National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo

imgp1248This museum is rather odd in that its name suggests that it is a general science museum with perhaps a slight emphasis on natural history, but in fact the biological side of things take up over two thirds, and probably more like three quarters of the exhibit spaces. I won’t deal with those here (though some sections, like the technology hall were very interesting) and will just focus on the biological and palaeontological.
If I have one complaint it’s that many things were dimly lit, they were always good enough to see the exhibit but it made for poor photographic conditions. Odd really given the delight the Japanese seem to take in photography but that is really the only thing I can fault. Like Fukui, the layout and design were excellent, there was lots of information (in English and Japanese) and while lots of money was clearly spent, it was certainly spent well.

It’s hard to discuss the museum in detail, since like many older museums it tended to ‘ramble’ a bit and while the individual galleries were well laid out and planned with distinctive themes, they didn’t necessarily run together in a very logical pattern. Partly as a result of the lighting I didn’t take too many photos (and just taking pictures of even a nice ecology display of a Japanese woodland full of taxidermied wildlife seemed a bit pointless) so I’ll talk a little about a few of the better displays and finish with some dinosaur photos (which is why you are reading this, let’s face it), though of course I have already covered their ‘biggest’ section on the Musings.

imgp1244One superb hall showed off a great variety of fossil whales including Basilosaurus (on the left) and Ambulocetus (behind it on the wal) as well as marine reptiles like Tylosaurus (head on the right) and Archaeoleon. The former really helped show off the transition from land to water and the latter the size and diveristy of marine reptiles – I do like ictyhosaurs and pliosaurs, but soemtimes that is all you see and that’s hadly representative of what was out there.

The collection of fossil mammals was also exceptional including all kinds of exciting oddities (a horned gopher – yes, really, that’s it at the top of the page) and things you do not normally see mounted (like a Glyptodon without a shell).

imgp1276Two minor cabinets I was also really impressed with as the kinds of things that are rarely covered by museums and in their respective ways provided a lot of information and excellent examples of important biological issues. The first was a small case of about 150 (small) crabs all from the same species. Naturally they demonstrated quite a bit of natural variation (different sizes, some with extra legs, or longer antennae, or short claws etc.), which is exactly the point. Museums understandably normally exhibit a single representative of a species, or a male and female pair, or an unusual individual (colour morph etc.), here with one small case they can show how much variation can be present in a single population – the raw material for evolution, and the complexities of biological species in taxonomy. Secondly, there was a picture of a phylogeny of domestic goldfish (obviously very popular in Japan) which shows off both the idea of common descent and shared characteristics and provides an easily accessible example of artifical selection – a key piece of evidence for evolution.

imgp1273Perhaps the single best exhibit was the tree of life wall / floor thing that took up a huge space in the main biology hall. It’s hard to get across the details and how well it was done even with a photo, but essentially a huge semicircular glass cabinet containing hundreds (and probably thousands) of specimens representing every major branch of the tree of multicellular life (though others were discussed). The exceptional part was the fact that the tree itself showing branching events and relationships was laid out on the floor poiting to the relevant speciemns on the walls and was lit up. With the touch of a button one could highlight various eveultionary pathways and see how things diverged or who is related to what. It was incredibly simple and effective while being bold and exciting.

imgp1252Finally, the dinosaur hall lies in the basement and while obviously only a fraction of the size of Fukui, does cram in some great displays an interesting specimens. There is a complete Tyrannosaurus, Apatosaurus, two fighting Pachycephalosauruses, a Stegosaurus and others. A series of ceratopsian skulls shows off the diversity of their crests and horns and a nice ‘exploded’ T. rex skull illustrates jsut how complex skulls can be and how many parts there are.

imgp1261I was especially pleased to see a cast of an Argentinosaurus vertebra (left, at the back, in the dark) and skulls of both Giganotosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus to satisfy my need to see giant dinosaurs, and as ever there was a good little display showing the evolution of birds and flight. All these exhibits were backed by excellent videos with some well known palaeontologists (and they know who they are, including some whom I know read the Musings) talking about thier research and the evidecne for their ideas as presented (or at least clearly visible) in the exhibits. Great stuff.

imgp1262Overall, a great museum, thouroughly enjoyable as an expert or a member of the lay public. Detailed, well laid out and with some inspirational exhibits and a lot of money well spent in the right places. Well worth a day of anyone’s time, and if you like your animals and are in Tokyo, you must go.

18 Responses to “National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo”


  1. 1 Roger 24/03/2009 at 8:08 am

    The large fossils look impressive. I’ve never been near a life-size Basilosaurus skeleton, real or cast. I’d love to see that.

  2. 2 David Hone 24/03/2009 at 10:16 am

    Yeah, it was good to see. Intellectually you know how big they are, but standing next to one really does help it sink in, those things are massive.

  3. 3 Manabu Sakamoto 26/03/2009 at 5:27 pm

    I once left my notebook at the foot of the Tyrannosaurus but not even the security guards noticed it was there. Apparently, they had thought it was part of the display; an open research notebook casually laid out at the feet of T. rex

    Anyway, before I started my Masters course in Bristol, I visited the exhibit with a friend, and as soon as I saw the video of Mike Benton, I got really excited, ‘This is the guy I’m gonna be working with!’ I said to my friend.

  4. 4 David Hone 26/03/2009 at 5:32 pm

    I must confess we mostly watched the videos saying “X looks really young!”, “what is Y wearing?!” and so on. But the science was good too. I missed Mike on the videos though, I should have watched the whole thing obviously. I am sure it would have been splendid.

  5. 5 Trevor LeDuc 14/12/2009 at 8:24 am

    how big is the AMBULOCETUS? I know its 1o feet long.And it eats mostly animals near the shore and some fish and looks likes a CROCODILE or an ALLIGATOR.I just want to know how big it is it

    • 6 David Hone 14/12/2009 at 8:54 am

      Sorry Trevor, you have lost me. You know it 10ft long, but you want to know how big it is? Well, it’s about 10 ft long… What am I missing? Weight? Height? Skull size?

  6. 7 Grant 29/01/2014 at 4:42 am

    Hi Dave,

    This is an old post, so I hope you see this comment! I’m really intrigued by the display case you describe of individual variation in a crab species. You wouldn’t happen to have a photo of this case, would you?

    If you don’t… Is this it? http://i.imgur.com/aGjF8fY.jpg I found this image somewhere on the internet and I suspect it may be the case you describe.

    Many thanks for any help.

    • 8 David Hone 29/01/2014 at 9:40 am

      Hello, I\ll have to have a look through the files and see if I have it. The photo you have linked to is not it, I don’t recognise that, the one in question had something like 100+ small crabs all in neat rows.


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