Natural History Museum, London, parrots, sunny, tourist, attraction,

Childhood spaces revisited; The Natural History Museum, London

I’ve already covered a very visual aspect of my trip to London last week, but I didn’t just visit the Victoria & Albert Museum. On this blog I’ve covered other educational institutions in London which are open to the public, but this one is different, it is a building steeped in history and learning, designed purely for the purpose of public education, at a time when access to state education was inconsistent.

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It’s also a place that I have fond memories of as a child, in the form of school trips and family days out, mainly during the school holidays. I think that this is probably true for a lot of British people, and many more tourists and visitors.

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Does this staircase remind anyone else of Hogwarts?

When visiting purely for the purpose of seeing the exhibits however, much is neglected. The facade of the building is often admired (and featured in the background of many a group photo), but what about the extraordinary details of the interior? What about the colonial background of some of the objects collected? And the personal mission of the men behind the museum?

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This is a record of some of my own thoughts and observations, walking around the polished halls of the museum again, as an adult, re-visiting childhood memories in this space.

Previous posts have discussed the activities of Americans in Vietnam, of Portugal’s colonial activities in the New World, and even of Europeans in north Africa. But I’m ignoring my own blind spot. What about the literal elephant in the colonial room? People tend to forget that the British Empire affected everything in Britain, from the motives of individuals, to the motifs on individual buildings. It’s not just across Africa and Asia that “colonial” architecture can be seen, designed to intimidate, to project an image of benevolence and grandeur, majestic, and oddly paternal, an enduring influence. Built to last, and to “educate” the masses, to give a lasting impression.

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(main hall, with new blue whale display!) I remember having to collect my sister from this information point about 15 years ago when she got lost, separated from our grandparents, and was returned here…

 

Intricate, life-like cravings on pillars stemming from the main hall. All of the animals are found at an “appropriate” level, e.g, snakes at the bottom, ram at knee-waist level (depending on your height!) and apes at the very top, towards the roof.

Note the detail on the roof tiles. The scientific, Latin names of plants are recorded alongside their painted pictures. No aesthetics without educational value in this building!

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Memorial to Frederick Selous, “Hunter – Explorer & Naturalist”. Military captain, British hero in “German East Africa”, acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt and inspiration for the Indiana Jones character Allan Quartermain.

How have I never noticed the Frederick Selous memorial before? It’s an incredible testament not just to the man, but to the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age” that was Victorian Britain. Of course Selous’ skills as a hunter provided the Natural History Museum with much of the stock for its mammal collection. I should add, the plaque was actually unveiled in 1920, some decades after Selous’ death, but clearly his reputation was cemented, his fame grew into something of a literary legend. Selous was a  young “ivory hunter” who had been inspired by the writings of Dr. Livingstone and others since his public schoolboy days, who grew into the embodiment of Empire. His physical appearance was evidence of his strength, and his fighting alongside Robert Baden-Powell ensured his military fame. Last but not least, Selous had strong connections to the man who (even to this day) is seen as the personification of “Empire” in Britain – Cecil Rhodes.

For further reading on “beasts, Burma and British imperialism”, including the apparently contradictory colonial wildlife legislation can be found on the intriguing blog Colonizing Animals.

It’s not just in the stuffed animal collections that a post-colonial legacy is evident. I noticed some really fascinating details on the labels of the NHM’s mineral collections;

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Notice the detailed locations of the specimens brought back from British-administrated Burma, vs. the vague “Canada” location of another mineral. Considering the landmass of Canada compared to “Burma”. Also note the “Ceylon” name tag. “Ceylon” is modern day Sri lanka. Should museums update their displays to include contemporary place names, or reflect the reality of the world that they were collected in?
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Again, very precise location for the German crystals (any link to Prince Albert/ his connections?) yet such a vague label for the sublimed crust! Is it a coincidence that China was never part of the British Empire, hence “China” is seen as a sufficient category; the Other?

My visit was a great reminder that museums are far from “neutral” spaces. Though we may have personal memories of them, they belong to a collective identity, not just the society which they currently exist in, but that which they were founded in. There are some objects which reach museums by dubious means, and some aspects of museum ethnography which raise moral issues which didn’t exist in previous centuries. The future of all Victorian institutions however, is a double-edged sword; on one hand they continue to educate and provide enjoyment for the general public, on the other, they are a haunting reminder of a colonial past, whose spirit lingers in them to this day.

4 thoughts on “Childhood spaces revisited; The Natural History Museum, London”

  1. I revisiting the museum of natural history for the first time since I was little last summer and I noticed so much more. I think when I was a child I didn’t pay much attention to the information plastered on the walls, I was only interested in the cool dinosaur bones. Now as an adult I can appreciate the history more

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  2. Your comment about the story behind the museum brought to mind an exhibit I went to see at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto. It was the Great Blue Whale exhibit, and it featured an entire blue whale skeleton. The thing that made this exhibit stand out so much to me (other then, obviously, the giant blue whale) was the fact that the exhibit focused as much on the collection and cleaning of the bones as much as the anatomy of the whale itself. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing!

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