Dino-Tours: Berlin Pt III - The Neues Museum

After a morning in the Naturkundemuseum, we made our merry way across town to the Neues Museum: a world-class repository of artefacts spanning the course of human history. Of course the famous bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti was high on the list of priorities, but being natural history addicts (and also pressed for time and by this point quite exhausted by all our antics), Mike & I headed straight for the earliest exhibits - those covering our species' emergence as a tool-wielding, language-gibbering, culture-building entity way back in the palaeolithic. (OK, I know I'm cheating a bit here - it's not really a 'Dino-Tour' if there aren't any 'Dinosaurs' in it, but I'm passionate about all of natural history and as dinosaurs are a large part of the evolutionary story I believe that it's important to learn about all that has come before and after them to build up a true picture of their place in Earth's history. So, on we go...)

One thing I will say is if pre-Roman history isn't normally your thing, I still strongly recommend that you don't miss out on these galleries because they really are a treat. As museology goes, the prehistoric galleries in the Neues are a masterclass in interpretation and curation - displaying many tiny objects and large specimens with great sensitivity. For this is the challenge that curators face with our earliest ancestors: that most of the artifacts that they produced were miniscule: beautifully delicate needles worked from shards of bone up to a harpoon or an axe-head (once we get into the bronze age), but the disparity between these beautifully small, numerous objects and the few much larger specimens (the hunters themselves and their prey) is stark and might prove difficult to handle.

The Neues represents all specimens and artifacts in a stupendously classy way: matte-black galleries are sparsely and sensibly filled with exhibits to allow the restored bones and tools to shine all in their own rights. The overall effect is one not of a traditional museum, but of a minimalist ceramicists gallery or a fine art exhibition. The approach to reconstruction is also masterfully minimalist: drawing in the blanks in semi-articulated skeletons with fine, vaguely abstract linework, like the painfully effortless sweep of a Japanese calligrapher's brush.

The centrepiece of the gallery; a dramatic reconstruction of a hunting scene in which an early man prepares to spear an Irish Elk (Megaloceros antecedens) is similarly reconstructed - with the minimalist line illustration of the human subject shown on the wall directly behind the mounted Elk skeleton. No colour, shading or context: the viewer is allowed simply to take up the thread and build their own picture of the scene. This is a brave and canny approach as it really emphasises the drama of the recreation and draws the viewer into the shared space with the subjects. Neat illustrations around the periphery showing timelines and size-charts between contemporaneous species are also a delicate touch.

All in all, the Neues museum is well worth a visit for Natural History nerds, culture-vultures and architecture-buffs alike, for its beautiful buildings, expert curation and sheer variety of galleries on offer. 
Needless to say; unlike us, if you do go there it would be best to set aside an entire day, or even a weekend! We only just managed to scratch the surface of the embarrassment of historical riches on display and as this is a ticketed museum, you'll want to be able to get your money's worth. Also it is worth noting that we had to queue for about fifteen to twenty minutes for our tickets and we didn't see any small shops and cafes nearby, so even if you arrive early, I would recommend bringing some cheap, healthy snacks to keep you going throughout the day.

And that was about it for Day 1, but the natural-history-related chapters of our weekend in Berlin were not yet over! In Part IV, we'll be on safari with some enchanting extant creatures great and small...


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