22 treasures announced for new Natural History Museum gallery

24 November 2012

From bones of the extinct dodo to the first Neanderthal skull to be discovered, the 22 extraordinary objects to be displayed in the Natural History Museum's new free permanent exhibition Treasures, opening 30 November, are revealed today.

Treasures will display 22 of the most valuable and significant objects from the Museum's collection of 70 million specimens. They have been hand-picked by Museum scientists and each has a fascinating story to tell.

Dodo skeleton 
Adult female Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar.

Adult female Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar. Unearthed in 1848, it was the first to be discovered.

A dodo skeleton (shown above) is one of the 22 treasures. The dodos' demise is one of the most well-known cases of human-caused extinction. The species disappeared just 90 years after sailors arrived in 1598 on the Mauritius island Mascarene. 

There are so few complete dodo skeletons that we may never know exactly what they looked like or how they lived. The skeleton on display is constructed from bones from different individuals.

Neanderthal skull

The Neanderthal skull to go on display is about 50,000 years old. The adult female, unearthed in 1848 in Gibraltar, was the first Neanderthal skull ever discovered and helped begin the science of palaeoanthropology, the study of ancient humans. 

Moon rock from the last Apollo space mission is a Museum treasure

Moon rock from the last Apollo space mission. It is about 3.7 billion years old.

Neanderthals were one of our closest known relatives and recent DNA studies have shown that they left behind a genetic trace in some people living today.

Apollo Moon rock

Travel back an incredible 3.7 billion years and see another treasure, a piece of Apollo Moon rock, the only piece owned by the UK. The ilmenite basalt rock fragment was presented as a gesture of goodwill by President Nixon in 1973 following the last manned Moon mission, Apollo 17.

Barbary lion skull

The Barbary lion skull is the oldest lion found in the UK since the extinction of wild cave lions during the last ice age. 

This skull of a Barbary lion was part of a medieval royal zoo at the Tower of London.

This skull of a Barbary lion was part of a medieval royal zoo at the Tower of London.

Dated to 1280–1385, this lion was part of the royal zoo in the Tower of London along with other exotic animals such as polar bears and elephants. Museum studies have revealed clues about the lion's health and the health of animals in captivity.

Other treasures announced today:

Alfred Russel Wallace’s insects – these are part of a rare personal collection, assembled in Southeast Asia from 1854–1862. Wallace, who is the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, kept very few of the specimens he collected.

Dwarf elephant tooth – another treasure is the fossil tooth and jaw bone discovered by palaeontologist Dorothea Bate in Cyprus. Between 10,000 and 800,000 years old, they were one of the first pieces of evidence to suggest that miniature elephants once lived on the island.

Insects from Alfred Russel Wallace’s personal collection

Insects from the Alfred Russel Wallace collection - he is the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution.

Emperor penguin egg – 1 of only 3 fresh eggs collected during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated last expedition to the Antarctic in 1910-1913 is another treasure. The expedition team hoped that the embryos inside would confirm the suspected link between reptiles and birds.

George Clifford’s herbarium sheet – this early collection of dried and pressed plants helped young Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus to devise a structure for naming specimens. Linnaeus is considered the ‘father of modern botany’ and his naming system is still in use today.

Great auk – the great auk is one of the most powerful symbols of the damage that humans can inflict. This species became extinct shortly after 1852, not through habit loss but following centuries of intense exploitation by people. Specimens of the bird are very rare.

First piece of moa bone, found between 1831 and 1836.

First piece of moa bone, found between 1831 and 1836. It lived 0.01-1.8 million years ago.

Joseph Banks’s herbarium sheet – plants collected by pioneering scientist Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770 are another treasure. Banks’ global interests were reflected in the enormous natural history, ethnography and literature collections he amassed in his lifetime.

Moa bone fragment – the first fragment of moa bone to be discovered, identified in the 1830s by Richard Owen, the first Superintendent of the Natural History Museum. It was the first evidence that the moa existed and will be displayed in Treasures alongside a full moa skeleton.

Richard Owen painting – a portrait of the man who created the Natural History Museum. It was painted in 1881, the year that the Museum opened, by William Holman Hunt, one of the most significant artists of the 19th century.

Wold Cottage meteorite – this treasure is the earliest surviving meteorite seen to land in the UK. The rock formed during the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, and was seen to fall near Wold Cottage, Yorkshire, in 1795, leading to an investigation that proved meteorites come from space.

Treasures already announced

Specimens announced already include Charles Darwin’s pigeons; Guy the gorilla; Hans Sloane’s nautilus shell; Iguanodon teeth; the Archaeopteryx fossil; Blaschka glass models of sea creatures; William Smith’s 200-million-year-old ammonites; the rare first editions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the world's most expensive book, Audubon’s The Birds of America

Museum Director Dr Michael Dixon says, ‘The opening of Treasures represents an exciting future for the Natural History Museum. By inviting the world to explore the highlights of our world famous collection in this permanent gallery, many generations of visitors will capture their own unique insight into our natural world.’

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