Stores and Pliosaurs

This week in my masters, we visited yet another exciting place that people communicate science: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. We weren’t just taken there for a lecture or a casual look around the museum; from past experience, site visits always have something extra up their sleeves.

I wasn’t disappointed and I felt my eyes widening as the senior curator announced that we would be given a tour or the stores which housed the 90% of the collections that weren’t on display!

I wasn’t disappointed and I felt my eyes widening as the senior curator announced that we would be given a tour or the stores which housed the 90% of the collections that weren’t on display!

As we were led through a secret door and down a set of steep, narrow steps I couldn’t wait to see what lay beyond the door at the bottom. The first thing that hit me, apart from the smell, was the sheer volume of “stuff” that was carefully placed on miles of tall shelves. What met us first though, was the beautiful skeleton of an Indian elephant. I know that beautiful isn’t the first thing that you think of when viewing a skeleton but seeing what is beneath the skin of these impressive animals really makes you appreciate how complex life is!

As we filed down the slim passages between the shelves, the curator slid back numerous cupboards for us to have a peek inside. Instantly we came face to face with a host of taxidermy animals, mainly birds and I unashamedly held up the queue behind me by taking photos of everything! From impressive birds of prey to shelves of colourful ducks, there seemed no limits to the of animals that were in their collections. Passing by one cabinet, we were met by the pungent aroma of a bird that used a certain smell to attract its mates and despite being very dead, it was still producing the smell!

Apart from mammals and birds there were cases of butterflies, skeletons of reptiles, a host of bugs, flowers, pressed plants, eggs huddled in nests, shells and a shelf of animals which historic taxidermists hadn’t known what to make of so stuffed them in strange positions. The only downside of these beautiful collections was that they were bathed in arsenic and other toxic chemicals to protect them against organisms like moths that would try to break them down.

After the biology stores, we emerged back into the main museum and were taken down another set of wooden stairs to the geology stores with the collections bathed in similar toxic chemicals to protect and preserve them. These vast collections were on the same scale of impressive and we were shown all manner of fossils like the fragmented but beautiful skeleton of a Pliosaurus that was the feature of the main exhibition at the time. One thing that stuck in my mind from that tour was the box of meteors. It’s hard to describe the feelings you get when you’re shown something that is potentially from the beginning of time; something so incomprehensibly that it almost makes you feel insignificant.

That was the thing about the stores though, each collection made me feel different things. Apart from the awe and wonder of both stores, the biology collections made me feel like an intrepid explorer, discovering creatures from all over the globe. The geology stores made me feel like I was starring through a window in time, catching glimpses of the array of life and diverse environments that existed before humans, trying to piece together a full picture from fragments of fossils and rock. Basically, the whole tour blew my mind!

As well as the stores we got the chance to visit their impressive Pliosaurus exhibition which featured a life sized Pliosaurus hanging from the ceiling. The model was incredible, you could touch it, smell it, listen to its heart and gurgling stomach, crawl underneath it, watch its eye move and prod the strangely realistic infected flipper. This is the type of exhibit that I aspire to create in the future; again, my mind was blown, and I gushed my love for the exhibit to the senior curator running our session.

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The whole day really inspired me, and I was so excited to add another place onto my list of potential organisations that I could apply to when I finish my masters. It also made me appreciate what goes into museum displays and how they struggle to keep up with current trends when they have so much to show. I don’t envy the people who have to decide what to show and what to keep back when they probably wish they could put everything on the museum floor. It’s this fact that means only 10% of their collections are shown at any point, a shame when there are so many fascinating specimens that should be appreciated by everyone.

This is another problem faced by museums with vast collections; how do you make sure that you’re not just showing a group of things that have no relevance or interest to your audience? How do you engage someone in a skeleton that is millions of years old but doesn’t look like anything currently living in earth? This course is really helping me to start to answer these questions and form countless others to try and help people appreciate things like museum collections as much as I do!

 

 

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