London: The Natural History Museum

A flying visit to London for a talk at the Natural History Museum

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This was a very quick visit to the capital! In 2014, the Natural History Museum held an exhibition entitled Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, which showcased some of the earliest artefacts in human history. It was an ambitious and fascinating exhibition, and it included the Swanscombe skull, the 500,000-year-old tibia of ‘Boxgrove Man’ and the oldest spear in the world among many, many other things. The exhibition built on the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, and included a lot of information about the findings of the project researchers (not least the discoveries that reveal human occupation of Britain 950,000 years ago—some 450,000 years earlier than was previously thought).

Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?

The reason for our visit in April was that Hannah had been asked to speak at an ‘After Hours’ public event tied in to the exhibition: ‘Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?’ The event brought together Dr Kaori O’Connor, social anthropologist at University College London, Jill Cook from the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe and Hannah, with her academic hat on as a popular culture expert, to discuss the history of cannibalism in cultural practice and the cultural imagination. It was a very well-attended and lively event—despite (or perhaps because of) the rather gruesome title—and after the speakers finished their initial presentations there were a lot of questions and discussions from the audience. With a huge conversation covering Neanderthals, homo sapiens, endo- and exocannibalism in various cultural practices (or in myths of cultural practice), corpse medicine, cultic ritual, horror fiction and Soylent Green, we came very close to missing our train back to Manchester! Poor Hannah had to attempt a not-so-swift exit shortly before the end of the event, trying to remove her mic while still answering the last few questions.

The Natural History Museum probably doesn’t need much introduction here, as it’s one of London’s many iconic buildings and is very well-attended by both national and international visitors. The museum is housed in a building in South Kensington designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Manchester Museum (which we’ve talked about in a previous post) and Manchester Town Hall. The museum itself dates back to 1753, when Parliament purchased the collection of Dr Hans Sloane and decided to display Sloane’s collection of around 71,000 natural history and cultural artefacts to the public. A new museum—the British Museum—was created and housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury; it opened its doors to the public (free to ‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Waterhouse made extensive use of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London

In 1856, Richard Owen took charge of the British Museum’s natural history collection and, among many changes Owen brought in, the need for a separate building to house the collection was proposed. A national competition was launched to find someone to design the new building and, in 1864, architect Francis Fowke won the commission to build the museum’s new home in South Kensington. Sadly Fowke died unexpectedly before being able to execute his designs, and Waterhouse was appointed to take over the project. Making extensive use (both inside and out) of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London—as well as his characteristic Romanesque style—Waterhouse created the building that we know and love today. Not only that, but Waterhouse’s design (and Richard Owen’s vision of a museum that could showcase all species—no matter how big) resulted in a building grand enough to house everything from the Danionella translucida to the Diplodocus carnegii.

NHM 1

The museum continued to be part of the British Museum for another century, with its formal name being The British Museum (Natural History). However, many supporters of the Natural History Museum—including Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace—pushed for the museum’s independence from the British Museum. Eventually, in 1963, this was achieved when Parliament passed the British Museum Act 1963, although the museum’s name didn’t change formally until 1992. In 1986, the museum absorbed the Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey (which was housed next door), and a gallery was opened to connect the two buildings in 1989. The museum is now also home to the Darwin Centre, which houses both historic specimens and contemporary research facilities.

NHM Foyer
Photo: heatheronhertravels via Creative Commons

Many of the museum’s exhibits can truly be called iconic. Most famously, Dippy the Diplodocus, the 32-metre cast of the Diplodocus carnegii skeleton that has greeted guests since 1905, was the subject of the 1975 Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs in Missing, is set to go on a UK tour from 2017, and has its own Twitter account.

But equally impressive (though not on public display) is Archie the Giant Squid—or Architeuthis dux to give her formal name—an 8-metre giant squid accidentally caught in a fishing net and now preserved undissected in ‘wet storage’. Archie is the ‘star’ of one of Hannah’s favourite books—China Miéville’s wonderfully off-the-wall urban fantasy Kraken, a detective story about a stolen squid, mysterious cults and the end of the world. Miéville’s description of the museum’s research facilities—and of the building that houses them and the city that surrounds them—is evocative, unsettling and captivating. But Archie herself remains suitably mysterious throughout the book.

For more information about the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, curator Jon Ablett explains the rare specimen in this short video:

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