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The history of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology of the University of Athens in an evolutionary perspective

Michael D. Dermitzakis & George. A. Lyras


The museum as a living organism

One of the most important features of life on Earth is that it evolves (Wallace, 1858). Since life itself is one of the primary subjects of natural history museums, it is very temping to compare the evolutionary history of museums with that of organisms. In doing so, we see that in the same way organisms change in order to adapt to changes in their environment, so do museums in order to adapt to the changes in society; in addition, as organisms themselves shape their close environment, so do museums (De Clercq, 2003). In this short paper we present the history of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology of the University of Athens within this biological framework. Our purpose is to present the history of the Museum as a product of its direct environment.


The Natural History Museum its origin

The history of the Museum starts in 1858 with the donation of the collections of the Natural History Society to the University of Athens. This was the start of the foundation of the Natural History Museum. During these early years and despite financial difficulties, the collections of the Museum increased considerably, thanks to many donations, purchases and the collection of material during scientific expeditions in Greece. Although the start was very modest, as most starts are, the range of the gathered materials reveals that the intention of the founders was to create an institute of international scope.

The academic community soon realized the importance of such an institution and several suggestions were done for a more vital solution to its housing problems. Unfortunately however, none of these proposals got actually materialized.


The Natural History Museum its growth and adaptive radiation

Already during the first decades of the Museums history, the institute was split into several smaller sections (see figure 1A). What started in 1858 as one Natural History Museum, soon became divided in several more or less independent collections. The first collection to branch off was the botanical in 1862, followed by the collections of mineralogy and paleontology a few years later. The anthropological material was collected in the Anthropological Museum. The original collection of the Natural History Museum, heavily pruned, remained as such, and became the zoological collection. In the coming years the collections of mineralogy, paleontology and zoology became independent museums. Thus, till the year 1912 five smaller museums housed the materials of the earlier Museum of Natural History.

The reasons for splitting apart were basically two. The first was the absence of a large available university building that could house the Museum. That led to temporary solutions and to a constant moving of the collection from one university building to the other, which ultimately led to the splintering of the collections. The second reason had to do with the personal ambitions of the university professors of that time. Under these conditions the splitting of the Museum was inevitable.

Actually, in nature a similar process occurs regularly. Often, a species splits into several new forms quite soon after its appearance. A clear example is the evolutionary radiation of the mammals soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs (Szalay et al., 1993). This process, which is called adaptive radiation in scientific terminology, is explained as following. When an organism colonizes an environment with several free ecological niches, then during the early stages of its evolution it tries to take full advantage of these free niches, a process that eventually leads to the appearance of new species (De Vos & Van der Geer, 2002). In Athens, back at the end of the 19th century, the University of Athens was one of the few academic institutions of a rather new nation and the Natural History Museum was the only museum of its kind. The availability of fragmented space (instead of one large building) that could house the growing collections and the lack of vision were the best conditions for the splitting of the Museum.


The Museum of Paleontology and Geology appearance of a new species followed by stasis

The Museum of Paleontology and Geology was founded in 1906. It was housed on the ground floor of a small building at the corner of Academia and Sina Street in the centre of Athens (fig. 1B). Its main exhibition was housed in an elongated hall which was barely sufficient for the exposition of a general geological and paleontological collection (fig. 1C). The majority of the material was stored at two rooms in the basement of a nearby building of the Law School (fig. 1D). Despite the international range of its founding collections, in later years the Museum narrowed its research and collection range and limited itself to Greece only, as most Greek museums did. At that time the subject of paleontology was unknown to the general public of Athens. A typical example of this is provided by a statement of a member of the Parliament of that time. He stated that the future of paleontology is bright, because in Greece there are many old monasteries that should be studied (see Kandilis, 1975). However, despite this gross ignorance of the people and the simplicity of its exposition, several thousands visited the paleontological museum of the university every year. During the 60s and 70s of the last century some attempts were made to improve the exposition hall of the Museum, but without any major renovation actually taking place. In 1981 the Museum was moved to the new buildings of the university campus outside Athens, where its housed till today (figs. 1E and 1F).

During the largest part of the 20th century Greece was dominated by museums of archaeology and history, which were, and still are, the greatest pole of attraction. That worked against the developing of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology, as well as of the other natural history museums of the university. They all remained small and inconspicuous under the shadow of other museums in Athens.

Such is the common situation in the living world. The success of many species remains humble throughout larger part of their history, due to the presence of other similar, but better developed, organisms. A well known example are the mammals during the time of dinosaurs: they stayed small like rats and rabbits, in the shadow of the often gigantic dinosaurs. In the case of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology, the museum niche was already occupied by other museums, which were not only larger, but also better adapted to the needs and wishes of the visitors.


A new exhibition an evolutionary adaptation

The Museum of Paleontology and Geology houses an irreplaceable collection of the geology, fossil fauna and flora of the mainland and the islands of Greece. Although this collection contains material of the highest quality, the Museums present exhibition scores far below the minimum standards set by modern museums, and belongs to the group of archaic left-overs. The small changes that took place during the 20th century even worked against it, as they alternated its original character, while at the same time failing to catch up with more modern standards. There are natural history museums in the world that remained unchanged for more than a century. The most famous examples are Teylers Museum in Haarlem (the Netherlands) and the Museum National dHistoire Naturelle in Paris (France). These museums stand out as living fossils in the history of museums since they were able to keep their original setting and atmosphere. However, the Museum of Paleontology and Geology was far from such a case, as neither its building nor its exhibition was of any historical importance. It was therefore necessary to undertake drastic changes in order to survive. Therefore, the collection halls were reorganized and a new exhibition was designed.

Since the majority of the Museums specimens originates from Greece, we decided to built an exhibition focusing on this material. Actually, such an exhibition was the only option, unless we would use casts. Many natural history museums place casts in their exhibitions (e.g. Linday et al., 1996), however, the public often feels cheated if casts are exposed. To avoid such a disappointment we chose to use only original materials. The concept of the exhibition was developed by John De Vos (Natualis, the Netherlands) and designed by Bartholomeus Van der Geer (BARTH, Italy). With all the available material at hand, unpacked and placed at the floor, a new exhibition was designed, entitled Greece before Greeks, in which presents the fossil animals of Greece during the last 30 million of years (figs 2A and 2B). The aim of the exhibition is to show the evolving region, characterized by major climatic changes, which had a big impact on the flora and fauna. Life reconstructions are part of the exhibition, to bring more life into it (fig 2E). One of the most important parts of the new exhibition are the mounted skeletons (figs 2C, 2D, 2F). It is for the first time that skeletons from real fossils were mounted in Greece (Van der Geer et al., 2005). This gives in our view the best impression of how the extinct animals looked like, free from interpretation.

In the natural world around us some very rare species remain unchanged for hundreds millions of years as living fossils. All the others may stay unchanged for a certain time without any problem, but there is point that they have to evolve, if not they go extinct. They have to change before their changes of survival suddenly drop dramatically. This was the situation with the Museum of Paleontology and Geology. In order to remain a vital museum, worth visiting, it had to change its exhibition dramatically. And it is doing so with success.



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Figure 1. A. Cladogram of the evolutionary history of the natural history museums of the University of Athens. B. The old building of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology. The photograph was shot in the 70s, a few years before its demolition. C. The main exposition hall of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology in the first years. D. The laboratory for preparation and classification of fossils in the basement of the Law School. E. The New building of the Museum at the University campus. F. The main exposition hall of the Museum, before its renovation.


Figure 2. A. Draft design of the new exhibition, in which only the position the size on the main unities is noted (drawing by Bartholomeus Van der Geer). B. Final design of the new exhibition Greece before Greeks (drawing by Bartholomeus Van der Geer). C. Hans Brinkerink mounting the skeleton of a Mesozoic marine reptile. D. Alexanda Van der Geer and John de Vos discussing some anatomical details concerning the mount of a skeleton of a fossil deer. E. Transportation of a life size replica of the dwarf elephant from Tilos Island. F. Poster of the specimen of the month with the skeleton of a fossil otter.