Crushing a childhood memory

Between 1962 and 1970 (aged 3-11) I lived in Tring, Hertfordshire. Part of my growing up there involved frequent visits to the local museum, exclusively dealing with natural history, founded by Lord Rothschild and housed in a stately Victorian mansion. I spent hours wandering the high-ceilinged rooms that were full of glass cases and walnut cabinets, staring at the assembled stuffed and mounted exhibits. My early obsessions were sweets, football and dinosaurs and very soon these were joined by living wildlife.

When I eventually ended up in Sutton, Surrey (1971) a trip to the natural history museum at South Kensington was on the cards - Tring's big brother in more ways than one. I couldn't but be impressed, not just with the exhibits inside but with Waterhouse's immaculate architecture. I went back a few times, but, until this month, hadn't visited since 1984.

It seemed like a good idea. Go back to the South Kensington museum to reacquaint myself with the fantastic array of exhibits, and spend a few hours poring over the birds and insects in particular. I was really looking forward to it, and, together with my eldest daughter, strode into the hallowed entrance full of hope and...

It started to go downhill immediately. There were thousands of school kids. Literally. Most of them were screeching with excitement or crying with boredom. All of the teachers and helpers that were looking after them were running around trying to keep the little darlings together, regimented in same-colour jumper crocodile lines. I know the museum should be used as an educational tool, but there were just too many of them.

As we negotiated this child assault course and got further into the bowels of the museum, it became increasingly obvious that what I could remember as a museum had long gone. Every 'section' had been dumbed-down and resembled a theme park ride. It is no longer possible to look at a collection of exhibits without some whacky graphics, interactive gimmick or video screen hitting you over the head telling you why 'Caterpillars are Cool!' in 'Creepy Crawly World' - I'm not making this up.

The bird room was being refurbished. I could have cried. What was still left, which was quite surprising considering that the 'marketing police' had cleansed the building, was a display case full of hundreds of hummingbirds. It was terribly out of place.

There were a few mammals on show, but all of them were tatty. There is a policy not to renew them as the modern world is not one that involves taking wild creatures for display. Fair do's. I was overjoyed to see Guy the Gorilla (yes, actually him!) a staple of any kid growing up in the 1960s. My daughter (born 1991) had never heard of him. Oh well... We didn't go anywhere near anything to do with dinosaurs, as 99.9% of the visitors to the museum were already gathered there, fighting amongst themselves to get closer to a T Rex jawbone or the tibia of a Brontosaurus. It also seemed as if 80% of the museum's floorspace had been handed over to catering and merchandise.

Then we came across the Geological section. A big room, full of glass cabinets, no gimmicks, just rocks. Thousands of them. The room was empty. And it was tedious and boring. We left soon afterwards, me vowing never to go back again. Never to ascend up the escalator that takes you into the Earth Galleries as if in a poor facsimile of a Jules Verne novel; never to stand in a room that tries to recreate an earth quake in a Japanese shop but just leaves you with a sense that the bloke standing next to you just had a wobble; never to look over the heads of 25 seven-year olds at a faded, moth-eaten big cat, whose identity is beyond even an expert's ability. When we finally got outside the polluted air of London town has never smelt sweeter.

The positives? A very good bookshop, full of proper natural history books, not just the normal dumbed-down shite. Charles Darwin's statue looks across and down at us all from the stairs above the entrance hall - that imposter, Richard Owen, has been moved away. And, of course, the architecture. If you find yourself in the building and cannot stand another minute of it, just look up at the windows and the ceilings. They, at least, are no disappointment.


Derek Faulkner said…
Old age is catching up with yoy Steve. Return journeys after many years seldom come up to expectation because time and fashion has moved on from the picture that we have stored away in our memory. It's like going back to your old school many years later too find that that huge, scary place that once scared you each day is in reality quite small and the classroms and playgrounds even smaller.
Imagine a birdwatcher from the 30/40's coming back now and instead of a notebook and if lucky, a pair of binoculars of dubious quality, seeing birdwatchers with telescopes and long lense digital cameras and mobile phones and pagers - how different that world would seem.
Steve Gale said…
All too true Derek. The shame is that it seems to be accepted that 'things' need to be dressed-up and dumbed-down to become remotely interesting to the general public. Now that's a shame.
Derek Faulkner said…
That's how it is Steve. The KOS used to have a thing called KOSNET whereby latest sightings or debateable subjects were automatcally E-Mailed to subscribers. That didn't suit many members and so instead The Forum was introduced but that too is now hardly ever used because, presumably those same people have now moved on to those Facebook and Twiiter things.
Ordinary is not something that the modern generation do nowadays, it's too boring if you have to create your own amusement, that's why many birdwatchers carry pagers.
I found the museum desperately tired. Understand and approve of their decision not to renew taxidermy exhibits however. I think the way they see themselves going forward is the "bug cocoon" extension, which looks great at any rate and is more (buzzword klaxon) "interactive"
Steve Gale said…
I think I'll stay at home Simon...
Paul Trodd said…
Steve, I visited with my grandson last year and had a similar experience, it has dumbed down terribly and many of the exhibits look tired, and as for the little out of control brats.... I try to go to the annual Wildlife Photographer Exhibition held there each year and because you have to pay to go in the gallery, it is at least a relatively tranquil experience. The Natural History Museum (the original bit) is also my favourite building in London, a work of genius by Waterhouse, and I find something new to gawp at every time I go. As for Tring, that was one of my favourite haunts as a kid too, around those same dates as well. Just think, we probably had our snotty noses pressed against the glass case next to one another looking at `that` Dodo. Now there`s a thought...
Steve Gale said…
Paul, I thought you looked a bit familiar!!

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