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After Hours: Science Uncovered at the Natural History Museum

Published 27 October 2010

Many times over the course of our lives, we find that our appreciation of certain things take time to develop. Take a good wine for example, or a trip to the museum.  For me, it has been the latter – having visited the Natural History Museum (NHM) on the last Friday of September.

The NHM opened their doors to the public at night for a special one-off event as part of a day-long Europe-wide initiative. Over 600 venues in 250 European cities simultaneously held their own events as part of ‘Researchers’ Night‘. During the NHM’s ‘After Hours’ event, the public had the chance to speak to scientists at the cutting-edge of their fields, bring in specimens and photos for the Natural History Roadshow (in what was colloquially dubbed ‘an Antiques Roadshow for nature’) and see specimens normally confined to the Museum vaults.

The NHM building – a striking piece of architecture in daylight – looked absolutely stunning at night, with its beautifully lit stone arches and columns. As for the atmosphere – the place was buzzing – and it was near impossible to escape the excited but hushed chatter and packed hallways and corridors. Central Hall became a complex labyrinth of people and the over-occupied ‘Face to Face’ researcher tables at the Hall sides became impenetrable, to the point that I couldn’t actually visit the tables properly! The diversity of visitors was like nothing I had seen before – with yummy mummies and toddlers in tow, OAPs, hip youngsters, introverted emos and middle-aged professionals all gracing the hallowed floors of the NHM. Visitors nibbled on food around candle-lit tables right near the fossil marine animals and perfectly coiffed ladies and gentlemen floated around the place with wine goblets in hand. It was a pretty odd sight! Having arrived before the event started, I was second in queue and lucky enough to secure places on two of the exclusive Museum tours. These were, for me, the highlight of the whole event. Themed tours included ‘Dinosaurs in the Dark’, ‘Unlocking The Vault’, and ‘Leafing Through the Past’. These tours gave the public the chance to go behind the scenes at the Museum and visit the rooms, staff, and specimens normally off-limits to those without an NHM swipe card.

For the first tour, ‘Eaten Alive’, I found myself and fourteen others taken to one of the many species stores in the museum by curator Gavin Broad. From the inviting, warm surroundings of the public part of the museum, we were led to a somewhat more clinical environment. Bare white walls and row after row of endless grey lockers occupied this section of the Darwin Centre, bearing wooden drawers filled with hundreds of thousands of Hymenoptera specimens – such as wasps, bees and ants. The tour focused on the predator wasps and bees due to our guide’s specialism and, when taken to one of his work rooms, Broad showed and described a variety of such insects, including a humongous wasp named the ‘tarantula hawk’ – so called due to its ability to hunt tarantulas as food for its larvae. You wouldn’t think that wasps are much good for us, but his odd stories made us realise our place in a very delicate ecosystem, with every species on the planet playing a vital role to our co-existence. A particularly interesting fact which illustrates this idea was that wasps recently played a role in saving the US beef industry from collapse by protecting cow pastures.

The second tour I went on, ‘Museum First Aid’, took the visitors to the Paleontology Conservation Unit – where conservators work on keeping the museum’s collections in good condition. The unit consists of a small but dedicated team trying to preserve the millions of bits and pieces kept at the Museum – both on and off display. Their current conservation works included an undisplayed Dyrosaurus skull and the fur of a Mylodon – an extinct sloth that inhabited the Patagonia area of South America. Interestingly, we were informed that most damage to undisplayed specimens are caused by improper storage and unintentional mishandling by researchers. The work of the unit, a collision of a handful of fields including paleontology and materials science, was fascinating – with the team collectively looking to glue and preserve damaged bones together, expose fossils from rock and protect Martian meteorites from contamination amongst other many other things.

In addition to the tours, talks and Science Bar, the Museum brought out a handful of previously unseen exhibits including a lion’s skull, which was housed at the Tower of London for over 500 years and also the first maggot ‘used as forensic evidence to convict a criminal in a court of law’.

As well as learning more about the scientists, staff, and specimens that call the Museum their home, I learnt much more about the nitty-gritty details about a place like the NHM. Although on the surface, the Museum is a fantastic visitor attraction, behind the scenes are hundreds of scientists, researchers and curators looking to do even more impressive and important work; for example, to save species and evaluate the threat of environmental pollution. In addition, the financial implications of running such an institution becomes apparent once you are told that the insect specimens are housed in wooden boxes that cost £40 each (the Museum uses thousands of these) and that a key department has lost 75% of their staff since December 2009. Events like ‘After Hours‘ are also very telling of the public – with the numbers turning up proving the nation’s thirst for science. At one point, the tour queue zig-zagged like a coiled snake inside the museum halls, trailed out into the outdoor path and along a long section of Cromwell Road. The NHM also used the event to learn about the public’s attitudes to science, with various stations around the floor asking people to explain how relevant science is to them, and asking for volunteers to draw what they perceive scientists to look like.

Apart from looking amazing at nighttime, the Museum has served themselves well in holding ‘After Hours‘ by allowing the public to go behind the scenes. Now I fully understand and appreciate the size of the operation here – it’s huge beyond belief. It goes without saying that the Natural History Museum is a world-class institution with few real competitors in terms of its breadth and depth of collections, and it’s definitely a gem in London’s crown.