11 January 2014

And we can stay all day!

Bits of very big dead things, some of which even died of natural causes
The Grant Museum of Zoology, University Street, London, 11th January, 2014
I visited a dead zoo today, my local dead zoo as it happens.

One of the advantages of living in the heart of universityland in London is that the various schools that surround me are quite old, and have the funding to preserve some of their more interesting historical collections. Two such collections are within a hefty stone's-throw away from me, University College London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and the Grant Museum of Zoology. The Petrie is closed for a few weeks while they literally shine a new light on their collection, so finding myself with some time on my hands today I dropped by the Grant to see what's going down in the world of preserved dead things.

I have a soft spot for Natural History Museums, but not the shiny modern ones like the California Academy of Sciences, with an emphasis on explaining things in a nice safe way to kids. Nope, I like my natural history stuffed, mounted or carefully preserved in jars. This has nothing to do with a teenage phase of black-eyeliner and moody haircuts, rather they serve for me as a commentary on how acceptable societal values and norms can change radically over time and evolve beyond recognition.

Um, something inappropriate about his feet not being particularly lucky for him?
The Grant Museum of Zoology, University Street, London, 11th January, 2014
Walking through a Victorian collection like our own Natural History Museum, the astoundingly discomforting Natural History Museum in Venice, or the Grant Museum today, what is on show spliced, diced and preserved behind glass is not a collection of now-extinct animals and other gentlemen's curiosities, rather it is a snapshot of our own culture, carefully preserved in formaldehyde or scrubbed clean to the bone, that stares back at us.

In the 19th Century, natural history meant killing things. To understand the natural world around us, the best thing to do was to grab a large gun, slap on a jaunty helmet, and set off halfway around the world and start shooting. In the 20th Century, we tut-tutted at the barbaric slaughter of the past, and natural history meant swapping the bullets for tranquilliser darts and bringing the critter to us to parade up and down in a concrete pen. So far in the 21st Century we now tut-tut at the cruel confinement of the past, and build bigger and better Experiences to recreate lands far away, our carefully marshalled breeding programs ensure that some species will survive the devastation that Flat World Capitalism has brought to the globe, and if Shamu has to jump through a flaming hoop for the gawking crowd to pay for it all, well that's just the invisible hand of the market working its preserving magic once again.

Yay for Capitalism!

"Oh look, it's a baby kangaroo" said the mother to the toddler beside me, already regretting her visit
The Grant Museum of Zoology, University Street, London, 11th January, 2014
Housed in the Grant, UCL now possesses a private collection that claims 67,000 specimens to Dublin's paltry 10,000, although it is far more pickled and far less stuffed than our own, and has less of the bigger beasties and far more of the minutiae of the animal world. The rapid expansion of the great British Empire was responsible for the development of both, at roughly the same time; the same desire to catalogue all of creation as a way of stamping ownership and the superiority of British civilisation over all that it encountered fuelled both Grant's acquisitions and those of the Royal Dublin Society, whose collection formed the genesis of what now lies on Merrion Street.

The historical relationship between Dublin, indeed Ireland as a whole, and Britain is best imagined as a Mandelbrot set. You begin by looking at something within Ireland that seems big and special, but as you pull back slowly you realise that all along it has just been a copy of something else in Britain, only vastly reduced in scale.

I always wondered what happens to the old version of OSX when you upgrade. Now I know.
The Grant Museum of Zoology, University Street, London, 11th January, 2014
It can be argued that this recursive replication is more pronounced in Dublin, and even more so in the more leafy suburbs of this metropolitan heart of the Pale, but it leaches out throughout the urban environment of the entire country. Our main streets are nearly indistinguishable from UK high streets, British television and newspapers dominate our media consumption, their football teams command a following more loyal in Ireland than our own, long has rugby been assimilated in to our national psyche and now cricket is the talk of the town. The urban/rural divide has long been shorthand in Ireland for West Brit/Real Irish, but today it is harder and harder to see where the dividing line between the Pale and Beyond actually lies.

I have no time for nationalism of any shape or form, whether expressed through the right-wing thuggery of the uneducated or the tribal rivalry of the sporting classes, yet it saddened me when I realised just how easy the move to London was, for me there was no jarring cultural dissonance, no feeling of being the outsider, no overwhelming sense of the unfamiliar. If anything, the opposite was true.

We have been, and continue to be, a fractal representation of our neighbour to the East, at first by force and now by choice, another roaring triumph for Flat World Capitalism.

A jar of moles. This has now replaced the phrase "can of worms" in my daily lexicon.
The Grant Museum of Zoology, University Street, London, 11th January, 2014
Odd thoughts to have while staring back at the bifurcated head of a long dead rabbit, but with The Gathering just behind us and our nation sold abroad as the land of perpetual Arthur's Day, it seemed to me that the Natural History Museum was the perfect resting place for whatever sense of cultural uniqueness we claimed to have, stuffed and mounted, pickled and preserved behind walls of smudged glass, as dead as the Dodo, Tasmanian Tiger or the Quagga, a remade memory of what once was, useful now only to draw in the visitors eager to gawk at the lost exotic.

There was also a jar of moles, and that was pretty cool.

Links
More pics can be seen here.

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2 Comments:

At 12:27 pm, Blogger arjedre said...

Oooh, oooh - I want to adopt bits in jars! How do I adopt bits in jars?

 
At 3:20 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

While in theory you too can adopt a pickled Beluga whale foetus from as little as $20 a year, however all the cool stuff may have already been taken.

There is still a preserved dog brain with eyeball attached, a green iguana preserved in fluid, or a box of bivalves - just what every child wants to find under the Festivus Pole.

Check out the full list of available goodies here.

 

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