Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The brown museum

There are two ways to get to the 'brown museum', if you take the regular route you are presented with this peculiar room at the end of your tour. As a desert, or an afterthought. 
But it is perhaps better to enter it from the opposite end.

Het bruin museum (The brown museum), click to enlarge.
After hanging up your coat, instead of walking back towards the entrance to enter the museum from the 'proper' direction you can move forward. Taking a right at the coffeeroom you find yourself at the foot of a wooden stairway that leads directly to the brown museum.

At the top of the staircase the visitor is greeted by a number of displays in antique wood and glass casings,a pair of passenger pigeons a "rat king" and a dank cupboard with assorted odds and ends. 

Passenger pigeons, once the most populous bird in the world

his area has much old-timey stuff in it, like those antique cabinets, a few paintings and of course the staircase itself. But it is still very much within the modern museum, and not just because of the anachronistic exit signs and electrical sockets. 
A rat king, rats with their tails in a knot
The very outlay of this section is modern with the lightly coloured walls, ample light and exhibits placed widely apart it feels roomy and spacious. The glass pane on the case holding the pigeons is inscribed with pertinent information, and the rat king has a similar text painted on the wall next to it. And these texts are also very modern: concise, contextual and not requiring specialist knowledge (not a word of Latin here).
In a way this corridor serves as a transition from the modern museum to the old. Once you enter the "brown museum" proper you are in for something of a culture shock. 

This isn't a museum, it's a curio cabinet! Where is the predetermined route, the explanatory signs, the thematic sections? At first glance this looks to be little more than a haphazard collection of sometimes questionable taxidermy mounts.

..or is it some kind of rodent?
Sad monkey and creepy cat
After adjusting to the unfamiliar setting some order does appear. The large cabinet on the left holds vertebrate land and sea animals, the cabinet on opposite of the room holds birds. While at the far side of the room is the collection of water-living creatures (appropriately preserved as 'wet' specimens). 
This logic is continued in the lower cabinets as well, although many specimens have clearly been put on top of the cabinets because there was no space.

It is somewhat difficult to tell what this mini-museum represents. Unlike the "Oval Room" in Teyler's Museum, which has been fundamentally unchanged since 1784,  it is a reconstruction of an old museum. 
And while I have seen it billed as a museum from a century ago (tying into the recent centennial of the Natural History Museum Maastricht) it is doubtful that the museum would have had a radio playing in 1912. The first radio program in the Netherlands was only aired in 1919.

It looks suspiciously like the post-war radio my grandparents had.
A radio in a museum of natural history?
The function of the museum in the past also remains opaque, was this a publicly accessible museum? Or maybe it was intended for use by students and that large table was where they were seated when listening to lectures, or studying the specimens.
The collection as we see it now seems merely a curiosity cabinet of animals, loosely categorized as flying, swimming and walking. But that may be an artefact of the reconstruction, perhaps in it's glory days the reptiles and mammals did not have to share a cabinet, emphasising the Linnean classification of animals.

I really should try to catch a tour the next time I visit a museum, but that is not always a realistic option. Many natural history museums have very limited (and often volunteer) staff, and understandably only offer (group) tours by appointment.