.

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Personally, my favourite set of displays explored the preparation of a Dickhornschaf: a Bighorned Sheep. The cases showed the full process from reconstruction and stuffing to design, make-up and display:

I think its really important for museums to be as open, transparent and educational in every aspect that we can. Opening up access through displays and interpretation enables visitors to gain a better understanding into museum practice and the activities involved in running the spaces they come to visit. When we visit museums I think it is usual to absorb what is on display without really thinking in depth about how displays have been curated, how taxidermy artefacts are preserved and the work that goes on behind the scenes. “Masterpieces of Taxidermy” really opens up the field of taxidermy and gives a world class insight into how natural history specimens are prepared for our learning and entertainment. The gallery is a real showstopper in this marvellous Natural History Museum.

My next blog post will explore some of my object highlights from the Museum so keep an eye out!

Until next time, happy museum musings!

Em xo

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📍Altes Museum, Berlin pt.2

So, I promised you a second instalment of my visit to the Altes Museum and here it is! Aside from my star objects from the Numistmatics Collection (which I found surprisingly interesting!), there were lots of other fascinating objects housed in the oldest museum on MuseumInsel. These are some of my favourites!

Highlight objects:

  1. Cauldron attachments: Heads of Griffins, Samos, Greece, around 640-630 BC. Heraiom, acquired c.1914, Bronze.

2. Greek bronze helmets from 7th century BC. Greece, Italy, Egypt; acquired 1904-5. Bronze, 700-600 BC.

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3. Relief with Heroes and worshippers – Chrysapha/Sparta. Greece, acquired from the Sabouroff Collection. Marble, c. 540 BC. These reminded me of the Assyrian reliefs on display at my former workplace, the British Museum. Kings such as Ashurbanipal would have walls leading up to their thrones decorated with scenes of them overseeing construction work or participating in lion-hunts to showcase their power. The design and regal feel of these reminded me so much of those that will be on display for the next major exhibition at the British MuseumI am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria which is on display from 8 November 2018 – 24 February 2019.

4. Gold jewellery from Tarentum, Italy. The find consisting of gold hairnet, necklaces, armlet in the shape of snakes – (very Taylor Swift-esque 🐍), earrings and a finger ring showcase the complete set of jewellery of a rich Tarentine woman. They were most probably left as grave goods upon her death in the late 3rd century BC.

Gold hairnet: This exquisite gold hairnet was part of the gold haul and has an old, reused medallion with the head of Medusa as the centre piece. Found c.1900 in Tarentum, Italy. Acquired in 1980. Made and used in 230-210 BC.

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5. Jewellery from the Geometric Period:

Fragile golden bands with depictions of stencilled figurative patterns were most likely places around the heads of the deceased. Because the markings are difficult to see with the naked eye, the museum have scanned and recreated the stencilled bands to make the decoration clearer for visitors to get a better look at the intricacy. This simple but effective touch really helped the objects to stand out and be more accessible.

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6. Scythian Gold body ornaments and mirror. The largest Scythian jewellery ensemble outside the countries of origin.

The final special exhibition, Fleish (Flesh/Meat) was also very endearing. Themes such as Rost/Food, Kult/Cult and Körper/Body explores human relationship with meat and how it sits in a precarious space between life and death. The exhibition poses interesting questions about the conflicts of meat in society, how it it seen to some as repulsive but others as nutrition and ultimately how we as humans think about it in the modern day.

This was by far one of the most exquisite museums I’ve ever visited. The space was used so well and it didn’t feel overly repetitive as the statues, gold, numismatics, grave goods were distributed throughout the galleries rather than in one space. I spent hours exploring this museum and would recommend you make the time to do so too if you’re visiting beautiful Berlin 🏛🇩🇪

Happy museum musings!

Em xo

📍Altes Museum, Berlin

Hallo!

After venturing to visit the Museum für Naturkunde, I spent the rest of my time in and around Museum Island and it might just be my favourite place on earth. Everything is so magical; the architecture, the views, the history, the food. If I could, I would live there forever!

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First up was the Altes Museum, the oldest museum on Museum Island. Originally known simply as ‘The Museum’, the name changed to Altes Museum in 1855 due to a new museum being built. And of course, the only logical way to differentiate between the two was to call the old museum the Altes (Old) Museum and the newer museum, the Neues (New) Museum! 😂 Makes sense right?!

The museum specialises in Greek and Roman antiquities so included the standard object that you’d expect: statues, helmets, statues, grave goods, statues, pottery and MORE STATUES! 🗽🗿

Aside from marble busts, there were lots of other really beautiful artefacts on display inside this museum of grandeur. I surprised myself by spending a good 30 minutes reading every text panel and inspecting each coin in the Numismatic Collection vault. I actually think it may have been my favourite room… 💶

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Honestly, until last year I didn’t even know what the word ‘numismatic‘ meant! But one of my first assignments in my role at the British Museum was to write a donor report for the Defacing the Past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome exhibition. The exhibition, curated by Dario Calomino, presented ‘coins and other objects that were defaced, either to condemn the memory of deceased Roman emperors or to undermine the power of living ones’. Objects included a Suffragette defaced penny and the bust of Germanicus Caesar with his nose removed.

Whilst writing the report, I did lots of wider research into numismatics, the BM’s Coin Collections and even went on a BTS tour of Greece and Rome to improve my own knowledge (and make it seem like I knew what I was talking about!). I really think this prior understanding bettered my experience at the Altes Museum as it helped me understand this collection better. I know it sounds really self-indulgent but I find it very satisfying when I know something about an object or collection or person and find information relating to it – it makes me feel less intimidated by the academic language and more included in the museum.

My numismatic collection highlights: 

Left: Magnesia am Sipylos, Amazone nuit Peltaschild und Mauerkrone, Ihr gegeniber kykele, 197-217 N.Chr, Top right: Bank note: Röm. Republik: Aes Signatum280-242 v. Chr, Bottom right: Syracuse: Späte Dekadrachmen, Signatur: Kimon, UM406 V.Chr

A really great UK based group to get involved in if you’re interested in numismatic material and the like is The Royal Numismatic Society.  Established in 1836, the group and its members share a passion for coins, medals and other currency material. The Society recently sponsored an exhibition called ‘Currency of Communism’ at the British Museum. Another great resource is the Money and Medals Network, a group based at the British Museum and in association with the RNS, BNS and a number of key partners. “The Network aims to act as an information exchange for museum professionals within the UK whose collections include coins, medals and other objects relating to monetary and economic history and numismatics”.

In my next post I’ll feature some of my other favourites from the Altes Museum…

Happy museum musings, folks

Em xo

📍Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

On day 2 of my stay in Berlin I ventured out of Museum Island and to the Museum für Naturkunde to visit my first Natural History Museum of my trip 💚 Although it is a little out of the way from Museuminsel I think it’s definitely worth it.

It is housed in a similar building to the NHM in South Kensington, London. Made of Portland-esque Stone, decorated with animal statuettes (and it’s equally as huge). The entrance is also similar, with the looming dinosaur skeleton centrepiece (although I know Dippy is on tour around the UK).

The interactives in the main hall were really cool (see above). Look into the binoculars and the dinosaurs come to life; showing you what they would have looked like and loved like when they were on earth. I thought this was a really great addition as it is difficult to imagine what these skeletons would’ve looked like roaming the earth so to actually visualise it was pretty mind blowing 🦖🦕

In the museum, there were two rooms that really stood out for me and I actually squealed with excitement when I found them! First, the spirit jar display room! (My favourite museum subject) and my goodness it was the best one I’ve ever seen.

The jars, filled mostly with sea creatures and reptiles and are showcased on shelves from floor to ceiling. What is great is that these could have been in storage or behind closed doors but the Museum have chosen to allow them to be on show, despite a working room being in the centre, so that visitors can experience such a phenomenal collection.

My second favourite gallery was the taxidermy room. If you know me, you know how much I love taxidermy and natural history! The room was different to anything I’ve ever seen before as it explains how taxidermy collections are created.

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Each display case documented a different style of taxidermy including:

  • The reconstruction of extinct animals
  • The skeleton collections
  • The bellows and fur collections
  • Bird skin collections
  • Impression of a fish

As someone who loves taxidermy specimens I think it is so important to understand the processes that go into creating the specimens that you see on display. Breaking things down can help visitors to learn better and I certainly learnt so much from this room. It also supports people’s understanding of how decisions are made for each specimen – what materials can be used, how it can be stored or displayed and what conditions need to be thought about when acquiring natural history objects.

This museum is a really great example of a natural history museum that is a vital educational resources for a variety of audiences. They have spaces in the upper galleries for school groups and I can see why – the place is the perfect space for young visitors and teaching the school curriculum.

Happy museum musings,

Em xo

 

Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The next stop on my Museum Tour was Berlin, Germany 🇩🇪 I had heard so many great things so my expectations were very high. And oh my were they exceeded! If you haven’t had the chance to visit, put it on your bucket list RIGHT NOW! 🗒

I’ll write another blog post about why I am now obsessed with Berlin so much but for now here’s a little insight into the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The Museums main building is housed in Berlin’s former, Zeughaus (armoury), whilst the second section, added between 1998-2003 was designed by I.M Pei, the same man who designed iconic pyramid for The Louvre, Paris.

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You’re actually not allowed to take photographs of the exhibitions which was very frustrating but what I want to focus on is the museums amazing accessibility features – something that many museums could learn from. I’ll be focusing on the Museum’s accessibility in their current major exhibition “Europa und das meer” (Europe and the Sea) 🌊

Around the whole exhibition space there are white raised, textured lines along the floor. As I worked my way around the space I realised they were to assist visitors who are visually impaired with navigating their way around using the raised pathways. These pathways lead you around the exhibition in a logical order and also merge into a square of dots (like you find on pavements as you’re coming up to a road or crossing) symbolising that an audio-visual station was ahead.

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At these stations there are 3 large panels.

Panel 1:

The first panel has text written in ‘academic speak’ using technical wording and “jargon”. This interpretation is usually written by specialist Curators who have an in-depth knowledge of a subject and is created to engage other specialists and visitors with a comprehensive subject knowledge. This type of text can be very overwhelming and I often find myself reading the first couple of lines and feeling well out of my depth so moving on without learning much. This is where panel 2 comes in…

Panel 2:

A simpler text panel written in what is referred to as “Simple German”. Smaller words, less text, same impact. This is such a brilliant addition to the interpretation and having worked with a range of audiences (people with Special Needs, visual impairments, English as an Additional Language etc) I understand many of the access issues that too much text or jargon words can have. There are also many other visitors that would benefit from this type of text panel: including those with Dyslexia, younger visitors, those with limited knowledge and people who only want a basic understanding of a subject.

Underneath this text was a Braille version of the wording above as well as the audio loop that played the information on the guide available from the exhibition desk.

Panel 3:

The third panels at each stations all had large maps so visitors could visualise where in Europe was being discussed alongside video interpretation being shown in German Sign Language.

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Also, although the exhibition is displayed across two floors, all museum entrances are wheelchair accessible. I have been in museums (and actually worked in one) where if you couldn’t use the stairs you couldn’t access the whole building. Now I know for many institutions this is due to Grade Listings of buildings and the guidelines stopping lifts being added but it does rather spoil the vi and we as a sector should be working better to ensure access is a priority. Even having a video downstairs doing a tour of the upstairs rooms/exhibitions or having interactive collections online for visitors to view at their leisure would enhance the experience and ensure access issues don’t stop certain groups being excluded.

From a personal perspective, museums can often feel very exclusive, with their text, subjects and spaces which reinforces this ‘us’ vs ‘them’ notion. If the sector truly wants to be more accessible and inclusive, I think that following the steps of the Deutsches Historisches Museum would be a good way to go! Improving access, be it physical, representational or educational is something that I think is of the highest priority for the sector to become more open to the audiences is should be serving.

Top marks to Deutsches Historiches Museum 💯

Em xo

📍Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A little different from the other museums I visited whilst in Amsterdam aye! But this was one that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I saw a poster for it in the Ipswich Museum offices when I was a Training Museum Trainee in 2015.

The Rijksmuseum, located in Museum Plein, is so grand, it’s pretty breath-taking. As you walk through the dimly lit tunnels with buskers playing modern songs such as Seven Nation Army on traditional instruments, you feel like you’re stepping back in time.

Although there are copious amounts of paintings and art works (which aren’t really my thing in all honesty) I did find some pieces that really jumped out at me.

My object highlights:

1. Carità Educatrice (Charity the Educator), Lorenzo Bartoloni (1777 – 1850), Florence, c.1842 – 1845, marble, (BK-2008-5-A)

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The woman personified the virtue of Caritàs (charity) in her role as educator – a typical Italian theme. She is caring for two children and encouraging the older one to read. Inscribed on his scroll is the moral “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. This piece was so beautiful with the shadow reflected onto the light grey wall behind and stood so powerfully in a room full of strong objects. With this sculpture, artist Bartolini contributed to a topical discussion about the importance of education in Tuscany at that time.

2. Glass vase in a brass mount attributes to the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschile, brass, glass, c. 1900 (BK-2015-21)

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I’m not really sure why I loved this object so much but I just felt mesmerised by it. The iridescent colours, contrasting materials and how I’ve never seen anything like it before. Also, the changing colours look pretty awesome in a boomerang!

3. Concentration Camp coat, worn by Isabel Wachenheimer, Texled, 1938 – 1945, rags printed with blue ink, synthetic buttons, (NG-2011-97-1).

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This numbered prison coat was worn by Isabel Wachenheimer (1928 -2010) in Lenzing Pettighofen concentration camp in Austria. Isabel had been transferred from Auschwitz death camp along with 500 other Jewish women in October 1944. This came just after her parents had been murdered at Auschwitz. The reality of this story really hit home; the fact that a human being who had survived the WW2 concentration camps had worn it and donated it was overwhelming. Underneath the coat is the Wachenheimer family photo album which made the display more relatable and personal.

4. Facial casts of Nias Islanders, plaster, after 1910, (NG- C-2012-3).

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These casts, created by anthropologist J.P. Kleiweg de Zwaan are the result of research he conducted into the physical characteristics of different ethnic groups. On a 1910 expedition to Nias – an island located off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia – he covered the faces of a group of living men with plaster to record their appearances. Something about the casts fascinated me and it wasn’t until I’d left that I realised it was the power imbalance displayed in the artwork that was most prominent. The white European anthropologist visiting ethic minority groups and documenting their differences for his own experiment. The research and outcome felt very supremacist; reminding me of the race inequalities that have been present for centuries and continue in the present day.

I would definitely recommend this museum for anyone looking to do one big culture trip in Amsterdam. It would take a whole day to go around properly and there’s something for everyone: art, sculpture, weaponary, delftware, dolls houses: the lot. Another one ticked off ✅

Em xo

📍 Sex Museum & Erotica Museum, Amsterdam

Well… what can I say? These museums are both very intriguing, fascinating, uncomfortable and unbelievable at the same time!

Sex is such a big part of Amsterdam’s identity and there’s no shortage of it everywhere you turn. So if you’re uncomfortable with sex or pornography or oversized phallic objects I’d urge you to look away now…!

First up: 📍The Erotic Museum. Located along a canal in the Red Light District, (next door to the Museum of Prostitution), it’s housed across 4 floors in a typical tall, narrow Dutch townhouse. My favourite objects in the first section were the household objects that were all overly sexualised – from paper weights and nut crackers to coasters and tableware – if it’s sexual; you can display it in your home!

 

The further up the house you go, the raunchier it gets: with a library of sex inspired books, a sexy art/photography gallery and leading to full on pornography films, audio and objects on the top 2 floors (including a very bizarre pornographic remake of Looney Tunes with Tom and Jerry having very rough sex with Donald Duck’s wife behind each other’s backs…) 🐱🐥🐹

Although this museum was fun, I didn’t learn very much and it all just seemed very over the top! I think the mission is to shock and excite people by displaying as many sexual objects as possible rather than to act as a learning resource – which is fine! But I do like to come back with some facts which was virtually impossible here!

Next up: 📍Venustempel Sex Museum, Amsterdam

The Venustempel (Temple of Venus) is the worlds first and oldest sex museum and it was brilliant. Although it was, of course, very sexual (I’d have been disappointed if it wasn’t), it felt very different to the Erotic Museum. From the outset it had a more historical context with themed sections depicting sex through the ages, sexual preferences around the world and it didn’t seem as crude. Although not the best, it’s definitely one to tick of the old Amsterdam bucket list!

My favourite objects:

1. Part of a temple wagon, India, 19th Century

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When I worked at the British Museum, one of my main responsibilities was to write donor reports for supporters of exhibitions, posts and projects to give them evidence of where their money was being spent and how successful the support had been. One report I wrote featured the conservation of a beautiful chariot also known as a “Juggernaut” or “Ratha Yarta”. The object above is an example of the popular erotic decorations often found on such chariots which were pulled by pilgrims at religious ceremonies.

2. Baking tins, early 20th century

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These baking tins were used to make cookies in the early 20th century and feature images from the Karma-Sutra. Karma Sutra cookies definitely sound very delicious. It’s a whole new take on you are what you eat and I LOVE it!

3. Terracotta tablet, representing a Roman orgy, Italy 1900.

The grey tablet is the Roman original and the terracotta version is the reconstruction. The text label asks visitors to look closely at the top one and see if they can figure out where the leaves on the bottom tablet should be 🍃🍂 And of course, it revealed a more sexual piece of art than expected! The leaves covered evidence of the subjects’ genitals or engaged in sexual intercourse or masturbation. This object was a real fun piece and the task of finding where the stray leaves should be was a great thing to do with other visitors next to the display!

4. Orchid inspired sinks

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Okay so my last favourite piece isn’t technically an object but a beautiful sink installed in the Museum’s 2010 renovation to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Yes it’s in the visitor toilets, yes I got a few weird looks but I just think it’s lovely and so subtly sexual! It’s well known that flowers often have erotic meanings – the Orchid often symbolises love and beauty. More appropriately, and in theme with the museum, in old Greek, the word Orchid actually means “testicle” 🌺🌺🌺

These two museums, although similar in essence, are actually pretty different. The Erotic Museum is less educational and more humorous/outrageous so if you want more of a laugh then definitely go! But for me, the Sex Museum was more historical, and educational, thus making it a lot more engaging and compelling. I learnt a lot more than I expected I would or could about sex!

All in all, Amsterdam’s sex museums really are something else – you’ve got to tick them off 🍆🍑🏛✅

Em xo