The Cabinet of Natural Wonders – Graz & Wien part 4

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I have now visited it twice, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and I’m still not done with it. I have seen the most of the first floor twice and on both times it has been equally exiting. Maybe next time I will make it to the exhibitions of the second floor.

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Go in as soon as it opens. Trust me, you’ll need the whole day.

The tour begins with minerals, rocks and fossils and since it is an imperial collection, there are hordes of those. Last time my hubby said he would not be interested in the mineral collection. Yeah, right… We ended up going through every single display. There are the traditional mineral samples, cabinet after a cabinet, room after a room:

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Green stuff. I can tell where it came from (it reads in the labels) but I have no idea what it is.

While they might seem boring and a bit intimidating at first glance, give them a chance and look carefully. They are quite beautiful and intriguing. Like this miniature ice berg:

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A chunk of Aragonite.

But since it is an IMPERIAL collection, it’s not just exhaustive (after a few hours, quite literally), it is also breathtaking size-wise. For a scientific collection it would be enough to have a comprehensive collection of illustrative samples but an imperial collection is a collection of curiosities. It’s not enough to have all the samples – a bit like having all the Pokémons – you need to have the most impressive samples you can get and there is nothing more impressive than something huge:

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A rock crystal. There is a larger one but it’s so huge it doesn’t photograph well.

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A topaz. Merely 117 kg. For a ring, maybe?

Then there are the gold nuggets with one, the goldenklumpen “Welcome”, weighing precisely 68,98 kg. One needs to be exact with these things. It is a natural history museum after all. Which also means that it’s not just all samples and impressiveness. One of the really interesting displays is the one built in old wall cabinets explaining the etymology and the logic of the naming stuff. Why there is rubintyrann, the vermilion flycatcher in English, or zebramarmor and zebrajaspis. The minerals and stones are displayed next to their namesake birds and other critters and it’s easy to get the idea even when you don’t speak a word of German.

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The fossil collection is just as comprehensive and impressive. My favourite one is this large fossil of Scyphocrinites that used to float around oceans all around the wolrd some 410 million years ago. The amount of detail is amazing! You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

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Scyphocrinites in detail.

The museum also has few replicas of fossils of large animals, like this Devonian fish. The head alone was close to 1,5 m long. The real things are too fragile to be put on display, but the replicas are so detailed that it doesn’t matter much. Besides there are real ones too, even a real dinosaur leg bone that you can touch. It’s worn smooth and polished where the visitors have caressed it.

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It took an hour to draw this. School classes kept on getting in the way.

Last time I had time to draw other stuff too:

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A volcanic bomb about 50 cm high and a tiny trilobite.

What is interesting is that the human evolution and prehistoric cultures are placed in this museum. The evolution part I get, but the prehistoric art is slightly out of place. I suppose it’s an old divide dating back to the imperial days and the 19th century sensibilities that did not see it as art proper. After all, many old natural history museums also house anthropological collections which were considered primitive and therefore belonging within the natural historical and not art. And so the Naturlhistorisches Museum is where you go when you want to see the Venus of Willendorf and other famous prehistoric venuses. I decided to draw it from a slightly different angle to make it more interesting. What a bum!

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Earl Grey too had come to see the famous Venus of W.

When you start too feel tired and drained it’s time to head for the museum café. Seriously. Go and have a cuppa. The whole building is – just as its counterpart, the art history museum, is – a sight so see in itself. Don’t forget to look up while touring the exhibits as every room is decorated according to its theme with paintings and sculptures.  Take a look at the dinosaur room’s statues especially. The café is situated under the central dome which is much more modest than its counterpart across the yard:

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It’s difficult to drink your cuppa while staring at the ceiling.

And the food it delicious. Do try the traditional pancake and apple strudel. The price will double once you walk across to the art historical museum…

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The Day of the Birds

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Few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Helsinki while my partner had his annual weekend get-together with his old army buddies. I didn’t realise until just a few days before the trip that is was the Halloween weekend and I wouldn’t be able to go shopping for art supplies on Saturday like I had planned. No matter, instead of shopping I just spent more time eating and drawing in the Natural History Museum.

The day started with a lunch with my friend in an excellent Chinese restaurant called China (yes, really, even in Finnish). Except we were there a full hour too early and the place was still closed. No matter, we decided to have the dessert first which is always a good solution in situations like this. We had rather bad tea and delicious pastries in what supposedly is one of the best cafes in town. It usually is a really good choice but for some reason the tea was just water this time. Incidentally, one time the then president of Finland Tarja Halonen was there too when we went in for a cuppa. *Enter appropriate amount of awe here* Anyway, an hour later we were in the restaurant looking at menus and trying to figure out what to order.

We decided to avoid all the usual choices and went for this as the starter:

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Steamed chicken legs in black bean sauce. Sounds disgusting but actually really, really tasty. Not much in them to eat, though. It’s basically just skin, tendons and cartilage with lots of small bones to spit out. I have eaten some really horrible ones but these were delicious. I can highly recommend them – in this restaurant at least.

As the main course we had steamed Chinese vegetables and Cantonese pork:

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Tasty! And here the jasmine tea was good too. And, of course, we had the second dessert too like any decent Hobbit should. I had almond milk tofu with fruits and that too was, you guessed it, delicious.

From the restaurant I went to the Finnish Museum of Natural History. I had intended to draw some beetles and such but the collection they had on display was so small that there was nothing really interesting to draw. I guess most visitors are more interested in dinosaurs and large mammals than in insects. How weird is that! There aren’t many things more beautiful than beetle’s pelvis and legs.

A new plan was in order and so I decided to draw some birds. I picked the most colourful birds of the Finnish fauna, the common king fisher and the Eurasian golden oriole. The page still had space left for one more and I decided to draw the head of the great black cormorant with its piercing glare. I drew the head of the king fisher too small, which means I learnt something and next time I will know what to do.

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The museum was packed with families, of course, but to my surprise there were quite a few tourists considering it was so late in the autumn. Even more surprising was the number of young adults and even teenagers present. And they, these fairly typical city inhabitants, were really enthusiastic about the birds. They eagerly shared anecdotes about birds they had seen and wondering about the size, shape and colours of our feathered friends. It was a really nice surprise! Most of the times I have been there practically all of the other visitors have been families, but clearly on a national holiday – when everything else is closed – a natural history museum is a valid option for leisure.

Maybe there still is hope for the planet.

PS. I did realise birds were the theme of the day until I typed the title. It also was a day of changing plans.

Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

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My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

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The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

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Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

Blog Hopping Around the World

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Quinn from QuinnCreative asked if I wanted to participate in blog hopping and of course I said yes! But first of all, I must apologise if you, dear reader, followed the link on Quinn’s blog and found nothing new here. I meant to write and post this earlier today but the archeological hike with a local archeology enthusiasts we had this morning lasted much longer than I anticipated. We had a great day! Warm, really warm for May – close to +30 C/+86 F – but that didn’t stop us from spending five and half hours roaming around the rocky forest ridges hunting for prehistoric burial mounds and stuff. Maybe I should post about that too sometime.

Enough of that for now. There are some questions I’m supposed to answer.

What are you working on? Have you heard of the Sketchbook Skool by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene? I enrolled on their first ever semester, ‘The Beginnings,’ and that is what I have been working on lately. My Ph.D. theses has been under the scrutiny of the pre-examiners so I have had more free time to spend drawing etc. One assignment we have had was to go to a natural history museum to draw, and Friday last week I visited the local natural history museum Kieppi with my friend and we spend few hours there drawing what ever we found interesting. Here is some stuff that I drew there:

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The first drawing on the left is also a partial answer to the second question: How does your word differ from others of its genre? I don’t know if the end products of my creative process are that different from others but the way I observe things is not, I think, that common. When I draw or paint I don’t transform three dimensional objects into outlines and contours onto the two dimensional surface of paper. I have a pretty strong sense of space, spatial relations and mass and I sort of carve out the object on the paper. It’s difficult to explain but I kind of feel out in my mind the 3D-shape of the thing I’m drawing, its textures and its form (all sides, mind you, not just the front). Drawing contours is really hard for me but that’s what I wanted to practice on during my museum visit. So I first drew the seed of the cannonball mangrove, Xylocarpus granatum, on the left to get that need to carve things out of my system. After that it was easier to perceive things, like the seagulls on the right, as contours.

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Northern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis & Hoopoe, Upupa epops

Why do you write/create what you do? Because it deepens my contact with the world. Drawing is a way to touch things, to know them and not just to know about them. Drawing is special way of being-in-the-world. It’s so much more than just looking at and seeing things. It is the ultimate form of observation in my mind – for me at least. And I want to show folks what an incredible world spreads about them. For example, while I was writing that previous sentence a large beetle crawled in from our backyard. I captured it in a jar, memorised its overall appearance and returned it outside. There are myriad things to see out there (and in here) and I wish to share them with you.

BTW, the Finnish word for fulmars is rather romantic: myrskylintu, ‘storm bird.’

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Rough-legged buzzard, Buteo lagopus & European honey buzzard, Pernis apivorus

How does your writing/creative process work? At first I always fiddle about too much. It’s the same with my philosophical writings (I don’t do science, I’m a philosopher!) and drawing or any other creative activity. I get caught up in the details. I want to draw everything and write and read about everything. It takes a while to figure out what details are necessary, which ones lead to discoveries and which ones are just white noise. I can’t bypass that part of the process, in fact it is elemental for my thinking. I can, however, speed it up a bit by accepting and allowing it like I did with the cannonball mangrove: I do what I have to and get on with it. It can sometimes get really muddy and confused in my mind but I don’t mind as I know it will clear up soon and I will discover something unexpected. I never know what waits me at the end of a path I’m following but I know it’s worth it.

Eurasian three-toed woodpecer, Picoides tridactylus

Eurasian three-toed woodpecer, Picoides tridactylus

That’s my four questions answered. I didn’t have time to find the next link for the blog hop but I will do that during the next week. In the mean time you can check out this great BBC documentary series, What Do Artists Do All Day on YouTube. A varied bunch of interesting British artists doing they thing and talking out loud about it.

I, the Natural Historian

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My brain has been off-line ever since I turned in my Ph.D. thesis three weeks ago. Nothing. Nada. The first week my brain did not want to create anything at all. All it was contented to do was to receive stuff. I just wanted to experience stuff but not to come up with anything, absolutely anything. I didn’t even want to decide what we would have for dinner. It was a strange feeling but it was just my creative mind saying it had been working really hard for the previous months and it wanted some down time and some new things to see and so I watched TV-series on line and rented DVDs.

Then I found this in the forest one day with our dog: an illegal (they should be buried) dump of moose carcases, all kinds of left-overs from the last autumn’s hunting season. Wild animals (foxes, ravens, lynx etc.) had scattered the leg bones and shoulder blades and skulls around an eery, haunted looking corner of the woods as they had eaten what ever had been left on the bones. Some bones had been gnawed at but that might have been squirrels that often nibble bones and antlers for minerals. Most of the bones are bare but some lower legs still had fur on them as you can see. The forest floor had turned dark where the carcases had been dumped. It’s difficult to explain what that looks like but you can easily tell where a body has been lying in a forest. A little bit of everyday CSI: Wilderness I guess. Yup, I have come a cross scenes likes this surprisingly often. Last autumn I found a killed dog rotting in a thick bush by the smell. Another snippet of CSI: Wilderness: if it smells like rotting milk in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably a rotting carcass.

I have always been interested in bones and anatomy, in feathers, seashells and stones. All things natural historian. My favourite place to visit as a 5-year old was the natural history museum. I have a good collection of interesting stuff I have found plus some bought ones like a dinosaur tooth. I have framed some of the seashells I have collected from various places, like these common mussels, Mytilus edulis. The tops ones are from Hanko on the coast of the southern Finland and the lower one is from Kilmartin, Scotland. Quite a difference in size: the mussels in the Baltic Sea do not grow much bigger since the salinity of the water here is much lower than in the oceans. The mussel shells from Hanko are about 1,5–2 cm long.

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But the pride of my collection is this shell of a duck mussel, Anodonta anatina, that I found on the bank of lake Köyliö in sourthern Finland. It’s huge! They are usually about 10 cm long but this monster is closer to 20 cm. You could tell its age by counting its growth rings just like a tree’s. I haven’t done that but it is obviously old. I found it in a pile of shells left behind by a muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus, (not native to Finland but introduced ca. 100 years ago) probably. The smaller shells are from the same pile and are of average size.

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I have been thinking about making a special journal of my seashells. I even have a sketchbook ready for that.

 

No Sundried Frog for Me

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We went, like we usually do when visiting the capital area during summer, to Suomenlinna sea fortress for a miniature picnic. Not a real picnic this time since we didn’t have proper basket with us, just some odd niblets. Not very well planned altogether. It was sunny though not that warm with the wind blowing from the sea. The fortress was beautiful (as usually) and we managed to find a new secluded spot just by the shoreline. A beautiful spot with a horde of wildflowers blooming around us.

I went treasure hunting like I always do when on seashore. This time the shore was about the size of a king sized bed, but it was littered with old pieces and shards of glass and ceramics many of which I, of course, picked up. Those worn, smooth pieces of smashed coffee cups with the decorations still showing are fascinating. Another kind of Indiana Jones opportunity for me. Some pieces are easy to figure what they used to be but some are so unfamiliar that I can’t be sure where they came from.

I also found a sundried frog. A whole frog, legs and all. He (I don’t know, could be a her) had died for some natural causes meaning that he hadn’t been eaten, not even nibbled. His skin and his whole body had dried completely and he looked like a mummy. Wrinkles and all. I could still make out all the little details. He even still had his tongue, and though the sun had baked him dark, the colouration of his skin was yet visible.

Oh, how I wanted to take him home! He would have deserved a special place in my natural history collection. But he still stank a bit too much, and though he was fascinating, the smell wasn’t. So I left him there with the remaining shards of old glass and settled on drawing him.

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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