Saturday, 16 May 2009

My Day Out In South Kensington

It was a typical day yesterday; grey with the promise of rain if I was unlucky and I did feel the occasional spot of rain as I was walking to the bus stop. Then there was the 20-minute wait for a bus that is supposed to run at 8-12 minute intervals; the roadworks for the replacement of the Victorian water mains in my part of London are responsible for many buses being diverted from their usual routes, and delays to them too.

After changing from a bus as my method of transport to the Underground my journey speeded up and after arrival as South Kensington Station and then walking through the subway that links the station to the museums, it was time for me to make my decision. Which museum was it to be? I took the first exit from the subway; it was going to be the Natural History Museum.

The museum opened at 10am and having arrived a few minutes before that I decided to sit by the East Lawn on one of those terribly uncomfortable metal benches that we have in so many of our public areas. I could see the mass of people queueing for entry to the museum from where I sat and promptly at 10am the queue started to move. But as quickly as people were entering the museum (there is a search of bags immediately inside) the queue did not seem to be getting any smaller because more people were joining the queue, the only sensible thing to do was to join them. This photograph was taken at 10.26am, so with the queue still present, but at least moving at a reasonable rate, I decided to join it. I found myself in the middle of a group of French school children but one of their teachers took pity on me and indicated that I should go ahead of them in the queue, so that less than 10 minutes later I found myself at the head of the queue. My handbag was searched by a very nice man who as he cleared me through hoped that I would enjoy my visit to the museum.

There are two entrances to the Natural History Museum, and if the Exhibition Road entrance was as busy as the Cromwell Road entrance that I had chosen to use, then it is probable that well in excess of 1000 people had entered through its doors during the first hour of opening. The majority of these appeared to be be foreign visitors. There may be a global recession at present, but the relatively low value of the pound against the dollar and the euro, and the many things that there are to see and do in London, could well make this a bumper year for tourism.

So what did I look at in the Natural History Museum? There is so much to see, but I am fascinated by the way in which the Earth was formed, in particular the way that various rocks are created and what happens to them over time. This includes the way in which certain elements become compounds and the way that heat and pressure affect these compounds to create incredible crystals, some of which become what we call precious and semi-precious gemstones.

So I was dazzled and amazed in three separate areas of the museum. I walked down one side of the Earth Hall, then climbed the stairs to Earth's Treasury. Here there were collections of gemstones that had been donated to the museum by collectors, many of whom had worked in far flung areas of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. There are thousands of exhibits of beautiful minerals and gemstones in this gallery and I could have spent the whole day here being mesmerised by their beauty and diversity. From Earth's Treasury I returned to the Earth Hall and viewed the exhibits on the other side.

My next port of call was Minerals. This is an example of how one always pictures Victorian museums. Massive cabinets of exhibits on the walls and the room filled with wooden desk-like cabinets full to overflowing with examples of whatever the room is about. It always amazes me how high some of these desk-like display cases are and how difficult it can be for those who are on the short side to be able to see their contents. From here I went to what was the highlight of the day for me; The Vault. This small room houses an incredible collection of precious and semi-precious gemstones with some in their natural form and others cut, polished and mounted in jewellery and fine objects.

This uncut emerald, one of the largest emerald crystals ever found, is 1384 carats in size and was bought by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Perfect emeralds are very rare, and the many flaws in this particular crystal probably saved it from being cut into smaller stones and mounted into jewellery. But because of its size and beautiful colour, it was prominently displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It is somewhat fitting that having been acquired for the nation as part of a settlement of death duties, the emerald should now be displayed in the Natural History Museum, a building created from the profits of that exhibition.

But the highlight of the day for me was undoubtedly the display of coloured diamonds. None of the stones are large, but they do represent every colour in which diamonds can be found and they are displayed as a work of art. The display is illuminated alternately by white and ultraviolet light with the result that the diamonds can be seen to display different colours in each. I had never before appreciated how different such diamonds could look in different lighting conditions and the sheer beauty of them as a work of nature enhanced by the work of man.

I had spent two and a half hours wandering through these few displays and decided to go outside for some fresh air and a cup of coffee. After this short break I decided on a change and made my way along Exhibition Road to the Science Museum. Where I had never visited the Natural History Museum before, I do remember making a visit to the Science Museum as a child on a day out from school. I'm not sure exactly when this visit was made but it was certainly more than 40 years ago, and I actually remember very little of the visit at all. Since that time many new items have been added to the collection and they way that things are displayed has been changed significantly too. Yes, there are still the large engines that I do vaguely remember, but there is also the command capsule of Apollo 10, the last mission before men landed on the Moon. The Science Museum also houses an IMAX cinema and if you have never seen an IMAX film before I do recommend that you do so, for the experience can be truly breath-taking. My first visit to see an IMAX film was in the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. I saw many IMAX films there over the years, and later saw films at the IMAX cinemas at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral and in Darling Harbour Sydney (yes, I have been a bit of a traveller in my time). This was going to be the first IMAX cinema that I had visited in more than 10 years and I chose to see a 3-D animated film entitled Fly Me to the Moon. I have seen 3-D films before but never on such a large screen; and the tale that was told was enchanting. It was about three young flies who hitched a ride on Apollo 11 on its journey to the Moon and the 3-D effects were superb. From feeling as though you were actually in the grass and looking up at the world around you, to having a drop of orange juice float towards you in the weightlessness of space. It was an amusing end to my day of exploration and education.

At about 5pm I started to make my way home. My legs were tired and my feet were aching, but I had enjoyed my day out far more than I had expected. I am now planning my next visit to the museums of South Kensington.


cb said...

It sounds great! These posts are motivating me to do more at the weekends..

Anonymous said...

Certainly sounds like it was a great day out!