Grigore Antipa, the creator of the most visited museum in Romania

Did you know that true stories also start with “once upon a time”?

When we say Grigore Antipa, we think of one of the greatest scientists of Romania, but also the most beloved museum in Bucharest that bears his name.

A biologist, ichthyologist, ecologist, oceanologist, and university professor, Antipa wanted more than anything for the fruits of his research to be used in everyday life.

We owe him the organization of the Antipa Museum in public exhibitions and scientific collections, and his name stands alongside those of Nicolae Iorga in history, Emil Racoviţă in biology, Brâncuşi in art, Enescu in music, and Vlaicu in aviation.

“Antipa started from zero, but we all start from Antipa,” say the scientists. He is a man who was not spared difficulties, but who succeeded through work and passion in fulfilling his dream.

His story begins in Botoșani, in 1867, in a neighborhood where Armenian, Jewish, and Romanian children played from morning until evening without regard to their nationality. The house on Sofian Street was situated next to the public garden. Here, military music was played twice a week. Shops, small stores, carriages, craftsmen, and merchants, mixed voices, this is the atmosphere in which Grigore, a short and stocky boy, discovers the world. Unfortunately, he is forced to mature too early because he loses his parents too soon.

Grigore and his brother, Nicolae Leon, remain in the care of Moş Panaite, the uncle who is very attentive and strict with their education. The two boys are sent to the “Mărgineanu” boarding school, where they learn German and French. Then, at the age of 12, Grigore goes to Iași, to the United Institutes, an elite school of that time, with remarkable teachers.

“I was lucky to be a pupil of four learned teachers, who awakened in me a keen interest in the sciences they taught us and had a decisive influence on my further development,” Antipa says in his memoirs.

He refers to the naturalist Grigore Cobălcescu, chemist Petru Poni, historian A.D. Xenopol, and economist Petru Missir. Also here, at this school, a friendship is born that will last a lifetime. Grigore is classmates with Emil, a young man as passionate as he is. Over the years, Grigore Antipa and Emil Racoviță, for it is he we speak of, will conquer the world both literally and figuratively.

Antipa is a diligent student and discovers his passion for natural sciences during this period. He constantly reads articles from the specialized press and can hardly wait to get his baccalaureate to go to Germany, where his brother is already a student. At 17, he arrives in Jena, at the most important university in Europe, where he has as professors some of the most famous biologists of the time.

“A completely new life, another country and other people, other customs and another discipline, but especially a different general cultural state, based on old work traditions,” he writes excitedly.

Antipa is noticed by Ernst Haeckel, a prominent German biologist and philosopher. He appreciates the Romanian for his seriousness and his brilliant mind. When he defends his doctoral thesis, the professor awards him the summa cum laude mention, the highest university distinction. In his career, Haeckel will give this honor to only two other students.

After becoming a doctor in jellyfish, Antipa works at the Zoological Station in Naples where he follows the migration of fish and discovers a new species of fixed jellyfish. Did you know that jellyfish do not have a brain, heart, ears, head, limbs, or bones, and that 95% of their body is water?

Grigore wishes to know everything about fish, so he becomes passionate about ichthyology. He leaves on an expedition to the North Sea and studies the methods by which Scandinavians collect fish from the sea and the ocean.

This experience helps him choose his career path. He is determined to apply everything he has learned on his travels in his country, especially since in those times, in Romania, everything that was known about fish was based on the teachings of old fishermen. Romanian fish farming was not organized, and the Danube was a haven for poachers.

Throughout his life, Antipa met people who supported him and who were close to him. An extremely important person for him was Anton Dohrn, who at that time ran the Zoological Station in Naples. Dohrn is the one who recommends the young man, only 25 years old, to King Carol I. Although the audience at Sinaia was initially scheduled for half an hour, the king is captivated by the young biologist and keeps him for lunch to introduce him to his ministers.

Gentlemen, I present to you this young scholar with astounding training, who is determined to help his country through science.

It is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It was the greatest luck I had in life, the fact that I was allowed, for 22 years, to approach and listen to his teachings until the end of his life, Antipa would say about King Carol I.

Antipa is named director of the State Fisheries. In ten years, Romania’s fish production increases tenfold, and black caviar is sold as far as America.

The next steps are researching the Floodplain and the Danube Delta, true natural laboratories, and identifying most of the fish species from the Black Sea.

In 1893, Carol I provides him with the royal ship, the cruiser Elisabeta, for the first expedition around the Black Sea, known in the history of scientific research as the first Romanian oceanographic survey. This adventure lasts 9 months.

During the same period, Grigore Antipa establishes the Biooceanographic Institute in Constanța, with its two reserves and research stations at Agigea and Cape Kaliakra.

Grigore falls in love with Alina Petrescu, a general’s daughter. Romantic, elegant, and educated in Paris, Alina is his most skilled collaborator for 45 years. The two were involved together in the Museum of Natural Sciences, where they also lived for a good period of time. They were inseparable all their lives.

In 1893, Antipa is appointed director of the Natural History Museum. A rather pretentious name for a simple zoology cabinet at the University! But the scientist does not give up. He starts from scratch and finds in the basement of the University a few crates from Africa and South America in which animal skins with fur and feathers and jars with invertebrates are still in good condition. He writes to his friends all over the world and asks for exotic exhibits and collections. He stays awake whole nights and is always planning.

After two years of almost single-handed work, his dream is realized. The authorities finally understand the need for a museum worthy of the nation’s capital. The chosen location is Victoriei Square. On a vacant lot, the roadside building is designed by architect Grigore Cerchez. Antipa arranges the laboratories, putting everything in its place. The main halls are dedicated to the fauna of the Carpathians, the Black Sea, and the Danube.

“You know, Emil,” he tells his lifelong friend, “a museum organizer must be a good educator. The visitor must be taught to look at the exhibits and understand them!”

“But, Grigore, you have made a museum here as good as those in London or Paris,” Racoviță replies.

“I really hope so, my friend, I believe a museum is the simplest form of spreading culture and science among visitors! Look, for instance, I have an idea that I hope will make those who cross its threshold understand the world we live in better. A whale, a seagull, they don’t tell you much if you see them separately. But what if I created a large display case where seagulls sit on the beach, with skeletons and marine vegetation alongside, all projected against a painted backdrop that gives perspective? I think this way people would better understand their environment, right?”

“You’re brilliant, Grigore, nothing like this has ever been done!”

And indeed, it was so. Grigore Antipa is the inventor of dioramas, those 3D display cases where species were presented according to their habitat and projected against a painted background. Many museums around the world have sought the Romanian’s support in organizing their collections, and dioramas have spread to museums worldwide.

On May 24, 1908, at 11:00 AM, the new building of the Museum is inaugurated. The event is attended by King Carol I, Prince Ferdinand, and Princess Maria, along with all the country’s personalities and authorities. The first 11 halls of the museum are a true delight for visitors. The museum is very modern for those times, evidenced by the fact that after the opening, many European and American institutions request the scientist’s help in organizing their collections. Moreover, for organizing the Museum, Antipa receives the “Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire” medal in a solemn ceremony in Paris, in the presence of the President of France, Paul Doumer, in 1932.

A new recognition of his merits follows, and at 37 years old, Antipa becomes a member of the Romanian Academy. 25 years after the inauguration of the building in Victoriei Square and 40 years after his appointment as director, King Carol II gives him a priceless gift. By royal decree, he decides that the museum will bear the name of the National Museum of Natural History “Grigore Antipa”. It is a well-deserved recognition of his titanic work. Grigore Antipa would lead the museum for 51 years.

On March 9, 1944, Grigore Antipa dies of a heart attack. After saying goodbye to her husband, laid on a catafalque in the museum hall, Alina Antipa decided she could not live without him and ended her life.

Grigore Antipa is the man who managed to bring the magic of nature into the heart of the city with the purpose of educating future generations to love, protect, and respect the environment. More than 100 years later, after two wars, several major earthquakes, and a revolution, the building still stands, although it has lost its original façade.

The “Grigore Antipa” National Museum of Natural History remains today a true journey around the world, showcasing to visitors over 2,000,000 specimens of invertebrates and vertebrates (both extant and fossil) from Romania and various geographical areas, from the equator to the polar regions. It is a legacy that hundreds of children continue to enjoy today!