One of the standard features of the school summer holiday has to be A Day At The Museum. Here in the South-East we are blessed with a profusion of world-class museums with exhibits that are more or less unique; it would not be possible to see them elsewhere.
Albertopolis is the main museum district in London. Visitors may sample natural history, science, and decorative arts and design in quantity and detail that are unparalleled in such proximity. So which museum is the most popular among children? Which exhibits are the must-see attractions on a day out to London?
If you are a parent, you will already know the answer. It is the Natural History Museum. It is the only establishment of the three that appears to require a permanent queueing system. This is to do with the almost permanent media exposure of dinosaurs and archaeology that has been going on now for two decades. There is also a queue on the inside to view the dinosaur remains that ends up with an animatronic Tyrannosaurus. Instead of quiet contemplation of prehistoric biology, there is crowded shuffling in the fug of stifling body-generated heat no matter the weather. The human conveyor-belt conveniently comes to an end just at a shop that will try to sell you reproductions of numerous extinct species as cuddly toys, kit models, glove puppets and every other conceivable variety of plaything.
I believe this mania for all things prehistoric all started with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, over two decades ago. Here was a film that brought the dinosaurs to life in spectacular fashion, thanks to the advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Back in the early 1990s, CGI was still a novel technology and had not dominated cinema to the point where every mass-market film is effectively either a cartoon or a cartoon with live-action elements. Before the 1990s, the most popular example of the latter was the Disney film Mary Poppins. Most modern seat-filling films are have fewer dancing penguins, Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews are absent, but their place has been filled with items like exploding cities, hideous aliens, evil robots and exotic weapons, all rendered by a bank of computers.
Prior to Jurassic Park, the portrayal of dinosaurs on the silver screen was limited to stop-motion animation of models as popularised by the late Ray Harryhausen or using a live lizard and filming them in slow-motion. Jurassic Park was a quantum leap. The fascination with dinosaurs, especially among the young rose, and is not subsiding. There was a new Jurassic Park film earlier this year.
Dinosaurs had always had a degree of popularity with children for their size and exotic body-forms by comparison with our current range of fauna. Archaeology is a young field and the opportunity for new discovery seems vast. The news of a new dinosaur that has been dug up is a cheap way to fill a bulletin or a paper on a slow news day, especially if it is accompanied by a spectacular artist’s rendering. I remember as a child collecting plastic dinosaur models sold at a local toy store for the princely sum of 21Ž2p each and being quite proud when I had the complete set of a dozen, and was able to identify them all. However, this was in addition to other interests.
I am part of the Apollo Generation. I was alive at the time that men walked on the moon. I was as concerned as everyone else about the fate of Lovell, Swigert and Haise as they battled to survive the cold vacuum of space in their crippled Command Module using a Lunar Module, a vehicle that was only designed to deliver and return three men the few hundred miles to the surface of the moon, to propel them a thousand times further back home. It was real life, not a well-meaning film stuffed with Hollywood stars. This was a time when supersonic travel had new and exciting promise, nuclear power offered safe and affordable energy, the reusable space shuttle would open up the colonisation of space at a fraction of the cost of the disposable Saturn V rocket. Powerful computers would leverage the efficient use of resources and provide an answer for every question, pharmaceuticals would cure or prevent every human ailment and domestic technology would substantially reduce household labour. Motorways and high-speed electric trains were opening up the country to people who would have less onerous jobs and more leisure time.
Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were hit shows amongst the young, well boys at least. Ownership of the Dinky renditions of Thunderbird 2, with its small and easily-lost Thunderbird 4 in its freight pod or the ruggedly macho Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle was virtually mandatory. Girls had Lady Penelope’s pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce. Although science fiction, the shows had a strong grounding in fact and reasonable technological extrapolation and the magnificent machines seemed credible pieces of engineering. In every episode of Thunderbirds technology and engineering was used to solve crises that had been created by technology. It was a virtuous circle of progress. Technology would always have the answer.
The 1970s seemed a dystopian reality-check. Lunar missions were cancelled due to cost. Technology brought the quotidian horrors of Vietnam into people’s sitting-rooms. Concorde, although magnificent, was a commercial failure. The Space Shuttle was late and over-budget. Three-Mile Island indicated the true cost of atomic energy. The director Stanley Kubrick followed the mystic optimism of 2001:A Space Odyssey with the urban ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, that sadly appears to have been more prophetic. My school held more copies of Kes than any work by Arthur C Clarke. Gritty reality replaced hope.
Perhaps this is the reason why the re-runs of Star Trek with its state-ordained utopia were so successful. They showed us a technological fantasy that had challenges but had brave new worlds of human development and progress. This feel-good optimism ran through the show and persisted even in the new version, where the bridge looked less like the nerve-centre of military vessel and more like a hotel foyer run by a English patrician.
Since then, science-fiction in the mass media has been largely fantasy. Star Wars applied the effects of 2001 to Flash Gordon. Good news stories about science and technology are ignored. Only disasters hold the front pages. Had it not blown u, the launch of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 would have been on an inside page below the fold and then only because it was carrying a schoolteacher. The modern Dr Who contains more mysticism than can be reasonably expected in a show that is ostensibly science-fiction. There is a show on Cbeebies called Tommy Zoom that is openly anti-technology and progress, where factories and industrial plant that fabricate the materials and devices that benefit humanity are seen as evil. There have been CGI remakes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet but these creations of three-channel television are drowned in the noise of a billion media streams.
Everything has to now be ‘sustainable’. What has to be ‘sustained’ is not clear, but it appears that we are under the gaze and indifferent responses of the Earth Goddess Gaia that an environmentalist belief-system has willed back into existence. We are portrayed as having lost the hundred-century battle against nature and are now its slave.
So perhaps, given the media onslaught, it is not too surprising that children queue to see the remains of dead animals from a simpler, human-free age that were slain by ecological catastrophe than the triumphs and wonders of our creativity and discoveries that promise a future of invention and hope.
Britain won the Schneider Trophy three times and got to keep it outright. This tribute to British technological mastery sits in a corner of the top floor of the Science Museum next to the aeroplane that won it, the S.6b, the ancestor of the Spitfire, an example of which dangles from the roof, next to a Hurricane and a German Komet rocket-fighter. A short walk from these is a rack of aero-engines containing the Whittle W.1, Britain’s first operational jet engine. From the ceiling hangs the plane that used it, the Gloster E28/39, Britain’s first jet aircraft. There are no queues, these marvels of mankind can be viewed and examined in quiet contemplation.
The wonders described above fill a space smaller than a tennis-court. Every part of the Science Museum is like this. My children, however, find them boring. That is my fault for letting them watch television and being unable to convey my fascination with technology and my belief on progress. But in my defence, I am up against institutionalised child-facing media that disagrees with me. Dinosaurs are more interesting in the opinion of most media executives. But then they are a self-selecting group with liberal arts degrees.
Arthur C Clarke’s third law of prediction states ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, so perhaps liberal media types cannot deal properly with what they are unable to understand. There was always a chance that their predecessors in the media had served in the RAF and as such had no choice but to be exposed to advanced technology. The current generation of those holding the levers of media power have not been so blessed with this accidental but fulfilling experience.
It is no secret that there is a constant shortage of engineers in this country. The number of people moved to careers in technology that were inspired by Star Trek and the like was seen in the outpouring of grief at the passing of Leonard Nimoy.
It is good and bad that there are no queues to the Science Museum, as this means I can spend as much time as I need to examine the products of human brilliance on offer. But it also means that there is a generation that is becoming disconnected from man-made world around them. They are consumers rather than creators. Such disconnection may transmute into hostility. The Egyptians lost the ability to build pyramids and they remain mysterious objects despite being the product of ancient engineering and materials excellence. We only started to build better roads than the Roman Empire’s some fourteen centuries after its fall. It would be a tragedy if the land of Babbage, Brunel, Whittle, Dyson and Berners-Lee had no-one to carry on our tradition and heritage of science and engineering brilliance and instead started worshipping a dinosaur culture.