Saturday, 22 March 2014

An evolving gem of Paris

The last couple of times I wrote about museums on this blog (here and here), I was at least somewhat critical.  So I'm pleased to report a really positive museum visit.

The Jardin des Plantes is one of the more popular visitor attractions in Paris, especially on a lovely spring day (like last Sunday, when I was there).  It's been a centre for the study of botany since the 17th century, but it was under the stewardship of the Comte de Buffon (from 1739 until his death in 1788) that it grew into the archetypal complex of Enlightenment science.

Plan of the Jardin des Plantes,
from Baedeker's 1910 guide to Paris
As the pictures on the left show, it's changed little since his time.  Alongside the botanic garden are museums of botany, geology, palaeontology, and of the history of the site, and a growing zoo.  And the Grande Galerie de l'Évolution.

Map board from the Jardin des Plantes
Although the name suggests a museum solely about evolution, it has a much broader scope, closer to London's Natural History Museum.  (Confusingly for someone used to the NHM, the French Muséum national d'histoire naturelle refers to a whole collection of places, including the entire Jardin des Plantes site and all the museums mentioned above, as well as several other museums, gardens and zoos within and without Paris.)

The Grande Galerie was inaugurated in July 1889, just a few weeks after the Eiffel Tower, during the Exposition Universelle.  Originally called the Museum of Zoology, it was designed to provide a more spacious setting for the old Cabinet of Natural History, which itself had replaced the old royal Cabinet of Curiosities after the Revolution, and which occupied the small building now dedicated to the history of the Jardin.  The new building was a strong statement of commitment to the advancing science of zoology, and remains a hugely impressive space today: a gigantic open hall overlooked by three levels of arcaded balconies.

The Grande Galerie (re)opened with its current name in 1994, after a major refurbishment following decades of neglect and closure.  And it is well worth a visit.

It makes great use of that gallery space with a parade of taxidermied animals, as if filing off Noah's ark (though in many cases there are more than two gorgeous examples of a species).  This is surrounded by skeletons of whales, astounding arrays of butterflies, creepy specimens in blue glass jars... You name it.

Animation with some recognisable figures.
But what I like about this museum is that it draws you in with the big spectacle - the amazing richness and diversity of the natural world - and then when it's got your attention, it has the time and space to present many different approaches to the study of that incredible subject matter.

So there's a section dedicated to the history of zoology (slightly tucked away at the top of the building, but never mind) with explanations of the development of scientific theories alongside specimens associated with important figures like Lamarck, Cuvier and Darwin.

Some tools of the taxidermist's trade
There's a case dedicated to explaining taxidermy.  And there are changing displays for children - when we were there, one focused on the biology, history, mythology and conservation of the narwhal.

Zoologists might find something to criticise here: there's little scientific explanation of how animals come to be the way they are, and not too much about the relationships between them (genetic or in terms of diet/habitat).  And if you want fossils, you'll have to go across the Jardin to the Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie.  In fact, now that I think about it, Grande Galerie de l'Évolution is rather a silly name for what is an old-fashioned museum of zoology.  But for that old-fashioned zoological spectacle, which nonetheless leads you off in various thoughtful and occasionally unexpected directions, I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

London Marathon in a Gherkin costume

Go Gherkin!
What can you make when you've finished your equatorium?  Easy: a model of a famous building to use as a marathon costume!

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a reduced frequency of posts, and none at all where I'm making things, during the last few months.  That's because most of my creative energies have gone into making this 8-foot Gherkin costume.

I'll be running the London Marathon in it.  I'm doing this to raise funds for The Cure Parkinson's Trust - a charity which works to support research into this horrible condition.

Confused?  Check out  There I've explained why I'm running in aid of Parkinson's research, and why I chose to run as the Gherkin.  You can also see pictures of the costume under construction, and find out more about the marathon challenge (I'm hoping to run it in 3:15-3:30, despite the costume's weight (5 kg) and wind resistance!

If you'd like to sponsor me and support Parkinson's research, please go to  But not before you've watched the video below.  Whether you find it motivational or just plain ridiculous, I hope you enjoy it - and if you do, please share it!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Navigating Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Do you like to be told what a museum's all about, or would you rather make your own links between exhibits and draw your own conclusions?  Do you like to make your own way round a museum, or would you rather be directed on a set course?  And how closely involved should museums be with private companies, and their inevitable PR agendas?  These questions have been on my mind this week, after a visit to the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

I am a keen sailor and have long been interested in maritime history, so when I visited Aberdeen this week (to examine a manuscript in the sparkling new Sir Duncan Rice Library), the Maritime Museum was #1 on my list of attractions.  Fortunately I had a couple of hours spare before my train home, so I checked it out.

Two-thirds of the Museum: the church and Link Building
The Museum (re-)opened - after a massive expansion - in 1997, and occupies three connected buildings: Provost Ross' House, built in 1593; the 19th-century Trinity Congregational Church; and a purpose-built steel and glass "Link Building" between the two.  It spreads over 4 floors.  There are two entrances (on the ground floor at the front of the building, and on the first floor at the back) and the building has two separate sets of stairs.  So visitors can take hugely varying routes around the museum.

Faced with the impossibility of imposing a single linear visit on museum-goers, the designers clearly decided to make flexibility a feature of the museum.  They couldn't impose a route on visitors, so they didn't.  Neither did they impose any chronology, or any overarching interpretation.  The museum is structured thematically, with different sections on the maritime industries in which Aberdeen has been involved: shipbuilding; trade; fishing; oil.  Although individual objects have descriptive labels, there are none of the boards that one often finds in each room, giving an overall explanation or introduction to the room.

"Introductory display", First Level
The result of all this was that (ironically for a maritime museum) it was very difficult to navigate.  The First Level galleries, which on the Museum map promised "an introduction to Aberdeen's maritime heritage", provided no such thing.  The "Introductory Display" contained a selection of maritime objects, each adequately described by its own label, but with nothing linking them together.  (It didn't help that there was a good deal of reflection on the curved glass of the display, making the labels hard to read.)

What was I looking for?  Well, two things really: clearer chronology, and a stronger narrative.  Of course chronology is coming strongly back into fashion, not only in history teaching (I've blogged about that before), but also in museum design - most famously at Tate Britain, which has rehung all its paintings in strict chronological order, receiving mixed reviews.  So I'm wary of being a fashion victim... but I really think a clearer, chronologically straightforward narrative of Aberdeen's changing relationship with the sea would have improved the museum.  For example, the exhibit of the early history of the port (from pre-history up to its expansion in the 19th century) was hidden away right in the back corner of the top floor, and it took up comparatively little space.

Murchison oil platform model
By contrast, filling the museum were the exhibits dedicated to the oil industry.  These were certainly very striking, particularly the 8-metre model of the Murchison oil platform, but they did make the overall visit experience rather unbalanced.

The museum was quite open about its partnership with oil companies, but I was a little uneasy about this.  One exhibit that certainly didn't lack a clear narrative was the 3D movie about life on an oil platform: it can only be described as a propaganda video.  It was 100% financed by the TAQA Bratani oil company; needless to say, it emphasised the safety and environmental responsibility of the industry, as well as its care for the wellbeing of its workers.  Yet on the floor above was a smaller exhibit dedicated to the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 people (including 165 out of 226 people stationed on that oil platform) died.  Reading about that wholly preventable disaster, and the criticisms made of the platform operator Occidental Petroleum, provided a timely reminder that the assurances of large companies should perhaps not be accepted uncritically.

Of course, there were several parts of the museum I did enjoy.  Perhaps the best parts, in my view, were those about the fishing industry, and how it's changed over the centuries.  It's probably not coincidental that these were the exhibits that provided the clearest narrative.  Should I have grown out of this need to have my hand held?  Maybe, but I guess I just like a good story.