Monday, 20 May 2013

She Has Rights Too

This Galapagos tortoise is one of the 'artifacts' on display at Norwich Castle Museum in the Natural History gallery. It is one of many exhibits that intrigues me - and here is why...  

I'm not sure if this creature was lucky or not. It certainly was unusual! Why? Well, apparently these large, lumbering tortoises had the misfortune to be very, very tasty. The sailors would stack them up on top of each other and they provided a living larder of fresh meat on the long voyage back to this island. 

For some reason this one made it back to England alive during the final quarter of the nineteenth century. How it came into the possession of the Norwich Castle Museum - well, there's a story to be discovered there no doubt. What I can tell you, however, is that for one summer this tortoise lived in the museum garden on the site where the present day Rotunda stands...

Norwich Castle Museum Rotunda - the 'blond' wood is where
the garden once was
I wonder what passed through its tortoise mind as it made its way around the confines of this strange space? I wonder if a tortoise is capable of remembering a sun drenched island surrounded by blue seas? I wonder if it felt sad...

It must have been given a name - probably by the Natural History curator of the day. I'm going to assume that it was a mature woman and I'm calling her Betty. Betty must have presented quite a sight to curious local children as she made her way, so deliberately and ponderously around her new habitat.

Sadly, her time in the garden was short. She did not survive the winter. It was her fate, instead, to be passed to a taxidermist before becoming a part of the museum's collection. 

It is not just that every artifact in a museum has its story, it's also true that everything can inspire imagination. We can be active in filling in the blanks. I think that the museums' interpretation should invite visitors 'in' and encourage them to speculate and have a sense of curiosity and wonder. It is intellectual and imaginative engagement that brings collections to life. 

Betty may have been torn away from everything she knew, before arriving as a refugee in Norwich over a century ago. She may be long dead with an accession number, neatly catalogued and on display behind glass. All of that is true. What intrigues me though is the story of that voyage and her life. I want to know about Betty. After all, she has rights too. 

1 comment:

  1. Betty's face may have been the model for E.T., the extraterrestrial. A really sad ending for being the bottom of the heap.