Sense of wonder regained

7th November 2003 at 00:00
An exhibition of photographs at the Natural History Museum is one in the eye for the seen-it, done-it brigade. Adi Bloom reports

Few children seeing an elephant imported fresh from the Indian subcontinent via the taxidermist would respond with wide-eyed gasps of wonder.

Even fewer would be entranced by a comically-stuffed Bengal tiger. Nor would they stand open-mouthed in amazement around giant models of rat fleas. But, while modern youth are renowned for having seen and done it all, their predecessors were less sceptical.

An exhibition at the Natural History Museum, in London, is displaying a photographs taken at the museum between 1880 and 1950. The 37 pictures that make up the display depict visitors and staff as they gaze open-mouthed at exhibits, wander through galleries and sit at rest.

The photographs also offer an insight into the museum's history. A picture from 1927 shows an African elephant being taken out of the museum for restuffing. A caption informs visitors that the elephant had spent several hours wedged in the doorway, its posterior protruding in the open air, while workmen worked out how to squeeze its ears through.

Another shows how three galleries were given over to special operations during World War Two. Among the weapons developed there were exploding rats and combustible plaster cowpats. "It's a glimpse of a time that will never be seen again," said Susan Snell, senior museum archivist. "It's capturing a moment."

Ms Snell and junior archivist Polly Tucker spent several months trawling through the museum's 6,000 archive photos, choosing 37 for the exhibition, and 105 for an accompanying book.

It is essentially an extended exercise in navel-gazing. But Ms Tucker believes today's children can benefit from marvelling at their turn-of-the-century counterparts.

She said: "Children nowadays are so used to seeing live animals on television. But we wanted to show that there was a time when the museum was the only place they could see them."

Ms Snell said the reactions of young visitors were also an education for museum staff.

"The way we show displays has changed dramatically. But some things, such as the diplodocus (a huge plant-eating dinosaur) in the central hall, are still there today.

"Despite computer games and television, the look of awe when children come into the hall is the same."

Lucy Barber, 11, from west London appreciated the attractions of pre-technological exhibits.

"I'd like to see stuffed animals, to see if I'd mistake them for real animals," she said. "But the people look very old-fashioned. They're standing in a row and they're all black-and-white. Some have got top hats on, and one's got a cane. I wouldn't go out like that."

Life Through a Lens: Photographs from the Natural History Museum 1880 to 1950 runs until February 20. www.nhm.ac.uklifelens

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