Most Precious Things
(October 22nd, 2014) On October 1st, a new exhibition called Precious Things opened at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. How it all began with two kids digging up a dinosaur and ended with a gift from Charles Darwin – Lab Times reporter, Karin Lauschke, tells the story.
With over 14 million species accrued and collections 400 years old or older, the Natural History Museum of Denmark is one of the most renowned museums in the world - it covers approximately 10% of the entire global fauna. Conveniently, the museum is based in the heart of Copenhagen, in an old building right in the middle of one of the University parks. The vast majority of the building is dedicated to storing specimens in endless shelves for the 130 resident scientists, who want to draw all the secrets from them. For the museum’s latest exhibition, the scientists went on a hunt for their most precious things. Among them: a gift from Darwin and a dinosaur skeleton.
Back in 2013, the museum purchased “Misty”, a 17 m long Diplodocus with an unbelievable story attached. “In 2010 – as we did almost every summer – my whole family went dinosaur hunting to a quarry my father had run for a few years, in Wyoming in the US,” remembers Benjamin Albersdoerfer, son of archaeologist Raimund Albersdoerfer. “After perhaps an hour of digging and scraping at that place, a piece of bone raised our interest. It was only as small as my hand but as we dug alongside the bone it became bigger and bigger and bigger. As it turned out later, we had just found Misty’s femur!”
Benjamin and his brother continued digging for a couple of hours and only when they realised that they were dreadfully thirsty and hungry, did they return to the main quarry and told their father what they just found. “You can imagine his reaction when he saw those tremendous bones we had discovered,” Benjamin says. It then took a whole team of men to fully excavate the dinosaur. Of course, the boys couldn’t keep it for themselves; it sold at an auction for half-a-million euros. That was one year ago and, today, Misty’s bony remains are the centrepiece of the exhibition.
To surround Misty with similarly precious things, scientists at the museum spent hours and hours between the shelves, looking for more specimens of historical and cultural value. And they were, of course, successful. Hanne Strager, head of the exhibition and a huge Charles Darwin fan, made a particularly spectacular discovery while sifting through all the old material from Darwin in her archives.
Before Darwin turned the world upside down by publishing “On the Origin of Species”, he was constantly exchanging specimens with some of his colleagues. One of them was Japetus Steenstrup, back then director of the Royal Museum of Natural History in Copenhagen. Strager explains, “I thought maybe Darwin had returned some of the specimens and wrote a letter saying ‘Thank you, I hereby return…’. I could simply find the specimen and say, ‘Darwin borrowed it and here it is’.”
An old specimen with maybe even a handwritten note from one of the greatest scientists would have already been an outstanding find. But instead Strager found a real sensation: Darwin was so grateful for all the help he received from his Danish colleague that he sent him a special gift: barnacles. These are sessile relatives of crabs and lobsters, dwelling in shallow waters. Instead of giving them a special place, Steenstrup stored them with the other barnacles in the museum, on different shelves according to their ‘family relations’. Over the years, people forgot where the specimens came from.
Until Strager found an old letter from Darwin. “In the letter it says, ‘I include a list with the 77 specimens, so that you know what species they are’. But the list was lost,” remembers Strager, although this didn’t stop her from looking. She knew that all of Steenstrup’s correspondence was stored in the historical archive and, indeed, there it was. “When we had the list, it was relatively simple. After I decrypted Darwin’s handwriting, we gave it to the people in the different species collections and brought 65 of the old pieces back together. It is not only special because they came from Darwin but also because barnacles were the species of animals that Darwin used as a model organism for evolution. He understood evolution through the way barnacles diversified. And, of course, it is a historical thing. It is fantastic,” she explains. Strager also believes that this might be the biggest collection of material from Darwin outside of England.
The barnacles are now showcased in a glass box right next to Misty, the dinosaur, in the entrance hall of the museum. And they contribute to the "Precious Things" exhibition with a further aspect: the value of some specimens is shifting, from the pure scientific perspective to a historical view. Although we know about evolution nowadays, it is exciting to imagine how Charles Darwin built his hypothesis. And by looking at this collection of some of his model organisms, we can also look at the world through Darwin’s eyes.
I believe, the exhibition is worth a visit - not only for Misty and Darwin’s barnacles but also for a frighteningly, real-looking mammoth, the skeleton of a recently stranded sperm whale, the Isua rocks bearing traces of the earliest life on Earth and much, much more. There’s even a skull of the famous Dodo bird; it’s one of only two in the world. The exhibition runs for the next five years, until the Zoological Museum fuses with the Geological Museum and the Botanical Garden, to become the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The entrance fee of 75 Danish Kroner (€ 10) also includes a second exhibition on evolution and a permanent exhibition on Danish fauna. The museum is open all year round, from Tuesday to Sunday (10 am to 5 pm).
Photos: K. Lauschke