Fossils and military history

I must admit, staycations have advantages: I can sleep in my own bed and stick to the routine I’m used to! The two museums on the list today are in Brussels and because we want to avoid the morning traffic jams, we take it easy in the morning and leave around half past nine. The drive goes surprisingly smoothly and though driving through Brussels is a bit more exciting than we’re used to, we park near the first museum and are just in time for our reservation time slot.

The Museum for Natural Sciences is a mandatory trip for schools and we see classes of different ages groups here: bored teenagers, shrieking six year olds and anything in between. We start with the gallery of evolution, following the route from really ancient fossils to currently living species, reading all the info panels and staring in amazement at these snapshots life at different stages of evolution. The exhibit route literally starts with the beginning of life on earth, showing fossils from each stage. Some are casts, some are not from Belgium, but lots of these things were actually found locally. I am so impressed, that I have the strange urge to hug them, is that weird? I’m a bit sorry that I didn’t bring my big camera, but I don’t really have a suitable lens anyway so the cell phone camera is the next best thing.

The biggest piece in this gallery is an 70% complete skeleton of an Allosaurus, as yet unclassified. It’s being researched and this is the first time it’s being displayed anywhere. I’m amazed at how big it is and how long ago it lived. It’s funny how the last few days we’ve done a trip through time in reverse: first Roman history in the temporary museum at Tongeren, then Palaeolithic in the permanent exhibition at Tongeren and now everything before, here in Brussels.

From the Evolution Gallery we move to the Living Planet, showing the variety of life in current times, explaining eco systems and food chains. I’m a bit conflicted about the mounted animals, but I’m assuming the animals were not killed for the purpose of exhibiting them or, if they were, that it was a very long time ago. This museum and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences institute behind it are more than 150 years old and it preserves both historical collections from the 20th C as well as more recent items. Their scientist still go out to hunt for butterflies (but this time without endangering the species) and even the old pieces in the collection are still being used for research.

We save the best for last and end with the Gallery of Dinosaurs, the biggest in Europe, mainly due to the Bernissart iguanodons. 30 relatively complete skeletons were discovered while digging coal in Wallonia at the end of the 19th C. Since they were discovered with the bones still in the correct position (I mean, the position in which the animal lay when it died), they were able to set them up in life like positions. More recent research shows that they probably didn’t stand or run upright, like the earlier scientists thought, but rather with a horizontal spine, however changing the setup now would damage the pieces so they remain upright. They’re simply huge and you can admire them from two floors, with the basement showing a few skeletons in the prone position in which they were found. They’re just so damn impressive: 5 m high and 130 million years old, 9 of them displayed together in a huge glass enclosure.

Arne drags me away finally, to have lunch in the museum bistro – rather, the bistro allows you to take away food and the terrace nearby is open, so we have a sandwich. We’re expected at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History at half past one and arrive just in time after a brisk way through the Jubilee park. It’s really windy, but dry for now and actually pretty warm, the park is full of joggers and people meeting up outdoors. We see the museum from pretty far away, as it’s housed in one of the great halls attached to the arch commemorating the 50th anniversary of the independence of Belgium (that was in the 1830’s). The collection was built up starting in the early 20th C and has items dating from the Middle Ages to now, from ancient suits of arms to jet fighters. It’s obviously a less visited place and there’s quite some dust on the airplanes, but they have a great collection of large armament from the word wars and planes from every decade since flight was invented, which you don’t see every day. We spend so much time in the aircraft hangar that we decide to skip the Word War II exhibit and save it for a future visit. Aside from the collection, the buildings themselves are also interesting: the aircraft hangar resembles the railway station in Antwerp, with glass panes supported by rusting arches of steel. It really does need a coat of paint and the strong wind makes huge moaning noises, adding to the creepy atmosphere. Wouldn’t want to hang around here in the dark.

We wrap up our visit by climbing to the top of the triumphal arch, where we have great views over the city of Brussels. The sun reflects on the shiny steel cladding of the nine Atomium balls, making it easy to spot. The Koekelberg basilica is also recognizable, sitting on the top of its own hill in the distance. Walking back to the car, we decide that 4 hours per day is the maximum time that we can usefully spend in a museum: much more than that and we just get tired and start to rush through. The drive back continues the trend of this holiday, as an unusual amount of traffic jams forces us to avoid the highways and take the smaller roads from one small village to the next, until we arrive home around 5.

Homemade vol-au-vent for dinner and a movie as entertainment. Army of the dead, a bit bloody for me so I look away at strategic times to read my book. Honestly, I’d get nightmares otherwise.

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