By Ian Kirke I Twitter @ianjkirke
By Ian Kirke I Twitter@ianjkirke
Come with me on a journey connecting the solar system with the ground beneath your feet. No, go even deeper than that to the very core. The DNA that makes you you; where the past, present, and future collide in a triumphant spectacle of the molecular and the mega; where life, death and the very essence of creation occupy a magical auditorium of cathedral elegance; where the mysteries of nature are forensically explored, documented, and revered with skill, passion, and love; where the disparate strands of the earth elements, wildlife, minerals and flora, and the matter between and around meet in an explosion of vivid wonder and enchantment. The epicentre of this pure brilliant energy? The Natural History Museum, London.
I had been invited to this most unique place by the effervescent Gerry Hey, head of collection management systems, and as I awaited her arrival at the Exhibition Road entrance, I took a moment to drink in the splendour of the architecture. I had been here many times; as a curious kid with my parents, on several school trips, and later in life with my children too – not forgetting the times I had visited on my own when in the capital on business. Yet today was going to be different as I would be offered glimpses of what lay behind and below the public galleries. When speaking to Gerry beforehand I hadn’t grasped the fact that the museum was primarily a global research facility with only part of the building given over to exhibition space. Of the eighty million specimens only around one percent are actually on display. What secrets lay within the concealed labyrinths of this most iconic structure, designed by the relatively unknown architect Alfred Waterhouse, which opened to the masses in 1881? This uncertainty elevated my usual anticipation to a whole new level, and I felt like that excited kid all over again.
With notepad and pen in hand, I excitedly followed Gerry to the first exhibit – a stunning Stegosaurus, framed within bursts of complimentary light giving this particular dinosaur an almost rock star image. Anyway, why shouldn’t it strut its stuff? The most intact Stegosaurus skeleton ever found had much to brag about.
Passing the elegantly displayed birds Gerry pointed out the definitive link that ties dinosaurs to every avian species, including the annoying yet benign pigeons outside, causing a complete hijack of my focus. I had seen a facsimile as a kid, aged maybe five or six, brought to my school eons ago and had obviously bypassed it here previously en route to the gravitational pull of the much larger former rulers of the earth. Although much smaller in comparison to Tyrannosaurus Rex, Archaeopteryx your legacy still flies above us, and often shits on my car.
Entering ‘Fossil Way,’ a corridor of wall-to-wall extinct life, my host stopped at a dolphin-like creature called an Ichthyosaur. This long-gone species was momentarily brought back to vivid life as this female had died during childbirth. As Gerry explained that exhaustive forensic analysis had identified this poignant spec of history when a mother had come to grief, her offspring became visible to my untrained eye. I was beginning to realise that this place is about more than looking – it holds so many secrets that are, ironically, on full public display. I just needed to slow down and breath it all in. I was becoming aware that I had previously been guilty of lack of attention to the stories around me that just required a little more awareness. I was trying to make the odd journalistic note, but somehow, I knew that this experience was more emotional and that my reflections would be embedded within my memory. Like the narrowband radio signal detected on August 15th, 1977, by the Ohio State University‘s Big Ear radio telescope in the United States this was becoming my “WOW!” moment. Coupled to the discovery of these incredible specimens were the identities of those who had found them, painstakingly removing the fossil by untangling the mass of matter and often reconstructing the animal for public review. Exhumation of dinosaur remains is never simply a case of unearthing a body – the twisted heritage of earth’s history could only ever be properly understood by the dedication and brilliance of the palaeontologists. Many were women, forced by the regressive convention of the time to report under male pseudonyms.
As we walked towards Gerry’s favourite place – The Mineral Gallery – she asked for my opinion about the monkeys. I was puzzled since I couldn’t see any, but I was guilty of being present without seeing. Adorning the edges of the walls either side of the colossal entrance gallery, where ‘Hope’ the magnificent Blue Whale captures the very heartbeat of this guardian of the known galaxy, are a series of carved monkeys. Rumour has it that each unique face represents previous curators.
Turning left into the mineral collection the Ostro Stone shimmered like a suspended orb of heavenly matter, absorbing light like a translucence thief before it ricocheted into my retina reminiscent of a prize fighters punch – the world’s largest treated intense blue, faceted topaz. Standing guard over the rows of its inert cousins, cumulatively this collection captured the very fabric of the earth.
Sweeping into The Vault, home of some of nature’s most unique and valuable treasures, Gerry outlined the key relationships with, amongst others, NASA. In this place moon rock and meteorites jostled for attention with the Winchcombe meteorite merited as the first to have fallen and been recovered in the United Kingdom for over thirty years. Landing on a residential driveway, this specimen is rightly held in scientific esteem since most alien rocks simply disintegrate, especially in suburban locations where the chances of colliding with other rigid structures is more likely. I then twigged why most were located in desert regions! In an almost casual manner Gerry mentioned the meteorite in the basement, which was being studied for signs of bacterial longevity. A rather painstaking analysis with the next review earmarked for June 30th, 2514, but nonetheless incredible! “Was this evidence of life?” I spluttered. She smiled, “We only deal in facts, not speculation.” With head still spinning my disorientation was calmed a little when the fish with the extra fins were pointed out. In view but obscured by the current attack on my sensory perception, were tiles upon the columns of the gallery containing the novelty so coveted by the builders. It was as if they wanted to add contradiction and comedy within the very annals of scientific authority. The building had a history all its own, and one to which, hitherto, I had been completely oblivious.
Stopping in front of a large glass-fronted display cabinet my gaze was drawn to the journals and elegantly inscribed manuals cataloguing countless expeditions. I initially missed the mummified cat, found in the 1970’s in the basement during refurbishment. In the early part of the twentieth century cats were employed to keep the mice population at bay, since these pesky rodents loved to chew through the priceless manuscripts. I was disappointed to learn that this feline protector had not been named. Later that day I searched for an appropriate Latin name. I will certainly check in on you next time ‘Custos’ (Latin for guardian) the cat.
Prior to leaving the main galleries Gerry stopped and asked me what linked a host of vibrantly coloured birds. That was easy – they were the descendants of dinosaurs. Not quite the answer she was seeking! Another failed attempt followed – “They are all edible?” OK, I was technically correct on both counts albeit the flamboyance was masculine. They were all males, displaying their wares to the less brightly coloured females of the species, seeking to secure the opportunity to reproduce. In contrast, humanity had cast the female of the species as the more desirable, not only to the eye but inextricably linked to the very mechanisms of sexual reproduction. Indeed, humans are a rarity as sex also occurs for pleasure. A contradiction of nature, save, according to my learned friend, a handful of apes. But then, how any female wanted sex with me is an even bigger paradox! As I was ushered into the Mary Anning Rooms, I was given the most precious views of the façade of this magnificent monument. The gargoyles and symbols to nature, hidden from ordinary public gaze, dominated the vantage point. This had to be the coolest place on earth to work!
One of Museums primary goals is to digitise those splendid source documents and specimens, penned by the great explorers of the natural world, including Charles Darwin. This meticulous and methodical preservation allowed me to virtually flick harmlessly through the handwritten chronicles with the original tomes in view but housed behind protective glass screens in the correct ambient temperatures. The magic of technology had been harnessed and I was also now in Darwin’s cabin upon HMS Beagle. Performing a digital autopsy of a bee followed by a bug allowed me to immerse myself in the intricacies and beauty of the most mundane of creatures. Even the common housefly looked majestic, and I wondered if my usual default position of simply swatting them if they became imprisoned in my home would be undertaken with the same vigour ever again.
One of the more unusual remits of the museum is the undertaking of post-mortems on all unexplained marine casualties and animal murders in partnership with the Zoological Society of London. Gerry acknowledged my double take and quickly filled the momentary silence. For example, on one gruesome occasion a pregnant sealion was found to have been shot twice in the head. A repulsive example of the sinister and unique flaw within the human psyche. The Santa Clause mystery, although similarly tragic, nonetheless provided another important forensic narrative. Following a plane crash, on a date not too far from the main December gig, an engine was submitted for analysis since initial visual inspections concluded that the aircraft had struck a reindeer! Could it be? The team reviewed the facts and determined that an eagle had been sucked into the engine and a portion of one of Santa’s sleigh pulling relatives had actually been consumed by the bird of prey. Chatting to a couple of Gerry’s colleagues I happened to divulge that I wrote features for some of the racier publications, later resulting in an explosion of messages in the team WhatsApp group. The upshot was that clarification of the presence of lube on some desks was deemed necessary, at least for my enlightenment. The answer? It is useful for mounting. What’s new I thought? Exhibits, that is. I stood suitably corrected.
Crossing over to ‘The Spirit Collection’ the discrete animal carvings were once again pointed out. This time snakes, and latterly birds, hugged the contours. I promised myself that on my next visit I would focus on the interior first before contemplating the exhibits. The collection of jars, full of the most bizarre, beguiling, and beautiful specimens stretched as far as the eye could see. Some many hundreds of years old housed in the protective fluids that keep these wonders in continued suspended elegance. Gerry explained that the majority must be regularly decanted in order to preserve the delicate objects for future generations and continued research. Some modern-day diseases have a legacy often stretching back centuries. Even bats from China, the epicentre of COVID-19, were on site. The Natural History Museum is at the forefront of protecting humanity and the fragile ecosystems sharing this awesome planet. It was incredible to note that of all the eminent scientists who had documented, labelled, and entombed these creatures within the fluid suspensions, one individual had maintained the most frequency of stable jars. That man? Darwin again. Even his original handwritten labels still held firm. As I bade farewell to this repository of natural riches, I noticed a large jar crammed full of what appeared to be pasta. This was no foodstuff – in fact, the complete opposite – the longest ever recorded tapeworm.
Sitting in one of the most ornate of cafeterias, Gerry with a cappuccino and me with a cup of tea, I asked what her outlook is for planet earth. Are we heading for extinction along with many of the incredible life forms that inhabit the place we call home? Or is there a more optimistic future? Gerry drew upon her previous life within the discipline of commercial oil and gas exploration, an almost compelling counter narrative to the values of the museum and painted a more hopeful future. Her testimony lent significant credence to the power of education. The more we know about the natural world, the better informed we are and the more able as a species to have a positive relationship with mother nature. A story of hope? Was that why the resplendent resident blue whale had been so named? My time with Gerry reconnected me to my past but also reminded me of the future I would like to participate in.
If you haven’t been, then simply go. If you have been, go again. And if you are in the second category, go once again but this time explore the architecture of this extraordinary building too. Finally, keep future diary dates to do the same and take someone else with you. The Natural History Museum is a dynamic place that continues to fascinate, educate, and thrill. Go on – say it – WOW!
© Ian Kirke 2021