The American Museum of Natural History

This Summer was my first visit to New York and one of the things near everyone said I HAD to check out was the Museum of Natural History – a recommendation not without merit. I ended up spending hours upon hours checking out a rather impressive collection of varied and almost disturbingly lifelike exhibits (including the newly acquired and famous Titanosaurus and the legendary Blue Whale).

It was an exhausting and enriching experience trolling the halls of the Museum with my trusty SLR and while I was impressed with the state and volume of the AMNH’s collection, I was a little disappointed to see that some of their literature/signage was desperately in need of updating and/or fact-checking (I even tweeted one such image at them at the time but it seems they took no notice). I’m sure in the larger scheme of the cultural and educational service institutions like the AMNH discharge, such errors or oversights are negligible. At the same time however, I wondered how many of the kids running around that Museum that day, or indeed any other, would go home having learnt something somewhat ignorant, and mildly insensitive, through someone else’s goof. Still – not to make a mountain out of a mole hill – such minors slips aside, I left that day feeling richer for the experience.

If you’re going to go I’d chalk out at least 3-4 hours to really appreciate the collection they have. And it’ll be worth going online in advance and checking if any of the exhibits are closed (like the Butterfly House – which is seasonal and was sadly closed when I made my visit).

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An Afternoon at the Museum(s)

Despite spending a wonderful year in Oxford I had not, much to my chagrin, visited the two linked museums in oxford – the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers. So a few days past, thanks to the prodding of a very dear friend, I finally made the excursion to see the muss and fuss (and of course the Shrunken Heads!)

What followed was a realisation that these two museums are severely lacking in space. Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that they were by any means shoddy or architecturally minuscule… Rather I make such a comment simply to make more dramatic the point (as is my habit ; p) that the institutions are absolutely bursting with an amazingly diverse collection of artefacts, fossils and various bits and bobs. While I have had the pleasure of visiting many museums, none made so vigorous an effort to catalogue the minutia of human existence as did the Pitt Rivers. And the Museum of Natural History can boast many wonders of its own… From masks to games to arms to cosmetics – the various displays house thousands of little pieces of the human story.

But it’s not all tiny puzzle pieces of the grander human experiment (apologies for the mixed metaphor). There is also much for the less anthropologically inclined, such as dinosaur fossils, various extinct species of animals and a fairly decent collection of stuffed animals. Admittedly I did not spend much time in Natural History Museum, owing most to the fact that I found it difficult to stare at the stuffed remains of so many beautiful creatures, which I would have given much to see in the wild. Sadly for many of us, and especially generations to come, stuffed and mounted is probably the only way many of them will ever be seen.

My personal thoughts on conservation and preservation aside, the Pitt Rivers is a wonderful family friendly afternoon that I encourage all of you in or about Oxford to drop in on. Admission is free and you can even enjoy a nice picnic in the garden out front.

For more details about visiting and what’s on go to Pitt Rivers Museum or Natural History Museum sites.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Touring the Old Underground

This being the year that witnessed the 150th Anniversary of the London Underground it was fitting that through the efforts and graces of the London University International Partnership program, and specifically the wonderful Kim Duller, some of my fellow Study Ambassadors and I got some special insight into the history of the tube. Some of you may have actually seen the very interesting campaign that Transport for London executed earlier this year, which I think is still running at some of the stations – Its basically citizens of London, through the ages, nodding at you as you traverse the escalators together. It’s really quite clever. Our tour, which was conducted by David Leboff, the Principal Planner for TfL London Underground & Rail, began with a short lecture where he took us through the history of the Underground through many interesting photographs and sketches which showed the development of the Railway lines that we now know as the Tube and its architectural and technological evolution. I’m afraid I don’t have the slides to share with you myself but I found a lot of very interesting articles online which highlight some of these developments (I’ve provided a couple of links at the bottom).

I think, however, that the best way to share my experience with you would be to share some of the interesting facts and trivia that we picked up during the tour. So here we go:

  1. The Underground was originally several individual lines, such as the Metropolitan District Railway, the Central London Railway, the Euston and Hampstead Railway and the Greater Northern Piccadilly and Brompton Railway. Some of these lines were brought together under one London Underground system between 1900-1910. Others took another 10-20 years or so to be joined.
  2. The famous London Underground logo – also known as ‘the Bullseye’ wasn’t always around – it was actually adopted around 1908-1910.
  3. The London Underground has its own font. That’s right! Its called the Johnson Type Face and was developed in 1916 specifically for the Underground. A modified version is still used as the official font for all publicity material of the TfL.
  4. 55 Broadway – the Offices of the London Underground – was the largest office block in the London when it opened in 1930. The facade of the building incorporated many sculptures from famous artists of the time, such as Jacon Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore, all of which are still visible today.
  5. The London Tube map is based on a design by H.C. Beck and has been around in its current style only since 1933. Before ‘the Beck Map’ was developed the London Underground map was more geographical and congested. Beck decided to give it a cleaner look by making it more angled and uniformly spread out.
  6. Many of the London Underground stations were used as bomb shelters during World War I, and some of the then unfinished tunnels of the central line actually housed factories where mostly women workers would manufacture aircraft parts.
  7. London was the first major city in the world to have its airport connected to the rest of the city by its main underground system.
  8. The term ‘the tube’ comes from the Central London Railway being coined the ‘the twopenny tube’ (pronounce tup-penny) because it had a flat rate of Two Pence for travel from one stop to any other.

After the history lesson at London Underground HQ we also took a tour of a somewhat spooky and quite fascinating disused station which used to service Londoners taking the old Greater Northern Piccadilly and Brompton line. Some parts of it were completely pitch black, and we only had two torches – thank god for Apps on your phone huh?! Though I must admit, I did by best to make the dark and narrow corridors a bit more creepy and alarming – its like I said to Kim “If you put a bunch of boys in a dark underground passage, there is no way we are not going to make horror movie references”. And trust me, there was plenty of material. The state that some of those rooms and corridors were in it was almost impossible to imagine that there were fully functioning offices, kitchens, dining rooms and living quarters down there during the blitz. In fact at one point we were in the exact spot where Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet met during World War II, before the new Cabinet War Room was built.

Walking out I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by thoughts of what the people who spent months in those corridors must have gone through. I was only down there for maybe 15-20 minutes and I wasn’t terribly at ease, even though I’m not claustrophobic. Still, I really must thank David Leboff for the experience – he was witty, illuminating and fun – and I’m not just saying that because I know he’s going to be judging this blog later ; )

For some cool pictures of old timey tube stops and users, as well as some interesting publicity material through the ages, check out The Telegraph’s article “The London Underground: A History in Pictures

To see London Underground Maps through the ages check out this article on The Daily Mail’s website – Growing Underground!