I always hit a few museums whenever I go to London. And since I’ve been going there nearly every year since I went to Junior year at University of London, I’ve visited pretty much every museum there is to see — from the famous to the obscure. At some point, I reached a level of familiarity where I could just run into any given museum, see my favorite items and whatever special exhibits were on offer, then move along. Because for some museums, like the National Portrait Gallery, The British Museum, the V&A, and the Tate, I know the floor plans so well, I can navigate without error to my favorite Hogarth, the best Pre-Raphaelite or that funky ceramic statue of a tiger eating a British Grenadier. But apparently there is one museum that I haven’t been through since all those decades ago when I was in college. It’s a shame because The Natural History Museum is one of the all time greatest science museums. Not necessarily because of the breadth of its collection — which isn’t that big compared to, say, the Smithsonian. But I doubt there is a museum out there that has the reverence for Science that London’s Natural History Museum has. Not for this museum any pandering to the Creationist Anti-Science crowd. At this museum Science IS the religion.
The message is loud and clear from the moment you gaze up at the ornate Romanesque (as interpreted by Victorians) facade. In place of gargoyles and statues of saints, the exterior features relief sculptures of flora and fauna, with living and extinct species featured within the west and east wings respectively. Bam! In your face: EVOLUTION. Inside, on the landings overlooking the grand entryway are large marble statues of prominent scientists of the day rendered with the gravitas of Old Testament prophets. Charles Darwin looks particularly patriarchal, although I would have preferred him in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Moses, except with Origin of the Species in place of the tablets. And the motif of Evolution Decoration becomes even more exuberant inside.
After spending the better part of an hour looking at the architecture of the great entryway, I thought I’d better see some exhibits. I vaguely remembered being impressed by the Bird Wing, especially because it had the actual skeleton of a DoDo. I was clearly remembering it through a rosy haze because the Bird Wing was kind of disturbing. Most of the exhibits date from the days when wealthy gentlemen undertook Science tourism to remote places, killed hundreds of birds and displayed them in their studies. Until they decided to gain prestige by donating them to the new Natural History Museum.
By the time I found that poor DoDo, I was starting to think that a major cause of the decline of so many species were overenthusiastic Victorian gentlemen naturalists. And then there is that poor DoDo, who marks the very first time that humans realized they had caused an entire species to be snuffed out. And it was shortly after that when naturalists understood that species that developed in isolation on islands or small land masses were especially vulnerable. A lesson we didn’t learn very well as we are increasingly hacking up our ecosystem into smaller and smaller chunks of isolated habitat surrounded by cities.
By this time, I was feeling dejected, so I thought I’d head to something mankind had no hand in killing — the dinosaurs.
I suppose the kids like them, but I prefer the old bones. I especially had to pay homage to Mary Anning, the Regency and Victorian Lady Naturalist who, operating solely in and around Lyme Regis, is arguably the greatest fossil hunter ever and a precursor even to Darwin in starting minds thinking about Evolution.
That made me want to confine myself to the musty original collection and leave the roaring animatronics to the hoards of kiddies. So I got myself to the Hall of Mammals, which I’d remembered fondly. And again had remembered inaccurately. The specimens date from the earliest days of the museum and some are looking pretty moth-eaten. Even worse, the gentlemen naturalists, who couldn’t always get out to far flung places, used to pay to have specimen skins sent to them in London. There British taxidermists, who had no idea what some of these animals looked like alive, would take their best guess at reassembling the animal. So you have a particularly stumpy-legged Jaguar and some very odd looking Australian marsupials. You’d think it would be hard to make a Duck Billed Platypus look stranger than it does naturally. The hardworking taxidermists of London managed to do so.
I must say, I got a good chuckle out of the specimens from North America. Because whatever rough cowboys, mountain men and scouts brought back those samples, well they really hornswoggled those gentlemen who probably stayed at their leisure at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel while specimens were brought to them. Clearly, none of them were specimen these Gentlemen Naturalists had ever seen alive. Because whoever gathered the specimens found such small and stunted samples it’s amazing any of these animals survived infancy. The Mountain Lion was about half the size of even a young Cougar and with very badly taxidermied legs. The buffalo was about as large as a yearling cow and the fearsome Grizzly, even posed standing on hind legs, could probably have fit into my dress.
But the Hall of Mammals didn’t entirely disappoint. I did discover this recreation of a long-extinct early mammal, thought to be an ancestor of both that Thylacine and the Blue Whale.
All in all, I’m giving the Natural History Museum a big thumbs up. I just hope, as they grow and expand, they keep the Victorian flavor.
And, if you happen to get there before August 31st of this year, there is a fantastic and extensive display of nature photography gathered from 50 years of their Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It’s well worth the extra price, especially since the kids who are screaming and shoving to see the dinosaurs, don’t venture in there.