A love note to the London Museum of Natural History

Remember when I said these last two months had been hectic? Well, one of the reasons was that in the middle of packing up our apartment Claire and I took a last-minute 10-day trip to London! We need to be out of the US for 330 days in 2018 for tax reasons and we realized we weren’t going to make it. So, a trip to visit my old college roommate now living in London ended up saving us money (despite how ridiculous that seems).

I love Natural History Museums. In particular, I love the collections and research happening behind the scenes that make the museum what it is. The public exhibits are usually interesting, sometimes even really excellent, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg of the life and purpose of a good Natural History Museum. London’s, of course, isn’t just good, it’s world-class. The London Museum of Natural History is old, and housed within are specimens collected by the original greats: Darwin, Wallace, Linneaus and on and on the list goes. So, just about our first stop in London was Cromwell Road.

London Natural History MuseumFirst off, please let me apologize for all the fish-eye pictures. I was playing with a new lens for my phone and only just now realized that I didn’t take any non-fisheye photos of the museum. Whoops.

IMG_8346This is the famous blue whale skeleton hanging in the main gallery. It’s really really big.

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This was my first time to the London Museum of Natural History and much of the museum was standard but beautiful. As per usual, there were lots of fading dioramas and dusty dinosaurs. I was also sad to see that there was only a short hallway devoted to extant reptiles and amphibians – what a missed opportunity! Still, every once in a while a beautiful exhibit would make us stop and admire for a few minutes.

Claire

Things started looking up though when we saw a sign that said “Form queue here to see the Tyrannosaurus Rex” and very enthusiastically did. Luckily, given that it was January, the queue moved fast – as fast as little four-year-old legs can trot towards the promise of a T-rex. Much to my surprise, we rounded the corner and there to greet us was an animatron jerkily making its way through a dozen poses with dazzling flashing lights spinning through the color wheel from purple to green to fuchsia and playing in the background the “Rainforest at nightfall” track on a sleep machine punctuated with tiger roars and thunder.

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And the T-rex didn’t even have feathers*.

To me, theme park dinosaurs are about the antithesis of a good museum exhibit and so  by this point in exploring the museum I was pretty disappointed. All that changed though when I saw “The Cocoon” in the new Darwin Center.

The Cocoon At the Darwin Center LondonThis picture was taken during the glass elevator ride to the start of the exhibit. Out the window you can see the smooth white exterior of “The Cocoon” (I’m going to stop putting quotes around it but despite its awesomeness the name does make me roll my eyes) through which we were about to walk. The Cocoon is a slowly sloping ramp winding around several floors of the Museum’s entomology and botany collections! Amidst the excellent diagrams, videos, and interactive exhibits are windows into the racks and racks of collections with spaces for visitors to ask questions of researchers working inside. No one was there while we were walking through, alas, but there was an insect specimen preparation station that I’d have loved to sit and watch someone at work. We could also catch glimpses outside the Cocoon at the various lab scientists bedecked in full regalia (lab coat, micropipeter, and safety goggles) going about their work. This floor was a DNA lab and I promise there were people working – I didn’t want to post recognizable pictures. My only wish was that there’d been an LED ticker above the window saying something like “DNA EXTRACTION UNDERWAY OF HELICONIUS MELPOMENE, BUTTERFLY FROM MEXICO, FOR ONGOING SPECIATION PROJECT… CENTRIFUGE OPERATING AT 5000 RPM TO SEPARATE DNA… DNA CURRENTLY STORED AT -80 C…”

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This is what natural history museums are all about, and I am so happy to see these scientists get the attention they deserve! Sure, I imagine there’s a bit of a fishbowl awkwardness to working in a lab that doubles as a zoo. But, I think that negative is vastly outweighed by the potential to inspire all those proto-scientists on four-year-old legs that get to see young people that look just like them working, talking, discovering, and exploring. The contrast to the robotic roars under dizzying disco lights couldn’t be more stark.

Natural history museums and their specimen collections are expensive and have been under fire lately, in part because I think not enough people know what they do. The Darwin Center’s model in London is a brilliant effort to remedy this. If museum scientists don’t want to start gathering dust alongside their specimens, we need to start finding more ways of showing off the rest of the iceberg.

 

*Alright, so as near as I can tell the scientific consensus brought T-rex from scaly, to feathered, and back to scaly again with maybe only a bit of plumage on its back. So I guess feather-free animatronic T-rex got lucky in its biological reality.

 

 

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