Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Natural History Museum (2)

Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD

Thursday November 9 2017

It’s nearly two years since we last visited the Natural History Museum and in many ways we were looking for some consolation, amongst what should be the jewels in our crown of National Museums, after our less than educational visit to the next door establishment of the Science Museum and, we were not disappointed.

We are both old enough to remember when the Museum of Geology was a separate institution, with a separate entrance, but since he end of the 1980s it has been part of the Natural History Museum, now incorporated into what is known as the Red Zone. Unlike the grandeur of the Victorian halls of the Dinosaur/Whale bits of the institution, Geology is still housed in its no less spacious 1930s galleries and that is where we started our visit today.

We enjoyed the entrance foyer to this part where star exhibits were placed in the wall alongside a series of ‘phrases and sayings’ using stones and minerals as metaphors or comparisons… so ‘good as gold’ ‘hard as nails’ ‘tough as steel’ ‘feet of clay’.
You then enter a broad corridor with exhibits on both sides.

The different rock formations are clearly explained with different examples of each – sedimentary (settled deposits a bit like solid mud) and igneous (formed by volcanic or explosive core forces) and metamorphic – roughly speaking a combination of the other types put under pressure so they sort of fold. Apologies for the totally non-scientific and probably incorrect summary but there is text which both explains it (rock formation) simply and goes into more detail. 

From there it goes onto explain crystals and how they form within the rocks and here the displays are wonderful. There is one showing that when you break/drop certain minerals or stones they will shatter into the same shape bits, as opposed to smashing a tea cup, which shatters randomly. 

We have to give credit to the original collectors who in the spirit of the Victorian plant hunters and animal collectors went round collecting rocks, noting from where they came and in some cases naming them. Not surprisingly these early collectors were largely men with enough of a private income to pursue their interests but several gave their annotated collections to the Museum which is now the richer for their work.

To say we drooled might be an overstatement but there are ranks of display cases full of the most beautiful gem stones showing how they would have appeared as the crystals in the stones and rocks and how they then looked once polished and mounted. The finished gems are shown on hat pins so one is not distracted by the settings (you can tell I am a jeweller’s   daughter) and can wonder at the skill of the miners – never an easy job and exploited everywhere – to see what can be made from a stone…

The range of gems and colours is a true delight. Some resemble fronded coral others slices of bacon – the range is enormous. 

On from there we were told about the usefulness of many of the elements presented in their unrefined forms. This ranged from many decorative marbles used for statuary or impressive table tops, clay which forms the basis of much pottery. Slate is a native stone used usefully for tiling (there were some question and answer boards inviting you to choose different materials for different functions) and of course while marble makes excellent   floors it would be hopelessly heavy for tiles and roofs where slate fits the bill. There was a section showing how very small amounts (‘'rare earth elements'  are used for technology components though in fact they are not as rare as all that. There is quite a lot of space allocated to asbestos which technically is a fibrous silicate, and looks both pretty and very tactile – soft light and downy. Unfortunately though it has wonderful properties of insulation and fire proofing it is also very dangerous and over the years many have died at every stage of its  manufacture, installation and destruction. 

There is of course a large section on the most common and practical use of the earth’s resources – namely as building materials.  In the UK we have long had access to a source for brick making and the Romans kindly left us with a recipe for cement to stick them together. And once you have cement you can go on to make concrete, which just about accounts for the rest of our urban structures….

We enjoyed this section of the natural History Museum very much as it reminded us clearly of the riches below the earth’s surface and how useful and attractive they have been to us, though there was little to say that at times man’s greed has led to exploitation of both labour and land…

Once in the Red Zone we descended in order to ascend the very dramatic escalator which takes you into the bright red glowing ‘core ‘of the earth. (Our photos do not do justice to this somewhat kitsch approach) and once through the outer layers of earth we came to the galleries which explain about the three interlinked but nevertheless separate elements  (in a non-Chemical  sense) which constitute the unstable nature of the earth – that is the Tectonic plates, earthquakes and volcanoes. All these three phenomena are very clearly explained with large print graphics and many photos from what can only be called ‘disasters’ of the last 100 years. Of course it’s all the subterranean activity has been going on for much longer and it was interesting to learn how explosions were linked to displeasing the gods. There was even a Japanese early warning system whereby brass balls fell into frogs’ open mouths thus indicating the likely direction for the impending earthquake! Here films come into their own and there is of course an earthquake simulator, which is pretty sobering though many children were approaching it rather as a fairground attraction…

This section is well visited and again there was the opportunity to handle some rock samples from volcanic episodes.

The Red Zone section felt very much as though they had conserved the best of the past with the plentiful rock collections but had updated much of it to make it relevant to modern day use and function.  

Apologies - photos not good due to poor light levels and what looks like earth tremors affecting focus.... 

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