Take a walk down Exhibition Road in London, and you won’t find just one famous museum but three: The Victoria and Albert is home of the arts; the Science Museum, the industrial sciences and technology; and the Natural History Museum with its iconic frontage and dinosaur skeletons, is where nature, botany, entomology, zoology and mineralogy are brought together in a series of zones, each one celebrating the wonder of Earth.
How did the Natural History Museum begin its own life?
It actually started out as the British Museum, the one in Montagu House, with Hans Sloane collection, which was purchased by the British government. This collection of rarities from the West Indies founded the national museum, Unfortunately, the specimens rotted away; nobody knew how to conserve them. The keeper at the time, George Shaw, sold some to the Royal College of Surgeons and cremated others in the museum’s grounds. By 1833 none of five and half thousand insects Sloane had collected were left. Things got worse with the appointment of inappropriate staff. Labels, the cornerstone of collections, were deliberately removed by rivals. The wife of one collector, while carrying specimens on a tray between buildings, lost all the labels in a gust of wind. The specimens never regained their identities.
The naming and classification of species – taxonomy – became, after fortunes turned, the expertise of the British Museum’s Natural History division, thanks to Carl von Linne, Linnaeus, who created the simple two word description of species, saving the modern world from the complex naming conventions of Sloane who used whole sentences to describe a specimen. The museum’s collection grew, providing evidence to support the Theory of Evolution. Charles Darwin’s discoveries are part of the exhibits.
The expansion of the British Museum’s natural history department meant a new location was needed. Land was acquired in South Kensington and a new, custom built museum was designed, creating the distinct Romanesque style. There was supposed to be two wings but only one was built. The new museum opened in 1881. What followed was a lengthy divorce from the British Museum, initially with an Act of Parliament in 1963 and finally completed in 1992: The Natural History Museum was officially on its own. Alongside the Geological Museum (housed in the same building), the museum’s education and research continues behind closed doors with specialists offering taxonomy expertise globally.
The most famous exhibit – Dippy – the Diplodocus Carnegii skeleton is no longer manning the entrance of the museum. After 112 years, Dippy went on tour, the replica skeleton (the original is at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) was replaced by a 128 year old blue whale skeleton ‘Hope’. The blue whale (real bones) spent 42 years in storage until first displayed in the Mammals Gallery. At 25m it is slightly shorter than Dippy’s 32 metres.
There are other fascinating exhibits – a giant squid at 8.62 metres netted in 2004 by the Falklands; the mysterious Dino cochlea – basically a worm; a reconstructed dodo; the only surviving Great Auk (now dead and stuffed); and in the library, a rare edition of the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin.
In 1884 William flower became director. He gave an address to the British Association that museums should both serve the public by exhibiting the best of its collections and be scholars in research and study. There would be in his ideal museum: labels, commentaries, dioramas, and tableaus, showing animals in their natural habitats. The public were to be educated.
I think the custom built Natural History Museum with its 350 scientists, library and 80 million items and 5 million plus visitors a year has exceeded this goal.
What do you think is the most iconic exhibit in a museum?