Seven wonders of London: Natural History Museum

Debate is raging as to which man-made marvels deserve to be our Seven Wonders of London. This week, Time Out nominates a stunning cathedral dedicated to the natural world, where botanists, zoologists, palaeontologists and mineralogists are constantly pushing the boundaries within their fields – with a little help from flesh-eating beetles

  • Seven wonders of London: Natural History Museum

    The Natural History Museum: a wonder both inside...

  • 'I've worked here for nine years and I still get lost,' said a staff member passing through one of the Natural History Museum's five libraries, having overheard me comment on the South Ken institution's labyrinthine qualities. Perhaps she should just follow her nose. 'Every department has its own smell,' says press officer Chloe Kembery, and she's right: in zoology, it's alcohol; in the dermestarium, it's rotting flesh; in botany, it's a preservative they stopped using a decade ago but not before it had seeped into the fabric of Alfred Waterhouse's extraordinary building.

    HV Morton ('In Search of London', 1951) described the Natural History Museum as 'a gothic building that gives the visitor… the impression that the zoo has escaped from Regent's Park and taken refuge in a cathedral', and it remains an outrageously attractive building, London's finest-looking museum. But the marvel doesn't end there. The galleries themselves are home to some 70 million specimens – from immense pickled squids and wooden whales to slender threads of gold and tiny lichens pressed by Charles Darwin. It's a collection that has value on three levels: in its comprehensiveness, offering the public a chance to see a huge selection of nature's wonders; in its historical import, with specimens often the first of their type to ever be recorded; and in its ongoing significance to the scientific community – of the 900 staff, 350 are scientists, continuing the work of their illustrious predecessors, only occasionally emerging into the open for public scrutiny. 'We're a university for taxonomy, but with the public as students,' says botanist Sandy Knapp.

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    ...and outside

    The relationship between these aspects of the museum – the collection and the scientists – is fundamental to its importance. The Natural History Museum sprang from the private collection that seventeenth-century British physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) left to the nation and which formed the basis of the British Museum in 1759. By the 1870s, the natural history department was feeling marginalised within a museum that devoted acres of space to books and antiquities, and a decision was taken to move from Bloomsbury by Richard Owen, who wanted a dedicated museum to separate 'the works of God from the works of Man'. In so doing, a row was to blow up in the scientific world that went right to the heart of the purpose of the musum' ('Nature's Treasurehouse', John Thackray and Bob Press, 2001).

    Owen, a classic Victorian patriarchal philanthropist, believed that this museum should be the best possible, and that as much of the collection as possible should be on display because 'the British public had a right to see comprehensive displays of all the species making up the natural world'. Others disagreed. Thomas Huxley, secretary of the Royal Society and nicknamed 'Darwin's bulldog', wanted a much smaller, less authoritative museum – what would the public gain from seeing every species of beetle after all?

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    These magnificent arches are notable for the use of Italian terracotta

    Owen's view prevailed. When the British Museum (Natural History) opened on Easter Monday 1881 on the site of the 1862 International Exhibition in South Kensington it was built to an enormous scale – a mile of wall space and four acres of flooring – the result of 'a typically Victorian determination to provide a fitting storehouse for the wonders of creation' ('The London Encyclopedia', Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, 1993), but of the 109 staff, 57 were involved in building maintenance and just 52 were scientists. The collection was vast; the building a sensation. Alfred Waterhouse took the commission after the death of the original architect, Francis Fowke, and he embellished Fowke's original renaissance design with a Romanesque flourish, drawing inspiration from German churches to deliver the museum's religious aesthetic.

    Owen wanted the building to reflect its contents, and so Waterhouse created a menagerie of animals to adorn the façade and motifs to distinguish the interior: monkeys scamper up arches in the central hall and huge columns resemble fossilised trees, while outside statues of extinct animals and plants sit above the east wing with the living to the west. All were made from blue-and-cobalt terracotta, chosen for its smog- and fire- proof qualities and the ease with which it can be moulded. In a final flourish, beautiful paintings of gilted plants – many chosen for their economic value to the Empire – look down from the high, broken-arched ceiling.

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    This playful monkey is one of many situated on columns in the central hall

    No wonder the museum drew 17,500 gawping visitors on its opening day – 'the equivalent of the busiest half-term day now,' says archivist Polly Tucker. The one drab area was the basement, a maze of corridors, offices and staircases, carefully constructed to ease the burden of moving bulky items around a crowded public space and as a place to store ungainly stuffed giraffes. It's currently home to the IT department.

    Even today, moving items in and out can be a logistical headache, especially as specimens must spend time in quarantine to ensure the numerous bugs that would happily make a meal of stuffed animals are not given the chance to prosper. Other insects are more welcome. In the death-stench of the dermestarium, three metal cabinets are filled with flesh-eating beetles, employed to strip carcasses to the bone so scientists can examine the intact skeletons. This is science at work, and it stinks. 'Not a job for Monday morning,' says curator Oliver Crimmen, who works in the Darwin Centre, the museum's most recent attempt to bend the barrier between its dual roles as museum and research establishment. Phase One is a tall, naturally lit building described by Kembery as a 'dictionary of zoology', containing 22 million specimens – mammals, fish, amphibeans, reptiles, corals and parasites – pickled in alcohol or formaldahyde and stored in big bottles. The Darwin Centre was constructed with glass corridors so scientists could be observed at work.'When we heard that the whole ethos of the Darwin Centre was to make us more visible we were worried,' admits Crimmen. 'The whole climate of picking our noses would have to change. But some people who had never dealt with the public began to show another side of themselves.'

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    The new-look Ecology Gallery opened in 2005

    Crimmen feels the change in environment has not just benefited the public: 'It's reassuring that the stuff we do is interesting to the public as well as to our peers. It's easy to get completely wrapped up in what you are doing – a lot of us have been here decades, it's not the sort of job that has very transferable skills.' Crimmen is doing himself a disservice. His expertise is valued by none other than Damien Hirst, who calls on his deft way with preservatives when looking to pickle a shark. This hints at another important part of the museum's work, as a part of a nexus of expertise, exchanging information with other London institutions. Crimmen helps Billingsgate Market when it is trying to identify the catch – 'you see some lovely specimens in the bouillabaisse boxes' – and takes deceased fish from London Zoo. In the Tank Room, an arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world, sits preserved in alcohol. As a youngster Crimmen used to watch it swim in the Amazon aquarium at London Zoo. 'I always wondered what had happened to it.'

    Phase Two of the Darwin Centre will do a similar job for entomology and botany – that's 28 million insects, 6 million plants and the scientists who look after them. It is due to open in 2009 as the museum continues to find ways to engage and inform the public. This week (Nov 28), the museum's most valuable minerals – including emeralds, gold and silver – will go on display in a new area called The Vault. 'These are valuable not just in monetary value, but also in how unique they are and where they came from,' says curator Alan Hart. 'We're picking out individual items to get a real feel for the treasures of the collection and the narratives behind them.'

    And they must be getting something right; visitor numbers continue to head upwards – 3.8 million in the past financial year, significantly better than the neighbouring Science Museum and the V&A and a reminder of the public's continued fascination with natural history. In the 1930s, this determination to tap into widespread enthusiasm led to the installation of what remains one of the museum's iconic exhibits, the 27m-long wooden model of a blue whale, constructed on site so that the public could watch it being made. The museum remained open during WWII, when it shared its galleries with Special Operations Executive, who used the space to train agents in the ways of covert warfare. A large part of the collection was evacuated to country houses, but plenty remained in South Ken. It's said the water used to extinguish fires from a German incendiary bomb caused seeds in the botany department dating from the 1740s to germinate. Later in the war, the curator of the cryptogam herboriam was drafted to Bletchley Park because somebody misread cryptogam – tiny, non-flowering plants – as cryptogram.

    Across the corridor from the cryptogam herboriam is Sandy Knapp's botany department. Wall-to-ceiling cabinets run the length of the room, each containing drawers crammed with pressed plants, some hundreds of years old, from all over the world. The smell of preservative lingers in the air. Knapp, who has just returned from a field trip to China, has a contagious enthusiasm as she discusses her work. 'Today, I've done my emails, replied to the referees report from a grant request to investigate genome evolution in a particular set of plants, after this interview I am going to plan a Nature Live talk to explain some of the research we are doing to the public, then somebody is coming in who has collected a bunch of stuff in Ecuador and needs to have them identified – every day we do a huge variety of different things.'

    Knapp relishes the 'unscripted and unplanned opportunities to talk to people' that come from working in a public building, and thus epitomises the core values of the Natural History Museum, which are themselves embedded in the extravagant design of the building.

    'Science is central to our message,' she says. 'You could get rid of all the scientists and have a lovely front-of-house museum and people would still come to see it, but the museum would not have a voice. Without the scientists, they're just plants inside a beautiful building.'

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