London’s Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a smorgasboard. I visited on the opening day of the new additions to the museum’s Darwin Center. The new hi-tech and very interactive science interpretation center dubbed ‘the cocoon’ from it’s bloblike form is amazing. It houses some great interpretive displays on the history and current research work of the museum most of which are interactive large scale digital displays packed with videos of museum staff scientists explaining and showing what they do. There are portals opening into the rest of the Darwin Center where you can see genuine lab-coated boffins slaving away over electron microscopes and there are even rooms within the cocoon where scientists work and are available for discussions by intercom. At each display you can swipe your own personal keycard which then archives your interests and then permits access to related materials from the museum’s website when you log on from your own laptop. Very slick!! It’s wonderful to see science revealed as a process of discovery carried on by people rather than a body of relatively archane knowledge handed down from on high.
My main interest though was mostly in the ‘old’ museum. The building itself (designed by Alfred Waterhouse and built between 1873 and 1880) is an extaordinary artifact with it’s menagerie of terracotta critters imbedded in the Romanesque-style architecture – extinct creatures on the east wing, extant on the west.
Inside the stuffed animals in the mammal section are deliciously moth- eaten. I loved the brush tailed possum with it’s bleached red fur (like a cheap dye job fading out) and it’s rodent like buck teeth.
The high points for me inside the museum were the pickled specimens in the Darwin Center and the venerable blue whale replica.
The preserved specimens are exquisite and jewel like. I was touched by the peaceful slumber of the bear foetus and intrigued by the squid specimen extracted from the belly of a sperm whale.
The blue whale which dominates the huge hall of mammals was built in 1937 by the museum’s technical assistant and taxidermist Percy Stammwitz, who built it as if it was a ship. The building crew would take tea in the belly of the whale. It’s so impressive to stand beside (even this somewhat caricatured simulacrum of) the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.