Long-dead wild animals get new life on view at Tel Aviv nature museum
'The world belongs to the insects'

Long-dead wild animals get new life on view at Tel Aviv nature museum

‘If they die, they come to us,’ where 2 Russia-trained taxidermists and dozens of curators have labored to prepare a facility that speaks to kids and professors alike

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Professor and zoologist Yael Dayan, (left), who shepherded the new Natural History Museum from concept to reality (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Professor and zoologist Yael Dayan, (left), who shepherded the new Natural History Museum from concept to reality (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There’s a party of birds and bats, reptiles and invertebrates at the new Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, about to be opened to the public after nearly 20 years of planning.

With five floors of exhibits displaying 3,000 items, including the country’s last bear, a massive specimen that died in 1916; a sleek Asian cheetah who survived until 1911; and the final crocodile, a broad-backed reptile that came from Nahal Taninim, or Crocodile Stream, near the Carmel Coastal Plain, this is the quintessential natural history museum.

Named for philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who donated a significant portion of the NIS 140 million ($39 million) cost of establishment, the museum is situated on the Tel Aviv University campus (across from the Museum of the Jewish People), in an ark-shaped building, an architectural wink to the creatures encased inside. 

It’s designed to be a kids’ paradise, said Alon Sapan, the museum director.

And it is. Everything here is beautiful and attention-grabbing, from the state-of-the-art dioramas and painstakingly mounted exhibits of insects to the carefully recreated scenes from nature, explaining the microcosm of an acacia tree or how a cheetah walks.

Lest animal lovers worry about how some of these creatures came to be stuffed and mounted, all the animals displayed in the museum died of natural causes, often coming from Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo or the nearby Ramat Gan Safari.

Alon Sapan (left), the director of Israel’s new Natural History Museum, in one of the museum’s research labs (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“If they die, they come to us,” said Professor Tamar Dayan, a university zoologist who is the museum’s chair.

On staff are two Russia-born and trained taxidermists — they’re the only ones who really know how to do that kind of work, said Dayan — along with dozens of curators, handling everything from reptiles, birds, and bats to invertebrates, beetles and ants.

The exhibits, said Hadas Zemer, the head curator, are intended to have something to say to visitors with all levels of knowledge.

“We worked with the researchers to make this transformation from details to exhibitions,” she said. “It’s how the museum talks to me — to me, and to a 12-year-old and to a professor. It’s about creating a stratified approach.”

The column of birds at the entrance of The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, which opened May 15, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There are nine exhibit areas in the 9,620 square meters spread over five floors. The facility is home to 5.7 million pieces, the vast majority of which are not on display, and 12 research labs.

Dayan said they worked with a large number of natural history museums worldwide, drawing from different models, including the Scandinavian museums that are both university and national museums.

“I personally love the museums where the scientists, collections managers, and the public programs team work in close cooperation and the scientific wonders of natural history – some of which are truly spectacular – shine through,” she said.

The exhibits are augmented by 60 films — count ’em — and 76 screens.  (There are also 620 underground parking spaces and the building is fully accessible.)

The museum has been in the planning stage since 1961. And even once they got started on it, said Dayan, “we clearly didn’t get how big a project this would be.”

Dayan was asked back in 1996 by the university’s Department of Zoology to be the director of the museum, then comprising badly kept zoological specimens and a small scientific team. 

“It was immediately clear that a choice must be made — to upgrade the project dramatically or to give it up altogether,” she said.

The university looked for a donor, and Michael Steinhardt was suggested, although the longtime philanthropist made it clear from the outset that his vision did not involve just saving the collections but developing a real state-of-the-art natural history museum that would open the country’s scientific treasures and knowledge to the general public.

The focus of the museum is on the environment, and Israel’s climate and flora and fauna.

A collection of specimens donated to the museum by a local collector, part of the exhibitions (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“We have a very mixed climate,” said Dayan. “From desert to rain, Mediterranean Sea to Red Sea, and surrounded by three continents; it makes for a mix of species and different habitats.”

Three types of hedgehog, for example, are present all over Israel — even on city streets and sidewalks — compared with just one type in Europe. Those round, prickly creatures make an appearance in highly theatrical dioramas at the museum’s entrance, along with the various birds, bugs, and fellow animals that live in each of Israel’s various climates.

From there, one enters other areas, including an exhibition on larger stuffed animals and skeletons showing how they walk, fly and eat.

An acacia tree and the microcosm of life that surrounds it, at The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, opening May 15, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A sea creatures section mimics the feel of an aquarium, with dark walls reflecting moving images of fish — although Jerusalem’s new aquarium is probably a better bet for that experience.

These are exhibits where viewers can get close to the stuffed specimens, perhaps even reaching out a hand to pet them.

“There will be museum guards around, but the point is to let people see this up close,” director Sapan said. “Not everyone gets to go on safari.”

A central section of the museum features a giant computerized map showing which animals have become extinct in Israel due to population shifts and urbanization and shows what humans can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and other developments. Still, the museum tried to be “informative, not judgmental,” said Dayan.

A research lab at The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, which opened May 15, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The upper floors offer glimpses into the museum’s research labs and archives, as well as a massive deck overlooking the university campus (the future home of the museum cafe).  The experience culminates in an exhibit of the museum’s only collection of live creatures, the many insects that inhabit our world.

“The world belongs to the insects,” said Dayan. “It makes you think about what exists all around us.”

The museum works closely with Tel Aviv University departments, as well as several ministries and agencies (Environmental Protection, Agriculture, Tourism, Science & Technology, Jerusalem and Heritage), KKL-JNF, the Rothschild Foundation, the Dan David Foundation, the Arison Foundation and several individual donors.  

Ticket sales for the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History begin May 15 for visits that will start on July 2 at 10 a.m. via the museum website.

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