Last post I noted that I was disappointed by the Natural History Museum in London. Now, I want to expound on this a bit, and shows you a bunch of nice photos.
As I said, it is a great museum! I came away dissatisfied mostly for three reasons:
- the exhibitions are cramped, especially the dinosaurs,
- the dinosaur exhibition is badly done regarding craftsmanship, and
- much in the dinosaur exhibit is plain wrong!
There are other, minor things to criticize as well, but no place can ever be perfect, and I don’t intend to bash a great museum unfairly. I’ll focus on the building/exhibition space problem first. The content of the dinosaur exhibit and the issues with it will have to wait for another day.
The NHM has a building that was purpose-built for it, but that was a long time ago. Demands have changed, the building is, for good reason, protected to the fare thee well (I’ll post about it later), and thus the museum must make do with what the building offers, without any chance to knock down walls or alter ceilings. That makes it a bit hard to plan a modern museum, a problem that the MfN Berlin also faces. In contrast to London, however, the MfN was build with double-high rooms throughout, whereas the NHM has a lot of low-ceiling-ed passages.
When you enter the NHM you pass through an entrance area, opening into a Main Hall, a day-light flooded “cathedral”. The entrace is prolonged, so to speak, by a grand stair being built into the hall, part of which forms a kind of bridge across the entrance, which is on the hall’s midline. (Don’t get confused: there is another stair on the other side, which is the one you can see behind the skeleton.) The Main Hall is the place to exhibit dinosaur skeletons, and in fact the NHM’s Diplodocus carnegii cast is mounted there.
OK, they messed up getting the full effect out of it by having the souvenir guide stand and other stuff in the way. But when it gets busy there’s people in the way anyways, so the difference is minuscule. But – and it is a sad thing – the Diplodocus (inanely nicknamed “Dippy”!) is the only dinosaur in the entire hall! Seriously!
What the hall is used for today is basically a queuing area (ironically mainly for the dinosaur exhibit), a place for people to spill to when they come out of other parts of the museum, a thoroughfare for going from one wing to the other, a place to rest, yell a the kids, wander around with the mind blank after having seen to much natural history, and so on. There are niches along the sides with a handful of specimens strewn about, including a marvelous glyptodon, but is is a rather lackluster affair. The specimens are behind glass, so that you can’t really see them too well – remember there is a huge, light-flooded hall behind you! Taking photographs? Unless you bring a 2m by 2m black cloth on a folding frame you can forget it (slight exaggeration).
And the glass reflection problem takes us right into the dinosaur exhibit. It is one of those things set up so that you must follow a predetermined path, being herded along on a too-narrow path, so that you can never go back, and even standing still to look at something in peace or take a few photos will quickly result in impatient shuffling of feet and jostling behind you (I could turn this around and say the width is fine, it’s just that there shouldn’t be more than 50 people in the darn place simultaneously). Now, before you claim that this was only the case for me on Friday because the place was packed, let me explain that my colleague Sebastian and I were among the first 50 people to enter the museum, and headed for the dinosaurs within minutes.
OK, we went in, and were immediately confronted by a Camarasaurus (cast) mount! Cool! It could stand being dusted once in a while, but it is cool! The next thing in view is a Triceratops.
Like most other specimens, neither of the two is an especially British dinosaur, or stems from a NHM expedition. Instead, in time-honored tradition, the specimens were bought from various sources. The Sternbergs, Cutler, and many others contributed, and that’s why the NHM has a fairly diverse collection from which to choose exhibition material. In contrast, the MfN is more limited, to “only” Tendaguru, Halberstadt and a handful of other dinosaurs. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Rather, look at the picture again – is it up to the standards you’re used to at dinosaurpalaeo?
There are again three problems:
– too little light in the right places,
– too much light in the wrong places, and
– too much glass all over!
I had to use ISO 1600, 1/6 s, f/3,5, focal length 18 mm (the lowest my lens can do) to get a miserable picture! The room is just too friggin’ dark! I can’t afford a 2000 EUR lens, just because some people think science is best presented in a cave! And then that picture is full of reflections, because some smart person decided to have upward-directed spots all over the floor, so that many things are rather brightly lit so they mirror well in the glass. Add this to cramped conditions, and taking good photos gets very hard indeed.
Admittedly, the exhibition designers can’t be blamed for the wide, height, and length of the room, nor for the position of the windows. Furthermore, there are pillars throughout it. But I do blame them for using the available space badly, and for using a rather unfortunate lighting concept. Maybe the latter has to do with the timing of the renovation: LEDs were not available then, and what I would have done may not have been affordable back then. They did one good thing: they put up blinds covering the windows – sunlight streaming into a gallery can really make it hard to see things properly, because it causes such strong shadows.
And, as I mentioned, things are just way too cramped. To solve their problem with insufficient space, the museum installed a raised walkway down the center of the hall. As I said, it is too narrow, and it is also a blight on the eyes. Additionally, it happens to be a dark and quite massive metal structure at the right height for sauropods backs, theropod skulls and various other dinosaur body parts:
Thus, taking pictures becomes even harder, because stepping away from a mount is difficult, and if you manage you have that walkway across your view. Even if it is behind the dinosaur it is irritating and distracting from the desired subject of the photo.
Obviously, the intent of the walkway was good: the hall has a high ceiling, and there would be much unused air space above the heads of visitors and dinosaurs alike, but for the one-story-up passage. And so, in addition to the somewhat unusual perspectives you get of the dinosaurs mounted at ground level, there are dinosaurs mounted (mainly casts, that is!) at the upper level.
An Iguanodon (a British one!)
All these and all the other dinosaurs need the be dusted, too. Aside from that they are (I have to admit) well visible, although the poses could use some work.Some, however, are well mounted, including an Allosaurus. In some cases the old building’s pillars make for weird and neat views, too.
Night at the museum or The Relict?
Once the walkway hits the end of the room it goes through an arch to the next one, where it turns into a ramp leading back to floor level. This ramp goes around an exhibit featuring a barely visible Tyrannosaurus robot life model (dark again!). To be honest, it is pretty well made. In fact, this is the best robot dinosaur I have ever seen with my own eyes.
and that’s enough ranting for now! Next time we’ll look at the lower level of the exhibit, where most of the content problems are. I promise a minimum of bitchin’ about the space and light issues.
Oh, yeah, before I forget to mention it: the NHM’s men’s WC is a health hazard! Please, please, please, can someone go and measure the noise level at a kid’s head’s height under the air-blasting hand driers? When both are operating? I am dead sure that’s way beyond any regulation limits! My hears hurt, and I walked out slightly deafened – and my ears were above, not below the nasty hurricane-creating machines! I can’t begin to imagine how a small child with much better ears will feel when exposed to the full roar and blast!