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Monday, October 19, 2009

Fringe events: Natural History Museum Tour

Getting up to get to the Natural History Museum on Monday morning was rough, but definately worth it. We were introduced to Karen James, the director of the HMS Beagle Project, and she walked us through the Darwin Centre and showed us what the specimens and collections look like when they're not on display.





We met Sid and Karen under the tail of the dinosaur in the main hall of the museum. I've just read Richard Fortey's wonderful book "Dry Store Room nr. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum" (review to come soon), so I was looking for all the wonderful details he described, like the painted plants in the ceilings, the columns shaped as replicas of extinct species of palm-like trees, and my pal Charlie Darwin sitting in his chair at the landing in the majestic stairs leading to the next floor.



Naturally, I was wearing my Darwin T-shirt. Like Church Clothing for me. The building is quite impressive, with massive domes and arched hallways, and I certainly felt serene and in awe of the place and the "holiness" of the science behind every stone and all the building contains.



In fact, Richard Owen, the founder of the museum and the regular holder of the eyecatching spot on top of the main stairwell where Darwin sits this year, was inspired by cathedrals in the design of the musem. Sadly, he was also one friend of Darwin who ended up not being a friend over the matter of evolution.




We joined the latest group of visitors to the Darwin Centre, so before it was our turn, we had a walk through the Dinosaur Exhibit. Man, there are a lot of great fossils there! The exhibit was very clear and focused on major concepts, like when roosting on eggs evolved, how to tell from teeth what animals eat, what mammals looked like at that time, and so on. We spotted another rare specimen in the collection; George Hrab. Right then, we were standing by some dinosaur eggs, and I relayed the tale of how when Oviraptors were discovered, their bodies were right by some eggs, and the researchers assumed they had discovered an egg-eating predator. They named it the Oviraptor, latin for egg-thief. However, after a few years, they've discovered more and more of these dinosaurs by nests, and even some lying directly on top of nests. Turns out, they were not thieves, but mothers. It's always interesting to note how these things are discovered, and to realize that even though there are some assumptions in natural history, usually over time, you can be pretty sure you've drawn the right conclusion.



Outside of the Dinosaur exhibit, there was a mirror with some pictures of typical monkey grimaces, and an encouragement to look at yourself in the mirror and make monkey faces. Bendik and I then went through a nearby exhibit called "After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions", which was a mix of art and science. One section had pictures from Darwin's book "The expression of emotions in man and animals", coupled with texts written by Mark Haddon describing the emotion. Informative and entertaining. The pictures were actually part of Darwin's own research for "The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals" where he makes the argument that all our emotions are generally the same as in simpler animals, and that this is a universal among men. Some of the pictures were generated by sending electrical impulses through certain facial muscles, and seeing which muscles were active in which expressions. (By the way, have you thought about the fact that your facial muscles are the only muscles that are connected directly to skin?)



SPOILER ALERT! If you're going to the museum soon, skip this next part.
From there we noticed Richard Wiseman's name on a wall, and the text along with the other two names said that we were about to view an examination of primate research and observation. We followed a few dark corridors to reach what looked like a window into the main hallway. We saw people walking by and some stopped and stared right at us, and started making monkey faces! At first I figured they had the same text on the outside, but then I realized that we had just walked by that mirror.. Where they asked to see your monkey face! I'll admit I stood making monkey faces a bit at the girl on the other side (she was returning the favor) before I realized that it was a one-way mirror. Typical Wiseman! We ended up staring at people walking by for some time. It's kind of fun and feels a little criminal to watch people who are completely unaware of you.


























Finally, we went to meet up with Karen James, and she walked us through the restricted access area down to the spirit zoology department. She said that when all the specimens were housed in a separate building, it was just known as the "Spirit House", which doesn't sound very scientific at all. But the reason is apparent as soon as you get close. The smell of alcohol and preservatives pervades the whole place.



Map of one room with rows of lockers.



She took us through a series of fire doors into a chilled room with rows upon rows of lockers and shelves. On into the next room, where there were only shelves with large glass containers with yellowish liquid with animals in. Amazing! There was even a giant squid in the largest container I have seen. There were large tanks with lids too, with larger animals like dolphins and sharks, and a large sucking tube hung from the ceiling to remove the evaporated alcohol whenever one opened those containers. It was an amazing place.






Coelocanth:



There was also a glass locker with smaller specimens, some of which had been collected by Charles Darwin himself! *Swoon* The specimens with yellow markers on the lids are type specimens. That means that they are considered the "most typical" of a species, if there is such a thing. A more practical way of considering it, is the specimen which the species was described from. Like the bear'iest bear and so on.





Experiences like this really brings it home for me how much I love the natural sciences, and how much I want a life in these fields. Bendik enjoyed it too, but I have a feeling he got tired a bit faster than me, walking through there. I'm sure I would have loved to spend a week in there.



We also saw the poor dodo, stuffed and stuffed into a crowded exhibit of birds in the older part of the museum. In his book, Fortey reveals that the dodo is actually covered in swan feathers. The unfortunate swan was stolen from the Queen, as the Thames swans actually belong to her, and the two men on a mission were stopped in their vehicle on the way back to the museum, and one of them apparently coughed creatively every time the swan rustled in the back. Apparently, there is not a known complete specimen of a dodo left on earth. The one the Natural History Museum has is actually fashioned after a painting, and they cannot be sure if that was painted accurately from a live specimen.

After this, we went through the famous egg, where the new Darwin exhibition is. It was a wonderful exhibit, very interactive, and at certain checkpoints in the path, there were windows into offices and labs where *real* scientists were at work.




The exhibit focused on how we know what we know in natural history, how specimens are classified, the evidence for evolution, and how science proceeds. It was excellent, and even though it reminded me of my own fieldwork in biology, I'm sure Bendik learned a lot about how biology works, and I'm sure that this is the best way to combat ignorance in natural sciences. Show HOW IT IS DONE!

All our opposable thumbs up for the Natural History Museum.

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