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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
When I was little, I was always thrilled to visit the Natural History Museum in London, that neo-Gothic and Romanesque palace of learning in South Kensington.
The place was filled with all the bits and pieces that had been gathered over more than a century of man’s study of the world and its living things. The exhibits, however, were far from modern, definitely not interactive or geared in the slightest toward children.
There were hallways lined with windows behind which butterflies, bugs, crawly things and other small creatures from all over the world were pinned to boards, their unpronounceable names typed on cards beside them. It had all been done with extraordinary attention to accuracy and scientific presentation.
None of today’s colorful and noisy moving displays there, thank you very much. There were no holograms, films to see or “Watch me being eaten by a vole” buttons to press.
Education, after all, was a very serious matter. It required hush and attention.
Even the dinosaur fossils were formally ranged in their unadorned majesty, cluttering vast wood-paneled halls as though they’d just stopped in for a glass of sherry and stayed to become rather cumbersome hindrances, blocking the butler’s path (“Mind the triceratops on your way to the cloakroom, won’t you?”). The famous blue whale was also there, hanging from the ceiling all alone in a room the size of an aircraft hangar, clearly not actually made of whale but of plaster and wood.
Still, it was all thrilling beyond measure.
What fascinated me longer than it might have another child of eight, however, was the frightful appearance of the models that showed what flies can do on your food. And by that I mean they actually “do.”
Here were glass cases in which the mundane household items of 1950s England were still presented as though thoroughly up to date, despite having been obsolete for decades, and festooned with houseflies, bluebottles and other unpleasant visitors… Even rubbery lettuce with plops of fake salad dressing were on show in all their ghastly austerity, and these too were dotted with flies that hadn’t moved since before the Suez crisis.
Upstairs in a shadowy alcove was a gigantic slice of tree trunk on which the lines were clearly still visible. The tree had obviously been quite old when felled, because the rings dated back a long way indeed. Markers had been placed on the concentric circles, showing how thick the tree had been when things had happened in history… the conquest of Everest, discovery of the Americas, Battle of Bosworth Field, Norman invasion, the Black Death, the Renaissance, and the birth of Christ.
I could actually touch the tree trunk that had stood somewhere in a forest when those things had happened.
You see, all these peculiar things would spark ideas, fire my imagination, and prompt me to color my world in ways I’d never thought before. All of a sudden, I could float through a history that I’d never known existed, put things in context, understand where things came from and where they’d gone (the dodo, for example), and build an understanding of the Really Big Picture in my own head.
What’s more, I’d be doing it without all the glittery flim-flam, the immersive experience, the sound and vision that our children are subjected to in museums today.
Certainly, all the modern presentations are fabulous, and they give our children and grandchildren great excitement in their journey of learning, but I don’t think anyone can equal the horror of a tableau, frozen forever in time and in my mind, of houseflies fornicating on an open jar of Marmite.