Emblematic Pieces: A visual Tour in One of the Oldest Natural History Museums 

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Discover the most singular specimens of the MNCN.

When entering the Biodiversity room you find one of the MNCN’s masterpieces of taxidermy.

It is a diorama which illustrates the daily life of a colony of bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), a migratory species that winters in tropical Africa and visits Europe for breeding.

The first thing that stands out in this display case is the high number of specimens that make up the biologic group: thirty seven bee-eaters including males, females and chicks.

Based on different specimens we can observe the reproductive cycle of these beautiful birds: some of them are incubating eggs, others are feeding the chicks, others are preening their feathers to keep them in perfect condition, others fly looking for insects and others remain alert to safeguard the colony’s peace.

The taxidermist Jose María Benedito spent long hours in the field observing bee-eaters to reflect this degree of authenticity. This impressive work allows us to see the nests, which consist of galleries excavated in sandy slopes.

African elephant
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is another emblematic piece of the museum which rises up imposingly in the Biodiversity room.

It was hunted in Sudan in 1913 by the Duke of Alba who donated the skin to the museum. For different reasons the skin deteriorated substantially and was kept in a bundle in the basement until 1923.

Ten years after its arrival in the Museum, Luis Benedito naturalized and mounted the elephant, a process that lasted until 1930. The oddest thing is that the taxidermist had never seen an elephant before, neither alive or dissected, so he had to do some research to determine its hypothetical dimension through photographs and engravings of living specimens.

The skin was so voluminous that there was not enough space to work on it at the Museum. It weighted 600 kg and occupied an area of 37 m2, so it was sent to the Royal Botanic Garden. It took two years to soften and scrap the skin, and one more year for the tanning. After a thorough analysis of the specimen and after making multiple scale models, he built a frame of 3,450 kg made of wood, metal mesh and plaster. Finally, he covered the structure with the already tanned and glued skin, holding it with 77,000 pins until the skin dried.

Once the process was over, the elephant had to make a last trip to return to the Museum. Not an easy task due to its size. It was towed by a truck in a platform previously built for this purpose. The transportation through one of Madrid's main street, el Paseo de la Castellana, caused astonishment among the people who witnessed the unusual scene.

One of the most attractive pieces of the MNCN is the fin whale skeleton (Balaenoptera physalus) which hangs from the ceiling of the Biodiversity room.

This cetacean which migrates through the Strait of Gibraltar is the second biggest animal in the world after the blue whale.

The skeleton exhibited corresponds to an adult female which stranded on the beach Cortijo Blanco, in Marbella (Málaga) in February 2008. It is 21 meters long and the weight of the bones is 2,500 kg. It is estimated that the weight of the animal alive could be more than 40 tonnes.

Due to the whale’s popularity, Marbella's city council organized a competition among schools to give a name to the whale. Vega was the winning proposal.

Few animals are as attractive as the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), a charismatic piece for several reasons, the saddest one is its extinction in 1936. Although until 1986 it was not declared extinct, as required by the scientific community, it was 50 years ago that the last specimen died at the Hobart zoo, in Tasmania.

This carnivorous marsupial attracts attention due to its dog body and tiger stripes, which also explains why it is known as marsupial wolf or tiger of Tasmania, although it has nothing to do with the felines and canines.

Giant squid
The giant squid (Architeuthis sp.) is one of the pieces most admired by our visitors. This full-scale model allows visitors to appreciate its size and anatomy.

A young female is exhibited in the Mediterranean room. It was captured by a trawler in Fuengirola (Málaga), on June 25th, 2001. This specimen preserved in formalin is 7.5 meters long and weighs 65 kg.

The study of these cephalopods is greatly complicated as they usually live at depths exceeding 400 m. Since the 16th century to the present day there have been less than 700 reports of giant squids stranded or seen in the ocean.

Considered as mythical animals, these invertebrates are a good indicator of the oceans health, as they are very sensitive to pollution. In fact, the giant squid was proposed as an emblematic animal for the preservation of submarine canyons and great depths.

The protagonist of this magnificent diorama made by José María Benedito in 1918 is the bustard (Otis tarda), the heaviest flying bird in the world. The authentic queen of the steppe, it is one of the most emblematic species of the Iberian fauna.

Only a few centuries before, this species was common throughout Europe, but today it has disappeared from almost all European countries. In Spain there are still big populations, but it also disappeared from areas where it was abundant. As it is the case of Brunete, a town in Madrid where the male and two of the females in the diorama were hunted, or Valencia where the third female in the diorama was killed in 1906.

This work reflects the extensive knowledge the taxidermist had about these birds. He visited the populated areas frequently to observe the birds and get to know their habits and gestures. To give realism to the scene, the Benedito brothers went to Brunete to examine the field and to recreate it they asked for sheaves of wheat to the owner of the farm and they put them at the bottom of the showcase.

Iberian Lynx
The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardina) is the most endangered of the feline species in the world and the most emblematic in the Spanish fauna.The remains of the Iberian lynx found at archaeological sites (2.500 B.C.- 900 A.D.) are spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula, what suggests that it could have been a common species.
Asian Elephant
The presence of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) in the Royal Cabinet illustrates the relevance of the animals from America and Philippines among royal zoological collections during the eighteenth century. This specimen was a gift from the Governor of Philippines to the King Carlos III, who had special predilection for elephants; he had up to four of them.

The pachyderm was shipped in Manila from where he travelled in the frigate Venus of the Royal Navy for 180 days, landing on the island of San Fernando (Cádiz) in July 1773. From there it travelled on foot to la Granja de San Ildefonso (Segovia), where the King and the Queen used to spend the summer. This journey took 42 days and was full of anecdotes. Later, the elephant was transported to Aranjuez (Madrid). Unfortunately, the animal died four years after its arrival in Spain, in 1777. Carlos III ordered its dissection to exhibit it in the Royal Cabinet.

This is certainly one of the most appreciated pieces of the Museum, as it is one of the oldest naturalized species known. The work was done by the taxidermist Juan Bautista Brú, who attached the skin on a structure made by the sculptors Roberto and Pedro Michel of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando.

The skeleton was mounted separately at the request of the King, and it is currently exhibited next to the naturalized elephant.

A hundred years after its arrival in the Museum, the skeleton of the Diplodocus carnegii continues to amaze children and adults. This colossus is more than 25 meters, just the tail has more than 70 vertebrae, and it is an icon of the MNCN, despite it is only a replica of the original fossilized skeleton found in Wyoming in 1899.
The mastodon Gomphotherium angustidens is one of the fossil vertebrates more appreciated of the Museum, as it is one of the most complete specimens of Europe.

Gomphotheres were proboscideans of the size of the current Indian elephant. They had four defences, the superior ones were more developed than the inferiors. They reached the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Miocene and were very numerous. This specimen was found in a clay quarry in Yuncos (Toledo) in 1970. It was deformed because it had to support a great pressure of sedimentation.

The Megatherium (Megatherium americanum) is an extremely valuable piece as it is the first skeleton of a large fossil mammal recomposed and mounted.

The remains of this big sloth of the upper Pleistocene were found in 1787 by a Spanish missionary on the banks of the river Luján in Argentina.

A year later they were sent to the Royal Cabinet and in 1879 the taxidermist and painter Juan Bautista Brú studied, drew and reconstructed the skeleton.

Another aspect that has given extraordinary value to this specimen, is that thanks to the drawings made by Brú, both of the isolated bones and of the mounted animal, the Frenchman Cuvier gave name to this species, so this specimen is the holotype of the species.

Even Darwin studied this animal through Brú’s drawings, which were also sent to whom years later would become the President of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson, also palaeontologist, although he had no opportunity to study them.

Inca mirror
This Pre-Columbian mirror, made from a polished obsidian, is a unique piece which was donated to the MNCN in 1925. There are only five round mirrors exhibited in the entire world.

Although it is commonly known as the Inca mirror, it actually belongs to the Aztec civilization. Its name results from the mistaken belief of the XVIII century that the obsidian belonged to the Incas.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass widely used among Mesoamerican cultures.

Sulphur from Conil
One of the biggest treasures of the museum are the samples of crystallised sulphur from Conil (Cádiz, Spain), some of big size and perfect crystallization, collected in 1791 by Francisco Javier Molina.

The collection of the mineral was quite arduous as the crystallizations were very deep. But the ingenuity of Molina made it possible to extract some excellent macro crystals, with which they filled six boxes that where carried undamaged to Madrid.

The Museum keeps more than 60 samples of crystallized sulphur. Some of them are really spectacular and were exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, 1867.

One of the collections that generates more expectation among visitors is the meteorites collection, the most important in Spain. It consists of 300 samples or fragments of 160 meteorites coming from all over the world.

The origin of the collection dates back to the second half of the XIX century, when the Marquis de Socorro organized the then limited material available in the museum, consisting of just some old samples, to which he added other pieces obtained by exchanges or purchased.

Many of the meteorites of the collection were obtained through exchanges with other museums organized by the geologist Salvador Calderón in the second half of the XX century.

The oldest meteorite, according to the documents in the Archive of the Museum, fell in Sena (Huesca, Spain) in 1773. The most recent one fell in Puerto Lápice (Ciudad Real, Spain) in 2009.

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC
Credits: Story

Coordination: Pilar López García-Gallo, Communication and Public Programs Department, MNCN-CSIC.

Exhibition created and edited by Mª Soledad Alonso, Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Text written by Carmen Martínez, Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Photos by Photography Service, Exhibitions Dept. and Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Videos by Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Deputy Direction of Collections and Documentation, MNCN-CSIC
Dept. of Communication and Public Programs, MNCN-CSIC

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