Call for cash to end the decay of Berlin's great collections

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East Berlin's new government district, with its lavishly renovated ministry buildings, still carries a gaping wound from the Second World War — Humboldt University's crumbling Museum of Natural History. Now, a panel of senior scientists has declared that its 100-million-euro (US$98-million) renovation is a “national obligation” for Germany.

The wooden windows of the nineteenth-century building — which was bombed by the Allies in 1945 — rattle in the wind, and the plaster on walls and ceilings is falling away, exposing ancient copper water pipes and wiring.

But structural decay is just part of the problem facing what remains one of the world's great natural history museums. So says the report of the panel appointed last year by Humboldt University and the state government of Berlin to advise on how the museum can be revived.

The museum holds over 25 million items, some collected by famous German explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt and the botanist Adelbert von Chamisso. But the collections are threatened by damp, heat and pests, and have not yet been electronically catalogued.

The huge palaeontological, mineralogical and zoological collections are maintained by a staff of 160 and an annual budget of 9 million euros — about a tenth of that of similar museums in London and Paris.

The panel, chaired by Gerhard Neuweiler, a zoologist at the University of Munich and former president of the Wissenschaftsrat, Germany's science council, also suggests a new organization for the museum. Instead of operating its three main departments autonomously, the museum should have a director-general, responsible for integrating its research, exhibits and fund-raising.

But it is unclear where the 100 million euros will come from. The state of Berlin is short of cash and the university's plans to raise funds by selling property have fallen through.

“For the time being, we can hardly expect more than good will,” says Neuweiler. At some time in the future he hopes the museum will be saved by money from the federal government.

“The collections belong to our cultural heritage,” Neuweiler says. “We owe it to the public and to the international scientific community to conserve them.”

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Schiermeier, Q. Call for cash to end the decay of Berlin's great collections. Nature 419, 7 (2002) doi:10.1038/419007a

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