Exhibition Ode

This being my last of an excessive six years at Imperial, I can’t help but wonder, with more than a little panic, just how different life will be outside of the academic bubble. Excactly how I’ll gel with a world of 9-5s, responsibility, mortgages and early nights is uncertain. One thing I do know is clear: I’ll never again get to live in South Kensington. More precisely, I’ll never again get to live beside Exhibition Road. I’ll miss it.

Visiting London from Belfast with my family as a child, I would always insist on a visit here. In every way a future Imperial physicist, it was the Science Museum that leapt out for me and would fill up my precious London hours; a vast warehouse of discovery and invention – with whole rockets and World War II aeroplanes, hands-on exhibits and guided tours. I wanted to work there. I wanted to live there, or nearby. I ended up doing both.

Actually working at a museum; that’s a lot of fun. I spent a few months as a volunteer guide in the Science Museum’s 1001 Inventions Gallery (which looked at science during the Islamic Empire), mostly hovering around the display on numbers. Did you know that the numerals we use today were drawn so that the number of acute angles each has corresponds to the number it represents? Think of chubby, rounded zero. Or  the number one with its slanted cap. I imagine I bored the hell out of the hundreds of school kids who passed through, but it was an awful lot of fun.

Heading down the road from College, taking care to avoid the ever-earnest Mormon missionaries, gives a drive-by viewing of one of the finest buildings in London, the V&A. But this beauty is a war veteran ­– take a closer look and you’ll see that her newly restored side has ugly lumps missing, wounds inflicted by German bombers in World War II and left by restorers in memorial.  To get to know the museum, the ideal would be to spend whole days walking around, but for the exam-pressed Imperial student I offer the most convenient way to get to know the museum – my patented Study and Toilet Tour.

It is a little known fact that the V&A contains the National Art Library, a huge collection of mouldy old leather-bound books in plush surroundings with 100 desks for studying, open to all and free of charge, complete with comfy leather chairs, old fashioned desk lamps and a view of the museum’s large quadrangle. You can feel like you really did get into Oxbridge. Now for my Toilet Tour; go to this library to study instead of Imperial’s and take a map. Every time you want a toilet break, chose a different toilet on any floor you like and take your time walking there. I count eight toilets in all – it won’t be long before you’ve covered the entire museum, from the incredible collection of statues on the ground floor to the British Galleries on level 4. And lunch in the museum’s café is accompanied by a live pianist on Saturdays so you’ve no reason to leave the place at all, really.

Then we have the Natural History Museum, a temple to Darwinism and the natural world. The millennium old Giant Red Wood segment is worth catching, with the history of the last 1,400 years marked using its growth rings as a timeline. You’ll find it in the main entrance hall, a few floors up. Not forgetting the Darwin Centre – apparently if you flash your Imperial card, smile politely and imply you’re some kind of expert, they’ll let you in to see their giant squid. Now there’s a sentence that I never expected to write.

Exhibition Road is now pedestrianised, with the traffic/pedestrian distinction blurred and speed limits kept to 20 mph, much to the annoyance of drivers. Until two years ago, it was just a regular road, with none of those fancy benches and ‘Boris Bike’ stations. I’m glad for its makeover, because the truth is that it is more than just a road.

For such a busy part of Central London it’s pretty amazing to have places where you can sit in complete silence. For such an affluent part of the UK, it’s nice to have such a variety of people walking around. We lucky devils get to live here, for now. Make the most of it.

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