The National Museum of Natural Sciences exhibits thousands of treasures drawn from nature: from a giant squid to a thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, extinct for decades. But what the visitor can see is only a tiny part of everything that the building houses. After the exhibitors, the museum serves as an office for researchers, residents or occasional visitors. A handful of conservatives manage a spoil of three centuries: Hundreds of mammals, thousands of birds, hundreds of thousands of fish or millions of insects make up the museum’s pantagrüelic collections, a hidden collection that EL ESPAÑOL has had the good fortune to access.
“We function as a library“Says Josefina Barreiro, who has been caring for the bird collection for more than 30 years. The curator, a biologist by training, walks through a corridor of gray metal cabinets in a room permanently conditioned at less than 17ºC. This cold is the way they prevent a plague from taking over the valuable collection. Each closet has a row of drawers and each drawer a myriad of surprises: osprey, offspring of flamenco, griffon vultures The toucans. In addition to the plumage, they only keep the head and legs, their organs have been emptied and replaced by cotton or straw.
As it is known, the MNCN began at the end of the 18th century when Franco Dávila, a Spanish naturalist from Guayaquil who traveled the world and ended up in Paris, ended up selling his collection to Carlos III to deal with debts. This is how the Royal Cabinet of Natural History began and many of its pieces are mixed today on eternal shelves with objects brought from expeditions to the Pacific in the 19th century, pieces discovered by CSIC scientists or even insects or butterflies brought to the museum by citizens of on foot, authentic naturalists amateur. “I don’t like the word ‘hobbyist’ because they really know a lot about their areas and they do a fundamental job for us ”, explains Mercedes Paris, head of the entomology collection. In his charge are four million insects.
Many of the species kept in the museum they had never been described. These original specimens, called types, are preserved as gold on cloth, since anyone who attests to having discovered a new species of bird or frog, must go there and compare it with the type specimen. In this respect, the MNCN has a disadvantage compared to the Natural History Museum in London, which inherited the typological series from Carlos Linnaeus himself, the Swedish zoologist who ruled how to name all the species that inhabited the planet.
Other contributions have come from philanthropists or private collectors, also many hunters. For example, there are stuffed specimens in an attitude of walking or looking at the horizon, while others show their fangs fiercely. “It depends on whether the donation was from a naturalist or a hunter,” explains Ángel Garvía -biologist in charge of the mammal collection- as he closes a drawer full of giant hedgehogs.
In the next closet there are a big flying fox with a tag hanging from one of its legs. The label says Pteropus vampyrus. Philippines, 1835.
In addition to their scientific work, these curators have another eye on exhibits. They rummage through the archives and look for excuses to show many of these jewels on the occasion of some event or occasion. Recently, Gema Solís, head of the museum’s ichthyology (fish) collection, tried to calculate the number of specimens that she had exhibited compared to those that she had accumulated: “I think it did not reach 1%, it should be around 0.64% or something like that ”.
The vast majority, however, have never seen the light: giant stick insects, transparent butterflies, precious stones arrived centuries ago from Brazil and labeled with symbols from astrology or alchemy … the museum’s collections represent the culmination of a childhood dream, that of eternal curiosity.