Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My cathedral (part I)

London's Natural History Museum may be my favourite building in the world. Not just for the fabulous collection that sits inside but for the building. It is essentially a cathedral. A huge monument to something that deserves to be worshipped and is one of the few places where truly epic stonework doesn't have a purely religious theme.....Well actually it does have a bit of a religious theme.

You see the curator at the time all this was done was Richard Owen, a great anatomist who was also a bit of a wrong-un and prone to be remembered for getting two big calls wrong. Firstly he argued with (and was beastly to) Gideon Mantell about Dinosaurs (don't believe me ? check Dawn of Time). He was wrong. Then he argued with Darwin about whether or not natural selection was a goer. He got that wrong too (unless you're reading this in Kansas). He did build a kickass museum though and in so doing he supposedly insisted the carvings on one wing represent extinct creatures only and on the other only extant creatures (to show the two did not mix, intermingle or develop from one another as his nemesis Darwin suggested). Whatever the rights or wrongs of the man, he knew cool terracotta work. The below are all from the "extinct wing" and were produced by Gibbs and Canning Limited. The interpretations of what they represent are my own suppositions and I'd welcome corrections as I've found no online details.


Above is obviously a winged reptile of some kind and is my favourite. NHM should offer moulded copies of this badboy for people's houses. Seriously. As to what it is, based solely upon it having been known for so long I would guess Pterodactylus.


Hmm big, lethal looking fish. These appear to be lobe-fins. They could, hilariously, be Coelocanths which were still thought to be extinct at the time but of course weren't. They certainly don't look far off. No idea what the thing in the middle is.


I originally called the file containing the photo above "iguanas" although given that they too are on thee extinct side I guess that can't be right nor can tuatara (and they do kind of look tuataraish). I suppose these could be any small extinct reptile, perhaps a synapsid? Given the involvement of Owen and his supposed use of the carvings for score-settling I'd really rather like to believe that these are supposed to be Iguanadon which Owen was absolutely sure looked like this. Anyone know if my hunch is right?

Well the above (and some of the other carvings which will be shown tomorrow) got me thinking. The few throw away facts I've put below each photo should give just a hint of how much our knowledge has changed over the 130 years or so since the NHM terracotta work was done and that got me thinking what beasties I would put up on the walls if I were to build an extension now in the same style or a new natural history museum or (Darwin forbid) to replace beasts lost in a York Minster style disaster. I figured such beasties should represent charismatic species or families, should perhaps tell the story of evolution or of our growing biological knowledge.

I'd love it if readers would let me know what you'd want to see in such a scenario either in the comments or blog posts of your own (could the fantasy natural history museum become a science/natureblog meme? I'd love to see it happen, never mind just carvings - what else should it have? Let's hear it!)

Part II thursday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've always been a fan of the flies (diptera) so I'd like to see some in the museum. Cephalopods seem pretty fashionable at the moment so perhaps they should make an appearance. Enjoying the blog by the way!