News Column

Natural History Museum's volcanoes and earthquakes fail to move the earth

January 28, 2014

Nicola Davis, theguardian.com

There's always an air of excitement about the Natural History Museum , for behind its beautiful facade you can explore the secrets of the Earth. But, let's be honest. You're really here for the dinos. Big teeth, legendary creatures, and that touch of the exotic from a by-gone era. All that could change now that the volcanoes and earthquakes gallery has finally been given a chance to strut its stuff. Showcasing some of the world's biggest killers, from supervolcanoes to tsunamis, the big guys could have a rival. It's about time. Nearly 15 years ago I first visited the museum with my parents and I can still remember the cabinets of beasties, the stuffed birds, the dinosaurs. But, digging into my memory of the earthquakes gallery, all that I could drag forth was a dusty recollection of an earthquake simulator. "The original gallery was opened in 1996 which is nearly 20 years ago," exhibition developer Alex Fairhead told me. "The science that was in that gallery had become outdated, both the technical, the scientific information we were presenting, and also the case studies and the related content." With the technology and accessibility also needing an overhaul, it was time for a revamp. Of course kids are a tricky audience to please, and the subject matter is a challenge. Stare up at the jaws of a model T-Rex and you'll probably get shivers, even if you know it is only a lump of plastic grimacing in your face. But it takes a little more ingenuity to reveal the power and strength of earthquakes and volcanoes. If anyone is up for the challenge, however, the Natural History Museum is. They've imaginatively transported us to Scott's Antarctic, they've exposed us to the grisly innards of camels, elephants and pregnant goats. There is nothing, it seems, this place can't make magical. Except, it would seem, earthquakes and volcanoes. Entering the gallery in the volcano zone the bright, chic displays provide an overwhelming sense of order, cleanliness and calm information. Neat cross-sectional diagrams, rock samples and interactive touch-screens and displays make this a perfect place to harvest material for a school project. Which seems pretty well suited to the gallery's prime audience. "We know that this gallery is really heavily used by school groups," says Fairhead. But what of the danger? What of the destruction? It seems that, too, has been swept up into a neat Perspex box. Indeed while the "Volcano Hazards" display reveals the human impact in words and statistics, it manages to utterly side-step emotional engagement. Casts from Pompeii, possibly the most compelling volcanic disaster of all time, are presented so clinically they barely raise an eyebrow. Frankly the mannequin clad in a silver heat-suit is more alarming. Supervolcanoes, those unpredictable behemoths, are likewise deflated. Yet having visited Yellowstone, I can vouch for the tingling uneasiness that accompanies the inescapable sulphurous waft, the menacing, bubbling mud, and the adrenaline kick of knowing we have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. While the volcano display lacks fireworks, the earthquake zone is worth a gander. A montage of TV footage from the 2011 Japanese tsunami provides a much needed connection with the true ramifications of the Earth's turbulent nature. Artefacts from devastated homes reveal the touching reality of human loss. And yes, the earthquake simulator is still there dusted off and touched up for another decade. Personal stories from recent disasters add another dimension. "Years of training had me dive for cover but then I found myself mesmerised as I watched the solid structures around me move like fluid," recalls ones witness from New Zealand . Yet displayed in a jaunty orange box on a bland world map, the words seem drained of context, sterilised for public consumption. It's not all doom and gloom. A catfish from the collections beautifully adorns the ancient legend that earthquakes are caused by the writhings of such a creature deep beneath the Japanese mud. A taxidermied trio of an ostrich, a rhea and a short beaked echidna endearingly illustrate how species arise. Even the scientific method is showcased with footage and specimens from a recent field trip by volcanologist Chiara Petrone and her colleagues. But while the science is admirably dissected, the gallery fails to shake off the mild surroundings of SW7. It's educational and informative but it won't cause shockwaves.


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Source: Guardian Web


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