Posted by: Natalie | August 11, 2011

The Church of Darwin

Darwin watching over the Natural History Museum

There are some parts of my degree I feel I wasted. One chosen unit in particular I remember being rather excited about, Enlightenment and Romanticism in nineteenth century Europe. The course details mapped out an incredible journey covering Darwin’s great evolutionary theories and travels to the Galapagos Islands, Literature of Swift and Shelley and Keats, and art of the Romantics such as Turner. It was meant to be THE unit of work for me encompassing all my favourite areas of learning and hobby. But I can tell you very little of it now – at the time I learnt nothing, such is the power of appalling teaching. I know I received a decent grade for the unit but I have absolutely no recollection of what my essays or exams contained, nor any detail from reading On The Origin of Speciesa thorough mental blank. Waste.

Yet I maintain this was not my fault. All I do remember was a tiny lecturer, spectacled and balding, constantly in tweed with a remarkable array of leather elbow patches. His room in which we were crammed for seminars was piled high with dusty, yellowing papers and in a corner was a disturbingly stained green sofa. Bedding tucked down the side told tales of his late night researching, for this is what he truly was; a true, blue academic, ridiculously knowledgeable, highly intelligent but completely lacking in those necessary communication skills a good lecturer needs. In contrast, my favourite lecturer was so into the teaching element of his profession that he was forced to take a sabbatical in order to justify the spent advances for three unwritten books! I suppose the balance between writing and teaching is something a lot of people find difficult to achieve! As for the Enlightenment guy, I couldn’t image anyone less suited to lecture in something so revolutionary and creative – I could see him quite happily dusting down bones for Darwin’s displays, or pouring over tomes on Roman history, but not this. The incoherent mole was hardly inspiring. Our seminars, although meant to be an open discussion group, were sat in silence as the eight students around the table switched off to the monotone lecturing from one side.

It has always been a regret that I didn’t try harder to listen through the incomprehensible waffle and find my own path. I am still interested in knowing more about these areas, so at least he didn’t kill off my interest entirely. Programmes on Darwin, art shows and obviously reading all feature still, even if only in sporadic bites. But had I been to the Natural History Museum around the time of this ‘learning’, I know I would have found a way through all the waffle. I would have had my hook. Because to look at the main hall of the museum in London is to look upon Darwin’s Cathedral, to have your breath snatched away in the grandeur and splendour of a building totally devoted to the organic world and the constant pursuit of knowledge.

I simply could not stop staring upwards at all the stone work of this purpose built museum – carved stone monkey’s and apes climbed the inside of the main hall, saluting Darwin and his revolutionary theories. Darwin himself sits at the head of the hall below a vaulted church-like ceiling , looking down the stairs on not only people who come to engage with the learning of the natural world but also on a full copy skeleton of a Sauropod. Other rooms have carved stone images and woodwork which depict the evolving life under water, in the sky and of plants. Utterly incredible and such an amazing testament to a man, who was just a man, but in the land of evolution proved to me much greater.

Just one of the many hundreds of creatures carved into the museum's walls.

This, believe it or not, is a sloth! A giant one. Extinct now.

The whole place was by far the best museum experience I have ever had. The dinosaur and mammal exhibits displaying full size skeletons are absolutely incredible. But that is not all. For children in particular there are many interactive displays and actually interesting educational features on all aspects of our natural world including space, volcanoes and earth quakes, insects and crawly things etc. It is a completely remarkable place and most shockingly, absolutely free! Mind blowing. I only wish I had visited years ago. I will most certainly be visiting time and time again. Just shows that adults need the same kind of learning as children – something that catches their imagination and passion, not dampening with heavy weights of dust and words.


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