London Day 5: Natural History Museum & Darwin Spirit Collection

If you want to have any chance of seeing the dinosaurs at the London Natural History Museum, go early. Like line up an hour early outside and bring snacks. Otherwise you’ll find yourself corralled into a roped off area and waiting forever with a horde of shrill small voices. Luckily I did not come to the museum to see the dinosaurs, but was instead there to see the Darwin Centre Spirit Collection. Tours of the Spirit Collection are free, but booked on entering the museum and limited to 15 people. The reason they are so small is that you are taken behind the scenes to see the amazing collection of preserved specimens housed in the museum, including a giant squid and specimens collected by Darwin himself.

A few representatives of the Spirit Collection are out on view in the main part of the museum, including the above cephalopods. Once inside, we got to walk through the rows and rows of cabinets containing specimens, including invertebrates, birds, fish, reptiles, and even some small mammals. The museum takes care of some 22 million specimens, and so of course what we were seeing was only a small fragment, but it was incredible. The Darwin Centre is specifically for the millions of preserved specimens, most in jars, but a few of the larger creatures, including a pony and an orangutan, were inside these huge metal boxes that doubled as tables for examinations. We didn’t get to see inside of these, but we did see the giant squid known as Archie, who is 8.62 meters long and displayed at her full length in a long container. Apparently she is so heavy that she would break through the old floors of the museum itself, so cannot be on display in the main gallery.

Most incredible were those specimens marked “Beagle,” meaning that they had been acquired by Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle, and some of these even had yellow lids, indicating that they were the first of that species every collected. I would absolutely love to be able to look more closely at the specimens, but it was still fantastic to be able to have this behind-the-scenes look at the museum.

I had some time to wander through the rest of the museum, which includes this insanely dramatic entrance through a shattered metal globe, with such characters as a cyclops, Medusa, and an astronaut lining your path.

That insanity aside, the best part of the museum is its old section, with vaulted ceilings in a central hall featuring a cast skeleton of a Diplodocus (it’s known by the woefully uncreative name of Dippy). The skeleton cast was actually given by Andrew Carnegie to the museum, a copy of an original at the Carnegie Museum in the US.

The London Natural History Museum as an organization started in 1756 with the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, although it was notoriously bad at keeping track of things, and now not a single insect remains of Sloane’s thousands, although there are still a spare few pieces from this original collection. In addition to this, there was the habit of hiring relatives of the Trustees over scientists, mental illness in the museum staff, the removal of labels and numbers from cases by rivals, a librarian who hated science, and the discouragement by the Trustess to the public in visiting the museum. Luckily, the museum has much improved over the past 250 years. The current building opened in 1861, and its distinctive terracotta tiles were used as they repelled the Victorian London soot.

There are great details in the architecture, and if you pay attention there are animals and flora everywhere. On one side of the museum are only currently living (as of 1861) animals and on the others are extinct, supposedly at the request of the then superintendent Richard Owen, who was making a rebuttal against Darwin’s claims of linking the past with the present ecology. However, there’s a coelacanth on the extinct side  so… so much for that.

There’s also a statue of Darwin out in the main hall, along with a torso bust of the explorer Frederick Selous, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and great adventurer in his own right. (Seriously, read about him.)

Here is your obligatory taxidermy/whale skeleton photo, although the taxidermy at the London Natural History Museum is definitely not as impressive as the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But with a hippopotamus like that, who would complain?

The vault section of the minerals hall, with its elegant gemstones, had my favorite object in the main exhibits: the Cursed Amethyst. The Heron-Allen Amethyst, as it is officially known, has bestowed nothing but ghastly trouble to all who have possessed it. It was brought to England in 1855 after being stolen from India by an officer, but that soldier became suddenly ill and destitute. His son then acquired the purple gem, but had bad life luck as well, so he gave it to a friend who killed himself. That friend was so kind as to leave the stone in his will to the soldier’s son, returning the horrible jewel in a fatal act. So he tried to get rid of it again and gave it to a researcher at the museum named Edward Heron-Allen, but things didn’t go so great for him and he tossed it into the Regent’s Canal. Someone then dredged it up, sold it to a dealer, and then it made it back to Heron-Allen, just three months after he had thrown it to the waters. He put it inside seven boxes and in a bank deposit, where it stayed until three years after his death. His daughter later donated it to the museum, but not without a letter of warning from Heron-Allen, calling it “cursed and stained with blood.”

Hopefully none of that bad luck rubbed off on me and the spirit of Darwin and adventure invaded my being instead!

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