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biology Archives - Kidding Herself

Mushrooming at the Timiryazev Biological Museum

You might be wondering why, given my Beastly Big Brother’s animal obsession, my family have been in Moscow for over five years now and not visited the Timiryazev Biological Museum. Especially because it is housed in a particularly nice old building.

Well, we were a bit shocked by this too. Which is why it was one of the first places we went to when we started going out again after the great year of lockdown.

To be fair, we had tried to go once before. But there was a queue round the block because of some mushroom conference. Papa does not do queuing, so we abandoned our visit.

And then we put it off some more because, whisper it, I went there on a school visit. Mama thought that perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and at the time she didn’t want to overdo it.

But right now we will agree to go and watch paint dry as long as it involves doing it somewhere other than our own house. Off we went, then, with very few expectations, but high high excitement.

The Timiryazev Biological Museum started off strongly, as far as we kids were concerned, when the obligatory trip to the toilet revealed that the walls were covered with poo factiods. In fact Mama was pretty delighted by this too, given how much of the time she normally spends arguing about whether we want to go for a preventative widdle. No need to worry about this at this museum! The problem will be more in removing your children from the cubicles as they bound around happily chasing down another interesting tidbit.

This poo fact placard is about the guano wars

Not to mention ogling the display of actual poo in the vicinity of the washbasins.

Various types of poo in a case at the Timiryazev Biological Museum

Very wisely the museum then kicks of the real tour with a couple of rooms of stuffed animals. No one is ever bored of stuffed animals. Particularly not my Beastly Big Brother, who will work the room going, appreciatively, oh good! They’ve got a [insert name of obscure animal Mama is not convinced is not made up here].

Scary looking stuffed manul at the Timiryazev Biological Museum

There was also an opportunity for us to argue about what a Russian-named bird might be called in English, which is rapidly becoming our favourite thing. Mama and my Beastly Big Brother spent a whole hour disagreeing about the translation of the word robin recently. Because, while robins exist in Russia, the bird that actually seems to be considered the generic snow flutterer is a sort of chaffinch. Which is not, my Beastly Big Brother says, indignantly, even much of a winter bird! Mama had not noticed the confusion until now (red is involved with both of them), but it does explain why certain Christmas cards and snow scenes always seemed a bit off to her.

At this point the Timiryazev Biological Museum recalled that biology is not just about animals and we moved on to mushrooms. Two large rooms of them. Mama feels that the queues may not have been a one off and that museum may, in fact, be a mycologists’ paradise. Which if you know anything about Russians and their penchant for bounding into the woods and picking a wide range of apparently edible fungi every autumn is probably not surprising. Although Mama always considers this a test of any foreigner’s trust in their Russian partner. Still. She’s not dead yet, despite Papa being in every other way a conformed urbanite.

Poisonous and edible mushrooms

Anyway. We duly contemplated what mushrooms have done for civilization, and how they have hindered it; mushroom names and the reasons for them; edible mushrooms that are easily mistaken for poisonous ones; and why hedgehogs do not really carry mushrooms around on the backs.

Hedgehogs in Russia are said to collect foot on their spikes. The Timiryazev Biological Museum disagrees.

Bit of a harsh reality check that last one I feel, given how generations of Russian and Soviet cartoon lovers have been brought up on this idea.

And then we moved on to the room with the two headed dog.

Now I do not know what you expect when you go to a museum that is billed as both child-friendly and slightly stuffy in its approach to museuming (poo infested toilets notwithstanding). The actual dog which had had another dog’s head sewn into its neck to test something something nerves, and which lived for two days subsequently and was then stuffed and added to a Timiryazev Biological Museum display case at a nine-year-old’s eye height was not one of them.

Along with original photos, and another stuffed dog which lived some two years after someone grafted a liver inside its throat.

Mama took lots of photos and is including them here because she reasons if she had to see it, so do you.

A dog with another dog's head sewn on

If it makes you feel better, she also lectured us at length on medical and scientific ethics, introducing us to the idea that just because you can do something it does not always mean you should.

At which point she may have remembered about modern day animal testing. So we moved on.

Quite what was in the next few rooms I am not sure any of us were really concentrating on. Except possibly the puzzle of how in the anthropological study of various peoples from around the world, the second most important group, Anglo-Saxons, seem to have been left off entirely. Much to our half-English disapproval.

There was also a room dedicated to Darwin and man’s connection to apes, as well as quite a lot about evolution in general. The evolution of horses, carrots, all the important things.

Evolution of carrots display from white to orange at the Timiryazev Biological Museum

Kliment Timiryazev was a big deal in botanical circles not only has this museum, but a metro station, a bit of the moon and an agricultural college named after him, and was a big fan of Darwinism. And greenhouses, apparently. Quite right too.

And then somehow we were surrounded by prehistory, at which point my Beastly Big Brother perked up and asked us to guess which of these animals is responsible for the extinction of horses in North America.

I diorama of many prehistoric animals.

Go on, guess.

And apparently it too died out because it was eaten by big cats from South America.

On which improving note we will leave you with another image of the very attractive building.

This has always been a museum, although the original owner actually built them to hold his large, eclectic antiques collection. Much like the Horniman and the Soanes Museums in London, although with less actual living alongside the knick-knacks required from the wife. Nice to see that the 19th century transcends borders. Interestingly, we cant even blame the Revolution (for once) for its closure – the owner bequeathed his bits and bobs to the Historical Museum, and the buildings had been empty of interesting guns, swords, fabrics, carpets, paintings, drawings, engravings, crockery, and church paraphernalia for sometime until the 1930s when the animals and plants moved in.

Good then, that there are plans for a full renovation in the works. Yes, even the underground passageway!

The Timiryazev Biological Museum is not perhaps, the museum that should be first on your list if you are thinking about going to a life science themed experience in Moscow. That’s the Darwin Museum. It may not even be the second or third, given that there is a dedicated stuffed animal space right next to the Kremlin, and a modern, interactive experience all about the human body lurking about too. But it did wile away a happy couple of hours for us, and provided Mama with a surprise too. So it should, nevertheless, the on the list somewhere.

More information

The Timiryazev Biological Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about ethics.

Address: 15 Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, Moscow, 123242

Admission: Adults 280 roubles, kids over 7 180 roubles, kids under 7 free

Opening: 10 am – 6pm every day, except Thursday (opens at 12) and Sunday (opens at 11) and Monday (closed)

Getting there: Barrikadnaya (purple line) or Krasnopesnenskaya (brown circle line). Cross the road and turn right away from the Zoo, and the street is quite soon up the road on the right.

Tring Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire

In the UK, London has all the best stuff worth visiting.

Just a few lesser, obviously compensatory, projects are mopped up by either the other larger British cities or the National Trust, at least until the capital figures out how to fit those in and insists on bringing them home too.

But this does not explain the existence of Tring Natural History Museum as it is in none of these locations.

Interesting Mammals at Tring Natural History Museum

Tring is a modest collection of dwellings at the other end of Hertfordshire to the one that Mama calls her hometown. It is principally famous for being the location of Mama’s uncle’s house for many years, for having an excellent running club, a canal, the 7th longest comedy festival in the world, a Co-op, a Tesco AND a Marks and Spencer (according to Wikipedia), and for being one of two possible birthplaces of the great-grandfather of the first president of the United States of America.

It was also a home of the Rothschild family, one of whom closely resembled my Zero Empathy Big Brother in both his passion for animals and his determination from a young age to catch as many of them as he could and keep them, alive or dead, it doesn’t really matter, in his house for his own gratification serious scientific study. Unlike my Zero Empathy Big Brother, being both Victorian and fabulously rich, this is precisely what Walter Rothschild actually did when he grew up, and the resulting collection of stuffed animals passed in the fullness of time to the nation and became known as Tring Natural History Museum (affiliated to the one in London).

Sadly his zebra drawn carriage, or at least the zebra drawn carriage with actual zebras attached, did not make it to the modern age, which is strange. I thought museums were short of funding these days. Imagine the prices you could charge for rides round Tring in that!

Anyway. Despite the fact that my Great Uncle mentioned Tring Natural History Museum to us a number of times when we saw him, we were generally too busy admiring his tortoise to bother visiting, and it was not until we needed a wet weather place to hang out during our recent Christmas visit to Stevenage that we actually got around to going.

This delay in checking it out may have been a mistake.

The thing is, just as having a pet is supposed to help children get their heads around the concept that animals are actual real beings of value as well as introduce the concepts of caring, responsibility and cleaning poo off everything in preparation for having their own children, there really is a lot to be said for being confronted in person by the sheer variety, the spectacular beauty, and the breathtaking unlikeliness of the animal world.

Delicate balancing act that, and in many ways stuffed animals are better than zoos for this. You can cram a lot into a small space, boggling opportunities therefore abound, nobody worries about how many square metres are the minimum for comfortable living for an elephant, or whether that rocking motion means the bear has gone mad with the boredom of it all, and, best of all, none of the livestock are going to go off and skulk at the back of their enclosure and refuse to come out until we are gone.

Plus, at Tring Natural History Museum there are animal-themed fancy dress costumes and a fascinating video of someone committing taxidermy, with none of the gory bits left out.

At small child eye level.

Taxidermy Video at Tring Natural History Museum

We gathered round it and refused to move until the last drop of blood had been wiped off the scalpel.

It was FABULOUS.

And surprisingly nobody had nightmares, not even Mama.

In addition, we may not consider hunting animals down and dragging their decomposing bodies back to admire on our mantelpiece quite the thing these days, but that doesn’t stop many more of us than just the super rich exploiting the natural world for our own amusement, and the Tring Natural History Museum is a good place to contemplate the consequences of letting your enthusiasms get the better of you at the expense of the greater good.

Especially as this message that this sort of behaviour is hardly all in the past is underlined by the notices telling visitors that the rhino horns on display are all fake, so nobody should contemplate trying to steal them.

Fake rhino horn at Tring Natural History Museum

Which, apparently, someone did once. WT actual F. Says Mama.

All of these animals are housed in the splendid Victorian building Walter Rothschild had built to house the largest private collection of stuffed animals ever assembled. This makes it tall rather than wide, and our first top tip is to head straight up to the top floor while everyone else starts at the bottom.

You will briefly have the place to yourselves, although this will not stop the bottom floor from being absolutely rammed by the time you get to it. Tring Natural History Museum is clearly (and deservedly) a favoured hangout for those with kids in inclement weather and people will be arriving all the time.

Antelope with a big nose at Tring Natural History Museum

This means that it is great that the cases are decidedly families-with-small-children friendly, coming straight down to the floor with plenty of interest at all eye-levels. Big up to the forethought of our Victorian forefathers there.

Who also appreciated the delight of a good set of drawers set round the gallery overlooking the ground floor. Admittedly these are a bit higher up, but Mama had just been eating for Christmas so the effort did her good. Butterflies! Shiny beetles! Cockroaches! Coool!

If you like your animals bigger, there is plenty for you to look at too, with crowd-pleasers like a polar bear front and centre.

Polar Bear at Tring Natural Hisotry Museum

That said, I think it was the more unusual looking animals that caught our eyes, and there are plenty of those too.

Vampire Deer at Tring Natural History Museum

The only downside is that you will want to be leaving the pushchairs and such like in the car. Quite apart from anything else, the queues for the lifts will annoy you, but mainly it’s because it’s all a bit narrow and crowded.

Another suggestion is to either bring your own sarnies – there is a lunch room in the car park – or plan to eat out somewhere in the town (the High Street is just a short walk down the road), as the café is quite small and mainly set up for coffee and snacks rather than anything more substantial.

But there is parking! We arrived at the beginning of the day and caught the last two parking spaces in the museum’s very own FREE car park. It’s a busy place on a wet winter holiday day, is Tring Natural History Museum. Not to worry though. There are other (reasonably priced. It’s not London after all) car parks not far away in Tring proper.

Of course, any display of stuffed animals is going to garner the inevitable comparisons (from my besotted Mama) to the Darwin Museum in Moscow, and we may as well get it out the way up front that is not quite as extensive and therefore as fabulous as that.

Rams at Tring Natural History Museum

It is, however, the closest we have found in the UK to the world’s best museum so far, and therefore if you are not planning to hop across to the other end of Europe any time soon, it will have to do.

And it certainly will do. Its London-deficient status notwithstanding.

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the resurrection of George Washington.

Address: The Walter Rothschild building, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP

Opening: 10am – 5pm Monday – Saturday, 2pm – 5pm Sundays.

Admission: Free

Public Transport: Trains exist out of London from Clapham Junction. The station is about two miles from Tring Natural History Museum. There are buses.

By Car: See above re the parking! Tring is on the A41 about 30 miles from London. You want junction 20 of the M25.

ANIMALTALES

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