These fossils feel forgotten

It wasn’t the rainiest nor the coldest London has had lately, but Saturday came with problems for the over-70 set, which in our case included over-80s as well.  Intrepid explorers by sheer will power and perhaps a dash of competitiveness, our English cousins P and L agreed to meet us at the Natural History Museum to view “The Best Wildlife Photography of 2013.” They set out from West Surrey, keeping us informed of their progress as we prepared ourselves in our flat, almost within walking distance of “Albertopia.”

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The first alert came when they got to their local station and learned there were “engineering works” on the track, and that they would be taken by bus to the next station to board their train.  Fine. We were not even showered and dressed. Once we were, we heard again. They were at Victoria. It was about 11 AM. Off we went to the closest bus top, missing the C1 as we stood at the curb.  We had to wait in the sharp wind for about 10 minutes, but once boarded were at our destination in 10 more minutes. We headed up the short street toward the gorgeous, if hulking, Victorian “Westminster for animals.”

The Natural History Museum was planned to make sure extinct species are not forgotten. The architecture is encrusted in sculptures of all creatures living and dead. I had a chance to appreciate it even more while we waited outside the entrance in a queue of hundreds, mostly parents and children, on school holiday this week, and booted and bundled up against the cold.

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Inside at 11:45 we faced the fact there would be no time for tea before our booking at 12:15. We plunged into the crowded hallway beneath a banner announcing the photography exhibition.

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Some 5 to 10 suspenseful minutes later, having passed huge fossils on the walls, we found a small sign pointing down another hallway, the bird gallery, not so large, but darker. At the end we found the place we were meant to be. We started around even darker spaces slowly, trying to read the printed descriptions beneath each large “winner” (100 of 43,000 entries chosen for the exhibit). It took time, as the pilgrim parade was double stranded, and going in opposite directions. Our cousins and I had managed to get through three rooms in good time, but my husband was, as usual, lagging behind. Then we heard the clear male voice over the loudspeaker. THIS IS AN EMERGENCY EVACUATION. EVERYONE PLEASE LEAVE THE BUILDING.

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We four managed to huddle together and go out with the others, but I am sure some parents with baby strollers must have been left behind, as the steep staircases we had to descend were a bare improvement over a fire escape, into a courtyard that is used as a parking lot for staff and, according to a sign, “goods delivery.” There we were herded into the center so that vehicles might pass along the lane.

None did, and we were never told what the problem was, though one yellow-slickered staff member said it couldn’t be too serious. Then there was word passed that the “red zone” at the front of the museum was open and we could go around. However, the zone we were in would not be immediately reopened. We decided to go for lunch and found a cheerful Italian place toward the South Kensington tube station. At about three we went back to the museum with our tickets, which were we told would be honored, and were immediately allowed in by the central steps (missing the queue) and to the exhibit, which was now sold out.

Inside the exhibit, the crowd had grown. P and L and I still clung together, more-or-less. My husband dropped behind, determined as he is to read every word. Finally there was no logical choice for the three of us elders but to exit. THERE WERE NO BENCHES INSIDE THE EXHIBITION! Not only that, but there were few benches along the long galleries, hallways and main hall. Then I realized there were darn few people over the age of, say, 45. I filled out  comment form with my complaint.

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P and L headed for the café, at my suggestion, but when I followed them about 10 minutes later – still no husband – they were sitting on a bench under the grand staircase, having been fortunate to find it partly empty. The cafe was packed to the gills. P left voice mail with Roger, and I left text messages, knowing that he had his phone off as required until he emerged – if he remembered. We waited more. I grew antsy. I went to look for him. No luck. P got antsy and went to the desk to ask if there had been any “unusual events.” We all walked to the front where he might station himself to catch up with us if he lost his phone. No Roger. I went toward the entrance to the exhibit, this time following the instructions of the woman at the information desk. My phone rang. It was the missing person. He had no idea so much time had passed and that we had not still been just in front of him. We ended the afternoon at the creperie.

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I will go back to the photographs alone before they are taken down. I am glad to have learned about the fossil walls, where tribute is paid to Mary Anning, a female fossil hunter in the 1880s-90s at Lyme Regis. That is worth a quiet afternoon peruse, as is the bird gallery. Though the specimens seem to be molting, they are charmingly arranged and there was a brilliant display of six Audubon prints of superb technical and aesthetic quality. Copies can be purchased.

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