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.
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?
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?