Ein Mann im wei´ßen Kittel sitzt an einem Tisch. Darauf liegt ein großer Knochen. Am Tisch stehen vier weitere Menschen.

Natural history with a twist: Research to touch and watch

Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

When you think of a visit to a museum, you might have an image of dusty exhibits and large information boards in mind. But many museums are taking a more modern approach now. The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden in the Netherlands has a very special one: Here you can watch researchers at work live and ask them questions.

Photo: At the Naturalis Biodiversity Center you can watch scientists at work. Credit: Koen Mol/Naturalis

The claim: “We make everyone fall in love with nature”. Of course, you will also find exhibition rooms at Naturalis. Each shows a different perspective on life and nature. These include reproduction, biodiversity and death. Amy van Nobelen is the science communication officer at Naturalis. She explains: “We hope to create a sense of responsibility. For the fact that our habitat will be lost if we don’t take care of it.” At the same time, she adds, hope should be conveyed. “We provide guidance and want to lay the foundation for a positive approach to nature,” says Amy.

The Science Guide takes you on a short tour (video in English):

Video tour of the Naturalis. Credit: Nadine Gode/ Cheyenne Peters

Bloody live stream from the museum

The ceiling height of the entrance hall at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center is almost 45 metres. Coincidence? No, explains Amy von Nobelen: “The largest dinosaur skeletons are just under 42 metres high. That’s really tall and would just about fit in here, if we could find one.” The first exhibition room is located just before the ticket counter. The visit to this Live Science Gallery is free of charge. It’s not so much about the exhibits themselves, but about the people who work at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Guests can meet researchers and collection managers, watch them at work and ask lots of questions.

The first thing that immediately catches the eye in the light-flooded room is the small spectator stand in the shape of a skeleton. In front of it is a table covered with a red velvet sheet. “We stream live from this location. From home, you can then watch our researchers dissecting animals.” Although such a bloody procedure does not sound like an attraction for children, it is mainly the young audience that shows little anxiety, the advisor explains. “Most parents are a little hesitant at first. But as long as we present it as natural, the children also think of it as normal. Then the parents relax again quickly,” she continues. At this so-called nature table, there are also regular nature consultations: Researchers from various departments invite visitors to ask all their questions about nature.

Is this all real?

The heart of the Live Science Gallery is the integrated dinosaur laboratory, or Dino Lab for short. This is where researchers prepare bones together with volunteers and answer questions from passing guests. “Our visitors often ask ‘Is that real, what you’re doing here? No, is it?’ We answer that this is actually the only lab we work in. There is no behind-the-scenes area. Our work with real bones is exactly what we want to show. We want to show real scientific work,” explains Martijn Guliker, palaeontological preparator at the Dino Lab. One of the most exciting things for guests is to hold a prepared part of the skeletons in their hands. Only then they you get a real idea of, for example, how heavy such a bone actually is.

Here you can see how Martijn Guliker and his team work on dinosaur bones:

Visit to the Dino Lab. Credit: Nadine Gode/Cheyenne Peters

Although the scientific work in this open laboratory takes longer, the museum offers an attractive workplace for scientists. “I knew if there was any place in the Netherlands where I could have the chance to get my hands on a dinosaur bone, it would be here. And what can I say? I was right,” reports dinosaur fan Martijn.  He adds there are not many alternatives in the vicinity. 

The researcher believes that the exchange with the guests is particularly important. However, the variety of questions sometimes surprises him. Did dinosaurs have kneecaps? Were there also pink dinos? And how do the bones actually get to the museum in one piece? All these questions and many more can be answered at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

More about the Naturalis Biodiversity Center: https://www.naturalis.nl/en

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