Eton College is regarded as the epitome of Britain’s privileged elite. Not many can boast their own Natural History Museum, but Eton College can. Tucked away down a side street near the ornate chapel, it’s open to the public on term time Sunday afternoons, also has an extensive outreach program to local schools in the area.
Making my way to the museum I passed boys dressed as if they had been taking part in some kind of BBC costume drama, although undoubtedly the reality is that they have just been to the College’s Sunday choir practice. It would have felt like I was stepping back in time if it wasn’t for the rowdy tourist lining the streets with their selfie sticks primed for every photo opportunity.
You’re thrown straight in as soon as you enter the door of the museum. Bamboozled by interesting looking antique cases filled with shell and egg collections across from angled text panels that provide a blow by blow account of the history of the museum, its development over time and its hero collectors and donators.
There was a nice case set up to reflect ‘A corner of T M Huxley’s Study’ as well as another to reflect a ships cabin, both allowing you to peer in to another environment, a nice contrast to just looking at objects displayed within cases. There were also activities to do, with plastic dinosaurs cropping up for children to look out for and trail sheets to complete.
It is the first time ever that I have seen a display of pinned butterflies and moths ALL with their own little reference number allowing you identify what each individual is called (English and Latin names of course). That’s some crazy dedication to detail right there. Rare and endangered animals are highlighted throughout the museum, which acts to inform visitors that this collection is important, but also that these animals that were once readily collected now need to be helped. The opportunity to see a page from Darwin’s original Origins of Species in his own handwriting was an unexpected treat, his spidery handwriting is quite hard to read, but alongside a transcription you can make it out.
It is a lovely little museum, but it did have one case that blew my mind. From what I can grasp it was all about the fun that can be had while mucking around breeding sweetcorn and how, by mixing different variations together, you can get different crops. Yep that’s the panel explained (probably terribly) but in the simplistic terms of a non-specialist (because let’s face it non-specialists do out number specialists). The text panel in the museum is written nothing like this. It is written by a very intelligent specialist and therefore is as accessible to your average human as the moon is.
People don’t tend to read all of the text in the museum, so I hadn’t read the introductory panel to this case, instead my eyes had caught ‘A and B below are puzzles’, skipping to, ‘Try the following questions: 1) which ratio best fits the F2 segregation? 2) which characters are dominant? 3) what are the phenotypes of the two original parents? 4) which phenotype was the F1?’.
And my brain did a double take and said something along the lines of, ‘YOU WHAT MATE?’. I looked back over the essay I would have to read to be able to answer this weird mathematical sweetcorn related quiz and I thought, nope it’s not worth it. I could see the amount of long scientific words just at a glance and considering the average reading age in this country is considered to be that of a 9 year-old, I decided I didn’t have a chance in hell. It’s great that this museum has something like this to test the quick reading super intelligent people within our society. Some would argue that the type of text that I am used to in museums is ‘dumbed down’, but others would find it to be more accessible to a wider audience.