London, Travels

Natural History Museum – hot chocolate, dodo and the survival of the fittest

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.  – Immanuel Kant

The Natural History Museum in London is a Victorian temple for science, built to satisfy the needs of the era’s “collect and conquer” -principle. With over 80 millions of specimen from botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology, the museum is a spectacular vision of human intelligence: and as a ruler of his Kingdom, the statue of Charles Darwin sits on top of the nave’s staircase, shimmering in the sunshine from the skylight window, like Virgin Mary herself.

The building itself, seen from outside, is magnificent: its vertical lines reaching for the eternal, its horizontal strictness oozing respectability. And then, when you step in from the sunny (in meteorological, not connotational sense) Cromwell Road to the dark entrance hall, the fist amazement; the nave, where a grin of a dinosaur, frozen in time, welcomes the visitors. After this, it is rush everywhere: hundred other tourists with their cameras, brochures, winter coats stuffed into the prams, posing for the selfies in front of the big-beaked and sad dodo – is this where the Western world’s progress, based on evolution and the survival of the fittest, has come to? Hallelujah.

A specimen of an architectural feature.

A specimen of an architectural feature.

A specimen no. 2, an architectural feature.

A specimen no. 2, an architectural feature.

In the several little fossil filled chapels encircling the nave, a solemn atmosphere persists: hundreds, thousands, millions of little creatures in their glass boxes. Stuffed ducks, already perished reptiles, a blue whale floating in the air, bones of dinosaurs. Are these the organized pieces of nature, hiding wisdom somewhere behind them? Hiding it somewhere where, if looking hard enough, even a casual visitor like me can detect it? I wonder.

And then, from the upper floors, among the regular line of arches, when the first astonishment has little by little given way to rational analysis again, I keep wondering: is not Darwin’s statue just one specimen among the others, a specimen of a scientific man’s body carved out of marble – a procedure which is, after all, typical behaviour to our noble race? And all these hundreds of visitors, me among them, like insects crawling from one glass coffin to another, pointing and posing in a superficial wonder. With all these deadly stares and lively selfies around me I start feeling a bit depressed, and wrapped in the good old Scandi Gloom:

It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians. – Henrik Ibsen

But there is one fact that delights me when I am wandering around the museum: I learn that the man who donated the museum’s first collection, an Ulster man called Sir Hans Sloane, is the man who brought hot chocolate to Europe. This is something I can raise my chalice to: cheers to science, and hallelujah.

Brain freeze in the face of a dino.

Brain freeze in the face of a dino.

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