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Archaeopteryx Trip 2001



Recently, I got back from a short family trip to Europe.  My goal on the
trip was to visit every institution that had an Archaeopteryx specimen.
This meant visiting The Natural History Museum, London; Teylers Museum,
Haarlem, Netherlands; the Humboldt Museum, Berlin; Jura Museum, Eichstatt;
Burgermeister Muller Museum; and the Institute for Paleontology and
Historical Geology, Munich.  Since this ended up being a very cool trip, I
thought at least some list members might find a synopsis interesting.
Before I start, let me point out that this was more of a family vacation, so
I was not doing research or had access to collections that were not on
display.  I only got to see what the general public gets to see.

Also, a word about casts.  Three of the six institutions only had casts of
their Archaeopteryx specimens on display; two of which I knew about ahead of
time.  I find it interesting that the smaller institutions were the ones
that had the real thing on display!  Without going on a long rant, I think
that the arguments for not putting the real thing on display, namely
security and makes it less accessible to researchers are not legit ones.
High profile fossils like Archaeopteryx draw people, and help pay the bills
for research.  If there is just a cast on display, than it is nothing
special!  For example, every place I visited had a cast of the London
specimen, so why should I go to London to see another cast?

On to the real point of this message.  The first place I visited was the
Natural History Museum, London.  Beyond the fact that only casts of
Archaeopteryx are displayed, I was quite disappointed by their Archaeopteryx
display(s).  They really don't have any information accompanying the casts,
and in fact the part and counterpart are displayed in separate ends of the
museum!  Considering that the London specimen is especially historically
important, it would have been nice to see more attention paid to it.  The
total opposite, however, can be said for the museum's dinosaur exhibit.  It
seems to be fairly new, and I found it spectacular.  The layout and design
was wonderful, along with the sheer diversity of the dinosaurs displayed. I
would have to say over 50% were real specimens.  What was great was all the
very historic specimens, such as the Megalosaurus dentary, Maidstone
Iguanodon slab, etc.  I only wish the Baryonyx mount was better lit.  I
wonder why such a good job couldn't have been done with Archaeopteryx.

The second museum was the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands.  This is a
museum of a museum, in that it preserves what a 18th or 19th century museum
would look like.  It really is an amazing place, with some spectacular
specimens.  Their specimen of Archaeopteryx, which is the least spectacular,
was on display, and was the real thing.  Unfortunately, it was surrounded by
casts of more spectacular specimens, which sort of detracted from the
special quality of the Teylers specimen.  Regardless, you could really
relive Ostrom's discovery as told in the book "Taking Wing".  The rest of
the museum is really unique, with many important specimens such as the type
of Mosasaurus hoffmanni and several nice pterosaur fossils.

The next stop was the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.  The Archaeopteryx display
was well set up, even if I cant read German!  There was lots of info, with
high quality photos of the 1860 single feather that was found.  There was
one bad thing, the specimen on display was a cast!  This really surprised me
since the real specimen was on display at the Field Museum a few years ago.
Of course the rest of the main hall is just wonderful.  Standing next to the
mounted Brachiosaurus is pretty awe inspiring.  All of the mounts include
real material from the Tendaguru expeditions.  Just remember to bring lots
of film!

In my opinion the best museum that I visited was the Jura Museum in
Eichstatt, Germany.  The fact that it is housed in a castle at the edge of a
cliff doesn't hurt either.  The museum has everything well lit and well
displayed, and there is an English booklet that provides a comprehensive
translation of all the exhibits.  The real Archaeopteryx is displayed in a
special octagon enclosure and both the part and counterpart are displayed in
a well lit case.  Outside are casts of the other specimens, including the
Maxberg specimen, which is not on display.  Many other Solnhofen beauties
are on display within the museum, making it a great experience.  Even better
was that the new, as yet unnamed, Solnhofen theropod was on display in a
temporary exhibition.  Along with it was CT scans of the slabs.  I remember
someone posting earlier this year that besides the skull and a few cervical
vertebrae, there was nothing else to the specimen.  This is most definitely
not true.  The CT scans clearly showed forelimb bones that have yet to be
prepared.  The person may have been confused because the specimen is two
slabs, one with the skull and 2 or 3 cervicals, and one with the
post-cranial remains, which has yet to be prepped save one vertebrae.  I
also took a picture of the accompanying text, which if someone could
translate, might confirm what I saw.

In Solnhofen is the Bergermeister Muller Museum, whose collections are
mainly of a former mayor of the town.  While a small museum, I thought it
was excellently done.  The specimen of Archaeopteryx was in a glass "island"
and was well displayed; I only wish there was a wee bit more of light.  The
rest of the museum was filled with many wonderful specimens, with several
pterosaurs that had soft tissue preservation.  Upstairs was an exhibit on
the lithographic process of printing, which was quite interesting and
comprehensive.  Quite a lot of work I must say!

The last stop on the trip was the Institute for Paleontology and Historical
Geology in Munich.  The Archaeopteryx is well displayed with part and
counterpart and lots of information about the specimen.  The only thing was,
it was a cast!  I really couldn't believe it at first, because every fine
detail of the original is faithfully reproduced, including color variation
of the limestone, and the specific dendrite pattern!  Although small, the
museum has many interesting things on display.  On the ground floor was an
excellent mount of Prestosuchus (it sure as hell looked like a rauisuchian,
but I am not familiar with the genus).  Also on the ground floor was an
obvious cast of Compsognathus...now on the third floor was a display of the
same specimen that looked real and had the caption "Originalskelett" which I
take to mean that its the real thing.  Can anyone confirm this?

Overall this was an awesome trip, and I would recommend it to anyone.  It
was made especially easy with the purchase of a Eurail Pass.  I took 7 rolls
of film, and will try to scan some of them to put on a website.

Regards,
Randall Irmis