Quirky Koksijde museum reveals hidden side of animal kingdom

Summary

The natural history museum in West Flanders is home to a fascinating assortment of animal skulls and skeletons, including a complete elephant

The bone collectors

The Flemish coast contains a wealth of fanciful oddities, from Ensor’s house in Ostend to the Serpentarium in Blankenberge. The fairly new MuseOs in Koksijde fits right in.

Tucked away just south of the city centre, this inconspicuous museum of natural history is owned by Luc Tyteca and Leentje Vandenhoudt, biologists who have spent more than half of their lives amassing a vast collection of animal skulls and skeletons.

“Back in the 1980s, we were both studying biology in Leuven,” says Tyteca. “We were taking a class on evolution, and the professor asked us to bring along animal skulls so that we could study them.”

An actual skull, said the professor, is a much better tool for learning animal anatomy than photographs or drawings. “I brought a dog skull,” says Tyteca. “It was the first one I ever owned; many would follow.”

Tyteca became fascinated with bones, but MuseOs, which opened in 2015, would remain a pipe dream for years to come. When the pair graduated from the University of Leuven and got married, they were asked to take over Tyteca’s family bakery in Koksijde.

Elephant in the room

“We kept it open for 27 years,” says Tyteca. “It was a demanding job, no doubt. I worked the nights and slept during the day, while my wife ran the shop. Six days a week.”

On Wednesdays, he continues, “when the bakery was closed, we were biologists again.” They traded bones with collectors from all over the world and stored them in their house. Soon, their garage, cellar, attic and even the swimming pool were filled with bones of various shapes and sizes.

But the impressive collection was only gathering dust; Tyteca and his wife had no way of displaying it to the public. “I felt it’d be a pity to keep it to myself,” he says. Eventually, his brother took over the bakery, and the couple started work on MuseOs – a play on the words museum and os, meaning bones in Latin.

People know what they look like on the outside, but the inside can be just as amazing

- Luc Tyteca of MuseOs

The three-story building sits right next to their house. Inside, large windows let in plenty of natural light. “We worked very closely with the architect to make the building ideal for displaying skeletons and skulls,” explains Tyteca. “The levels cascade so that we can fit an entire skeleton of an elephant, or even a giraffe. We also wanted to ensure that our visitors could study the bones from all angles.”

Suspended from the ceiling by thin wires, the elephant is one of the most impressive assets in MuseOs’ collection. Spanning two levels, it appears to be greeting the visitors as they enter the main hall, where another formidable creature lurks just above their heads.

The sperm whale’s skull weighs half a tonne, but Tyteca wasn’t shy about putting it right over the wooden cabinets lent to MuseOs by the zoo in Antwerp. The massive animal died after getting stranded on a beach in Denmark in 2000.

Bone by bone


Other specimens are no less impressive. MuseOs houses gorilla skulls, countless antlers and horns, a skeleton of a platypus and a two-headed calf. Even the tiny house mouse, perched on its hind legs, looms in the imagination. Bones can be surprisingly fascinating.

And this is exactly what Tyteca and Vandenhoudt (pictured above) are trying to accomplish. “We want to showcase the beauty of animals,” says Tyteca. “People know what they look like on the outside, but their inside can be just as amazing. We want to offer a ‘wow’ factor to our visitors and share our excitement.”

MuseOs is also an educational project. Most of the visitors are parents with children or part of a school trip, and there is a designated space where youngsters can assemble pieces of bones or study them under the microscope.

“Adults are satisfied with looking at the glass cabinets,” he says, “but children, they always want to touch everything.”

Before your very eyes

Backed by a wall decorated with some 60 deer antlers and antelope horns, he explains that his fascination with bones extends beyond their scientific value. “For me, these are so  much more than just dead animals; they are pieces of art.”

His personal favourite? The moose antlers. “They’re huge.”

The museum still has some empty space, but the collection keeps on growing. On the second floor, Tyteca is assembling the newest addition – a skeleton of a rhinoceros.

“It takes time, and I’m doing it right here in the museum because people are fascinated by the process,” he says. “Also, once the skeleton is complete, it will be too big to carry up the stairs.”

While Tyteca shows us around the museum, Vandenhoudt is making coffee and tea. “We prefer small groups to large crowds coming in all at once,” she says. “This way we can have a chat with our visitors.”

Veurnestraat 2, Koksijde

Photos: Bartosz Brzeziński