London SW7 5BD
Thursday January 8 2016
After a long break allowing for Bank Holidays and other related festivities, Jo and I resumed our Museum Project today breaking ourselves in quite gently – for various reasons. Our plan was to visit the Natural History Museum to select a ‘window’ between the holidays and the beginning of organised school party visits and this week seemed a good choice. To say the Museum was empty would not be true, but comparatively speaking it was fairly peaceful.
We struggled a little without a map and eventually found one in a rather dark corner, but I get ahead of myself. The building both inside and outside is one of London’ s most striking and durable edifices, though doubtless needing constant upkeep. It is both grandiose and full of detail – Jo took some sample photos of the wealth of ‘natural history’ on display on the outside: snakes aplenty and beautifully detailed statues and gargoyles. And once inside the scale is awesome and impressive. I was first brought when the (replica) Blue Whale hung in the central gallery; today its place is taken by ‘Dippy’ the diplodocus, though not for much longer as the whale is set to make a return and ‘Dippy’ to go on tour in 2018. (Dippy apart, dinosaur fans should put off their visit for a while as the gallery containing T-Rex and his chums is closed till late February.) To stand in the middle of the Museum with the wings off to the side and the grand double staircase is to appreciate the vision the Victorians had, and their passion for display and education.
After some dithering we headed for the Darwin Centre, the Museum’s most modern addition and one I had certainly not visited. Opened in 2009 and designed by a Danish architect, it is named the Cocoon and shaped a bit like a mini Gherkin – a lift takes you to the top of the building and a ramp conducts you back down past a variety of interactive (where they were working) displays illustrating the work and careful examples of scientific methods plus the opportunity to see ‘scientists’ at work (where they were working). The Museum’s curators present both their collections – variously butterflies, beetles and grasses – and the methods used to collect/catalogue, investigate and publish their work. So the ramp experience is dotted with a series of ‘talking heads’ explaining different facets of their work. There are indeed windows into the museum’s back rooms – some are just offices – this was the only one populated today and you can see several of the 3 kilometres of Rolstor filing cabinets.
The beauty of nature is well presented here – not only are there examples of the notebooks of the original and pioneering naturalists but there are blow ups of hand paintings of different wild orchid species – there are studied both over place (different soils and ecological setting) but also over time as the Museum holds the botanical and other records of such scientists as Hans Sloane (who gave his collection to form the basis of the current collections ), Joseph Banks (a testament to his prolific collecting are all those specimens called Banksia) and Alfred Wallace. Those bearded Victorians and earlier collectors were meticulous in their record keeping which means that today’s scientists a can compare the flowering time of species with their forerunners two hundred years ago – for some spring bulbs it can be as much as two weeks and we know there is variation round the country.
Having introduced the eminent Victorian collectors with displays of their meticulous notebooks and had drawings – so much more time consuming than taking a photo but no better way of learning the detail of the plants sketched, the exhibition goes on to introduce Linnaeus and the ‘Tree of Life’, a branching diagram which shows how living things are related to one another. The categories are as follows – always useful for a pub quiz:
Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species
As the display says, DNA sequencing is a powerful tool for taxonomy but even so species can have the same DNA but look slightly different, so the close study of individual samples is still needed – hence the rooms and benches you can see through the viewing portholes set up for the examination of slide samples and so on.
The most engaging interactive display that both captures the imagination and demonstrates scientific processes very clearly was one using mosquitoes with a screen that ‘allowed ‘ you to capture them squash them into tubes and centrifuge them for their DNA profiles, isolating three species, two of which carry malaria – you are then invited to make choices about possible solutions…
Scientists working for the NHM then introduce their own projects involving research both at home and abroad. It’s one thing collecting soil samples for the insect life in leaf mould from the New Forest but another having multiple trips abroad to quite remote locations and we were not quite sure how these were funded? Obviously the projects are related to what is already part of the very substantive collection – 21 million plant and insect specimens – and can clearly demonstrate climate change and evolutionary change but these must be costly to arrange? The scientists explain their methodology – basically check, check and check again – and the need for peer review and revision before anything gets published.
By now we had fairly effortlessly descended a couple of floors and the lift delivered us back to the ground /café level from where we returned to one of the ‘wings’ of the original museum. Today we opted for the (surprisingly popular) Mammals gallery. Perhaps because I live close to the Horniman Museum so it was a bit of a case (no pun intended) of ‘I can get that at home’, but the various displays of mammals – with scales (pangolins etc), flying (bats lemurs), carnivorous (big cats/wolves/bears), insect eaters (anteaters), and of course the over-represented marsupials – are when all is said and done very good but now fading examples of Victorian taxidermy . Now you might argue that seeing the animals thus and close up is better than keeping them in a zoo, but feels as unnatural; also where, you might ask, are the domesticated/working mammals such as sheep, cows. donkeys etc? We were distracted to the point of trying to recall from ‘Just So Stories’ (The Beginning of the Armadillos) as to exactly how the hedgehog and tortoise couldn’t curl and couldn’t swim..
When you think that the defining characteristics of mammals (as opposed to reptiles or birds) are giving life birth and feeding, heat control, warm blood and the scent these are not very evident in the exhibits.
I suspect that nowadays the main attraction for most (younger) visitors to the NHM is to see the dinosaur skeletons and remains so perhaps for future generations these stuffed survivors of a bygone age may be the only samples left of certain animals if they do become extinct?
We shall obviously need to return to visit other parts of the Museum so may yet revise some of our views