Museum of the Week #5

So, this past weekend found me back at the Natural History Museum. I went with a friend to see this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which, as usual, was excellent. I don’t agree with the overall winner (although the junior winner was definitely well deserved), but there were many beautiful and inspiring photos on display, and once again I found myself wishing I could take pictures that good.

While we were there, we also went on a free tour of the museum’s spirit collection (things preserved in alcohol (and ocassionally formalin)). The tour took us around the stores in the Zoology Spirit Building, which is part of the new (although I suppose it isn’t so new anymore!) Darwin Centre. The place is HUGE. There are whole floors filled with cabinets, stuffed with animals in glass containers of different sizes. We were allowed to see into a few cabinets, and were greeted by the watery stares of a bat, various rodents, and an upside-down tamandua.

We then moved into the tank room, which is the highlight of the tour. Here they keep all the really big specimens, including large fish, shetland ponies…and a giant squid (Architeuthis dux, nicknamed ‘Archie’ by The Sun newspaper apparently, despite the fact that the specimen is female!). The squid was really the main reason for our visit…having both read Kraken by China Mieville (a seriously weird, but very good, urban fantasy novel which features Archie herself and a cult of giant squid worshippers) we were really excited to see her. And she didn’t disappoint. Dominating the room in a giant glass tank, she is the length of a London bus. And she wasn’t alone – Architeuthis shares her tank with part of a colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, an incomplete specimen of which mostly tentacles survive). While not much of the colossal squid was present, the sharply hooked tentacles gave a very good impression of the predatory prowess of this little-known deep-sea cephalopod. There is debate about which squid is actually larger, as both are known from very few complete (and mostly immature) specimens.

The giant squid may be the main attraction of the tour for most people, but I was just as excited to see some of the tank room’s other residents, especially some very old specimens of Monotremes from 1880 with original hand-written on their jars proclaiming that these specimens were sent to Dr Owen for examination…Dr Owen of course being Richard Owen, famed anatomist and founder of the NHM. And then I got about as near to a religious experience as an athiest evolutionary biologist really can, when we were shown a small locked glass cabinet sitting nonchalantly in the corner of the room, containing specimens collected on the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Many of them had their lids painted yellow, which indicates that they are the type specimens for their species (the specimen used in the original description of a species, which holds the name, and against which all other specimens are compared). In the lab next door we also got to see a jar containing a small octopus which Darwin kept as a pet.

The spirit collection isn’t just there to look pretty (although it could be argued that some specimens are somewhat less than pretty!). It is an important research resource, and is regularly used by academics from all over the world who are interested in anatomy, taxonomy, evolution, and a whole host of other topics.

The tours on the weekend are only half an hour long, and give a brief introduction to the collections, taking in only a very few highlights. During the week they run longer tours – I might have to do one of those sometime, as I just love poking around in museum stores, and they don’t get much more exciting than the stores at the NHM.

Photos weren’t allowed on the tour, but there are also specimens on display in the public lobby of the Spirit Building. Here are a few tasters of this wonderful collection: