HER eyes wide as saucers, the little girl stands rooted on the spot, unable to steer her eyes away from the gigantic creature looming high above her. She doesn’t even hear the noisy bustle of her peers around her as they jostle for a better view of the 26-metre-long skeleton with the long neck and whip-like tail holding court in the cathedral-like central hall of the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London.
“Say hi to Dippy the Diplodocus everyone,” the teacher’s chirpy voice slices above the excited din.
“D-i-p-p-y...” the little girl repeats the name under her breath, her eyes never once leaving the magnificent sauropod (a subgroup of the saurischian, or ‘lizard-hipped’ dinosaur). “Come along everybody, there’s a lot more to see,” coaxes the teacher as she attempts to gather her pupils to form a single orderly line.
“Come on! They’re moving already!” The little girl feels a little tug on one of her braids. It’s her best friend who obviously doesn’t intend to be left behind in the vast hall. Reluctantly, the little girl acquiesces, but not before throwing a final look at Dippy the Diplodocus, and imprinting the image forever in her memory bank.
Dippy was her first sight of a dinosaur beyond her picture books and the Natural History Museum, a masterpiece of Victorian gothic revival architecture, was the first time she ever set foot in a museum. That school trip experience was to leave a lasting impression and inspire her passion for museums into her adulthood. Meanwhile, London’s Natural History Museum remains her favourite museum.
When news broke last year that the 292 plaster-cast bones that make up England’s most famous diplodocus were to be taken apart and packed up to make way for the (real) 25-metre skeleton of a young blue whale who died in 1891 on an Irish beach, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Yes, I was that little girl. After more than 110 years of captivating visitors in the cavernous central hall (now Hintze Hall), Dippy was to go “the way of the dinosaurs”.
TREASURES ON SHOWCASE
“The Natural History Museum in the UK has been referred to as the Cathedral to Nature. It holds a collection of more than 80 million things from across the solar system, from the beginning of time right up to the present day. It’s the second largest single science museum collection in the world after the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.” the words of Jim Broughton, head of International Engagement for London’s Natural History Museum ring loud and proud.
One half of his face dancing with an image of London’s Natural History Museum’s towering facade that’s being projected on the screen behind him, Broughton is in his element as “co-tour guide”, giving a sneak peek to Singapore’s ArtScience Museum’s latest exhibition, Treasures of the Natural World, which opened to the public recently. He’s joined by the ArtScience Museum’s executive director, Honor Harger.
The exhibition showcases over 200 of the “star” objects from the world-renowned Natural History Museum. Showing in Southeast Asia for the first time, these unique treasures have been handpicked from over 80 million specimens, representing the best of the museum’s collection.
“Oh my god, that’s Dippy!” I exclaim as the camera pans to a familiar image. Transfixed, I’m suddenly transported back in time. and to that familiar wave of nostalgia. Well, Dippy may have gone but my favourite museum in London has gone on to become an even larger draw, welcoming slightly over five million visitors through its doors every year, as it continues to move with the times to stay relevant.
And today, some of the extraordinary items housed in its galleries, from animals and insects, works of art, gems and minerals, and books and artefacts belonging to some of the world’s renowned scientists, are here for us in Southeast Asia to also have the opportunity to see for ourselves the objects that fired the imaginations of scientific pioneers.
“The treasures we’re showing hold the keys to unlocking the potential of the future through the mysteries of the past,” New Zealand-born Honor Harger’s thickly-accented voice suddenly floats in the darkness as she beckons us to follow her and Broughton into the museum’s inner sanctum where we will journey through five themed galleries and go back in time through the centuries — from the Enlightenment, to the 18th century, right to the present day.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
“We’ve been working with Jim and his team on this exhibition for nearly three years,’ begins Harger, during a roundtable session with the media after the tour. “Many parties have been involved, from researchers, curators, registrars, conservators, designers, educators, technicians and project managers.”
Three years, chips in the bespectacled Broughton, isn’t actually very long to put together an exhibition of this scale. “We started off by firstly considering what it is that we want to achieve. Then we asked ourselves what is the story that we want to tell and how can that story best be served by the collections that we have at our disposal.”
Continuing, he adds: “We’re fortunate at the Natural History Museum to be custodians of a vast resource of materials gathered by generations of great enquiring minds. Some of their stories are told in this exhibition here.”
Around a year to 18 months before any object is to travel, the team needs to assess whether the objects selected would be able to cope with the rigours of international travel. It’s also important to ensure that they’d be able to enjoy the right environmental and security conditions.
The next step involves eliminating objects on their wish list which can’t travel for various reasons. Continues Broughton: “Once that’s done, we move to the next part, which involves, among other things, loans between the two museums, approval by our trustees, etc. Bringing objects overseas involves many parties, from conservators, curators, to art handling shipping companies. When the collections were installed here, nine specialist object handlers from the Natural History Museum worked with specialists here. It’s very much a collaborative effort.”
ROMANCE OF THE MUSEUM
The stories that are being told here are not just about the past, says Broughton, his expression earnest. “Through studying the changes that the natural world has undergone over time, we can understand the present and of course, with increasing confidence, predict the possible future. And through that knowledge, we can help the global community make wise collective choices in what we don’t want the future to be.”
The father of two, who began his career as a designer, having studied sculpture at art school, has always had a love affair with museums since childhood. “The first museum I stepped foot in was my local museum in Norfolk. Today, it’s one of the UK’s great regional museums. It has a very comprehensive natural history collection and a powerful art collection.”
The museum, adds Broughton, chuckling, was housed in a huge medieval castle. “So to a small boy it was an amazing place to run around. That’s how I fell in love with museums from an early age.”
Nodding enthusiastically, Harger chips in, recalling the trips her family used to make to their local museum, the Otago Museum. “I must have been a baby when I was first taken there! To this day I can still remember seeing my first Moa (large flightless bird endemic to New Zealand, now extinct), the first taxidermy Kiwi!”
Continuing, Harger shares that although her hometown of Dunedin was just a small town, it had an exceptional local museum in the Otago Museum, which housed an incredible natural art history collection, and a wonderful art gallery called Dunedin Public Art Gallery. “I also distinctly remember the time I first visited our art gallery and saw our one Monet for the first time. I was 6 and encountering that art work left a lasting impression on me.”
Smiling, Broughton offers: “I was 6 when I first went to London’s Natural History Museum with my parents. It was a very powerful experience to step into that building for the first time. I remember Dippy the Diplodocus had been moved into the central hall by then.”
As the minutes tick and questions begin to run dry, a single thought fills my mind: That somehow, in this corporate meeting room, three total strangers are bound by a common “history” — a childhood romance of the museums.
Late Cambrian Period, around 487 million years old.
Trilobites thrived in the shallow oceans in prehistoric times, but this group of giants met rather a grisly end. Scientists think they suffocated during a mass mating event, which, if correct, would give us a fascinating insight into how these trilobites behaved. It may sound unusual to pile up together to spawn, but this is exactly the same behaviour exhibited today by their living relative — the horseshoe crab.
Gemstones are worn by some people for luck — but not this amethyst. Its owner, Edward Heron Allen, believed it was cursed and kept the stone locked inside a series of seven protective boxes. He tried to throw it away into a canal, but someone returned it. Later he donated the gem to the Natural History Museum, along with a letter warning that it was “trebly accursed, and is stained with the blood and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it”.
Giant Ground Sloth, Argentina
Pleistocene Period, 12,000 years old
For a predator to bring down a giant sloth was a feat of epic proportions. Its hide was thicker than an elephant’s, and adults weighed about 1,500 kilogrammes. These giant mammals grazed on plants and lived in open habitats in the temperate regions of South America until about 12,000 years ago.
Page from John James Audubon’s book, The Birds of America.
The life’s work of both a lover and observer of birds and nature, John James Audubon’s Birds of America is a portal into the natural world. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-sized watercolours of North American birds (Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.
Gomphothere upper molar, Norwich Crag, Norfolk, UK
Pleistocene Period, 2.5 — 2 million years old
Part of William Smith’s personal collection, this tooth is from Anancus, an extinct genus of gomphothere distantly related to the elephant. Smith was the first in Britain to illustrate this species, or as he called it, “an extinct monstrous animal”.
Henry Walter Bates’ Journal
Naturalist Henry Walter Bates travelled to the Amazon with Alfred Russell Wallace in 1848. During his epic five-year expedition, he kept meticulous records of the insects of the Amazon valley, and his butterfly studies led him to write the first scientific account of animal mimicry. His writings in this field journal provided the basis for his bestseller, Naturalists on the River Amazons, published in 1863.
Treasures of the Natural World Exhibition
WHERE ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
WHEN Until April 29, 2018
Birth of the Natural History Museum
DRIVEN by curiosity and a personal passion to understand the world around him, Sir Hans Sloane, Anglo-Irish physician, naturalist and collector, amassed an impressive and vast private collection that included over 400,000 natural history specimens. Following his death in 1753, this very collection formed the basis of the British Museum.
There, the ever expanding natural history collection began to outgrow its home. Superintendent of the collection and eminent scientist Sir Richard Owen campaigned for the collection to have its own museum. In 1881, the Natural History Museum opened its doors to the public.