“Forget the kittiwakes nesting on tiny ledges and the three herring gulls poised to pounce on the unguarded guillemot eggs…”
Those words could have been shouted against the wind to any group of biology students somewhere on the cliffs of England or Scotland anytime during the last century.
They could have been shouted at me as I tried to make notes on rain-soaked paper, my fingers trying to find purchase on my pencil through my mittens, wondering why razorbills couldn’t find more hospitable places to let themselves be binoculared. But these words weren’t spoken, let alone bawled against a sea squall, despite being used to teach countless students. Rather, they are printed in gill sans just to the side of a diorama encased underneath the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology’s concrete Mezzanine — somewhere between Darwin’s beetle boxes and the taxidermic Bird Life of Britain. They tell the tale of a moment in time, beautifully captured not through photography, or taxidermy, but sculpture.
During my time at Cambridge I served gallons of white wine in the museum. Despite its fairly bleak exterior, the brutalist architecture of the UMZC somehow helps show off the collections on display more — and it’s used for many, many corporate functions. What pin-striped superstar wouldn’t want themselves tagged next to a rhino? Power! Prestige! Artificial horn!
These fundraisers were useful to me as a graduate student for three reasons: a small but ever useful amount of gin money, the ability to explore the nibbles, and a few glasses of what ever was being served. Despite these magnificent perks I would always find my mind and eyes wandering. There’s only so much ‘so you study these things, do you?’ polite chinwagging I can take. Luckily, as a zoologist in a zoology museum, there were worse places to be bored. But it was never the pink fairy armidillo, the river dolphin skulls or the polar bear skeletons that I found myself drawn to. Instead, I was always brought back to that same, vast swathe of wood and paint: the largest diorama lying beneath the staircase, guarded over by the fractured giant ground sloth, illuminated by an even, crisp light. Right behind the bar.
Over three years, I got to know that diorama better than anything else in the museum. The clear April sky, the sloping strata, the common terns held on wires above the freezing-looking surf. The one time the collections manager caught me staring out into the sea beyond the glass he just joined me and pointed out the discarded leather boot being kicked around the coast. This diorama contained so much, the precise geology of a Manx coast, the stretched-neck screeches of hooded crows, even the flotsam junk of human beings.
But for all my respect, the shin-height panorama always went unnoticed by everyone else. And the more I learned about it, the more insane that seemed. Indeed, the very act or serving alcohol in front of it was a temporal juxtaposition. The only liquid being drunk in front of the dioramas (there are three) when they were originally used as demonstration tools would have been, at best, tea. They were the product of, and remain a reminder of austerity. They were tools of teaching the life sciences during wartime.
The UK is hardly a large collection of islands and getting a group of students to visit a stretch of windswept Inverness coastline would today be as easy as jumping on a morning train with a selection of Thermos flasks and a bunch of hostel bookings. Not all fields of zoology might be based on field work, but it’s certainly a cornerstone of it and an extremely important one: I can’t imagine I’d want to continue working in the field if I hadn’t gone collecting grouse DNA in Wales, chasing after Wall Lizards in Gibraltar or tracking bats in Malham Tarn as an undergraduate at Leeds. But the Second World War made such simple expeditions impossible. Actually, the works were commissioned just after the war as, although studying became an activity people were able to return to in the late forties, the ability to reach such exotic fieldwork locales as the Isle of Mann was frustratingly difficult and expensive.
The aftermath of the war hit Britain hard. Petrol, bread and clothes were all rationed. Food rationing wouldn’t finish until the mid 1950s and during the 1948 London Olympic Games athletes were competing on equipment loaned from around the world and in their home-made kit. It was during this shoestring decade that Hugh Cott began the direction of the dioramas’ creation.
Cott was something of a character. A gloriously bespectacled, mustachioed former curator of birds, he was employed by the British Army during the war in order to help them develop camouflage systems based on his animal pattern research. This led to the adoption of counter-shading in order to soften the shadows cast by objects, taking its cue from the pelage of mammals and the plumage of birds. When I asked about him recently, Dr Adrian Friday, who took on the curatorial role after Cott, described him as a wonderful relic of a bygone age, never seen out of a three piece suit, his whiskers kept in perfect shape. A talented artist with a keen sense of texture, his black and white sketches still adorn the walls of the Department of Zoology’s first floor. It’s not hard to imagine a fortitude of students standing in the pit of the museum, Cott gesticulating before them, trying to make dioramas come alive.
Thankfully he wouldn’t have had to have tried hard. Although the details of who precisely built the scenes aren’t that clear, it’s likely that the fantastically named R. B. Talbot Kelly had something to do with it. Talbot Kelly’s bird murals hang above the tropical bird taxidermy just inside the museum and he may well have at least had a say in the bird’s anatomy and behaviour, correcting the arc of a wing, the colour of a feather. Although the extent of knowledge on the provenance of the dioramas is scant, the information any visitor who kneels down and actually finds it can glean from the scene is still enormous. Whimbrels have curved beaks, razorbills only lay one egg at a time, and guillemot eggs are larger at one end at the other so that they don’t roll off the cliffs into the sea (or a strategically placed fox’s mouth).
But if I wanted to see a flock of sea birds myself in 2014, that wouldn’t be a problem. If I have enough petrol in my tank, the world’s my oyster. So long as I can hold that pencil through my mittens, I can learn straight from the gannet’s mouth.
The thing is, I like growing vegetables. I use a typewriter to write letters to my friends, and I’ve been learning more card games instead of ordering a PS4. These hobbies of mine are part of me due to multiple inspirations. The vegetables as a response to agribusiness, the typewriter as a rebellion against the passive nature of Facebook relationships, the card games as an opportunity to increase my ability to read people more accurately (four years writing a PhD in Cambridge reduces your normality, no matter what you were like when you first started). Perhaps, as well, I like doing these things because there’s an aspect of patience to them. Eating a potato that has multiplied its cells under the soil in your back garden tastes a lot better than buying a tuber that materialised, ready shrink-wrapped on a supermarket shelf. That appreciation for things that take time probably goes someway to explain my love of these dioramas. They are timeless, but would have taken months to complete. They’re slow. The landscapes aren’t photographed and then blown up by a projector, not 3D printed overnight in someone’s office. They were hard to make but, really, a bit of a folly too. What, really, is necessary during austerity?
Talking to my ninety-two year old nan a couple of weekends ago taught me a thing or two. Don’t be fooled by rose-tinted nouvelle nostalgia. Yes, my nan is happy to see people growing their own vegetables, sewing their own clothes and making their own toys. But in the 1950s everyone did it because of necessity. The choice upwardly mobile, mid-twenties boys and girls (I am, I’m afraid to admit, one of them) take in cultivating dying arts and skills should not to be confused with the lifestyles everyone was forced to adopt after devastation of the 40s. Obligatory austerity was the browny-yellow bruise of recovery, the scab necessary under which a people could heal.
But the bird shit meticulously painted on the wooden cliff face in the UMZC is testament to the ability of teachers to use what ever resources they have available to them to bring their subject to life. It’s a wonderful reminder of the resilience of people in the face of difficulty, even within something as esoteric as a museum of zoology, a collection of tiny, avian idols to celebrate the insatiable yearning to teach and to learn. That’s something that’s still evident all around the world and that deserves a further post. But I haven’t blogged for a while. And now my fingers are tired. So here are some pictures.
n.b. The museum’s actually undergoing a massive restoration, so these photographs were taken from the two smaller dioramas, the main one being now hidden behind boxes and crates making the place look like the ending of Raiders of The Lost Ark.