Back to the article

Wollf,T. The history of the Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen. - Steenstrupia 24 (2): 157-176. Copenhagen, Denmark, February 1999. ISSN 0375-2909.


The Copenhagen Zoological Museum has a long and complicated genesis from the mid-17th century to the present day. No collections have survived from Thomas Bartholin’s Domus Anatomica, but from Ole Worm’s famous Museum Wormianum at least one existing item can be identified with certainty. After Worm’s death in 1654 most of this museum was acquired by King Frederik III for his Royal Danish Kunstkammer, which was abolished around 1820 and the collections were distributed to newly erected museums.

During the Economic Period a self-supporting college, The Naturalia and Housekeeping Cabinet, was established in 1759 because of the inactivity of the University. Besides own collections, it also received the Forsskĺl collections sent home from the ill-fated Danish "Arabian Journey" 1761-1767 to the Red Sea and Yemen. In 1772 the Cabinet was closed down, and its collections were transferred to the University. Here they were greatly augmented by M. T. Brünnich and used for teaching in his New Natural Theater, until he in 1789 was moved to another position. Again, a kind of private university, The Natural History Society, was established, with lectures, library and museum.

After 16 years of remarkable efforts, its large collections of particularly exotic insects, shells and minerals were transferred to a new state museum, The Royal Natural History Museum, in a mansion in central Copenhagen. Important acquisitions were bird grouplets, animals from Greenland and Iceland, collections of bones from caves in Brazil (P. W. Lund), and from the first Galathea Expedition 1845-47 round the world.

Work in Brünnich’s University Natural Theater was resumed but on such a limited scale that Count J. G. Moltke, Prime Minister and a keen shell collector, interfered by buying the Natural Theater, adding his own collections and donating all to the University, thus founding The Count Moltke Zoological Museum belonging to the University. Substantial additions were the purchase of D. F. Eschricht’s private Zootomical-Physiological Museum, collections of the still existing Danish Natural History Society, as well as subfossil bones from archaeological sites, marine collections, etc., provided through the initiative of Professor Japetus Steenstrup, head of the museum from 1845.

Three years later he began working for the fusion of the Royal and the University Museums. This happened in 1862, and the grand new building in Krystalgade was opened in 1870.

Under almost ideal conditions the staff and collections increased. During the first 50 years at Krystalgade milestones were a magnificent insect collection, land animals from Greenland expeditions, and marine animals from the North Atlantic deep sea (the Ingolf Expedition) and Th. Mortensen’s extensive travels in the tropics. The next 50 years provided huge marine deep-sea collections from the circumnavigation of the Dana 1928-30 and the Galathea 1950-52, together with other activities in Greenlandic waters, tropical West Atlantic, the Mediterranean, off West Africa, and the Iranian Gulf. Numerous animals from elephants to insects came back from expeditions to East Africa financed by a Danish big game hunter.

In the 1930’s space started becoming a problem. Due to the war and its consequences, it was not until 1963 that the museum could move outside Central Copenhagen to a modern building at Universitetsparken. With 6˝ storeys it covers 6,500 m2 storage-room area and 4,850 m2 exhibition area, with a total of 20,670 m2. Seven years later the first part of the exhibitions "The Animal World of Denmark" opened, with the coincident establishment of a School Service after modern pedagogical principles. Later followed "From Pole to Pole", featuring important global biotopes, and "Animal Life in the Oceans", with whale skeletons, a giant squid model, a plankton wall, etc.

During the last 35 years the growth of the scientific collections has primarily been due to activities of the Noona Dan Expedition to islands in SE Asia (mainly birds and insects) and in East Africa (mainly insects), as well as the marine BIOFAR Program around the Faroes.

The museum ranks as one of the ten most important in the world and is well equipped to further its principal research fields: systematics, zoogeography and phylogeny.

Keywords: Zoological Museum, Copenhagen, Ole Worm, M. Thrane Brünnich, Japetus Steenstrup

Torben Wolff, Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ř, Denmark


Back to the article