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Behind the Scenes at Berlin’s Natural History Museum

by Guest Blogger

Russell Dornan had been waiting for years to visit the Museum für Naturkunde, having spent most of his childhood near Köln, but never making it to the German capital. As soon as he started his traineeship (to become a natural history curator) he set his sights on Berlin’s Natural History Museum, arranging a week of work experience across the institution’s collections. Here’s what he found when he peeked behind the scenes of the Museum für Naturkunde; all images his own.
[CAUTION: we have selected images that reflect the work of the Museum für Naturkunde - preparing (skinning), preserving and displaying animals of all kinds. The squeamish among you may want to look away now.]

A giant squid preserved in alcohol

A giant squid preserved in alcohol.

My first day was spent with a taxidermist, part of a team who dedicate their time to skinning birds and mammals, cleaning their bones and mounting them ready for either exhibition or to be stored as part of the scientific collection. They have won many awards throughout Germany and Europe, and rightly so; I’ve never seen taxidermy like it.

I love red foxes. After skinning, its bones would have been cleaned and dried and then mounted with the skin, or kept in the scientific collection.

I love red foxes. After skinning, its bones would have been cleaned and dried and then mounted with the skin, or kept in the scientific collection.

Some of the team were skinning a red fox as I arrived. It was a little bit startling to pop my head round a door to find one of my favourite animals having its skin removed; it was also fascinating. From there I was led through the purpose-built facilities for taxidermy, equipped for every stage of the process. As a result, the pieces they produce (usually from road kill or deceased animals regularly donated to the museum from one of Berlin’s two zoos) are uncannily life-like. I was then shown the bird wet collection: pickled birds in jars.

This piglet was freshly skinned and being prepared for use in a display.

This piglet was freshly skinned and being prepared for use in a display.

A Sunbittern preserved in alcohol.

A Sunbittern preserved in alcohol.

Next, the collections manager for ornithology showed me around the largest bird collection in Germany (around 200,000 specimens). He told me of a journal they had found with previously unknown information about some important specimens, filling in some missing geographical data, and adding even more scientific value to the birds.

These are some of the scientifically important birds that had to be matched up to the citations in the journal that was found.

These are some of the scientifically important birds that had to be matched up to the citations in the journal that was found.

Due to the number of objects, all museums have a large documentation backlog but Berlin’s was particularly interesting. Because of the damage the museum sustained during the Second World War, many specimens are in a poor condition, often with information missing which has to be reconciled. Even missing specimens are input onto the database because they are a testament to what was destroyed during the war. I think it’s a tragic echo; even something as simultaneously trivial and important as a stuffed bird was unable to escape.

The museum had undergone a substantial rebuild in 2010 and most departments were still in the process of relocating the material. The East wing was completely razed during the war; it was finally rebuilt and now houses the very large spirit collections. Other specimens were removed and, ideally, cleaned/conserved and packed in new storage boxes with new labels, ready for their new location.

My time with the arachnid and myriapod collection team was brilliant. Arachnids tend to be fleshier than insects so lend themselves to being preserved in alcohol rather than pinned. There were still some beautiful examples of pinned spiders, as well as some centipedes and millipedes. In German, these are known as “Tausendfüsser” (literally: “thousand feet”). The reptile skins are kept in the same area; it was like a crocodile’s walk-in wardrobe.

The strange crocodile wardrobe.

The strange crocodile wardrobe.

This was followed by a visit to the fish collection, the only one of four floors of spirit collections, across the departments, that is among the public galleries. While manageable, this isn’t practical; it forces the team to adopt unorthodox methods and to organise themselves in a slightly different way than if the collection was behind closed doors.

The bright yellow web is like thread: it's soft, super-strong and vivid. Some people have extracted it and woven it into things like shawls.

The bright yellow web is like thread: it’s soft, super-strong and vivid. Some people have extracted it and woven it into things like shawls.

The mammal section was one of my favourites. When a mammal comes into the museum it gets preserved as a combination of: a skull, a skeleton, a skin or a whole animal. They are usually all kept separate. Sometimes only the skin or skull are kept; sometimes all of it, in which case the individual parts are stored in the relevant areas.

A drawer of fox skulls. They are kept in the little boxes so they don't rattle around and get damaged, and so that if anything breaks off, theoretically the pieces fall into the box and stay with the main body of the object.

A drawer of fox skulls. They are kept in the little boxes so they don’t rattle around and get damaged, and so that if anything breaks off, theoretically the pieces fall into the box and stay with the main body of the object.

Some of the biggest skulls in the collection are the hippo skulls. There are a lot of them too.

Some of the biggest skulls in the collection are the hippo skulls. There are a lot of them too.

After we had looked at the skulls we saw the skin collection. Like the crocodile wardrobe, seeing so many hides of the same type of animal hanging together was surreal. Loads of skins, and other specimens, are needed to make sure that the variation seen in nature is represented in the collection. For example, there are a lot of monkeys.

The only way to really store skins from larger animals is to hang them up. Folding them won't work because most skins get harder as time goes by and then snap and break when anyone tries to lay them flat. Stacking them on top of each other isn't very logical either. Of course, hanging them isn't without its problems. They are heavy and the string deteriorates and snaps, meaning there are loads lying in heaps. It’s always a compromise.

The only way to really store skins from larger animals is to hang them up. Folding them won’t work because most skins get harder as time goes by and then snap and break when anyone tries to lay them flat. Stacking them on top of each other isn’t very logical either. Of course, hanging them isn’t without its problems. They are heavy and the string deteriorates and snaps, meaning there are loads lying in heaps. It’s always a compromise.

Unlike dog skins, like the hyena seen here, cat skins don't go as hard as others. They remain, for the large part, soft and supple.

Unlike dog skins, like the hyena seen here, cat skins don’t go as hard as others. They remain, for the large part, soft and supple.

One of the previous curators had a soft spot for primates and Berlin has a very good collection as result. The eerie, human-like quality of the monkeys is a little bit haunting when they’re pickled.

One of the previous curators had a soft spot for primates and Berlin has a very good collection as result. The eerie, human-like quality of the monkeys is a little bit haunting when they’re pickled.

I loved visiting the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin; seeing what they have behind closed doors was fascinating and exciting. You can read more about my time there in my daily blog posts during my visit, and see photos of the public collections on überlin – close-ups of butterflies and beetles, and the weird and wonderful wet collection.

Heavier objects are stored in the basement. You have to be careful walking through that.

Heavier objects are stored in the basement. You have to be careful walking through that.

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Ramones Museum Berlin

by Guest Blogger

We visited the spiritual home of the proto-punks with Kevin Cousins, who also introduced us to our favourite record shop in Berlin, Bis Auf’s Messer.

Ramones 1

The comic book, buzzsaw chug of the Ramones is one of the most recognisable and imitated rackets in rock’s pantheon. Eternal misfits, they occupied a space of paradox: musically inept but trailblazing in their deconstructing of musical conventions; Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who never really hit “the big time”; a band equally influenced by the Stooges and the Ronettes. They were the kind of band that inspired dogged devotion: a definitive cult item. Therefore, it is perhaps fitting that the one museum dedicated to these loveable losers is far from their hometown of Queens, New York, and just happens to be where one of their biggest fans lived: Berlin. The Ramones Museum is a testimony to die hard fandom, and has Johnny, Joey et al’s scruffy, underdog charm written all over it.

Ramones 2

Ramones 3

The exhibits are arranged in a loosely chronological order, charting the Ramones’ rise from snotty street urchins to major-label almost-stars. Most of the material is presented through myriad fliers, handbills, posters and photos, but within the yellowing snippets there are some real treats to behold. Shots of these punks mooching on street corners in their home city, unnoticed and awkward, stand side by side with iconic portraits of them hitting London for the first time. There they were hailed as champions of a new, three-chord zeitgeist, with a wide-eyed John Lydon and Joe Strummer jostling to be in the presence of their unlikely idols.

Ramones 4

Ramones 5

Ramones 6

There are touching stories told, too, in which Joey emerges as an especially magnetic character. Clumsy and loping, all limbs and bushy hair, he sticks out as a truly missed icon of the counterculture, with his goofy visage standing out as a welcome presence in all the images on display. His relationship with Johnny was famously fraught: the latter stole and married his girlfriend, leading to a frosty silence that lasted the rest of their career, and this tension is in clear evidence in many of these compelling images.

Ramones 7

Ramones 8

From the sublime to the ridiculous, then, as you can witness Dee Dee’s alarming propensity for treading in dog-dirt, and the obligatory, Spinal Tap-esque “rotating drummer”. Alarming, too, are their label’s (desperate?) attempts to market the band. Ramones surfwear for the Australian market, anyone? Amongst other treasures are Joey’s beaten mic-stand from their last show in 1996, Dee Dee’s omnipresent padlock necklace and Johnny’s savaged Levi’s.

Ramones 9

Ramones 10

€5 buys you a lifetime’s entry(!) and a drink in the bar. There you can sit and scan the walls, which form a ramshackle mural/shrine to the Ramones, in the form of graffiti left by passing punk and indie musicians. From Biffy Clyro to Sum 41, all these artists have been inspired and touched by the Ramones’ less-is-more ethic and surging, fuzztone pop. They soldiered on and “did the clubs” for years, watching the bands who they influenced overtake and outshine them along the way. They were perhaps tragic in the fact that, unlike a lot of punk bands, they wanted and courted fame but remained perpetual also-rans. Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee died within a few years of each other: they would surely have been delighted to see their legacy done service at this excellent, big-hearted little museum.

Ramones 11

Ramones 12

Ramones Museum
Krausnickstrasse 23
10115 Berlin-Mitte
ramonesmuseum.com

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Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

by James Glazebrook

The clear highlight of our recent trip to Copenhagen was the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which justifiably calls itself “the most beautiful museum in the world”. An hour up the Zealand coast from the Danish capital, the Louisiana combines an excellent collection of postwar art with a sculpture garden that drops down onto a beach with panoramic views of the Oresund. Not only was the museum the best thing we did on our trip to Scandinavia, but it had us eyeing all the nearby houses and vowing to one day live somewhere “just like this”.

The Louisiana’s permanent collection includes big names like Warhol and Henry Moore, but my personal favourites were the greatest cluster of Giacometti’s stick-thin man-maquettes I’ve ever seen, and the precarious Self Passage, a George Traka installation that leads brave explorers down to the ocean. A temporary exhibition by persecuted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei pricked our lazy Western consciences, and a retrospective of Andreas Gursky’s extraordinarily expansive photographic art has changed the way Zoë looks at her craft forever.

But let’s face it, it’s the stunning setting that will keep us going back to the Louisiana more. We’re seriously considering flying back to Copenhagen just to jump on the train up to the museum, and come straight back. If that sounds insane, one look at these photos and you’ll totally understand.

Click here to read all about our trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm.

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überlin does Stockholm

by James Glazebrook

Welcome to part one of überlin’s Scandinavian Vacation! (We’re still working on the poster.) This is no Stockholm city guide, as we’ve only seen a fraction of what the Swedish capital has to offer, and have no practical advice beyond: take LOTS of money. Instead, these are our impressions from three short days in the beautiful, too-cool “capital of Scandinavia”.

We ended our first afternoon’s walk by passing through the arches of City Hall, and watching the sun set over the archipelago which represents Stockholm’s icy heart. Over the next couple of days we enjoyed breathtaking views across the water, from the bay’s shore and its islands. Suggestion: skip the touristy Old Town of Gamla stan and head for Skeppsholmen, the pretty island that houses the Moderna art museum, among others, and was eerily quiet on the Monday we were there (when the museums are shut!). We don’t know if the sun always casts the same golden glow over the waters, but the broken mirror of floating ice is one good reason to visit in winter.

What else did we do? Well, apart from *loads* of shopping (which Zoë’s going to describe in detail in another post!), we followed a couple of top tips from our friends on Twitter. Ben Perry pointed us towards the Vasa Museum, built around a seventeenth century ship salvaged from Stockholm’s bay fifty years ago, and an object lesson in how to bring history to life. Björn Schmidt earns foodie points for recommending Grill, where we enjoyed cocktails, spicy fish ceviche, and a shared grill of mixed meats in one of its many themed rooms – let’s call it the Marie-Antoinette-according-to-Sofia-Coppola suite. Nom oo la la nom.

Stay tuned for Zo’s ode to Stockholm fashion collective Acne, and our highlights from Danish capital Copenhagen. God natt!

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Pergamon – Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis

by James Glazebrook

Pergamon – Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis was a no-brainer for this history graduate/tech nerd/fan of the Pergamonmuseum itself. The 360º, 3D panorama of the ancient city that is recreated inside the museum is going to be Museuminsel’s hot ticket for the next year (it runs until 30th September 2012). In fact, I only made it inside on my second attempt, having turned up on a Thursday lunchtime to find a 100-long queue outside – and I don’t queue. Having booked online, I returned for the first available time slot (9-9.30am) the next day, wondering: is this going to be worth the price (€8.50 for holders of a Jahreskarte Plus; €13 full price) and the hassle?

Pergamon panorama 1

Image courtesy of Asisi.

Well, Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis (PAM??) is certainly impressive. The 25m tall structure fills most of the sizeable courtyard in front of the Pergamon, meaning that the entrance to the museum now looks like an industrial storage facility. PAM is accessed by some six flights of steel stairs (I hope they have some disabled access worked out!), which will have visitors questioning if they’ve accidentally taken the workers’ entrance, until they come out onto the platform that overlooks the 100m wraparound screen.

Upon inspection (marvelling?), the view is spectacular. Even if we were allowed to take photos they would fail to do justice to the level of detail presented by what looks like an enormous hyperreal painting, given depth by subtle 3D. Besides, the sound design is equally awesome: the cacophony of crickets during the cycle’s “nighttime”, the buzz of the metropolis during “day” – elements of which are emphasised to cleverly draw viewers’ attention to, say, the marketplace, or the choir on the steps up to the palace. This effect is only marred by the plinks and strums of ever-present “background” music.

Pergamon Panorama 2

Image courtest of Asisi.

So PAM works as spectacle – but does it teach us anything? Beyond what the city, its situation in the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants (probably) looked like… no. It left this history geek wondering: What are these people doing? What is happening at the time? In the world around them? Essentially: what am I looking at? The talented creators at Asisi would no doubt argue that that is what the Pergamon museum is for, to provide the detail that people like Zoë and myself love (see some of her macro photos here). In fact, the below preview video, half-inched from ikono.tv, shows this relationship well – zooming in from a section of the panorama to the fragments on display inside  the Pergamonmuseum.

So Pergamon – Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis is context. The problem is, it’s pitched – and priced – as a standalone attraction. Admission to the Panorama costs as much as to the actual Pergamon itself – more for holders of a Jahreskarte Plus, which allows free access to all Berlin State Museums and their special exhibitions, except this one. And it took me about 20 minutes to digest PAM, whereas I have lost entire days inside the Pergamonmuseum, and still have things left to see. Not to belittle the Panorama, but given that it is really an introduction to the main attraction, a simulation of the real deal, it should be priced accordingly.

Pergamon – Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis is worth checking out, but it’s worth avoiding the crowds, booking online and paying the extra €5 to get a ticket that also includes entry to the museum. Then you’ll get the broad-brush overview, and still get to explore the real delights that the Pergamonmuseum has to offer.

Pergamon – Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis – Trailer 2 from ikono tv on Vimeo.

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Natural History Museum in Close Up

by Zoë Noble

For a glimpse of something more gruesome at the Natural History Museum, check out our photos of the Wet Collection.

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The Wet Collections, Natural History Museum

by James Glazebrook

Visiting the Wet Collections in the Museum für Naturkunde is a little like that scene in Alien: Resurrection when Ripley happens upon a room full of freakish alien experiments in jars. The fact that the one million specimens were collected here on Earth doesn’t stop them appearing other-worldly in their glowing jars of ethanol, and some of them downright facehugger-y. The climate-controlled conditions in the museum’s East Wing, completed in September 2010, mean that you even have to go through a kind of airlock to get to it. Berlin’s Natural History Museum is fast establishing itself as a rival to those in London and New York, but we advise you to stride straight past its main attraction – the largest mounted skeleton in the world – and marvel at the mad creatures we share the planet with today.

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Altes Museum

by James Glazebrook

Our new favourite blog is A Year in Museums, which aims to visit the 200-odd museums in London in 12 months. The only thing stopping me from stealing the idea and using it here in Berlin is not a strong sense of ethics, but a lack of organisation.

However, we do have a kind of informal challenge, in the shape of Jahreskarten which allow us free entry to all of Berlin’s 23 (if I counted right) State Museums, for a year. We’ve been to five, if we cheat and count previous trips to Berlin: the Kupferstichkabinett (prints and drawings), the Pergamonmuseum (twice, including this visit), Hamburger Bahnhof (also twice!), the Neue Nationalgalerie (bunch of Dix!) and now the Altes Museum.

The “Old Museum” lives up to its name, a collection of classical monuments housed in a building that references the Roman Pantheon. While the Etruscans and Romans are well represented, it’s the Ancient Greeks that steal the show, with impressive statues of their gods and demigods, the best of which stand under the museum’s central rotunda.

Here are our impressions of the Altes Museum. Below them, we’ve included a great video of the island on which it sits along with the other State Museum biggies, Museumsinsel, from our expat blog buddies Good Hard Working People.

Altes_Museum_1Altes_Museum_2Altes_Museum_3Altes_Museum_4Altes_Museum_5Altes_Museum_6

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Computer Games Museum in Close Up

by Zoë Noble

Computer Games Museum 1Computer Games Museum 2Computer Games Museum 3Computer Games Museum 4Computer Games Museum 5Computer Games Museum 6Computer Games Museum 7Computer Games Museum 8Computer Games Museum 9Computer Games Museum 10Computer Games Museum 11Computer Games Museum 12Computer Games Museum 13Computer Games Museum 14

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Pergamonmuseum in Close Up

by Zoë Noble


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