Exploring the London Natural History Museum

An opportunity presented itself earlier this month for me to spend time at the London Natural History Museum. Previous visits have been rushed and unfocussed and my intent with a few days on hand this time was to focus of human evolution displays, meteorites, geology and the speciality exhibits featuring some of the more important specimens in the museum’s collection.

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                         Fig. 1. Entrance to the London Natural History Museum

Having access to the vast galleries one morning (before the visitor rush) and standing in the entrance hall, I marvelled at all the collective knowledge housed on this corner of a large London block. The building is huge and an architectural masterpiece housing over 70 million specimens. I started up a stairway which led to a new display on human evolution. I was particularly intrigued by the skulls on display including a 400 000 year old Neanderthal skull which clearly showed a thick, heavy set jaw and a prominent brow ridge reminding me little of the Hofmeyr skull (back home). The comparative display with Homo erectus and Homo sapiens allowed a close inspection of both skulls and I was reminded how much we shared with these upright walking, large brained hominids which were the first to harness fire.

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Fig. 2. Homo erectus (L) and Homo sapiens (R)

En route to the above gallery I spent a few minutes at the coelacanth gallery – not quite the marvel we have at the East London Museum – a ‘pickled fish’ sadly tucked away and a floating reminder of a 390 million year old evolutionary species carrying the genetic coding expressed today by terrestrial vertebrates in their sense of smell, sight and hearing. Some of the labelling at the display is also incorrect.

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                                                Fig. 3. The NHM coelacanth

The Natural History Museum opened on the 18th April 1881 and the origins date back to 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane donated his collection of ‘curiosities’ to the British nation. Collection artefacts range from microscoic slides to the model of the largest animal on earth – the Blue whale.

 One of the highlights is the fact that the museum houses more than 3 200 meteorites and more than 500 000 rocks and minerals! I had read about the first documented meteorite in Britain which was a witnessed fall by ploughman John Shipley. On the 13th December 1795 he looked up to see the ‘stone’ fall a few meters from where he stood. The landowner, Edward Topham of Wold Cottage Estate (Yorkshire), later erected a monument to mark the landing site. The Wold Cottage meteorite supported records of the German physicist, Ernst Chladni, who suggested rocks fell from space. At the time it was believed that the rocks were spewed from active volcanoes – with no volcanoes at Wold Estate it backed up Chladni’s theories.

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Fig. 4. The Wold Cottage meteorite (the UK’s earliest surviving meteorite)

One of the most amazing discoveries for me was a meteorite which had fallen in the Koue Bokkeveld (SA) in 1838 now housed alongside two meteorites, one from the Atacarma Desert (Chile) and the other from Ferra (in Italy). A closer inspection revealed a small vial (next to the meteorite) which contained a smudge of powder. The smudge was made up of millions of microscopic diamonds which formed in the dust around dying stars billions of years ago – before our solar system even existed!! Dispersing in space and eventually becoming part of material that makes up our solar system some of the diamonds then fell to Earth in meteorites such as the Koue Bokkeveld on display.

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Fig. 5. The Koue Bokkeveld meteorite with the vial of  diamond powder – the oldest material ever to be seen by the human eye                                       

The extinct Mauritius Dodo features prominently in three sections of the museum. The first is a model similar to ours in the bird gallery pictured below. Curators allowed me into the display to study it closely and to take a few photographs. The model could have been made by the same company that was commissioned to do the EL Museum dodo – this was noted by the head design and the use of pidgeon feathers for the body. Featured with this dodo was the Reunion Island Dodo, a close relative of the Mauritius Dodo, but known only from pictorial records. The second dodo display is in a section of ‘Treasures’and is a skeletal mount similar to the one which is on disply in the Oxford Natural History Museum. The third featured display interprets the artistic dpeictions of the dodo throughout the ages. The most famous painting of the dodo was done by an artist called Savery and his interpretation persisted through the ages including the dodo image  in Lewis Carrols’  ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

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Fig. 7. (L-R). The dodo skeleton on display, the Reunion Dodo and the Mauritius Dodo

Kevin Cole, East London Museum

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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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