In our special London’s Great Reopening feature What’s Hot London? is helping to re-energise our capital city by visiting galleries, museums, cinemas, music events and restaurants. Over the next few weeks, arts and culture writer Eddie Saint-Jean covers their steps out of Covid shutdown and openings, events, exhibitions and screenings. This week it’s our museum feature – and we’re at the National History Museum.
May 17 was a significant date for the culture sector, with museums, theatres and cinemas given the green light to reopen to visitors as part of PM Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown. Latest figures show museum visitors down 77 per cent compared to 2019, with revenue down and job security and displays also affected but the thirst for London’s cultural institutions remains strong despite, or, indeed, because of the year-long restrictions. One such institution, the Natural History Museum opened with its new Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It display, but other trademark displays and exhibitions such as the Dinosaur gallery still pulled in the crowds and remain firm favourites.
Our Broken Planet comes at a time of increasing concern about the environment and the destruction of the natural world. This free display explores how the planet’s resources and delicate ecosystem are put under increasing strain by the demands of global consumption and also offers solutions. ‘The food we eat’ is the polite term used by the museum to highlight the ravaging effects of humankind’s consumption.
It educates and informs about extinct species and how our unregulated desire for expansion and farming led to their disappearance. Amongst them, the Tasmanian tiger pup, a hyena-like marsupial which was wiped out by British settlers in Tasmania in 1936. We are told the settlers offered a $1 reward for every one killed because of attacks on their sheep. Similarly, the world’s biggest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing is at risk in Papua New Guinea where the felling of trees for palm oil has led to the destruction of its natural habitat and caused a huge fall in butterfly numbers.
You can also see the skeletal remains of magnificent sea-dwelling species such as the black marlin. Its threatened disappearance highlights the fragility of the natural world, with global fishing causing a 90 per cent drop in shark, dolphin, tuna and black marlin numbers since the 1950s.
Black Marlin skeleton found in 1875
The Museum scientists offer interesting solutions to the consumption problem. Visitors may feel a sense of hope that jellyfish can survive seas polluted by overfishing and are nature’s great survivors who will live on long after we have depleted the Earth’s waters of fish. But others may not relish constant servings of jellyfish replacing all their favourite seafood in the years to come! See their jellyfish takeover display for more info.
The 40 or so objects in Our Broken Planet are the opening salvo in an examination of humankind’s interaction with the natural world. There will be two more later in the year: the same year as the UN conferences of COP15 on diversity and COP26 climate change.
While Our Broken Planet represents the work of expert zoologists, geologists, botanists and ecologists, you might like to visit the museum’s Nature in Lockdown exhibition of postcard-size photographs by amateurs – members of the public. It’s the response to a callout during lockdown about the natural world as experienced and captured beyond the museum walls. It’s interesting to see the creative perspective of amateurs displayed in the same museum as the scientists and heartening to discover how sometimes snapshot imagery can inform more effectively than words. The exhibition is in the museum’s Images of Nature gallery.
It’s goes without saying that culture-starved visitors will charge out of lockdown and make straight for the big mammals and dinosaurs who hold court in the museum. But new displays and exhibitions such as Our Broken Planet and Nature in Lockdown offer topical discussion for curious minds, both young and old and actionable solutions offered by the museum’s scientists. Enjoy the whales and dinosaurs, anyway!
The Natural History Museum Cromwell Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD (nearest tube South Kensington)
Our Broken Planet From May 17