London: The Natural History Museum

A flying visit to London for a talk at the Natural History Museum

This was a very quick visit to the capital! In 2014, the Natural History Museum held an exhibition entitled Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, which showcased some of the earliest artefacts in human history. It was an ambitious and fascinating exhibition, and it included the Swanscombe skull, the 500,000-year-old tibia of ‘Boxgrove Man’ and the oldest spear in the world among many, many other things. The exhibition built on the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, and included a lot of information about the findings of the project researchers (not least the discoveries that reveal human occupation of Britain 950,000 years ago—some 450,000 years earlier than was previously thought).

Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?

The reason for our visit in April was that Hannah had been asked to speak at an ‘After Hours’ public event tied in to the exhibition: ‘Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?’ The event brought together Dr Kaori O’Connor, social anthropologist at University College London, Jill Cook from the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe and Hannah, with her academic hat on as a popular culture expert, to discuss the history of cannibalism in cultural practice and the cultural imagination. It was a very well-attended and lively event—despite (or perhaps because of) the rather gruesome title—and after the speakers finished their initial presentations there were a lot of questions and discussions from the audience. With a huge conversation covering Neanderthals, homo sapiens, endo- and exocannibalism in various cultural practices (or in myths of cultural practice), corpse medicine, cultic ritual, horror fiction and Soylent Green, we came very close to missing our train back to Manchester! Poor Hannah had to attempt a not-so-swift exit shortly before the end of the event, trying to remove her mic while still answering the last few questions.

The Natural History Museum probably doesn’t need much introduction here, as it’s one of London’s many iconic buildings and is very well-attended by both national and international visitors. The museum is housed in a building in South Kensington designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Manchester Museum (which we’ve talked about in a previous post) and Manchester Town Hall. The museum itself dates back to 1753, when Parliament purchased the collection of Dr Hans Sloane and decided to display Sloane’s collection of around 71,000 natural history and cultural artefacts to the public. A new museum—the British Museum—was created and housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury; it opened its doors to the public (free to ‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Waterhouse made extensive use of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London

In 1856, Richard Owen took charge of the British Museum’s natural history collection and, among many changes Owen brought in, the need for a separate building to house the collection was proposed. A national competition was launched to find someone to design the new building and, in 1864, architect Francis Fowke won the commission to build the museum’s new home in South Kensington. Sadly Fowke died unexpectedly before being able to execute his designs, and Waterhouse was appointed to take over the project. Making extensive use (both inside and out) of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London—as well as his characteristic Romanesque style—Waterhouse created the building that we know and love today. Not only that, but Waterhouse’s design (and Richard Owen’s vision of a museum that could showcase all species—no matter how big) resulted in a building grand enough to house everything from the Danionella translucida to the Diplodocus carnegii.

NHM 1

The museum continued to be part of the British Museum for another century, with its formal name being The British Museum (Natural History). However, many supporters of the Natural History Museum—including Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace—pushed for the museum’s independence from the British Museum. Eventually, in 1963, this was achieved when Parliament passed the British Museum Act 1963, although the museum’s name didn’t change formally until 1992. In 1986, the museum absorbed the Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey (which was housed next door), and a gallery was opened to connect the two buildings in 1989. The museum is now also home to the Darwin Centre, which houses both historic specimens and contemporary research facilities.

NHM Foyer
Photo: heatheronhertravels via Creative Commons

Many of the museum’s exhibits can truly be called iconic. Most famously, Dippy the Diplodocus, the 32-metre cast of the Diplodocus carnegii skeleton that has greeted guests since 1905, was the subject of the 1975 Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs in Missing, is set to go on a UK tour from 2017, and has its own Twitter account.

But equally impressive (though not on public display) is Archie the Giant Squid—or Architeuthis dux to give her formal name—an 8-metre giant squid accidentally caught in a fishing net and now preserved undissected in ‘wet storage’. Archie is the ‘star’ of one of Hannah’s favourite books—China Miéville’s wonderfully off-the-wall urban fantasy Kraken, a detective story about a stolen squid, mysterious cults and the end of the world. Miéville’s description of the museum’s research facilities—and of the building that houses them and the city that surrounds them—is evocative, unsettling and captivating. But Archie herself remains suitably mysterious throughout the book.

For more information about the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, curator Jon Ablett explains the rare specimen in this short video:

Wedding at the Manchester Museum

We got married on March 15th in the Victorian Gothic splendour of the Manchester Museum

In March 2014, we got married at the Manchester Museum on Oxford Road in Manchester. Since this blog is intended to be a travelogue of the places we go as a married couple, it seemed fitting to start it with a post about where we actually got hitched.

The Manchester Museum began life as the collection (or ‘cabinet’) of John Leigh Philips, which was purchased by the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821 and housed in a premises on Peter Street from 1835. In 1868, the museum was transferred to Owens College (which later became part of the University of Manchester). The college asked architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a museum building to house the collection, and this building was first opened to the public in 1890. Alfred Waterhouse is probably best known as the Victorian Gothic Revival architect who designed Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London, though he was also the architect behind the design of Strangeways Prison (now HMP Manchester). Though the Manchester Museum underwent major expansions in 1977 and 2003, the original architecture and Waterhouse’s designs are still a significant feature of the venue.

egyptian collection
Photo: Richard Kelly via Creative Commons

Married underneath a dinosaur

The Manchester Museum has a special place in the history of Manchester—in terms of the city’s architectural, intellectual and cultural history—and this did play a choice in our decision to get married there. We’re both proud of our home town, so it made sense to get married in one of the city’s gems. But our decision was also partly influenced by the happy childhood memories both of us have of visiting the museum on school and family trips. The museum’s Egyptian collection has long been a popular attraction for Mancunian kids, and both of us have fond memories of the temporary Lindow Man exhibitions (Rob in 1987 and Hannah in 1991). But, at the end of the day, our venue choice was pretty much decided by the fact that the Manchester Museum allows you to get married underneath a dinosaur…

Stan

Our ceremony was in the museum’s Fossils Gallery, under the watchful eye of Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex (the museum’s famous polymer cast of a skeleton found by Stan Sacrison in South Dakota). Stan (the dinosaur, not the palaeontologist) has the distinction of being the second most complete T-rex skeleton ever found, with a virtually complete skull. This impressive fella loomed over the registrar as we tied the knot.

reception

After the ceremony, we had a drinks reception in the gallery, surrounded by a 3,500 million year history of life of earth. We had quite a few kids at the wedding, so the museum staff arranged a special tour of the Living Worlds gallery for the children and their parents, while the staff set up the gallery for the meal. We weren’t expecting this added bonus, but it made for a lot of happier (little) guests.

skeleton case

Our wedding meal was in the Living Worlds gallery—one of the museum’s galleries that still showcases Waterhouse’s original architectural design, and Hannah’s favourite part of the museum. The guests were shown to their seats, and then we made our entrance by sneaking through the vivarium (with Hannah’s eyes resolutely closed so she couldn’t see the sleeping snakes), along the balcony, and then down the staircase at the end of the gallery. The tables were laid out amongst the exhibition cases—and underneath the imposing sperm whale skeleton that hangs from the gallery’s ceiling.

centrepieces

A few little crystals on the table

Given the surroundings, we didn’t think our wedding needed a theme or over-the-top decorations. The museum provided formal linens, crockery and cutlery, so we just added our own homemade favours and centrepieces (and a few little crystals on the table to catch the romantic lighting of the gallery). We made small parcel-style favours, filled with sugared almonds and black foil chocolate hearts (with a vegan and nut-free jellybean alternative) and tied with organza ribbon. We got all the stuff for favours, as well as our guestbook and table numbers, from The Wedding Mall. For the centrepieces, we placed hand-tied cream silk roses (from Just Artificial) in posy vases (from the very helpful Bluebells Florist in Middleton) and tied big black ribbon bows around them.

layla dancing

After the meal and the speeches, staff walked our guests down to the museum’s foyer, which had been arranged and lit for the reception. As we walked through the Ancient Worlds gallery and down the wide staircase into the foyer, our wedding band—the Dixie Kings—began to play, much to the delight of our younger guests (who all, apparently, love Dixieland jazz). The venue staff had set up the wedding cake at the entrance to the Living Worlds gallery, but they carried it down to the foyer so we could cut it at the reception.

cake

The cake was made by Hannah’s brother, and decorated with black ribbon and black foam roses from Silk Blooms, the company from which we got the bouquets, corsages and buttonholes. If you’re wondering why we chose artificial flowers, there are three reasons for this. Firstly, it was much less stressful to have the flowers delivered weeks before the wedding, rather than worry about a florist delivery on the day. Secondly, Hannah and her bridesmaids really wanted to be able to keep their bouquets as souvenirs of the big day. Thirdly, a wedding in a museum means that certain restrictions are in place for conservation reasons—for example, all real flowers need to be treated with chemicals prior to being brought in, and lilies are strictly forbidden. Silk flowers just made more sense all round.

caketopper and flowers

As well as the pretty black roses, our cake was decorated with a bespoke cake-topper from Little You in Sowerby Bridge (a wedding gift from Hannah’s parents). This lovely clay model was made especially for us, by Kate at Little You, based on photographs of Hannah’s dress and Rob’s suit. She even recreated the black laces on the back of the wedding dress, the bridal bouquet and Robs’s ivory rose buttonhole.

As our night at the museum came to an end, we headed off down Oxford Road to the Midland Hotel—appropriately enough, next door to the site of the original Manchester Natural Society museum—ready to begin our honeymoon the following day.

midland hotel
Photo: Ben Sutherland via Creative Commons

But that trip will have to wait until next time…