Saturday, 22 March 2014

An evolving gem of Paris

The last couple of times I wrote about museums on this blog (here and here), I was at least somewhat critical.  So I'm pleased to report a really positive museum visit.

The Jardin des Plantes is one of the more popular visitor attractions in Paris, especially on a lovely spring day (like last Sunday, when I was there).  It's been a centre for the study of botany since the 17th century, but it was under the stewardship of the Comte de Buffon (from 1739 until his death in 1788) that it grew into the archetypal complex of Enlightenment science.

Plan of the Jardin des Plantes,
from Baedeker's 1910 guide to Paris
As the pictures on the left show, it's changed little since his time.  Alongside the botanic garden are museums of botany, geology, palaeontology, and of the history of the site, and a growing zoo.  And the Grande Galerie de l'Évolution.

Map board from the Jardin des Plantes
Although the name suggests a museum solely about evolution, it has a much broader scope, closer to London's Natural History Museum.  (Confusingly for someone used to the NHM, the French Muséum national d'histoire naturelle refers to a whole collection of places, including the entire Jardin des Plantes site and all the museums mentioned above, as well as several other museums, gardens and zoos within and without Paris.)

The Grande Galerie was inaugurated in July 1889, just a few weeks after the Eiffel Tower, during the Exposition Universelle.  Originally called the Museum of Zoology, it was designed to provide a more spacious setting for the old Cabinet of Natural History, which itself had replaced the old royal Cabinet of Curiosities after the Revolution, and which occupied the small building now dedicated to the history of the Jardin.  The new building was a strong statement of commitment to the advancing science of zoology, and remains a hugely impressive space today: a gigantic open hall overlooked by three levels of arcaded balconies.

The Grande Galerie (re)opened with its current name in 1994, after a major refurbishment following decades of neglect and closure.  And it is well worth a visit.

It makes great use of that gallery space with a parade of taxidermied animals, as if filing off Noah's ark (though in many cases there are more than two gorgeous examples of a species).  This is surrounded by skeletons of whales, astounding arrays of butterflies, creepy specimens in blue glass jars... You name it.

Animation with some recognisable figures.
But what I like about this museum is that it draws you in with the big spectacle - the amazing richness and diversity of the natural world - and then when it's got your attention, it has the time and space to present many different approaches to the study of that incredible subject matter.

So there's a section dedicated to the history of zoology (slightly tucked away at the top of the building, but never mind) with explanations of the development of scientific theories alongside specimens associated with important figures like Lamarck, Cuvier and Darwin.

Some tools of the taxidermist's trade
There's a case dedicated to explaining taxidermy.  And there are changing displays for children - when we were there, one focused on the biology, history, mythology and conservation of the narwhal.

Zoologists might find something to criticise here: there's little scientific explanation of how animals come to be the way they are, and not too much about the relationships between them (genetic or in terms of diet/habitat).  And if you want fossils, you'll have to go across the Jardin to the Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie.  In fact, now that I think about it, Grande Galerie de l'Évolution is rather a silly name for what is an old-fashioned museum of zoology.  But for that old-fashioned zoological spectacle, which nonetheless leads you off in various thoughtful and occasionally unexpected directions, I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

London Marathon in a Gherkin costume

Go Gherkin!
What can you make when you've finished your equatorium?  Easy: a model of a famous building to use as a marathon costume!

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a reduced frequency of posts, and none at all where I'm making things, during the last few months.  That's because most of my creative energies have gone into making this 8-foot Gherkin costume.

I'll be running the London Marathon in it.  I'm doing this to raise funds for The Cure Parkinson's Trust - a charity which works to support research into this horrible condition.

Confused?  Check out  There I've explained why I'm running in aid of Parkinson's research, and why I chose to run as the Gherkin.  You can also see pictures of the costume under construction, and find out more about the marathon challenge (I'm hoping to run it in 3:15-3:30, despite the costume's weight (5 kg) and wind resistance!

If you'd like to sponsor me and support Parkinson's research, please go to  But not before you've watched the video below.  Whether you find it motivational or just plain ridiculous, I hope you enjoy it - and if you do, please share it!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Navigating Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Do you like to be told what a museum's all about, or would you rather make your own links between exhibits and draw your own conclusions?  Do you like to make your own way round a museum, or would you rather be directed on a set course?  And how closely involved should museums be with private companies, and their inevitable PR agendas?  These questions have been on my mind this week, after a visit to the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

I am a keen sailor and have long been interested in maritime history, so when I visited Aberdeen this week (to examine a manuscript in the sparkling new Sir Duncan Rice Library), the Maritime Museum was #1 on my list of attractions.  Fortunately I had a couple of hours spare before my train home, so I checked it out.

Two-thirds of the Museum: the church and Link Building
The Museum (re-)opened - after a massive expansion - in 1997, and occupies three connected buildings: Provost Ross' House, built in 1593; the 19th-century Trinity Congregational Church; and a purpose-built steel and glass "Link Building" between the two.  It spreads over 4 floors.  There are two entrances (on the ground floor at the front of the building, and on the first floor at the back) and the building has two separate sets of stairs.  So visitors can take hugely varying routes around the museum.

Faced with the impossibility of imposing a single linear visit on museum-goers, the designers clearly decided to make flexibility a feature of the museum.  They couldn't impose a route on visitors, so they didn't.  Neither did they impose any chronology, or any overarching interpretation.  The museum is structured thematically, with different sections on the maritime industries in which Aberdeen has been involved: shipbuilding; trade; fishing; oil.  Although individual objects have descriptive labels, there are none of the boards that one often finds in each room, giving an overall explanation or introduction to the room.

"Introductory display", First Level
The result of all this was that (ironically for a maritime museum) it was very difficult to navigate.  The First Level galleries, which on the Museum map promised "an introduction to Aberdeen's maritime heritage", provided no such thing.  The "Introductory Display" contained a selection of maritime objects, each adequately described by its own label, but with nothing linking them together.  (It didn't help that there was a good deal of reflection on the curved glass of the display, making the labels hard to read.)

What was I looking for?  Well, two things really: clearer chronology, and a stronger narrative.  Of course chronology is coming strongly back into fashion, not only in history teaching (I've blogged about that before), but also in museum design - most famously at Tate Britain, which has rehung all its paintings in strict chronological order, receiving mixed reviews.  So I'm wary of being a fashion victim... but I really think a clearer, chronologically straightforward narrative of Aberdeen's changing relationship with the sea would have improved the museum.  For example, the exhibit of the early history of the port (from pre-history up to its expansion in the 19th century) was hidden away right in the back corner of the top floor, and it took up comparatively little space.

Murchison oil platform model
By contrast, filling the museum were the exhibits dedicated to the oil industry.  These were certainly very striking, particularly the 8-metre model of the Murchison oil platform, but they did make the overall visit experience rather unbalanced.

The museum was quite open about its partnership with oil companies, but I was a little uneasy about this.  One exhibit that certainly didn't lack a clear narrative was the 3D movie about life on an oil platform: it can only be described as a propaganda video.  It was 100% financed by the TAQA Bratani oil company; needless to say, it emphasised the safety and environmental responsibility of the industry, as well as its care for the wellbeing of its workers.  Yet on the floor above was a smaller exhibit dedicated to the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 people (including 165 out of 226 people stationed on that oil platform) died.  Reading about that wholly preventable disaster, and the criticisms made of the platform operator Occidental Petroleum, provided a timely reminder that the assurances of large companies should perhaps not be accepted uncritically.

Of course, there were several parts of the museum I did enjoy.  Perhaps the best parts, in my view, were those about the fishing industry, and how it's changed over the centuries.  It's probably not coincidental that these were the exhibits that provided the clearest narrative.  Should I have grown out of this need to have my hand held?  Maybe, but I guess I just like a good story.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Scholar as Craftsman: Notes and Records article

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any, I should apologise to them for my long silence) will be familiar with the story of King Arthur's Table.  You won't need me to remind you how I was lucky enough to discover this forgotten object in the stores of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and then spent much of 2013 investigating its biography.

You'll already know, I'm sure, that the story takes in Sir Lawrence Bragg, the Cavendish Laboratory and its workshops.  You'll be aware that the hero of this story, Derek de Solla Price, was a complex character who came to Cambridge more or less on a whim, discovered a manuscript (possibly) by Chaucer in the library at Peterhouse, and thereby launched his career as a superstar historian of science.  My research into Price and his work took me from Cambridge to Chicago, visiting many archives and museums in between (and getting lots of help from Price's lovely family).

Why am I reminding you of all this?  Because my article telling this story has just been published by Notes and Records, the Royal Society's journal for the history of science.  It will be printed in the journal in June, but before then it is completely free to read and download online.  Just click here and read all about it!

And of course don't forget to come back here and leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Penguins Might Fly

  • Can an object be artistic and scientific at the same time?  
  • Can art have a place in science museums?  
  • Why do museum object labels matter?
These questions are the subject of this post, which was prompted by a visit I made recently to the Bell Pettigrew Museum at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland.

The Bell Pettigrew is the University's zoology museum: "a rare survival of a Victorian teaching museum, and wonderfully atmospheric", according to their website.  It's a small, attractively laid-out place, well worth an hour or so of your time.  But I was surprised to find, among the usual bones, some paintings.  This is the first one I saw, in the case dedicated to flightless birds:

The collage-painting depicts a moa, an animal that has been extinct for more than five hundred years.  Here's what the label underneath says:
Male moa (Dinornis giganteus) in breeding plumage (left) guarding its harem of foraging females in the dense subtropical forests of the Oparara Valley
Paul Bartlett
Now, I have no idea how much is known about the breeding plumage, foraging habits or mating practices of this animal, which was wiped out over 300 years before the arrival of European settlers in New Zealand.*  What I am interested in is the authority of the museum label underneath the artist's impression.

In the nearby Penguin case, there's another picture by the same artist.  You shouldn't have any trouble reading the label this time:

The penguins look rather like they're flying (perhaps they're imagining that they are).  But despite the clear impressionism (small-I and big-I) of this painting, I didn't feel the same discomfort as when I saw the moas.  Why not?  It must have been the label.  The first label, with its impressive Latin binomial nomenclature and technical-sounding words like "breeding plumage" and "foraging females", adopts the authoritative tone of a museum curator.  The second is an incomplete sentence: not at all surprising for the title of a work of art, but obviously not sufficient as the label for a museum object.

The obvious questions are: Who is the artist?  What is his level of expertise?  Fortunately the Penguin case also included a brief biography.  Paul Bartlett studied for a PhD in animal behaviour at St Andrews, before becoming a full-time artist.  According to the biography, "he continually strives to find innovative techniques and styles in which to depict his subjects whilst retaining an element of authenticity."

I found this reassuring and, at the same time, worrying.  The artist whose work is displayed in this museum of zoology clearly has both the expertise and the desire to create authentic depictions of animals in their natural habitat, something that may potentially augment the enjoyment and learning opportunities of museum visitors.  But what does "an element of authenticity" mean?

There's also an obvious difference between painting animals that can be seen in countless videos and photographs, and those that are extinct.  For the latter, artistic licence must surely be tempered by a sense of responsibility.  I was reminded of the paintings of Édouard Riou, the young Frenchman who illustrated Louis Figuier's La Terre avant le déluge (1863).  For this monumental work of popular natural history, Figuier commissioned Riou to produce some attractive engravings.  Riou responded with some hugely vivid but also hugely imaginative works of art, like this one.    

Iguanadon and Megalosaur enjoy mutual chomping
La Terre avant le déluge was an instant bestseller, shifting 25,000 copies in the first two years.  Riou went on to work as an illustrator for Jules Verne.  And his illustrations had a huge effect on the way dinosaurs were - and are - imagined (don't forget, no human ever saw a living dinosaur, but we like to think we have a pretty good idea about how they might have behaved).

In the Bell Pettigrew, it's fairly clear that the moa pictured are extinct (though it might have been helpful to include that on the label).  And we can probably be sure that, despite what appears in the collage, its breeding plumage didn't incorporate printed text.  But it does make you wonder about the authority of museum labels.

I'm not arguing that we should go back to having unlabelled, uninterpreted, unconnected skeletons lined up in cases.  But I'm not sure there's a place for artistic licence in zoology museums either.

*I will note that, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, only "two species of Dinornis are considered valid, D. novaezealandiae of the North Island, and D. robustus of the South."  Another website, the excitingly-named, states that D. giganteus and D. robustus are the same thing - two birds that were long considered separate species have recently been identified as males and females of the same species.  But according to, "Dinornis giganteus lived in the North Island of New Zealand and D. robustis in the South Island ... The species Dinornis giganteus and Dinornis struthoides are now placed in the synonymy of Dinornis novaezealandiae."

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Terror and Trabants in Berlin

What makes a memorable museum experience?  As I've worked and researched in museums this year, I've thought a lot about that.  And I thought about it again this week while visiting two very different museums in Berlin.

First, a confession: I'm not a good museum-goer.  My attention span is limited, I like variety, and even if I read information panels diligently, I don't always absorb the information they contain.  But you know something?  I'm not the only one!  Studies of museum visitors show they pass over most interpretive labels without reading them, and rarely follow the paths exhibition designers have mapped out for them.  When was the last time you went through a museum from beginning to end, giving every object and its label your full attention?

While in Berlin at the weekend I visited two museums that addressed different bits of Germany's recent history: The Topography of Terror and The DDR Museum.  The former, located on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, focuses on many aspects of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.  The latter tells the story of life in Communist East Germany from 1945 to 1990.  They each have a difficult story to tell, and do so in radically different ways.

"A Ribbon of Panels"
Permanent exhibition, Topography of Terror
In many ways the Topography of Terror takes a traditional approach.  It is laid out broadly chronologically, with descriptive, illustrated information panels hanging from the ceiling.  Where possible it uses primary sources, and some individual human stories, to draw the visitor into the story it is telling.  There are many scanned documents and photographs on display.

But there's something missing.  This is a museum - where are the objects?  Almost everything in the permanent exhibition - apart from a few audio and video recordings - would have been just the same in a well-illustrated book, such as the one on sale at the museum.

I have taught this topic to various ages of school students, and there was little new for a visitor like me: no attempt to tell a familiar story in striking or thought-provoking ways.  But for someone less familiar with Nazism there was the potential for confusion, as the chronology was unexpectedly broken in places by the Museum's separate presentation of the various institutions of Nazi state terror.  So individual events like Kristallnacht were mentioned or partially explained in two or three separate places, as the roles of overlapping institutions like the SS, SD and various police forces were described.

"A Hands-on Experience of History"
Articles from the Communist coming-of-age ceremony
The DDR Museum was completely different.  Billing itself as "Berlin's interactive museum", it openly aims to draw visitors into the experience of life in the old Communist Bloc.  So as well as reading about it, you can sit in an old cotton-plastic Trabant car, watch propaganda films, try your hand at the decision-making process involved in running a factory, and feel the difference between the Party-approved but poorly-dyed Boxer jeans and the highly subversive Levi's.  There's also a restaurant serving authentic cuisine from behind the Iron Curtain.

Stylish products of a socialist utopia
Now, it goes without saying that it's harder to present a museum about the Nazis in an interactive way.  And the DDR Museum could be accused of making life under Communism seem more bearable, even fun, than it really was.  But with its varied, multisensory approach, it certainly made the learning process more interactive.  And it was more thought-provoking as a result.  Even cheap tricks like hiding information in drawers or cupboards that you have to open, like the clothing catalogue shown here, make you look more closely at them.

words + (horrific) pictures -- is there another way?
Did the Topography of Terror eschew such imaginative presentation because it is dealing with a serious subject that needs to be presented in a straightforward manner?  The first point to make is that their simple, words + pictures presentation is not inherently more objective - the information has been selected and the descriptions written by the museum curators to present a particular picture.  You could even say that it's dishonest to hide this subjective selection process from museum visitors.

I'm tempted to suggest that the weight of the subject matter allowed the curators of the Topography of Terror to be rather lazy in their exhibition design.  It's as if they thought: this is important - people should have to work to learn about it.

But that's not why I go to museums.  I don't always expect to have fun - certainly not in a museum called "The Topography of Terror", but I do expect some originality and freshness of presentation.  I want to have an experience, to feel something.  If you want to find out about Nazi terror, read Richard J. Evans' three-part general history, Robert Gellately's groundbreaking work on the Gestapo, or Victor Klemperer's moving diaries of life as a Jew in Dresden.  Best of all, watch the BBC documentary The Nazis: A Warning From History - you will certainly feel plenty as you are gripped by its chilling interviews with victims, witnesses and perpetrators of Nazi atrocities.

Tasteful decor... reliable news... those were the days.
On the other hand, if you want to experience a glimpse of life in the old GDR, I strongly recommend the DDR Museum.  I can't speak for the quality or authenticity of the Jägerschnitzel in their restaurant, but it is an excellent learning experience.

What do you think?  What kind of presentation styles do you like in museums?  How long is your ideal museum visit?  Feel free to comment!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Stars Without Streetlights

I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what it must have been like for a medieval astronomer to use an astrolabe.  It's tricky.  Apart from all the things we might not know, like precisely who used them and why, there's another major problem: light pollution.  Even in a small city like Cambridge the street lights blot out all but the brightest stars.

Which is why I was blown away when I saw this picture:

New York 40° 42’ 16’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 3:40

It is by French artist Thierry Cohen.  Here's what his website says about his work:
He photographs the world’s major cities, seeking out views that resonate for him and noting the precise time, angle, and latitude and longitude of his exposure.  As the world rotates around its axis the stars that would have been visible above a particular city move to deserts, plains, and other places free of light pollution.  By noting the precise latitude and angle of his cityscape, Cohen is able to track the earth’s rotation to places of atmospheric clarity like the Mojave, the Sahara, and the Atacama desert.  There he sets up his camera to record what is lost to modern urban dwellers.

Compositing the two images, Cohen creates a single new image full of resonance and nuance.  The work is both political and spiritual questioning not only what we are doing to the planet but drawing unexpected connections between disparate locations. Equally importantly it asks: what do we miss by obscuring the visibility of stars?  As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, there is a disjunction with the natural world which both Cohen and science posit causes both physical and psychological harm.  Cities that never sleep are made up of millions of individuals breaking natural cycles of work and repose. Cohen’s photographs attempt to restore our vision.
You can see more of his beautiful and thought-provoking images of starlit cityscapes on the Danziger Gallery website.

Paris 48° 50’ 55’’ N 2012-08-13 lst 22:15