Natural history museums thrill but also scare

Natural history museums are a time machine but they are actually ghoulish places too

Crocodiles and a Komodo dragon skeleton are among over 2,000 specimens on display at the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. ST PHOTO
Copyright: SPH
Crocodiles and a Komodo dragon skeleton are among over 2,000 specimens on display at the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. ST PHOTO Copyright: SPH

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favourite places in the world.

As a university student, I would take the Tube to South Kensington to while away afternoons there, wandering though the cavernous brick entrance hall to reach hallways lined with whole ecosystems of preserved animals.

My favourite exhibits were the skeleton of a colossal blue whale, which was suspended from the ceiling above taxidermised giraffes and elephants; and the museum's exquisite gemstone collection, where I would lose hours of time in chunks of malachite and onyx.

With friends, I would race through the museum, cheekily mimicking the awkward, stiff poses of the stuffed chimpanzees, or giggling at the unfortunate name of the Tuojiangosaurus (pronounced "two- wang-osaurus") dinosaur.

For me, natural history museums are both a time machine and a ticket to far-flung locales such as the jungles of South America and the savannah of Africa, all without having to set foot on a plane.

So when the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore opened in April, I knew that I had to pay it a visit. Three weekends ago, I picked a time slot, booked my tickets online and zoomed off to the museum, located at the National University of Singapore campus in Kent Ridge.

The museum building, designed by architect Mok Wei Wei to resemble a moss-covered rock, was striking. The ash-coloured exterior reminded me of Noah's Ark, with its plank-textured walls and glass portholes dotting the side of the building.

My partner and I were dazzled by the variety of plants in the small outdoor garden, which included mangrove species with their roots submerged in water, as well as floating plants and palms.

Inside the exhibition area, I went into full "museum mode", flitting from case to case, staring, reading, snapping images of and digesting the buffet of exhibits on display.

I was wowed by the trio of Prince, Apollonia and Twinky - the museum's star diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs - which dominated the main atrium, and checked out the startled-looking dodo replica nearby.

I ooh-ed and ahh-ed at Japanese box crabs, dried spiky rattan and yellow-and-black shield beetles.

I was having a whale of a time until I rounded a corner next to a display of orangutans. There, I came upon a human skeleton, with its eyeless sockets, bared teeth and lipless mouth, dangling limply in a display case.

Of course, I know that fundamentally, we homo sapiens are also flesh and bone. But somehow, seeing a human skeleton, something which was formerly a person, strung up alongside the rest of the exhibits, something clicked inside of me.

It was only then that I realised how macabre natural history museums actually are. Stripped of snazzy dioramas and colourful write-ups to put a distance between me and the skeleton, staring at it dangling by itself in a case felt voyeuristic and ghoulish.

The rest of the museum began to feel grotesque as well. Instead of being enthralled by a menagerie of curious creatures, I looked around me to see stiff, glassy-eyed carcasses of animals, frozen in place by a taxidermist's skill and a good amount of stuffing.

In other sections, various species of worms and fish were suspended in round, glass bottles full of alcohol or formalin, floating in the liquid by spiderweb-thin translucent threads.

The preservation process had leached the colour out of each and every one of them, cladding every animal in the same ghostly pale flesh. Centipedes which were once a vibrant red were milky white and the sightless eyes of fish were clouded over.

The museum's large collection of insects did not escape a gruesome fate either. Row upon row of them were neatly laid out, crucified by a sharp pin, their outer shells wrenched apart and their delicate inner wings splayed open to one side.

Some of the specimens were juxtaposed next to videos which showed them as living creatures, slithering, gliding, running, striking or leaping in all their vibrant glory.

This contrast was particularly great for the birds, which in life are delicate, spirited creatures and symbols of freedom. In death, cocooned in their eternal glass cages, they were flat and eyeless, a limp collection of feathers.

But somehow, despite my morbid musings, I kept wanting to see more and more.

Man's curiosity about and obsession with death are nothing new. Even in the realm of art, which often reflects the zeitgeist of the time, death is a recurring guest star.

The aftermath of the Black Death, which devastated much of Europe, saw the rise of the allegorical Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) genre, where a personified figure of death leads individuals from all walks of life to the grave, reflecting that death comes to all, regardless of station.

In poetry, John Donne's "Death be not proud" is one of the most recognisable sonnet openings, and even in contemporary visual art, one of the highest paid living artists in the world has a fixation with the dead.

The most well-known of Damien Hirst's works are, to me at least, nothing more than glorified carcasses. When I attended his solo show at the Tate Modern in 2012, I ended up accidentally stepping on dead butterflies in In And Out Of Love, and raising my eyebrows at flies swarming over a cow's amputated head in A Thousand Years.

Why then, do we keep going back to death's cold embrace, despite the accompanying fear and unease?

A colleague told me that when she visited the natural history museum in France, which also has an excellent collection of animal skeletons, instead of finding the animals macabre, she found the stillness "strangely calming".

For me, it is simply an unabated curiosity about the unknown.

One of my pet topics during my university years as a student of psychology and neuroscience was the formation of consciousness, what makes something alive and sentient.

Perhaps then, to know what constitutes the abrupt end that is death could conversely, help us to understand more about the grandiose notion of what makes life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Museum tour of the macabre'. Subscribe