Berlin, Day One: Ornithologische Sammlung (Birds)

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!

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6 thoughts on “Berlin, Day One: Ornithologische Sammlung (Birds)

  1. The PEG is clearly wonderstuff as those birds looks incredibly life-like.

    I have a question from a lay person: I can see the benefit of a wet collection as housing a more practical and ‘perfect’ sample of a specimen, but is the dry collection purely for aesthetical purposes? The taxidermy appears to be a long, arduous process and, I assume, an expensive one. Can the critters be used for anything other than decoration once they’ve been tinkered with?

    • This is a good question. First of all, wet specimens are not as practical as one might think. In order to preserve a specimen in alcohol (or, formerly, formaldehyde) it has to be fixed first (this removes the water, proteins, etc., from the specimen). Once fixed, the specimen then has to be bathed in batches of alcohol of increasing concentrations, gradually building the concentration up to around 70%. This is done to maintain the integrity of the object and takes a long time. The specimen needs to spend an adequate amount of time at each concentration (this time varies but it’s not a few minutes; it can be a day or more). Once this has been completed, the specimens need to be monitored for evaporation and topped up accordingly. This isn’t that straightforward either, as the concentration must be checked, then the correct concentration added in the right volume to ensure the topped up specimen is at the desired concentration. Make sense?

      The benefit of wet specimens is that by using alcohol, DNA is still obtainable from the tissues, and the organs (as well as other internal parts) are preserved also.

      Taxidermy doesn’t take all that long. The fox above was skinned in about 40 minutes. The bones can be cleaned, de-fatted and dried in a few days (depending). Many skins are left as flat pelts and some are stuffed but not mounted, so they have a shape (the bones are then kept separately); some are mounted (this can take a while).

      Storing skins is much simpler than wet specimens for the reasons discussed above, as well as the safety issues involved (a huge warehouse filled with incredibly flammable material carries a lot of health and safety issues) and the environmental conditions required. Taxidermy and skins need certain conditions but it tends to be less strict than spirit collections.

      As for the use, taxidermy, when done well, is very useful for seeing the animal in a natural pose; to give a clear idea of size, shape and colour (a lot are used for comparative studies); the objects can be handled in many different ways; transporting them is easier; and finally, they can be used for display and exhibition, which can be very important for many museums.

      I hope that answers your question. I’m still learning about all this, and there’s no ideal way to do anything: there’s always a comprmise.

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