Iris pressed her four-year-old nose to the glass of the display cabinet and peered at the taxidermied seabird inside. “How old is that gannet?” she asked, prompted by discussion between myself and her grandpa about its plumage. This preserved individual was, specifically, a teenager, in gannet terms; it’d been chosen to illustrate and augment the other articles on display about GPS tracking of this species’s wanderings between colonies.
Museum types probably deal with this sort of thing all the time, but I began noodling on the two possible answers to Iris’s question (the one I gave was the one she found more impressive: “it’s, like, er, more than say, like, um a HUNDRED YEARS OLD”). This thing is simultaneously young - other than the fading during its years of storage, it has obvious juvenile colouration - and old, old enough to have retained the historic genus name “Sula”, which Iris shares as her middle name.
Geek that I am, I spent some of the train ride back to Edinburgh, fuelled by a draft of IRN-BRU sugar free, thinking up some other situations where “how old is x?” has multiple possible answers. I remembered clearing out a kitchen in a former workplace, when one colleague threw out salt because it had passed its sell-by date, and another colleague reminding us “it’s millions of years old”. Plenty of historic geological specimens in The Hunterian to practise that one on. One or two preserved foetuses, too, and I wonder about how their age might be definable. Then there are objects that sort of define themselves by their age. “How old is that Glemorangie 18 years?”. The age of a musical recording might be measured from the date it was recorded, the creation of the recording medium (if it is the medium that is notable) or, at a stretch, the composition of the music itself. I think someone should start work now on an artistic piece entitled “How old is ‘old’?” just to amuse collectors of the future.
Iris and grandpa spent the time more usefully. I joined them for a train snooze when the IRN-BRU wore off.