A day trip to London & The Natural History Museum

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Yesterday I took myself down to London for the day. I wanted to go in January, but couldn’t find any cheap train tickets in the new year and didn’t want to pay full fare. Then the pandemic hit, and so September was my first opportunity to go. London is very quiet at the moment. The roads are busy as a lot of people are driving rather than taking public transport, and some people are venturing back to work, but it’s much quieter than usual. International tourism is pretty much shuttered at the moment, which meant that the parts of Central London that are usually tourist hotspots are peaceful for once.

My family lived in Hertfordshire when I was a teenager and so I used to spend a lot of time in London at rock, punk and hardcore shows. Since I moved up to Birmingham sixteen years ago, I only go to London a handful of times a year now. Mostly it’s to go to a show – there are some bands who only do one UK date and invariably that’s in London – or very occasionally the theatre, or to watch athletics with Ed. My family and Ed’s family no longer live in the South East, so I feel like a bit of a tourist myself when I’m down, even though I know the streets well and can navigate most of Central London north of the river by foot without a map.

For this trip I was particularly keen to go to the Natural History Museum as I hadn’t been before. I visited the stuffed animal museum in Tring on a school trip when I was ten – now renamed ‘NHM at Tring’ from ‘Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum’, though I think ‘Tring Stuffed Animal Museum’ is more accurate – but I’ve never been to the main London site.

Most of all, I wanted to see the building and the whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the Hintze Hall. I’m not interested in taxidermy. I’m vegan for animal welfare reasons, so it’s no surprise that I object to taxidermy. I remember coming away from the Tring museum in tears after seeing all the animals staring out of the display cabinets at me with their glassy eyes. My parents or the school, I can’t remember which, tried to mollify me by saying that the animals had died naturally, after peaceful and happy lives, but even ten year old me could smell bullshit on that one. For some reason I thought that there wouldn’t be as much taxidermy in London because the Tring museum is so full of it, but I was mistaken.

I understand that part of the NHM’s work is to document how humans have interacted with, understood and researched the ‘natural’ or physical world through the years. I use inverted commas because ‘natural’ is not absolute, and the physical world can never be free from human interaction and interference. I find the taxidermy problematic though. I think that the NHM could do more to put taxidermy in its historical context and to explain that in some instances it went hand in hand with trophy hunting and drove certain species to extinction. Victorians loved their collections, from ferns to orchids, to the beautiful tropical birds strung up from the ceiling at the NHM. The best way to bring a living, breathing, sentient being home from far flung corners of the former British Empire so that you can gaze upon its beauty and show it off to your friends? Shoot it and stuff it. All under the honourable umbrella of ‘research’, ‘science’, and sometimes even ‘art’.

Seeing modern crowds gazing into glass cabinets in awe disgusts me, because I don’t think it’s right to celebrate a practice which treated non-human life with such utter contempt. The NHM – all natural history museums, life science museums and zoological collections for that matter – purport to be concerned with conservation and protecting the ‘natural’ world, and yet their displays and collections – and I mean collection with its direct meaning as a gathering of items – include taxidermy. Don’t even get me started on the language of taxidermy. ‘Collected’ is often used euphemistically to describe the moment when an animal is selected and prepared for taxidermy, but ‘murdered’, ‘slaughtered’, or ‘killed’ would be more apt.

Taxidermy and my views on animal welfare and animal rights aside, I did enjoy my trip to the museum. I loved seeing the dinosaur bones, the rocks, the gemstone exhibits, the rare pigments, and the interactive displays on volcanos and earthquakes. Despite my misgivings and veganism, I also found the whale skeleton interesting and very impressive in scale and presence. The whale came to be in the museum’s possession after becoming stranded in a harbour in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Because the technology didn’t exist back then to refloat it and set it free – or perhaps if I’m being more cynical because the townspeople didn’t see the point in going to the effort of doing so – the whale was primitively euthanised. The bones have been at the museum for years, but were only put on display in 2017 when Dippy retired and went on tour, leaving a spot in the Hintze Hall to fill.

I know it’s built for children, but I also enjoyed the theme park like escalator through a model volcano. Most of all, I was amazed by the building. It’s beautiful. The Victorians were sick and twisted in many ways, but they knew how to design and build to impress.

The beautiful stained glass windows in the main hall
Details above the main entrance at the Natural History Museum

After visiting the museum, I walked back across Hyde Park and over to Covent Garden and Bloomsbury. Covent Garden was very quiet as the theatres and many of the restaurants and businesses that rely on tourist footfall were closed. I spent some time looking for the piano score for the Sgambati arrangement of Gluck’s melody from Orfeo ed Euridice on Denmark Street, to no avail, and then wandered over to Oxfam Books on Bloomsbury Street to see what books they had in. I came away with lightly read copies of ‘Noontime in Yenişehir’ by Sevgi Soysal and ‘We Are The End’ by Gonzalo C Garcia. All in all, it was a good day. I feel like I’ve recharged my batteries, so if everything shuts down again at least I’ve had a couple of late summer adventures.

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