Tuesday, March 4, 2014

'Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story' at the Natural History Museum, 28th February 2014

Early man? Early me more like.  Bleary-eyed and reduced to emitting a series of guttural grunts I stumbled into the Natural History Museum at just past 8am on Friday morning.  The exhibition I'd been invited to, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, charts the history of the various brands of human that have inhabited this rainy little island.  The exhibition takes four or five rooms to get from a shambling, barely literate simian subhuman to bright-eyed and bushy tailed homo sapiens.  I did it in just four cups of strong black coffee - not too shabby.

The exhibition begins with one of those scary timelines that make you feel rather insignificant. Geological timelines show modern humans as a tiny slice at the end of a vast ocean of history.  This timeline 'merely' charts the known history of humans on the British Isles and the emergence of modern man is still a tiny chunk at the end.  You and every single person you've ever heard of just a tiny spark in the raging forest fire of life.

It sends shivers down your spine right? Throughout the exhibition this immense weight of time presses upon you.  Care is taken to align us with our ancestors, forcing us to imagine ourselves as prehistoric men and women, to associate their desires, fears and needs with our own.  Much of this is done through subtly clever writing and visual displays. Nearly all of the descriptive signs are written in nicely poetic present tense;
"The vast open grasslands are dotted with wildflowers, and horses graze in the sun. A group of robust humans cluster around a dead rhinoceros, carving it up with their hand-axes. Women, children and men, everyone takes part. In the distance, hyenas are sniffing the air, attracted by the smell of blood."
Similarly, while it's relatively common knowledge that hippopotamuses once wallowed in Trafalgar Square, it's striking to be confronted with a wall-size photographic mock-up showing these prehistoric beasts stalking the frontage of the National Gallery. Obvious care has been taken to place us within the continuity of human history, to understand us as the logical extension of their cave-dwelling, flint-knapping, mammoth-hunting lives.

homo neanderthalensis
One of the things I find most intriguing about the development of modern man is the idea of different species of human living alongside each other.  We know for a fact that homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens co-existed; many of us carry the evidence in our cells, a cheeky slice of Neanderthal sneaking in alongside our homo sapiens DNA - meaning one of our ancestors way back when had a refreshingly open mind when it came to getting their bone on.

It's difficult to imagine a human society that contained two distinct species of mankind, each with their own skills and weaknesses. After all, we have enough problems with racial discrimination as it is even though we're all pretty much genetically identical to each other. Who can say how you'd react to meeting a person who really did think in a different way to you?  It seems inevitable that there was violent inter-species conflict; tribes of slender homo sapien squaring off against the stocky Neanderthals for territory, food or just simply because they didn't like the look of them.

You can see this mutual suspicion in the centrepiece of the exhibition; two specially commissioned waxworks stand, tacitly acknowledging each others presence. The Neanderthal hands clasped insouciantly behind his back, a challenging and cheeky expression etched into the crags of his face has a weird charm to him.  If you passed this guy in the street you might think in passing that he looked a bit odd, but there's nothing too alien about him.  

homo sapiens
Surprisingly, it's the homo sapiens who looks weirder.  He's got that creased, stretched, leathery look to him that you see in guys who started raving in the mid-90s and never stopped - a constant fixture at the back of festival tents to this day.  With a twig contemplatively popped between his teeth, he peers at us through a dismissive squint, as if examining his descendants and finding us wanting.  Despite these two men being genetically separate species, they obviously have far more in common with each other than they do with our pudgy, cosseted, moisturised 21st century selves.

The waxworks are magnificent creations, constructed with precision, artistry and so much humanity that you half expect them to step down from their display and wander off into the Kensington Streets in search of an auroch to slay.  But these guys aside, the exhibition doesn't have that much new stuff to offer.  Some of the prehistoric skeletons on display will be familiar to anyone who knows the Natural History Museum's collection, and there's the occasional slightly tatty looking bit of taxidermy on display that feels a little cheap in a paid exhibition.  There's also a hell of a lot of flints here; and while I recognise the importance of these artefacts there's no getting away from the fact that they're all largely identical.

The exhibition finishes with a bizarre picture of an imaginary future city with organic buildings floating around the streets and a video of various celebrities talking about what their genetic heritage means to them, a neat enough idea but one that contains some rather eye-rolling statements.  Bill Bailey, who is usually pretty on the ball, draws a parallel between his ancestor's millennia-long migrations across Europe and his personal sense of ambition. It's a nice thought, but it feels a touch wishy-washy after so much precise science.

Despite all that the chance to get up close and personal with these two great waxworks makes it largely worthwhile. It's a reminder of the infinite ways there are to 'be' a human being; whether from an extinct species, born into a chaotic hunter-gatherer lifestyle or walking around modern London, smartphone clutched in sweaty paw.  

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story is on display until the 28th September 2014, ticket £9 adults, £4.50 concessions.

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