Behind the scenes of science museums

If you’ve ever visited a museum, you’ve probably stood before an exhibit that takes your breath away. Maybe it’s diamonds or dinosaurs that dazzle you; maybe it’s termites or toucans or a toad in a jar. But have you ever wondered how these exhibits are made?

By Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

American Museum of Natural History, MUSE: Museo delle Scienze di Trento, Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Herpetological specimens preserved in fluid. Real Gabinete ExhibitionMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Who are the people who work behind the scenes to handle the specimens, plan and build the exhibits, and present all that information? In this Expedition, you’ll go behind the curtain to learn about these museum wizards and how they work their magic.

American Museum of Natural History Exhibitions Lab

Behind the scenes at the American Museum of Natural History is the Exhibitions Lab. Founded in 1869, the lab has produced thousands of installations, notable for combining immersive art with multimedia presentations.

The team consists of more than 60 artists, writers, designers, preparators, and programmers who create two to three new exhibits each year, making the AMNH one of the most extensive exhibition creators in the world.

These exhibits often travel to other natural history museums around the world.

Habitat Dioramas at the AMNH

Dioramas depict a specific moment in time and place. A diorama usually includes a painted background of distant objects—a landscape, for example—that creates an illusion of depth behind 3­dimensional objects, such as taxidermied animals, in the foreground. 

Taxidermy

The craft of preparing, and mounting animals for display or study is called taxidermy (from the Greek for “arrangement of skin”). Taxidermists require a knowledge of animal anatomy and the fine motor skills of surgeons and sculptors. 

Too Big for the Room

This 122­ foot long titanosaur cast was simply too big to fit into the Wallach Orientation Center at the American Museum of Natural History, so part of its 39­ foot long neck pokes out of the doorway of the main galley, welcoming visitors to the fossil halls.

The top of the skeleton barely grazes the ceiling. In 2012, a rancher in Argentina reported finding giant fossils on his land; two years later, paleontologists had excavated 223 bones belonging to six individual titanosaurs. The cast was based on 84 fossil bones from the site. 

Not for Real

The titanosaur skeleton on display is a cast taken from the real bones, which are too heavy to mount. But a nearby the exhibit does include several real bones from the excavation, including an 8-foot femur.

Researchers used the femur to estimate that this giant weighed about 70 tons!

Building a Skeleton

A team in Ontario, Canada, took more than six months to create lightweight 3D prints made of fiberglass “bones” based on digital scans of the original fossils. They also used the existing bones to create what was missing.

The entire skull was designed, in part, using a single tooth as a starting point. 

Geologists at the Museo delle Scienze di Trento

Designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano, the Museo delle Scienze di Trento, or MUSE, in Trento, Italy, opened in 2013.

It stretches over six floors, each 130 meters long, and its wide-open spaces invite children and families to explore nature, science, and innovation and enjoy its huge public park in the heart of a new urban neighborhood.  

Explaining Nature and Reflecting Purpose

The building’s design reflects its purpose: to “explain Nature” and to “encourage scientific curiosity.” Composed of interlinked areas with multiple uses, the galleries are best visited from the top story down.

Scenographers on Staff

This display was created by a scenographer. In the world of theater, film, and television, scenographers help to create the sets where the action takes place. Museum scenographers create exhibits that use objects, images, and words to tell a story.

MUSE (2013)MUSE - The Science Museum

They are arranged around the core of the museum, a large central void that allows visitors to view the building as one coherent whole.

The Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia

This majestic museum dates to 1799 when the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, purchased the collections of biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, which included animal, plant, fossil and mineral specimens. You can see the bust honoring him here.

The Herbarium

A herbarium is a collection of plant specimens associated with botanical study.

The museum specializes in archeology, but it also offers extensive botanical specimens, displayed in elaborate cases, both ancient and modern.

Usually, as much of the plant as possible is collected, pressed and dried between thin sheets called “flimsies,” and mounted and labeled for display along with details of when and where it was collected.

The Royal Cabinet of Natural History

This area aims to recreate the Royal Cabinet of Natural History created in 1771 by the King Carlos III. Important historical pieces can be observed such as the Asian elephant, the Malayan Pangolin, or an oil painting on canvas with the portrait of a female anteater, among others.

The current National Museum of Natural History is the inheritor of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History.

Malayan Pangolin

This Malayan Pangolin (Manis javanica) coming from Java, is a historical specimen. It was a gift from the Museum of Natural History of Leiden (Holland). The pangolins are insectivorous mammals which live in the tropical forests of South East Asia.

Pangolin "Ayeka" (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

This species is on the verge of extinction due to hunting.

Asian Elephant

The Asian elephant is one of the first specimens mounted in Europe. This specimen was a gift from the governor of Philippines to the King Carlos III. Unfortunately, it died in 1777, four years after his arrival in Spain.

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) by Juan Bautista BrúMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Carlos III asked the painter and taxidermist Juan Bautista Brú to naturalize it, for its exhibition at the Royal Cabinet of Natural History, which was inaugurated in the previous year.

Japanese Spider Crab

The Japanese giant spider crab (Macrocheira kaempferi) is the largest arthropod known today.

Japanese spider crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

It is almost 4 meters long  from claw to claw, its forelegs reach up to 1.5 m, and it weighs more than 20 kg. It is very long-lived,  some specimens are known to be about 100 years of age. 

The Smithsonian Department of Entomology

With more than 35 million species tucked away in more than 132,000 drawers, 33,000 jars, and 5,200 cabinets, the Smithsonian is the second largest entomological collection in the world.

Specimens are organized by phylum, order, and family with genus and species arranged alphabetically. These days, research about agricultural pests is especially important and often generously funded. 

Why Study Insects?

A subcategory of zoology, entomology is the scientific study of some 1.3 million described insect species that account for more than two-thirds of all of the known organisms on the planet. Some of these species date back 400 million years. 

Zoo Insects Inc. Insect-Like CreaturesLIFE Photo Collection

Today, individuals can become ACEs, or Associate Certified Entomologists, and work in the pest control industry.

Black Widow Spider

The black widow is one of the most famous and recognizable spiders in the world because of its highly poisonous bite—but only female bites are dangerous to humans. Look for the red or orange hourglass shape on its abdomen.

Tropical Insects

Rainforest insects exhibit an incredible range of size. The African goliath beetle can weigh a quarter of a pound, and the Bornean stick insect can reach two feet long!

Check out the spiny cricket, the peppermint stick, or the elephant beetle if you’re fascinated by unusual living forms.

Insects in the House

 Many insects prefer the warmth and security of human homes: cockroaches, termites, ants, flies, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, beetles, gnats, and silverfish might like to move in with you when you’re not paying attention.

The Museum für Naturkunde

The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany, houses more than 30 million specimens, some of the most valuable of these are preserved in jars full of ethanol.

In 2010, this “wet collection” found a new home in the museum’s newly rebuilt East Wing. Arranged by type in optimal conditions, the collection is now open for public viewing.

The Wet Collection

The temperature is kept at a cool 15 °C to keep the evaporation of ethanol at a minimum. The ranks of jars holding once-living creatures may give some visitors the creeps! 276,000 vials of spiders, fish, amphibians, and mammals are preserved in more than 21,000 gallons of a solution that is 70% ethanol.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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