The Well Worn Paths Of Natural History

Despite the amazing diversity of animal life and all the branches and convoluted histories of biological science when it comes to mainstream output, museums and wildlife documentary makers just can’t help revisit a well worn path. And it’s not entirely clear who is to blame. Is it the fault of visitors to the London’s Natural History Museum that they only go to see the dinosaurs during the holidays or is it that dinosaurs is one of the only ‘visitable’ galleries left in the Museum (BURN!)? Here’s a little list I’ve put together of the well worn paths veritable motorways when it comes to popular science. It’s not to say we should stop doing and shouting about these things. Actually, yes. Yes it is. Stop it. All of you.

I’m sure there are more, these are the ones that spring to (a currently, admittedly, very crochetty), mind.

  • Going on and on about Robert Hooke’s bloody fly/and or flea. Run a quick search on Twitter for Micrographia and you’ll see a wall of museums and libraries going on and on about this ‘treasure’.  Yes it was important. Yes, we’ve all got first editions of Micrographia but for all the images and works created in biology this is but one/and or two.
  • Great for the kids. Whenever we say this or this is said about natural history museums, the implication is that, we’re not so great for the adults grown ups and therefore not important to people who can tie their own shoelaces or indeed use the toilet effectively.
  • Origins of flight As seen in every natural history museum ever. The origins of flight and by that, it’s always in vertebrates and even then, probably just birds because bats and pterosaurs magically appear in the fossil record and nobody really cares about insects. It’s the kinds of displays which are almost instantly out of date the moment they’re put in, use the same three casts that you see in every natural history museum and beyond that it’s not even that interesting a topic, it’s just one we’re used to doing. How about the origins of traumatic insertion? Or the origins of weird noses? Or the origins of eating dead animals? Or the origins of walking on the ends of your digits? Those are all far more interesting and much less obvious than Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus.
  • Vertebrates. When was the last time you saw a display about mud dragons, armour bearers, salps, penis worms, horseshoe crabs or gorgoniids? Yes, okay but Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea wasn’t very good. Actually, amphibians and fish don’t get much love either so perhaps we should specify..
  • Mammals and Dinosaurs An even then, a very select few of these. You never hear about bharals, blesboks, grisons, lechwes, linsangs or falanoucs. Is it that people aren’t interested in things that aren’t bigger than them or is it that it’s hard work to make other animals quite so interesting, whereas you can stick an elephant or dinosaur on display/on film and that’s job done?
  • Charles, Oh No Please Not Charles Darwin AGAIN, Darwin Seriously. And whilst we’re on the over-worshipped Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, has been celebrated as the ‘uncelebrated Darwin’ for about the same amount of time we’ve been celebrating Darwin. After these two it’s then a vast jump to relative Z-listers Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley and other contemporaries who most people have never ever heard of, let alone the hundreds of thousands of other uncelebrated scientists. That’s not to forget that, you know, women exist too…
  • Mary Bloody Anning Still getting billed as a ‘forgotten’ female palaeontologist. Yes it’s absolutely fantastic to start writing the unwritten/overlooked/expunged history of female scientists but how about we focus on someone not everybody has heard of? Trowel Blazers has a really handy list for starters. See also- Ada Bloody Lovelace

‘Forgotten’ as in repeatedly biographied and celebrated as ‘forgotten’ in museums and media around the world perpetually.

  • Brains I often tell museum visitors that we’re inherently a very selfish species, so tend to only take an interest in things which are obviously and tangibly all about us. Our group is all about the brains, so naturally it follows that this one organ is the most celebrated in all of anatomy. I’d contend that knees, horns, eyes, hands, hearts, livers and even the myriad of ways of excreting waste from the body are equally, if not more interesting.
  • Fossil humans In particular, documentaries about them which draw next to no satisfying conclusions because most fossil humans are known from some fossil teeth and a vertebra.
  • Fossil hunters There are many ways of ‘hunting’ fossils. Wearing a cowboy hat and traversing the Badlands, is but one of these ways. I’d like to see a documentary about palaeontologists getting soaked in Wales looking for graptolites for a change. I also hope that collectively we can agree to stop lying about finding the most important fossil on the last day of the dig. This also applies to ‘making of’ sections of BBC wildlife documentaries where it seems camera crews are incapable of getting the footage they need until the last day of the shoot. In fact if the mythology is to be believed, it’s statistically significant that astonishing finds and footage are made on the last day so all field work and shoots should be restricted to a single day to improve efficiency.

Got a subject or trope you want in the Natural History Room 101? Suggestions in the comments most welcome!


4 thoughts on “The Well Worn Paths Of Natural History

  1. Ok seriously, I want to see a display called “The origins of traumatic insertion” now. Please do it! Getting the footage/fossil on the last day of shooting/the dig is one of those redundant statements isn’t it? Like finding something in the last place you look. Who would keep shooting after they got the perfect footage? Likewise digging and fossil respectively.

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