The history of man in Argentina is well documented – it dances through the colorful streets of La Boca, whispers in the walls of Recoleta cemetery and stands proudly in monuments across the city – but where do you go when it’s natural history you’re after?
One of the city’s better-kept secrets, the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia (MACN or the Bernardo Rivadavia Natural Science Museum) has 13 exhibition rooms displaying Argentina’s creatures great and small.
History of the Natural Sciences Museum
In 1812 Bernardino Rivadavia – at the time an important government minister, and later the first president of Argentina – called for the provinces to collect materials to create a natural history museum.
Over the next 125 years the gathered objects were housed within in a convent, the historical manzana de los luces (block of lights)and in buildings around a square in Monserrat.
In 1937 the collection moved to a building specially designed to house them, in its current location in Parque Centenario. Attractive small details such as stone owls watching over the first floor windows, bronze spider webs adorning the doors and mollusk shapes in the banister reflect the building’s suitability to its purpose.
Dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals
The MACN’s star attractions are the impressive looming dinosaur skeletons in the spacious paleontology room. One of the most striking is the spiny amargasaurus cazaui, a 10-metre-long skeleton discovered in Neuquén province.
All of the dinosaurs on display are native to Argentina. Displays explain how the creatures lived and when and where they were found. Small children can pretend to be archaeologists by excavating fake remains from a sandpit.
Equally fascinating are the displays in the low-lit ‘Buenos Aires, un millon de años atrás’ (Buenos Aires, a million years ago) room. The number of fossils dug up from underneath Buenos Aires exceeds the amount of dinosaur remains found in the whole of Patagonia.
Skeletons of prehistoric mammals such as the South American toxdon, comparable to a modern-day rhinoceros, and the glyptodont, a primitive armadillo, are on display. Short videos on flatscreen TVs give general information and reconstruct the excavation of these creatures, found when building the subway, the port and what is now Abasto shopping mall.
Plans are in place to expand this section of the museum to include exhibits on invasive species and the early American man.
Geology, Astronomy and Antarctica
Directly opposite the museum’s entrance is the geology room, containing rock samples, a large model of the globe and a small planetarium that replicates the night sky from any place on earth.
The ground floor also includes an aquarium, sections on marine life, mollusks and Antarctica. The aquarium is largely empty while the Antarctica room is packed with displays of model penguins and sea lions, preserved fish in jars, and the enormous skull of a sperm whale found in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Visitors can take a break at the retro bar temático (thematic bar), though should not be fooled by the name. Besides the room’s focal point – a large plastic shark hanging from the ceiling – the ‘bar’ consists of red plastic tables and chairs and a couple of vending machines.
The History of Science, Birds, Arthropods, Reptiles and Animal Idioms
Head upstairs for a journey through the history of science. Old-fashioned TV screens with 60s–style presentations, a colorful timeline on the floor and stand-alone posters tell its story. Here visitors can learn about Argentina’s connection to Charles Darwin, who passed through the country on his famous expedition on the Beagle, and Albert Einstein, who gave conferences in Buenos Aires during a 1925 visit.
There are also biographies of Argentine scientists such as Nobel Prize winning Bernardo Houssay and Luis Federico Leloir.
The rest of the floor exhibits bird, arthropods, mammal, reptile and plant species. Both bird and mammal rooms have skeletons of extinct and living species, plus stuffed animals in replicas of their preferred habitats.
In the amphibian and reptile room, jars full of coiled snakes and bulbous looking frogs line the shelves. Rows of glass cabinets in the arthropods room are filled with tiny beetles, butterflies and bees along with educational information about the species and their role in the ecosystem.
Spanish learners should look out for the ‘dichos argentinos’ display in the reptile room, which lists popular Argentine idioms related to animals such as, cocodrilo que se duerme es cartera – sleeping crocodiles get made into purses.
Temporary Art Exhibitions and Guided Tours
There are three temporary exhibition rooms in the Natural Science Museum, one of which is specifically for artists. It is meant for those whose work is related to the natural world or science, through the mediums of sculpture, photography and other visual arts.
Buenos Aires’ Museum of Natural Sciences isn’t modern, but it is well maintained, and its old-school display cases retain a kitsch charm.
While perfect for children or adults fascinated by dinosaurs, nature and science, it is not for the faint-hearted. Anyone who finds stuffed birds or pickled snakes creepy is advised to carefully choose the rooms they visit.
Information on exhibits is in Spanish only. Guided tours are available in English or Spanish, but must be booked in advance. —Rosie Hilder
Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales
Angel Gallardo 490
• Hours:Sun-Mon 14-19hs.
• Cost: AR$10, those under 6 get in free.
• Planetarium: $8, only open at the weekends.
• Accessibility: There are ramps and lifts for disabled visitors