Brenda’s Unfortunate Record Of The Week #4
Bones, curses, death sentences & denial … all wrapped up in a single tourist attraction.
I have family visiting from Canada. They’ve been very good houseguests & for the most part have entertained themselves, but yesterday I arranged to meet them in South Kensington to go to the Natural History Museum.
I can’t be alone in thinking this is the sort of excursion you only do if you’re a parent or accompanying out-of-towners. You trudge across city, emerging from station bewildered – you too will be following the flock of tourists – and then the shock you’re faced with seeing the queue which stretches out past the museum gates (queue? In the middle of the day? In October? This is new, right?) etc etc etc … Finally you’re inside. The houseguests want to check their bags and the cloakroom now charges by weight not item. Or has it always been like that and cause you live here, you’ve never bothered using it?
As you wait for them, you take a moment to admire the impressive Victorian edifice, chuckling at the wee stone monkeys clambering up the columns. On closer inspection they actually look a bit creepy, each with their own menacing character. Just like the empire they’re born from. This building filled with slaughtered animals, funded by slavery, blood, stollen land and exploited peoples. All in the name of science, progress & capital. But what a beautiful pile of bricks. All the best architecture is riddled with guilt. I wonder what this new empire of Global Capitalism will leave as it’s legacy? God knows it already has it’s aesthetic (Stratford, Kings Cross i.e. I could be anywhere in the fucking world….)
Hmmmm. The guests return, pockets somewhat lighter, and the three of you begin the visit.
1) The place is being renovated. Iconic Dicky Diplodocus skeleton will only grace the main hall for another few months. Much to my disappointment, the remains of the giant sloth have already been removed.
2) The dinosaur exhibit is rubbish. I think it’s the first bit to have had a refit. Unsurprisingly it’s full of squealing children & whilst they’re all frantically pressing buttons & swiping screens, it doesn’t look like much information is being retained (or even transmitted?? You can’t get close enough to look…). Interactive maybe, but so dumbed down it’s more like a Jurassic theme park than anything educational.
Making our way through quickly, we head towards the Blue Hall. All the sorry-looking, ancient stuffed creatures have faded to the same colour beige. Their days must be numbered too, you think. And it can only be a matter of time before the rest of Mammal-Land is ripped out (including the classic, grossly mis-represented Blue Whale). The giraffe is dusty & the participatory displays from the 1980s appear weary and dated. ‘If the screen is black, the film’s rewinding’.
Given the state of this room, is all that technical revamping really such a good idea? Surely it’ll look just as old-fashioned in a generation.
Finally you make it up to your favourite section, the undeniably reliable Mineral Gallery. You’ve had to take some back staircase to get there. The upper arcades are curtained off which means no more straight access from the beloved sequoia. A combination of subject matter and accessibility makes this the one quiet corner of the museum. Bliss.
Rows upon rows of beautifully numbered wooden cases, sectioned by type and filled with wondrous rocks, each chemical composition dutifully noted and accompanied with small written explanation. Who needs more?
You spend ages examining each and every specimen, marvelling at the parallels with the living world. That one looks exactly like a head of broccoli! Oh the universe and it’s systems and structures. So much we don’t know, so much we take for granted, so beautiful. Looking at all this intricate design – perfect cubes & form & beauty all grown from matter. And then your mind drifts back to mitochondria – how on earth did they emerge from the primordial soup? Surely some great fluke of nature. All that malarky of finding complex life out there. Pah! Wouldn’t we be lucky …
Completely engrossed, you float towards the end of the room & enter ‘The Vaults’. A new(ish) addition but not a touch-screen in sight. Amongst the marvels is a tiny vial of white powder labeled the ’oldest thing you’ll ever see’. All the rocks, the crystals, the pebbles, the wonders of the universe … stood here today, on the shoulders of murderers, in a world built for thieves, coming from a questionable past, facing an unjust future, filled with popular technology more concerned with taking the best selfie than changing the course of history …
You stare down at this little bit of dust from the dawn of our solar system & it’s pointing the bone. No point denying it – you are human, you are mortal and no matter what, you are doomed.