Robin Buss visits Brighton to compare the living-creature approach to natural history with the stuffed animal tradition.
There are two star exhibits at the Brighton Sea-Life Centre: the underwater tunnel, with its transparent walls, which takes you right into the world of sharks and stringrays as they swim alongside you - or even above your head; and the sandy seabed, where you are encouraged to reach into the pool and touch the fish. Harmless, gentle rays, sole and halibut seem happy to let you stroke them as they glide past.
The centre has other hands-on exhibits, but none with quite the impact of this. It is an oddly moving experience, reaching into the habitat of a fish which spends its life lying on the sandy bottom or sailing gracefully along, and to find that it seems to take an almost sensual pleasure in your touch as it brushes your hand.
The centre offers an experience of the sea that preserves its mystery and, in the underwater tunnel, reminds us that it is an alien environment and more than a little threatening. The emphasis is on the immediacy of the experience, despite the written information that guides the visitor around and the video theatre with its instructional film. The point is underlined by a small historical display at the entrance, giving an impression of what an old-fashioned, didactic museum used to be like, with aquaria containing creatures which are removed from their proper homes, but kept remote from the visitor.
This approach to natural history, with exhibits for looking at only, was one that emphasised order and classification. A typical 19th-century museum would highlight the specific characteristics of every species, so that the understanding you were intended to gain was primarily about difference: how to tell a turbot from a halibut, for example.
The sea-life centre, on the other hand, is a typically modern museum, built around the idea of environments and how these bring together a variety of interdependent plants and animals. Hence, the emphasis is on concepts and feelings, rather than discrete items of knowledge.
The shop on the way out sells little information, but plenty of cuddly toys, which represent sea creatures with less concern for accuracy than for the animals' endearing qualities. A Victorian anxiety about ignorance has given way to a modern fear of indifference.
The Victorian displays at the entrance to the centre are really a way of saying that we do things better now. Fortunately, the town has an authentic 19th-century natural history museum which, because of the peculiar nature of the collections, remains essentially intact. The Booth Museum of Natural History, near Preston Park, is the result of a single Victorian collector's passion for the natural world. Throughout his life, the naturalist E T Booth collected British birds, which he stuffed and mounted in display cases, in realistic settings. When he died, he left his bird collection to the town, together with other items: skeletons, fossils, butterflies, beetles and so on, all to be displayed free of charge. The exhibits also include Booth's waders and hat and gun, and the building itself is a fine piece of 19th-century architecture, purpose-built to house the collection.
The museum does its best to exploit this patrimony appropriately, and the place has a considerable, old-fashioned charm. But it cannot disguise the fact that almost all its holdings consist of animals killed and made up to give a false impression of life, like corpses at an undertaker's. Some belong to species now extinct. How different all this is from the tanks of live fish we are invited to touch at the sea-life centre. Based on a 19th-century assumption that our hegemony in the natural world is born of divine right, the Booth Museum forms an exhibit in itself, greater than the sum of its parts.
Brighton is unusually fortunate in having two exhibitions which offer visitors such a telling contrast in attitudes.
o Brighton Sea-Life Centre, Marine Parade, Brighton, BN2 1TB. Tel: 01273 604234.
* The Booth Museum of Natural History, 194 Dyke Road, Brighton, BN1 5AA. Tel: 01273 552586.