17 June 2003 - London
The Darwin Centre in The Natural History Museum

I do not like London very much. The truth is, I think that London is one of the least pleasant cities to live in. However, all things have their silver linings, and London's is its collection of very fine museums.

The British Museum of Natural History must be one of the best museums of its kind in the world. Having said that, I usually don't visit it anywhere as often as I could, simply because I prefer visiting the Science Museum next door. This is strange, because I wouldn't categorise the Science Museum in London to be all that great, but I've always preferred hard core science over stuffed animals. And yet, perhaps I'll still change my mind.

My brother and I visited the Natural History museum because of the new Darwin Centre. It's actually only the first phase of many, and at the moment it's not terribly impressive to the casual visitor. What you see are some exhibits of preserved animals, an interactive multimedia display explaining why it's important to pickle animals and not much else. But that 'not much else' includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the centre, and that makes the whole trip worthwhile.

Because we visited close to closing time, my brother and I were the only ones on the tour, lead by one of the staff (Emma, I think her name was - Emma, if you're reading this and I'm wrong, please correct me). The tour goes into the actual laboratories used to preserve and examine specimens.

The Natural History Museum's collection of preserved specimens is one of the most important in the world. There are specimens dating from the early nineteen century. Some of the bottles are marked with a red cap. This is to indicate that the species was named based on examination of that particular animal.

The number of specimens is stupendous - something like six million, if I recall correctly. They keep everything from small beetles and earthworms, to their largest specimen, a fully-grown Komodo dragon.

The specimens are kept in specially cooled rooms, behind double doors. The doors are what my brother calls James Bond double doors, because the first set automatically opens when you wave your passkey over it, and then you step in, and when the outer doors have closed, only then do the inner ones open. Very cool. But a little over-the-top?

The temperature is kept at 13 degrees Celsius, below the flash-point of alcohol. And with that much alcohol floating about, it's probably a wise idea to do so. Obviously, there's no smoking in the labs.

A lot of the animals are kept upside-down. This puzzled both my brother and me, until we were told that limbs were less likely to be damaged when animals are pulled out right-side up.

The Darwin Centre has seven floors, and each floor focuses on one type of animal. I wondered if there are rivalries between the floors. "Don't talk to him, he's with the inverterbrates".


posted on Tuesday, June 17, 2003 - permalink
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