Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 7 April 2024

Nightmares At The Museums

I started this year with a wonderful, predictably-brief period in work in which I had nothing much to do. Or rather, because no astronomer of any repute truly ever finds themselves in such a situation, I had nothing that needed to be done with any urgency. I'd just about finished my rewriting-code project that I started right at the beginning of the pandemic (of which more in a future post) so I was able to get on with the actually productive output of writing papers. And on the side, I also managed to completely overhaul my much-neglected website into a far more modern format, with plenty of science content as well as all the art stuff from the old days. 

Do be sure to check that out – unusually for me, I managed to keep everything there pretty concise.

Of the papers I managed to rattle off two, one of which is absolutely done as far as I'm concerned and another needing only a few more paragraphs. Both are, of course, now lying uselessly fallow. Partly this is because they're awaiting comments from colleagues but partly this is because the productive period has been replaced with the more typical too-busy-to-poop period instead. Currently I'm at the tail end of writing a grant (which has a negligible chance of success, yay), reviewing my Master's student's thesis, trying to get my other student to start a project, about to start getting the first's student's mock ALMA proposal turned into an actual proposal, occasionally having bouts of (remote) observing with a 1.4m telescope in Serbia, and about to be hit by a succession of visitors.

I dunno, sometimes I think this post-pandemic world isn't all it's cracked up to be...

Anyway, because this is absolutely perfect timing (read : irony), last week we went on a two-night jaunt to visit the museums of Berlin. Now I've done the major touristy stuff in Berlin before and stopped briefly on trips to the Netherlands many times, but I've never done any of the museums. Shame on me !

I love museums. In fact there's one thing I've wanted to see in Berlin for many years : the recreation of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum. Literally, this has been in the back of my mind as something I should definitely do for years. Imagine my dismay to discover the Pergamon is "temporarily" closed... for 14 to 20 years.

This scarcely covers it.

Oh well. They'll probably reopen parts of it in 2027 so maybe I won't have to wait the full frickin' TWO DECADES to go and see it.

Fortunately Berlin has plenty of other museums, and it turned out there was one very big thing there I've wanted to see even longer than the Ishtar Gate. But I'll get back to that later.

We travelled up in the morning, had an afternoon for our first museum jaunt, a full day of museum-hiking, and then the following morning for another sneaky museum bout before we had to leave again. So about two full days total. We didn't do any sightseeing as such, so the best I can offer in terms of touristy photos is this little sequence of chance alignments of the TV tower with various buildings.

Most of the foreground buildings here are the Charité hospital, which has an excellent museum we visited on the final day.

Day 1

We began more-or-less at random with the New Museum, which is all about (obviously) ancient history. Although it does have a few quite spectacular pieces, honestly in that regard the museum in Bologna was better (having far more mummies and painted wooden sarcophagi). But Berlin beats Bologna for the weird and unexpected and downright silly stuff, which I find more interesting if undeniably less visually awesome : the ancient Egyptians may have had a death fixation, but they were also capable of being just as daft as the rest of us. 

This fine building is not the New Museum, but some art gallery or other. The New Museum is right next to it, but not nearly as photogenic. Actually it's a piece of history in its own right though, with many of the pillars of the colonnaded entrance being riddled with bullet holes, and some having been replaced entirely.

It becomes easier to understand why this chap was so happy when you look inside his coffin.

I love the snap-action of this toy crocodile. Kids will be kids, even thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt. Literally everyone want a crocodile whose jaws snap, because that's what crocodiles do. It's a perfectly normal toy in a culture that was socially, technologically, economically and religiously alien to the modern world.

There's a more human connection to the ancients when you discover they wanted to make statues of hideously-deformed pig ladies for some reason. As for what's going on with the Angry Bird and whatever the hell the other thing is, I have no idea.

And then in contrast we have these much more realistic miniature pieces. She looks a bit grumpy in the light but I found the stuff like this more impressive, in its way, than some of the larger pieces.

The early start, long bus trip, enormous currywurst lunch, excessive walking and heavy tapas dinner took its toll on me. This wasn't as bad as the hangover-like state I experienced in Bologna/Florence after failing to stay hydrated but I was still more than ready for an early night. I think I'm going to call this excessively first-world problem "mini gout". Or possibly gout bout ?

Day 2

The next day we began with the Natural History Museum.  This houses the 13m-tall Brachiosaurus skeleton (the world's tallest mounted dinosaur) which I've wanted to see since I was knee-high. In the pictures in my childhood books the hall looked rather minimalist, having nothing much in it besides the single Brachiosaurus. But this is 30-odd years later, and now it's rather more crowded, home also to a full-length Diplodocus and Allosaurus as well as several other somewhat lesser-known dinos. I was happy as a clam.

There's a universal tendency to create grandiose buildings and then enclose or otherwise obscure them so they can't be fully appreciated from the street, let alone photographed properly. 

They are, of course, quite a bit smaller than the depictions in Jurassic Park. Even so, when you get close to them you realise they were much bigger than any elephant.

This is apparently some variety of pachycephalosaur and not a dragon skull, though I beg to differ.

The Allosaurus is worth looking at if only for comparison to the next exhibit : a T-Rex. Say that again ? We have a T-Rex. The Allosaurus, on paper, has similar dimensions to a rex... but in fact is nowhere near as impressive. The sheer massiveness of the T-Rex's skull impresses itself on you immediately in way that makes it instantly apparent that the poor little Allosaurus would have lasted about thirty seconds in a bout with rexy. Cardiff has a rex skull as as well, though much smaller and mounted high on the wall so you don't get close to it. This is different, and it felt an awful lot like being next to the skull of Balerion the Dread. 

I'm sorry but the idea that this was a super-scavenger is just obviously a pile of crap. Utter crap.

The full skeleton only makes that even more evident. This thing was truly massive. True, it was once a living, breathing animal, with thoughts and emotions and babies to care for. But all the same, it's so remarkably different to any living creature that it almost has something of the supernaturally monstrous about it, in a way that the herbivorous dinosaurs simply don't (astonishing though they are). The is the sort of thing from which myths are born. Part of the effect of this is probably the result of putting the skeleton in a room which has a high ceiling but is nevertheless only just big enough to accommodate it : it really dominates the space in front of you.

Herbivorous dinosaurs are cool, no doubt about it. But predators actively want things. Sixty five million years ago this thing was stalking the Cretaceous and actively thinking about how to slice its massive jaws with teeth like steak knives into its victims-cum-dinner. And that's just way more interesting than the gigantic reptilian cows that were roving around alongside it.

There's more to the NHM than dinosaurs but they're definitely the highlight (for non-dinosaur exhibits, my favourite remains firmly with London's NHM for the crown of Best Museum Ever). The display of animals preserved in jars is however very impressive indeed, and compared to other such displays (which might be one or two specimens here and there) it is vast. It put me in mind of nothing so much as a Borg cube, except even creepier.

I mean... perhaps it's no wonder some people think science isn't for them when we're keeping stuff like this in the basement... ?

Finally the taxidermy section is worth a visit just for the sheer weirdness of it all. Combine that with the horrible-things-in-jars (of which there are more in this section, including hideously deformed unborn animals) any remake of Night At The Museum set in Berlin could only be a horror. It's all undeniably fascinating, but very strange.

This is surely the jewel in the crown of lifelike poses in taxidermy.

...and then there's this. Not so much Grumpy Cat as Gimpy Cat, and believe me this is his good idea. It's the taxidermic equivalent of the "very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic" painting restoration.

The NHM took the whole morning; it also featured a small section on space and the obligatory minerals collection, both are good but I need not dwell on them here. After lunch we returned to ancient history. We started this time in the Old Museum. This it must be said is noticeably old-school in its presentation and in need of some modernisation. While the New Museum subtly presents you with stories around the exhibits (e.g. their wider place in culture and what they say about society), the Old Museum tends to be more of a collection-dump : here are some artifacts, have a look at them. It isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, unless you're a moron. But it could be upgraded in its presentation, just a bit.

The museum is set in a large square, which features this rather nice minimalist fountain.

It clouded over by the time we were done, but this did make for more atmospheric photos. Also it's interesting to note that old museums are in themselves works of art, as much as any of the exhibits they hold.

I love this one – someone back in Roman times decided that what they wanted, what they'd pay top sesterce for from a sculptor of the utmost quality, was a really realistic statue of a doggy having a good scratch.

Again, it features some spectacular stuff, but I'm going to concentrate on the sillier and more interesting things. It really presents a very full range of antiquities, from the incredible first-rate workmanship that couldn't be improved if it was done by a machine, to the mediocre stuff that I'd guess you'd buy at the ancient equivalent of IKEA, to the... severely questionable stuff you might expect to get at a dodgy seaside souvenir shop. Seriously, who wants some of this ?

People complain about AI-generated hands today, but this mosaic looks a bit unintentionally-Picasso to me.

And now for the absurd : horse riding done wrong, a woman peeing in a pot in exquisite detail, and some phallus lamps. Every Roman home should have one !

I do wonder if ancient historians are a bit desperate sometimes. Faced with the overtly sexual content they often fall into trying to give its analysis as seriousness which might be a little... reaching. Far from assuming it all has some deep mystical symbolism that such imagery is not longer associated with, is it not perhaps more sensible to conclude that actually the ancient Greeks and Romans were in fact considerably sillier and hornier in their artistic leanings ? It just seems a good deal more likely to me than assigning them something deeper to stuff which seems so obviously ridiculous. Methinks there might be some academic self-censoring going on because perish the thought that their subjects might not have been entirely serious the whole time. Much as I don't like the ivory-tower-elitism trope, it doesn't come from nothing.

Especially when you consider that full range of quality of the art. It wasn't that they were exceptionally talented, because ancient peoples also produced a lot of abject crap. It wasn't that they were exceptionally useless either, because they also produced the undeniably beautiful. No, they were just people, and sometimes that means a weird desire to paint pictures of women urinating in jars and make oil lamps shaped like outrageously large phalluses. We need not try and assign anything deeper to this at all. It's just people being people.

I'm not sure where or what this one is but I'm quite sure it's the worst carving I've ever seen. I think we've got some weird selection effects going on with ancient art. We either get the top of the range stuff of the equivalent of drawing dicks on the toilet wall in an age when people had more time to kill.

After this we headed back to complete the New Museum to finish the two floors we didn't manage on the first morning. Here too there was something I've wanted to see for a long time : the golden Wizard's Hat. Half a kilo of gold in a wildly impractical "hat" dating from a thousand years BC, together with an accompanying disc it's believed to be part of an advanced calendar system. With the intricate metalwork and complex, abstract designs, it contradicts the popular notion of the barbarian Celts as the beard-wearing horde of bloodthirsty savages that the Romans depicted them as. Whether they did mathematics in the same way we do today, whether they even conceived of maths as an activity distinct from others... who knows ?

And that sort of thing is far more interesting to me than the museum's prize piece : the famous bust of Nefertiti. You can probably just about see this in the photo on the right, but you're not allowed to take photographs in the exhibit's own hall. This is a large room, a mini-rotunda all of its own, which houses Nefertiti and nothing else. It's an impressive work, but it isn't anything extraordinary to my eyes. It's yet another fine example of Egyptian art, to be sure, but it doesn't say anything about the Egyptian world view or alter our understanding of them as a people.

Day 3

The final day took us to the Charité medical museum. This is pretty interesting though it's not so much my thing. I liked that they seemed to be quite up-front about some of their less laudable moments. They don't shy away from telling you that at times the hospital was overcrowded, understaffed, and underpaid its employees to the extent that they robbed their patients, or that prostitutes brought in for treatment started plying their trade on hospital grounds. 

The modern hospital complex is huge, and the museum occupies just a few floors in one of the smaller buildings.

I didn't take many photos because there's not a lot worth photographing : medical instruments are interesting but not exactly aesthetically designed. But there's one section where you're not allowed to take photographs. This houses another set of things in jars, but they're quite different to what you get in the NHM : they're people. Sometimes parts of people, both normal and suffering from diseases (hilariously, a penis is given the laconic caption, "A normal phallus")... and sometimes whole people. Unborn babies who would, for various reasons, never have survived. We need not dwell on that. I didn't need to see everything in the room and deliberately didn't look at everything at the very end, with the exhibits getting progressively more and more the stuff of nightmares the further into the room you go.

I'm not sure if the museum took the right approach here or not. Not taking photographs : of course this is a sensible restriction, otherwise you risk demeaning the exhibit. And I can see the point of not putting in any titillating warnings about how "those of a nervous disposition should look away now" or suchlike. Their approach of making the exhibits at the start essentially bland and getting progressively more disturbing gives the viewer the chance to opt-out at any point, without any sort of reverse-advertising that would likely only inflame curiosity. But I'm not sure if any of this needs exhibiting to anyone except medical staff. On the other hand, should it be hidden ? Probably not.

Anyway, I'm not easily disturbed by such things, but I was pretty darn disturbed by that. So should you ever find yourself in Berlin, that's my recommendation : by all means see Charité (it's more interesting than you might expect), but you deserve fair warning about the floor where photographs are forbidden. They're banned for a very good reason that despite their honestly monstrous appearance, these were people, or at least people in potentia, and deserve a measure of dignity. 

Personally, I'm far more comfortable with the other-wordly remoteness of the T-Rex, a genuine monster you wouldn't feel guilty about running away from in mortal terror, than real people of the modern era. Even the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers museum, grotesque though they are, at least have the virtue of being distant in both time and culture. The imagination can run a riot of fantasy about vicious jungle tribesmen or giant reptilian beasts while keeping a measure of detachment : it's fun to imagine such things. But with real people from the immediate past ? No such detachment is possible, and imagination has to give way before sensitivity. It's fascinating, but not for me, thanks.

And then we got on a bus and drove off quite literally into the sunset. But this didn't photograph well, so here's some clouds instead.

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