Scientific Illustator Out and About: Natural History Museum Spirit Collection Tour - February 7th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 7. February 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Finding myself in London, I visited the Natural History Museum and took myself and assorted (older) children on one of their wonderful Spirit Collection tours.  This is a behind the scenes look at some fo the enormous collection of animal specimens held in the Darwin Centre at the mueum, most of which are pickled in ethanol or formalin.

I've tried to illustrate this blog with my own pictures, but I have few illustrations of animals pickled in jars, so you'll have to use your imaginations...

The first stop was to peer through the window of a room where beetles are set to work, cleaning flesh from skeletons of animals which the scientists wish to preserve. We saw a fish skeleton being stripped, but these amazing insects can make short work of large mammals too.  Here's what they'd do to a dead tufted duck:

Lizzie Harper scientific illustration of tufted dusk and generic duck skeleton

We passed through the doors to the collection (which is not open to the public except on these tours) and soon found ourselves in a room lined with metal chests, all of which are stuffed with jars of specimens.  Some were on show for us, they included a jar of pickled rats,

Lizzie Harper Natural histroy illustration of a rat

a pangolin,

Lizzie Harper Natural history illustration of a pangolin

naked mole rats, fruit bats, and a foetal common seal (correctly identified by my nephew, much to my shame.  I thought it was a mole...)

Lizzie Harper Natural history illustration of common seal

Next, we went to the tank room where the larger specimens are stored.  Some are in enormous glass jars, where the truly extraordinary coelacanth is kept.  This fish was believed extint, and only known from fossil records til the 1920s when a specimen was spotted in a market in the Comoros islands.  An extraordinary tale, (beautifully told in A fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg) and an amazing treat to see the specimen that brought the fish into the 20th century. 

Coelacanth-specimen from ARKive photos

They also had really large metal tanks for the biggest specimens like whales and moniter lizards.

Lizzie Harper natural science illustration of moniter lizard

There were also severed sharks heads in jars, two of which were brought by wheelbarrow from the fish counter at Harrods.

Lizzie Harper natural science illustration of a brown shark

The tour de force in the tank room was the giant squid.  Even though it's not full grown, it's the length of a London bus.  We learnt some amazing things about squid; they have blue blood thanks to the copper replacing the iron as an oxygen carrier and their hearts are donut shaped to allow their stomachs through the middle.  I love this kind of biological detail, it's truly thrilling (for me.)  Below are some cephalopods, including the (far smaller) comon squid.  I'm not the only one to be inspired by the squid, this video of Alice Shirley's life-size illustration of the creature, depicted in squid ink, is well worth a watch (thanks to Ruth for alerting me to this).

Lizzie Harper natural science illustrationof cepahlopods

Next, we were shown some of the museum's mot valuable specimens.  Actual jars and animals collected by Charles Darwin on his voyage on board the Beagle.  And his pet tortoise.

Charles Darwin's pet tortoise

We were also told about "type specimens"; the animal which is used as an example of that particular species; one which shows all the defining characteristics and to which all subsequent specimens of the same creature need to be compared.  Because of the age and enormity of the Natural History Museum's collection (over 7 million specimens in the spirit collection alone), these are really common at the museum.  You can identify type specimens as the lids of their jars are painted yellow or white.

As we left, we passed Charles Darwin's pet octopus, and a jar of clams.

I was blown away by this tour, and the three children I took haven't stopped talking about the giant squid since.  it was a truly wonderful way to spend time, and goes to show what an incredible resource the Natuyral History Museum in London is.

Category:  Scientific Illustrator out and about   |   Comments:  2   |   Viewed:  2658

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Squid in ink

Friday, 7. February 2014, 11:02:35 – Ruth:

Hi Lizzie, You might like this video about illustrating the giant squid...

Squid video

Friday, 7. February 2014, 15:03:54 – Lizzie Harper:

Thanks Ruth, Ive embedded a link. Lovely artwork inspiring specimen!