Yesterday I visited a museum. It wasn’t one of your huge famous museums that everyone knows about, although I’ve been to a few of those too. You see, you can call me a boring old sod, but I love museums.
I went to the Ulster Museum in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. It’s just near the Palm House, next to the – I kid you not – Tropical Ravine. Think about that for a second. Belfast, a city which has long been associated with only bombs and bullets, has a tropical ravine just minutes from the city centre. We only know that it’s summer because the rain warms up a little bit but there is a tropical glen carved into the park-side, covered in fragile glass and filled with plants which only thrive in hot and humid conditions. If you give it serious thought it will seem utterly bizarre. Apparently, they grow bananas in Belfast.
We don’t think about the things around us nearly enough. I visited a museum, I saw a dinosaur, a partially unwrapped Egyptian mummy, a Soloman Islands canoe, several stuffed wolves, bears, small mammals and a whole flock of various birds of all shapes and sizes. The art floor was closed while they moved stuff about but on a normal day they have many great paintings and a selection of design classics that I can (and often do) stare at for hours. And guess what? It didn’t cost me a penny. It’s all funded by voluntary donations.
If I had been a few minutes earlier arriving at the doors to the Tropical Ravine I would even have been allowed to go and look at that banana tree. For free. You see, the UK may have a lot of problems. If you believe the newspapers there’s a pensioner being mugged by an asylum-seeking, hoody-wearing, over-worked junior doctor on every street corner. He’s having a hard time stealing the poor old dear’s pension because of the litter and un-emptied wheelie bins which are strewn all over the place. But we do some things exceptionally well on these rainy islands.
Think of your nearest city or large town. It probably has number of free public libraries, a free museum (or several), a network of public spaces and parks and maybe even a very reasonably-priced zoo. Belfast has all of these things and it’s an insignificant provincial city that spent the past forty years (at least) trying really hard to pull its self to pieces.
Here in the UK we have a great, often overlooked, network of public services and attractions that we just seem to take for granted. Most of the country’s museums are now free. We have that wealth of heritage, educational resource and visual stimulus on our doorsteps and we don’t celebrate it nearly enough.
Your local library is under-funded and over-stretched but it’s free and you can probably still get access to almost any great work of literature you can think of. The reference section might be outdated and usurped by the glorious information super-highway but it’s all there, in heavy-bound tomes with crumbling spines and fading print. And you can touch them, hold them and connect with the people that compiled them whilst in the warm embrace of that old-book aroma. The internet doesn’t have a smell.
I’m ordinarily a misanthropic, cynical, seething mass of rage and disgust for the rest of humanity. But when I think about the things I can see and do, thanks to the voluntary donations of my fellow human-beings, even I feel a little bit optimistic. We have an awful lot to be proud of. Now if I could just get in to see those bananas…