Charles DarwinWith the best part of a day in central London at my disposal (before moving on to Hong Kong), I had initially planned on basing myself in the South Kensington area and visiting both the Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum. As things turned out, the Natural History Museum was just too interesting and I spent several hours exploring it quite thoroughly. The place was overrun with school groups from the minute the doors opened in the morning, giving me valuable insight into what kids are interested in doing in museums (showing off to other kids, followed by finding gruesome or unusual exhibits, followed by whacking all buttons on an interactive display simultaneously).

Left: Charles Darwin. Below, left to right: Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Banks, Paracyclotosaurs davidi, giant ground sloth (Glossotherium robustum).

Thomas Henry HuxleySir Joseph Banks

Paracyclotosaurs davidiGiant ground sloth

Pickled beetleGiven lots of time to poke around the less-visited sections of the museum, I was rather hoping to find a forgotten door or access tunnel to a non-public area (cf. Dry Store Room No. 1). However, the staff have been quite vigilant and all forbidden areas are effectively labelled as such (though from the sheer volume of staff going in and out of them, tailgating would be sheer simplicity). Unfortunately, the main stuffed mammals gallery was closed for redevelopment (possibly for the mounting of the Thames Whale skeleton) but the rest of the animal kingdom compensated more than enough. The daily talk (kind of a “meet the scientist” series) was about human evolution in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, complete with pass-around replicas of the most important skulls and gorgeous pictures of Kenya.

Left: Long-horned beetle (Callipogon armilatum). Below, left to right: Sabre-toothed cat, giant golden mole (Chrysospalax trevelyani), leafcutter ants, monkey and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).

Sabre-toothed catGiant golden mole

Leafcutter antsMonkey see

Lesser spotted dogfish skeletonFinally, I took my third tour of the Darwin Centre‘s wet collections – thousands upon thousands of specimens preserved in spirits (ethanol, methanol or formaldehyde) used as a research resource. Only a few are on public display, the vast majority being sequestered behind fireproof doors in chilled rooms, but they are always impressive. Notable items include most of the samples collected on the second voyage of HMS Beagle (following which Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection), a coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae; a species thought extinct until one was fished up in 1938) and a complete giant squid (Architeuthis spp.; there would also have been a colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, but it broke apart during hauling-in and everything except the head was lost).

Left: Lesser spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula). Below, left to right: Red fox (Vulpes vulpes), Pencil-spine urchin (Cidaris cidaris), starfish (Astropecten aurautiacus).

Pickled foxPencil-spine urchinsPickled starfish

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