Category Archives: museums

London Day 3: The Wellcome Collection

The train back from Manchester to London let me off at Euston Station, which just happened to be across the street from one of the destinations at the top of my England travel list: the Wellcome Collection. I unfortunately don’t have any photos of the exhibits inside, as they were forbidden, but hopefully I can recreate the experience for you.

(from guardian.co.uk)

Luckily I have the internet to help me out. The Wellcome Trust was started by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, a man of wide travels and eccentric tastes (shown above with an unsurprisingly elaborate moustache). He was especially interested in medical history, and the Wellcome Collection focuses on this fascination through rotating exhibits (there was an excellent one on brains when I was there), but the most fascinating part of the museum is the section on Wellcome himself and the collection of objects he amassed. Wellcome was actually born in Wisconsin, and had an early interest in invention, creating an invisible ink when he was just 16, going on to found a pharmaceutical company which sold medications in England. He became a British citizen in 1910 and was knighted in 1932, although he died of pneumonia a short time later in 1936 at the age of 82.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

The trust set up at the time of his death has had an extraordinary legacy, especially with the Wellcome Collection which realizes in part his dream to have a “Museum of Man” and bills itself as “a free destination for the incurably curious.” In the exhibit Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection, it’s possible to glimpse into the thousands of objects he collected, each more strange and wonderful than the last. The museum has the only audioguide on which I’ve wanted to listen to every single track, as I walked from a rack of prosthetic legs to a guillotine blade to a trepanned skull, each with its own entrancing story to tell. There were several large glass caes crowded on the floor, and even more objects in drawers and cabinets around the gallery. I imagine I could come back limitless times and never tire of exploring just the Medicine Man gallery.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

The Wellcome Collection is somewhere between going into a person’s home with exceptionally refined and bizarre tastes, and wandering into an old museum that has remained unchanged from its wunderkammer 19th century state. Also, did I mention it was absolutely free to go in? And they have free wifi? Truly a place of wonders. I especially loved some of the more elegant medical curiosities, like this wood and ivory carving of a 18th century anatomical demonstration. While the sculpture is obviously of an anatomy lesson, is the viewer of the art meant to learn as well? Or is this just capturing something the creator found beautiful, the progress of medicine and the intricacies of the body? I suppose every object in the Wellcome Collection also sparks as many questions as knowledge it imparts, sending you out even more inquisitive about the world.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

This scare-devil from the Nicobar Islands in the collection is also an extraordinary visual, with its top hat and insect-like wings. It would have been placed outside the house of someone who was sick to scare away the evils causing the illness. I got a tote bag in the Wellcome Collection gift shop with a scare-devil on it, so this should be a healthy summer for me.

I really recommend stopping in the Wellcome Collection if you happen to be in London, even if you only have an hour to take in a few stories from the amazing objects. It was a highlight of my trip and I plan to make it a staple of return turns. I am, after all, incurably curious.

Later this day, I would take a long walk along the Thames and find myself in another strange environ, although this would be haunted by the crackle of candles as I walked through rooms of antique objects.

Manchester Weekend Day 2: Manchester Museum

There was still no sun on my second day in Manchester, but we continued to explore anyway. And what better place to go in dreary weather but a Victorian museum? So we spent the afternoon in the Manchester Museum, which dates back to 1867 and is housed in some neo-Gothic buildings at the University of Manchester. It has a little bit of everything, including exhibits of the natural and human history of Manchester, science, live reptiles, archaeology, dinosaurs, and lots of taxidermy animals.

Hanging in the museum’s atrium is this whale skeleton, one of its over 600,000 zoological objects, although most are unfortunately not on display. Those exhibited ranged from the beautiful to the grotesque, both in terms of animal and condition. It was really a curious museum, with some very modern presentations along with the old glass cabinets. Some was very scientific, and then you would come across a taxidermy goat wearing a sweater or something.

I thought this flamingo had some sad elegance. It really is strange to look at a flamingo’s neck for a long time without feeling totally confused that it can be a real creature.

While much of the taxidermy exhibited was birds, it was hard to miss this particularly terrifying tiger. At least he got to be scary in death and he probably causes a few nightmares in young visitors. I always feel bad for the tough carnivores who are put permanently in docile poses.

Here is where the modern and the Victorian met most sharply at the lower level of the atrium. I’ve never seen neon signs used like this in an old natural history museum. The “Disasters” exhibit on the right had replicas of charred Pompeii bodies and the “Peace” exhibit behind it was full of folded paper cranes.

Unfortunately pushed off to the side was my favorite item in the museum: the skull of Old Billy, the oldest horse on record at 62 years old. He was born in 1760 and lived in Warrington (my Manchester guide Helen’s hometown!), working as a barge horse, pulling barges in the canal from the shore. Here is a lithograph of Old Billy in his living years. Oddly, the skin from his head seems to be exhibited as a taxidermy in Bedford, England. RIP Billy.

In addition to Old Billy and the whale (new Brooklyn band name right there), were whole cabinets of skeletons. With the shiny black surfaces and artistic lighting, they looked quite striking.

One of the centerpieces of the Manchester Museum is Stan the T-rex, a cast of a dinosaur discovered in South Dakota. I love the ceilings of this gallery contrasting with the bones.

I greatly enjoyed the walk around the small museum and all the strange specimens it held. I love that it still has some of its 19th century stateliness even while it attempts to modernize and keep people’s interest.

Dead Souls: The American Museum of Natural History

Of all the museums in New York, the one I’d most like to be completely alone in is the American Museum of Natural History. As I was looking through my photos from a recent visit with my dad who was visiting, I was struck with their quiet beauty, which was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd on our Sunday visit. (Most of the guests were under and 10 and REALLY REALLY wanting to see the dinosaurs.) That’s not to say it isn’t fun to visit the museum (it’s one of my favorites) and that the exhibits aren’t amazing to see in person, but just imagine being the only person in the museum with all these bones and taxidermy creatures, posed in odd memories of their lives.

The natural history museum is right by Central Park on the Upper West Side in a sprawling complex of conjoined buildings that started with a Victorian structure (now completely engulfed with new construction) opened in 1877. The museum was previously started in a nearby arsenal, and now has collections totaling over 32 million specimens. Of its exhibits on nature and culture (some more politically correct than others), the most mesmerizing are the dioramas, which have taxidermy animals in replicas of their natural habitats.

The Akeley Hall of African Mammals, named for the “father of modern taxidermy” Carl Akeley, is an astonishing room: an oval shaped, two-story space lined with 28 deep glass cases containing different detailed scenes. Akeley went to Africa with a team to collect the plant and animal specimens, many which were disappearing. I suppose you could say that killing an animal that is going extinct is not a great idea, but I guess there is also this need to preserve its memory. The ethics of natural history museums is something that would take a whole other post, but in Akeley’s case it seems his mind was in preservation through physically bringing these endangered creatures and places abroad. Akeley passed away in 1926 during one of his expeditions, and the place he was buried in is depicted in the gorilla diorama in this hall, which was finally finished 10 years after his death.

The hand-painted backdrops of the museum’s dioramas are also worth paying attention to, for the amazing way they create depth and a sense of place. Imagine if these two animals were just standing against a white wall under harsh overhead lighting. Grotesque!

Another extraordinary place in the museum is the Hall of Ocean Life, where a full-size replica of a blue whale hangs from the ceiling. It’s mind-blowing that an organism that big is living on the same planet as us, right? The whale is 94 feet long (blue whales can get up to 120 feet long, can you believe PT Barnum once wanted to keep one in captivity??) and is bathed in an atmospheric blue light. The whale was actually altered slightly and repainted in richer colors in 2003, and is looking quite lovely and dramatic in its kingdom.

The Hall of Ocean Life has dioramas as well, including some with taxidermy like this scene with seals, and others with models, including the impossible-to-photograph-properly squid and sperm whale struggling in the dark depths. It’s incredibly eerie, and I can guarantee that I would not have gone anywhere near it as a kid.

Some of the animals in the museum now only exist in this preserved form, including the passenger pigeons that perch on a faded replica oak branch. Considering that in 1808, there was a single flock estimated to have 2 billion birds, it is astounding that not a single one is left alive. The last one died in 1914 at a zoo in Cincinnati, the rest having perished due to the destruction of much of their main food source (oak and chestnut trees) and hunting.

The exhibits on people of the world are a lot less successful and, oddly, less sensitive to the lives they depict than the animals. This is probably because most of them haven’t been updated since the 1930s, not exactly a time of great cultural sensitivity. But I think this small diorama of a buffalo jump was actually quite good, both as a visual and recreating the action of a buffalo jump.

I suppose I can’t make a post about the American Museum of Natural History without mentioning the dinosaur halls, which are full of fossils of creatures both big and scary, and small and somewhat creepily cute. The bones on display are only a glimpse into the museum’s collections of fossils, most of which are in a 10-story building in the courtyard of the museum. I read that there is even a “Whale Bone Storage Room,” which I would absolutely love to see.

Perhaps someday I’ll end up at the museum on weekday, early when it opens, on a cold winter morning, and find myself alone with a giraffe twice my height or a gorilla with a human sadness in its plastic eyes. Until then, the museum is worth braving the crowds for, and has some of the most impressive exhibit spaces of any museum I’ve had the privilege of being jostled by strangers in.