You can pick up the book here.Somewhere between being a teenager and having a child of my own, museums changed. The sense of solemn and elegant wonderment was replaced with lots of ‘accessible’ little cartoon smiley faces on posters and ‘feel me/ touch me’ displays. There was no place any more for the display curator who knew everything, and certainly no room for the professional artwork which was usually placed beside information plaques, showing how the architectural-looking bones would have looked when living and breathing.
These were the days before mobile phone cameras – as a child, I remember each museum visit needed a sketch-book, to copy the artist’s interpretation and then colour them when you went home. Museum visits were joyous and exciting rituals of imagination and learning, and my own feeling (which you may well disagree with if you are younger and don’t remember older museums) is that many changes have been for the worse in modern times, allowing no scope for creativity. They have shunted the input of the ‘expert’ who was omnipresent beside cases and displays. As a child, you learnt how to ask the curators for further information – they were always so benevolent and encouraging, especially to oddball kids who maybe were the first in their families to love ancient things. They were the people you rather hoped you would grow into. When they told you things, oh my, how grown up you felt!
Some sanctuaries remain, which keep the balance of modernity and antiquity of displays – places like Dublin’s ‘Dead Zoo’ (Natural History Museum) , the ground floor of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the Natural History Museum in London still ‘get’ it. “Shall these bones live?” TS Eliot asked, and the answer for any heritage or natural history aficionado is that yes, they can, infinitely in imagination, but only when it is shown how marvellous the creatures were in the flesh. My mum and dad used to buy me wonderful books after visits, to encourage my sad attempts at art, and I was inspired by artists such as Zdenek Burian, and his work in Life before Man, and Glut et al’s. Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Cavemen, which showcased the work of Charles R. Knight, illustrator extraordinaire. His influence echoes through the work of modern palaeoartists.
It’s been my pleasure to revisit that childhood of awe and inspiration in reviewing the commemorative edition of Charles R. Knight’s ‘Life through the Ages’ from Indiana University Press, which was published first in 1946. Knight blended scientific accuracy (only limited by what was known in his era) with a lively and elegant art style to reconstruct in both model and canvass, creatures of the past. The text includes wonderful charcoal illustrations such as a cheerful looking Styracosaurus, a jolie-laide rhinoceros iguana, a too-cute cluster of Glyptodon, armadillo, sloth and Megatherium as the best ever gang, just hanging together beside a fruit tree (can I join? Please?), and a woolly rhino who is enjoying tossing a rather surprised hominid up in the air, far too much. The illustrations are full of verve and character, and will likely have you aching to be a kid and pick up a pencil again.
There is so much charm and genuine warmth from Knight within the text, it is obvious that he never lost his own sense of wonderment at the beasts from not just the twilight of history but the deep dark night. This text is the archaeology of a science, the text which issued generations of wide eyed kids into the natural history galleries of a myriad of museums worldwide, with avuncular kindness. It is hard not to look on this re-issue as a souvenir of all the museums and books which made us do what what we do, be it archaeology, palaeoecology, palaeontology, palaeobotany…whatever takes your core sample.
Of course, the text is dated. We now work with equipment which would have been science fiction in the 1940s, but much of what we built on and questioned, started life as ‘what ifs’ during this period of science. The past few years have proved dramatic for natural history, with much of the old text books being challenged or replaced. Przewalski’s horse is now known to be an ‘escapee’ from domesticity, meaning that there’s an earlier ancestor out there. We now know that dog domestication was earlier than we once thought too. Our own @deepfriendDNA, Ross Barnett, can relate many new findings on the Great Cats. Perhaps the reason to purchase and read this book does not lie in its accuracy for the 21st century. Perhaps it lies in remembering the child who caught sight of their first dinosaur fossil, or who wondered what the Cambrian seas were like. This is a book of memory and enchantment, our own childhood passions rekindled.
I suspect it has not just been me who feels this way. The equally gentle and gracious foreword by the late Stephen Jay Gould, formerly of Harvard University, is bathed in whatever the palaeontology equivalent of a 1970s Kodachrome photo is; all is suffused in a wonderful, golden retro light. Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrell Museum of Canada adds some updates to the text, making me certainly feel this would be an ideal book to buy after a day at a museum, and read with kids beside you, be you mum, dad, aunt, uncle or whatever. Equally, buy it for yourself, share it with the very young you of a couple of decades ago, and prepare to just smile the whole time.
If you do buy it, could I make a suggestion? Buy a sketch pad and some pencils with it, for you or a young’n. It’s Easter, you might have a couple of days to chill out. Make like it is 1956/66/76 again and sit and draw whatever takes your fancy in the museums. Be inspired how good it feels when science and art combine. It doesn’t matter if you’ve kids with you, or not – just go back and remember awe and amazement and fun. I’d suspect that the sage shade of Charles R. Knight may well be hanging round, nodding approval….
Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)
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Blaschka models: http://www.thejournal.ie/blaschka-models-3884516-Mar2018/
National Museums Scotland: https://www.nms.ac.uk/collections-research/collections-departments/natural-sciences/
Natural History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/