November 3rd I found myself with a day to kill in Cambridge, so asked you lot for suggestions of where to go. First up was the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.
A quick prod online didn't tell me much other than it looked small, had a world class set of rocks and fossils, and seems geared to the academic, but with some arts and kids activities. I figured it was worth a reccy, but wasn't that fussed. As I discovered, their website really does not do them credit. (and online details on collections seem to have not been updated since 2009)
Within a university courtyard, you enter what is essentially a long L shaped pair of large corridors, with beautiful old varnished wood cabinets and small offices converted to gift shop, toilet etc. The years of study, care and collecting are tangible. I headed to the left, through no real reason other than it was the shortest end of corridor visible to me, but seem to have chosen well as I then began with a recent display about Darwin as a Geologist. Because this covered a collector, collecting and cataloguing, and the reasons and drive behind it, it helped place in context all the following exhibits.
Wandering back through the rest of this area I was delighted to find that the old cabinets are crammed with objects, and still have their densely typewritten and pinned up labels, while many cabinet drawers have hand written (proper pen and ink copperplate) labels. I hope these aren’t updated; the variety and volume of contents awe you and speak for themselves, while the old school presentation and labelling are a testament to a labour of love we forget about in the age of the computer. Newer interpretation boards beside each area give an overview of the period and subject covered, and hangings in the windows have clear and bright graphics and text, providing shade for the exhibits, signage for the visitors, and colour and energy to the room. These additions give necessary interpretation, without clashing with the traditional displays.
Towards the corner of the L (past the big dinosaur) is an area that has been updated with the old cabinets housing modern, less crowded, brighter displays with more interpretation. There’s a mix of large and engaging visuals, objects, questions and facts to create displays with physical depth and variety that catch the passing eye and draw you in to further thought. An interesting addition are the modern arty things above some cabinets which give height and colour while distinguishing each separate area - a concerted break with the preceding area even though the same cabinets are used.
The final area is surprisingly disappointing a separate room, containing a range of semi precious stones, quartzes etc, looking at their molecular complexity or something. What could be a very engaging area feels like a dry and scientific space, quite stark, with interpretation panels thick with text and molecular diagrams. Semi previous gems have a natural appeal, and this exhibition space could be the perfect gateway into the technical by using their beautiful differences in appearance to explain their formation processes. I was further surprised when I spoke to staff about a label having fallen from a display, who said that the cabinets were opened for cleaning in January, and are difficult to open for maintenance. Surely that hasn’t been in the bottom of the cabinet since then? Good news is that he said they have hopes/plans to renovate/update the area.
The best thing by far about the Sedgewick was the number of families and kids having a great time. For a couple of corridors full of rocks, in wood and glass cabinets, with only a couple of interactive things (a globe and a computer in the Darwin area) it is a paradise for children. There are plenty of play things throughout the museum, jigsaws, puzzles, books, hands on fossils... Simple things but relatively inexpensive to create/purchase, easy to maintain, appealing for wide ages and providing entertainment and engagement with the displays. Combined with seating scattered throughout, singly and in groups , and you feel welcome to dwell, take your time, relax, watch the kids play, study the cabinets.
A genius move are lots of plastic portable steps around the place, allowing children to see into top down cabinets and to get up closer to higher shelves. Many curators could learn from watching the smiling family follow the little girl, trailing these steps around after her while shouting “I want to see the SCARY SPIDER again!!” A small thing, but enables the children to enjoy all the exhibits on their own terms, not through items chosen for children friendly displays.
The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences offers a rich mine of resources for the serious academic, an accessible and highlight packed few hours for the curious, and an exciting and informative visit for children. The refurbished and redeveloped sections make excellent use of the original cabinets and layout, showing how geological study has developed and is still relevant, while the older displays have lost none of their impact. Regardless of your interest in fossils and the ilk, search out this gem in the mass of Cambridge museums.
Thanks to the lady in the (amazingly cheap) gift shop who was so delighted when I checked if photography was permitted, and the family who allowed me to take pictures are they played. The young man who started yelling “NO!” as soon as I tried to talk to his dad has a glittering career in the legal or PR profession ahead of him, he’s got the ‘no interviews’ line off pat already.
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