Tuesday 22 October 2013

Thirty Years Since I’ve Been – The Natural History Museum

As you can tell with my other recent posts, I’ve been visiting London, and I felt that if I was in the city, it was a total necessity to drag my sister to visit the Natural History Museum - a place I think I last visited when I was at school in about 1984.

I was full of excitement, that quickly evaporated at the size of the queues. But they were moving quickly, and we were soon inside, confronted with the still astonishing Great Hall and its iconic brachiosaurus – inevitably seeming rather smaller than I remember it. It was surrounded by folk doing a Crystal Maze style trip round the skeleton in order to get into the Hall of the Dinosaurs, so my sister and I decided to head to the top of the museum and work our way down.

I’d forgotten that there was actually nothing at the top apart from the ancient tree trunk section. And on the level down it was the fascinating, but rather old fashioned, mineral exhibition with the gem-mier stuff in the exciting named “Vault”, the “Treasure Room” which was enjoyable, and an evolution exhibit that as ever my sister and I walked through the wrong way round.

It’s the big exhibits on the ground floor that are the problem. The blue zone has a marine life exhibition full of often model exhibits, very badly labelled and very confusing to look at. Everything is static, and lifeless, and a common recurring theme of downstairs was how dingy and threadbare everything looked. The lack of big sharks was, in my sister’s view,  unforgiveable. And a model giant squid nailed to the ceiling was no substitute.

Things get worse in the overcrowded and cluttered Hall of the Whales. Sea mammals mix awkwardly with land mammals, and the exhibit is impossible to find you way out of. We were looking for the big cats, and it took three circuits of the place before we got out.

I did love the expression on the blue whale’s face however, and spent a deal of time pretending to be the doomed sperm whale from “Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

The big carnivores were the most knackered looking of all the displays. The museum has taken an ethical view – correctly – that it is not going to seek out any new big predator skins from any taxidermy specimens, and the animals are thus rather faded as a result. It was great fun drawing the tiger though, with the pencil and paper provided.

“The Cocoon” however was very different. This is the invertebrate exhibit, and consists of a wonderful curving structure internal to a modern concrete and glass section of the museum. You get an exciting view of the outside of it, and then you actually enter it to see where I think the museum views its future – digital and visual exhibits replacing actual specimens, with more emphasis on how scientists go about their work of research and taxonomy. But as a lover of butterflies and dragonflies, I was sad to not see more on view, and the ones that were unforgivably badly labelled again. Or rather, not labelled at all, or a sort of laminated folder telling you what was in the cases presented to you by a floppy haired assistant.

What’s wrong with putting a label next to the thing you are looking at? Is it so difficult?

However, in general, this is by far the best part of the museum, and presumably when more money becomes available, other areas will be likewise transformed. Although my sister would say you can put all those rats in spirit a long way out of sight, incredible resource though the spirit collection is.

The shop has moved to the other side of the hall, and if you have a pressing need for a pteranadon glove puppet, like my sister had, is ideal!

All in all, it was great to visit again after so long, but it felt so staid and conservative for the most part. But I’m curious to see how they can “get with the times” and still actually fulfil the public desire to see exhibits of real animals, or whether they can educate the public away from this perhaps ethically unsustainable approach to curation.

 Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 22/10/2013

A multitude of different coloured diamonds in the gem vault
Cocoon exterior 1
Cocoon exterior 2
Cocoon interior

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