The evolution of Natural history

Ok. So I am trying to be clever, and really just talking about the changes being made the Natural History Museum in Manchester. A few weeks ago, I had one of those, " I need to get out of this house with this toddler!" moments, and we hopped on the bus and headed to the Manchester Museum.

I had spent so much time there when the older three kids were younger. We went about once a month for nearly 10 years. We were on first name terms with Karen, one of the stewards who worked there who was brilliant. We liked the old aquarium, the new vivarium, (although we miss the caimen) and of course, the dinosaurs. We looked in the zoetrope, lifted the info doors on the hippo (was it a hippo?) and genuinely loved the narwhol. We learned about even and odd toes ungulates and felt smugly clever. We measured our pulses and put together the organs in the man upstairs again and again. We watched the bees come and go, and looked at the stuffed birds and tried to figure out how many of the ducks and geese and other birds we have actually seen. We have done projects on Egyptians and Romans, and we have been affected by the images of those who died in Vesuvius. We took in bits of pottery and bones that we had found digging in the garden, so that somebody in the know could identify them for us.

I must admit that it has been a while since we have been regulars to the museum. But having another little one, I did rather expect that we would begin going again. Now, I am not so sure.

So this trip we had a few weeks ago...I grabbed the Babe, asked the Boy if he wanted to come with us, and the three of us were off. My expectation was to take the Babe to the Mammal gallery, and make lots of animal noises, let her run around in the big space, and look at some animals which she sees in books all the time. Well, first surprise, the Mammal gallery isn't there anymore. I was rather disappointed. It is now the Living Worlds gallery,  which is...I am not sure what it is.

When I asked one of the people who works there about it, he mentioned that a lot of the old specimens were a bit tatty...
ME "Makes sense."
HIM "We wanted to make it more visual."
ME "But you have made it less visual, because there are fewer things to look at."
HIM "It was a bit too scientific before."

At this point we just went upstairs and looked at the vivarium. Even that is less interesting . The axylotl are gone, the things you could stick your hands in to feel the temperature of a reptilian nest of eggs is gone, the interactive screen in gone. The snakes, lizards, toads, frogs, and geckos are all still there. Quite interesting, but let's face it, reptiles and amphibians don't do much. The vivarium is a great part of the museum, but as the only interesting thing, it doesn't have the pull that it might.

Anyway, I was rather disappointed with the whole trip, and we went home again, not really thinking much about it, other than thinking, "That's a shame."

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I have organised a trip for some of us home educators to go to an 'interactive performance' with John Hegley. It is supposed to be based on the wonderful new Living Worlds Gallery. "So," I thought to myself, "We shall go back specifically to see this gallery, to be better prepared for the event. I shall return with an open mind to see what the Living Worlds gallery has to offer when I am not expecting something else and reacting with my disappointment. Maybe it's just me being opinionated and judgemental and looking backward."

Very open minded of me, eh?

And still, I am incredibly disappointed. Even more so than before, because now I have actually tried to get something out of the experience, and there is very little to get. The Living Worlds gallery is little more than a pleasant room to walk through, however poorly lit it may be. It is abstract, with the lovely glass cases each filled with something that is supposed to be related to the trendy retrolighting sign above. PEACE, BODIES, DISASTERS, SYMBOLS, and some others that I can't really remember. Things are thrown together with no apparent cohesion, and many chances to make things actually interesting are missed. It is all rather odd.

It is pretty to look at, but a bit like you would look at some sort of conceptual art display, and then move on, wondering what to think, but with no desire to go back to explore. How else can you respond to a display case full of stuffed Dodos, toy teeth, plastic butterflies, a single  fossilised egg, a hammerhead shark's jaw and a tree ring? How else can you respond to a display case full of origami cranes? How are we supposed to respond to a bunch of quotes from university staff about how they have always been drawn to this, or been interested in that. Well, good for them, but we have learned NOTHING by visiting this gallery.

I have been laying awake since 4am, (sad I know) just getting more and more angry about what a missed opportunity this is.  On the second trip, I again asked a member of staff about the changes and the new gallery. She said they wanted to make it more interactive. So off we went looking to interact.

The Bodies display could be so cool! There are skeletons from several different animals, and a single sentence on the poorly placed information text saying that all animals with skeletons are related because they have a common ancestor. Where is the information about that? Where is the information about evolution or the common ancestor? Where is the opportunity to interact with anything that would reinforce this information? A table of skeletons to correctly identify? Puzzles to put together? A touch screen to play a film showing the gradual changes over millennia that lead to current species?

The Disasters display could have so much more impact. Where is the information to tell about the Vesuvius victims? Where is any reference to more recent volcanic disasters? Where is the comparison between manmade and natural disasters? Why not a touch screen with a changing display bringing up to date information about more recent disasters such at tsunami, floods, Haiti? Where is any sort of historic or geologic references to disasters and how they are predicted and/or recorded? Where is any info on how we react to these globally? Aid? International community? Famine? Erosion? Three mile island, Chernobyl and Fukoshima?   The point of the Living Worlds Gallery is that it is supposed to explore " the connections between all living things, including us, and shows how we can all shape the future by the choices we make."

Quite frankly, it doesn't do that. There is a cool skull of a horse, Old Billy, and a bit about his history and a reference to the fact that he was painted. But there is no copy of the painting. There is a story (the only story) in the poorly lit text accompanying the Peace display, about a young girl who survived Hiroshima, and her desire to spread a message of peace with origami cranes. There is no further info about Hiroshima, no photos of its victims, or any information on how many countries have similar weapons, or the long lasting damage that they caused. But there are pretty origami cranes to look at. There isn't even a table with paper and instructions for you to make your own crane.

There is a lion, an eagle, a snake, and other stuff in the Symbols display, but no bringing together of universal symbolism, or symbols from different cultures or how the same thing can represent different things in different cultures, or about how symbols are changing with increasing globalisation. Why not a mystery box here, where you could stick your hand in and guess what the symbol is, and what it means, and why it is so familiar? Why not a comparison to contemporary symbols, labels, designer culture, and the golden arches themselves?

And then having failed to interact, we again ask a member of staff, and are told that the reason the gallery is more interactive, because we can use our smartphones to get the apps to give us further information. But none in our group has a smartphone. So we are told that we can ask a staff member with a tablet about it. There is nowhere posted that you can ask for these tablets, I guess we got lucky that somebody decided to share that info with us, but we do indeed ask. Two young staffers, go to a locked cupboard as we wait, and bring out 3 tablet thingys, which none of us (4 adults, 12 kids) knows how to use. Even the kids find these boring, and after all asking if they can have a go, then don't all have a go, and disappear up to the vivarium, where they mention what I mentioned before, that the nest thing to stick your hand in is gone, the touch screen with info is gone, and the axylotl are gone. (Well, maybe the axylotl was me again.)

I suppose I could go on. But that is a bit boring, isn't it? The whole thing is a wasted opportunity. It is pretty as well as pretty insubstantial. And all I can do now is worry about what they are doing to the Egyptians and Archeology galleries. Apparently we can look forward to a new Ancient Worlds Gallery. I dread to think what will be the "imaginative grouping of artefacts" that is promised to us on the website. No doubt, I will once again put aside my disappointment, and return to the museum with an open mind, and hope to learn something. I don't know how, but we managed to have a trip to the museum where we didn't learn anything. I hope that doesn't happen again.

And then I begin to wonder why all of this is happening? And I think it is once again about the segregation of children from the adult world. Family friendly claims aside, the museum is not a place where children are welcome outside of the arranged activities where they have to come with parents.

We were told off for 'running' in the vivarium. I can't help but think that 'running' in this case was defined by the staff member as showing any signs of energy above that which was being shown by the gecko.

They were told off for hiding under a display case in the money gallery - because of the danger of electrical equipment there. Either he was really searching for a reason to complain or there are some serious health and safety concerns. (The former gets my vote. Although I should perhaps point out that they were playing Hide and Seek at this point.) Then there was the member of staff who actually told the children that under 16s are not permitted to wander about on their own, and they needed to go be with their parents or carers. We doesn't say that anywhere. We asked one of the two nice stewards who were minding some handling objects and helping one of the kids hide - there is no such rule. And if there was, then all I can say is, "Poop." I am afraid this word is becoming more common in my vocabulary as I am increasingly confronted with a society which is all about substance and not about content, and which really doesn't like people, especially young people. I don't want to live in a corporate world. Even one that HEARTS MANCHESTER.  

But it appears that if I or my children are to get anything out of the museum, it is only going to be from one of the many activities that are organised. We have to learn, once again, according to somebody else's agenda. I think the activities on offer are great, and I don't want to discourage those types of things being organised. But why, just because there are opportunities provided for families and children, does that mean that children have to be excluded from enjoying the museum in their own time and in their own way. I had thought that museums were great places for self directed learners of all ages.

But the new Living Worlds gallery is for people who want the Natural History Museum (it isn't even called that anymore) to be a pretty place to go for the day, before they meet for lunch in the nice cafe, and to which they never have to return. ("Oh, we've DONE the Manchester Museum!") It has been turned into a catwalk, but one we are stuck with for the next decade or two. And like catwalk fashion, it will quickly lose its appeal.

But then what?


  1. ***Send this to them in a letter*** in spite of the slight ranty nature it is brilliantly argued and to the point. they need feedback.
    much love

  2. I was thinking of sending them the link to my blog, and inviting them to 'interact' with it.

  3. Yes why couldn't they just leave the old exhibition the way it was. It used to have a lovely atmosphere. I asked why the exhibition had changed and was too that it was 'too Victorian'! I said I preferred it the way it was and what was wrong with Victorian. Maria

  4. This Post is Amazing - I've not even been to the Manchester Natural History Museum and I can imagine it completely from your descriptions!!! I am angry and upset for you but more for the learning opportunities and memories that have been lost for your children!

  5. The New Ancient Worlds exhibition opens up at the end of this month. I am hopeful in spite of myself. I just don't want to expect too much so I am not disappointed.

    In the mean time, anybody know of any good, too Victorian, museums? :-)


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