Cambridge: The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

I have to confess that the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences was pretty much my concession to Marcus. Not that he didn’t enjoy all the other museums, but the Sedgwick is one I probably would have skipped if I was on my own, because other than the occasional dinosaur bone, earth science doesn’t exactly thrill me. But it was right next to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and on the way back to the train station, so there was really no reason not to visit (note that unlike the Whipple Museum, for the Sedgwick, you really do have to walk around to the back for the main entrance, but it’s worth it for the splendid staircases).

  

Except for the impossible-to-miss Iguanodon, first impressions of the Sedgwick were not great. It appeared to be a room full of case after case of well, rocks. Still, I spent a while studying the Iguanodon, and was interested to learn that while undoubtedly more accurate than Owen’s hilarious, albeit rather charming version at Crystal Palace, the Iguanodon at the Sedgwick is also outdated according to modern theories that have the Iguanodon walking on four legs, rather than two. However, they’re chosen to leave him in his current position to show how theories change over time, and he certainly looks more imposing this way.

  

Happily, after quickly making my way past all those cases of rocks, I was excited to find that there was more dinosaur stuff at the back of the room, including the excellent painting shown above, and the giant Plesiosaur on the right that looks a lot like how the Loch Ness monster is meant to look, if, you know, it was real (which it’s not). Even cooler was the fact that a lot of these fossils were purchased from the famous Mary Anning.

  

I was also glad that there was a whole other section to the museum, completely hidden from the entrance, that contained more interesting stuff than just rocks. Such as loads of plant and animal fossils, included some collected by Charles Darwin and other famous geologists, and even re-creations of what some of the animals would have looked like. Check out the largest spider that ever lived, which I am clearly more than a little disgusted by. I don’t even know how you would go about killing something like that…the horrible crunchy squish that would result makes me feel a little sick just thinking about it.

  

But the best section was still to come. It was the second half of the first room, which we came back to last. First of all, there were some more awesome skeletons, including one of a hippo fossil found near Cambridge (because 120,000 years ago, the same species of hippo that now lives only in Africa used to live in Britain as well), and a Giant Irish Elk.

  

Then, there was a whole display devoted to Charles Darwin (in addition to the fossils he collected that I already mentioned). It detailed his years as a geologist, which is what he was at the start of his career (he also attended Cambridge, which is why he was featured here) before getting into biology, and focused mainly on his voyage on the Beagle, with many, many artefacts from that voyage (he distributed his collection to various friends upon his return, but a lot of the things he collected seemed to have ultimately ended up here). I’d just been reading up on Darwin (well, sort of indirectly through the story of his beard in Victorians Undone, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Victorians, medical history, or the history of the body generally), so I thought this was all really interesting, and quite relevant to what I’d just been reading, since it talked a bit about his health complaints.

  

The final section of interest (to me anyway, though I think Marcus was most impressed by the collection of rock hammers belonging to famous geologists) was a whole case full of information about the role of the members of the Sedgwick Club in WWI (the Sedgwick Club being Cambridge’s geological society named after pioneering geologist Adam Sedgwick, who is also the museum’s eponym). It talked about how geologists were used to supervise tunneling operations throughout the war, since Flanders has different bedrock than France, and different methods were needed for each type, especially when calculating the number of explosives needed to blow up German trenches from underneath!  It also mentioned a few prominent geologists from that time, and how they served; the one that caught my eye was Gertrude Elles. Elles grew up in Wimbledon, which was neat in itself (since I live there), but she was also remarkable for being a female geologist in the Edwardian era, and for serving with the Red Cross during the war, for which she was awarded an MBE.

  

Even though I wasn’t the most enthusiastic visitor at first, by the end I was glad that we had found things we could both enjoy in the museum, and I was excited that I even managed to learn something new about the First World War!  Plus everyone likes dinosaurs (don’t they?!) and the museum is of course free, so it’s certainly worth at least dropping in, because you might discover something interesting (amongst all the rocks, or maybe even the rocks themselves if that’s what floats your boat). 3.5/5, better than expected, and worth the effort just for those fabulous bison on the staircase.

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15 comments

  1. I noticed the bison on the stairs right off! They ARE wonderful!
    Oh god, that spider … Just the idea of it jumping suddenly or darting quickly makes me feel vaguely nauseous. But I quite like that Irish Elk – something sweet and dopey about its outsized antlers. I bet it couldn’t shake its head without falling over.
    Thank you for the tip on Victorians Undone. I’m going to get right on that! And I’ll have to look into Gertrude Elles as well – she sounds quite remarkable.

    1. That spider is definitely the grossest, I think at least partly because its body is so fat in relation to the size of its legs, which would make killing it especially horrible. You’d need a boot the size of the one they try to “boot” Bart Simpson with in Australia to stomp on it (wait, something just occurred to me. Is the reason the boot is so big because it’s Australia, and they have so many giant spiders there, so need the giant boot to kill them?). The elk is perfectly lovely though.
      I suggested that we should add Gertrude Elles to the list of people we’re researching in the project where I volunteer, because WWI + local history makes her the perfect candidate, but I’m down to once a month there since I started my job, instead of twice a week, so I’m not sure if anyone has actually done any research yet. I’ll let you know if she appears on our website!

      1. I think you must be right about the Australian boot thing – good ankle protection from bites too. Though I think I’d probably wear hip-waders if I had to be near any bug bigger than a pencil eraser.
        Yes, please let me know if you get to add Gertrude Elles to the website – but either way, I’d love to see what your project gets up to. I recently joined that Zooniverse site to help transcribe WWI journals (as if my eyes needed more strain) and it’d be nice to read about some of your local history without having to decipher faded pencil markings myself.

      2. But most bugs are bigger than an eraser! Britain doesn’t have that many gross bugs, but our house spiders do get worryingly large. I came home late the other night, walked into the kitchen to get a snack, and as soon as I flipped the light on, spotted a giant spider only inches from my feet (and I’d already taken my shoes off!). I’m not really the screaming type, but I definitely yelled quite loudly.
        We have a couple of websites already, but they are a bit crap, and still missing a lot of information. cis.photoarchive.merton.gov.uk/
        http://photoarchive.merton.gov.uk/
        We’ve also done a few walking tours of Merton…which I may have done the audio guides for. Because obviously you want an American telling you things about British history.

      3. Ewww, I’m really sorry to hear about that spider. They really go for the horror-movie-reveal, don’t they? We don’t often get spiders in our place but we do have (shudder) the occasional centipede (shudder), which to me are exceedingly repulsive. We call them “CBMs” – short for Charles Bronson’s Moustache. They too like to suddenly appear, and usually in an extraordinarily dramatic fashion – like behind a glass that magnifies their hideous bodies, or on the opposite side of a shower curtain a la Psycho. Blech … Bastard things.
        Yay! Thank you for the link – I’m looking forward to delving into it!

      4. I HATE centipedes (though I love your name for them!). I don’t think they live in England; at least, I’ve never seen one here, but there sure are a lot of them in Ohio! About a million of them lived in the basement of the house I grew up in. I would sleep on the couch down there whenever I was sick or had trouble falling asleep, because that’s where we kept the cable TV, but more than once, I woke up to find a centipede hanging from the bit of ceiling above my head. That’s probably the fastest I’ve ever moved in my life. They are even grosser than spiders.

      5. Hanging above your head?! Nightmare fodder! God, they’re the worst. I’m sorry you know what I’m talking about – but kinda pleased you understand how heinous they are. I’ll probably never get a chance to mention it again so I have to tell you – I recently saw the largest CBM of my life. I came upon it standing on its hind legs, or back 50 or whatever, and it was trying to push open a door. It was so big it didn’t even stop when it saw me. That’s what miserable, shitty things they are. … Okay I’m done now, I promise.

  2. I don’t mind spiders normally, but that one! I’d scream the house down. I investigated the comments too: that sounds an interesting project you are involved with. Investigating local history can be very rewarding.

    1. It is an interesting project, and I really miss working on it every week, though I’m glad I can stay involved in some small way. It’s nice to actually make money doing something, but I miss using my brain! I wish it wasn’t so difficult to get a paying job doing historical research these days…seems like almost everything is farmed out to volunteers.

  3. Eewwww omg that spider! Thank you for not making that picture any bigger : P
    Very cool about the connections to Anning and Darwin. And I am so excited about that book you mentioned! I can’t wait to read it.

    1. I mean, you can make the picture a lot bigger if you click on it, just saying… Giant spider is disgusting, but I still kept coming back to look at it when I was there. It’s like when I went to a nature centre that had a bunch of tanks with various tarantulas and other large spiders in them. I knew they were going to gross me out, but I had to look at them anyway, because at least I knew they were trapped behind glass, and (probably) couldn’t get me. To be honest, unless they’re really big, spiders don’t scare me as much as lobsters and crabs and all the other giant many-legged things that live in the sea.
      And hope you enjoy the book if you read it! The last chapter is fairly gruesome, but it’s interesting stuff!

      1. My boyfriend did just that and I made sure it was back to normal size before he returned my laptop to me haha. I am so arachnophobic even pictures freak me out. In agreement on lobsters and crabs, or the bugs of the sea, ew..

      2. I can sympathise. That’s how I feel about disgusting sea-things (especially giant isopods), and butterflies, which I realise are a really stupid thing to be afraid of, but I guess that’s what makes it a phobia.

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