Museumania

Saturday was forecast to be dismal and rainy, so I took the opportunity to visit the Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, both world-acclaimed and quite close to my accommodation. I left a little early, noticing that pedestrian crossings don’t make any noise here which means I miss the green light all the time, and ended up stopping on the way at Marks and Spencer, a supermarket with a strange combination of gourmet food with in-store (I suppose it’s ‘home’) brands, and with a vast number of little pre-packed lunches and things. A local had informed me that the food there was delicious, and that they do a massive clearance of their extensive gourmet bakery at the end of every day, so I resolved to check it out later that night.

This diversion put me just in time to arrive at the NHM five minutes before opening. And it was just as well I did – immediately as I arrived some 750,000,000 people materialised and formed a queue that stretched around the block. On reflection, it may have been a bad idea to visit a national cultural landmark on a Saturday in the school holidays. I gave up hope of getting to the dinosaur room when I saw that it had its own separate queue inside, and you should know that I don’t give up on dinosaurs easily.

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The Museum was a strange and eclectic place. The lobby was really impressive, with massive vaulting and architectural things, with a diplodocus right in the middle. But beyond that, it was enormous and winding and mazelike, and the exhibits varied massively in tone, composition and level of repair: from an exhibit on the human body that was clearly aimed at six-to-nines and had a carpet that was a dead ringer for that of many 30-year-old high-school portables (filthy, grey-blue stripes dotted left and right with black gum spots); to a fancy room of wooden cabinets in a sedate vaulted showroom displaying interesting mineral formations; to a collection of hundred-and-fifty-year-old stuffed animals that were so ravaged by age that the panda was beigish all over and the Tasmanian Tiger had no stripes; to a space-age research centre covered with white marble and plate-glass. I wandered through a corridor (the only way between two well-travelled exhibits, mind you) that looked as if it had been transplanted from the basement of one of the more run-down buildings at uni, minus the curling noticeboard (but notably not plus any signs or facts or pictures to feature on the institutionally white walls and numerous sealed offices where, no doubt, strange and very boring experiments continue late into the night, amidst a disctinct hospital smell); and took an escalator from a room filled with Grecian statues directly into an enormous model of the earth covered in lava and shifting tectonic plates. I couldn’t have been more confused.

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When taken separately from each other, many of the exhibitions were rather excellent. The childish human body and insect areas were fun; the displays of precious stones, volcanoes, and geological specimens were diverting; and two small rooms which included the museum’s greatest treasures were understated but mind-blowing (a single room contained the world’s first dinosaur fossil; the first archaeopteryx fossil, once thought to be the missing link between dinosaurs and birds; a page from the most expensive book in the world, Birds of America by John James Audubon; the first meteorite to be observed falling from the sky, which proved their extraterrestrial origin; and a glass model of a sea urchin made by two Russians in the 19th century of such artifice and intricacy that nobody has yet been able to replicate their technique).

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While those parts were excellent, a certain amount of the museum was fairly standard city museum stuff, that didn’t really need to be repeated (though in general if I had the time and the inclination to see everything even the normal stuff tended to have a little more to it than Melbourne Museum). Throughout the journey, I had been popping into the gift shops (they have one for each wing as well as a main one) and in the geological section I found numerous displays of buyable rocks, from a £5000 quartz monolith to £50 crystal geodes to, I was overjoyed to find, little polished stones of about 20 different kinds for just £1. I spent a happy 15 minutes looking at them all – including finding one kind that I was sure I had at home from when I was a kid – before finally settling on a gold tigers-eye, that changed colour depending on the angle of light, and a chocolatey marbled jasper. Brightened up considerably, I wound my way out of the building.

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From there, I left the throngs (still smarting from being unable to see the dinosaurs) and headed across the road to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was expecting it to be great, but it exceeded everything. The first room I went into was set up like an ancient roman villa, with mosaic floors, a fountain in the centre, scattered marble statues, crests on the walls and an enormous feature wall. I let out an involuntary expletive. It was exquisite. Walking through it freely (no barriers, I could touch everything if I wanted), it was like they had everyday things put into an almost everyday context (or at least, like I imagined it was). There was even a raised balcony that you could climb up on and walk out over! It turned out that the artefacts were 15th-century Renaissance knock-offs, but that didn’t spoil the atmosphere whatsoever – and actually gave me a real hankering to head straight off to Italy.

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I wound through the whole European section – room after room after room of stunning artefacts from the last 2000 years, artfully presented and varied with instructive captions. As a history nerd, I can safely say that this museum has been the highlight of the trip so far. I didn’t even get time to visit the Asia wing or the upper floors, which dealt with different mediums of art, building and design throughout history. One especially good thing was the benches in most rooms featured a little headphone and listening set, which would tell you about the feature in front of it and then play some music from the period and location in question. It gave you extra information, with detailed descriptions of what to look for as it described them. I began to smell a rat when one spent three minutes describing every detail of the appearance of a small monument in front of me without giving any historical information. It turned out they were commentaries for the visually-impaired. But aside from that particular track, most of the listening guides were helpful and instructive. My personal favourite was finding that a tiny rough red statue I had completely disregarded was in fact a wax model made by Michelangelo in preparation for an altarpiece, along with an explanation of why and how he would have made it. Also, they had one of Da Vinci’s diaries, which was pretty cool. Victoria and Albert is excellent. I intend to go back and finish it, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in history. Here’s a picture of a three-storey Renaissance Italian spiral staircase that I would take and put in my house.

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P.S. I did go to Marks and Spencer after 10pm, and I got two bags of gourmet pastries for 55p each. Heck yes.

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