First Published: 2014
Pages: 112 (hardback)
Subjects: Non-Fiction, Children’s Non-Fiction, Natural History, Zoology, Reference
Series: Welcome to the Museum
Welcome to Animalium.
This museum is open all hours.
It houses an astonishing collection of more than 160 animals for visitors of all ages.
Learn how animals have evolved, see inside the dissection laboratory and discover the great variety of habitats on Earth.
Enter here to explore the animal kingdom in all its glory.
A christmas present from my best friend on my Museum Studies course (where I did my specialist module on curating Natural History collections), this oversized coffee-table book purporting to be a ‘museum…between two covers’ is utterly gorgeous to look at. It is beautifully illustrated and beautifully laid out and my friend is very lucky I didn’t spot it first otherwise I would have almost certainly brought it for myself. It was only on researching it a bit more to write the review that I saw that it is aimed at the 8-12 age group, the wonderful illustrations and simple straightforward but unpatronising prose that accompanies them are, however, an appropriate introduction or overview of animal taxonomy for someone of any age. But the target market does go a long way to explaining a few of the things I was disappointed in – mainly wanting more explanation for the interesting facts dropped about certain animals.
Laid out in ‘galleries’ rather than chapters, the museum metaphor is rather heavily laboured. It mimics the tradition Natural History Museum layout though by dividing the contents by taxonomic classification (mammals, birds, fish, et.) rather than continents or countries – which is how I remember most of my childhood wildlife reference books were laid out. What comes out of this, is a book that is more scientific in focus, explicitly about how and why certain creatures are grouped together by similar traits rather than just a more general ‘isn’t wildlife cool’ message. It also means that creatures like Porifera (sea sponges) are given as much attention and explanation as Birds of Prey. While it’s not a complete encyclopedia of animal life (with only 160+ featured animals it was never going to be) it provides a good overview of the larger animal groupings, alongside some interesting chosen examples from each major family on the tree of life.
Each ‘gallery’ opens with an explanation of what sort of animals can be found inside and what the defining features of invertebrates, birds, amphibians etc. are. While the next pages further subdivide them into smaller classifications with a short two-three paragraph explanation and a number of illustrated and labelled examples on the opposite page. For some of the more visually interesting animals such as cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefish) and the Elephant, or that require more explanation such as the life cycle of a frog, they get a beautifully illustrated double page spread all to themselves. At the end of each chapter a habitat ‘typical’ to the type of creatures is featured (eg. coral reef for for fish, rainforest for amphibians).
And, to my mind, it is these illustrations rather than the ‘gallery’ structure that really make the book. Old fashioned (if not ‘paint and ink’ than the digital equivalent) and reminiscent of the Victorian explorers colour plates found in natural history museums (‘Images of Nature‘ might just be my favourite gallery in the whole of the Natural History Museum, London) they are enchanting and beautiful in the way that most photo snaps of animals don’t manage (though I do love animal photography and Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the only art exhibition anyone will ever find me in raptures about). They are the main attraction of the book and what makes it stand out from other, similar, children’s encyclopaedias and reference books.
Because, whilst the art is outstanding, I was left wanting a bit more from the writing. Not so much the main text and explanations, but the labels given to each illustration. These always include the common name, latin name, and size of each creature – but leaves off location and habitat, both of which would be an important part of any museum label. Most of the labels also have a short paragraph about the creature that normally (but not always) adds this information and sometimes an interesting titbit but other labels just leave it at that. I realise we are now in the age of google and wikipedia and that I can look up anything that catches my interest but more than once I found myself going ‘wait, that’s it? You’re not going to elaborate! But that’s really interesting! I want to know more about that. Why haven’t you included a whole section on caecilians? They sound amazing!’ Which, I suppose, if you look at it one way, is a testament to the books success rather than its failure but was irritating at the time.
Discovering it is a book aimed at children helped though. It clearly isn’t meant to be a thorough exploration of the different taxonomic groups, drilling down into the science behind the weirder traits, but an overview to introduce people to the basic ideas of grouping, evolution, and shared traits and to provide some visual examples (both well known and obscure). And it does that well. My wants out of a book like this are not the same as the target audiences, so I can’t rate it higher but what it aims to do it does very well. It isn’t attempting to be a children’s DK eyewitness book on animals (do children still use those?) but a beautiful reference book to be treasured as well as educational. And I don’t think you have to be 8-12 to appreciate it as that either. Though if I had got this age 8, it probably would have become one of my most precious and loved books. So 3 and a half stars from adult me (I just wanted more facts!) but probably 5 stars from 8-year-old me!
One final thought. This is, apparently, the first book in a larger series/imprint of ‘Welcome to the Museum’ books. Am interested to see what they do next and how they manage it – I think the format lends itself well to science ‘museums’, other sorts of museum…I’m less sure of. It’s probably not a series I would start collecting for myself (though I will flick through any more that come out in the bookshop) but, were a niece or nephew to arrive on the scene in the next few years, I might make the investment.