At the Natural Science Museum

At the Natural Science Museum

Natural Science Museum

It’s a beautiful morning in Tirana, October, 2009. I am what is still new to me, but what I suspect could become habit, the guest of the Selimaj. The Selimaj are a fis or clan or family and without it having been stated, I am under their besa, and if you remove the old-world terminology, what it means is that these people have adopted me. Of course I tumble down in Tirana, and of course they come and collect me in the middle of the night, and of course people are put out of their beds, to put me up. If for no other reason than that I came in the first place (so they took me in) and now that I insist on returning, they pick me up. Would that I could return some part of this kindness.

Now it is the third day I have been in Tirana. Besa, Alfred and Eri have all been out since seven am. I have many ideas about how to return their kindness. I can augment the things the Selimaj are trying to do in the Malësi, the Highlands. They have dreams, very practical dreams, but do not know the standards. The standards of my land bore me, but I know them. I can give them this. In order to do so, I need to understand what exists, so I set out, in a little sundress and pirate boots, armed with my infantile and patchy Albanian, to explore the museums.

Just the evening before, I was like Marco Polo, like Scott, probably more like Apsley Cherry-Garrard (that amused cynic) – I plotted my course, and found my way around, map in hand and no doubt lisping out inquiries, but – Tirana is manageable! It’s small! It’s downright cozy. That evening, I found and walked past all the (closed) museums – I saw (the outside of) the Archeology Museum, the History Museum, and the Art Museum and ended up at the Opera Bar on Skanderbeg Square, drinking coffee and scribbling notes, fed by indulgent waiters (alright, NOT so much like polar explorers).

According to my guide book, most museums are open from 8 am to noon, so on this new day, I set out early, determined to avail myself of Albania’s self-defined accumulation of self-referential fact. On a bright morning, and on my own, discarding all this, and with no reason not to, I headed for the Natural Science Museum. According to the Brandt Guide, this included a stuffed Wolf! Accordingly, I am pacing up and down Rruga Kavajes – but where is the museum? On the third pass, I realize that the museum MUST be this strange hidden garden, with what looks like a cement castle hidden at the back, locked in behind big cinder fences and iron gates. On this third pass, there is a nice and jolly looking man just being let in by a uniformed guard, who’s emerged from the bushes to disentangle the locks around the fence gate. “er . . . Excuse me?” I say. The man going in turns out to be Dr. Vangeli, the head of botany at the University. I talk his ear off for ten minutes or so – the highlands, their richness, the undiscoveredness of it all, the uncountedness, he listens to me kindly. “It’s true,” he says, someone-er-other once told him “The highlands of Albania are the most beautiful place in the world.” He recalls himself. “What did you want?” “Well,” I say, “I sort of wanted to see the museum . . . .” He looks a bit panicked. “There’s no one there right now . . . . couldn’t you come back?” I explain that I’m leaving tomorrow, and talk some more. He is a kind man, and so, in the end, he lets me in. I am torn between thinking “this is a museum, there is a fee!” and between saying, quite honestly, “I won’t be any bother, I’d just like to look,” but the fee, as listed is after all 100 lek, less than a dollar, and as it turns out, I’m only allowed in because a woman is unearthed, who takes me around. She brings me into the first rooms, and I am immediately delighted and at home. I am delighted and at home because they are collections of sponges, hollow-bodies and maritime arthropods, such as you would find in the back room of any forgotten biology department. The place reminds me of nothing so much as my old biology practicum room in Swaziland, where weird old specimens were mouldering in half-dried out formaldehyde. I know this place. We move on, my guide pointing at things and saying “AlBANia” to point out what’s actually local. A beautiful room of dusty birds could break my heart. Most specimens were collected in the 1950s or 60s. It’s a beautiful place, in which individual effort (even if of the Roosevelt-style bird-blasting type) is still apparent. I’m taking up this woman’s time, so I move on as quickly as I can, but already my mind is racing. I could come back here! If I had the besa of the museum, I could come and stay, clean the exhibits, relabel them, draw them. I could assemble a field guide (this thing that outlanders expect) from the specimens here, and possibly help delay the decay. Oh, I am at home here. In this room after room of rotting, mouldy, dusty specimens.

My guide, this lovely woman, turns on lights that I suspect haven’t been turned on in months, as we move from room to room. The birds are beautiful. And then we get to the back room. “Missing several floorboards” says my guidebook. The guidebook has left out the details of splintering beams constructed in a honeycomb which holds the ceiling off the floor. There is not a missing floorboard or two, but huge holes in the floor. Light floods in from high windows. The whole skeleton of an Adriatic whale hangs before me, I could touch it, or ride on it, if I were crazy. I dodge beams to pace along the glass cages which line the room haphazardly, inclosing, stuffed: a jackal, some Iriqi (hedgehogs), a seal, a wild boar with adorable stripey baby, and these are treasures I think, even though they’re dusty, and their ears look dry and likely to fall of in the near future, and I am afraid of sneezing. Back along the other side of the room I come across him, my wolf. I’d thought the jackal was him, but it wasn’t. His nose is long, and roman bumped. He’s dusty and old, and somehow still . . . scary. Preserved in this room, with a ceiling that almost certainly drips in rain.

My guide points to him. AlBANia, she says. And I nod. She allows me to take ONE picture, which I reproduce here faithfully.