Monday, September 13, 2010

The hall of the flat beasts


As long time readers here will know, the Natural History Museum in London has a special place in my heart. For a year (1968-69) I lived next door and that great Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road, with its endless corridors and nooks and crannies, with free admission, was a constant playground for me and my young family.

Things have changed a bit since then. The place has leapt ahead into the 21st century. Animatronic dinosaurs now stalk galleries once given over to musty stuffed animals. I suppose the changes are all to the good, but a museum visit is now more akin to a Disneyesque theme park experience than to a expedition with Humboldt into the wilds of the Orinoco.

But the last time I was there, one thing hadn't changed: the galley of the ichthyosaurs. They are still swimming from left to right, as they were dug out of the rocks by Mary Anning and her 19th-century contemporaries. One ichthyosaur specimen contains six unborn young inside its body, and another has three unborn young with the almost perfect impression of a fourth being born tail first just as the mother died. A specimen from Anning's Lyme Regis has bits of another ichthyosaur between its teeth, part of the creature’s last meal. To move along the gallery from specimen to specimen is like being taken back two hundred million years to vanished seas teeming with Loch Ness monsters -- eating, being eaten, mating, bearing young.

Today, in an adjacent room, an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex does its best at roaring a welcome, no doubt to the delight of visitors. Me -- I chose to sit with the flat, unanimated ichthyosaurs and imagine that I was with Mary Anning as she clambered the cliffs at Lyme Regis in her voluminous skirts, challenging the all-male geological establishment to recognize the significance of her finds -- finds that confirmed the yawning chasm of geological time.