{Germany} Museum Torchlight Tour

November 30, 2012


As you may know, I love getting museum related presents. And I love museums that do unusual or quirky events. It’s been two months now since my birthday, but the voucher from my friend Hie-suk for a torchlight tour of Berlin’s Natural History Museum last weekend definitely checked all the boxes!

Torch and Voucher for Natural History Museum torchlight tour

Birthday voucher for a museum torchlight tour


Torches at the read, we started off shortly after 8pm at the foot of one of the museum’s star attractions – the over 13 metres high, fully assembled Brachiosaurus, incidentally also the world’s tallest dinosaur skeleton with Guinness Book of Records certificate to prove it. I’d been to see it several times before. I knew all the facts already. But somehow seeing it in the dark of the night, in the glow of just a dozen hand-held torches, made it twice as interesting.

Natural History Museum Torchlight Tour 1

Clockwise from top left: Torches at the ready; Brachiosaurus (photo by Hie-suk Yang); Brachiosaurus skull


We then moved on to the replica exhibit of the Tendaguru excavation, where the 150 million year old Brachiosaurus has been found alongside several other complete dinosaur skeletons – the richest Late Jurassic fossil bed in Africa and the most successful dinosaur excavation of all time. Another star exhibit we saw in the dinosaur exhibition was the Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen, thought to be the most famous fossil in the world. There are three complete fossils in existence, but the Berlin specimen is the only one where Archaeopteryx has its wings fully extended. It was found by a farmer in his field and sold for the value of a milk cow. Today it’s value is comparable to that of the Mona Lisa, and the original has only been on display for 5 years, since security in the exhibition was improved.

Natural History Museum Torchlight Tour

Left to right: Excavation replica; Archaeopteryx fossil


Next, we visited the Evolution gallery, stopping on route by a giant model of a dragonfly – only to discover that 300 million years ago, when only plants and insects roamed the planet, they did indeed become that big! Our focus in the Evolution gallery was the Biodiversity Wall, with 3000 animals that still exist today, where we were given the task to identify some that are nocturnal, such as foxes, owls and bats, complete with a demonstration of a bat detector (I’m happy to report there were no live bats inside the museum^^). Other animals we saw in the Evolution gallery included extraordinary specimens such as the egg laying mammal platypus, or the aptly named lungfish that can breathe air through a lung, and for a change was actually swimming around an aquarium instead of being exhibited in a display case.

We then left the main galleries to visit the research collections – the museum also acts as a research institution with around 30 million specimens in its care – with its musty smell of dead animals, passing first through the ornithological collections, where everything but the bird nests was in closed storage, with the mammals as our destination. The museum’s largest specimens are elephants, though the collection consists mainly of partial skins from different individuals, which all fit into one comparatively small ‘closest’.

Natural History Museum Torchlight Tour

Clockwise from top left: Biodiversity wall; Bird nests; Busy taking notes (photo by Hie-suk Yang); Elephant closet (photo by Hie-suk Yang)


In contrast, we then looked at one of the smallest mammals, with a drawer full of common mice which document the diversity of species. As we were informed, the mice had all had their tails reinforced to prevent them from getting entangled with each other and to make it easier to pick them up (which threw some cool mouse shadows on to the wall!), or as our guide put it, the mice all had a “stick up their ass”. *snigger* We also learned that a team of old aged pensioners regularly come in to volunteer, deciphering handwriting on old labels which is unfamiliar to many younger generations, and helping to transfer the information to a digital database.

Torch and Voucher for Natural History Museum torchlight tour

Left to right: Mouse collection; Mouse silhouette


Our final stop was the Wet Collection, with its rows upon rows of jars containing specimens preserved in ethanol, which is flammable from 18°C which is why the room is kept at a pleasantly cool 15°C (apparently very popular in the hot Berlin summers). Some of the specimens have been in the same jars for 300 years and remain unchanged except for some fading of colour, and many are now extinct or extremely rare. Some of the specimen jars had red dots on their lids, and we learned that this was an internationally agreed way of designating holotypes, i.e. the first specimen of its kind used to formally describe a new species, e.g. the Guppy fish. Exhibits in the galleries are similarly designated with red labels. A particular highlight of the collection was a set of snake specimens, whose eyes had all been bigger than their mouths and had met their end trying to swallow a rat, frog or chameleon.

Natural History Museum Torchlight Tour

Scenes from the Wet Collection


The entire torchlight tour lasted for 1 hour 45 minutes. I’m usually not a big fan of guided tours and prefer to go round on my own accord, as I quickly get distracted by other things I am interested in, but this was definitely something special and thanks to our two guides, Jakob and Franziska, anything but boring. I also found that due to the rest of the museum being in the dark (apart from the entrance and one hallway between the galleries and the research collections everything was in complete darkness lit only by the torches), I didn’t get distracted as easily as you could only ever focus on whatever was being lit by the torches at the time. A big thank you to the museum and of course to Hie-suk, who came with me – I’d definitely count this among the best birthday presents ever!

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