Thursday, August 25, 2005

Attic of the nation, vacation update 5

Another day of solid rain, so a good day for museums. Yesterday the Vol-in-Law and I headed to the Natural History museum, along with every family with small children in London. The Natural History museum is behemoth, and we didn't even bother to try to cover the whole thing. We headed straight to the dinosaur section, where they have several animatronic versions of the beasts, including a big giant, snorting, roaring, motion sensing T-rex. There were so many people there, that its motion sensing got a little confused, which is just as well, because when it stares straight at you with its beady reptile eyes, opens its giant toothy jaws and roars, it can be a little frightening and the Vol Abroad has a sensitive disposition.

We also saw Face to Face an exhibit of photographic portraits of gorillas, chimps and orangutans. All of these animals had been rescued from unfortunate circumstances. The Vol-in-Law found these quite pictures quite powerful. In the exhibit they also highlighted a book by Charles Darwin called The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.

From the Natural History website:

In Expressions, Darwin argues that emotions such as love, joy,
anger, guilt and horror are universal among humans and they share evolutionary
origins with the expressions and behaviour of other animals. The prevailing
Christian view at the time was that emotions were a special gift to humans from
God to communicate our innermost feelings. This difference of opinion fuelled a
fierce debate in science that raged through the twentieth century.

This exhibit was supposed to show that the great apes feel emotions, too, which I never really doubted. My cats have emotions. Anybody who's ever had a pet knows animals have emotions. Some people will tell you that we're just anthropomorphising our pets, but I don't believe that. But of course, their emotions aren't just like ours. My cat who died last year, showed a range of very complex emotions, often unpleasant emotions like jealousy, anger, an excessive sense of self-worth and pique. But her daughter, who is very stupid, exhibits a much more limited range of emotions, contentment or grumpiness, usually.

They were also touting the new Darwin Centre, so we followed the signs to visit that. It was a little bit of a disappointment, because it's largely offices, labs and storage facilities. Guess what they store in there. Specimens in jars. Pickled animals. Shelf-on-shelf-on-shelf of pickled animals, and not a one of them I would eat. Some of these were on public display, they had worms and shellfish and foxes and bats. They also had a big old Rattus norwegicus (regular old rat) Locality: outside NH museum. Yep, one the way to work one day, one of the scientists stumbled across a dead rat, and thought to bring it on inside and stuff it in a big jar full of alcohol. Nice. Each square footage of storage space which is on prime real estate in central London must cost a freakin' fortune, and somebody sees fit to fill it with a rat off the road. Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

We then took a little break from museum going and sat in the pub for a while, nursing our pints and reading the paper before heading off to the Victoria & Albert museum. This has to be my favorite museum in London. It's like the attic of the nation. It's full of stuff. They call it 'decorative art', but it's stuff. Much of it very nice stuff, art and textiles and fashion throught the ages, bits and bobs. During the age of Empire, the Brits were an acquistive lot, and they had expansive tastes, including good stuff. Marbles off the Parthenon? We'll have that. Rosetta stone, we'll have it. (both in the British Museum) Old door, bit of carved wood, fancy sword, nice shawl, we'll have it and stick in the Victoria and Albert.

What they couldn't buy or steal, they took a plaster cast of. That's my favorite part of the Victoria and Albert, the Court of Casts. It's fantastic. They have a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, Trajan's column, entryways from the great cathedrals of Europe, carved doorways from Norwegian stavkirkes. You name it, they took a plaster cast of it and they're all jumbled together in two great rooms. When my brother and I went to Italy and wandered around Rome on our first day, we kind of wondered why we bothered going, what with all the heat and fuss and expense, we'd already seen most of it in the Court of Casts. (We changed our minds later after seeing the Colliseum and the wonderful city of Florence). But as you wander around some of the great museums here, you do get the feeling that you can see all the world in this one great city, London.

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