Israel's Good Name

Museum of Natural History

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on September 1, 2021 at 8:20 AM

In the beginning of July, shortly after the semester ended, Bracha and I went on a short trip to Tel Aviv to visit the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. This museum was opened just a few short years ago, and houses the country’s largest collection of flora and fauna, as well as an impressive collection of archaeological remains as part of a human history section. Ever since the iconic structure was built – shaped symbolically like Noah’s ark – I had been looking forward to a visit. Now, accompanied by Bracha, I was able to finally see the long-awaited natural treasures within the giant boat building.

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The museum is divided into some nine permanent exhibitions, of which two were my favourites – which I shall make note of in due time. Immediately upon entrance, our eyes delighted with the sight of scores of soaring birds, representing the great bird migration which takes place here in Israel biannually – in the spring and autumn seasons. These taxidermy birds dangled overhead, in a long curved line, ranked in order of size.

Picking out my favourite raptor

Picking out my favourite raptor

I must confess, it was a tad challenging identifying some of the birds as they were far closer than I’d even see them in the wild – and occasionally, taxidermists inadvertently manipulate the appearance of the model, distorting the natural look. That being said, it was a charming game trying to distinguish between the various eagles, buzzards and honey buzzards.

Habitat dioramas

Habitat dioramas

Another exhibition which was visible in the entrance hall was named “Israel’s Landscapes”, and consisted of a series of dioramas of different Israeli ecosystems. This exhibit was one of my two favourites, and I marveled at examining each and every preserved mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and bug that found themselves representing their brethren out there in the wild. Having explored a great deal of different ecosystems in Israel, it was exciting to see which animals were represented – and like the exhibit before, we played the identification game. Bracha was able to show off her knowledge as she named a good number of animals and birds that she has grown acquainted with in recent years.

Desert habitat diorama

Desert habitat diorama

We progressed to the next floor, where we found the large “Form and Function” exhibit, showcasing the different skeletal forms of various animals. As one might suspect, each animal has a skeletal structure that allows it to perform its best in its given environment, while meeting its specific needs. One taxidermy model which really entertained us was a stuffed caracal leaping up, as they do, to catch a fleeing black francolin. Other exciting specimens included a dolphin skeleton, a stuffed albatross, and a stuffed bee-eater, one of Bracha’s favourite birds – and rightly so.

The caracal's eternal leap

The caracal’s eternal leap

The next room was a step forward in modernity, with a state-of-the-art model of Israel with designated interactive sensor pads that begged to be pressed. Giving in to our curiosity, we moved around the giant table, activating the sensors to receive artistically-delivered information. With each palm-print, a different section of the country – representing different ecosystems – transitioned from the pristine nature to what could be if the human footprint is unchecked.

Interactive map of Israel

Interactive map of Israel

We watched as the area of Nachal Taninim, once a lush wetlands populated by Nile crocodiles, slowly morphed into the place that it is today. Likewise, the whole Tel Aviv region, the deserts, forests and seas, each adversely affected by the presence of man.

A glimpse into the past

A glimpse into the past

After that reflective moment, we gazed deep into the glassy eyes of two species that have since gone extinct in Israel – the lion, and the Syrian brown bear. Interestingly enough, it was during the Crusader period – the time period of my academic pursuits – that the lion was locally hunted into extinction. Perched behind the stuffed bear were two avian species with disapproval stamped on their faces – the bearded vulture (or lammergeier) and the brown fish owl. The owl was reported centuries ago in Nachal Kziv and in other water sources in the north, while the vulture has been reduced from a breeding local to a rare visitor.

Syrian brown bear

Syrian brown bear

From there we moved on towards a series of multimedia exhibitions about our human footprint on the nature around us, and then on to a more wholesome display. This featured an acacia tree, native of the arid desert, and an array of animals that live in and around this low tree. As to be expected, there were a nice handful of mammals and birds – such as the Arabian wolf, gazelle, Arabian babbler, bee-eater and more. I really appreciated seeing the impressive lappet-faced vulture represented in the diorama, especially since one was found in the desert back in April, perched atop what could very well be an acacia tree (see photos HERE).

Life around the acacia tree

Life around the acacia tree

Moving along, the next bit was about nature’s scavengers which included the vulture species in Israel – the Griffon, Egyptian and occasional black, or cinereous vultures – as well as striped hyenas and ravens. There’s something so exciting about scavengers, rank odours aside, so I really appreciated being able to see stuffed versions from such a close, and intimate distance. One day it would be a real treat to be able to visit the desert feeding station near Sde Boker where the National Parks Authority provides safe carrion for these magnificent creatures (see some astounding footage HERE).

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

The next exhibition was another of my favourites, titled “Treasures of the Collections”, including the historical taxidermy collection of zoologist Ernst Johann Schmitz who moved to the Holy Land in 1908. This assortment of stuffed animals, presented in a well-appointed, if ludicrously overfilled, red-painted study amazed me to no end. Thankfully, there was a small interactive screen where more in-depth information could be accessed about specific specimens. The leopard on display was collected in 1910 in Beit Horon, not far from where Bracha’s folks live, and was, in fact, the last wild leopard to be hunted in the mountains of the Jerusalem area.

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

While the Schmitz collection did keep me occupied for a while, there were also other fine taxidermised specimens to be examined. We walked around the open displays, eyeing a wide range of animals from deer and large cats all the way to beetles and butterflies. It would take an exceptionally long time to retell all of the goodness that is this fascinating exhibit, so just a few select bits – those that caught my eye – shall be represented here. Firstly, I was enthralled by the simple, yet relatable, display of chukar partridges, portraying the subtle plumage differences between chukars found in the desert areas, to those found in the more wooded Mediterranean areas.

Fossilised ostrich egg

Fossilised ostrich egg

Next, an approximately 5,000 year old ostrich egg, fossilised over time and found in archaeological excavations at Tel Baruch. Lastly, a spotlight on the endemic Yarkon bream, a species of freshwater fish that nearly went extinct. It was the researchers involved in this museum which ran the breeding and reintroduction program to repopulate the Yarkon River and other streams in the area. I remember reading about the fish when I visited the Yarkon National Park, so here was an exciting window into the background of this fishy success story.

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

It was at the end of this exhibition that we took the chance to step out onto the balcony, a nice patio that overlooks Tel Aviv and, in the foreground, its Zoological Research Institute. We relaxed in the shade of the ark’s upper floors and happened to see a nice sprinkling of birds fly past, including ibises, egrets and a lone sparrowhawk. Back inside, we took the elevator up to the fourth floor where we embarked on a tour of what makes us human. It began with an eye-pleasing depiction of human diversity, a photographic project titled “Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass. In this clever depiction of humanity, she matched the solid background of each snapshot with the precise colour palette shade of the subject’s skin.

''Humanæ'' by artist Angelica Dass

”Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass

The transition of humanity and the era of early tools were subjects familiar to me from several classes on prehistory and flint tools. I was pleased to see that the museum portrayed the knapped stone hand tools in such an artistic way, which helped me enjoy what I’d ordinarily say is the least interesting time period of archaeology. Bracha then found a fun game to play where one spins a wooden dowel faster and faster in order to create a successful fire on the screen. This mimicry of fire-starting the old-fashioned way was fun, and a whole lot easier than doing it in real life.

Tools of the early humans

Tools of the early humans

Another game featured symbolism and what we, as the visitor-player, interprets each to be (i.e. the dove as a symbol of peace). Yet another version of this game, focusing on human facial expressions, was also fun and we scored similarly (545 vs 518). Moving along, we marveled at ancient chickpeas and other fun grains, before examining some interesting human bones that were displayed to show how anthropologic researchers learn more about individuals and societies of the past.

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

Finished with the museum, we headed downstairs and had a brief peek at the gift shop before continuing outside for some fresh air and chuckles at the animal-themed caricature exhibition outside. There we found witty cartoons of the animal world, some of which really tickled our fancy. It was with a smile that we bid farewell to the mighty ark and boarded a bus for central Tel Aviv.

Sunset at the beach

Sunset at the beach

We had a nice dinner at La Lasagna, a popular lasagna restaurant on Dizengoff street, before heading over to the beach to watch the sunset. The sinking sun painted the sky in the most vibrant shades of red before plunging our world into relative darkness. In true Anthropocene form, it was the intense wattage of Tel Aviv – the concurrent human footprint in the otherwise stark nychthemeron pattern – that illuminated our surroundings and made us extra mindful of our presence on this planet that we call home.

  1. WOW.! This place is awesome. I did not know this Museum of Natural History existed. This will be my first stop next time in Israel. At last I can see some of the wildlife of Israel that I searched so hard for. Saw lots of birds in the Hula Valley, some snakes here and there, but very few four legged mammals except the ubiquitous “tourist camel” in Eilat. Thanks Shem Tov for this posting.

    • Mammals are often quite hard to see here in Israel, so I suppose that natural history museums such as this one is the next best option. At any rate, I highly recommend a visit and I’m pleased to see that you enjoyed this latest post.

  2. Shem, First of all you and Bracha looked so sweet on the balcony. Second the building structure was interesting however you would have to come to Kentucky in America to see what an Ark really looks like, at the Ark Encounter. I laughed when I saw you with the raptors photo with your mask down. (They promise if we get the vaccine we will be free to go about but then they still try to make us wear those masks!) This museum was full of surprises. Chick peas from the City of David 2 thousand yrs old. The transition of humanity. The 5,000 yr old ostrich egg- unbroken! I liked all your pictures. The only two animals I remember from being in Israel were coneys that were on rooftops, in Jerusalem & Being at the Dead Sea near Masada at the Ein Gedi Reserve and seeing Ibex that had climbed trees and were standing in them eating the leaves. Thanks for sharing. Happy Rosh Hashanah.

    • Thank you Bobbie and a blessed New Year too you as well – always a pleasure to see your comments. I actually visited Kentucky as a young lad, but it appears that I miss out on the Ark Encounter. I do hope that we can all transition out of this mask-wearing reality in due time.
      If you visit Israel again, perhaps you’ll see more than just two species – especially if you visit the museum, and learn where to look for what!

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