We went to the Natural History Museum on Saturday to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.
It’s an annual competition and the exhibition’s been a regular thing on my calendar for about five years now Sometimes I’ve seen it in London, sometimes at Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall near Gloucester where it’s smaller and quieter but frankly, not so well lit.
At the Natural History Museum exhibition, the images are displayed to best effect with all the techie details of camera/lens/lighting and a bit of background about every pic. The museum – one of my favourite buildings in London – looked fab in sunshine and was busier than I’ve ever seen it. A huge queue of people snaked down the steps, around the grounds and out on to the pavement outside. I was just pleased we’d booked advance tickets – don’t think others in my party would have managed the wait.
But it’s excellent to see the museum so vibrant and busy. It’s there to enable the sharing of wonderment and knowledge of the natural world past and present. It’s particularly good for children as emphasis has been given to bright, simple, snazzy, fun exhibits with bite-sized information segments, interactivity and moving exhibits that include a giant stinging scorpion.
It’s a wonder they haven’t animated the diplodocus who’s had the place of honour in the central hall for decades. They have, however lit it cleverly to make it look a tad sinister.
The photography exhibition was incredible, as usual, with fantastically good shots of moments which would otherwise merely remain in the head of the observer – king penguins zooming up through the water to explode into the air and slide across the ice floes… a golden eagle talons out about to catch a fox…. the incomparably beautiful and strange textures of the underside of an iceberg…. a curiously haughty-looking sea otter… a sleeping snow monkey from the hot springs of Japan.
There was debate about the price of the camera kit required to take the photographs. Number1 son found it hard to contain a little bitterness about the many thousands of pounds invested by the professional photographers in order to take the winning shots and the astonishing pricetags which would have been attached to the kit used by the junior photographers but we were cheered to see mention of a Canon PowerShot – taking a wonderful still of a bad fox – guilt writ all over his face and mouth full of feathery evidence – caught bang to rights on top of the chicken coop he’d just plundered. An exquisite shot of frosty pasque flowers (runner up in the 15-17y category) was taken with my own Canon 350D, so there is hope for me yet!
I had to agree with son #1 that actually, professionals so dominate the main awards and have so much kit and time at their disposal that there is a place for an amateur competition alongside this one. When it comes to dangling a full movie-quality light into the sea from a boat, and then diving down to take the perfect pic of a shark rising, that really does make it rather elitist comparing to the person sitting in a hide on a moor with a tripod.
So that was the exhibition. We had had time in hand before mussels-and-beer time and the museum to explore – and I had a yen to revisit insects…not the child-friendly Creepy-Crawly exhibition with the moving scorpion, but insects proper…. to revisit the glass cases full of stag-beetles and lesser stag-beetles and rhino beetles and the various varieties of dung beetles from around the world. I have a particular fondness for dung beetles. They perform a very valuable job and do it walking backwards, which makes their often Sisyphean tasks even more remarkable.
There didn’t seem to be a sign to Insects so I asked at the information desk. Mr Information told me they weren’t on display, so no, I couldn’t see them but I could go to Creepy Crawlies. But I’d been to Creepy-Crawlies and quite frankly, I knew all that already.
I wanted to see the insect collection that had first inspired me to find out about stag beetles and spend a lifetime seeking them in hedges (on and off – it’s not a constant quest, to be honest). I wanted to see the dry collections and, if I had the chance, the mysterious specimens in jars – things like preserved axolotls and other natural curiosities that they used to have on display.
Not possible, Mr Information told me in the kindest terms. The museum has a lot of specimens which they can’t possibly display. Yes, I knew that. About 70 million specimens at the last count. You can only see what there is on display.. unless you attend a “Spirit Tour.” But they turn out to be “on-the-day” talks that are dependent on the weather (??) and what staff are available.. and you only find out what the subject is and whether indeed, it’s going to take place at all, by phoning on the day to check.
“But O’im from Glawstershire…” I said in my best Forest accent. “By the time oi’ve rung up, old butt, there would be no time to get to the talk before it started!”
Mr Information could see my dilemma but patently was not being paid to problem-solve. So “spirit talks” are the only way to see what is not normally on display to the public?
No, he said. You can apply to be allowed to see specific parts of the collection, he said, but only if you have a professional interest. He looked at me, a woman in a fake-fur jacket with a handbag, who professed to be interested in insects, particularly stag beetles and you could almost see him thinking that as a potential academic, I was not persuasive. I could have worn my Zeiss binoculars, a Barbour jacket, mussed up my hair, avoided make-up and waved my Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust membership cards in his face but I doubt he would have been persuaded.
So of course I said “Well, I will email,” and thanked him for his time.
I was disappointed…nay put out, that my favourite museum in the whole world had become so child-friendly, so skewed towards bite-sized information to inspire children and families, that they had completely forgotten to take account of the interests of fully-formed, reasonably informed, adults who don’t actually live in London!
Learning is for life. It doesn’t just stop when you pass or fail your GCSEs or your A levels or get that coveted job after University. It goes on. The curiosity never ends…. it’s all out there.. the fascinating… the unexplained…the new research findings throwing fresh light on old subjects.
When you stop asking “What’s that?” and “Why?” you might as well be dead. Gerald Durrell, my childhood hero and inspiration, was spot on when he said you don’t have to travel to exotic places to see natural wonders and mysteries… you just have to look down at what’s around our feet.
The wonders are many and varied – the biochemical processes behind the robin’s pincushion, the fact that still no-one *really* knows it all about metamorphosis in reptiles… even how it comes to be that hundreds of froglets all leave the pond on the same day. And don’t even get me started on branchial cleft cysts, which, not being red hot on anatomy, I only found out about two weeks ago. And if it was the glass cases of dead, dried up insect and beetle specimens from around the world that proved an inspiration to me – would they not still be a source of inspiration to others?
There is a place for a regularly-changing “Behind the Scenes” themed view of the collection – simple, informative, totally lacking in embiggening or pzzazz, interactivity or comical overtones. Give it to me straight, serious and dry as dust.
There is also a place for themed exhibitions of specimens brought back by the great adventurer/collectors – Sir Joseph Hooker, Sir Joseph Banks etc.
The Director of the Natural History of the Museum is Dr Michael Dixon. He looks a nice chap. He can expect an email from me. I might mention insects.