Four museums in three days

August 8, 2010 • 7:23 am

by Matthew Cobb

To paraphrase Chaucer:

“When August with his showers sweet has driven children to nag their parents to distraction, From every shire’s end of England they to museums wend, the holy blessed knowledge there to seek”

So, together with my family, I went to four museums in three days – two science museums and two natural history museums, one of each in Manchester and London.

First up was the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. Housed in early 19th buildings that were at the heart of the world’s first industrial city (including the world’s first passenger railway station), MOSI is currently undergoing a major refit. However, the steam hall still smelt of hot oil and steam (it contains original and  copies of steam locomotives and steam engines, several of which trundle out on the short stretch of track outside the hall), and although the kid’s Xperiment hands-on centre was closed, we saw a fascinating display of how you get from a cotton boll to calico, with half a dozen working machines being put through their paces. The commentaries were great, and spared us none of the awful details of the dangers and exploitation that were involved in creating vast wealth for a handful of Manchester’s capitalists (including, of course, the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels).

One of the many machines on display was this Jacquard Loom, built in the 1920s as a training machine. The Jacquard loom was invented in Lyon (France) at the beginning of the 19th centuy, and was programmable – the pattern it created was determined by punched holes on a string of cards (red arrow).

Then we went to London, where you can visit the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Science Museum in a day – they are just around the corner from each other. The NHM building is justly renowned – it is an extraordinary mock-gothic structure designed by  Alfred Waterhouse, who also built the University and the Town Hall in Manchester. The inside of the building is lavishly decorated with animals and plants, including these panels on the ceiling:

The main hall contains a copy of a Diplodocus (aka Brontosaurus) skeleton [EDIT: THIS IS WRONG. SEE COMMENTS]. The tail used to be trailing along the floor; now it is stretched out above the vistors’ heads, whip-like.

Museum of Natural History. Picture from Wikipedia

At the top of the stairs there is a great statue of Darwin which, of course, I had to be photographed with (together with my daughters Lauren and Evie):

Something about the Diplodocus struck me, however: its feet. I had assumed that it would have that it had a foot like that of an elephant – in life it would have been very flat and fleshy. But it had whopping great claws that must have poked through . Why? To gain traction when running? Then why don’t elephants have this apparent adaptation?

Diplodocus foot
Elephant's foot. Taken from here.

The NHM also has a stegosaurid skeleton – a Huayangosaurus. For some reason, the back plates on this specimen have been placed in parallel, rather than staggered, as is generally the case in stegosaurid reconstructions. Of course, we have no idea how the plates were actually oriented, as I pointed out here some time ago. My apologies for the blurry quality – the Huayangosaurus moved as I took the photo.

I nipped into the NHM’s “Marine invertebrate” room, and was saddened that there were no salps (“tunicates” get mentioned in a caption,but that’s all) and even more surprised that there were no pycnogonids (although there was another marine chelicerate, a horseshoe “crab”).

We then went on to the Science Museum, of which there are no photos and which we found a bit of a let-down, to be honest. Although there were lots of aeroplanes and trains and steam engines, they were all very dead (no smell of hot oil here). And the Wellcome-funded wing of bioethics/human development (“Who Am I?“), while spiffy, was oddly soulless, and I did wonder what the girls had actually learned from the various computer games they played. Apart from the Apollo 10 capsule, MOSI was much more impressive.

Finally, yesterday, Evie and I visited (for the nth time), the Manchester Museum, also housed in a Waterhouse building (though sadly nowhere near as grand as the NHM). The Museum has a fantastic collection of Egyptian relics (my favourites are some children’s dolls from around 5,000 years ago), but also a great natural history collection, which the University’s zoology students are lucky enough to use in their courses.

Evie wanted to go to the fossils gallery which is dominated by a great cast of a male T. rex, called Stan. He has a couple of fancy neighbours:

Stan was apparently in quite a few tussles before he died. If you look carefully, you can see a small hole in the back of his skull (arrowed). This is a healed puncture wound, and is apparently the same size as a T. rex tooth…

My favourite reconstruction at the Museum, however, is this Anomalocaris, which is next to some beautiful Burgess Shale fossils:

Where can I buy one?

18 thoughts on “Four museums in three days

  1. Diplodocus (aka Brontosaurus)

    The dinosaur popularly known as “Brontosaurus” is not Diplodocus. It is Apatosaurus. (Though Apatosaurus is a member of Diplodocidae.)

  2. Thanks for the picked nit. Serves me right for not cross-checking. Never rely on memory! What’s the difference Or rather – how can you tell them apart?
    The specimen in the Natural History museum is Diplodocus carnegii. There’s a picture of the cast being presented to the NHM here, in a much less impressive room, and with its tail on the floor:
    But why did it have claws?
    You can see a tail-tragging reconstruction of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus here:

    1. Perhaps it was an adept tree-climber? It could have employed the claws much like loggernails used by today’s loggers and utility linemen.

  3. My great grandparents (Clair) moved from St Etienne in the early 19th Century to a commune in eastern Kansas, known as Silkville. The commune was founded by a French nobleman escaping from the political situation in France at the time, and was one of those famous “communist” experiments of the period. He was a senor “programmer” of the Jacquard loom, specializing in very fine quality moire silk cloth. I have a quilt and a lot of ribbons of this silk. They won grand prizes for silk products at several world fairs before the import of cheap silk of much lower intrinsic quality drove their more expensive product out of the market. My great grandmother was in charge of the dairy and made famous ice-cream and goat cheese. I do not know how they made ice-cream in Kansas in the mid 19th century, but we have several of her original recipes. My favorite is a completely unflavored ice-cream (except for some sugar). When we had our own dairy here we used to make it once in a while. I have been unable to buy any cream that will make it. Maybe pasteurization or the process they use to give cream a half-life of about 20 years has altered the critical ingredient.

    Thank you very much for the picture. I am sending it to all the amateur genealogists in the family.

    1. Could we have the recipe for your grandmother’s icecream? Even if it does need unpasteurised cream. What goes wrong with the modern cream?

      1. I will look for it. It is in a box full of one of my great-aunt’s things. i am supposed to be finding and typing up the complete recipes of all six of the great aunts who were taught French/American Frontier cuisine at Marguerite’s knee. I have eaten the ice cream, I have seen and used the recipe, so all I have to do is find it. Unfortunately it is somewhere in a box in Albuquerque, and I will be in Colorado, on the home ranch, until mid-September. I will leave myself a note to find it when I return to Albuquerque.

  4. Good storytelling, Matt! But I do envy you your lightning tour of these wonderful cathedrals of nerdism…!

    Regarding the hole in the T.rex skull, there was a recent paper in PLoS ONE, which put forward a very interesting theory that could explain the origin of the commonly found ‘puncture wound’ holes in especially the jaw bones.
    The researchers suggest that a still-common avian infection, Trichomonosis, already plagued the dinosaurs:

  5. Two good books I have read recently concerning dinosaurs (and I recommend as general interest books) are “Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life” by Scott Sampson and “Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World” by
    Dorrik Stow. Both are by professional dinosaur palaeontologists and recent publications (and also good reads).

  6. No pics of the Jacquard loom’s programs? Although they seem to be called “punched cards” in all the literature I’ve seen, every one I have actually seen was a large punched panel of heavy cardboard – well, at least much larger (and much much thicker) than the punched cardboard card some may remember using to program the likes of the IBM s360. The wikipedia has some photos showing the programs strung together; unfortunately nothing to gauge the size. I wish I had the right toys in my garage to build one of ’em. The next biggest invention after that loom was the knitting machine.

    Thanks for all the pics. 🙂

    (I’ll always think of ‘MOSI’ as Master Out, Slave In – it goes along with MISO – Master In, Slave Out – I guess the master and slave are never seen together.)

  7. I wonder if Apatosaurus used her claws for digging nesting sites, and also perhaps digging for water. The elephant does not make nests and uses its trunk to probe for water, making claws less useful. Just a thought.

      1. Claws might be handy for dragging down trees and limbs, after the manner of the giant sloth, except that the Apatosaur had a very long neck and probably didn’t need to pull stuff down.

        I would be rather spectacular if the claws were used for mating combat!

    1. Is growing all that keratin really such a strain on the beast that it absolutely must not have claws? It may simply be a vestigial feature.

      As for the elephants – maybe we can devolve one to develop claws?

  8. Matthew,

    I was most likely in the NHM London on the same day as you! It really is the most extraordinary building, isn’t it.

    I believe Apatosaurus is a heavier-built version of the Diplo, with a much shorter tail. They are usually depicted with a more upright stance than the Diplodocus, although I have never been able to work out why. Help, paleo-experts?

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