I am talking of course, about the wonderful Iguanodons of Bernissart, on display in the Belgian Royal Institute for Natural Sciences. The 'Bernissart Thirty' have been etched into my mind since childhood - I remember gazing mystified at grainy old photos and 19th century drawings of the huge, decrepit-looking creatures, with their hideous grins and broken faces. Strangely, it is just this creepiness that is peculiar to the Bernissart finds of 1878 that I have always found so appealing. I remember having dreams as a child about the silent, sombre statues, with their glistening black sheen, like ossified ghosts. Their cracked surfaces give them the appearance of being just about to crumble to pieces; their gaping eye sockets seem to open into nothing at all and there's something just so beautifully, horrifically Victorian about them.
So, this was a personal pilgrimage for me - thirty specimens of my favourite genus of dinosauria AND such historically important ones too!
I'm happy (and not at all embarrassed) to say that when I first entered the dinosaur hall in the Institut de Sciences Naturelle I allowed myself a little snigger (...OK, so it was a girly giggle. Let me preserve a grain of pride). The exterior of the museum and the entrance hall were rather unassuming; they even reminded me a little of school, but the dinosaur hall itself really took my breath away. The architecture is stunning, with beautiful ornate bannisters and twisting wrought-iron spiral staircases and a wonderfully refreshing sense of open space. I'm a big admirer of taxidermy and was delighted to see multitudes of stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling, ducking and diving in the air above their distant cousins (some could be found wandering around at ground-level as well...no explanation, they were just there).
The hall is also home to a beautifully mounted Tyrannosaur, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Crylophosaurus (and many others, but I mustn't waffle!), but the stars of the show for me were the Iguanodons I had got up at a quarter-past five that morning to see:
Firstly, I have to say they are beautifully presented, those that can be mounted standing are arranged in a huge glass case, just as they were in the late 1800s. The mezzanine allows the visitors to walk all around the specimens at about eye-level before going below to experience walking through the glass tunnel that runs beneath. Those that are still set in plaster much as they were found are housed in another room below. This part of the exhibit has a glass floor, so you can walk along with this strange precarious sensation that you're going to fall several feet onto a bed of hard fossils! The lighting is quite stark around the Bernissart Thirty - the natural light is restricted and the fossils are all lit harshly from above, emphasising their monstrous quality. The final touch is the one Iguanodon on the end who has been mounted on all fours, as if she's just stepped down to wander off somewhere. This is the one animal that is presented outside of the glass enclosure that houses the others, except for her tail, which passes through the glass as if she's just stepped through a force-field.
I left the exhibition hall with a great feeling of gratitude to all the workers who blasted their way through the green and pleasant lands of the nineteenth century and the amateur collectors who gathered the sudden explosion of fossils that the Industrial Revolution unearthed. I was grateful also to the Bernissart Thirty. I know I shouldn't get too sentimental about individual fossils, but I did feel a whimper of sadness for these thirty animals who all died together, along with 600 fish and a crocodile in the depths of a river bed. They had no way of even conceiving that in a hundred million years or so some hairless primates would dig up their remains and put them on display, much less that one particular primate would travel all day just to come and pay homage to them.
Thank you, Bernissart Thirty. RIP.