Naturalis’ New Hall of Evolution

Written by Becky Desjardins, Senior Preparateur, Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

In 2019 Naturalis opened a new building with eight permanent exhibit halls. We are happy to announce that we have opened the ninth hall, Evolution. The exhibit designer, Marijke Besselink, told me that the concept for the hall was developed after she heard how visitors reacted to a stone that was in the former Naturalis prehistory exhibit. This stone came from Greenland and dates to 3.76 billion years ago. In this rock you can see layers that indicate the presence of oxygen that might have been produced by single celled organisms. It is one of the earliest signs of life on earth. One of the museum educators told Marijke how in the old exhibit, visitors were astonished that the rock was so old, and would touch it with awe. Now this centerpiece is in the front centre of the dark blue exhibit, and when a visitor touches the stone, it starts up a light and sound interaction which connects to other vitrines around the exhibit. This gives the visitor a feeling of connection, that everything on Earth is intertwined: we are all related.

© Henk Caspers

Around the stone we can find fossils from the Burgess Shale, a Canadian formation that includes more than 500-million-year-old ancestors of most modern animals. Marijke wanted to make it clear to the public what the animals preserved as fossils looked like as to the casual observer these small fossils sometimes look like a dark grey smudge! Projections help the fossil organisms manifest out of their slate beds and move across the vitrine and into an aquarium filled with creatures from the so-called Cambrian explosion. The aquarium, made with the Pepper’s Ghost technique, is one of the highlights of the hall. Besides being very cool looking, visitors see how these prehistoric animals moved, and see how similar they are to modern animals.

The other vitrines in the hall are different examples of organisms adapting to their environment, designed to show the visitor how evolution occurs. Marijke’s favourite display is the study skins of five Galapagos finches, where the different beak and body sizes show adaptation related to the different and variable island climates. For example, a finch with a large bill can eat seeds found on the ground of a forest, but those with a smaller bill can eat seeds from a cactus in a drier environment. Of course, Charles Darwin gets a mention here as well!

© Henk Caspers

Along the wall of the exhibit there is a mounted giraffe head, this is an example of random genetic mutation. The text encourages visitors to consider if having such a long neck is an advantage or a hindrance. A display about the shells of land snails shows how they become paler in colour in urban areas: the lighter colour reflecting more heat. A large display on the back of the hall shows how dinosaur evolution occurred and the changes as a result of two large extinction events: The Permian-Triassic the Cretaceous-Paleogene.

© Henk Caspers

There are also a few games, one where the player tries to match DNA and another where the player slides their arm in a box and can see an “x-ray” of their bones. The player then turns a dial at the top of the box and can see how their bones would look as they were differently evolved. How does your radius look as a fossil fish?

© Henk Caspers

My personal favourite vitrine is filled with a mounted chimpanzee and bananas. This vitrine reminds viewers that chimps are not our ancestors, but our cousins. We share 99% of our DNA with them, however, we also share 50% of the same DNA with a banana. We are related to a banana! This insight, that we are all connected, guides visitors to the idea that we need to take care of each other and everything in the natural world, because not treating the natural world well is equivalent to not taking care of ourselves.

This is truly an elegant and interesting exhibit hall, and Marijke and her team deserve lots of credit. If you are around Leiden, please stop by and visit! You too can see how your hand would look as a Tiktaalik flipper.

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