Tuesday, 26 May 2009

My Second Day Out In South Kensington

Well, I'm not exactly original. I decided not to spend a lot of money on entrance fees, so that meant that two of my possible places to visit (the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey) were off the list. As I headed for the bus stop I knew it was going to be a museum or a gallery; but which one? The bus I was on meant that there were so many possibilities. In the end, I decided to get off the bus at Trafalgar Square and take the Underground to South Kensington; it was going to be the Natural History Museum again.

I arrived a little later than last week; it was just 10am as I emerged from the subway that takes you from the Underground station to the museums. The doors had just opened and it was possible to see that the queue was moving but that it was much longer than last week. However, I knew that I was going to fortify myself with a coffee before I went in so the queue would hopefully die down a little while I drank my morning brew. And while I drank my coffee I tried to make up my mind what parts of the museum's incredible collections I was going to visit today. One thing that I was sure about was that I was going to take plenty of photographs to include in this blog so that those of my readers who are unable to visit this wonderful museum would be able to see some of its treasures.

Again, to show my lack of originality, I went to the Vault. I had been so mesmerized by its contents on my first visit that I had to go and look at this superb collection again. As you enter this area the first thing that you see is this beautiful gold snuff box encrusted with diamonds and surmounted with an enamel portrait of Tsar Alexander II of Russia who gave the box to Sir Roderick Murchison, Director General of the British Geological Survey, who compiled the first geological map of the Ural Mountains in Russia in 1841. This map identified Russia's rich mineral deposits which would be a potential source of great wealth for Russia. The workmanship is incredible and the 16 large diamonds set around the edge of the lid of the box are each up to 2.5 carats in weight.

The Latrobe Nugget, which weighs 717 grammes, is not the largest gold nugget ever to have been found but it has exceptionally well-defined crystals for a nugget of its size; some of the crystals are more than a centimetre across so this gives some idea of the size of the nugget. The nugget contains a small impurity of copper, which gives it a particularly rich colour. It is named after the Governor of Victoria, Australia, who was visiting the mine on the day in 1853 that it was found. Gold is more usually found as small grains or dust, so nuggets of this size are quite rare, and when as beautifully formed as this one is, are items of great beauty.

This beautiful opal necklace is made up of opals selected by Guy Dollman, who worked in the Zoology Department of the Natural History Museum. He collected them over the period 1907 to 1942, and they were made into this necklace for his wife; the necklace was given to the Museum in 1958. As a lover of opals myself, I know how difficult it is to get a pair of opal matching in size and colour for a pair of earrings, so to collect such wonderful specimens as those included in this necklace must truly have been a labour of love.

This photograph shows three boulders that have been split open to reveal the opal hidden within. Opals are very fragile in comparison to other precious stones such as diamonds, sapphires and rubies. This means that cutting and polishing them to make jewellery-quality stones is very difficult; mounting them can be a problem too as they can be damaged with the heat required to mould the precious metal around the finished opal. The best stones are not the milky white opal that is most familiar to us mounted in jewellery but the stones with their rainbow of colours in a darker background. The most highly-prized stones are those that contain the colour red.

From the Vault, I decided to go to the section of the museum devoted to Human Biology. This particular area is very popular with the parties of school children that you encounter in the museum. In fact, it was so full of school children that it was almost impossible to see many of the exhibits. This is probably because this is a very interactive area and there are lots of things for the children to watch, touch, or play with. However, I persevered and did manage to make my way round the whole of the exhibition area until I came to a part that was almost devoid of people. Perhaps the reason that the children seemed to be absent from this area was to do with the subject that it covered; memory. I am sure that most of them have a wonderful memory, after all they are young and it has not yet been filled with the sort of things that those of us with a few more years under our belts have filed away. I just could not resist taking a photograph of the elephant, for elephants are supposed to have long memories, especially as it had a knotted handkerchief in its trunk!

From here I went to look at some of the marvellous fossils that line the walls in the next part of the museum. While some of the fossils come from various locations around the world, many of them are from Britain, and in particular Lyme Regis. The first ichthyosaur fossil ever discovered was found at Lyme Regis, by Mary Anning who was only aged 11 at the time of its discovery in 1811. Anning was to make her living by selling the finds that she made in the cliffs around her home town of Lyme Regis, and was the world's first professional fossil hunter. The photograph on the right shows an ichthyosaur found by Mary Anning, although this one was complete unlike her original find which had merely comprised the skull and a number of neck bones. The photograph on the left is of the fossilized bones of a giant sloth. Charles Darwin found the fossilized bones of a giant sloth when he was on HMS Beagle and it was by comparing bones such as these from the extinct giant sloth with those of sloths that were living in the present that helped Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.

From looking at fossils I went to looking at birds in the Bird Hall. Most of us are aware of the story of the Dodo, a giant of the pigeon family that became extinct in the 17th Century, less than 100 years after its discovery, thanks to humans bringing rats, cats and pigs to the island of Mauritius, the home of the dodo. There are no real examples of a dodo, only models, although the museum does have dodo skeletons. The photograph shows the museum's model of the Mauritius Dodo on the left, and the model on the right is of a close relative, the somewhat smaller Reunion Island dodo, which is also extinct. The dodo is not one of nature's most beautiful creations and another group of birds that it would be very difficult to describe as being attractive are vultures. The photograph to the right shows a Cinereous vulture, and having seen vultures for real in South Africa, I have to say that this is one of the more handsome examples of the species. But as we know there are some birds that are very attractive and colourful and one of the exhibits in the Bird Hall includes some of the most incredible birds in the world. Hummingbirds are tiny, and their wings beat at incredible speeds and because of the way in which they can manoeuvre their wings, humming birds are able to remain in one spot in order to gather the nectar that is their source of food, and therefore their energy, from flowers. There are hundreds of hummingbirds in this case, celebrating the diversity of these amazing little birds which are generally between 6 and 12 centimetres in length. The display case and its contents are nearly 200 years old and the plumage of many of the birds has faded over the years, but the iridescent breast feathers of some can still be seen, giving some idea of what these charming little birds must have looked like when the display was new.
After the Bird Hall I decided on a change of scenery. I left the Natural History Museum and crossed Exhibition Road and made my way to the entrance of the Victoria & Albert Museum. I had never visited this museum before but I was aware that its collections were 'art' of various types. When you walk up the steps and in through the main entrance of the museum you find yourself in an entrance hall that is light and airy and which houses an information point above which is the most incredible blown-glass chandelier. I have to admit that I am not a great lover of modern pieces, but this is just so spectacular that you cannot help but be inspired by it.I knew that with all the walking that I had already done that I would not be able to visit many of the areas in the V&A, so armed with a map of its galleries I sat down for a few minutes to make up my mind which I would be visiting. The decision turned out to be quite easy in the end; I went to have a look at the jewellery collection and the miniature paintings. As photography was not allowed in these areas, I am afraid that I cannot show you the things that most appealed to me; but it is true to say that the collections are superb and are well worth visiting.

There are a few other areas in the V&A that I would like to visit on a future occasion, but it is not the sort of museum that I would visit on a regular basis, probably because I am not so interested in the kinds of items in its collections. However, having said that, it is another jewel in the collection of museums that we are so lucky to have in this country.

So, another day out in London and another day that ended with tired legs and aching feet. I have to admit that I was glad to get home and put my feet up for a while, before thinking about where I would be going on my next outing. I haven't made my mind up yet, but one thing that I do know is that there are still lots of places for me to see.

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