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Today marks the 1-year anniversary of my first Behind the scenes blog for the Museum. Hooray!

 

Over the past 12 months I have rooted around in the collections, archives and minds of the Museum and its staff, and pulled out and highlighted the items and the stories I have found most interesting. Throughout, I have endeavoured to bring to light the most curious, unusual and unexpected aspects of the work that goes on inside these walls.

 

To that end, my blog topics have covered everything from cursed crystals and magic minerals, to mermaids, fairies and the Loch Ness monster, plus analogies, anomalies, beer, and buff men. Quite an eclectic lot, I'm sure you'll agree.

 

Who would have thought that our great institution of science and history could yield such topics?!

 

That is, of course, the premise which has driven my blogging this past year, and will continue to inspire my posts in the future.

 

365 days of Museum blogging, in numbers:

 

 

Here's to many more posts, specimens and stories. Cheers.

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It's almost a year since I started blogging for the Museum, and as I considered what I should profile for my 12th Specimen of the Month, I inevitably began to reflect on all the amazing specimens I've already written about, those on my list to write about in the future (which, for various reasons, can't be featured today), as well as all the specimens I've yet to even discover exist here.

 

One of the most incredible things about the Museum is just how many specimens we care for. To describe it by coining a phrase from Charles Darwin (although he was talking about the evolutionary Cambrian explosion, but anyway...), the Museum's collection is full of 'endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'.

 

So today I thought I would celebrate all the specimens in our collection. All 80 million of them!

 

As you can obviously gather, not all 80 million are on public display. In fact, only about 0.04% of our total collection is on show in the public galleries. The rest is housed behind the scenes, in specially-built, and often specially-temperature-controlled, storage facilities.

 

Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:

 

More than 34 million insects in 140,000 drawers, of which 8.7 million are butterflies and moths.

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Some of the modern and historic storage cupboards containing the drawers that house our insect collections.

 

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The collection was boosted in 2010 with the donation of 45,000 weevils of 4,500 different species from Oldřich Vořisek, a private collector in the Czech Republic. Half were new to the Museum, and it included almost 750 type specimens. Pictures © Libby Livermore.

 

More than 27 million animals, ranging from the smallest fishes and frogs to enormous elephants and blue whale skeletons.

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Before Dippy took pride of place, elephants were a dominant feature of Hintze Hall (or Central Hall as it was back then). In this picture from 1924, three elephants can be seen on the main floor, while a further two elephant heads are mounted above the Darwin statue on the stairs.

 

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Mounted heads used to be much more prominent around the Museum in years gone by, as illustrated by this photograph of the balcony of Hintze Hall from 1932 (left). [Note, also, the terrifying location of the glass display cases at the top of the stairs!]

Today, most of our mounted animal heads are kept in storage (right).

 

More than 7 million fossils, with the oldest dating back more than 3.5 billion years.

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One of my favourite fossils is this petrified tree trunk: the wood of a conifer from the Triassic era (250-200 million years ago) has been replaced with the mineral agate.

 

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Another fossil I'm quite fond of, which also has a mineralogical connection, is this ammonite (Parkinsonia dorsetensis), from the mid-Jurassic era (174-166 million years ago): its chambers have been filled by calcite crystals.

 

More than 6 million plants, algae, ferns, mosses and lichens, 10% of which come from the British Isles.

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Our oldest plant specimen is a mounted American hop hornbeam (Carpinus virginiana), which dates to 1740 and was collected just about a mile from here at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

 

 

Watch herbarium technician Felipe Dominguez-Santana demonstrate how plant specimens are mounted in this video from 2009. It was filmed around the time that all our herbarium specimens were moved into the then-newly-built Darwin Centre.

 

More than 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals, of which 5,000 are meteorites.

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Here I am reflected in some pyrite in the Minerals gallery.

 

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For some reason this malachite specimen causes innumerable giggles. We don't know why.

 

And, more than 1.5 million books and artworks in the Museums Library and Archives.

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As a book junkie, the Museum's Library collection (of which there are six sub-collections: zoology, Earth sciences, botany, entomology, general, and ornithology at Tring) is a thing of beauty in itself, to me. This is a view from the balcony over the Earth sciences collection, which is in the old Geological Museum building (now the Red Zone), built between 1929 and 1933.

 

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Just a small selection of some of the 540+ copies of Origin of Species held by the Museum's library. We have the largest collection of Charles Darwin's works in the world.

 

Finally, not officially counted in the 80+ million, but...

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The web team's collection of dinosaur toys, totalling 15.

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The Museum knows better than many that there's more to the relationship between science and art than simple documentation. At a recent workshop held in the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) we were able to share with like-minded participants just how many similarities there are between the practices and techniques of scientists and artists.

 

Earlier this month Gemma Anderson and William Latham - who both studied at the nearby Royal College of Art and took frequent inspiration from the Museum while there - teamed up with entomologist Gavin Broad to host the Big Draw workshop: Experimenting with observational drawing and algorithm in response to natural form.

 

Specimens from our collection including puffer fish, shells, corals, minerals and plants, specially chosen for their interesting form and structure (or morphology), were provided for inspiration.

 

Participants were then invited to participate in artistic techniques including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 'Delicate Empiricism’ (the effort to understand something's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience), as well as Latham's 'FormSynth' and Anderson's 'Isomorphogenesis' (generative methods inspired by the natural world that evolve using an algorithm), and asked to apply those techniques to the specimens before them.

 

Anderson explained:

The workshop group -  an interesting mix of mathematicians, psychiatrists, RCA students, Museum scientists and the editor of New Scientist - observed, wrote, drew from observation and drew from memory. They were then asked to imagine expanding the specimen into component parts.

 

I asked them to randomly select a drawing 'rule' from a hat and then use that rule to draw form change. The 'rule' was intended to act like a genetic mutation would in nature. It was therefore important that the form change was approached in a connected series, like the incremental process of evolution. Throughout, they continually referred back to the specimen and included observational details intermittently.

 

After the group had evolved a number of primitives, they were asked to think about marrying the forms, to maintain the general characteristics of each adult and to make one or more progeny.

 

Working generatively like this is something that humans, especially through the act of drawing, can still do better than computers.

 

The workshop, and the techniques taught, sparked some interesting discussion amongst participants, Anderson said:

It was suggested that different types of drawing systems, like different species, vary in form and elements, and if artistic elements were seen as being like the building blocks of life, then the artistic processes of the workshop were actually quite similar to the nature of the processes that the scientists at the Museum investigate.

 

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Some of the specimens: shells (left) and corals (right).

 

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Some of the drawings.

 

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And some of the Big Draw participants at work.

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Seeing double Dippy

Posted by Amy Freeborn Oct 15, 2014

On a little trip to Paris recently I met Dippy's identical twin.

 

Our iconic Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is actually a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii, which was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.

 

The original fossil stands in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. But there are said to be at least 10 replicas dotted around the world. One lives here with us. And another resides in Paris at the National Museum of Natural History in its Gallery of Palaeontology.

 

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Our Diplodocus, left; and the Paris Diplodocus, right. The resemblance is uncanny.

 

However, on closer inspection at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris, I realised that Dippy's French sibling wasn't so identical after all.

 

You may recall from my previous blog that when the original and casts were (re)constructed, their tails rested on the ground. However, advances in scientific understanding led to a determination that Diplodocus did not drag their tails, but held them aloft and used them as whip-like weapons. So in 1993 we repositioned our Dippy's tail to curve over visitors' heads, as you know it today.

 

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A 1905 illustration of the original Diplodocus carnegii, which was described by John Bell Hatcher in 1901, and reconstructed by Hatcher and William Holland.


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The Paris Diplodocus in original tail-dragging pose.

 

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Our Dippy's graceful tail, which extends nine feet above the ground.

 

Of course it's not surprising that the Paris Diplodocus retains its historic pose. Repositioning a dinosaur's tail is no simple task. Our repositioning operation took several months to complete and involved the old tail being dismantled and the plaster of Paris vertebrae moulded and re-cast in hollow fibreglass. This ensured the tail was light enough to be mounted in an elevated position, and could accommodate a supporting strut inside it.

 

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While the re-casting was being performed, Dippy was given a temporary cardboard tail.

 

But what about the other Diplodocus casts around the world? And the original fossil in Pittsburgh, for that matter? Well, I checked in with proto-Dippy and can confirm that its tail is elevated. Plus, I know that the cast at the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid has been repositioned, as it was two of our conservators who assisted in that operation. And our palaeontologists Angela Milner and Paul Barrett, who visited the cast on display at The La Plata Museum in La Plata, Argentina, report that its tail remains on the ground.

 

As for the rest, I would love to hear your accounts of Diplodocus cast spotting around the world. Please post your comments and pictures below.