I can’t recall how many times I’ve sat at my desk and stared up the multi-colored, brick façade of the Natural History Museum and listened to the giggles and chattering of school kids and tourist groups. My dorm is located quite literally across the street from the institution.
I’ve been putting off going until a “rainy day.” I decided that at the beginning of the semester when sunny days were in abundance and self-guided walking tours were calling my name. Then I got busy and even if it was terrible weather, I had things already filling up my day. But I knew it would’ve been wrong for me not to go to the museum, having lived with its face in my window for over three months. So I made the time.
It felt good finally walking up to the museum. The Victorian building stands tall and regal above Cromwell Road; its terracotta brick work contrasting nicely with the greenery of the garden in front. I followed the tourists into the building and immediately encountered a dinosaur. Lovingly named “Dippy” and waiting to be replaced by a blue whale, the skeleton is the focal point of many a wide-eyed stare and photo op. Above the dinosaur, the ceiling expands in true Victorian grace. Then at the top of the back stairs a statue of Charles Darwin watches over all.
I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, there was modern lighting and the ubiquitous CCTV but if you just ignored those details, it was very easy to imagine women in long skirts and men in cravats walking through this atrium and pointing at the fossils in wonder. I love when I encounter little time capsules like this.
I started with the mammals, strolling past the collection of stuffed animals, their glass eyes having been gazing at visitors for over one hundred years (in some cases two hundred). The exhibits looked like they had been renewed in the ‘90s, using what was at the time state of the art techniques (you could tell by the graphics), and then left to their own devices. But it didn’t matter. They still executed their purpose in engaging and informing visitors. It still astonished kids and interested adults. That’s all you can ask for really.
After the fury beasts, I moved on to more familiar type of animal: the human. Starting from conception to puberty then moving on to the physical processes of the body and mind, it was another well-worn and faded exhibt that still worked in teaching and engaging. One thing that really shocked me, though, was how graphic some of the anatomical drawings were of sexual intercourse and birth. Some of the kids were loudly exclaiming how “gross” it was, but I was instead taken by the fact that in certain parts of America, these children wouldn’t have been able to see these things. As backward as it may seem, sex is a still a sinful thing in some places.
After that, I decided to follow the crowd and go back in time to see the dinosaurs. As expected there were plenty of kids there. Some were running about, bored. Some were furiously scribbling away on their school assignments. But most were shouting and/or pointing in excitement. It was heartwarming to see all those smiles. The exhibit truly was fantastic. While some of the graphics obviously hadn’t been updated in about ten years, the depth and array of the collection was something to admire. (There was even life-sized, robotic T-Rex.) Well I guess when one of your founders is the guy that named the dinosaurs, it’s expected that you should have a stellar collection.
Once I exited the prehistoric fervor, I wandered about. I stopped by the temporary exhibit displaying the treasures of the museum including a first edition of On the Origin of Species and a skeleton of a Dodo bird. Then it was off to the minerals: A large expansive room filled with table-height display cases holding minerals from around the world. The way everything was set up with paper signs and wooden cases, I have no doubt that it looked pretty much the same as it did in the 1960s. I wasn’t patient or interested enough to read all the captions, but I still had fun staring at the crystals and meteorites and other usual rocks.
I could’ve stayed longer but I still had things to do and I was hungry, so after taking one last look at the jewels in the back, I bought a postcard and left that Victorian palace of science.