I have been waiting for months to visit the Museum fur Naturkunde in the German capital and Tuesday was my first day. I was met in the morning by Jürgen Fiebig, the preparator of the ornithology department. His job title, as I found out, is taxidermist. He is part of a team of five 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 pride themselves on their amazing skills. And so they should; I’ve never seen taxidermy like it.
I met a couple of guys on the team as they were skinning a red fox. 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 and I asked many questions. From there, Jürgen led me through his department, a purpose-built centre for taxidermy. Every single room was new and perfectly equipped for all aspects of preparing the specimens: a lab for skinning the animals; vats for removing fat from their bones using enzymes and vibrations; large systems for drying the bones out; more vats to impregnate various creatures with PEG (more on that later); work-shops for manufacturing the inner structures for the pieces, as well as a separate room for making the bases for the mounts; and an air-brushing studio to give the animals colour. 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; it’s incredible (see below).
After seeing the labs, Jürgen took me to the wet collection (well, one of the four floors, the one with birds on it) as well as showing me the wet collection that the public can see. Here are some shots of the taxidermy and wet collection. I shan’t apologise for the graphic nature of some of the images, but I will caution sensitive readers: caution!
After a quick tea break, we met Pascal Eckhof who is the collections manager for ornithology. He is in charge of documentation, loans, reconciling the database with the specimens and pretty much every admin-related task involved in looking after a huge ornithology collection (around 200,000 specimens, of which ‘only’ about 60,000 are on the electronic database). It’s the largest bird collection in Germany and contains thousands of type specimens. Pasquale showed me their collection of skins, the database they use (it’s a bespoke software designed exclusively for them, just as the other departments in the museum use unique databases for their collections), as well as a couple of problems and projects he’s working through at the moment.
One of these involves a journal that they found which cites some of the material. He has to find that material and note the literature information on their tickets as well as match up the specimens with those mentioned. It was quite serendipitous because there were some gaps in the geographical information relating to these specimens which the journal has conveniently filled. Another ongoing project is the backlog. I’ve written about documentation backlogs before, but the specific aspect of this faced by Pascal is unlike one I’ve come across before. Because of the damage the museum sustained during the second world war, there are many specimens which have been badly damaged. Some of their information is now missing and Pascal has to reconcile this. He also passes many specimens to Jürgen for him to rebuild or clean or otherwise improve, since they are in very bad shape after what they have been through. An element of this is missing specimens. I’m sure many museums can sympathise when a specimen listed in the accession records seems to be missing. In the case of the Museum für Naturkunde, however, there are several large gaps. Pascal inputs these phantom specimens onto the database even though there is no physical object, because it is a testament to what was destroyed during the war. There would be no record that they existed at all otherwise. I realise that ‘missing museum specimens’ isn’t the most noteworthy post-war occurrence but I think it’s a tragic echo; even something as simultaneously trivial and important as a stuffed bird was unable to escape.
That was my first day; it was shattering. Hours of being led around the museum, speaking in English and then in German and then back in English, absorbing as much information as I can as can, asking sensible questions, etc. I’ll leave you with a few more images from my afternoon with Pascal. Tomorrow it’s WORMS!