University of Oslo Zoological Museum

Photo of a museum diorama with fish
An underwater diorama at the University of Oslo’s Zoological Museum, Oslo, Norway. January 6, 2014.

I spent most of my winter break visiting friends in Sweden and Norway, although due to weather and other factors, I didn’t get to do either as much nature experiencing or photography as I hoped. After visiting a friend in Bergen, I spent a day and a half in Oslo before heading home. Since the weather was gray and drizzly and I was recovering from a cold, I opted for the indoor experience of the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisk Museum) and the greenhouses in the botanical garden. I didn’t feel like dealing with the DSLR, so these are all cell phone photos, as with my review of the Hungarian Natural History Museum last year.

The museum itself is divided into the Zoological Museum (Robert Colletts hus) and Geological Museum (W.C. Brøggers hus), and like many museums, both are a mixture of modern exhibits and more old-fashioned fare like dioramas and cases full of minerals.

The entrance of the Zoological Museum currently has a display of gorgeous white-background studio photographs of insects of Norway by Karsten Sund, some of which you can see in this article (in Norwegian). Unfortunately, while there were English summaries for the photograph captions, the introduction was not translated, so the overall theme of the exhibit was a little mysterious to me. This became a theme throughout—while I very much appreciate that there were English summaries for some exhibits and labels, the decision to translate or not translate seemed haphazard.

The best-translated exhibit was a temporary exhibit on sexual selection and differences in nature. While it contained many interesting objects, it was quite text-heavy, and I’m sorry to say, but after earning a degree in museum studies my patience for reading exhibit labels has gone way down, so I didn’t spend much time there.

I continued on to what their website tells me was the Norwegian Hall, a series of taxidermy dioramas proceeding through various Norwegian habitats from sea level to the mountains. This was definitely my favorite part of the museum—I really love the art of dioramas, and particularly naturalistic dioramas that try to present a scene that could actually occur. These reminded me a great deal of the outstanding dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, although the backdrop painting was not quite as realistic and as far as I can tell they did not necessarily represent exact physical locations. However, they had some of the best taxidermy I’ve seen in museums and were really beautifully done—definitely a teaser for all the Norwegian nature I’d love to see in better weather!

Photograph of a bird cliff diorama

Photograph of puffins in a bird cliff diorama

Photograph of a fox in a rural diorama

Eurasian Eagle-owls (Bubo bubo):

Photograph of Eurasian Eagle-owls in a diorama

I particularly liked the split-level underwater/shoreline dioramas, something I haven’t often seen before.

Photograph of a seashore diorama

Many of the dioramas also included insect life, which of course made me very happy, as well as amphibians. The amphibians were probably the weakest part of the dioramas, as they appeared to be taxidermy and amphibians simply don’t taxidermy very well—in this case I think realistic models would have been more engaging.

The second floor opens with one of those glorious and unphotographable cases full of 19th century natural history memorabilia. There wasn’t much interpretation (and it was all in Norwegian), but I always enjoy just looking at these, and I think it’s nice to have a nod to the history of science.

Image of a museum case full of old natural history memorabilia

The second floor held the geographic and systematic halls, although I think I managed to miss the systematic hall somehow. The geographic hall’s dioramas seemed to be older, the taxidermy less convincing, and were done in the style of “pick a region and cram all the animals you could possibly see there into one case,” an approach I personally like a lot less. For example, here’s the Galápagos Islands case (although to be fair, the animal density is less unrealistic than for most regions…):

Museum diorama showing Galapagos flora and fauna

Labeling in the diorama exhibits was haphazard: some dioramas were not labeled at all, others were labeled in Norwegian and English, and others only in Norwegian. Sometimes Latin names were included, but more often they were not. There was little interpretation besides the names of animals, so this wasn’t a huge problem—I think the appeal of this kind of exhibit is more in the immersive feel of it than the text—but I would have appreciated consistent use of scientific names.

And since this post is a bit long, I shall save the Geological Museum and the greenhouses for another post or two.

Hungarian Natural History Museum

A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest, Hungary. January 29, 2014.

Most of my trip to Budapest was (unusually for me) focused on things other than nature and museums, but I did make it to the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum), which turned out to be one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to.

The museum is located in a historic building near a large park, which was apparently in 2011 under threat of being converted to a military university. I haven’t been able to find anything more about that, so hopefully those plans changed—the building has been extensively renovated for the museum, and it’s a beautiful interior space. ETA March 6, 2014: Per the comment below and some other articles I found, apparently plans are still underway to use at least part of the building as a school, and the museum’s future is uncertain. I haven’t been able to find any really detailed explanations in English of what’s going on, unfortunately.

Of course, all good natural history museums need a giant whale skeleton:

Whale skeleton at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Many of the exhibits are fairly text-heavy, in part because everything is bilingual (Hungarian and English), more than I normally approve of in exhibits, but the exhibits are so beautifully designed from an aesthetic point of view that I felt they could be enjoyed on other levels as well. However, not everything was text-heavy, and there were some interesting aspects to the museums that I felt were counter to recent exhibit-design trends, at least in the U.S.

In fact, my favorite exhibit was the first one we passed through, a realistic coral reef diorama that surrounded you as you passed through the room, with the exhibit under glass floor tiles, extended up pillars and into the walls. A few tanks of live fish completed the experience. I don’t remember seeing any text here: it was just a beautiful, immersive display of biodiversity, the kind of exhibit I would have returned to over and over as a kid to look for new treasures.

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

They also had a temporary traveling exhibit on Argentinian dinosaurs, which was a bit more typical, including some interactive activities for kids.

The remaining exhibits for me nicely balanced informative with a more modern cabinet of curiosities approach, so they could be enjoyed on an aesthetic level or you could read the labels for more information.

Rocks and minerals

Rocks and minerals

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Hungarian Natural History Museum

We finished up the trip with a quick walk through the outdoor Dinosaur Garden in the snow:

Dinosaur Garden

More photos on Flickr.