CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited
Roy Kerridgeis a London-based writer. Two of his most recent books are The Story of Black History (Claridge Press, London, 1998) and the novel Subjects of the Queen (Duckworth, London, 2002).
Keywords: Museums, Zoos
AbstractFor generations, the Natural History Museum in London's South Kensington has been a source of delight to children, including the author as a boy. By a curious human paradox, its specimens of the world's wildlife, plucked from their natural environments and frozen in glass cases, have helped to inculcate a love of nature. The cathedral-like building is also a monument to the new faith in secular rationalism popularised in Europe – and the West in general – at the zenith of the industrial and colonial age. Today's Natural History Museum is now given over to the values of the "hi-tech" age and "interactive displays". However, the author observes, such changes have not been accompanied by a questioning of the underlying assumptions on which the original collection was based.
Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a wealthy botanist, naturalist, geologist and doctor, did more than give his name to the square which is the soul and centre of Chelsea. He founded the British Museum, for one thing, and so indirectly brought into being one of its offshoots, the Natural History Museum.
Next to the zoo, the Natural History Museum was my favourite London attraction back in the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a boy. How I skipped and squeaked in pleasure as I entered the familiar stone lodge-house and hurried up the curving slope to the majestic doorway! On the way I would admire the statues of animals that stared down, gargoyle-fashion, from the walls of the great cathedral to Nature. Inside, my wonder would increase. There, on my left, reposed a white bearded figure of Darwin, a modern Jehovah clutching a holy book. In front of me, a long line of stuffed elephants beckoned with hooked trunks, their great ears arrested in mid-flap. Later, these were joined by rhinos and hippos, for the collection was being gradually restored to its pre-Second World War strength.
For a long time, lions and tigers were absent. Then, one day they appeared, encased amid dry sedge-like grass in the rooms beyond the great staircase. Hitherto, these rooms had contained faintly reproachful stuffed dogs and horses, packed somewhat closely together in glass cases. Some of these animals had been famous in the sporting world, and (if I remember rightly) one or two of them stood eye-to-eye with their own skeletons, or glass eye to socket. This part of the Museum was made doubly macabre by the giant model of a bluebottle fly, an exhibit which had frightened my mother when she was a child, and occasioned her present fear of bluebottles. On the wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, hung a turnip-slice segment of a giant sequoia tree, the rings in the trunk marked by dates such as "1492. Discovery of America".
Back in the Great Hall, past the elephants, stood the dinosaur gallery, an endless array of skeletons, some of them mere models. When I found out they were not real, it slightly marred my enjoyment, but nevertheless the diplodocus and the giant sloth (an extinct mammal) never failed to thrill.
The most famous exhibit of all, the blue whale, was also a model, but its plankton food, placed enticingly before it in a pickle jar, was real. All around the wonderful whale, first cousin to Monstro in Pinocchio, were gallery on gallery of lesser whales, dolphins and sea-cows – two tiers of realistic plaster sea mammals. Whaling was then looked on as a boyish adventure, and photographs of harpoons and factory ships abounded. On the way to the whale were rooms containing gigantic shark skeletons, enormous stuffed crocodiles in makeshift cages, looking more alive than do most zoo crocodiles, and halls ringed with cases of dead or model frogs, fish and insects in gaudy colours.
Great was my jubilation when the Bird Gallery opened, a lengthy vista of feathered jewels that ended in a room devoted to British birds. This, I felt, was the most beautiful place I had seen in my life. Cases were landscaped, the herons standing among reeds that seemed to fade away into a misty distance. A domed ceiling of delicate blue was hung with tiny model skeins of flying geese.
Landscaped cases, works of art in themselves, seemed to be the happy future of the museum. Upstairs, three cases of African animals, glowing dioramas set in darkness, appeared one day by courtesy of Rowland Ward, imperial animal-stuffer of Piccadilly. Rowland Ward and his once-famed snarling lion window display have now vanished with the big game hunters of the Empire, but he has left a worthy memorial. The twilit Ituri Forest exhibit, with animals and birds just visible in the green rain forest light-filtered darkness, is remarkable. I fondly imagined that the whole museum would become a series of windows on the world of nature. Instead of stilted poses on wooden stands, the stuffed animals would soon disport themselves in realistic panoramas of veldt, forest or mountain scenery.
But it was not to be, for the Rowland Ward exhibit formed the high point of the Natural History Museum's career as a stationary zoo, or animal collection. To me, the rot seemed to begin when the stone drinking fountain outside ran dry. Things went downhill steadily after that and the heart seemed to go out of the Museum when it began to charge an entrance fee. Today, the Museum contains everything to delight a modern child, and I fear that I can imagine no worse condemnation than that.
At a zoo, not long ago, I overheard two parents exclaiming in surprise at their five-year-old son's total disinterest in animals. Staring blankly at the friendly overtures of a Brazilian tapir and a capybara (or giant guinea-pig), the boy brightened for a moment when he fancied he saw a deadly snake in the water. But it was only a log, so he subsided into gloom. The zoo was nearly empty, as most parents are aware that children no longer like animals. Only horror-comic beasties attract the young – snakes, tarantulas, piranhas and, above all, carnivorous dinosaurs. These species excepted, Space Invaders, computer games and machines of all kinds have replaced animals in the affections of most children.
These changes in human nature have been quickly perceived, if not encouraged, by the present administrators of the Natural History Museum. Out have gone the stuffed animals, in have come the machines and the horror comic displays. Most successful of these is a display of jerky robot dinosaurs feasting on another of their kind, with lashings of artificial blood and amplified monster-roars and shrieks that sound like rock music. To add insult to injury, this chamber of horrors nonsense is on the very site of my cherished British birds display. There is now scarcely a stuffed bird on public view. Here and there, I recognised a stuffed animal from long ago, in hideously changed surroundings, with children pressing buttons to make the "right answers" to condescendingly phrased questions light up with gruesome flashes.
In short, a sober collection of stuffed or model animals in calm, scholarly surroundings, has been turned into a neon Hell comparable with the worst excesses of the Trocadero and attendant HMV shop Leicester Square. Children love it, but is it good for them? Steel tubes and crazy walkways clash oddly with the masterpieces of animal sculpture and cathedral design created by the great Alfred Waterhouse, architect-craftsman, 120 years ago.
"Never go back!" is good advice, especially where the Natural History Museum is concerned. Nevertheless, I was recently shown around the Museum anew by an effervescent and "bubbly" young guide and palaeontologist, Mandy Holloway. A lover of dinosaur bones, Mandy all but scoffed openly at the notion of stuffed animal displays. Masking my true feelings of despair and gloom, I followed her around, admiring her gift of admiration where none seemed possible. She even took me behind the scenes, to the basement, where I hoped to see my old stuffed friends but instead found only skeletons and a rude young man who berated my guide in uncouth tones for bringing me down there ("We've 'ad trouble wi' vandals, you know!").
Well-meaning Mandy, chirping brightly, took me up to a vantage point in the many staircased Gothic heights of the Museum, where once stuffed mountain goats had surveyed the view with glassy eyes.
"When I was a small girl, my brother took me up here; I looked around and said 'Peter, I want to live here'", she said. "If I had known that one day I would work here all the time, I might have died from joy."
After drinking in the still-sublime view, the blend of arcade, stairway and sweep of sculptured stone, I asked why the Museum had been designed as a cathedral, even down to the stained glass windows.
"Richard Owen, the first director, didn't believe in evolution", she explained. "He believed the museum should be used for 'housing the works of the Creator', so the churchy style is deliberate."
Owen died in 1896, and thereafter the Museum espoused Darwinism, though never as fervently and hysterically as today. Climbing monkeys, etched in stone throughout the Museum, resemble the angels on the stone Jacob's ladder at Bath Abbey. They highlight the question posed by Benjamin Disraeli, quoted on a modern museum sign: "Is man an ape or an angel?" Disraeli was on the side of the angels, but the museum sees things differently. A hall festooned with busts of Darwin, under the banner of "Origins of species", showed a blurred photograph of a football crowd, with toy binoculars attached. Children eagerly peered through these. Apart from one that was broken, each toy builder contained the same crude representationsof an African and a Chinese man,together with the patronising caption "This species varies".
"Well, so it does", Mandy smiled. "Mind you, some of our anthropologists do not agree! There are those who claim that the races of men were developing into separate species, but were thwarted by interbreeding."
I had heard that the course of true love does not always run smoothly, but I had never known before that it defied the neo-Darwinist. Appalled, I asked Mandy Holloway what anthropologists were doing in a natural history museum. Surely they belonged, at best, in the Museum of Mankind, if they must exist at all?
"Oh no, we have 300 anthropologists here", she replied glibly.
When I asked about the large collection of human skulls housed somewhere in the Museum, Mandy grew alarmed and evasive. In pursuit of their theories on non-human men, the Museum anthropologists cling to remains of murder-victims and refuse to give them up for burial. This is not surprising, since anthropologists themselves were implicated in the massacres. The victims were Aborigines who impeded the progress of white settlers in Australia. Were it not for fashionable theories on missing links, ape-men and the rightness of survival of the fittest, the settlers may not have been so free with their arsenic and bullets. Or if they had felt impelled to slay their fellow men, they would at least have concealed the bodies and not posted them self-righteously to the Natural History Museum.
Since the "Origins of species" hall contained a sprinkling of displaced stuffed animals, Mandy wrinkled her nose slightly and turned back. "We now use stuffed animals just to make a point", she explained. As I wished to look at these stuffed animals, we parted amicably, and she returned to her bone-filled quarters.
Once on my own, I sought to see the point that these poor animals had been forced to make. Here could be seen the last-ditch desperate attack of Darwinism, a heavy-handed attempt to brainwash the young. Back in the 1940s, Darwin had seemed secure on his throne. In that age of certainty, only evangelical Christians who believed every word of the Bible disagreed with Darwin. But nowadays, led by the philosopher John Michell (of Oldie magazine), intelligent people of all kinds are openly scoffing at Darwin's absurd theory. There is no record of any animal ever changing into any other animal. Species are variable, but they remain species. No one knows how they (or we) came here on earth to dwell.
Dinosaurs, linked for some reason to Darwin's Theory in the popular mind, actually disprove that theory. If savagery and survival of the fittest were all, the gigantic bloodthirsty tyrannosaurus, beloved of modern schoolchildren, would rule the earth. Fortunately, it has not survived but the puny insects of its day still buzz around almost unchanged.
According to Mandy Holloway, the "Origins of species" hall is linked in some way to schools and the National Curriculum. But do we really want to make schoolchildren more unruly and ferocious, in accordance with Darwin's Theory? Decades of official Darwinism have made their mark on the British character, and a return to the "wonders and mysteries of creation" idea is long overdue. All is not lost, for at the end of the Darwin Hall, overlooked by many, the Rowland Ward African Pavilions of my childhood remain.