Last night I had another one of those “one thing leads to another moments” that seem to be the driving force of my life. I was feeling too tired to accomplish anything and also tired enough that if I tried to read I would fall asleep. I turned on the TV, a show that I just began recording on our DVR was on. I rewound back to the beginning, I realize “rewound” is not the right word since DVR’s are digital but whatever.
I returned to the beginning of the show, Museum of Life, on PBS and began to watch. A woman, a botanist who works at the museum described how very early in the morning before the visitors arrived she would come to the gallery and lie on the floor with her binoculars. She did this in order to see the painted botanical panels that adorned the very high curved ceiling of the gallery. To better understand why she needed the binoculars you have to see the Natural History Museum of London on which the show is based.
The enormous structure is filled with gothic towers, grand arches and and was called by its first director, Richard Owen, “a cathedral to nature”, to display all of “God’s creations”.
[picture from earth in pictures]
The female botanist, (sorry, I don’t remember her name), needed binoculars to see the 162 painted ceiling panels which have been in that lofty position since the museum first opened in 1881. No records remain that would explain why or when the designers of the museum chose these particular plants. It is known that the artists painted straight on to the ceiling plaster, probably lying down on scaffolding and painting above their heads. Because no records existed of the paintings some of the plants have not been identified. However, as things are apt to occur with patience and obsession, the female botanist began to be intrigued by several paintings that she could not identify – one day she was looking through one of the botanical books in the collection and found a drawing of one of the unidentified plants. Here is a book cover depicting the ceiling panels.
I was intrigued by this story of this woman lying on the floor of the museum every morning and pleased that her fortitude enabled the identification of one of the mystery panels. I remembered, that because I have not yet visited the Natural History Museum in London (because I have never been to London) I own a book about it, Treasures of the Natural History Museum. I hit pause on my remote and went in search of the book. I found it and then happily flipped through my book for the duration of the show looking for the objects and subjects they mentioned. This was fun to me beyond what would seem to an ordinary person to be reasonable.
During the show I remembered that I own another book, Dry Storeroom No. 1, The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey. I love this book. Richard Fortey is a natural scientist whose specialty is trilobites.
In Dry Storeroom, Fortey gives a behind the scenes tour of the museum and the scientists and experts that work there. And so, I am considering re-reading Dry Storeroom because as I said at the beginning, one thing leads to another.
I think the reason I am fascinated by natural history museums in general is because they allow me to satisfy my love of visual expression but also museum scientists are precisely the polar opposite to my kind of obsessions. I become interested, sometimes obsessed with something and then I move onto something else. Museum scientists, and natural scientists spend a lifetime studying one subject. Another expert mentioned in Museum of Life, Professor Juliet Brodie, is a seaweed researcher. Her obsession, life purpose, and career are focused on one tiny part of a vast universe, seaweed. I am amazed and confused by this. I envy her ability to concentrate, analyze and perpetually admire the intricacies of seaweed.
Fortey, speaks of his purposeful and obsessed colleagues at the Museum this way: “I soon got to know John Taylor, Fred Naggs and Kathy Way as the mollusk people, the conchology gang, at home with gastropods and bivalves, squids and slugs, nudibranchs and pteropods. As I write this, they are still working in the same rooms, tucked away in their basement redoubt, John Taylor labouring on his beloved mollusks long after most of his contemporaries have taken to the golf club or the allotment”.
While my obsessions are shallow, often just an interest in an image and no more, natural scientists are fascinated by every detail present, past and future of the inside, the outside, the lifestyle, habitat and food source for their specific creature or plant.
Some people are obsessed with Jennifer Lopez or George Clooney, or collecting frog figurines, getting tattoos or with golf in this same way! I cannot maintain celebrity obsessions or collections of things for very long. Years ago, I had a “thing” for merry-go-round horses and rainbows, now I am indifferent.
I admire the ability to never become bored with your subject of obsession and to find a purpose in it. At the end of your life to really know something inside out and to have furthered the knowledge and study of that something would be to have mastered many of the disciplines I would like to master: perseverance, patience, wisdom, solitude, gratitude and grace.
There is for me, behind the “one thing leading to another”, an overall purpose in Christ. And in pursuing that higher purpose I hope to develop perseverance, patience, wisdom, solitude, gratitude and grace.There is something to be learned from the disciplined mind of a natural scientist. Though I may never study mold, mushrooms, or marmots to the extent that scientists do, I can be inspired to bring those traits, the ones that fuel their obsessions, to bear on the many areas of my life that desperately need them.
As I wrote that last sentence I was suddenly afraid that the phrase was "bring to bare" instead of "bring to bear". A quick search confirmed "bring to bear". Then I was worried about "lying/laying" used earlier. I will now have to bookmark The Grammar Curmudgeon for future reference. And by the way I found another book, a companion to Museum of Life... One thing leads to another.