I have been attempting to get to this exhibition since it opened but broken collar bones (not mine) and illness (mine) has prevented me from getting to my favourite London exhibition space. Now I have finally made it I have not been disappointed by this wonderful collection of items from the amazing resources that Cambridge University Museums have at their fingertips.
A closed door greets you at Two Temple Place, the late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor on the Embankment just up from Temple Tube. I love this closed door, a sign flaps about in the wind, that you are welcome and need to give the door a push, but pushing open one (heavy) door leaves you greeted by another closed door. You have to be persistent to reach the inner sanctum of Two Temple Place but believe me it is worth the effort.
The welcome inside is very warm and as soon as I step into the exhibition I am caught, captured and ensnared by the most remarkable collection of artefacts. I find Two Temple Place reminiscent of a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, the wooden panelling makes me feel as if I have stepped inside some Victorian gentleman’s fancy. Whilst I am stood entranced by the wood and pearl snakes and ladders board I can imagine retreating to the ‘withdrawing room’ and being led to examine the latest acquired treasure. The domestic setting with staircases and maze of rooms really gives you the sense of a time when exploration, discovery and strange objects were the exclusive purview of well-to-do gentlemen.
The connections to a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ continues when I see butterflies displayed in a wooden drawer and the deliciously enticing ‘Woodward Cabinet Drawers’ with specimens of fossils, bones and teeth. You really get the sense of collecting mysteries and wonders, an attempt to understand the natural world
The artefacts spanning different cultures, times and places initially seem so different lacking central themes, without the title of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue it would be hard to place the reasons behind their collection. But ‘Discoveries’ does what it says on the tin,
“…they all, in different ways, reflect or enable discoveries, and together they ask us to reflect upon a vital aspect of being human”1
“…discovery is part of everyone’s engagement with the world.” 2
Seeing the items in this way, thinking of when they were first discovered and why they were collected and displayed, the minds that have contemplated and researched them, the thoughts and connections they have initiated, starts to bring these items together. The element of discovery and rediscovery is really brought home to me when a door opens and excited chatter fills the room. Children flood in on a school trip, some are listening to their teacher, some looking at the exhibits, some reading diary extracts. It is a reminder that discoveries are remade all the time, it doesn’t matter if something was found hundreds of years ago and been studied many, many times, when you see an object for yourself for the first time, that connection can be as powerful as it was for first person who captured and catalogued it.
For me there is a strong sculptural element to many of the objects, I love the way you can walk round the display cases, observe them from every angle, look at the lines of craftsmanship, the natural curves of bone and the smooth planes of the sculpture’s skill. I am very taken by the understated skill of the Henry Moore head, emulating the ancient in the modern. Behind, I see the lines of ‘Maria’, the wooden effigy collected from Nankauri Island in the Bay of Bengal, I love the comparison of different materials, styles and meaning behind the diverse exhibits.
When I look at the Dodo skeleton I am admiring the curve of the protruding breastbone and distinctive beak. You cannot fail to fall in love with the fun, cartoon-esque stance of the Inuit Drum Dancer, his arms welcoming playfully. I spy the fingers of the young Dionysus, all that remains of his presence next to the plaster cast of Hermes of Praxiteles and am smitten by their delicate rendering of innocence and childhood. Even the telescope’s sculptural design captures me beyond its practical use, I love the shine and ingenious design.
Two objects have really caught my attention. Firstly, an Ichthyosaur collected by Mary Anning in the early 19th century and sold to Reverend Professor Adam Sedgwick, after whom the Sedgwick Museum is named. I spent a hazy summer holiday in Lyme Regis last year, we visited the Lyme Regis Museum, learnt about Mary Anning, walked stoney beaches and hunted (unsuccessfully) for fossils. I have read about this rather amazing woman, in a world dominated by men of science, her expertise and skill in finding fossils is really rather special, for me this really exemplifies the nature of discovery. Fossils, when first discovered prompted many different interpretations on the nature of animals, they fired imaginations and still today lead us to new discoveries. For me she is still an example of why there should be no barrier according to age or sex or religion, anyone can discover and be inspired to learn and study. To see a fossil collected by her in front of me, I am humbled, it is so hard to imagine her time, the way men regarded women and how important her discoveries were then and still are now.
The other captivating piece is perhaps the easiest to overlook. An egg, rather dull looking, rather boring, in a simple box, with a big crack in it. But this is a Tinamou egg found in Uruguay by Charles Darwin, the only one to have known to survive from Darwin’s Beagle collection. What captivates me is its rediscovery by a museum volunteer, working away in the stores. I also volunteer in museums, in-between the boxes, between silent shelves, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of museum collections that never see the light of day. This item is special, it is years of dedication, quiet persistence that has brought this simple item back into the light. An unpaid volunteer as important as the most highly paid curator or experienced scientist, with unbridled passion and dedication.
I also love this item, as having spent the last 8 weeks on a course learning how to care and clean for museum objects, the fact the egg was cracked by Darwin himself really makes me chuckle. He put it in a box that was too small for it, even the most celebrated among us can lack the common sense to care for museum objects correctly.
What makes these two objects special to me, is not just their discovery but the story behind their discovery. It allows me to connect in a very human way with an endeavour that is quintessentially human, the thirst to know more, to understand more and to seek out more.
The Vikings may be opening today at the British Museum and a whole amazing culture is on display, but it is nice for a change to be confronted by a range of cultures and places. To see that although we are all different there has always been a drive to discover.
Perhaps most importantly, this is just a teaser, a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Museum of Zoology, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Fitzwilliam Museum, the Polar Museum, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, the Museum of Classical Archaeology, the Kettle’s Yard and the truly amazing objects and stories they hold. I know I am now desperate to visit, but also an important reminder that strikes a chord with me as I volunteer in archives and museums stores is that this is the tip of the iceberg, these two belong to a massive hidden hoard, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered again and again.
I feel I have somehow been shrunk and slipped through the keyhole of a wonderful ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. I am not sure I know how to find the way out again, but to stay here in such sumptuous surroundings would be no bad thing. There is plenty to discover again and again in the world of Cambridge Museums and I urge you to make your own discoveries while you still have time.
1. Discoveries, Art, Science and Exploration, From the University of Cambridge Museums, pg 8. catalogue.
2. Discoveries, Art, Science and Exploration, From the University of Cambridge Museums, pg 8. catalogue.
Discoveries at Two Temple Place is open till 27th April 2014 and is FREE
You can find out more about Cambridge University Museums here