Two Visits

We thought the school groups on the tube were heading for the V&A, but they all turned off in the opposite direction towards the Natural History Museum. The supervising adults did their best in the crowds but it wasn’t easy. At one point, we saw a teacher standing two steps up the staircase, looking over his group and asking ‘Why are there only seven of you?’ On the way out, a woman with a clipboard walked towards two teenage girls waiting by a bus and wondered audibly why she wasn’t the first person there…

We looked first around the Central Hall, admiring the staircases and the ceiling and trying to work out what the statue of Joseph Banks was looking at from his landing. My partner was keen to see the entomology section, but we couldn’t find one; instead, there was a ‘Creepy Crawlies’ area – build your own model spider, enter the world of termites, pull this lever. Minerals, mammals, marine invertebrates, creepy crawlies. Almost everything we saw was evidence of evolution, apparently – after a while, the constant reiteration became heavy-handed and unconvincing.

At around the same time, another Joseph Banks was in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, part of an exhibition modelling approaches to collecting, classifying and displaying objects. I’d asked at the desk what the museum had on display from the Pacific, and this gallery was it.

While Banks’s bust didn’t attract the kind of physical contact that statues in the antiquities galleries do, visitors did get in close to look into the cabinets. The displays included several items associated with Cook’s voyages to New Zealand. One I read about later on the museum’s website came as a surprise: a metal patu (short club), made in Britain for Banks as he prepared for what he thought would be his second voyage to the Pacific with Cook in 1772. These weapons were traditionally made of materials such as bone or stone, but Banks presumably foresaw a market for metal versions in New Zealand as he commissioned a number of them, all embossed with his name and coat of arms. It’s a manifestation of a curious kind of responsiveness (the eighteenth-century gentleman entrepreneur).

This marble Banks is surprisingly fleshy and contemporary. Maybe that’s why he remains untouched by passers-by? Or perhaps it’s to do with the lack of shoulders to drape one’s arm around?

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