Flesh-eating beetles at the museum

April 25, 2012

By Herwig Prammer

When I came to Vienna for my studies in the mid-1980s, the Museum of Natural History Vienna (NMH) was my absolute favorite.

At that time most of the 39 exhibition halls of the NMH had never been changed. It was more like an oddity cabinet than a museum; historic stuffed animals eerily stared out from behind dead eyes – some even from the famous James-Cook expedition.

Mothballs, dust and creeky wooden floors, there was not even electricity in most of the exhibition halls back then. I had to leave when it became dark outside. Most of the time I was the only visitor. Fantastic, if a bit creepy.

So, it was clear I had to do some photo reportage on this, but I was not working as a professional photographer at that time. Finally, I called the head of the press department of the museum in early April and she arranged meetings with the heads of the different laboratories and departments of the museum for me.

Apart from the fact that the NHM has changed to a fantastic modern institute within the last decade, with visitors crowding in front of the ticket counter, I was deeply impressed during my behind the scenes tour.

A parallel world to the well-known and familiar exhibition halls opened up to me, offices with walls full of books and preparations, laboratories with unforeseen scenes and artifacts, and really interesting conversations with the people operating it all.

But one thing especially enamored me: dermestid beetles! Also known as hide, carrion or skin beetles, these are the bugs generally associated with decomposition and are the NHM’s cheap and effective specialists for cleaning bones and whole skeletons for scientific preparations.

“We could never do it that effectively by ourselves”, Mr. Illek, head of the taxidermy department explained. Dead animals that the NHM receive from different institutes or zoos, arrive intact. As much of the flesh is removed as possible and the specimen is then dried before being placed into a box with the dermestid beetles. After a few weeks the bones are picked clean and the minute critters, around ten millimeters long, are plump and full, and the skeleton pristine.

“Of course you have to get used to the smell,” Illek added.

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