"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Visit to the Natural History Museum

Yesterday I spontaneously popped into the Natural History Museum on my way into town. Two hours later, I re-emerged and continued on my way, and what a great way to spend an afternoon.

The building itself is worth the visit (which by the way is free, although I donated my spare change because I had such a nice time). It's quite old and was the venue of a famous debate in the 1800s about The Origin of Species. Unlike most museums, it consists of a single room with a lower and upper gallery and an iron-and-glass roof that makes it more reminiscent of a train station. Both levels are circumscribed by a colonnade, with larger stone columns interspersed with smaller ones, each made from a different kind of stone found in the British Isles.

Amongst all this architecture are probably hundreds of glass cases containing specimens, from a bat skeleton to a stuffed Capybera. The museum also has the wonderful oddity of letting visitors touch certain exhibits, like a stuffed cheetah or the fossilized remains of dinosaur eggs (which I found particularly thrilling). So in addition to seeing the amazing animals, you get to see the amazement on the faces of adults and children as they reach out to caress the fur of a cheetah.

In fact, one of the things that struck me most about the whole experience was the beauty of negative space, as in, the shapes of empty space created by objects. The openings between the iron-work in the roof create a beautiful pattern on the glass cases when the sun shines through, as well as a dazzling mosaic to gaze up at from the lower gallery. As you walk along the upper gallery, the view down to the lower floor is filtered through the row of columns. The cases, of course, create a lot of unreachable empty space, a sort of cushion of air that separates us from the more delicate specimens. And best of all, the skeletons reveal the amazing architecture of space in living bodies, from the gaping sockets where an elephant's tusks should fit to the delicate barrel of the ribcage in infinite variations of size and shape.

Because I was on my own, I wandered around quite slowly but not systematically, and took pictures of everything that caught my fancy. I don't normally take pictures in museums, but because I was in no rush, it felt OK, and not like I was distracting from my experience of the exhibits. On the contrary, each specimen felt entirely real and very immediate. The permission to touch some of them was a perfect way of reminding me that what I was viewing was very, very real, and of recreating every few minutes the thrill of realization that I was actually in the presence of some incredibly beautiful and exotic phenomena. It's amazing how a hall full of skeletons and stuffed birds can give you knowledge and excitement about living things. This was definitely an experience that convinced me that the beauty of the universe is a more-than-sufficient object of my faith and wonder.

So, enough talk, here are some pictures, which I hope will give you a bit of the same feelings. Let me know in the comments if there are other natural history museums you've loved or that I simply must visit!

An exhibit window full of specimens that either relate to or actually inspired characters from Alice in Wonderland, including the Oxford Dodo (it was in the case next door), but also the White rabbit, holding an actual pocket watch and a very distempered-looking bird. Speaking of which...
Why is a raven like a writing desk? Conveniently next to the Alice case, this writing desk was just sitting there and not looking anything like a raven.
This illustration reminded me of the villain in Up for some reason.

The skeletons were really intriguing and surprisingly expressive. I tried to capture what I was talking about earlier, that feeling of empty space contained within the bones.

 I'm not sure these pictures convey it, it's tricky to translate into two dimensions.

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