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accurate than Owen’s hilarious, albeit rather charming version at Crystal Palace, the Iguanodon at the Sedgwick is also outdated according to modern theories that have the Iguanodon walking on four legs, rather than two.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.

Cambridge: The Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Though I’m really more of a fan of medical history, I also try to show an interest in the history of science from time to time (admittedly not enough of an interest to do that Ph.D I was planning on when I realised there’d be only history of science and no history of medicine classes available for my first year, but still, an interest), so I definitely wanted to see the Whipple Museum of the History of Science whilst we were in Cambridge.


We were a little confused by the entrance; because the museum is located inside the Physical Chemistry building, we thought maybe the main entrance was for students only, and we were meant to use the back entrance for the museum (incidentally, I still don’t really understand how the whole Oxbridge system works. I thought students joined a college, and only took classes within that college, but it appears they just have some normal university buildings as well. I guess it’s one of those weird upper class British things I’ll never wrap my head around. Like their fondness for horse racing. Or fox hunting). So we walked all the way around, passing the Museum of Zoology on the way (which had an excellent whale skeleton that we could see from the outside, but it’s under construction so not open to the public at the moment), and ended up having to ring a doorbell for access, only to be gently chided by a somewhat annoyed man who obviously had to run from somewhere upstairs to answer the door. So learn from our mistake, and just go in the main entrance, unless you need step-free or group access. Then you still have to go around to the back.


Due to what was apparently our foolish misstep, we had to walk through the whole museum to get to the room where we were meant to start, though honestly I don’t think it mattered that much, because lots of the collection was just miscellaneous crap, with no real narrative (also, the museum’s not that big). And I’m not just using “crap” here to be pejorative; the museum itself admitted that some of its collections were junk.  Like a display of shitty plastic protractors that got taken off the market after a teacher realised they were basically worthless, and were screwing up students’ measurements.  Apparently they have a policy of collecting all things relating to the history of science, whether valuable or not, and even proudly displayed an old Telegraph column written by shaggy-haired douche canoe Boris Johnson, criticising their collecting policy. I can’t help but feel that if BoJo thinks it’s a bad idea, then it probably isn’t.


But amongst the junk, there were also some beautiful and historically important artefacts. Like one of Herschel’s telescopes (I went to his house, remember?). Or the grand orrery (a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun) which is the dome-shaped thing on the right side of the first picture in this post. They also have a whole collection of frog-related things, which obviously I loved.  And I was really taken with the case of anatomical models, shown above, made by the Frenchman Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century to combat the shortage of bodies for medical dissection.  In retrospect, they were probably my favourite things in the museum.


I also really liked the labels in the first room, because they explained in detail why every object had been selected for display, and they had sound reasoning for every choice, even the “junk” (although with the museum being British, I feel like they didn’t actually say “junk.” Rubbish, maybe?). Take that BoJo!


Unfortunately, for me anyway, the second gallery wasn’t as successful as the first. It was eye-catching, but it was divided by different branches of science, with loads of the same sort of objects from each branch, and I’m just not enough of a sciencey person to have really understood what they were and given them the appreciation they deserved. I did find a pretty cool anatomical illustration in one of the drawers though.


I have to admit, I saw the sign for the “Victorian Parlour” when we walked in (since we came the wrong way), and I was pretty much just biding my time until I could get upstairs and check it out. It promised to be a room where you could interact with everything, and whilst that wasn’t quite true (there were signs on a few things saying not to touch them), they did have a whole chest of drawers full of games + hats to try on, which is always a bonus.  I do think it was aimed at a younger audience than me, because it wasn’t quite as much fun as I was hoping, but I still did try out most of the games, as did an older lady who was there at the same time as me.


The Globes Gallery was to the rear of the Victorian Parlour, and it was fine if you like globes. I mean, I like old globes where the countries are all wack, and “here be dragons” and that kind of thing (which I think is actually a modern conceit, but you know what I mean), but most of these were astronomical globes, which don’t do that much for me. I took Astronomy in high school and everything, but I’ve never been that into space, save for a fondness for the moon that probably dates back to my brief Wiccan phase (OK, I have moon sheets on my bed right now, and my favourite commercial when I was a kid was that creepy McDonalds’s moon one (funny because I hated McDonald’s food, even back then), and I even have a small moon tattoo, so I guess I REALLY like the moon, but that still doesn’t mean I’m thrilled by celestial globes).


Honestly, aside from the Polar Museum, this was the Cambridge Museum I was most excited about, but unlike the Polar Museum, it didn’t really deliver. I liked the first gallery a lot, but everything else was downhill from there, and it’s probably telling that my favourite objects in here had to do with medical history, because I will always love that more than the history of science. But I could definitely see science enthusiasts enjoying this museum more than I did; it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t thrill me like I was hoping it would. I think it would definitely be improved if instead of the “more is more” approach of the second gallery, they followed the example of the first, and put fewer things out, but with better and more explanatory labels, so that visitors of a less scientific inclination understand what they’re looking at. 3/5.

Don’t stand there confused like I was…this IS the correct entrance.


Cambridge: The Polar Museum

Ever since learning of its existence through Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, I have wanted to visit the Polar Museum, aka The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.  My love for doomed polar expeditions has been well-documented on this blog, and the thought of seeing artefacts that actually came from Scott’s failed Terra Nova Expedition was irresistible.  And there were lots of other museums in Cambridge that looked great too, but somehow I just never got around to going.  However, I just started a new job (I’ve been unemployed for over five years; basically the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and then some. So this job is a really big deal for me, but it’s also totally not the type of thing I thought I would ever be doing, and I’m genuinely not sure how long I’ll be doing it for, because it is hard physical work!), so on my final week of freedom, I wanted to venture out of London, and because it was too late (and expensive!) to book anywhere abroad, I settled for a day trip to Cambridge.


Getting up there was actually a cinch…it took about as long (45 minutes) to get from our flat to King’s Cross (10 miles) as it does to get from King’s Cross to Cambridge (55 miles) on the direct train (getting around London is always the hardest part). Marcus and I had about six and a half hours in Cambridge before the museums shut, and a long list of museums to potentially visit, so I thought it would be best to start with the Polar Museum, both because it was closest to the station, and the museum I most wanted to see (we ended up making it to five museums in the end, as you’ll eventually see, which I think is really pretty good going. My feet were killing me by the end of the day, but it was worth it).


Happily, the Polar Museum is free, as are all the museums that are part of Cambridge University (there are a couple of museums in the city of Cambridge that do charge admission), so this was shaping up to be a very budget-friendly trip.  We were greeted by a couple of volunteers at the admissions desk, who instructed us to begin in the entrance hall (back out the doors we came in) and work our way clockwise around the museum. So we dutifully trooped back outside to admire the beautiful entrance hall ceiling that I had missed on the way in.  It had maps of the North and South Poles on it, with ships from all the major polar voyages painted in on them, which I loved, and strained my neck trying to read all the labels (you can see one of the maps in the first set of pictures). The museum proper began with a section on the native peoples of the Arctic (since obviously there is no native human population in the Antarctic), and displayed some of their traditional crafts (I want some traditional Greenlandic boots, or at least I would if they weren’t probably made from baby seals. Maybe they could use faux fur for mine?).


At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a small exhibition of Dick Laws’ art (it looks like the exhibition ran slightly over, because the website says it was on until 25 March, and we were there on the 26th). Dick Laws was a marine mammal scientist who travelled to the Antarctic to study seals and whales, and he was also a keen artist who produced some very cool (literally) little paintings.


But it was the main room, containing artefacts from almost all the major polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I was most keen to see, and man, this did not disappoint.  This room was a veritable treasure trove for polar history nerds like myself.


It touched on a few of the earlier expeditions, but it really had loads of stuff relating to John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. I mean, a surprising amount, given that the Erebus and Terror just mysteriously vanished, along with all their crew. Most of it was admittedly from the search parties that went out looking for Franklin, but Inuit recovered items from one of Franklin’s ships before it sank (mostly made of metal, like the set of spoons bearing Franklin’s crest), and some of those items eventually made their way back into English hands. I thought the coolest thing was one of the actual letters left in a cache by Franklin’s men before the ships had been lost, explaining how they had spent their first winter in the Arctic (a letter was also left by Franklin’s men after Franklin died (of natural causes) and the ships had been abandoned, but the museum only had the facsimile of that, the real one apparently residing at the National Maritime Museum (but I’ve never actually seen it there. Hopefully it will make an appearance in the special Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum this summer, which is also meant to have artefacts recovered from the wreck of the Erebus! I can’t wait!)).


And then there was Scott, the museum’s eponym (well, the research centre’s eponym anyway. Does anyone else get namesake and eponym confused? I had to look it up for this post to make sure I was using it correctly). I thought the Franklin collection was impressive, but this was even better, probably because although Scott and the four men chosen to head for the South Pole with him all died, their other teammates (shipmates?) survived, and the tent Scott et al died in was discovered soon afterwards (they were only 11 miles from their nearest depot, which was full of supplies), so pretty much everything could be recovered.  One of the (many!) great tragedies of Terra Nova is of course that Scott was just pipped to the Pole by Roald Amundson, as Scott discovered upon reaching the Pole himself, and he was then stranded in a tent on the return trip by a bad storm and frostbitten feet. So he died knowing that he failed to accomplish his goal of being the first man at the South Pole.


But out of tragedy comes a hell of an interesting story, and some amazing artefacts.  The most poignant things by far were the actual letters and diary entries written by Scott and the men who accompanied him on the doomed dash for the Pole when they realised they were going to die. Lawrence Oates, who I wrote about in my very first post, developed bad frostbite early on, and felt he was holding the others back, so essentially sacrificed himself by wandering outside during a storm, where he froze to death (he died on his 32nd birthday, if you needed it to be even sadder). The museum had a letter from Edward Wilson (one of the other men who would die) describing Oates’s heroic death to his family. There was also a letter from Scott to his own family, bidding them all farewell, which was terribly sad.


Speaking of Oates, the museum had his actual sleeping bag, which was slit so he could get his damaged frostbitten feet in and out of it, a pair of Scott’s polar goggles, and actual food from the expedition, including a massive tin of Colman’s mustard powder, and a product made by Bovril specifically for the voyage that contained pemmican on one side, and cocoa on the other (the staples of the explorers’ diets were basically ship’s biscuit, pemmican, and cocoa, and they usually combined the pemmican and biscuit with water to make a stew called hoosh. It’s a shame that the European-made pemmican, unlike the native stuff, was simply dried meat and fat, with none of the traditional dried berries that might have at least helped to stave off scurvy (one of the missions to find Scott was aborted because they were trying to save another man who had developed scurvy. Vitamin C was actually discovered in 1912, just slightly too late to have done Scott’s expedition any good)).  I think it’s fascinating how many special products were produced especially for various polar expeditions (and I think they should bring back a special “polar edition” Colman’s mustard powder tin. I’d buy the hell out of that (another of my weird food quirks is that I hate actual pre-mixed mustard, but I love Colman’s mustard powder. I dump an inappropriately large amount into my rarebit sauce)).


They also had a small case of stuff from Shackleton, but I’ve been kind of down on him since I learned he ordered Mrs. Chippy shot (I know explorers killing their animals to survive is par for the course (Scott even took ponies with him with the intention of killing them for meat once they’d reached a certain point, because ponies are meatier than dogs), but they weren’t at breaking point yet, and they didn’t even eat the poor cat. They just shot him. I don’t know, if you read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition you’ll probably share my outrage), and anyway, Scott was really the main 20th century explorer they focused on in the museum. All they had from Mawson’s expedition was his theodolite (but I think most of the Mawson stuff is in Adelaide, which makes sense, since he was Australian. I wonder if he saved the soles of his feet after they peeled off and he had to stick them back in his boots to be able to go on walking. Now that’s a gross artefact I would LOVE to see!)


The museum concluded with a small display about modern scientists in Antarctica, but it was kind of an afterthought, because clearly everyone is coming to see the actual artefacts.  And rightly so, they are awesome!  I was incredibly pleased with this museum, and when I left, I talked about how it was a 4.5/5 museum (I think it was a bit too small to be 5/5, but they did a great job with the space they had, I’m just always hungry for more!), and that’s what I’m sticking with; even after seeing the other Cambridge museums (some of which were excellent) it was still my favourite, simply because I’d read so much about the things here, and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. And they had an adorable husky statue outside, which didn’t hurt either.  This museum is a must-see for any polar exploration fan!