Inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources sometimes. Spent the last few days typing away on a variety of worthy topics but all with dull result. So took the kids to see the Paddington movie. What a delightful, charming film, full of gorgeous locations (I want to live in that house…the mural in the stairwell alone….) in London. And the best part was that the last many moments of the story take place in the Natural History Museum, not as an unrecognizable film set with a few outside shots of the building, but the real thing, in all its fabulousness. And as one who has spent hours and hours and hours and hours there, I am well equipped to recognize the beauty that is Alfred Waterhouse’s masterpiece. What a dream it would be to run through that building late at night…wearing those incredible shoes Nicole Kidman gets to wear (of course I noticed them, I adore improbable shoes). That wide staircase, those elaborately carved columns, and the reliefs that surprise at every turn. The monkeys, the fish, the birds, the plants, the mythical beasts; and this is all before you get to any of the fossils and dinosaurs and taxidermied creatures and minerals and jewels and bits of planets and oversized creepy crawlies you normally can’t (thankfully) see…and oooh, it is an embarrassment of riches.
The reason I know it so well is that for the first two years of living in London I took my boys every Tuesday. Every single Tuesday.
We would visit the dinosaurs, no long line for us, and the creepy crawly exhibit; who doesn’t like moving a fly from the poop to the picnic over and over and over again. We would take long looks at the enormous fossils, especially the one found by teenager Mary Anning.
Sometimes we would look at the mammals; whales on the telephone is a draw. We always looked at the big tree; the cases in the minerals were a bit high, and the escalator in the earth science was too long and steep for comfort. But a satisfying day for everyone. Every time.
When grandparents came to visit we would hire the “Explorer Backpack,” a scavenger hunt of sorts with the added bonus of a borrowed helmet and binoculars. The fact that the questions remained the same meant that the children looked like geniuses, always a nice treat for the relatives.
But then school started and we couldn’t visit every week. But we kept visiting. Once we went on a Saturday and we were horrified, horrified, to see that the queue snaked all down the front and round the building….who were all these people at our museum? Even if the queue outside wasn’t long, the one inside for the dinosaurs was endless! I tried to take my older son, Joseph, on a rainy day during the recent Autumn half-term. Yikes! The queue to get in double backed on itself. All those exhausted looking parents! We felt smug remembering all those line-free Tuesdays!
We’ve skated on their gorgeous rink set up during the Christmas season many times. Even saw a proposal of marriage one particularly beautiful evening there, and yes, she said yes.
Professor Richard Owen, the controversial character who campaigned tirelessly to have the museum built, wanted to create a place where scientists, the uninformed and the middle class hobbyist could all benefit. A place to cater to the professional, the enthusiast and the curious simultaneously. Architect Alfred Waterhouse, using designs from a variety of sources and influenced by the demands of politicians and financiers, was able to fashion a cathedral to science uniquely his own, a pleasing compromise of Italian Renaissance, Gothic Revival and German Romanesque. In other words, a blend of styles that work both physically and aesthetically.
And yet, and yet…none of that is what I love most about the Natural History Museum. It is the feeling I get when I step into all that history. Not of centuries but of millenniums and more. I think what it must have been like for those earlier fossil finders and paleontologists when they discovered things that literally changed the way people thought about the world. The excitement of researching and studying things that must have seemed magical or otherworldly or just plain amazing. Because they still are. It is a gorgeous building filled with wonders. Just as it should be…and now imagine me with those shoes on those stairs….perfection!