Department of Paleontology and Historical Geology
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


Short History

[The interior of the Natural History Museum in 1927]

The Museum of Palaontology and Geology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens is housed in the same building as the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment at the University campus.

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. Already during the first decades of the Museum's history, the institute was split into several smaller, more or less independent sections: the botanical, the mineralogical, the paleontological, the anthropological, and the zoological collections.

The Museum of Paleontology and Geology was founded in 1906, and was housed on the ground floor of a small building at the corner of Academia and Sina Street in the centre of Athens. That building does not exist anymore, and in its place came the garden of the building next door. In 1981 the Museum was moved to the new buildings of the university campus outside Athens, where its housed till today.

[Activities for the development of museums] [New exhibition]

[Life reconstructions] [Children and the Museum]

Activities for the development of Museums

[Natural History Collection, Lesvos (since 1999)]

Chairman of the Supervising Committee of the University Museums (University of Athens) (since 1995)
Chairman of the three member governing body of the Museum of Natural Sciences and Technology (since 1996).
Director of the Museum of Paleontology and Geology (University of Athens) (since 1998).
Founder of the Natural History Museum (University of Athens) at Vrissa, Lesvos island (since 1999).
Member of the Law Advisory Committee concerning University Museums (Ministry of Education) (since 1998).
Chairman of the Committee of the Graduate Studies Programmes of the University of Athens on Museum Studies.

New Exhibition

[Part of the new design, with the island and the elephant skeleton]

[The making of part of that design: the island (2007)]

In 2002, I initiated a complete renovation of the Museum. Since the majority of the Museum's 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, however, the public often feels cheated if casts are exposed. To avoid such a disappointment we chose to use mainly original materials.

The concept of the exhibition was developed by me and 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 the Greeks, in which the fossil animals of Greece during the last 30 million of years are presented.

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. Climating cooling down and warming up again took place periodically, and led to megafaunal extinctions and invasions of new species. From these past faunal turnovers, we learn something about the effects of the rapid global warming which Earth experiences at present.

Drawings of the new exhibition by Bartholomeus Van der Geer

Life reconstructions

[The dwarf elephant of Tilos reconstructed]

Life reconstructions are a necessary part of any modern exhibition. They bring more life, and are a valuable counterpart of the skeletons and fossil bones. The direct connection between the shape and aspect of a skeleton and how the animal looked like during life can be made very easy by means of life reconstructions.

In the past, drawings and paintings of the extinct animal in its natural environment constituted the majority of life reconstructions. Nowadays, thanks to the development and availability of light materials with sufficient strength that are easy to model make it much easier and thus cheaper to make a three-dimensional model of how the animal could have looked like.

A number of external features of the animal, such as the aspect and quantity of hairs, the colour of the coat, the shape and size of the ears and the aspect of skin or scales, cannot be deducted confidently with the fossil remains. Here, living animals that are closely related to the extinct animal stand in as a substitute and as an example. Differences between the living animal and its fossil relative are determined based on our knowledge about the climate of that era. The climate, as we know, highly influences the density of the hair and the size of the ears, for example. Even the colour of the coat is climate-dependend: species from tropical regions are darker in skin and hairs than closely related species from temperate zones.

For my museum, I ordered three life-sized reconstructions: the giant tortoise of Pikermi, the dwarf elephant of Tilos, and the dwarf hippopotamus of Cyprus.

Mounted skeletons

[Casted skeleton of Mosasaurus is hung below the ceiling]

One of the most important parts of the new exhibition are the mounted skeletons. It is for the first time in Greece that skeletons from real fossils were mounted. This gives in our view the best impression of how the extinct animals looked like, free from interpretation. The skeletons of the dwarf Cretan deer (Candiacervus) and of the Cretan land-otter (Lutrogale (Isolalutra) cretensis) are placed respectively on and next to the reconstructed island, and form part of the Pleistocene island mammal faunas of Greece.

Apart from the skeletons from real fossils, there is also a casted skeleton, that of the Cretaceous sea-reptile Mosasaurus. A real skeleton would not only be too expensive, but also too heavy to be hung from the ceiling. The casting is done with such great care that it cannot be distinguished from the real material. The Mosasaurus is one of the extinct animals that do not belong to Greece, yet form part of the exhibition to show the diversity of life on the Earth.

The Cretan deer and the Cretan otter

Children and the Museum

[Museum booklet for children about the Mosasaurus]

[A schoolclass amazed with the giant tortoise]

It is said that whoever has the children on his hand, has the future. I think I need not explain this further, and suppose we all agree in this. However, simple as the statement may be, it is not always so simple to act like it. Especially for a University Museum, it is difficult to get and retain the attention of children. As director of a University Museum, I am well aware of the fact that priority goes to the scientific value of the specimens, the storage and the exhibition, only followed on the second place to education of the public and entertainment.

Nevertheless, I managed to keep our museum attractive for children, and school classes regularly visit the museum. To promote this further, I, developed a monthly poster with a selected specimen, in collaboration with the curatorial staff. On most of these"Specimen of the Month" posters, a child figures next to a fossil.

For the same reason, I started a series for high school children and the last class of the elementary school, highlighting a particular animal or animal group on exhibit in the museum. Children who are interested can in this way read more about the subject at home. An additional advantage of such booklets is that long and boring explanation texts in the museum can be exchanged for shorter statements and summarized information. In this way, the specimens become more visible.

Museum Day 2006: Children and the Museum.
Look, skeletons are not scary at all!

This site has been designed by Gregory Lyras, and developed by Alexandra Van der Geer