It has been a busy month for museums. Our son Joshua, our grandson River, Rohan and I visited the Science Museum and then some weeks later the Natural History Museum. After a few days I went back to each one by myself.
During his visits River, who was mesmerised, had the expression of child in wonderland. For me it was more complicated. Some exhibits transported me back to the delights of childhood; others left me in adult mode and critical.
Overall, my pleasure was greatest as I visited the Science Museum’s WonderLab. I was overwhelmed by a feeling that I was back in my teens. Soon I was pressing buttons to set up different wave motions, making paper flying machines for launching in a wind vortex, and watching a demonstration of the magical properties of bubbles. I was gripped. Added to these exhibits were inspiring messages. One panel told how physical forces were invisible, so just seen by what they do. The idea of this invisibility was new to me – how could I have not realised it before?
Nothing else in either museum matched the WonderLab. Many aspects of the other exhibitions were stimulating and gave new insights but there were often flaws that distracted. Moreover, when faced with these, I wanted to set things right.
Weaknesses certainly arose at the exhibition on ‘The Art of Innovation’ created to illustrate how art influences technical advances. While I learned much about the development of synthetic dyes and textiles for instance, in other sections there were distracting failings. In the story of the development of Concord’s delta-shaped wing there was nothing showing how the plane looked in its final form. Similarly, although we were shown a detailed map of the moon painstakingly created by the Victorian scientist James Nasmyth, there was nothing exhibited to show how his map matched our current view. When I finally found a curator to tell of these various deficiencies, it was disinterest that dominated his response.
More disappointment was to come, this time at the Natural History Museum. Overall, visiting the new Dinosaur gallery, and coming face-to-face with its roaring, swaying giant Tyrannosaurus Rex was very impressive. Dozens of other dinosaurs were also displayed but there was a problem – time and again the animals looked as though they would topple over. The worst example appeared in a film created to show how the gruesome bipod Albertosaurus walked. As depicted – see illustration – there was no way it could have stayed upright. With its long outstretched neck ending in a massive head, its centre of gravity was so far forward it would inevitably fall flat on it’s face. Having such a display felt slipshod and I was soon at a desk in the museum’s information department outlining to a member of the scientific team what I saw as wrong.
Florin assured me that if it was displayed in the Natural History Museum it had to be right – we don’t make mistakes like that! I was soon passed on to Ben, the museum’s dinosaur wizard. Ben viewed the film and said he could see nothing wrong. I argued that, based on simple physical principles and taking into account the forces that were playing on the Albertosaurus’ body – the ‘moments about a point’ – the animal in the film was inherently unstable. Ben repeated that he saw nothing amiss.
When I showed the picture to friends for whom balance was important – an artist, a dancer and an engineer – all, without prompting, agreed; the beast could not stay upright. If the tail were longer or the body itself was very heavy, it might have a chance, however, when I made a series of calculations nothing would actually work – the animal, as depicted, was inherently unstable. Despite all this, a further phone discussion with Ben failed to change his mind.
On my journey home after this final conversation something odd happened. Sitting next to me on the bus was an elegantly-dressed man in his mid-sixties with neat silvery hair. At one moment I sighed and muttered to myself something like “Oh dear”, referring to the Albertosaurus saga, in response my neighbour promptly asked me if there was a problem. I explained the dilemma, and showed him the photo of Albertosaurus to which he said that the Museum was probably right; moreover, reptiles would often have boney struts to help in such situations. Anyway “It does not have to be accurate, it’s all to do with education”. As he got off the bus I asked him his name and what he did for a job, he replied “My name is David and by an extraordinary coincidence I am the Head Curator at the Natural History Museum”. “These things happen you know”.
Phone calls and internet searches next day revealed that the museum has no trace of such a person. Like the depiction of the Albertosaurus as stable, he was a hoax.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Thierry, Julian, Rohan and Vivien
The Illustration is a still taken from a cartoon film at London’s Natural History Museum designed to illustrate how Albertosaurus walked.