Saturday, 28 November 2009

Old Birds & Old Fish - Magical museum exibits

Probably your first visit to London was to the Natural History museum. A magnificent building idealistic of the age it was built in with memorising gargoyles' and figurines now staring down on the cueing tourists. A statue of Thomas Huxley greats you as you enter the main doors, the man so in favour of Darwin theories, and so against one of the original museum curators Professor Richard Owen creationist views. As you enter the building the breathtaking high ceilings become engrossing and the architecture just mesmerising and then ….. you head for the dinosaurs!!! 

I love this museum and am unsure how many times I have visited it even though it now seems geared only towards children and foreign tourists. My monthly trip leads me to only four exhibits and it is the same four every time, but to me, they are the only four. Firstly the Mary Anning collection incorporating the plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. There is something so very close to home about this collection mostly from the Lyme Regis area. Each fossil has its own story. 

A left turn then takes me to the stuffed replica Dodos. One has to remember no preserved Dodos exist so my ears are covered when hearing a teacher tell his pupils they are real. The story is amazing considering that all stuffed offerings are modelled from drawings; not even a complete skeleton remains. This is a real story of humans’ ability to remove a species in a 35 year period.

From the Dodo I meander pass the children to the memorising display of hummingbirds (Victorian period) pinned to a board. There is something addictive about gazing into this glass case at these beautiful birds until that sick feeling of what you really are looking at hits you. From there I walk straight across the main hall to a small glass tank of formaldehyde sat lonely in an alcove. As I stand there transfixed on a pale white fish people walk to the tank, glance, dismiss, and walk away. Not a second thought is given to the importance of what is in front of them. They throw their eyes at the meaningless tiny plaque that only states ‘coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae Smith, 1939. No body offers more than 10 seconds of their time to study my friend and the museum offers no information as to why they should. At a point in the late 1930s this fish was thought to be the link between wet and dry. The papers were littered with ‘missing link’ headlines. A worldwide hunt started for another specimen leading to an international incident involving France and South Africa. Ultimately the fish was proved not to be the walking miracle once thought but the story behind Marjorie Latimer’s first discovery in 1938 and the events that followed just show how important the scientific world deem these findings. Amazingly it hit the news again in 1998 when a couple of marine biologists on honeymoon in Indonesia spotted one on a wooden trolley in a fish market. This fish was thought only to habit the areas around the Comoros off Eastern Africa. More history was in the making. 

My visits to the Natural History Museum are short and sweet. I hope, however, on your next visit you might take a look at the ichthyosaurs and Dodos, the Hummingbirds and my friend the coelacanth in a new light and for more than 10 seconds.

'The Dinosaur Hunters' Deborah Cadbury ISBN; 1-85702-963-1 
'Dodo from extinction to icon' Errol Fuller ISBN: 0-00-714572-1
'A fish caught in time-The search for the coelcanth' Samantha Weinberg ISBN: 1-85702-907-0

1 comment:

  1. I adore the NH museum, though you're right that it has changed over the years... I guess museums have had to become more slick to attract visitors in an era where so many are looking for entertainment and interactivity and quick quick quick rather than able to enjoy the simple pleasures of looking and reading and thinking for themselves.

    But the NH, with it's fabulous architecture and fabulous contents, remains my favourite.