I am glad that I can take R to museums. He’s just an 8 year-old boy interested in Lego and stories and fishing (though he never tried that just yet) but, with a bit of luck, he plays along and I can take him to exhibitions in art museums. The Museum of Natural Sciences, on the other hand, is actually something he wants to see and he is the one dragging me there.
I have to admit that one can’t be unimpressed by the 40 something rooms chock full of stuffed animals - most of them exotic, of fossils and dinosaurs and of minerals in all sorts of shapes and colors.
But whenever I am there I can’t shake another feeling - that death is nearby. Usually, a museum is a place where something is called into existence and celebrated as such. Think of all the art works in a gallery. They might be about something terrible too but they are all new things, something that never existed before, born out of an idea or a feeling or both, perhaps even born out of necessity.
And then I see all those colorful birds, those bears and buffalos, reptiles and insects and I can only think about the stiffness of death. In one of the promo videos on the museum’s website, there is a night guard who says that it is rather eery to walk around the place at night. He has to check all the doors and windows and has to go through all the collections and even after years and years of working there, he still quivers when he does his rounds. And his rounds are longer than any visitor gets to experience - the museum’s storage goes four floors below the surface.
One of the temporary exhibitions has to do with space. Pictures of the 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet taken during the Rosetta mission are part of it. And R has a thing about comets: he doesn’t like them. We were in Greece during the Perseid Meteor Shower and he wasn’t sure if he should be happy seeing the shooting stars or if he should fear them. You see, he told me once how another boy mentioned the power of asteroids and how, if one of them were to hit the Earth, we would all be history. He cried and cried as he told me this. He doesn’t want to die, he said. I guess he started to understand how fragile life is, how easily all life as we know it could be wiped away in a few seconds, with no chance for any of us winding up even as a stuffed specimen in a dusty museum. Everything I could do was to hold him and tell him that it is and will be OK and that nothing bad will happen to him. We all have this image of the huge meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs, entering the atmosphere, leaving behind a flaming trail. The truth is, that’s not how it happened. The asteroid that might have darted towards Earth millions of years ago would have had a diameter of about 10-15 km. Almost as wide as the whole Earth’s troposphere. At the speed it might have travelled (way faster than a bullet), it might be possible that it left virtually no trace on the sky and at the moment of impact, its other end was still as high up as the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747. It was a matter of seconds before Earth was forever defaced - one moment you’re a happy dinosaur, the next you’re atoms.
So… death… he whisked me away from those rooms with huge beautiful black and white images taken by a man-made object that orbited a comet. It didn’t impress him. The fact that such an object could obliterate the world as we know it in a flash, well… that still seems to scare him. “Come, let’s move! Did you not have enough of it? Let’s get away from here!” Yes, away from there, strolling leisurely through rooms stuffed with colorful skins of once living animals.
I’ll give you that though - it would be difficult to imagine the diversity of life forms without a visit to this museum. To see all shapes and sizes, all little variations that lead to new species, to trace differences but also to see similarities. It is gaining knowledge in a “hands-on” sort of way, but… still…
I usually have to remind myself that each visit should include a glimpse at the paintings - yes there are paintings in the NHM. Not only those at the entrance, with works by Munkácsy, Klimt, Makart and Matsch but also throughout the other rooms. There are really nice and beautiful landscapes high on the walls, depictions of far away places by really good artists. It is a pity that they are not emphasized somehow, that the visitor is not forced to look up.
Because we generally tend to forget to look up - we need to be reminded that that’s not just where a comet or other might be whizzing by every now and then, scaring the life out of us, but also, where the paintings are, where the art is.