Planet Earth

Ten Great Science Museums: South Kensington

By Oliver SacksNov 1, 1993 6:00 AM


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I have loved museums as far back as I can remember. They have played a central role in my life in stimulating the imagination and showing me the order of the world in vivid, concrete form, but in a tidy form, in miniature. I love botanical gardens and zoos for the same reason: they show one nature, but nature classified, the taxonomy of life. Books are not real in this sense; they are only words. Museums are booklike arrangements of the real and they make explicit that strange metaphor, the book of nature.

The four grand South Kensington museums--all within the same plot of land and all built in the same high-Victorian baroque style--were conceived at the same time as a single, many-aspected unity, a way of making natural history and science and the study of human cultures public and accessible to everybody. The South Ken Museums--along with the Royal Institute and its popular Christmas lectures--were a unique Victorian educational institution. They still represent for me, as they did in childhood, the essence of museumhood.

There was the Natural History Museum, the Geology Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, devoted to cultural history. I was a science type and never went to the V&A;, but the other three I regarded as a single museum and went to each, or all, of them equally. I went to them constantly, on free afternoons, on weekends, on holidays, whenever I could. I resented being shut out of them when they were closed, and one night I contrived to stay in the Natural History Museum, hiding myself at closing time in the Fossil Invertebrate Gallery (not as well guarded as the Dinosaur Gallery or the Whales) and spending an enchanted night alone in the museum, wandering from gallery to gallery with a flashlight. Familiar animals became fearful, uncanny, as I prowled that night, their faces suddenly looming out of the darkness or hovering ghostlike at the periphery of the flashlight. The museum, lightless, was a place of delirium, and I was not wholly sorry when morning came.

I had many friends in the Natural History Museum--Cacops and Eryops, giant fossil amphibians with a hole for a third, pineal eye in their skull; the cubomedusan jellyfish Charybdea, the lowliest animal with nerve ganglia and eyes; the beautiful blown-glass models of Radiolaria and Heliozoa--but my deepest love, my special passion, was for the cephalopods, of which there was a magnificent collection. My zoological (or, more accurately, taxonomic) passion was shared by two friends, Jonathan Miller and Eric Korn. Each of us was drawn to or adopted a different class or phylum--for Jonathan it was polychaetes, for Eric holothurians, and for me, octopus lover, it had to be cephalopods. I would spend hours looking at the squids: Sthenotheuthis carolii, stranded on the coast of Yorkshire in 1925, or the exotic, soot-black Vampyroteuthis (only a wax model here, alas), a rare abyssal form with an umbrellalike web between the tentacles, spangled with brilliant, luminous stars in its folds. And of course Architeuthis, the emperor of giant squids, locked in mortal embrace with a whale.

But it was not just the giants, the exotica, that held my attention. I loved, especially in the insect and mollusk galleries, to open the study drawers beneath the cases to see all the varieties, the markings, of a single species or shell, and how each variety had its own, favored geographical location. I could not, like Darwin, go to the Galápagos and compare finches on every island, but I could do the next best thing in the museum. I could be a vicarious naturalist, an imaginary traveler with a ticket to the whole world, without leaving South Kensington.

And sometimes, after the museum staff got to know me, I would be let through a massive locked door into the private realm, the new Spirit Building, where the real work of the museum was done: receiving and sorting specimens from all over the world, examining them, dissecting them, identifying new species--and sometimes preparing them for special exhibits. (One such was the coelacanth, the newly discovered living fossil fish Latimeria, a creature supposed extinct since the Cretaceous.) I spent days on end in the new Spirit Building before going up to Oxford; Eric Korn spent an entire year there. We were all in love with taxonomy in those days--we were all Victorian naturalists at heart.

I loved the old-fashioned glass-and-mahogany look of the museum and was furious when, in my university days in the 1950s, it got all modern and gaudy and started installing trendy exhibits. (It eventually went interactive.) Jonathan Miller shared my disgust as well as my nostalgia: I have a great hankering for that sepia-tinted era, he once wrote to me. I long endlessly for the whole place suddenly to be plunged into the gritty monochrome of 1876.

Outside the Natural History Museum was a pleasant garden, presided over by trunks of Sigillaria, a long-extinct fossil tree, and a miscellany of Calamites. I was drawn to this, to fossil botany, with an almost painful intensity; if Jonathan was nostalgic for the gritty monochrome of 1876, I wanted the green monochrome, the cycad forests of the Jurassic. I even dreamed at night, as an adolescent, of giant woody club mosses and tree horsetails, primeval giant gymnosperm forests enveloping the globe, and would wake furious to think they had long since disappeared, the world taken over by brightly colored, up-to-date modern flowering plants.

From the Jurassic fossil garden of the Natural History Museum it was scarcely a hundred yards to the Geology Museum, a museum virtually deserted at all times, as far as I could see. (Sadly, this museum no longer exists; its collection has been incorporated into the Natural History Museum.) It was full of special treasures, secret pleasures, for the knowing, patient eye. There was a giant crystal of antimony sulfide, stibnite, from Japan. It stood six feet high, a crystalline phallus, a totem, and it fascinated me in a peculiar, almost reverential way. There was phonolite, a sonorous mineral from Devils Tower in Wyoming; the keepers of the museum, once they got to know me, would let me hit it with the palm of my hand, and it would emit a dull but gonglike and reverberant boom, as if one had hit the sounding board of a piano.

I loved the sense here of a nonliving world--the beauty of crystals, the sense that they were built of identical atomic lattices, perfect. But if they were perfect, and (as it were) mathematics incarnate, they also stirred me with their sensuous beauty. I spent hours looking at pale yellow crystals of sulfur or mauve crystals of fluorite--clustered, gemlike, like a mescaline vision--and at the other extreme the strange organic forms of kidney ore, hematite, looking so much like the kidneys of giant animals that I would wonder for a moment which museum I was in.

But finally I would always go back to the Science Museum, for this was the first one I had ever been taken to. My mother had sometimes taken my brothers and me here even before the war, when I was a child. She would take us through the magical galleries--the early airplanes, the dinosaurlike machines of the industrial revolution, the old optical contrivances--to a smaller gallery at the top where there was a reconstruction of a coal mine with the original equipment. Look! she would say. Look there! And she’d direct our gaze to an old mining lamp. My father, your grandfather, invented that! she would say, and we would bend our heads and read: The Landau lamp, invented by Marcus Landau in 1869. It displaced the earlier Humphry Davy lamp. Whenever I read this it excited me strangely and gave me a sense of a personal bond to the museum and to my grandfather (born in 1837 and long since dead), the sense that he and his invention were still somehow real and alive.

But the real epiphany came for me in the Science Museum when I was ten, when I discovered the periodic table up on the fifth floor--not one of your nasty, natty, modern little spirals, but a solid rectangular one covering a whole wall, with separate cubicles for every element and the actual elements, whenever possible, in place: chlorine, greenish yellow; swirling brown bromine; jet black (but violet vapored) crystals of iodine; heavy, heavy slugs of uranium; and pellets of lithium floating in oil. They even had the inert gases (or noble gases, too noble to combine): helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon (but not radon--I guessed it was too dangerous). They were invisible, of course, inside their sealed tubes, but one knew they were there.

The actual presence of the elements reinforced the feeling that these were indeed the elemental building blocks of the universe, that the whole universe was here, in microcosm, in South Kensington. I had an overwhelming sense of Truth and Beauty when I saw the periodic table, a sense that this was not a mere human construct, arbitrary, but an actual vision of the eternal cosmic order, and that any future discoveries and advances, whatever they might add, would only reinforce, reaffirm, the truth of its order.

This feeling of grandeur, the immutability of nature’s laws, but of how they might prove graspable by us if we sufficiently seek them--this came to me overwhelmingly when I was a boy of ten, standing before the periodic table, in the Science Museum in South Kensington. It has never left me, and 50 years later it is undimmed, still the same. My faith and life were set at that moment; my Pisgah, my Sinai, came in a museum.

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