Denmark, Day Thirteen: In Which Dead Things Are Appreciated

Thursday, June 17th 

The previous day, once the discussion about our side-quest results had ended and the cake and coffee were being cleared away, I approached Dr. Dupont with a quandary. I’d accepted at this point that time, energy and competency with public transport were simply going to be too limited to allow me to see more than a slim percentage of all the places I’d staked out before the start of the trip, but there was one that I still had a hopeful eye on-the Copenhagen Zoological Museum. But I wasn’t holding out any hope on convincing any groupmates to go to it with me, and after the disastrous attempt to get to the zoo, I was feeling pretty shaky about my ability to make it there on my own. So I asked Dr. Dupont if she had any tips on the best route to take.

At this, Dr. Dupont looked surprised, and then laughed, and said that she could do me one better than that: we were all going to the Zoological Museum as a group the next morning. This threw me for a loop, seeing as I’m not used to my problems being solved so handily. I wasn’t about to complain about it, though.

When I was in second or third grade (accounts differ), my family took a week-long fall vacation in a cabin in Wisconsin, which we got to by flying into Chicago and driving the rest of the way up (they did not actually tell us we were going on this trip until we were in the airport, fun fact). We lingered in Chicago a bit on both ends of the trip, visiting the Field Museum on the way up and the Science and Industry Museum on the way back. Our parents gave my brother and I each a disposable camera, which we used to take enormous amounts of pictures that sadly never got developed. Second/third grade me had never seen anything like these huge museums, and I was utterly enthralled, especially by the Field Museum (although the marble run in the Science and Industry Museum was also a primary highlight).

I think this trip-a rarity given our usual financial status-had a pretty strong impact on me. For one thing, it caused me to believe for several years afterward that any deviation from routine or unexpected behavior was a sign that my parents were about to take us on another secret fabulous trip, though eventually I had to concede that it was more likely to be a sign that another stupid crisis of some sort was incoming. But I’m sure it also had something to do with the love of museums I’ve wound up having, in particular the perpetual vague, nagging sense of injustice that I have not been to enough natural history museums. I’m not sure what number of natural history museums would be enough, but I haven’t reached it yet.

So I was, on the whole, pretty stoked about this trip, enough so that I barely even minded that it turned out to be another one of those days where a massive rain shower abated two seconds after we stepped out of the hostel, leaving me carrying around a completely pointless umbrella for the entire day.

The Copenhagen Zoological Museum is one quarter of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, which also includes the Geological Museum, the Botanical Museum, and the Botanical Gardens. As one might expect from the name it is in Copenhagen, so there was no need for a train ride this time, just a decent walk(interspersed with Dr. Dupont and Dr. Frisbie arguing over the directions, but we did get there eventually).

The public areas of the museum only comprised a relatively small part of the building, which I suppose is standard for museums. Once Dr. Dupont had sorted out our admittance while we perused the gift shop, and we had, thankfully, acquired a communal locker into which I could store my umbrella and annoying raincoat, it was time to make our way upstairs. Dr. Dupont announced that we could take the elevator if we wanted, but she was going to take the stairs.

I took the elevator. I’d had enough of that.

When I stepped out into the main entry room, I was greeted, much to my glee, with a large dinosaur skeleton. This, it turned out, was Misty, a diplodocus. According to a nearby informational plaque, Misty had been found six years ago in Wyoming by a couple of German boys on a dig with their father, who had promised them they could keep any small bone bits they found to sell at a flea market. So naturally they went out and quickly wound up uncovering an entire dinosaur.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. I went out looking for fossils all the time when I was a kid, and all found were little bits of crinoids.

But hey, this meant that Misty and I had something in common. We’d both started out in America and, though a convoluted and unlikely series of events, somehow wound up in this room in Copenhagen.

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And neither of us handle human contact very well.

Though Misty was the immediate attention-grabber, the room had many other points of interest. There was, for example, a large display that looked kind of like a Borg cube, albeit a Borg cube from some twisted TNG/Redwall crossover now lost to history.

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Then there was this collection of barnacles, gifted to the museum by Darwin himself, which caught my interest less in a scientific sense than it did from being an example of some amazing archive skills:

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Take notes, BBC.

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“I will never get a girlfriend, I am so unhappy.”

There was a huge chunk of arm bone from an unknown dinosaur, which made me do a double take when I read the plaque. I’d seen ‘please do not touch’ signs scattered around the exhibit, which, being such ubiquitous museum fare, I’d kind of filtered out. It did not occur to me that I might run into one that said “no, actually, you can touch this one, it’s cool”.

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Naturally, I touched it. I mean, how often do you get that chance?

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A Dresden moment.

Of course not everything in the room was such fair game, but now that I had learned not to take the signs for granted, I found that even the ‘don’t touch’ ones could be worth reading. Such as in the case of this honkin’ big clam:

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Aw, and here I figured you could just go to the clam store and buy a new one.

"This plaque paid for by Araldite."

“This plaque paid for by Araldite.”

And there were the bathrooms, which deserved their own mention.

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This tells me remarkably little.

This tells me remarkably little.

Once the wonders of the opening room had been thoroughly examined we pressed onward, past the cafeteria and also Shelob.

WAS THIS REALLY NECESSARY

WAS THIS REALLY NECESSARY

Here we found a room full of skulls, stuffed animals (not of the kind I was considering buying from the gift shop), and preserved things in glass jars. It all felt very mad-sciencey. I was pleased.

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PULL THE LEVER, IGOR

Like the unidentified dino arm, the taxidermy was free to touch, provided you did so in a ‘respectful and gentle manner’, advice I think we should all take to heart when it comes to touching things. There was also a fun interactive activity off to the side.

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That’s Danish for “first you reassemble it, then you put a bomb in it, then you resurrect it with the alien crystal”.

Oh, and I made a friend.

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Also good life advice.

I turned the corner past the polar bear and was met with what I initially took to be a dracolich, but was in fact a whale. Or had been a whale, anyway.

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Bet it could still manage a total party kill or two.

Dr. Frisbie stopped next to the whale to talk about how it demonstrated the principle of homology. Since we had already gone over this at some length in Foundations and our readings, I started perusing some of the nearby exhibits.

I’ve no idea if this was intentional or not, but this was the most…well, unsettling perhaps isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps the most somber part of the museum. Or at least, I thought so. It started with this gorilla.

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Ghostly quality unintended but appropriate.

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I thought it was an interesting admission for a museum to make so openly (and also interesting how the museum called the gorilla a “gift” from Benzon, while Benzon said the museum expected him to acquire one).

A few semesters back I took a class on museum studies, and in the midst of planning our term project exhibit we took an afternoon to talk about museum ethics. Granted, we were talking about a somewhat different kind of ethics, specifically about the appropriation of cultural artifacts by museums and recent laws that were starting to make museums have to put things back where they came from. Lest we think ourselves morally superior, even our tiny college museum apparently had some artifacts they were having to scramble to hand over or start risking legal action. If I recall correctly we also talked about museums having to give back human remains so they could be properly buried, although I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any of those in our collection.

Nor did the college-as far as I know-ever send out big game hunters to bring in gorillas. But, standing there, reading that plaque, I automatically thought back to a sunny autumn afternoon in the art building four semesters ago. This was a different kind of theft than that we had discussed, to be sure-and I was hardly the one who got to judge how equal the crimes were-but it was still, I thought, in its way, theft all the same. And there was little in the way of reparation to be had here. No amount of regret was going to restore that gorilla to where it belonged. I supposed admitting to the problem was about the best the museum could do in that regard, even if they did it in a somewhat vague way. After all, as far as I could tell from the limited information, no one had made them do this. They could have stuck the gorilla way back in the depths of storage and never spoken of it again.

If there was any kind of definitive moral judgement to be made on the matter, I didn’t know what it was. Mostly I just felt kinda sad.

The tour of uncomfortableness continued nearby with some displays on extinct animals.

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The Tasmanian Tiger in particular made me pause for a while.

My brother and I used to have this Microsoft program-not exactly a game, per se-called Dangerous Creatures. It was sort of like an interactive encyclopedia; you’d click through pages with cool facts about various dangerous animals, accompanied with sounds and videos and such, or you could choose a ‘guide’ that would take you through pages following a certain theme and give you voiceovers about them. Kind of hard to describe…but man, we loved it.

But for a kids’ interactive animal encyclopedia, it didn’t necessarily pull punches. Somewhere in the annals of the program was a page on the Tasmanian Tiger, which included a grainy black and white video clip of the last one in the world pacing in its zoo cage, accompanied by grim narration. It was a short video, a small part of the program, and not one that I can imagine I visited frequently, but it was powerfully frightening and depressing to my small animal-loving self. It’s been years since I played Dangerous Creatures, the disc is lost to time, even if I had it in my hand now it would never run on any computer I have access to-but that video has stuck with me.

Then there was the whale heart.

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Which was just kind of weird.

I emerged from the somewhat perturbing tour to find that the rest of the group had moved on without me-which was also rather perturbing. I wasn’t too worried since I didn’t think they were likely to leave the museum without me, but I was a bit concerned about finding myself alone in a dimly lit place full of dead things, so I made an effort to catch up.

We passed through a variety of exhibits: large dioramas, lone skeletons in glass cases, strange artifacts and bits of things laid out like a wizard’s study. There was a display of two deer standing in the woods which was very much like looking into my backyard, reindeer skeletons with comically oversized antlers, and an Ice Age exhibit complete with a mock glacier that was actually cold and wet, causing quite a stir within the group as we all dared each other to touch it like grade-schoolers.

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Woolly mammoth.

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Unwoolly mammoth.

 

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Booooooooo

But the main attraction, the primary reason we went to the Zoological Museum in the first place, wasn’t huge skeletons or preserved things in jars or even poignant displays on extinct animals. It was evolution.

No, literally. Evolution was the rather succinct title of a large permanent exhibit on the museum’s upper floor, dedicated, as one might surmise from the name, to Darwin and the theory of evolution. I took visiting this exhibit seriously, and not just because it was full of cool skeletons.

Although I always felt fairly self-conscious during the trip (even more so than I do in my day-to-day life), there were some times when I felt especially aware that I was in some way representing my native land, and this was one of them, although in this case no one was observing me doing so. Because as a somewhat confused native of the home state of the Creation Museum, I felt a certain responsibility on my shoulders as I walked into comprehensive study of evolution. I felt like, in some tiny way, I was balancing something out. I was going to see that exhibit for all of Kentucky, whether they liked it or not.

The soundtrack for this exhibit will be 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by melodysheep.

The soundtrack for this exhibit will be ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ by melodysheep.

Not that this was hard. It was a fascinating exhibit, all laid out in one big room that was filled to the brim with, as I said, cool skeletons.

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Sidenote: nature is terrifying.

There were also mockups of Darwin’s cabin on the Beagle and his study at Down House…img_0612

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…displays on species variation with cases of peppered moths, seashells and preserved finches as examples…

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…a diorama of the Galapagos Islands…

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…a ‘tree of life’ sculpture…

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…remains or replicas of various animals that demonstrated something of evolutionary interest…

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Okay, I’ve got a whale and a coelacanth. Now I just need to find the Sealed Chamber and I’ll be able to get to the legendary golems.

…a circle of skeletons showing different points in human evolution…

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“What I did back in the fat days is none of your business. You know the rules.”

…and this massive wall of phyla, which I eventually had to gave up trying to photograph in its entirety.

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And also, these guys.

And also, these guys.

It took quite a while for us to exhaust all the detail in the exhibit, and probably would have taken even longer if we weren’t on a schedule and also getting rather hungry, which caused us to troop back down to the cafeteria. Not that the cafeteria actually offered any food, it was just a place where we could eat our madpakke with varying degrees of reluctance.

Though Dr. Dupont was eager for us to get to our next location, we did have enough time to go over the gift shop. I spent some time torn between a stuffed mammoth and a stuffed sabretooth tiger, which I ultimately chickened out of by getting a mini-mammoth instead.

Or, as Phil Foglio might put it, a mimmoth.

Or, as Phil Foglio might put it, a mimmoth.

I proudly carried my mimmoth back to the bus stop, having no qualms at all about potentially starting the stereotype that Americans liked to carry tiny stuffed mammoths around.

We were headed for the Kroppedal Museum, a tiny place about twelve miles out of Copenhagen, which focused on astronomy with a bit of archaeology and history on the side. I have to confess to some dubiousness about this trip among our group, because Dr. Dupont cheerfully admitted she had no idea what to expect of it, an attitude we might have been a bit more at ease with if it didn’t drain our precious and limited Rejsekort money-the last of our Rejsekort funds in several cases, including mine. (Okay, technically speaking, not the last of our Rejsekort funds, but the last that we could actually use before the card stopped working.) But I was game enough to go look at archaic astronomical instruments, if only so I could use them as reference for steampunk drawings later.

But we encountered a bit of a hurdle when we got in there: everything was in Danish. Which obviously is hardly unexpected when you are in Denmark, but unlike the larger museums we’d gotten used to, it was only in Danish. Having about 5-10 Danish words between us, this made the labels rather difficult to read, which in turn reduced the museum to a somewhat surrealistic array of bizarre instruments and the occasional Viking skeleton. Although, I did to my surprise find a recognizable landmark in the sea of unfamiliarity:

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“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

There were only three main rooms anyway, and since we couldn’t read the labels we went through them pretty quickly. Dr. Dupont and Dr. Frisbie lingered, though, probably because Dr. Dupont actually could read the labels. The rest of us wound up congregating in the gift shop, talking to the woman behind the counter and playing with the yo-yos that were on sale. She pointed us to some free promotional pins they had and advised us on what time we needed to catch the bus; I felt a little guilty about us all clogging up the gift shop and not actually buying anything, but apparently we made a good impression, because when we were finally getting ready to leave she told us all to wait a moment because she wanted to give us something. She went upstairs and came back down a minute later with a basket of chocolate chip muffins for us. This improved morale significantly all around; I for one can vouch that I will put up with a remarkable amount for a free chocolate chip muffin. And, to be honest, it felt remarkably good to just hang out and talk for a few minutes without the entirety of the conversation being about who we were and why we were in Denmark.

We had a bit of a wait for the bus, but the clouds had cleared off, the view was quite pretty, and Dr. Frisbie filled the time by teaching us about various nearby bugs (being around Dr. Frisbie was always an education).

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Once we got back to the hostel, Dr. Dupont procured some Indian takeout for us. It was good, but there was not an awful lot to go around for the entire group, so afterwards a few of us wound up walking back down to the Bilka for snacks. I was still a little apprehensive of that Bilka, but I managed not to set any alarms off this time.

Along with my snacks I picked up a Donald Duck comic at the register. I found it to be a rather fascinating combination of familiar (I knew the characters, and it reminded me a lot of the Archie digests my mom used to buy for me when we went out shopping) and the unfamiliar (I’d never seen Disney comics like this, and of course there was the fact that I couldn’t read a word of it). It felt a bit odd buying something I couldn’t even read, but at the same time it seemed to make for a fitting memento of this whole strange trip.

A postscript: later, I posted my pictures of the day on Facebook and mentioned that we had gotten free muffins. My family, being my family, naturally took this and ran away with it.

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Dammit guys.

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